Last week I was at the Educause Conference in Dallas–the biggest Instructional Technology Conference around. Thousands of attendees (I heard anywhere from 7,000-10,000), all the vendors in the world, giving away all the pens and post-its and rubber balls and tootsie rolls in the world, and me. This conference (and Educause generally) is heavily tilted toward people serving as Chief Information Officers (by whatever alternate title), Instructional Technology (or even Information Technology) Directors, with some Instructional Designers, and some faculty. Mostly, though, this is a conference for the tech side, the T in IT.
Educause is good about making sure that vendors pay for making the conference-goers comfortable–nice conference bags (faux leather backpacks), delicious snacks in the exhibit hall, and so on. They’re even better about organizing a good number of sessions where people actually get to talk to one another, instead of sitting passively and checking email while a speaker goes through a powerpoint. But where they really do well at this major conference is in getting some big names for the general sessions (held in an arena that’s about two-thirds the size of Madison Square Garden). Ray Kurzweil, for example, who blew my mind quite thoroughly (intelligent virtual personalities for interacting with software, and handheld devices without screens–displaying information or immersive virtual reality directly on our retinas…all by 2010!)
But for me, the most impressive and inspiring session was S. Georgia Nugent’s closing general session, “The Tower of Google.” Dr. Nugent is the president of Kenyon College, and more importantly, she understands the promise and the perils of educational technology, and much more importantly, she’s a classicist.
It was that fact, the fact that she’s a professor of classics first–that she’s an experienced and skilled teacher and scholar in an academic field (more particularly in the liberal arts, and even more particularly in the humanities)–that made me think about my own position, and what kind of technology position (or technology person) is really most important for an institution of higher education.
Dr. Nugent was able to connect history, and philosophy, and she understands and struggles with the concept of translation. She thinks not just about efficiency, but also about freedom–academic and otherwise. A college is not a corporation…we have different goals, we have different methods, we have different needs. And the people best-prepared (not exclusively, and not always, but generally) to work in that environment are the people who are themselves academics.
Too often, I think, technology gets pushed under the “IT” people–with the emphasis on the “T” (technology), rather than the “I” (instructional). And that doesn’t work well in an institution that really is about the “I”–and is really about more than just the “I,” but also the “P” (philosophy) and the S (scholarship). We’re not really producing anything in a university…we’re thinking–thinking deeply and thinking widely. Sometimes that mission conflicts with the T, but in higher ed, the T should really be at the service of the P and the S (and probably the rest of the alphabet, too).
Which brings me to another “I”…me! The kind of position I see for myself (eventually, probably not as soon as I would like), the I that I would be, has to be at a level where I can use and apply my own experience as a teacher…and as a humanist. Not sure where that would be, or how it could happen. For one thing, it has to be a position that recognizes how integral technology is to all the endeavors of the college, by giving the position policy-making power, budget, oversight and insight into the whole range of college departments. For another, it has to be a position that is clearly situated in the academic side of the college administration, with authority over the technological side.
If I’m going to be an “I” in IT (or even, if I can hope, an “I” in CIO), I’m going to be that in a way that sees my academic background as primary, and my technological strength as an added bonus. In most places, I’m afraid, the I’s in IT are people who have technological strength primarily or sometimes, unfortunately, only.