Think different.

Chaplin Poster

I’ve been an Apple user since the early-1980s. I don’t think I qualify as a fanatic since I haven’t bought anywhere near everything the company ever put out. Heck, I STILL don’t own an iPhone. Nevertheless, I’m a big fan of their aesthetic and the general philosophy surrounding it, so much so that I bought the above poster on eBay a while back and have it framed behind my desk in my office at work.

Of course, because of everything that Apple has done to define modern life, it now qualifies as an official historical subject. That explains why I read Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs. My verdict there is that the subject is interesting, but the writing isn’t. I much preferred Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli, which I picked up almost by accident trying to fill a three books for the price of two deal at a table at my local Barnes & Noble. It’s a much more interesting of Steve Jobs’ personality and philosophy than the one offered by the guy who had practically unlimited access to the man.

The interesting principles actually begin with Marc Andreesen’s forward in the paperback addition. Now I’m not exactly a fan of that guy, and this point is rather obvious, but I do think he explains what makes most Apple products superior quite well on p. xiii:

     “Since I have a degree in computer science, I pride myself on never opening the manual on anything electronic. But I could not change the clock on the center console of my father-in-law’s German sport-utility truck. There’s a “Systems” button, and there’s a “settings” option in the “Systems” menu. But there’s no setting for changing the clock. I finally broke down and went into the manual for the console display, and I looked up in the index under “time.” Under “time” it said, “Refer to the other manual.” It turns out you can’t change the truck’s clock from the center console. You have to change the clock from the steering wheel because the clock is controlled by the car’s firmware, not the dash display software. It took twenty-five minutes to change the clock. Pre-Apple in the extreme.

The way Steve would react to that is simple: everybody involved in allowing this product to leave the factory without that being fixed would be fired.”

This is exactly how I felt the first time I used BlackBoard. Indeed, it’s obvious that edtech in general could use a little more of Steve Jobs’ thinking for the good of all its users, professors and students alike.  But that’s a pretty easy point to make. Like shooting fish and a barrel.

Here’s a slightly more complicated one inspired by the same book.  On page 225, the section about iMacs, is Schlender and Tetzeli’s explanation of what Jobs thought computers were for:

To understand why Steve could pare down Apple’s offerings so drastically in 1997, it helps to think of personal computers as protean devices that can be programmed to be any number of tools–a word processor, a supercalculator, a digital easel, a searchable library of research materials, an inventory control system, you name it. There’s no need for the machine to have a different physical form to perform each different service. All it needs is powerful adaptable software within. And in the mid-1990s, the capability of software was expanding faster than ever, thanks to the advent of local area networks and the burgeoning Internet. When software can link you to other people and to databases housed on databases far away from yours, it becomes much more powerful than an application that is strictly to whatever is stored on your own personal computer.

While a learning management system at least doesn’t have to rest inside your computer, as long as it’s designed to make it difficult to utilize material outside that system it’s just another form of walled garden. But that’s not the only problem. Because your provider sets the parameters of what that system can do, what you might want to do could very well be like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

To draw on my own experience using BlackBoard’s gradebook last semester, I wanted to have only four out five of the ID quizzes count towards 20% of my survey students’ final grades. I had to have four slots for grades and go back and  enter the last quiz in different places. This meant (among other things) that the gradebook’s running grade totals  were as good as useless until the very end of the course when I gave the last quiz. This can’t possibly be an uncommon way of setting up grades, right? If you can do it on an Excel spreadsheet, you should able to be do it inside your LMS.

So me and my friend Jonathan have written a book about the many reasons why faculty should take technology choices into their own hands. Just because the systems on your campus make it difficult to think different, doesn’t mean that you can’t do so anyway.

Let me try another analogy to help explain the nature of the problem. We got a new classroom building at CSU-Pueblo about a year ago now. Most of the rooms in that building seat at least forty people and have fixed chairs raised on a slant towards the back, facing giant computer screens. All of my classes have less than forty people and now that I’ve moved my survey class online, I don’t lecture anymore either. Luckily, I still have our old, crappy building with chairs I can move into circles and smaller computer screens in front that I can use whenever I actually need them.

Working inside any learning management system eliminates this kind of freedom, even if that freedom is essential to creating the kind of educational experience I want for my course, online or otherwise. There’s an old Lisa Lane blog post that I included in our book, that I’ll cite again here because it seems appropriate:

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

I’m not saying that I can create any experience as good as Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin or especially Steve Jobs, but some control over the parameters of the technology we teach with is essential for professors to be able to create anything that bears any resemblance to a work of art.

If we don’t think different, we’re all going to end up systematized or standardized or, worst of all, automated out of existence. In other words, choose your tools wisely while the choice is still available. Your employment may depend upon it sooner than you think.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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