I’ve been struggling lately with situations where we seem to be using technology for its own sake. Sometimes, it seems like we use technology just to show we’re using technology, or to show that we’re beeing innovative, or cutting edge. But sometimes, technology just makes things more complicated than they really need to be, or it provides a small benefit for an enormous cost of complexity.
A few years ago, every meeting I went to involved someone doing a PowerPoint presentation. I think they were all really excited and proud of themselves for knowing how to use PowerPoint, and we’d get to see all the new transitions and animations and effects they’d just discovered. Thankfully, we’ve mostly moved on.
A few weeks ago, EdTechWeekly had its Video Extravaganza (and the subsequent Video Extravaganza II, in which yours truly played a role). This is normally an audio program. We certainly have plenty of technology going around, with the Skype calls, Shoutcast streaming, Audacity recording, java-based chat client, and multiple browser windows. Throw in the occasional Yugma screen sharing application, and you have a respectable level of technology sophistication, even for the hard core tech omnivores.
But no, we have to do video, too. so we stumbled through the challenges of broadcasting live video (it really is much easier than it was even a year ago). The bandwidth requirements meant the audio was worse than normal, and the audience was more focused on Jeff swiveling in his chair than on what anyone was saying. The next week we repeated the experiment. I had acquired a webcam by then, but hadn’t worked out the lighting. The video worked, but the quality was pretty bad. 0ave was still having trouble with Ubuntu, so we couldn’t get video from him. The next week, we decided to go back to the low-tech audio-only version, much to the relief of some of the listeners.
Sure, the video was an experiment. We wanted to play with Ustream, and this was a good way to do it. As I’m frequently quoted as saying, EdTechWeekly should be groundbreaking and cutting edge. But it didn’t add much to the show. Viewers basically got to see the hosts looking at their computer screens while talking about the links. Some viewers also noticed that we don’t really pay attention to each other on the show when someone else is talking. But the additional technology — and bandwidth — needed to produce and watch the show didn’t really add anything.
I’m writing this — perhaps ironically — on the computer running Ubuntu. A month ago, I started an experiment to see if I could use a Linux box for my primary computer. As it turns out, I can’t. Or, at least, it’s not worth the effort it would take. I can get most things to work reasonably well. With a lot of work, I can get it to perform almost as well as a Windows computer. But when I buy new computers, they come with Windows. I’m not going to save anything by buying them without Windows. Sure, I buy Microsoft Office. But with the volume licensing deal, we’re only paying $64 for a copy of Office. The saved headaches are well worth that. So we’re not going to replace Windows as a desktop operating system any time in the near future. Next week, I’ll be reformatting this computer so I can start working on the next project. That may be thin client computing, or VMWare, or something completely different. But I’ve answered the question about Linux for now.
And on it goes. The technologies keep coming. Are wireless networks worth the cost and complexity? Will this intervention software really teach this kid to read, where good teachers have failed for the last three years? Does Moodle provide anything that can’t be done more easily in the traditional classroom? Are there any benefits to using social networking software in a school? Should we be giving email accounts to students, or will that create more problems than it solves? Do wikis have a role in education? Are the kids really going to get anything out of the OpenSim project that they couldn’t get in less time with simpler tools?
When my kids were little, they had one of those Shape-O toys, where you put the shapes into the ball by matching them up with the right holes. Every toddler picks up a shape and tries it in every hole until they find the right one. Sometimes, I think that’s what we’re doing with technology — trying all the pieces in all the holes, until we find one that works.