Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tales from the Digital Divide, part I*

Sometimes my good friend NotNurseRatched makes me feel like a Luddite. Not on purpose, of course; the woman simply rarely met a new gadget or app she didn't like. But she blogs about their use in an educational context that makes me wonder whether I'm hopelessly out of touch for not beaming my lectures into Mac-manufactured chips implanted into my students' brains. (Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but check out a sample post).**

However, she's made me think about where I stand with relation to the digital divide. Usually, this phrase refers to the disadvantage that results from socioeconomic factors that impede some people's access to new (digital) technology. But there can be all sorts of digital divides, and which side you are on depends on which divide you are talking about. A bit of my own technological history follows:

I came of age just when computers were making the transition from huge things that filled a room and recorded info on binary punch cards and large reels of magnetic tape, to something you might have in your home. In high school, we had a Commodore 64 (pictured above), which as far as I could tell, was a fancy typewriter that you could play some games on. In college, I learned about this new thing called a "web browser" (Mosaic, if that helps date me), but never bothered to use it. A year after college, I asked a much more tech-savvy friend to explain the basics of this "Internet" thing to me. She told me about the department of defense, then her roommate showed me AOL*** chatrooms and fisting videos. Then I bought a laptop and went to grad school.

Everybody with me? It's the mid-90s, I have a B.A., a laptop, and a knowledge of technology that extends to typing papers, sending e-mail via Pine, and applications for the defense and porn industries. About the same time, my current crop of students (the so-called digital natives) are entering kindergarten.

I "came of age" academically speaking just as computers and the internet were starting to take off as research tools. Thank god for that. When I began grad school, my university had a rudimentary online catalog, but if you wanted to find out what other libraries had, you needed to consult the... What was it? Union Catalog? Those big green volumes? Either that, or convince someone to do an OCLC search for you, and that cost money per search, so good luck convincing them to do so. Think of paying a buck every time you hit the "search" button on WorldCat. By the time I was ABD, we had worldcat, the International Medieval Bibliography on disk (though not yet online), and I was involved in a web-based project of my own. By the time I had graduated, I had developed my own rudimentary and vaguely searchable databases (two for bibliography, one for documents, one for legal citations) using Filemaker pro. And four years ago, most of my archives started allowing researchers to take digital photographs of the documents.

So, how technologically backward am I, compared to my students and my colleagues, older and younger? Save that for part II...

*Today's "more footnotes than usual" are provided in honor of the late David Foster Wallace.

**For a contrasting view, see
this recent CHE essay, which specifically references some of the tech that NNR uses in class every day.

***According to the friend I was having this conversation with at the time, "All online services suck, but AOL does so with style and enthusiasm."


Anonymous said...

Well...I think you do have to keep up to a large extent. At my school, students without laptops and at least minimal skill with the Internet and basic computer use are out of luck. Our class notes are distributed online, many of our participation points are assigned on the basis of Wiki discussion boards, and many of our major exams (including boards) are taken on the computer. The few students without laptops are left behind because professors speed through everything, assuming that we've all got copies and don't need to be copying everything down. Don't check your e-mail several times every day? You may be left behind because professors assume you will be constantly online for last-minute updates. Do you need a smartphone and four iPods? No...but I'm a nursing student and for fields like this you ARE at a disadvantage without a PDA because most other folks have one (quick: what is the appropriate dosage for Obscure Drug You Never Gave Before?). Social media? You can survive without it, but without the enrichment that cuts across previous lines. Facebook is riddled with drivel, but I have also gotten some of the most useful news and updates through it and Twitter (often far before it hits mainstream media). My professors are made to keep up with this stuff (this semester they had to start using a clicker system, and we were dubious, but they can all do it right); they are even made to have PDAs (and keep them synced). Of course, in a profession like nursing it is imperative to keep up with technology far more than for medieval history (unless programmable WiFi defibrillators existed when dinosaurs roamed the earth...kidding! kidding!), so perhaps it is field dependent.

I love my iPhone.

That was a subliminal message...

clio's disciple said...

Interesting post, and comment; I do think this is field-specific, though. I'm also a historian, and it's never been required that I use any particular technology. Email use is an expectation; use of course management software or websites is supported. And I find a lot of students that don't trust the tech, or that aren't as tech-savvy as the "digital natives" are advertised as being. I'm interested to see part 2...

Anonymous said...

My rural, mostly white, mid- to lower-economic background students are not "digital natives." They know how to use a few things (Facebook, Ipods, texting, email) but anything beyond that baffles them. If it isn't fun (Facebook is fun, JSTOR is not) good luck in getting them to use it.

In three years of teaching here, I have had exactly three students (out of more than a thousand) bring a laptop to class. One took notes. The others played solitaire and surfed the web. "Digital natives"? Not in my world.


Dr. S said...

The flipside of all of this is what my campus has been facing for the past day while our power has been out: when everything is online, then a power outage stops everything. My colleagues can't grade because their papers are submitted online; my students don't know where to go or what to do because they're used to getting instructions online, or because the projects on which they're working require their computers. My film class can't meet because no projector rooms on campus have power. When students have gotten online at odd moments today, they've immediately sent e-mails asking various people for help of various sorts--only to find that they're more likely to *find* us later in person than to have us receive their messages.

With all of this going on, I feel grateful that my first class tomorrow is a discussion of Jane Austen--something we can do with just chalk, a chalkboard, and 22 copies of the novel in our 44 collective hands. I'm no Luddite. But hard copies of stuff do prove useful sometimes, and I wonder how much of the electronic data and material we use actually keeps us from being able to slow down and think.