There is nothing better than curling up next to the fire on a cold rainy winter day in Portland, and reading a great novel. I’ve just finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a grand epic novel grappling with all of the essential issues for humankind. Although I like to read novels to escape from the world of work, to free my brain from the world of learning management systems and web conferences, I can’t help but draw some comparisons between my life and work and those portrayed in the novel. First and foremost, since much of the book deals with the lives and work of surgeons, I’m reminded that no matter what we do in academic technology, no one will die. It’s also very unlikely that anyone will sue us for malpractice, nor name a child after us. Our work is very important in the world of teaching and learning, but in the big scheme of things, we are merely tour guides and mechanics, leading our fellow travelers on journeys and helping to fix the tire when it goes flat.
One of the things that I like about this book, is the humble and wide-eyed sense of wonder that Marion, who tells the story, experiences throughout his life. “Life, too, is like that. You live it forward, but understand it backward. It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel.” Our work in Academic Technology is certainly like that. In order to change what my colleague has referred to as Jurassic Park (teaching practices in universities), we have to plow ahead, and push hard towards a vision of the wise integration of technology. Sometimes, we are implementing change, before we fully understand the consequences. We must have an immense tolerance of ambiguity to do this work. Although I don’t think there are many corpses caught under our wheels here, I will say that we continually encounter issues, that were completely unanticipated. For instance, when our School of Business implemented e-portfolios for all of their undergraduate students, we didn’t anticipate a couple of things. First, we assumed that students would be able to figure out the very simple drag and drop system for building their portfolios. We found out later, that many students needed support and hand holding to actually build an e-portfolio. Secondly, since I piloted the tool with one class, and found it easy to manage, we didn’t anticipate the challenge of managing the portfolio development of several hundred students, with many different advisors. This turned out to have a very high degree of complexity. Although there were no corpses under the wheel, there are probably a few advisors who would have been pleased, and relieved to see a member of the ATS team under a wheel at some point.
I’m using this blog as a way to “understand backwards” our journey here with academic technology. Hopefully, with reflective practice we can begin to anticipate the nature of the road ahead, and avoid the unexpected corpse discoveries.