Fear 2.0, Web 2.0, and Study Abroad

I am enjoying the wonderful free wireless at the Harrisburg PA airport (with ample availability of power outlets!!!) while awaiting my flight back home from a NITLE sponsored event on Enhancing Study Abroad using Web 2.0 tools. These events provide an opportunity to see some old friends but also a chance to see some folks whom I might not normally meet. These are faculty/staff/administrators of liberal arts colleges/universities. As often happens with NITLE events, the conversations are interesting and intriguing (and yes, sometimes frustrating) for many reasons.

The overall theme of the meeting was how technology is changing the face of study abroad programs: not only is it changing (enhancing? taking over?) our students’ experiences abroad (cellphones, internet cafes, digital imagery, etc), but it can be utilized to facilitate their re-entry. A second subset of this re-entry conversation, interestingly enough, was how schools could use our students’ experiences (selectively) to market the very study away programs they attended. That’s the part where people began talking turkey… marketing these programs is often essential to their own survival. As one participant put it quite bluntly: when the student comes back from study away “I don’t care if you are the walking wounded…I want you on my website.”

Well, okay then.

When the “adults” get together and talk about “the kids” and technology, there are usually three different types of individuals that emerge. First we have the folks who see the benefit of putting the technology in our students’ hands and letting them explore and create and collaborate (note: these folks are usually seated on the perimeter or in the back of the room…). Then we have the adults who apologize from the get-go for being luddites and behind the technological 8-ball but are still willing to try to wrap their brains around the tools and technologies albeit slowly and cautiously. And then there is the final group that understands just enough about the tools that they are fearful of what might happen if they get used too much, and almost instinctively they react by wanting to control (filter, parse, screen, spellcheck, edit) whatever information these tools allow our students to create.

It’s this last group that worries me. They seem to be threatened and worried of “what those kids might say” if we let them tell their own tales. Eegads… might it be the same stuff they post to Facebook? Oh my, we don’t want THAT on our study abroad website!

Fear forces people to retreat to the familiar, to replicate old models of doing things with these new tools (e.g. imposing teachers’ demands on the content being created, or catering content to external marketing demands, or sanitizing the content via a gatekeeper) …and then they wonder why there is no traffic to their sites. Individuals start their own digital repositories just to be “careful” and then lose out of the power of joining in an established, large, multifaceted group like REALIA or IDEAS.

In short, they want that pesky genie to go back into the bottle and stay there until they have all of this change sorted out and rationalized in their brains.

I feel for these people but I am also wondering: Would it help if they understood WHY social software was created in the first place (and why it has been so quick to take off)?? Maybe if they realized that one of the principal themes of the communities that use these tools is that EVERY voice counts…the good, the bad, the unfiltered, the grammatically challenged… because it is a valued piece of the whole (but by no means representative of the whole all by itself).

Social software allows us to communicate when and where we feel the need and the desire to do so… if it is important to the writer, then it will be twitted or blogged or skyped with remarkable candor, (com)passion, vitality, verve…. It is that passion that troubles some of our colleagues: what will it look like? Will it be messy?

“Even those of us experimenting with progressive pedagogical practices are afraid to change” –bell hooks

Change is hard, especially when it broadsides you and challenges your perception of how things have been done in the past. Fear is problematic only when it causes you to shut down and tune out any and all opportunity of learning more. But skepticism, doubt, concern… those emotions are totally normal when facing something new, different, challenging. Rattling your own cage and learning something new is good for the soul. But hey…isn’t that why we work in educational institutions…to learn more???

The folks I got to know this weekend (thankfully) did not seem to want to close out any opportunities, and they were willing to think about the possibilities. The real challenge for each of them will be when each of them go home and try to preach the gospel to their much more Fearful colleagues.

Change

Poster created by Dr Peter Shaw’s well-read (!) graduate students on the wall of their classroom at the Monterey Institute of Int’l Studies.
(foto credit: Judi “Pepsi” Franz)

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Laura · April 1, 2008 Reply

    You’ve forgotten the 4th group–the hecklers/refuseniks. They’ve either a) been forced to attend by a supervisor or b) feel pressured by colleagues to attend (generally, they’re not there of their own accord). These people often ask the questions that reveal that they think technology is the devil. They criticize technology that most of us now take for granted–email, for example. They ask about grammar or other nit-picky details rather than step back and look at the larger picture. My take on them is that they’re actually terrified and rather than try, as your 2nd group does, to wrap their heads around the stuff, they resist mightily. Most of the time, I’m ready to just write those people off, but sadly, some of them hold positions of power and can therefore prevent forward progress.

  2. Barbara · April 2, 2008 Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Laura. Indeed, in MOST tech training sessions that 4th group rears its ugly head. I did not see or hear them here. I think that is because NITLE has the participants “screened” by being nominated by their NITLE reps at the local institutions. Which of course begs the question: do the NITLE reps send people to these events that already sing the gospel, or do they also try and send the “unwashed heathens” as well? I dunno.

    It was quiet at this event…pleasantly so in fact!

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