April 12, 2004

Changes in IT: Looking into the invisible    

Alan Cattier is co-director of academic technologies in the Information Technology Division.

In an attempt to foretell the future of computers, John Seely Brown penned an article for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review titled,    "Where Have All the Computers Gone?"

Brown wrote, "The history of computers is actually quite simple. In the beginning there were no computers. Then there were computers. And then there were none again. Between the second and third stage, they simply disappeared. They didn't go away completely. First they faded into the background. Then they actually merged with the background."

This is a curious idea, this notion of disappearance. As I look around Emory today, computers are everywhere: in offices, labs, classrooms, libraries and other public spaces. How could all this "disappear" when it seems our reliance on computers is greater than ever? In fact, just within the last month, two events have highlighted the place of computers in Emory's curricular and co-curricular life.

In February, Emory hosted Delta's Campus MovieFest, in which more than 100 teams competed to produce the best digital movie on computers. The student-led contest, now in its fourth year, has evolved from an on-campus Emory College event to a citywide competition with more than 10,000 participants from Atlanta-area colleges and universities.

Then in late March, Don Harris, CIO and vice provost for information technology, hosted a record audience for the third annual EduCATE conference, a forum for teaching and research using information technology resources. Featuring presentations from 15 faculty members representing nearly all of Emory's schools, the two-day event highlighted the ways innovative new technologies can enhance teaching and research. These presentations were followed by hands-on tutorials on applications such as PowerPoint, Dreamweaver, iMovie and Photoshop, as well as Emory's course management system, BlackBoard.

Participation in these events was without precedent and suggests Brown missed the mark in foretelling the disappearance of computers. Yet in talking with participants in both events, it is clear that the place of computers--indeed, of technology--is changing on Emory's campus.

Campus MovieFest founder and Emory alumnus David Roemer noticed that the training required for teaching students to edit movies on a computer has dropped radically.

"Our training sessions lasted only 45 minutes, and students easily picked it all up," Roemer said. "The brevity of the training did not affect the quality of the movies; the quality definitely has gotten better every year, partly due to advances in technology but more, it seemed, to students becoming more comfortable with it."

About EduCATE, presenter Steve Kraftchick, director of advanced studies in the Candler School of Theology, commented that this third iteration "does feel different, more organic and more ingrained into the natural flow of education."

"Technology seems like a tool (or set of tools) to be used, rather than a novelty to watch," Kraftchick continued. "It also seems that it is more a part of everyday teaching. With 1,200 BlackBoard courses now on the books, using BlackBoard is no longer exotic."

It is this changing sense of technology by those who use it that leads me to think we may slowly be starting the transition between Brown's second and third age here at Emory, with devices as important as ever but fading into the background of the roles they serve.

Campus MovieFest supporter Graham Wells said the technology that gets used in making digital movies "is simply a means of expression and function."

EduCATE attendee Harry Rusche, Arthur M. Blank Distinguished Teaching Professor of English, said, "I cannot imagine my classes without the technology. Just one example: I open BlackBoard, webdrive and the web at the beginning of every class and use it throughout the entire time we are there. I teach with all these aspects of technology just as I used to teach with ditto machines, Xerox, paper, chalk and blackboards."

Campus MovieFest and EduCATE represent a window into the history of technological change as it affects our community. How do we see what is becoming invisible? This is the challenge of understanding our changing world of teaching and research.

For more information on Campus MovieFest, visit www.campusmoviefest.com/index.htm. For information on EduCATE, go to http://educate.emory.edu/ .