Thinking without technology first

by Mr. Sheehy

After this first day of school I am as tired as I would be if I’d worked a day with conferences at the end. Perhaps this is because I was up late trying to finish a first draft of a website I’ve been designing, but I think it is greatly because I am not used to the pattern and still have some adjusting to do. Hopefully my stamina will return soon, because too many days like this and I’ll be wobbling instead of walking.

This afternoon, though, I enjoyed another blip from Andy Crouch, this one relating the news that an MIT technology wiz has left MIT to work at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The professor’s goal, he explains, is not to take technology to the design world, but to take the hands-on design experience to technology:

“A designer is someone who constructs while he thinks, someone for whom planning and making go together,” says Mr. Maeda, cocking his head, widening his eyes, moving his hands as if he were shaping a pot. Mr. Maeda considers himself post-digital; he has outgrown his fascination with hardware and is driven by ideas. “I want to reform technology. All the tools are the same; people make the same things with them. Everyone asks me, ‘Are you bringing technology to RISD?’ I tell them, no, I’m bringing RISD to technology.” He describes a visit to the campus by an executive from Yahoo. Mr. Maeda took him to see the visual resources center in the new library. Hundreds of thousands of drawings, photographs and news clippings, and images of art, architecture and decorative arts—on slides—are cataloged and stored in old-fashioned metal and wood file cabinets. The Yahoo executive was stunned. “This is a real live Google!” Better, says Mr. Maeda.

I think this concept is an important one to remember when we’re trying to adapt technology to educational pursuits. If we get stuck thinking of technology too much instead of the student and our need to help her learn, we will miss opportunities that a design-first mentality would help us capture.

I found this to be true recently at a little teacher workshop where a colleague shared her experience with foldables–these little note-taking, information conveying displays that allow students to organize notes in helpful physical forms. One good example showed a piece of paper folded in half long-ways (hot dog style) with a map of the western hemisphere on it. The fold was cut in three places, making it so North America was mostly on the top section, Central America mostly on the middle one, and South America mostly on the bottom section. Behind each flap were notes for that section.

I thought these were great and I joked that this year my classes would do nothing but foldables. The thing I marveled at most was how desperately we’re trying to make the web and technology do what this simple foldable does. It’s an interactive mashup, with a map on the front and relevant notes and pictures and any other desired material connected in a perfect place behind it. Yes, Mozilla is developing Ubiquity, and I am thrilled to see what it will do, but in many ways, isn’t even Ubiquity simply trying to make our experience with technology closer to the experience to which we are accustomed with our hands?

When brainstorming and planning, I very often think first in terms of technology. It’s partly habit and partly a goal as these tools have been available to me. What I am realizing, however is that I need to make sure I think in all directions for ways to achieve my students’ educational goals. This is a particularly important factor for me as more and more of my colleagues begin using technology with their students; their using technology means I have fewer and fewer of these resources for my own students. It’s been easy to monopolize stuff when no one else knows how to use it, but now I have to share. I am then left with two reasons to think in terms other than technology–the students’ good, and my own new resource-restrictions.

I may have been joking about doing nothing but foldables this year, but as I go to use blogs and find no computers available for use, I may actually come a lot closer to the foldable dream than I hoped. That could be bad, but if this Rhode Island Design man is correct–as I suspect he is–that may be the better path to tread.

Thanks for reading.