Tech and the Liberal Arts

People in the edtech world always seem a bit surprised when they find out that I came from a liberal arts background. I was an English/Education undergrad, and my graduate work was in communications and media, and then in pedagogy. I am old enough that being there in the early days of computers in the classroom and pre-Internet, if you were interested in technology, you could get in "on the ground floor" no matter what class you taught. Yes, people expected the computer teacher to be a math or science major, but it didn't turn out that way in all cases.

That's why I am pleased to see articles about topics such as the digital humanities and a recent one on "Why tech industries are demanding more liberal arts graduates." 

"...While liberal arts degrees have been criticized in public by corporate officials, presidential candidates and others, college and university officials continue to laud the value of traditional training in the fields. Data from the American Association of Colleges and Universities shows that unemployment of liberal arts bachelor’s holders is only slightly higher than the national unemployment average of all degree holders — 5.4% to 4.6% respectively, and that long-term earning potential of liberal arts graduates exceeds that of graduates in professional fields by more than $2,000 annually.

Fields like military science and finance depend heavily on liberal arts training for its focus on communication and building teamwork, a concept EAB Senior Analyst Ashley Delamater says is becoming an attractive credential for tech development companies and Silicon Valley’s next wave of executive hiring.

It’s not going to be about radically reorganizing the liberal arts, but reorganizing to create a direct connection to jobs that need the liberal arts today. What are the potential jobs available to our students that they don’t even know they can apply for, and what are the markets that has a lot of openings where one or two courses can help you to add some technical skills to the leadership and liberal arts knowledge base earned in these majors.”


Computer education is more than coding

A recent story on NPR asked "Should Computer Education Cover More Than Just Coding?" My answer is, "Yes." You can read their story for the full details, but the takeaways are that teaching other computer (really "technology") skills and the accompanying "soft" skills like critical thinking often require coding.

For example, students learning to work with and structure data, or ones working with an Arduino will need to use code and understand basic concepts such as algorithms.


Is Education Ready to Connect to the Internet of Things?

IoT

I first encountered the term "Internet of Things" (IoT) in 2013. It is the idea that "things" (physical devices) would be connected in their own network(s). The talk was that things in your home, office and vehicles would be wirelessly connected because they were embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity. Things would talk to things. Things would collect and exchange data.

Some of the early predictions seemed rather silly. Taking a tagged carton of milk out of the refrigerator and not putting it back would tell my food ordering device (such as an Amazon Echo) that I was out of milk. My empty Bluetooth coffee mug would tell the Keurig coffeemaker to make me another cup.

But the "smart home" - something that pre-dates the Internet - where the HVAC knew I was almost home and adjusted the temperature off the economical setting to my comfort zone and maybe put on the front light and started dinner, was rather appealing.

In 2014, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) published its “7 Things You Should Know About the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things (and its annoying abbreviation of IoT) sounded rather ominous as I imagined them proliferating across our social and physical landscapes. The ELI report said “the IoT has its roots in industrial production, where machine-to-machine communication enabled the manufacture of complex items, but it is now expanding in the commercial realm, where small monitoring devices allow such things as ovens, cars, garage doors, and the human heartbeat to be checked from a computing device.”

Some of the discussions have also been about considerations of values, ethics and ideology, especially if you consider the sharing of the data gathered. 

As your watch gathers data about your activity, food intake and heart rate, it has valuable data about your health. I do this on my Fitbit with its app. Perhaps you share that with an online service (as with the Apple watch & Apple itself) in order to get further feedback information about your health and fitness and even recommendations about things to do to improve it. If you want a really complete analysis, you are asked (hopefully) to share your medications, health history etc. Now, what if that is shared with your medical insurer and your employer?

Might we end up with a Minority Report of predictive analytics that tell the insurance company and your employer whether or not you are a risk?

Okay, I made a leap there, but not a huge one. 

This summer, EDUCAUSE published a few articles on IoT concerning higher education and the collaboration required for the IoT to work. I don't see education at any level really making significant use of IoT right now, though colleges are certainly gathering more and more data about students. That data might be used to improve admissions. Perhaps, your LMS gathers data about student activity and inactivity and can use it to predict what students need academic interventions.

It's more of an academic challenge to find things that can be used currently.

History Lesson: Way back in 1988, Mark Weiser talked about computers embedded into everyday objects and called this third wave "ubiquitous computing." Pre-Internet, this was the idea of many computers, not just the one on your desk, for one person. Add ten years and in 1999, Keven Ashton posited a fourth wave which he called the Internet of Things.

Connection was the key to both ideas. It took another decade until cheaper and smaller processors and chipsets, growing coverage of broadband networks, Bluetooth and smartphones made some of the promises of IoT seem reasonable. 

Almost any thing could be connected to the Internet. We would have guessed at computers of all sizes, cars and appliances. I don't think things such as light bulbs would have been on anyone's list.

Some forecasters predict 20 billion devices will be connected by 2020; others put the number closer to 40-100+ billion connected devices by that time.

And what will educators do with this?


The 24th Best Job in 2015

It doesn't make headlines when a career ranks 24th on the list. Top 10 lists are more popular. But it caught my attention that Careercast released the 2015 list of top 200 different jobs in the U.S. and technical writing was number 24. Technical writing is one of the courses I teach at NJIT and Montclair State University. Considering the number of careers out there, 24 is a good number.

The ranking is based on four critical aspects that are inherent to every job: environment, income, employment outlook (Growth, Income Growth, and Unemployment), and stress. Their data for this report came from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other government agencies in U.S. Technical Writer is the 24th best job in 2015, gaining 12 moves up from being the 32nd best job in 2014. The average salary of a technical writer in 2015 was $68,165, an increase of $2665 from 2014.


Instructional Design in Education


design



I found it interesting that when The Chronicle of Higher Education assembled its list of national trends for its Trends Report, they included instructional design as one of them. It's odd to think of it as a "trend" since ID did not start in education, it has been around for several decades and it has a big role, especially in higher education, today.

Instructional design started during World War II with the armed forces. It came from a need to provide technical training to large numbers of people efficiently.

Having worked in instructional design formally since 2000, I have seen the field change during the past 15 years. I subscribe to a few of those job alert websites and every week I see more openings for designers. Some of those jobs are in academe and even more are in industry. Most major companies now use instructional designers to develop employee training materials.

In higher education, instructional design is likely to have started at a college as a way to prepare distance-learning and extension programs. Those programs initially appealed to non-traditional students with family and work obligations and often as a distance from the physical campus that made attending classes difficult.

As the proportion of those students increased and as the technology to deliver courses became more sophisticated, online learning became more popular. Its acceptance by faculty lagged behind its acceptance by students. Designers who worked with faculty helped gain acceptance as they learned what an ID could do to actually help design their course for online delivery.

The share of students taking online courses has gone from less than 10 percent in 2002 to 28 percent in 2014, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. Babson also found that the percentage of academic leaders who see online learning as critical to their institution’s long-term strategy went from about half to nearly two-thirds. And that is why the one of their ten trends is to say that there is increasing importance and visibility for instructional designers.

A professional ID is needs technical ability, design skills, pedagogical knowledge, and the interpersonal skills to work 1:1 with subject matter experts - SMEs, or in this case, faculty. 

In my early days of managing an ID department, we often met faculty who were told that they had to "teach my course online" and who fully expected to just digitize all their regular face-to-face materials. They would ask us to scan hundreds of pages of handouts and readings, create or convert PowerPoint slides, and they wanted to videotape their usual 90 or 180 minute lectures. It was a very big learning curve.

A few saw the opportunity to translate their in-person courses to be offered online as an opportunity to really rethink the course objectives. In those early days, all faculty had to learn technical skills, especially whatever the current course management system was that the college was using. (Those often changed, much to their dismay.) 

For me, the best outcome over the 16 years that I worked in instructional design was that we were viewed not as just "the people who do online courses" but also as a department that could help improve the quality of teaching, whether in online, in-person, or hybrid courses. 

Having myself been trained as a K-12 teacher and doing graduate work in pedagogy, I was initially surprised at the lack of knowledge that professors had in that area. I shouldn't have been surprised since they always told me that they never took an education course and tried to "do the things my best teachers did and avoid the things the bad ones did." Objectives versus goals, rubrics, Bloom's Taxonomy and almost all of the things I had been taught and used in my secondary school classroom were brand new to higher education faculty. My knowledge about pedagogy needed to be diplomatically transferred to professors, but the best ones were intrigued and eager to know not only how to teach online but why to teach in new ways.