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My, Have Things Changed

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My institution periodically sponsors workshops to familiarize faculty and staff with the latest trends in academic technology. The objective is to help them keep up with rapidly changing hardware and software.

In an attempt to highlight the importance of these sessions to the campus, the director of academic computing asked me, as college president, to provide brief opening remarks at this year's first session. I took the occasion to meditate on just how much academic technology had changed over my thirty-five years in the profession. My own impromptu narrative stunned even me when I realized the sheer extent of the change.

The technology available to those of us entering the profession in the late 1970s and early 80s was rudimentary. Desktop computers had not yet arrived at most academic departments. The typewriter was the principal device for most of us.

Back then, departmental secretaries still typed letters and syllabi for faculty, but inevitably there was a long queue of jobs, so if you failed to get your typing job to the secretary early enough, you risked not getting your document back in time for whatever deadline you faced. Many faculty broke down and purchased their own typewriters in order to avoid the frustration of a long wait.

Back then, the newest technology was the IBM Selectric typewriter and similar competing machines that allowed you to back out an errant letter or to type over it with a white substance that would conceal your mistake. For those of us who had frequently been forced to discard an entire typed page and start over again after making a typing mistake, this was a revolutionary new technology.

The main ways to mass produce documents for the classroom were the stencil (for very large quantities) and the old purple mimeograph (for more modest quantities). Well-to-do departments might own one or both of these machines; otherwise, faculty had to make arrangements with another department or get the work done at a centralized office, like the library.

Photocopy machines existed back then, but they were too expensive for all but the most well-funded academic departments. Not only were the machines expensive to purchase and maintain, but the copies were costly as well. A few years earlier when I was an undergraduate, a single photocopied page cost us a quarter. By the time I was a graduate student in the late seventies, it had dropped to a dime, but even this would add up if you wanted to copy a long book chapter.

Rarely would we photocopy a letter; we typically typed it with a sheet of carbon paper to create a "carbon copy."

Back then, classroom technology consisted of the transparency projector, a large and clunky version of the same technology still used today. Only the most patient of us availed ourselves of this device, since it usually entailed arranging well before a particular class with the AV department to reserve a machine for you and to arrange with another office to transfer your typed sheets onto the clear transparency sheets. For many of us, this just seemed like too much work.

The most adventurous of us occasionally used another key device of the time: the opaque projector. This was an ugly monster of a machine that looked like it might be some World War II oscilloscope of some type. The progenitor of today's document camera, it allowed you to place a document, or even an open book, in its jaws and it projected an image of it onto a screen.

Desktop computers began to show up on the desks of department secretaries in the early to mid 1980s, depending on how well off your college or department was, but most faculty could not yet afford their own.

As more and more faculty began to acquire these new machines, the days of departmental secretaries' typing your work were over. Seemingly overnight, email, the internet, and all the devices we are familiar with today would become ubiquitous.

What shocked me most by my own recitation is the rapidity of change. The same technology available to me as a new faculty member in 1980 had been in place with little change for decades. Stencils, mimeographs, carbon copies, and even projectors had been used not only by my professors but by their professors--and probably by theirs before them.

Once the computer revolution reached academic departments in the 1980s, however, there was no end to the constant innovation--so much so that it is difficult to recognize today's classroom as being at all related to that of what I just described. Now, handheld devices, "the cloud," and social media dominate the classroom.

Today, students expect not sheaves of pages redolent with freshly applied ink, but slick powerpoints that they can access online and digest at their leisure. In all likelihood, the students of today have encountered few if any stenciled or mimeographed handouts in their entire academic career. In fact, today's classroom is essentially paperless. Assignments, study resources, and even textbooks are in digital form. Students submit their papers, quizzes, and exams in digital form as well.

Whereas the technology of the past centered on the reproduction of physical pages, today's technology focuses on the fluidity and accessibility of text and images digitally.

It is precisely this rapid rate of change that has made faculty workshops like the one at my college such a necessity. Innovations in academic technology are being introduced and adopted so quickly that faculty--especially those of us who have been around for awhile--need special help to stay current.

I am certainly not nostalgic for the ink-stained days of stencils, mimeographs, and carbon copies, but I can't help but wonder: if the present rate of technological change continues at the same pace, will the new faculty member of 2014 recognize today's classroom as at all related to that of 2024? My, have things changed!