This time, I really want to do some open and candid thinking about my position as an academic in today’s technologizing world. Well, here I am, an associate professor of applied linguistics, mostly interested in English language teaching, sociolinguistics, teaching methodology, and research methodology, among others. Quite apart from all other considerations having to with image and how one wants to be perceived, the one issue I want to deal with is the following: for at least the past five months, I have been trying ‘doggedly’ to upskill on technology as much as possible. I am more and more inhabited with e-learning, and as I visited University of Georgia in Athens some two years ago, and the International Korean Cooperation Agency, Seoul, last June (2007), I received ample training in technologies relating to virtual learning environments. Ever since, it has been my express intention to host my course in a course management system, and indeed, I spent the best part of this past summer getting to know about Moodle. I’m happy to say that I have my courses there, and I can think of that as one of my accomplishments. Here is where I want to raise an issue that I find burning, to a great extent. As I have allocated time to get to know about the various technologies involved in creating a more or less successful online course, I find that I have spent in parallel very little time on my areas of interest.
What does that mean? Well, the content that I have uploaded in the Moodle virtual learning environment LE is one that I have basically prepared during the past three to four years. It has never remained quite the same, because my knowledge of my areas of interest has grown, albeit in slower steps that I would have liked. The fact of the matter of is that much of my time has been siphoned into technology. In a word, I will say that though I strive to produce learning content that is up to my expectations in terms of quality, substance, relevance, and depth, I find that I am more and more preoccupied with technology. Which brings me to the main point: instead of the teacher who should seek to be more and more versed in his field of specialization, I have found me more and more like a technologue. I’m going to have to find alternative ways of expressing this concern, because my spellchecker here flags the word ‘technologue’. What the term means in French is ‘someone who specializes in technology’ (www.mediadico.com). That however is not my job. There are plenty of people in town, engineers who work for various commercial and educational establishments whose job description it is to design systems, solve technology problems, and prepare nice tables and graphs using smart softwares.
If I were to try to catch up with this technician/engineer, this computer guru, I will never be on a par with them. They know so many tricks and their fingers are so dexterous on the keyboard. I can’t possibly compete with them, nor do I want to. And yet, having given up for a while my interest in my academic fields of specialization, I find I am becoming a sort of Jack of all trades, possibly master in none. There is on the one hand the great urge to be able to prepare academic content that is updated and relevant to my students. On the other hand, the demands of producing a good online course are such that I need to develop as much of a horizontal and vertical understanding of the technological gadgetry involved in designing a course. Under normal circumstances of, say, two decades ago, my consolation would have been that, okay, I have to learn something about these emerging technologies, for a while, and then, at some point, I will have gotten beyond that, and I can continue to privilege my areas of academic interest. The only thing is that in today’s technological whirlpool, there is no saying that you will allocate some time to learn about today’s technology to be able to allocate the rest of your time or life to academe. Changes are occurring at this very instant in learning technology, and I owe it to myself to continue, nay, to persevere in updating my technology skills, almost day in, day out. And if I were to do that, chances are that I will fail in the other call. Eventually, in today’s academic environment, it seems that there is more and more coalescence between academe and technology. This is not only true for teachers, but also for students. In order for my students to have access to the content, they have to find their way in the medium. And thus, the same applies for me. The medium, or the channel, is determining the content. In fact it is determining it so much that we could possibly argue that it is over-determining it, meaning that the distinction we like to make between technology as channel on the one hand and content as substance or matter to be dealt with on the other hand is becoming blurred.
This is an initial take on the issue, which I still grapple with; as much as there are innovations in the field of educational technology, I am positive there are new ideas being tossed around in the fields of applied linguistics. Which one should get the upper hand, and which one should get the best of me, or which one should I get the best of, is another way of putting the question.
I think I would like to resolve this matter, at least for tonight, by saying that the changes that have taken place in the field of learning and instructional technology are irreversible. I don’t think we are entitled to saying, ‘well, let’s just take a breather, to evaluate the situation and see where we’re going’. We are going straight into more of the same, and I bet that in a few years time, the instructional landscape will be unrecognizable to those who wish to turn a blind eye on technology, and pretend to teach as if nothing had happened on this front.
Where is my solace? For now, I think I am happy in the realization that there is ample room for marrying my academic profile with my technological penchants. Learning of all types, including language learning, skill learning, has always been at the core of linguistics, theoretical and applied. Institutions of learning that were created and continue into today on the basis of walled classrooms have played their part, and to a large extent, my colleagues and I are the by-products of our ‘walled’, face-to-face schooling experiences. Now that a new paradigm is ushering itself in, with or without our consent, a new or at least modified understanding of learning has to be sought and investigated. Call it online learning, e-learning, technologically-assisted learning, internet-based learning, computer-mediated learning, what you will. A description of this new environment, together with an understanding of its actors, its tools, its advantages, as well, as of course, its limits, has to be embarked on. Eventually, much in the way institutions of learning are having to reinvent themselves, as a result of technology that have invaded our very private lives, so too, my field of specialization, and any field of human knowledge, will have to mutate and renovate itself, short of becoming extinct or irrelevant.
Ali H. Raddaoui
Night of December 22, 2007.