Technology and language: a plea for calm…

Over the past 18 months I’ve been immersed in activities with staff across the UK higher education sector looking at technology that is characterised as web 2.0. Purely from anecdotal evidence it is, to me, becoming apparent that some of us are not speaking the same language as the practitioners that we seek to influence.

In the past there have been barriers up to technology through the use of jargon, in my early days of going to e-learning conferences I would sit and listen and wonder in awe at the intense technical discussions, wishing that I was part of the group that was trading the jokes about lines of code. Then the same people would stand in front of a room of practitioners and make the same joke, and watch as only 2 or 3 people laughed. We see it in other communities – the staff and educational developers can be an imposing community with their discussions, throwing knowing looks and muttering “kolb”, “metacognition” or “constructivism”.  And when this community meets the technology community we end up with “m-learning” and “e-tivities” and other invented terms.

With the advent of the technologies characterised by web 2.0, we have a new subset of terms being applied. But this time we are not only providing a barrier by the use of the terms but in the nature of the terms. Glynis Cousin recently suggested that commercial companies in learning and teaching understood this and used logos and metaphors for technology in teaching to make practitioners feel comfortable, for example WebCT’s little character in a mortar board resonates with a teacher, making them feel that it is technology but grounded in their experience.

But there are some of us that have applied the language and metaphors in ways which challenge practitioners in a, perhaps, negative way. These range from the simple assertion that ‘you’ as a practitioner had better do it because you will have to at some point anyway, such as “Dave Cormier’s “Blogging: not ‘if’ but when and where”, to the application of terms that are wholly inappropriate such as ‘disruptive’ technologies. The latter term implies that the application of the technology will enforce disruption on practice, having pushed the term, we then try and retrofit a learning activity into it.

So why do we do this? Is it because we seek to change and challenge practice through the application of pressure through language? Or is because we like the idea of cool and radical new terms? Certainly ‘disruptive technologies’ sounds cooler than “using technology to enhance real-time collaboration in a classroom”, or “e-tivities” rather than “activities that are carried out online”.

Working with the diverse U&I community (a group that includes teachers, researchers, librarians, learning technologists, administrators and people in a range of other roles) it became apparent that we as the U&I community needed to communicate exactly what we meant, not only from a technical perspective but also from a (sub)community context (such as library or research). One of the things that I identified people NOT doing was using language as a weapon, a way of forming cliques or to confuse people. The language used was, largely, inclusive and simple and this seemed to enable ad hoc communities to develop quickly and easily.  

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