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Technology, pt.1: My Modernization Program

I heard this song at LA Fitness for the first time. When I got home, I googled a few lyrics that I remembered, found the song, downloaded it, and had it on my MP3 player in minutes. Ah, the joys of modern technology!

A few years ago, a rare thing happened: a school where I teach had an opening for a full-time teaching position. I decided to do whatever I could to maximize my chances and make myself as marketable as possible. This school happened to be the most technologically advanced of the schools where I taught. So as I thought about the teaching presentation that I might have the opportunity to perform, I realized how technologically backward I would appear to both the dean and to other evaluators. In fact, it was only a couple of years before that I had finally converted my lecture outlines to overhead transparencies: a great leap forward to 1970’s era technology. I had to ask myself if I would hire someone like me.

This was a sorry state of affairs for someone who had begun college as a Computer Science major and had spent a lot of time in high school creating his own computer programs. I am not saying that I was a complete computer geek or wiz kid. After all, I switched from Computer Science to Social Science after only a year. But compared to most people at the time, I was at the cutting edge of computer technology.  Now, and for many years previously, my computer use and skills had become somewhat limited: word processing, e-mail, computer games, some occasional web browsing. It was time to get myself up to date.

I had a few common excuses for why I had never learned how to use Power Point in the classroom. The most common one made it seem that it was the schools’ fault. Many classrooms did not have computers in them yet, and often they did not even have projectors. Teachers would then be forced to sign up for a computer cart and wheel the thing into class each day. This would be a pain for a person traveling from school to school, which brings up another excuse. Since each school had a unique set of circumstances, I thought that it would be difficult to master each school’s technological system.  This excuse was particularly effective for a person like me whose computer skills had deteriorated so much. I did not realize, for some reason, that Windows is Windows and Power Point is Power Point, so computers would operate in basically the same way anywhere. Projectors, which also scared me, also operate in essentially the same way, and they involve little more in terms of technical skills than finding the “on” button.

My main excuses, it turns out, were rooted primarily in fear. Some of these fears were perfectly justified, particularly the one that is the ultimate teacher nightmare: standing in front of a class not knowing what to do. When I was a teacher at the secondary level, this fear usually involved televisions and VCR’s. If my lesson plan included watching a movie, what would I do if the movie did not work? At the secondary level, after all, dead time turns into mass anarchy. Now while college students are more forgiving, I did not want to become too dependent on technology that could break down at any time. And since computers were scarier than VCR’s, this fear was enough to keep me on overhead projectors. The other basic fear, however, was less justified, and this was the simple fear of change. All of us can fall into comfort zones, and this may be more true of us teachers than anyone.

Not all of my excuses, however, were rooted in fear. I would also tell myself and others that I did not want to do all of the work that would be required to convert everything to Power Point. After all, as I said before, many classrooms did not even have computers and projectors in them yet. In addition, a Power Point presentation just seemed like a glorified slide show. Would it really be significantly different from the overhead transparencies that I was already using? As computers became more readily available, however, the desire to avoid all of that work sounded like less of a reasonable excuse and more a product of laziness. And when that full-time position came up, it was clear that it was time to change whether I was ready or not. It did not take me long to realize that a computer-generated presentation could be much more than a glorified slide show. After a semester or two of using Power Point, it was hard to imagine that I had ever done anything else.

This shift to Power Point, however, was only the first step in a technological modernization program that continues to this day. Since classrooms at one of my schools did not provide you with a computer, I had to get a laptop to plug in to the projector that they would provide. Then, because I liked the idea of browsing the internet on my couch, I went out to get a thing that was apparently called a router, which I then had to fumble with until it was operational. Now I was ready to convert all of my outlines. Of course, making good Power Point presentations involves more than just typing outlines with a bunch of bullet points. If a computer is to be more than a glorified overhead projector, the presentation must include as many visual aids as possible. With the internet, of course, there is a seemingly infinite amount of stuff that can be integrated into these presentations. So over the next several months, I spent many hours gathering  and integrating maps, paintings, political cartoons, charts, diagrams, photographs and anything else I could find into my presentations.

I had also heard a lot of talk about some hot new web site called You Tube in which everyday people posted virtually any type of video. So I started seeing if this even included history videos, which of course it does. Now, I integrate these short videos into my lessons all of the time, using mostly primary source types of videos that can quickly bring certain events to life. Some of my classrooms, however, do not have easy internet access, which forced me to learn how to download and convert these videos into something that could be played on any computer. After hours of work and aid from the ultimate computer experts in our society, teenagers, I was able to figure out how to do this. Strangely, I now find myself giving advice about downloading videos and converting them from the FLV to MPEG format, a concept that would have been a foreign language to me a few years ago.

This, however, was not the end of my reintegration into the world of technology. My brother-in-law, the guy who always gives my kids the coolest presents, decided to give them some little MP3 players for Christmas a couple of years ago. It was then up to me to figure out how to use the things. It did not take long for me to realize that these were the coolest things since loafed bread. I had to get one, although mine would, of course, have more features and memory than my kids’ players. More features, of course, meant more complications, so I struggled for some hours figuring out how to organize files and sync my device to my media player in order to create play lists. (And for a guy like me who was raised on cassette tapes, MP3 play lists may be even greater than loafed bread.)

With these skills perfected, I then had to engage in a new technological struggle. For months I had noticed that NPR kept mentioning a phenomena known as the podcast. As far as I could tell, this was radio’s version of a DVR – I had also recently gotten one of those - in which programs could be downloaded onto a MP3 player somehow and listened to at any time. After conducting some research and struggling with a few podcasting programs, I was now able to make more productive use of my many hours of driving time. Through podcasts of programs about both current events and history, I am now able to keep myself much more up-to-date than ever before.

In a sense, I guess that this is what the last few years have been about: getting myself up-to-date. There is such a wealth of resources out there that I failed to tap into for so many years. I am somewhat embarrassed today to look back and see how much that I was missing. I also think of all the students who went through my classes and had an inferior experience relative to my current students. My backwardness, however, had another equally negative effect. Since I am now teaching the first generation of students who view both the internet and cell phones as a natural part of their everyday lives, I was until recently unable to relate to their world. Now, since I am somewhat more technologically adept, I think that some students are more likely to both relate to me and view me with a certain amount of respect. I am not, after all, just some old bald guy living in the past.

There was still, however, one final part of the technological universe that I had not yet entered: the world of social networking. A few months ago, however, this also started to change when I finally broke down and got myself a Facebook account. I initially thought that this would be something that I would only use occasionally, but the next thing I knew, I had found dozens of old friends and was using the site in some way nearly every day. I can now see the attraction of these types of sites, and I often find myself struggling to turn the computer off. And with my newfound venture into the world of blogging, another foreign concept to me not long ago, I am in front of the computer screen even more.

Clearly, this technological modernization program has enhanced my life in all sorts of ways. My courses are easier to teach, and they incorporate a wider variety of teaching techniques that are particularly effective for visual learners. I stay more current in both my knowledge of current events and of new historical information. I have also, after many years, gotten back into collecting music, and I have realized that good music did not stop being made fifteen years ago. My increasing use of e-mail has also made it much easier for me to stay in close contact with students. And as my computer file managing skills became more sophisticated, I also started to get better at using digital cameras, and I am proud to say that all of our family photos and home movies are fully digitized and safely backed up onto DVD’s. As the title of my blog indicates, though, I did not get that full-time gig. (A guy who had been part-time longer than me got the job ) Still, that interview opportunity turned out to be a push that I sorely needed.
There is one technological step, however, that I have not yet taken. . . . . . (To be continued)


  1. Paul,

    Excellent post, and yet another view into the life and times of my friend. I remember about 5-6 years ago helping you run PowerPoint, and copying/pasting some images from Google into your new PPT file. You've obviously taken off. I'm happy.

    You mentioned one thing that was worth noting: "There is such a wealth of resources out there that I failed to tap into for so many years."

    There have been many big changes over time, so that you couldn't have use the PPT/laptop/projector method 10 years ago.

    1. The internet has far more content now than it did 10 years ago. People assume that "stuff" has always been out there. But before 2000, most of the content was the product of young male's ego (e.g. my top 10 list of rock bands, fan sites, etc). There was no youtube, etc.

    2. Google was new, and search engines weren't great. You'd have a hard time finding maps, photos, etc, even if they were on the web.

    3. Internet access is 1000 x faster. Could you really have downloaded photos, maps, movie clips, etc, at 14 kbps? It would have taken all night for just one photo.

    4. There was no PPT 10 years ago, or at least not like it is now.

    5. Laptops were super expensive 10 years ago, and they were super slow, heavy, limited. You sure couldn't curl up on the couch and cruise the web.

    6. There was no wi-fi. Would you really have hooked up a 30 foot long cable to your laptop as you used it on the couch?

    7. There were no portable projectors 10 years ago (at least, not like they are now). They were 50 pounds, took forever to power on, etc.

    Moore's Law is still true, even after 40 years. Everything with electronics gets faster, cheaper, more reliable, smaller, uses less power, etc. 10x better every few years.

  2. Andy, you did play a big part in getting me modernized. Thank you also for trying to make me feel better about the years where I was out of date. While everything you said is true, I still could have started a little earlier. No sense, however, on dwelling on the past.


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