Fundamentals for Technologists

Each spring sees the opening of another baseball season. This is one of my favorite spectator sports, but every year there is one thing that bothers me about it, That is the way that semi-professional, university, and sometimes even high-school stars enter the [Japanese] professional leagues and immediately display a skill that puts their veteran teammates to shame. There hardly seems to be any difference at all between amateurs and professionals. Amateurs play for pure enjoyment, while professionals play to make a living. The difference between them ought to be much greater.

In every confrontation with a real American professional team it seems that what we need to learn from them, besides their technique of course, is how uniformly faithful their players are to the fundamentals. Faithfulness to fundamentals seems to be a common thread linking professionalism in all areas. …

The opposite case, where the difference between amateur and professional is most striking, is Japanese sumo wrestling. There even the collegiate grand champion has to enter the professional ranks in the third division down from the top and work his way up while being treated like any other raw recruit. … [T]here seems to be what can only be termed a thick barrier between amateur and professional, built by a long tradition among professionals of almost superhuman effort. It takes more than just bodily size and strength to become a professional sumo wrestler. Kageyama Toshiro, Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go, p.36. Kiseido, Tokyo, 1978.

Besides being insightful, this point raises the question: what are the fundamentals in my field, and am I faithful to them? What is a professional approach? In educational technology, the project is to make new technologies available and workable as teaching and learning tools. We guide teachers and students to informed working relationships with these technologies. (Here, “technology” includes both tools and techniques.) The fundamentals are research, familiarity with new technology, and consultation to help teachers and students find the right tools.

As a new field, educational technology often seems like Japanese baseball in the 1970s — not lacking any particular skill, knowledge, or ability, but rather lacking polish and practice in the fundamentals. We get stuck in keeping up with the latest flashy tech and developing stylish preferences — but style is the opposite of fundamental. Too often we build systems that are not well received by teachers and students, and this can only be because we have failed to see what needs must be fulfilled by the working relationship between user and technology.

This is because we don’t have a field of polished technology professionals. Professional development, as suggested by Kageyama’s quote above, has an established set of techniques: apprenticeship, networks of practice, and industry standards, which range from the explicit to the socially ingrained. (See this previous post for discussion of the latter two concepts.) Each of these tools requires a relatively stable technology environment, particularly apprenticeship, which needs ten- or twenty-year consistency in skill sets (e.g. the game of baseball). For instance, senior IT managers tend to be out of touch with programmers, because if you’re over 50, you learned COBOL or Pascal, not Java. By the time one generation is ready to teach the next, the technology has changed too much.

And increasingly, the other established professional development techniques are also falling behind the rate of change. New technology takes time to be incorporated into the social network and standards of the professional community. A certain amount of change is introduced, but just enough to tell who is up-to-date and who has not been following along. This inertia protects accumulated procedural knowledge that would be lost if tools were swapped too often. In the interim between a new tool’s release and its adoption by the industry, outsiders can swoop in and destabilize an entire profession. That’s the paradigm of the computer industry, and in a sort of feedback loop, it’s this instability that allows the rate of change to be so high in the first place. As other industries become digital, — becoming amateur technologists — they fall prey to the same instability.

Current approaches to our profession focus on exploring the context and consequences of particular pieces of technology or trends. Columbia’s Communication, Computing and Technology in Education programs exemplify this idea. But as important as it is to understand the implications of adopting new technology, it’s even more important to understand what it means to be continually and disruptively adopting new technologies for the foreseeable future.

Technologists are uniquely positioned to understand these issues: we are the closest thing in the world to being experts at changing ways of working and thinking. The difference between technology professionals and amateurs — other fields — should be greater. We analyze and translate workflows abstracted from their implementations. We reduce inertia. We understand which knowledge can be turned into data, which into procedure, and which must remain vested in social structures. In other words, research, familiarity with new technology, and consultation. We need to polish and practice our fundamentals.

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