The Parable of the ThingamajigPosted: August 29, 2007
We are reaching the end of our evaluation process here on my eportfolio committee. So in a month of impassioned pleas, I hope y’all forgive me one more. This is the last push.
But I want to do it this time by telling a story.
I want us to pretend it is 1985, and we are considering two competing products for the library. Letâ€™s say that the need is to teach students how to do research circa 1985, and weâ€™ve decided to spend some money on a product to do that. The plan is to develop a â€œresearch curriculumâ€ and to get a tool that helps us better understand studentsâ€™ research ability.One product is called â€œThingamajigâ€ and is billed as a replacement for the NYT Index, ERIC, Dialog, and the card catalog. It replaces the Library of Congress system with its own â€œsuperior systemâ€, and collates material from multiple subject indexes into its own aggregate database. It has maybe a tenth of the resources available in the library as a whole, but they are well arranged.
In order to do research students log into this tool and use the special Thingamajigâ„¢ search tool. Then they give the Thingamajig call numbers to the librarian, etc. And because all their work is logged in the Thingamajig system, we can very easily assess whether these students are starting to get the hang of â€œresearch thinkingâ€ â€“ Thingamajig can log and score everything done inside of it.
The other product, which weâ€™ll call ResearchRank, just gives some standard ways of assessing student work and pumping out reports. For the actual work, it lets students use the same things they would use outside of the institution: The NYT index, ERIC, Dialog, the card catalog, etc.
In fact, as new resources become available for doing research, ResearchRank doesnâ€™t care â€“ if the professor can understand how the student is using them, he can assess them.
Which is the better product? Which serves the student better?
All of these eportfolio template products weâ€™ve looked at exist in a Thingamajig mindset. Rather than let students use tools that have a broad application outside the boundaries of our college
, they push the student to think of eportfolios as dependent on
institution-specific technology. They keep the student in an unempowered mindset. They force the student to see technology in the wrong way.
To return to our example, imagine itâ€™s 1987 and youâ€™re a professor hiring for an assistantship. You have to chose between two students.
The first student comes in. And when talking about research they tell you how great they are at research â€“ they are, after all, proficient in Thingamajig. They tell you how they used the specialized undergraduate templates to do research in Thingamajig. Are you familiar, for example, with the â€œEssay Research Template for Political Themes #5â€? They did an excellent project using that.
The next student comes in and tells you about subject indexes, the problems of restricted vocabulary, how much they hate the quirks of ERIC, and how low theyâ€™ll get a result set on Dialog before they print the list. They tell you a neat system they devised using colored post-its to keep track of where quotes came from. And they tell you about the time it failed and they ended up citing Richard DREYFUSS on particle physics.
Youâ€™d choose the second student in a heartbeat. Sure, maybe Dialog rolls out a new version in 6 months, and those skills are irrelevant â€“ but the second student has demonstrated an ability to solve real world problems with real world tools. They understand how to interact with technology â€“ technology extends their will rather than limiting or defining it. And because they have to construct their own environment, they donâ€™t confuse the process of research with the parameters of some school-bought tool.
Youâ€™d choose the second student. So would I. And weâ€™d be absolutely right to do so.
The real world tools of reflection today are numerous, but they are not in TaskStream, or ePortaro. They are wikis, blogs, video-sharing sites, Flickr, del.icio.us, etc. We can show students how to use these tools to better understand and represent their experience.
Or we can buy them a Thingamajig.
I really think thatâ€™s the choice weâ€™re looking at here.