The Parable of the Thingamajig

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. Let’s say that the need is to teach students how to do research circa 1985, and we’ve decided to spend some money on a product to do that. The plan is to develop a “research curriculum” and to get a tool that helps us better understand students’ research ability.One product is called “Thingamajig” 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 “superior system”, 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 Thingamajig™ 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 “research thinking” – Thingamajig can log and score everything done inside of it.

The other product, which we’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 doesn’t care – 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 we’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 it’s 1987 and you’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 – 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 “Essay Research Template for Political Themes #5”? 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 they’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.

You’d choose the second student in a heartbeat. Sure, maybe Dialog rolls out a new version in 6 months, and those skills are irrelevant – but the second student has demonstrated an ability to solve real world problems with real world tools. They understand how to interact with technology – technology extends their will rather than limiting or defining it. And because they have to construct their own environment, they don’t confuse the process of research with the parameters of some school-bought tool.

You’d choose the second student. So would I. And we’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,, 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 that’s the choice we’re looking at here.

6 thoughts on “The Parable of the Thingamajig

  1. Persuasive argument, though you had me at Richard Dreyfuss, particle physicist….

    It’s so easy to understand why institutions and faculty and staff want a tool that’s tailored to their particular needs. There’s so much going on that Thingamajig simplifies what we have to do and often reduces student questions and complaints. The other option is messier, more complicated, and requires more active thought and adaptation by faculty and students alike. Yet, as you point out, (dealing with) that very messiness has the potential to make them all better at adapting to life outside the clearly defined rules of the classroom and university.

  2. I think that’s the truth. I don’t mind making the sacrifice for the sake of faculty workload — as long as we don’t cast it as a benefit for the student. That is, if we say, look, the faculty needs the Thingamajig, because they just can’t DO the multi-pronged thing, I’m ok with that.

    The most insidious thing is where we confuse the two issues. If we understand the ideal and work back to the possible we’ll get further.

  3. I find your argument compelling for supporting the “loosely joined pieces” benefit of the Net. The interdependence of the various tools (Flickr, etc) lends to an environment where students can take it with them when they are done with this crazy thing called college. I have a question: it is widely accepted that a clearly defined assessment (descriptive not prescriptive) is essential to student success; where would the description of the assessments be housed virtually while the student is building this loosely joined electronic exhibit room? After all, if I am viewing it is a faculty member, advisor, mentor, potential employer (or whatever) I am going to want to know what was expected of the learner. Like in darts, in some games the bullseye is the ultimate target; however, in some other variations of darts the triple ring is just as coveted. Knowing the proverbial target is so important.

  4. Thanks Royce. You bring up a good question, and I’m not sure there’s a single answer. I think in UMW’s evolving WordPress project the best route would be to have the professor make visible these parameters on the group blog — or at least have the “target definition” of the task accessible via links or trackbacks. In other words I think we’d use the same contectual devices we use normally in the Web 2.0 world.

    In a vendor package, however, I don’t know. I saw many presentations, it’s pretty interesting it never came up — because as you point out, we’re seeing only half that conversation.

  5. Pingback: :: ed(ge)ucation design :: » Blog Archive » I’ll take a Thingamy and 2 whatisits, hold the doodaa

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