Three separate people complained about me liveblogging the OU Conference today. They had found my typing very distracting from the presentations. One was indirect, although it seems obvious to me that I was the problem, but two were direct to my face immediately afterwards. This was from three separate sessions. Most British people wouldn’t dream of complaining like that even if they were bothered, so I think it’s a very safe assumption that many more people were silently fuming but didn’t like to say anything. It has been made unequivocally clear to me that I was breaking a social rule. For the direct ones, I apologised profusely; with one I started trying to explain what I was doing but tailed off in the face of a withering stare. I am genuinely sorry to have disrupted people’s conference experience. But on reflection I think it shows up a big problem for the OU that I’ve been thinking about for ages.
Now, for me, I found it hugely useful to do. My handwriting is awful – it makes my hand hurt and I can’t read what I’ve written. By typing, I have excellent notes on what was said, that I can refer to and even search. (Much better than even the best physical filing system!) Even better, by having another browser window open and doing some fast flipping, I was able to pursue some of the references that interested me then and there and put in proper links to them for later. (Or read those if the presentation wasn’t very interesting – which didn’t happen often, I should stress.) Even better better, by blogging it, I’ve made those notes and links available to the local OU community and beyond. And also been part of the future of academic practice – as the VC was saying we must do in her keynote.
But clearly, those benefits came at a cost to the people around me. Having someone banging away on a laptop (I did churn out over 9,000 words today – well over 10k if you include this rant too) in a conference was obviously a strange and new experience for them. Just to stress, it wasn’t a particularly noisy keyboard – my current laptop is pretty quiet, certainly in comparison to a full desktop job.
Part of this is unfamiliarity, but part of it I think is a lack of engagement with technology bordering on technophobia. I’m often struck by the deep lack of basic technical skill around – even among people who you’d expect to know this stuff. I encountered today people who seemed almost proud of their inability to work a projector/laptop combo, or their lack of knowledge about what Twitter was, despite the fact that their jobs involve them teaching other people about technologies like that. (I won’t identify them.)
Technophobia seems a good word for it: as with homophobia, among polite middle-class people you can almost imagine that nobody’s bothered about it, but from time to time someone will come up to you and make it quite clear that decent people don’t like what you’re doing and wish you would stop, or at least go and do it elsewhere so they don’t have to see you doing it. So you know that lots of people think that way, and you’ve no way of telling them from people who are genuinely supportive – or at least supportively indifferent – and so you end up changing your behaviour to pass as something you’re not out of fear. (I’m not saying it’s the exactly the same phenomenon, but there are parallels.)
I’ve wondered and experimented in the past about using a laptop more to take notes in meetings – it really makes things much better for me. But I’ve fallen back on a paper notebook for all but a handful. (At least those can include meetings with my boss – Patrick is a very good boss.) The laptop kept getting in the way of the social interaction, and that’s what meetings are for in my book, so the laptop went. Until now I hadn’t realised that the ‘getting in the way’ bit was quite possibly a result of a deeply held technophobia.
The contrast with – say – the Open Learn conference I went to back in October is profound. I foolishly didn’t take my own laptop there out of habit … and so now I want to refer back, I have no access to the paper notes I made (they’re in the office and I’m at home), and it’d take me ages to find the right page and decipher my handwriting even if I did. But every session was stuffed full of people hammering away on their laptops – between 25%-50% I’d say, more in some particular ones. Some of those were liveblogging, some were making some small notes for themselves … and some were off doing other useful tasks when the particular presentation wasn’t capturing all of their attention. Nobody minded, or even noticed particularly.
I really think the VC gets it: in her keynote (see what I was able to do there that I couldn’t with the other conference?) she quoted Ernest Boyer and Clay Shirky – top-notch scholarship and top-notch new technology. She argued that “Scholarship in this university, in this century, has to be irrevocably tied to the technology and knowledge media.” I agree! That’s what I want to be part of, that’s what I’m good at. That has to be the only future for the OU.
But my, oh my, how far we have to travel to get there. Remember, this techno-hostile audience was a self-selecting group of those particularly interested in innovation. One of the VC’s recurrent themes recently (including at the conference today) is how difficult but vital it is to get excellent innovation out of the individual pockets where it happens and spread out across the OU’s provision. (I have some ideas about that but that’s for another post.) Why’s it so difficult? It’s not that people aren’t sold on the OU’s mission – in fact OU staff have a sense of ownership and deep commitment to the mission that most senior managers couldn’t imagine in their wettest dreams. That profound and widespread technophobia is, I think, a big part of the answer. Nearly every good innovation in OU teaching relies to a greater or lesser extent on new technology. And the overwhelming majority of people who need to pick up that innovation don’t know or like new technology.
I don’t quite subscribe to the Private Frazer view of the situation (“We’re doomed! Doomed I tell ye!”), nor the Sir Richard Mottram one (“We’re all f***ed. I’m f***ed. You’re f***ed. The whole department is f***ed. It’s the biggest cock-up ever, and we’re all completely f***ed”), but we do have a serious problem.
We have a mountain to climb. I’m not sure how to get there, or even what the next steps are. Alas, I do know that my own next step is backwards: I’m not taking my laptop to the conference tomorrow.