Playing in the Technological Sandbox

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I am a faculty member that test drives newer technologies in my classes. Although I do not like having the occasional student decide to leave the class because the technologies we are using are too new, I do still believe I have a function in the technology adoption cycle in higher education. In other words, depending on the specific technology, I am either an innovator or early adopter in Roger's (2003) diffusion of innovations theory. This means that I generally imagine ways that a newer technology might better facilitate learning in my classes, and try that new technology out without necessarily having stories or “proof” that the technology improves learning. Instead, I'm the faculty member who shares those stories with my colleagues. Do the newer technologies sometimes fail? Absolutely! That is why it is so important to dialogue with my colleagues about these trials and errors.

For example, once I was talking with a colleague about teaching with technology. She had been asking me about how I learn about, and learn how to use, the various new technologies I incorporate into my classes. I mentioned that I spend a lot of time watching TV while also “playing” with new technologies. She latched on to the word “playing.” This particular colleague was one of the first faculty members to teach both computer mediated, as well as online distance learning, writing courses at my large community college in the southwest. Jackie, the teacher, told me a story about how in the early days of computer mediated classroom instruction they had the students learn how to point and click with a mouse by playing video games on the computer. In other words, as a part of the classroom activity, Jackie would assign students to spend time playing games. That practice came to a grinding halt the day the school's president came by the class with guests touring the campus. He was appalled that the students were playing games in class. However, I realize that Jackie's “play” assignments had the same function as my first week “learn the technology” assignments in my online classes. I basically have students do mini-assignments with each technology. The assignments really have nothing to do with the course content–their purpose is to have the students practice with the different technologies.

This conversation with Jackie made me realize that there were some possible contradictory forces at work when it comes to teaching with technology. On the one hand, many higher education administrations emphasize the need for faculty to incorporate different learning technologies into the classroom. However, on the other hand, the manner in which people learn, both faculty and students, how to use and incorporate the technology into their teaching and learning processes may not happen in the manner, or the timeline, that the administration desires.

My discussion with Jackie resonated with my discussions with both my department chairperson and my dean. This past semester my department chair and dean observed and evaluated one of my online classes instead of one of my face-to-face classes. This particular semester, in the class they observed, I was having students work with blogs, an online bookmarking/archiving tool (e.g. Furl,, etc.), and a RSS aggregator. Needless to say, most of the students had never worked with any of these technologies.

After the digital tour of my course, my dean responded by saying, “Those are difficult technologies. How do you support the students?” My chair asked a similar question: “How can we better support you?” In both cases, we talked about different forms of support for faculty and students. I discussed the more traditional forms of support such as the detailed instructions with screen shots that I made into PDF files. However, as an early adopter, no one made those documents for me and I had to make them for my students. We also briefly discussed the school's helpdesk and how they could not function as support since these were newer technologies that the school did not officially sanction. (At a regional computing conference in 2006, Warger discussed the difficulty that many campus media and IT support folks are having in keeping up with the ever-increasing number, at an ever-increasing pace, of newer technologies.) I then talked about other forms of support such as having students come in for face-to-face introductory sessions as well as the “learn the technology” assignments at the beginning of the course. Similarly, “traditional” technological support mechanisms on campus are not only insufficient for the students using newer technologies, but also the faculty who are using newer technologies. I talked about building my own support infrastructure by networking with various media and IT (information technology as well as instructional technology) folks on campus. I also mentioned the need for financial support to purchase newer computers and new software.

I took this opportunity to dialogue with my chair and my dean about how working with these technologies has really forced me to reflect on the balance between a course with deadlines and the flexibility of leaving time and space for students to learn the technologies. This flexibility is almost necessary since students very rarely take my suggestion of taking time to “play” with the technologies and instead wait until the last minute for a deadline when they then run into technology troubles. Students often don't want to “waste” their time “playing” with the technology because they want their “work” in a course to have an outcome associated with a grade. I told my dean that I've had to extend my “learn the technology” period and assignments to help students take the time to learn these newer technologies. In other words, like Jackie above, I had to assign “play” into the course to get students to just work with and learn the technologies.

Playing on the beach

Girl playing on the beach

I also emphasized that as a faculty member working with these newer technologies, I also needed the time, energy, and recognized support of “playing.” In other words, in a time when administrators are requesting more and more documentation or “proof” of achievement and outcomes, I am requesting time to “play”–time that has no immediate outcome beyond just testing the boundaries of a newer technology. I will not build a class with it (that comes later if I think the technology will better facilitate student learning); I will not develop some project or lesson with it; I will only get to know the technology a little better. At most, all that would emerge as an outcome for this “play” period is a report on how and why I thought the technology might better facilitate student learning and how I might incorporate it into a course.

If I am correct about needing play, and dialogue about play, to better experiment and incorporate newer technologies into teaching and learning in higher education, what does this mean? What is the impact of “playing” with new technologies on teaching and learning outcomes? I think playing with new technologies in a course does encourage instructors to critically rethink their learning objectives. How does “playing” with new technologies shift responsibilities for teachers, students, even administrators? Obviously I'm arguing it changes what we do and how we do it as teachers; and I know it impacts students' interactions and learning in classes–but how? And are these changes for the better? And if playing with new technologies impacts are teaching, how does it impact research and scholarship? I'm especially interested in how “play” is beginning to impact the sharing of information and publication processes–with Flow being a great example. What is the impact of “playing” with new technologies on professional development and tenure? Kairos, an online journal in computers and writing, dedicated an entire issue to tenure and technology. And finally, how can, and should, “playing” be “professional”? I sure hope it can, because I like having fun at work!

Works Cited
Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovation. 5th ed. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Warger, Thomas A. “Supporting the Newest New Technologies on Campus.” Presented at the North East Regional Computing Program Conf., Worcester, MA. 11 May 2006.

Links of Interest
CogDogBlog by Alan Levine
Rodrigo's SuprGlu
Rodrigo's Online Course example
Sifting Through a Technology Sandbox

Image Credits:

1. Play button

2. Playing on the beach

Please feel free to comment.


  • Semantics and personal psychology

    Important issues raised–and ones I deal with on a semester-to-semester basis. Besides the fact that the majority of institutional structures are simply not geared to support “play” as described above, I think my biggest hurdle to overcome is the personal perception that learning new technology isn’t “play” but rather feels like “work.” It’s like watching films for film classes–somehow they are never as enjoyable (even the “entertainment” ones) as watching films for no reason at all other than you feel like it. I agree that better built-in institutional support might help, in that it would recognize and reward the work that goes into learning new technologies, especially when ostensibly I do it to better serve my students (and, in my opinion, the university). But somehow I wonder if I still wouldn’t get just as stuck in my own hang-ups on “work” vs. “play”?

  • work vs. play

    Ahh…that is the crux. And, a lot of my “play” is on my own time and does feel like work (“ugh…I really should fiddle around with that new XXX before next week…”). I guess part of my thinking, and purpose for speaking out, is that we need to institutionalize the “play” a little bit so it can be recognized as “work.” In other terms, we need the recognition that “work” can also be “play.” Maybe consider comparing it to networking, especially at conferences. I just got back from the 2006 New Media Consortium conference (; a lot of the “work” that will have the longest impact on my professional career was what happened over beers (at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!!!). Although I don’t like the idea of it, I wonder if we (innovators and early adopters) have to “work” harder to show the significance of something before it becomes more regularly compensated?

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