Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Cutting Edge May Not Be Where You Expect

Academics have a weakness for the latest cutting-edge innovations. It’s kind of what we do. And in many cases, that’s a good thing.

This week, though, I’ve seen two older ideas come back as new solutions to current issues. They’ve both been out of fashion long enough that they actually seem new, even though they’re anything but.

The first, prosaically enough, is the return of the desktop computer.

People who follow technology know that desktops are rapidly heading for the dustbin of history. They’re clunky and relatively unportable and not the least bit sexy.

But they’re also hard to steal, easy to upgrade and maintain, and relatively cheap for the amount of computing power. In other words, while they might not hold the consumer appeal they once did, they still solve some real issues for institutions.

Laptops and especially tablets can grow legs easily. Some of the measures necessary to keep them in place defeat their appeal. Tablets in particular are basically black boxes; just try upgrading the memory on your ipad. I dare you. But a big old honking desktop lends itself to internal upgrades, extending its useful life and low cost. And tethering a desktop to a desk is no big deal; it’s not meant to move around anyway.

At some distant future point when everyone has their own porta-device, the dedicated computer lab may become redundant. But we aren’t there yet, and desktops still do the job better than their newer, sexier, more expensive counterparts.

The second is even more low-tech, basic, and old. It’s the quiet study area.

Libraries (and “learning commons,” increasingly) are becoming steadily more high-tech, and more group focused. The paradigmatic cutting-edge library space now is the warren of desks with wifi where groups of students can work on projects together, using whatever device they happen to bring with them.

But as the world gets louder, I’m starting to see more demand and appreciation for the old “sit down, shut up, and study” space.

It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially at a commuter campus. We don’t have dorms, and we don’t have a sylvan quad. Space for students to just sit down and study is at a premium. We have a library, but most of the library is given over to tables at which students often engage in group study or other conversation. For a student who may not have a quiet home, quiet study space can be a scarce commodity.

Academically Adrift generated no end of discussion a few months ago, but one of its most compelling findings went mostly ignored. It reported that time spent in group study was negatively correlated with gains in critical thinking, but time spent in individual study was positively correlated with gains in critical thinking. Sometimes you just need to focus. And for all the cutting-edge innovations in instructional technology -- regular readers know that I enjoy my gadgets as much as anybody -- sometimes you just need to get back to basics: a student, a table, a lamp, a book. (Those of us who spent meaningful time in graduate reading rooms in grad school know the setting well. Once silence becomes expected, it’s almost self-enforcing.)

At better-funded institutions, this need may be so well-covered that further discussion is just redundant. But in these parts, blessed silence is a breakthrough.

Sometimes the cutting edge isn’t where you expect it to be. In these two cases at least, it’s in the past.