Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Low-Tech Innovation

My grandmother collected absurd kitchen technology, which made visits fun.  There wasn’t an inside-the-egg-scrambler or fry baby on the market that she didn’t have.  She had a microwave oven back when nobody did;  I remember watching her “nuke” a hot dog, and both of us enjoying its twisty death throes.  As an adult, I realize that I inherited the gadget gene from her.  My platform agnosticism -- I’ve had phones that ran Android, iOS, and even webOS -- is only partially about comparison shopping or avoiding cultism; it’s largely an excuse to try all sorts of new stuff.  PC at work, chromebook on the road?  Why not?  

On Wednesday, though, I had two separate conversations about innovation on campus that I realized later had a common theme: tech and innovation aren’t the same thing.

Innovation is really a function of audience.  If something is new to the audience, it hits them as innovative, even if the performer knows what’s going to happen.  Standup comedians make livings on that.  Some of the moments that blew my mind in my student days came from ideas that were hundreds or thousands of years old, but that were new to me.  (My single favorite exchange in grad school came when a professor asked the class “do you know who first came up with the idea of predestination?” and a student brightly answered “God!”)  When you focus on the whole Plato-to-NATO canon of Western thought, there’s plenty of mind-blowing, even if your technology never moves beyond chalkboards and paperbacks.  When I used Swift’s “Modest Proposal” in a Debate class -- “resolved: we should fight poverty and famine by eating the poor” -- some students responded in a gape-jawed wonder that you wouldn’t normally expect from a satire hundreds of years old.

Others had no sense of humor at all.

But even with content that strikes students as innovative, there’s pedagogical value in the professor trying new things.  The spirit of discovery is contagious, even separately from the content.  Students pick up on the relative engagement or disengagement of the faculty.  The energy of discovery makes the teaching moment more memorable and effective.

Gadgetry offers a relatively easy and straightforward way to try new things.  Even better, it emerges on a regular -- maybe accelerating -- schedule, and tends not to be discipline-specific.  It can be great fun, and at its best it makes possible things that simply could not be done any other way.

But when we restrict the conversation about innovation to technology, whether consciously or not, we lose some possibilities.  And we exclude entirely some folks who just don’t “do” technology, but who can be engaged in other ways.

The trick is in figuring out how to broaden the discussion.

Examples help.  One of my favorite teaching tricks was to give multiple short-essay questions on in-class tests, but to let students bring a single index card with anything they wanted on it.  The catch was that it had to be handwritten.  Students spent hours crafting just the right mix of material on the card to try to put one over on me, only to discover later that they had been snookered into studying.  In sculpting the perfect cheat sheet, they got past needing it at all.  Index cards aren’t a new technology, nor is handwriting, but the method was new to the students, and it worked.

Sharing tips like those across campus -- and please, I grant upfront that others have better ones than that -- might help spread the spirit of discovery beyond the tech-savvy.  I’d shy away from calling it “best practices,” because that implies that they’re settled; to me, the spirit of discovery is the point.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen something like that really catch on in a college or large organization?  Any tips for getting the word out?  Ron Popeil used late night tv, but I don’t have that kind of budget.