Digital Revolution on the Streets

The thought struck me over the weekend just how much the world has changed as I watched live coverage from Cairo on the fall of Mubarak and his 30-year regime. This wasn’t the first public uprising in North Africa this year, Tunisia holds that title. Rather, Egypt is significant for its vast size and population, not to mention that it has a political history stretching back almost 7,000 years.

What struck me about the events in Egypt was the genesis of the people’s revolt against power and how a small number of young activists leveraged technology and the Internet to spread their message and mobilize a nation. The older generation in power (Mubarak is in his 80s after all) reacted by trying to shut down the Internet, not truly understanding the resourcefulness of youth, who grew up in a digital domain, to circumvent such governmental interventions. This may have been the largest revolution that was lead not with a gun but with a cell phone.

I’ve always been fascinated by the digital nature of younger generations. Mine was the bridge generation. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, pausing at the end of each line to throw the carriage back to the start of the next line, but wound up typing my high school essays with a word processor. I learned to be digital while those that came after me were born digital.

However, it’s important to realize that age alone is not indicative of technological acumen. While we may assume that many of our younger students have a solid understanding of how to use their cell phone, we cannot assume that all younger students will be conversant in the various technologies employed in their education. Because of this, and also because our students span the range of generations from high school aged to senior citizen, it is important to remember that not all will be comfortable with the technology we expect them to use. Electronic student IDs, email, online course catalogs, and online registration can be intimidating. It’s important to have people available to help students learn these tools and overcome their fear.

Higher education continues to move towards the use of more technology to serve our students. This movement is driven by our need to serve ever more students as well as a need to help control costs. Many institutions have already done away with grade distribution by postal mail and we will continue to see email used in lieu of postal mailings which provides significant savings in both postage and materials. Other methods will also likely be implemented in how we capture and track information related to students.

To help keep these changes in perspective, I like to read through the Mindset List created by Beloit College. Each fall, they identify the “cultural touchstones” of their incoming freshmen (traditionally aged students, 18-years old) as a means of helping faculty and staff better understand what cultural references will and will not make sense to the incoming freshman class. The list helps to remind me just how quickly things change.

While technology does not provide the answer to all problems, it is important that we embrace technology and understand its application in our environment. One thing you can count on is that, regardless of what we plan for, something different will emerge and we will constantly find ourselves having to adapt to changes in our work context.

Photo: New York Public Library, ca. 1770-ca. 1880

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