On the Ontology of Technology

The Trinity faculty spent two full days this past Thursday and Friday in professional development on utilizing our new tools for teaching and learning. A group of four teacher/trainers came from Apple to lead us, and we worked in four classes of about sixteen, with lots of hands-on, high-touch learning.

The Trinity teachers were real troopers. They gave up one of their days of fall break for this They all have many other things pressing on them--it’s always hard to pull away for this kind of work. But it was good work and I’m very thankful for the training we received. The team from Apple, led by Jim Beeler, was a good fit for Trinity: all experienced teachers, with a knowledge of the strains and stresses of classroom teaching and the acumen to lead us through some pretty technical training.

After those two hard days of training (I sat in on the training myself, learned a lot, and experienced the joys and frustrations others encountered), I went for a much-needed bike ride and my mind wandered in a good, disconnected, unplugged way, over the last two days of Apple PD. Here is one thought I had. Hope it makes sense.

The hardest thing, the most important thing, that teachers like me don’t get when we are learning about technology is the ontology of the digital world. Using one of the great tools loaded on my MacBook, I’ll define my term:

ontology |änˈtäləjē|


the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being.


ontological |ˌäntəˈläjikəl| adjective

ontologically |ˌäntəˈläjik(ə)lē| adverb

ontologist |-jist| noun

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: from modern Latin ontologia, from Greek ōn, ont- ‘being’ + -logy .

This is just a fancy way of my saying that in order for people to have confidence that they can deal successfully with technology, they need to understand what the “thing” they are dealing with is. For instance, if I’m typing an email, I understand what it is now (a draft) and what it will end up being (a Sent Mail) and what it might be (a Forwarded or Replied To Mail). I know that it is not a pdf, nor is it a website. Because I know all this (not much, I’m sure, but still something), I can manage email with some sophistication. When I run into email problems, I try to tackle them myself and assume that I’ll be able to figure it out. My confidence is founded on my understanding of what the “thing” is.

But in the last two days, we were all introduced to many new “things,” and the truth is we don’t really know what they are. What is a wiki anyway? And what is iPhoto that iTunes is not? And is iTunesU a synonym or a subset of iTunes? And if I get an email from Zamzar with a link to the YouTube video I want to use, what is that link and how is it different from the original video? There’s nothing profound about these questions, but it’s important to understand the effect on learners when they don’t really grasp what they are learning about. I can follow the protocols that are in the resources the Apple teachers left behind with us; I can Google and get directions and follow them. I can perform the task, with a certain monkey-like accuracy. But because I don’t know what these things are, I’m unable to approach all this with confidence and with the freedom that comes from true understanding. If I knew what a certain digital thing were, I’d know why I need to export it instead of save it. But I don’t, and so when it comes time to do the next thing, I’m lost and don’t know how to get myself unlost.

By the way, this is a great example, I think, of what Dorothy Sayers was saying in her essay on the Trivium, on the difference between rote learning of subjects and the mastery of the arts of learning. The first art is grammar, which is all about definitions and learning to play the game of each subject. I’m saying, in part, that I haven’t mastered the grammar of technology.

I suppose that the longer one wanders in the digital wilderness, the more comfortable one becomes with the terrain. There is, I’m sure, a sort of learning by trial and error. Daniel Boone said he was never lost in the woods, but that there was a time or two he was a might bewildered. There’s a big difference. Most of our teachers, including me, are lost a lot in the digital wilderness. I’d like to have the confidence that I could find my way out with enough time and resourcefulness.

The other complicating factor, not to be underestimated, is the fact that it is the nature of these new technologies to transform things and to break down barriers. So, for instance, an iBook is not just a book online but part-book, part-website with hyperlinks, part-application (dictionary, notes). So it gets harder and harder to say just what a digital “thing” is. We all learn by analogy, moving from the known to the unknown. In the case of the iBook, because we all know books fairly well and know websites well, we can have a fairly good sense of what this digital griffin called the iBook is. But when we’re looking at a wiki or a ePub file, we don’t have analogies ready at hand. And so when someone says, “A wiki is like a blog with a chat room where everyone is commenting on top of one another,” we’re lost, because many of us haven’t experienced any of this. We are moving from the unknown to the unknown, a tenuous way to learn.

So I wonder if the best pedagogical strategy for teaching people about technology would be to require them to spend time on one or two new technologies before the class. This would give us all the sort of learning by experience which would help us familiarize ourselves with the unknown and ready us for the next thing, the thing that is always there, the unknown beyond the unknown. It’s just a wondering, not a criticism of our Apple PD. The four teacher/trainers we had were superb, and they adjusted well to the Trinity culture and the variety of needs in the group. I’m just wondering if there is a good way to help people get to know, from the bottom up, through experience, what these “things” are that we are being encouraged to use.


Muri said…
Dear Chip,
You nailed it with your last idea. If I could have practiced and learned something about the things I wanted to try before the experts came, I might have been able to ask questions that made sense and helped me. Maybe we need little tech study groups on different topics.
Muri Pugh

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