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Teaching and learning in the humanities, including philosophy, are changing rapidly as technology advances; that’s pretty much a truism when every faculty member has an email address. Now, general discussions of technology often begin with the point that pretty much every object in our lives is a technology: the pencil, the staircase, the chair. (And similarly, books are information technology.) But this is usually just said to get the point out of the way before they get to Web 2.0 and cloud computing and all the fancy new stuff people are excited about. But the most important thing I realized at this week’s NERCOMP conference is that the point has really significant implications for the way we think about technology in the humanities and academia, and about generational differences more generally.

At lunch I talked to a professor who was surprised to find that students had a hard time using a wiki; other attenders tweeted their surprise that most students had never used blogs before, when the students text and tweet and use other technologies so regularly. How could the students have a hard time with these technologies when they’re so tech-savvy?

Here’s the trick: undergraduate students are not “tech-savvy,” not in the sense that previous generations think of that term. The older we are, the likelier we are to equate “uses lots of technology” with “loves technology.” But 20-year-olds are not tech-heads. They do not, as a group, “love” Facebook any more than older generations love cars or telephones. For them these technologies are simply there, and useful, just like books and staircases. Texting and wikis do not fall under the same category in their minds, any more than books and staircases do.

I’m old enough to remember when information technology per se was new and exciting, when computers were not just a part of life. But they’ve been a part of my life for long enough that I don’t put them in a category, the way people older than me do. At a job interview a few years ago, the search committee asked me: “How do you use technology in your classes?” The question blindsided me. I set up online discussions and had my sessions videotaped for online learning and used PowerPoint-like presentation software and stored readings as online PDFs and did my gradebook on a spreadsheet and sent paper grades by email, but I had never grouped all of these together. To do so felt a little bit like Borges’s “Chinese encyclopedia”. Far as I can tell, the undergrads feel the same way as I did, but more so.

And so I wonder whether we should simply try to stop talking about “technology,” even “information technology.” Making predictions is a dangerous game, but I bet that in 30 years, when my generation are the old hands and today’s undergrads are in charge, colleges and universities will not have departments of “information technology.” Instructional technology, the field I’m trying to enter, will just be a part of pedagogy, of teaching and learning; tech support will be grouped with facilities management, the people you call when the classroom temperature is too high. Technology will be categorized by function, not by the fact that it is “technology.”

Technologies are tools. I’ve previously admired the wonder and gratitude that older people feel for technology. But youth have a wisdom of their own. They know that Twitter is useful for some things, texting for others, pencils for others, glasses for others. They don’t need to be told the thing we keep hearing at conferences in the field: that instructional technology needs to be about the instructional and not the technology, digital humanities about the humanities and not the digital.

At a panel on blogging in the classroom, Elaine Garofoli tweeted: “blogs strike me as being very old tech. Been there, done that.” Many other participants retweeted and seconded and thirded this claim. But what’s wrong with old tech? We might think we need to switch over to all the latest technologies to keep up with Twittering and texting 20-year-olds. But they still use cars and pencils and staircases. It’s just that for them, instant messaging and Google Buzz are part of the same toolkit as the staircases.