Day 30: Dancing Poodles and Technology

4 11 2009

If you use Google to find pictures of Albert Einstein, you will locate quite a few, including shots of the genius looking bemused, thoughtful, tired, mellow, and just plain smart. But the shot at the top of the search page today is my favorite: one of the smartest men who ever lived sticking out his tongue.

Why was he doing this? As an undergraduate physics major (I only lasted one semester) I might have thought he was saying, “Ha! You’ll never get this stuff.” But today, just let this picture sum up for you the realities of using technology, especially new technology, in the classroom.

Our tech people have been great in this whole initiative. Imagine the challenges involved in trying to set up one of our auditoriums so that 600 people can simultaneously hit the wi-fi access points, which makes my little class of 70 look pretty simple. Even though our room was already set up to handle around 100 connections, today we got an upgrade which takes the capacity up considerably.  I’m not sure why we got this, but I do know that in the days after the upgrade (I’m writing this in hindsight) our connectivity improved markedly.

Why? I have no idea.

The bottom line is that the specs on our original setup were more than adequate, yet the real-life performance wasn’t perfect. In my experience, technology likes to stick out its tongue at humans. One of my favorite tech videos features Bill Gates, on stage introducing Windows 98, only to have the system crash (click the photo to view it). I’ve always wondered if that poor guy on the right just walked off the stage and fell on his own sword, or if he waited around for the company to fire him.

As you watch that clip, pay attention to that guy, and you’ll know exactly how I have felt more than once this semester. When things don’t work, it’s embarrassing, it’s frustrating, and it interferes with doing what I’m there to do, which is teach. And the people who matter are staring at you, wondering what you’ll do next. So when it all falls apart, I try to just smile, say “Oh well,” and move on.

How do the students respond? Amazingly well. In fact, I think in some ways a professor who uses technology in the classroom is a little like a poodle that can stand up on its hind legs and dance. He may not do it all that well, and it may not always even work, but folks seem to appreciate the effort.

By the way, all you Mac aficionados who are smirking at Bill’s blue screen debacle can see Steve Jobs enjoying several of his own ugly moments in the glare of the spotlights by clicking the shot below. Tech snafus are not limited to one brand of hardware or software.

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