Riding the Information Choo-Choo Riding the Information Choo-Choo

Paul Martin Lester, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Communications, H-230
Fullerton, California 92634
FAX: 657.773.2209
at lester@fullerton.edu

Riding the Information Choo-Choo: It takes more than an engine, club car and caboose


My great grandmother (we called her Grandmama) was the second woman lawyer from the state of Kentucky, a life-long educator and lived to be 100 years old. Several years ago while sitting in matching white rocking chairs on the porch of her Houston home, she laughed after I asked her to tell me the time she first heard about the automobile. When I asked her what was so funny, she immediately stopped rocking, grabbed my knee, looked me right in the eyes and said in her deep, southern drawl, "Now, Paul. Think about it. How could everyone drive their own train?"

I like to tell that little story when beginning a discussion about new media opportunities because I often get the same reaction from folks when I describe the challenges offered by the information superhighway (or to play with Grandmama's metaphor, the information supersubway). "How can everyone," I sometimes hear, "have their own newspaper, movie production company or television station?"

But that is precisely the promise of a future when the world is connected with fiber optic cable. In fact, science fiction is now science nonfiction. And if you're not at least thinking about how new technologies will soon alter interpersonal and mass communications formats to inform, educate, entertain and persuade, you might be compared to late-15th Century scribes arguing about new stylus techniques, paper costs and whether to copy works other than for religious purposes and who were unaware or unconcerned that soon their world would drastically change.

Last year, Dean Elizabeth Mechling for the School of Communications convened a strategic planning committee to look into the future of our field. It was concluded that there are three main areas of concern - diversity, the changing business environment and technology.

Diversity. We must prepare ourselves and our students to better communicate with various cultures through words and pictures. But culture is not simply limited to ethnic variation but also includes religious preference, economic status, physical characteristics, place of employment, sexual preference, and so on. A campus that wants to reach out to its community must have an ever-expanding definition of what community means.

The changing business environment. Corporate executives are discovering that for many tasks, workers can be at home or some other site away from managerial oversight. Consequently, businesses are becoming less centrally located and more horizontal in their structure. Country boundaries are no longer a limitation to employee and natural resources. A campus that wants to prepare students to compete in this non-hierarchical environment must train them to be original and creative thinkers who can work independently and in group situations.

Technology. There is a temptation to simply throw money into a new computer system and believe that the hard part is over. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

The primary focus of this piece is the issue of technology.

Regardless of your department, the personal, desktop computer loaded with software programs and connected to a laser printer has revolutionized the way many of us work. Today's communicators cannot afford to simply know how to write or how to take pictures. It is a new requirement that you know how to produce, use and create designs with words and pictures that can be used for both print and screen media.

There has been an explosion in the number of outlets for words and pictures brought about by computers. Words - both written and spoken - and pictures - both still and moving - can be created, obtained, combined and distributed in ways previously not imagined. The digital convergence of words and pictures means that one machine - the computer - can be used for all the tasks necessary for communications.

You have heard, no doubt, of a coming revolution in information technology when each computer on campus is linked via fiber optic lines with world-wide information sources by 1996. But the fundamentals of writing and taking pictures are the same as they have always been. What will radically change is how we will read text and images. Computer technology will offer communication formats that will one day make paper presentations seem as quaint as 8mm home movie projectors or LP records.

But having the equipment is only a small piece of the technology puzzle. There are at least six other challenges that must be faced when considering technology - funding concerns, communication links, curriculum changes, faculty and staff training, maintenance costs, and access for all.

Funding Concerns. Where is the fun in funding? Well, it's terrific when your Dean or Chair calls you up and asks you to submit an equipment list AND THE STUFF IS ACTUALLY ORDERED. What is not fun, is the years of work required for such an event to take place. Regardless of how knowledgeable they are, your administrators (and fellow faculty members) must be convinced that equipment purchases are a priority. Since it is their job to make decisions, when money goes for one item, it is subtracted from the others (except with my personal finances). For myself, it took a four year, memo writing campaign (I think I just wore them down) to get the equipment I needed.

Grants and development activities sometimes pan out, but I've learned not to expect free gold-plated circuit boards. In lieu of a several thousand dollar commitment, you can spend far less making what you have now work in the interim. An extra hard-drive, a few more megs of RAM, and a high speed modem can make a world of difference in your personal production. One of the best kept secrets on campus is the faculty development lab and the fine folks who work in the basement of McCarthy Hall. many of the most current hardware and software versions are available for your use.

There are many departments on campus much more technologically advanced than others. Get to know the good people at these future-thinking sites to learn of the latest developments and collaborative possibilities.

Corporate interactions may also be fruitful. For example, I'm writing a computer workbook for the Wadsworth Publishing Company and have so far received about $10,000 in free software. That's money the School or Department does not have to spend.

Through the Center of Applied Communications, and its $25,000 development workstation, it is planned that CD-ROM and other applications will be created that will be offered for sale to the general public. But faculty and staff members will not work long hours on a project without some sort of compensation. If release time is not an option, at least draw up a just contract between all involved so that the monetary benefits of a successful product can be shared by all.

Communication Links. Every faculty and staff member should have a computer sitting on her or his desk that is connected to the computer center through a modem or a direct link. Each person should have a VAX account AND BE REGULARLY sending and receiving E-mail. I have no patience (my wife calls me a "doctor with no patients") for anyone hesitant about using this computer-mediated form of communication. Yes, E-mail replaces some face-to-face contact, but so does the telephone. What E-mail allows is asynchronous communication between individuals (as with an answering machine). A message sent this second can be read and a carefully composed response typed at some other time. My students have E-mail accounts and regularly send me messages filled with questions, comments and concerns I probably would never hear in a classroom or even in my office.

Having a computer account also gives you an entrance ramp to the Internet, superhighway (I'm tempted, but I will restrain myself in using too many highway metaphors). If you think Gophers, Badgers, Lynx and Banana Slugs belong in a zoo, that FTP is something you put in your car to make the engine run more smoothly, that UseNet is a command for a trapeze artist, that a listserver is a person who hands out food in a cafeteria line (don't ask), that Veronica and Archie are comic book characters better left to your childhood (okay, since you asked - I think of a cafeteria as a living menu and since a menu is simply a list of food items offered at a restaurant, someone who works in one is actually _), and that Mosaic is an upscale bathroom tile option, you are missing the point of E-mail. Sending messages to friends in the next office or throughout the world is a tiny component of the computer system compared to a world of databases available on the Internet.

Curriculum changes. The digital convergence of words, pictures and design formats not only will change the content of courses but will also change the way courses are taught. Interactive multimedia software applications such as AuthorWare, HyperCard and Director allow users to learn from presentations that offer color, still and moving images, and text in the form of words and audio within an interactive format. Regardless of the department, these products can also be used to create electronic textbooks. And since I am a part of a Department of Communications, my students must be taught how to create such programs. Consequently, adjustments of existing courses and new courses are being planned.

With a software program known as Mosaic, features of an interactive presentation can be linked with a seemingly unlimited number of databases worldwide. Students in my classes and from the Daily Titan newspaper are busy working on an electronic version of the student newspaper using Mosaic. This technology, for once, allows educators to be ahead of most corporate entities as there are only a handful of Mosaic-based newspapers in the world. Mosaic has been called the "killer app (or application)" for the Internet. It turns the dull world of Internet text into a bright, picture-filled playground similar to bulletin boards such as CompuServe and America Online. By all means, go to the basement of McCarthy Hall and ask for a Mosaic test drive (sorry). I am currently experimenting with a professor at the University of Nevada at Reno, Travis Linn, in team-teaching a graphics course using E-mail and Mosaic.

We must all prepare ourselves for the day when students can take courses offered anywhere in the world through their home computers. The way we become prepared is by offering courses students will want to take. That is the driving force (oops) in my discussions on curriculum changes.

Another aspect of classroom teaching and technology is the expanded use of presentation graphics software within classrooms. As more and more of us are forced to teach in larger and larger classrooms, software products such as PowerPoint and Persuasion replace outdated overhead acetate sheets. Knowing how to produce overhead projection frames that aid rather than distract from the learning process is vital.

Faculty and Staff Training. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to learn a new software product. Learning E-mail, a relatively simple operation, can be a daunting task even for the most computer literate. In addition, staff personnel cannot be expected to happily accept an addition to their job description - training lost faculty members - when new equipment and software ordered must be set up and maintained. Release time and workshop and conference funding must be a part of any equipment budget. There can be no worse folly than to have a computer system that few use because of inadequate training.

Maintenance costs. No one wants to think about a newly purchased computer breaking. For the first year under the warranty, who cares? But a system in place for a longer amount of time will start to fail. A monitor, a disk drive, or a keyboard will need to be replaced. Make sure that there are contingency plans in a budget for this eventuality. Perhaps worse than having a computer without offering proper training is training individuals to use a computer that is broken.

Access for all. Regardless of the type of computer purchase you are considering (and you should think of them all - computers for individual faculty and staff members and within development and student labs), physically disabled and daytime working students must be included. A specially designed workstation should be equipped with audio and large and touch screen capabilities as well as be wheelchair accessible.

Computer lab hours must reasonably accommodate students who work during the day. A university applies to all and can't afford to be exclusive for whatever reason.

Back to basics

When the wheel was invented, the automobile (or train) didn't immediately follow. Likewise, with the first computer, researchers didn't immediately think of the information superhighway. The use of technology throughout history has been a long, yet steady process occasionally marked by spurts of enormous consequence. I believe we are currently living through a technological spurt, particularly with regards to the field of communications.

But all the technology through all the funding opportunities available will never be a substitute for the wonderfully magical interaction between a student and a teacher. It is our challenge to use computers in such a way that students and teachers both turn into grateful and life-long learners. The first step in that process is to gladly accept to drive your own train the next chance you get.