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It's a River, Not a Lake

Back in the early Eighties-really, before microcomputers were taken seriously-the conventional wisdom for data processing planning was to make decisions (hardware, software, management, etc.) that would position your company or college in the mainstream; moreover, to make strategic decisions that would keep you in the mainstream. With that strategy, one would not only be current with the current but would constantly adjust toward the center of the flow, neither to be caught in a back-eddy nor flung against the canyon wall on the outside of a sharp turn.

The stream analogy made sense then, as it does now, because a key characteristic of microprocessor technologies is that they are changing. Not only have dramatic changes taken place every few years, but we've every reason to believe that dramatic changes will continue to take place. In computing and related technologies, for example, the operating systems, the basic hardware chip sets, and the application programs will change both incrementally and dramatically.

Neither DOS nor the Macintosh Finder, nor VAX VMS, nor UNIX will be the last operating systems we'll use in our lifetimes. Each of those systems will have a lifetime, during which incremental changes take place, but each of those systems will be superseded by others.

The IBM clone, with an 80x86 Intel microprocessor, or the Macintosh with its Motorola 680x0 processor will not be the last we'll use. They may be the latest and greatest, but not the last.

Over the past 4-8 years, most of us have experienced the turbulence of the computing stream at the application software level. Software upgrades are announced annually, if not more frequently, and always at an additional cost. Competitive products capture the market for a time, only to be supplanted by superior software which takes advantage of hardware not available previously, to offer the user even more capabilities and control.

It's hard to stay in the center of the software stream. Even when you have selected a software product with a long and useful life, that has surely meant changes: incrementally, with each new version; or abruptly, as you realize you can't share files with your colleagues/run under the newer system software version/communicate with the mainframe's newer software versions/ etc. It's especially hard to stay in the mainstream when you've selected application software by companies who later went out of business, or who dropped the product from further development. When no one else is buying current versions of the software you use, that product is drifting out of the mainstream and so are you.

In either case, the result of not staying in the software mainstream (by falling far behind in version upgrades, or by continuing to use non-supported software) is ending up in a back-eddy. The back eddy is a peaceful place and not uninteresting at all, for a while. In fact the relative calm is very tempting: "Aha," we think. "Now I can get some real work done." While that is true, the stream keeps right on flowing. And after a while, it's hard to keep contact with our colleagues. They are using different software; we have less in common now. And after too long a time, we've lost touch altogether. And later, when something goes wrong, when the hardware or the software fails, there's no one to turn to for help. The rest, in moving with the mainstream, have forgotten those who stayed behind. The cost of not moving with the mainstream is isolation.

It's a river; not a lake, this experience of ours with technology. While the examples so far have reflected the stream of changes in computing, those who use other technologies will recognize the same dynamics. Consumers of recorded music have been part of a media roller coaster ride: LP record/8-track/cassette tape/CD-ROM/ and perhaps digital tape. Have you tried to buy a new LP recently? Producers of music (many of them are artists and performers) have seen a two-decade change in digitally-synthesized and digitally-recorded sound, and in the control and manipulation of those sounds. Recorded music is being transformed into a genuinely different art form than live music.

It's a river; not a lake. Our behavior, then, and our decisions need to reflect that reality. Namely, we should expect continual revision of the software tools we use. They are not onetime purchases with a onetime learning component. Rather, the software represents a continual cost in both time for learning and expense of upgrades.

The same is true, though it occurs at a slower frequency, of operating systems and computer hardware. We needn't get too attached to a specific hardware model or to system software, because we know that in ten short years neither that hardware nor that system software will be in widespread use. If they can be found at all, it will be in back eddies where they are serving some single-function use. Technology purchases are not onetime purchases. They are simply the latest purchases in a stream of purchases.

Not only do the current technologies change, but new technologies emerge and recombine with the old ones: video, satellite transmission, multimedia, MIDI, and virtual reality.

This technology river is beyond our control. Like the Gila River at flood stage, it makes its own way. Like the Gila River at flood stage, it will not be ignored. It will leave lasting marks on what we do. Like the Gila River at flood stage, it has raised the cost of doing business; it is forcing us out of comfortable homes, out of formerly-secure content and methodologies.

Because it's a river, not a lake, we need to spend part of our energy and resources keeping current with the current, learning enough so that our decisions, vis-a-vis technology, position us in the mainstream. We need to continually update our own knowledge and skills with current hardware and software and their uses, with the current changes in hardware and software, and with the next changes in hardware and software. All this is necessary so that we make excellent use of our past decisions and so that we position ourselves to make quality decisions in the future. Most challenging of all, we are being forced out of old paradigms of teaching and learning; among all else we are being forced to consider and reconsider both content and methodologies. As technologies emerge and begin to influence what we do, we need to explore and evaluate their impact on teaching and learning.

In preparation for writing this report many people were asked the following question: "What will our instruction look like when we have fully arrived, taking advantage of a mature technology?" It seemed like a reasonable question, though few could articulate an answer. The truest answer was given by Dr. Larry Christiansen, President of MCC: that there will be no time of a mature technology. There will always and only be emerging technologies with which we will experiment and put to use in various ways. There will be no peaceful lake of stable resources, only an ever-changing river of new and changing technologies. There is no arrival, only approaching.

It's a River, Not a Lake: Introduction
© January 1994 Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI)
Maricopa Community Colleges

The Internet Connection at MCLI is Alan Levine --}
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