When the Technology Changes on You (CHE)

November 9, 2015

by Maha Bali

When we use technology extensively in our teaching (or work in general, really), how do we handle unexpected changes to that technology? Here are some thoughts and workarounds. (note: this was inspired by the recent change on Twitter from stars to hearts)

A Website Disappears

Someone recently tweeted about how a website suddenly disappeared a few hours before she was planning to use it in her class. I pointed her to the Wayback Machine (if you haven’t heard of this, it’s an internet archive – you can find sites that no longer exist). However, this tool is imperfect. If it is really important to use a site’s content, we could print out parts (and ask permission to distribute to students), take screenshots, or copy/paste parts (with permission, again). We could keep contact information of owners of important websites for our teaching, or have some alternative websites in mind (after all, any website can be “down” on any given day).

A Tool Changes Its Features

Recently, Twitter changed its Direct Messaging (DM) feature to allow DM between more than two people. It was a welcome additional feature, but a lot of misunderstandings happened as people on different devices did not update their apps at the same time, and group DMs went unnoticed by some people for days as they did not show up at all. With all the different device types (Mac vs PC, iOS vs Android) and browsers, one can never be sure how different the user experience is from one person to another.

The recent change Twitter made from “stars” to “hearts” annoyed quite a few people who use Twitter academically (see Storify of a Twitter conversation I initiated here; Bonnie Stewart’s quote here; Laura Gogia’s reflections here and Kate Bowles’ reflections here). I had some devices showing stars, some showing hearts, and my Android phone kept switching between them. Given that some people found hearts and stars expressed quite different sentiments, I was not sure when I clicked “star” if the receiver on the other end thought I was “hearting” or “starring” their Tweet. Some women seemed uncomfortable with hearts, as they were reminiscent of icons of teenage girls rather than serious mature female academics; some men thought they might seem creepy when they starred women’s tweets; it made me think about what all this would mean for people using Twitter in class – how students would feel using the feature. This situation highlighted for me that

a. We do not necessarily use features of tools in the ways the creators intend; for example, I use “star” to mark things as read, and to bookmark things; other people use them to let someone know they have read their post, but will not respond now; others used it to mean they liked what they were reading. None of these things indicate the tweet is one of their “favorites” (which is the word Twitter had used for the stars). Hearts seem to imply a completely different thing than stars, even though the mechanics of the feature are exactly the same. Some (like me) have chosen to ignore the heart icon and use the feature the same way, while others have chosen to not use the heart at all now. All of this could be an interesting conversation to have in any class that is using technology – what we mean when we use a certain technology a certain way. It made me realize why some people’s Twitter profiles indicated that retweets did not indicate endorsement and that tweets were their own. I almost want to update my profile to say “hearts mean stars” or something!

b. Tools distort what we are trying to express. On the basic level, the different speed of rolling out of different features on different devices means that I may press “star” on my device, and it will be received as a “heart”. On a deeper level, when I press “star” I mean “mark as read” but the recipient might think I mean “I like that”. This reminds me of people who click “like” on Facebook statuses about sad news. What does it mean when we click those buttons?

It just made me realize that there are a lot of conversations to be had with students if and when we use such tools with them, and that those conversations can be good for developing digital literacy.

Moving on…

A Tool is Down

I was in the middle of several global collaborations with encroaching deadlines. and all of our shared work was on Google Drive. I couldn’t get any work done because Google Drive was down. I found out from my collaborators that they had the same problem. Two ways to protect against this include saving important documents offline (Google Docs has those options on the computer and on apps). The second option is to ensure you have alternatives. It never hurts to email yourself a document, save it on DropBox (or other alternative cloud option to Google Drive), or save docs on external hardware (I know, old-fashioned).

A Tool Loses Some Features

I love using HaikuDeck for making presentations. Like Lee, visually appealing presentations don’t come naturally to me. HaikuDeck helps a lot especially in handling finding & citing  CC-licensed images (thanks Michelle Pacansky-Brock for inspiring me to try it). The free version was already annoying in the sense that when you downloaded the slides, they downloaded as images and you could not change the text. I figured out a workaround to that. But the other day, as I came to do that, I discovered they had created a new option: you could download editable slides. Except there was catch: now both editable and non-editable slides were only available for download in the paid version. I could no longer download my slides at all, unless I paid. Granted, the edu version is only $5/month and I could buy it just for the months I need it – but I didn’t have my credit card on me the moment I discovered this. One silly workaround to this, on the spot, would be to take screenshots of the HaikuDeck slides and put those on your PowerPoint presentation! The other workaround, really, for me, was to learn from HaikuDeck’s process and I just learned to use good keywords to find Creative Commons licensed images, and to cite them easily using Alan Levine’s Flickr Attribution helper (If you haven’t tried this, you should!) – all of which would take only slightly more time than HaikuDeck to do. I’m also considering Sway as an alternative.

A Tool Disappears Entirely

Two recent multimedia authoring tools that disappeared are Zeega and Popcorn Maker. Two suggestions if you’re using these tools in  teaching: first, always have alternatives that have similar functions; and second, try to save whatever output you get from these tools into some format that is either downloadable, or much more established (like YouTube video). Luckily in the case of Zeega, the tool can no longer be used to create new Zeegas, but the old ones are still there. And the source code is available on GitHub – if you’re able to host it on your own domain.

When All Else Fails – Use Your Own Domain?

Hosting tools and content that matter on your own domain protects you from changes software creators make. For example, I host my WordPress blog on my own domain. This means if WordPress disappears tomorrow or make a bad update, I have control over keeping my site as is, untouched. If I find a better blogging tool to WordPress, people would still be able to find me on my domain. This does, of course, come at the annual cost of the hosting and domain name itself (for some reason, you have to pay annually to keep your domain name, you can’t just buy it one-off). But it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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