Where’s the doc? A meditation on the transcendent nature of digital media with Joe Tomei

JtomeiI recently had the opportunity to get a JALT SIG officer up to speed on some of the things I had been using as a coordinator for the THT-SIG and one of the questions that surprised me was when he asked, while we were working in google docs, how he could download the document for his reference. I realized that one of the controlling metaphors that framed his thinking was that the electronic document is an object that is moved from place to place. While this is true on some level that what we were working on probably could be pointed to as a series of 1s and 0s in a Google server farm somewhere, I tried to explain that he needed to stop thinking of the documents as objects.

In working with people on various projects, I find that the metaphor ‘the file is an object’ is quite common. Asking how to download a google drive file in order to have their own copy is just one example. 4 people get in a folder in google drive and if they are not used to it, they will feel they have to create their own documents, so you have 4 copies of the same document, all with different edits. Students will start a google presentation by uploading a powerpoint file to share with me (because they are told to share first and then edit) and they continue to work on the powerpoint file, upload a completed version and then wonder why they can’t see it in the class folder.

Apple_Macintosh_Desktop
from the 1984 Apple desktop

This is certainly understandable. Apple, stealing from Xerox Parc and an idea by Alan Kay, started the metaphor of the desktop, where you could organize and keep your files. You drag files to a trashcan to delete them. You send them by attaching them to an email. You save them in your computer, you put them on USB sticks. In truth, it is hard to get away from the idea that the file is an object. And it has its uses, especially when we think about security and backup.

But to become more comfortable with the digital mobile world, you can’t hold on to that metaphor so tightly. Thinking about ‘where’ a document is has you think that when creating things, adopting behaviors that actually cause problems. It encourages people to not think about how they name files or using tags and categories. It discourages collaboration because it makes one think that things are not accessible or has people gloss over how they make things accessible.

To show how this works, when I create document I need to work on, I first share it to my other google accounts so I can access it in any account. (I don’t do this with everything, just the things I am pretty sure I may be working on remotely) If it is for a class, I place it in a folder that is shared with all the students in the class so they have access to it and they can also add what they have created to share. The same applies if it is for a group, such as a JALT SIG or chapter. I also use this system for student seminar papers, and Google Drive allows synchronous chat and simultaneous editing, so it is possible to watch what a student is writing and be able to guide him or her as they are composing.

Doing this with students is a bit of a hassle, cause teaching a new group of students these points all over again can be strangely frustrating. I say strangely because the whole idea of teaching in an institutional setting is that you are teaching groups of students who move on, so we should be used to that, but when it comes to technology, that ability to understand that we may have to teach the same thing again and again doesn’t really happen as often as it should.

In an article about Neil Postman, co-author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity, a particular favorite of mine, there was this:

“There’s this kind of dialogue around technology where people dump on each other for ‘not getting it,’” Lanier says. “Postman does not seem to be vulnerable to that accusation: He was old-fashioned but he really transcended that. I don’t remember him saying, ‘When I was a kid, things were better.’ He called on fundamental arguments in very broad terms – the broad arc of human history and ethics.”

I suspect that none of the things I have set out in this post is new to anyone who would visit a place called Digital Mobile Language Learning. And I’m sure a lot of us have gradually let go of this metaphor as we use cloud applications. However, if the person you are teaching or working with doesn’t have this understanding, your possibilities for collaboration are restricted and you are tied to the understanding of the person you are sharing it with. Using technology is not simply a matter of understanding it individually, it is our collective understanding of the tools. So the next time some technological collaboration doesn’t seem to be going as well as it should, consider discussing how they are thinking of their files. You might be surprised.

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