Session 2: Disruptive technologies disrupt progress?

Audio from the session
[audio:http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/avfiles/events/2008/07/session2e.mp3]
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A fast and furious debate about whether, how and when to adapt disruptive technologies and if they are indeed useful.

The motion under discussion is:

This house believes that the use of disruptive technologies serves to hinder institutional progression.

The chair is Craig Wentworth and taking the stand are Lawrie Phipps and Tom Franklin.

At 15:05 a few late-arrivals joke that their entrance has already neatly ‘disrupted’ proceedings and the room is looking good and full…

Lawrie notes that the audience will be intelligent and engaging and that there he will continue to thus crawl to them, as there will be a vote at the end…

Craig starts by welcoming us to the ‘Franklin vs. Phipps grudge match’ and reads the motion:

This house believes that the use of disruptive technologies serves to hinder institutional progression.

Tom Franklin is for the motion, Lawrie Phipps against. They will have seven minutes each, before the debate is opened up to the floor.

First, a quick vote.

For the motion:1

Abstentions: 15

Against: 16

Tom Franklin opens:

‘I’m going to make two suggestions. Most disruptive technologies don’t do much, but a few really do disrupt progress…

‘Progress has a teleological side… Or at least it’s supposed to… But I don’t want to get too bogged down in that.

‘First I will look at a technology that has disrupted progression: Lists.
‘Without list (eg excel) technology we would not have league tables.
‘And what have tables done? Encouraged in-fighting, dishonesty in pupils and they’ve made us concentrate on the wrong issues rather than teaching.

‘A few years ago we were asked to consider teaching in ‘txt mssgs’ in order to connect with our students. But that was a complete waste of time. It’s not a case of us using a technology because students are. People are highly moded – they only want to use technologies for certain purposes… They don’t necessarily want to learn via-facebook. Trying to force the round pegs of facebook and similar into the square holes of learning tools is a distraction.

‘How much money are we spending on these technologies and how much use are we getting out of them?

‘Look at chat rooms. It was only when they became normalised and we invented the VLE that they became useful. It’s that normalisation that counts.

‘To conclude. Disruptive technologies are great fun but they do not help achieve anything.

Thank you.’
Lawrie starts by thanking Tom for already making his point.

He says it’s the feeling of discomfort presented by new technologies that helps you learn.
‘Fleming didn’t discover penicillin by having a specific end in mind. He did so because he was doing something he shouldn’t have done in a lab – he did something disruptive.

‘Chat rooms were once disruptive. They became normalised, but the important point is that they were disruptive.

‘Take blogging. Sam is here banging on the keyboard,’ he points out as I try not to blush, ‘and it’s not bothering me at all… It’s disruptive, but it will help me retain the things I’ve said.’
At this point, a few late arrivals come in… And Lawrie points out that it’s their faces we’ll remember at the end of the session, to laughter.

‘They’ve disrupted and so they stand out.’

He continues by saying that disruptive technologies facilitate change. ‘They are a media, just as pencil and paper once were… Those too originally disrupted classrooms because people didn’t just sit there and think… But they became normalised because we were able to adapt and learn from them.

‘The challenge is to make disruptive technologies fit.
‘If we didn’t introduce these technologies there would be no change. I’d be standing here with a chalk board now. Things change because we take risks – because we disrupt and that improves and enhances the work we do.’


The debate is opened to the floor:

David Millard, University of Southampton:

I think you’ve made the point that disruptive technologies do disrupt institutional progress, but that’s a good thing.

Lawrie: I agree…

Balbir Barn, Middlesex university:

Are we confusing disruption with serendipity? As in the example of Fleming?

Lawrie: Well yes, Fleming wasn’t the most accurate example. But people do disrupt in order to invent. Edison for example.

Tom: There’s a great book called ‘The Shock Of The Old‘ that points out that it’s often a very long time before technologies become really useful. So in The First World War, more things were moved by horse than car. It takes a while for technologies to really help and it takes time for real change to occur.
Lawrie then points out that you can find the reference to that book online… a proof of the usefulness of new technologies. [But there’s confusion and amusement because the first person to name the author from the floor actually had the information in his head – ie he did it the old-fashioned way.]

Delegate 3 tells a story about the fights over the fountain pens vs biros when he started at grammar school and how much of a pointless battle that was and how much the institution showed itself up by refusing to allow biro use.

Tom: That was about control, not the technology. It’s the same motivation that made them want to have control over haircuts.

Lawrie: Thank you for making my point.

Delegate four: What about people who innovate? Surely we need them to get the process going.

Tom: Yes, there are people who put in the extra dozens of hours to make things work, but when we see they can make it work with a few hours a week that’s when we pick it up. It’s the people who see things that have been working for awhile and adapt them in a measured and sensible way that make the difference. We do rely on poor benighted idiots, yes…

Delegate five: There was one part of Tom’s argument that had some kind of merit.

[Laughter from the floor – and Tom]

The fact that we shouldn’t be adopting txtspeak and similar.

Lawrie: It’s great that they adopt these technologies – and engage with facebook…

Tom: But we don’t need to adapt that into our institution…

Delegate six raises the point about institutions that ban facebook because they disrupt lectures and the debate grows heated with the suggestion from Lawrie that Tom ‘wants automatons.’

Tom: Not so. What I don’t want are followers of fashion. I want people who can seriously reflect.

Delegate seven: You do need people who reflect. But trying things out and reflecting on them is a crucial step.

Tom: That’s not disruptive, that’s just playing with things.

MD: But you have to go through that disruptive stage…

Tom: It’s not disruption, it’s playing about:

[The floor ask what the difference is.]

Tom: If you’re playing about you’re not changing your practice. You’re not committed to it.

Delegate three: A point of order. The twitterers are commenting on this debate right now and saying that we need to change the motion to one that states Tom Franklin is a disruption…

[More laughter and barracking]

Dick Bacon: The institution has to say if you want to have a debate, this is how we’ll do it. It’s the most normal place. We’re all in a room now, in spite of all the technology we’ve got. It works best, but the technology breaks up the institution and is disruptive.

Lawrie: But people are here because they started discussing stuff online…

Tom: Kepler was doing that in the Seventeenth Century…

Delegate nine: I think we’re discussing this in a naïve way. We need more precise definitions of disruptive technologies. Either bottom up – or those that are introduced to meet an unmapped need.

We’re just talking about the ripples on the pool… What about how universities themselves could be squeezed out by technology? And what needs to be squeezed out? … Not the payroll!

Lawrie: Nobody uses disruptive technologies to make things worse. Change comes from the individual. So someone could introduce a new system to get the payroll out on time.

Tom: But serious disruption doesn’t come with technology, it comes with policy. So in the US people became involved with e-learning after a policy change.

If universities lose the power to grant degrees that is what will really make a change. Technologies are only third order.

Delegate nine: Have we defined any disruptive technologies? I missed the beginning.

Tom: Excel with regard to rank lists of institutions.

Delegate ten: Is there a better example than facebook of something really disruptive?

Lawrie: eportfolios

Delegate eleven: The Mp3 Player is the most disruptive technology… It seems to give you a class of docile pupils as they all sit in silence, but really they’ve left the planet.

David White, Oxford: The universities used to own all the best technologies, but now the students are just going ahead with what they want to do and using things their own way.

Tom: It returns to my point about how moded students are. Just because students are using technologies it doesn’t mean they want to use them to learn.

Lawrie: It’s important to recognise that students want to bring things in… that it is disruptive… that we can use this stuff. There’s an example of students who made a video presentation on youtube…

Richard Joiner, University of Bath:

Can you give me an example of a technology that hinders progression?

Tom: The league tables.

Delegate fourteen: But what is the technology?

Dave Millard, Southampton: I want to come back to Web 2.0. There is a difference between surface things like tagging on websites and serious deeper issues like who provides for the students and similar. So students don’t have to use the university’s system to learn. Eg they don’t use university email any more because googlemail is more reliable.

Tom: That’s because those technologies have been normalised. So wikipedia used to be rubbish, but now it’s most useful.

Delegate sixteen: You’re making the point that disruptive technology is useful but only when it’s been normalised.

[There follows: heckling and laughter]

Will Stewart, Bradford: Tom, on the one hand you’re arguing that they are a waste of time. But if you took them away, where’s the evidence of progression? Where’s progression without technology?

Tom: Let’s go back to Socrates, whose teaching methods, we’ve learned, were done in by writing. But only when writing became normalised. The technologies won’t make a real difference until they are normalised.

Will Stewart brings up the e.g. of ATM machines. At first they were kept in banks at normal hours and no one used them. Innovation only took place when they were taken out of the banks and used out of hours.

Tom: That’s because by then the technology was tried and tested… and normalised.

Lawrie: But you’ve got to start with the disruption. And why shouldn’t we own that disruption and use it on our terms?

Delegate 17 brings up an example of a law librarian who went through a bizarre youtube song and dance routine in the library…

… and things get surreal for a while, until Lawrie says: ‘Mornington Crescent… sorry… is it hindering or is it changing?’

Tom: That’s not the right question.

Delegate 18: What about essays that are taken from the web.

Lawrie: It’s happened though, so the question is what are you going to do about it.

Tom: You have to adapt the questions…

Lawrie: But now we’ve got a lot more people thinking about how to improve their assessment.

Jim Hensman: I think there is an argument to say that technology on its own doesn’t cause progress. Einstein made his discoveries before computers…

But Tom is saying that any technology, the moment it’s effective it’s no longer disruptive. Look at the web, that’s still disruptive, but it’s effective.
It’s precisely because it disrupts the way people think that Web 2.0 technologies cause progress.

Tom: But the only thing that causes disruption is words…

Jim Hensman: That’s ridiculous, Tom. Kepler only made his discoveries because of the new telescopes he had access too.

Tom: The telescopes came later… You’ve chosen a bad example… The Catholic Church said they couldn’t see these things through the technology they were presented with. It was the words that counted…

My point is that people spend hours and hours trying to make these things work. They may or may not be good technologies but they are disruptive to getting things done because they waste so much time…

Delegate 20: Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?

[laughter]

I mean take risks…

Tom: It’s about providing a service, not disruption.

Delegate 20: Can I clarify that you mean disruptive technologies as things that disrupt us? The spreadsheet is very different to the lists that are made on it.

Andy Jordan: Excel is clearly not a disruptive technology because it became rapidly used in already existing contexts. But texting is a real disruptive technology because no one thought it was going to be used in the way it was, by teenagers.

I, at one point, saw applemacs as a disruptional technology because they got in the way of the institution going about its normal business.


Delegate 22:

Is electronic mail a disruptive technology? I waste so much time on it…

‘Yes!’ say the floor.

Lawrie: It’s not the technology that’s disruptive, it’s our attitude towards it.
Jim Hensman: You’re talking, Tom, about all these things that people waste their time playing around with… But a few of them have come out to be useful and without that time that they would never have become useful.

Tom: It’s only when they become a service that they are useful.

Lawrie: Everything’s immature at some point. We have to learn…

At this point the chair intervenes to invite the final summations.

Lawries’s summation:

Disruptive technologies effect change. And if it didn’t need to change, it wouldn’t. Change is a good thing. We are using these technologies for a reason. Because something needs to change or happen. So we let them come into our space and try them. If we don’t use them – so what. If we do they make things better.

If you vote for Tom you vote for no more funded projects.

Tom’s summation:
What we really have is a lot of technologies that are failing to do anything except wasting time. It’s cuts that are going to make real changes, not fiddling around with technology. You have to vote for the motion and for the ability to deliver services and sensible policies for sensible services.

The final vote:

For the motion: 5

Against: 20

Abstentions: 9

Lawrie claims that this is a landslide. Tom points out that he’s made ground. Lawrie graciously points out – as the winner – that it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.

And the debate is over… For now.