Quiet tools for transformation

A chimpanzee using a stick to extract food from a tree trunk.
Tool usage (2012) available: flic.kr/p/c9QyMb CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In terms of new technologies, the arrival of a new enterprise system is not typically of the kind that gets our cheeks flushed and our hearts racing. Unlike corners of the video game market, we don’t sit up late into the night, our finger poised over the mouse, for the exact hour, minute and second a new release becomes available. We don’t share photos of ourselves with our new ‘product’, form queues, camp out in the rain, video ourselves unboxing stuff on YouTube or have a single convention involving fancy dress (sadly). For better or for worse, enterprise technologies miss out on the culture, hype and immediacy of its consumer tech cousins. By contrast, the arrival of a big institutional system is quieter and more measured. It is a world of silent tendering processes, roll outs, training, transitions, migrations and implementation. These are slow words, institutional words, and – like many of their ilk – are often uninspiring.

For better or for worse, enterprise technologies miss out on the culture, hype and immediacy of its consumer tech cousins.

And yet, despite all this, there are many reasons to be excited. In the case of learning technologies, when big enterprise tools come to town, there is the potential for real transformation. This is especially the case for a University the size of Sydney. Over the course of its lifetime, Canvas will provide the primary online space for learning for hundreds of thousands of courses and their students. When you think about it, the expectations and responsibilities placed onto this technology are huge. Not only will it need to meet the requirements of teaching and learning across all disciplines, including everything from intensive summer schools through to distanced learning, it will also need to integrate with every other system (big or small) that a large organisation has happened to (or is yet to) pick up along the way. Likewise, as the university faces its biggest curriculum overhaul in its history, the arrival of a new curriculum mapping software gives us the tool we need to document and design curricula that spans faculties and disciplines. If we really do intend on breaking out of our disciplinary silos, then we need the tools, channels and administrative systems that allow for this to happen. At scale, new technologies can be the enablers or catalysts for this to happen.

While not everyone will find technology itself to be inherently interesting, tools and inventions have always been part of what we, as humans, do. Digital or otherwise, these human creations have turned the impossible to the possible, the imagined to the concrete. What we create not only changes what we do but can also define who we are. Think of the way early civilisations have been characterised by the properties of the tools they created and used: the ‘stone age’, the ‘bronze age’, the ‘iron age’. For education especially, it is almost impossible to think about information and knowledge without some reference to the various technologies that have come support this. Paper allowed more widespread documenting of information than stone, while the printing press allowed us to replicate and standardise this information in a way that would have been impossible to achieve by hand. Electrical systems, the semiconductor, the internet, personal computers, the world-wide web… all have have allowed us to transform the world we live in.

Digital or otherwise human invention has turned the impossible to the possible, the imagined to the concrete.

Though the arrival of a new learning management system is hardly the dawn of the next technological revolution, it nevertheless provides the infrastructure for changing what we do online. Infrastructure is, without a doubt, quieter than invention. However, it is no less revolutionary. After all, it wasn’t the invention of the automobile alone that changed the way we travelled, but the system of roads, fuel and petrol stations that accompanied it. In this way Canvas offers us the infrastructure to use the online space in ways we may not have done before. While previous systems may have felt and acted like glorified filing cabinets, Canvas gives us the tools to create a more vivid, personalised and creative online space for our learning. The relative ease of use also means that creating a pleasing and engaging online experience for your students is not solely reserved to those who have the time, skills or willingness to sit up into the early hours. An engaging online experience is possible for all.

In arriving without fanfare or a Jobs-styled polo neck, new enterprise tools give us a chance to do things that were not possible before. How we use this, is something that we will have to wait to see – but the potential is there and it is exciting.


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