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The Fads We Follow

Those of us specializing in new media, digital composition, writing technology or whatever we might call our courses and research projects sometimes fall into the same idealistic fad-think as tech prognosticators.

Remember interactive fiction? Our students don't. SecondLife? Not a single one of my university students has seen it or cares to see it. The list of gone and forgotten technologies seems endless. This week I made a reference to MySpace, something wildly popular only seven years ago among my composition students. Turns out, the MySpace of today is unpopular and doesn't even resemble the old version I knew.

LiveJournal? Yahoo Groups? Don't even try to explain Usenet newsgroups or Internet Relay Chat.
Remember AltaVista? GeoCities? Tripod? My students don't.

In 1992, I operated a Fidonet BBS, first with WildCat and then RoboBoard. Boardwatch was a thick magazine. Internet meant dial-up at 2400 or 9600 baud. Does anyone say "baud rate" today?

I read recently that podcasting peaked in 2007. I have no idea if that's true, but I personally switched to Internet radio apps two years ago. Again, none of my students listen to podcasts. They do love streaming video -- of network television! So much for the revolution.

My students don't live in virtual reality, few blog, and none had heard of Wikibooks until this week. They access Facebook and Twitter on cell phones. Theirs is a text-based world, connected in 140 characters or less.

The world I imagined never arrived and likely never will.

When I've attended conferences over the last decade, the talks and panels have focused on MOOS (Multiuser, Object-Oriented Systems) and other "virtual" settings. We had a futuristic vision shaped by fiction — cyberpunk was coming, we'd simply plug-in to a new reality. It would look and "feel" like the real world. But, that SecondLife meets real life never materialized.

My students tell me they don't want large screens and images. They want quick messages and sometimes a grainy photo sent from a smartphone. They use technology to supplement, not replace, their real life social connections.

This week, I even had students tell me they overwhelmingly reject eBooks for courses. Why? They want the physical books to mark, highlight, and even photocopy. I asked why photocopies mattered and the students explained a trick I never used: copy the end of chapter quizzes and discussion topics, because many teachers use those for tests. They use the photocopied pages to make flashcards or other study aids.
But, I'm still excited by the idea of an eBook with multimedia content. Just as I was excited by podcasts and streaming videos. My students? Not nearly as enthusiastic about rich media content.

As one student reminded me: "Google isn't cluttered. Yahoo is. We all use Google."

I need to keep that in mind, too.

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