Great Colleges to Work For 2011

Bridging the Generational Tech Gap

Tim Foley for the Chronicle

July 24, 2011

Over the last two years, our department of journalism and mass communication has hired five new tenure-track faculty members. In reviewing the current job market, I pointed out to our doctoral students that despite our new colleagues' varied interests, research methods, and pedigrees, they have the following in common: an already burgeoning publication record, even though four of them are or were recent doctoral students; participation in the grant-making process; and a reputation as virtuosos of new and emerging communications technologies in research and teaching.

One of them, a job candidate at the time, came and presented to our faculty a summary of her study of social-network patterns in elections in Kenya. Using geo-tracking software and hardware along with social media, she showed how the participants she had trained locally were reporting voting violations and associated violence in real time and then creating interactive online maps that local and international media and election monitors could use to respond quickly to crises.

I was awed.

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In a field where revolutions in media technology change what we teach and what we study continually, her skill set was one we definitely needed to add to ours. Also, I knew that tech-suffused undergraduates would be impressed by her and trust that she was knowledgeable in many things, not just the latest gadgetry. Most of all, she was not employing technology for technology's sake, but using it to solve problems to help real people.

I offer this introduction because I believe that there is a growing technology gap on campus.

New communications technology and platforms in particular are arriving fast and furiously. Our college freshmen grew up wholly within the era of the commercial Internet. Eighteen-year-olds have seen their lives permeated by social media for almost a decade. Our young up-and-coming scholars, in their 20s and early 30s, are probably the most tech-oriented generation of educators yet.

Many senior professors are embracing this revolution. But clearly the young are digital natives from the start. There is a real danger of a technology gap becoming a wedge issue between faculty members—in the same way standards of promotion and tenure, the job market, and salary compression have been divisive issues—at a time when professors need to be more united than ever in addressing the challenges of higher education.

Furthermore, a tech gap may well be increasing in an age of social-media revolution. A 2009 faculty survey at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, conducted by the university's office of information technology, found that faculty attitudes toward technology differed significantly by age group, and that those differences had grown sharper over time.

Minnesota's IT office concluded: "When compared to their younger colleagues, older faculty members perceive greater barriers to their use of technology and are, in general, less attracted to using technology to enhance their teaching. In particular, older faculty members perceive themselves to be less technically skilled than their younger colleagues. This self-perception may explain why they feel more pressured by the time needed to learn about technology, by keeping up with technological changes, and by lack of standardization. And it may explain why older faculty members enjoy working with technology less than their younger colleagues do and are less inclined to use multimedia materials."

Of course, proficiency in communications technologies means much more than owning the latest version of the iPhone or following a Twitter feed. Being "up" on tech or "part geek" is a useful component of being a modern professor—Professor 2.0—because all research and teaching are affected by new software, hardware, and wetware (ways of thinking about new and emerging media and technology). To use an example from my own field, I teach at a school that offers strong professional training in news (journalism and all its related fields of the discovery of information and its dissemination) and strategic communication (the creation of persuasive information in many areas, including public relations, fund raising, and health-related fields).

To discover facts today, however, the required skill set contains much that is traditional but also much that is new. The time-tested values of the investigative journalist—good interviewing, discovery of credible sources, combing of documents and materials, following up on leads—are now augmented by the emerging technologies of data mining and search-engine optimization. One kind of proficiency does not replace the other; they are complementary. Likewise, my colleagues in physics, history, and sociology all witness constant technological revolutions that update what they do and how they teach.

Second, becoming adept in social media and new and emerging communications technologies is not to be confused with becoming a worshiper at the tech temple. To critique the role of technologies in society (or in the sciences, or in politics, or in the classroom itself), one must first understand those technologies, both in theory and in application. The researchers in my discipline who are the most astute critics of the effect of, say, the text-messaging culture on writing and thinking, or of the overreliance on new teaching gadgets as pedagogical panaceas, are people who are themselves very familiar with those technologies.

In addition, for our students there is a definite "cool factor" we can't ignore if we want to be successful teachers in the modern classroom. Whether first-year assistant professors or senior scholars, showing that you can use and understand the technologies of the world that students live in buys you credibility and respect for everything else you want to teach. I say this as someone who has read thousands of student evaluations and discussed this issue with many administrative colleagues. A mathematics professor gives this example: "If a student comes to you asking for help in using their graphingcs calculator and you reply, 'I never learned that,' they instantly feel you don't respect them and are out of touch."

Or, as members of my department's faculty put it in their evaluations of a one-week tech workshop they completed this summer: We need to know this stuff, and students should know we know it.

Finally, we need both a new and a senior generation of Professor 2.0, telling the world what our contributions are. Many aspects of the lives and careers of today's professors are under attack. It is vital that we eloquently and entertainingly speak up and out, to the public, legislators, parents, alumni, and especially our students, explaining what we do and its importance to society. Faculty members cannot sit around waiting to be called by a reporter or writing an occasional op-ed. Social media are the perfect venue to evangelize our knowledge, accomplishments, and centrality to the continuing mission of educating our nation's students. The senior Professor 2.0 could also be an inspiration to many American workers who, as adult learners, want to come back to enhance their educations for new or recast careers.

There are definite steps that individuals, departments, and institutions can take to shrink technology gaps. The most obvious is training. I'm very proud that this summer, 10 graduate students, staff, and faculty members of our school devoted a week to an intensive technology workshop taught by an instructor from a local community college. Seeing veteran professors mixing with 25-year-old doctoral students and pouring their energy into adding to their skill sets was incredibly gratifying for me as a department chair. It has also impressed the school's donors, alumni, university administrators, our professional and industry peers, and students who have learned about it. Tech training is a guaranteed investment that no university should ignore.

Yet the encouragement of faculty to expand their skills can't be punitive or negative. Telling a senior history professor to devote 20 hours to a data-mining workshop because "otherwise you'll look like an idiot to your students" is not the right way to promote enthusiastic self-innovation. Institutions need to create logical pitches and built-in incentives.

In our case, through the generosity of our donors, I was able to offer participants in our tech-training workshop extra money to apply to technology-related research or yet more training. Many other inducements and trade-offs are possible depending on individual and budgetary circumstances.

To me, the greatest opportunity for closing a technology gap is that the novice and the senior, the interested and the experienced, can be brought together in partnerships. Consider a team-teaching arrangement between a young scholar prepping for her first course and a senior scholar, long seasoned in the classroom: How much they could teach each other! We have so long thought of mentoring as a one-way street, with the old hand tutoring and advising the novitiate. But in today's academic environment the generations can edify each other, and beneficiaries of such an exchange include students, colleges and universities, and higher education itself.

The technology gap on campuses, whatever it is and whatever it means, is a positive opportunity for we professors to redesign ourselves and our institutions together.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. A regular contributor to The Chronicle, he is the author of Promotion and Tenure Confidential (Harvard University Press, 2010).