Insights from Jason Ohler

Years ago, I was in touch with Dr. Jason Ohler, who was then the Director of the Education Technology Center at the University of Alaska Southeast, as well as a professor at the University. Jason was (and I’m sure remains) a brilliant guy. He was a protégé of Dr. Marshall McLuhan, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century (The Medium is the Massage) and was every bit the insightful thinker and boundary-breaker that McLuhan was. He set up one of the first distance learning programs in the country, a dozen years before the internet was commonly available, for example.

Even though we only talked a few times, those discussions – and particularly one of his books (Taming the Beast: Choice and Control in the Electronic Jungle) – left a lasting impression on me. Three of his insights that I’d like to pass along, with my interpretation:

Beware the Pain You Get Used To

This one hits home for me. It’s easy to notice a pain – either physical or mental – and think that you’ll take care of it at some time in the future. But by the time that future comes, you’ve gotten so used to it that you just resolve to live with it rather than fixing it. Sound familiar?

We all do this all the time in our professional lives. Maybe we get used to an inactive advisory board; maybe it’s student apathy; maybe it’s outdated materials or a too-small workshop. Look at your limitations and pain points with fresh eyes, and resolve to solve them.

What Happens When You Give a Bad Guitar Player a Bigger Amplifier?

Good technology in the wrong hands can create a lot of headaches. Back in my publishing days, when Pagemaker was brand new (yes, it was that long ago), everyone suddenly thought that they were layout artists, and you never saw so many flyers and brochures with six, eight, or twelve different fonts (some reversed and shadowed!) on a single page.

Yes, let students use technology; they’ll need those skills in the future. But before they use it, make sure they understand what they’re doing. You can teach someone with layout skills how to use a page layout program, but letting anyone use a page layout program does not mean that they spontaneously develop the skills that will prevent them from creating awful materials.

Technology Giveth, and Technology Taketh Away

One of Jason’s main issues is how we always appreciate what technology gives us, but overlook what it takes away. Cars, for example, allow us to go much greater distances, but as a result our own legs get much weaker, and we have far less stamina, due to the greatly reduced exercise.

For educators, it’s worth thinking about the skills students are losing by adopting technology. Social media, for example, reduces the amount of face-to-face interaction students have with others (including employers). Electronic drafting software preclude the use of skills in viewing, and creating, a blueprint. Do what you can to make sure students still get exposure to the “old way” of doing things – you never know when they’ll need it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these truisms…

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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