President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
The Amazing Race: Keeping up with Technology
November 18, 2009
One of the greatest challenges confronting universities — and individual faculty and students — today is not so much mastering new technologies as deciding which ones to embrace and when. No one knows this better than Princeton’s vice president for information technology, Betty Leydon, who has helped us to navigate the digital revolution since 2001 and has kindly agreed to share her thoughts on this subject with you here. — S.M.T.
If you’re reading this on your iPod, as you listen to Glee’s “Don’t Stop Believing” while updating your Facebook status, responding to 10 pending “friend” requests, and replying to a text message from your best friend (who is sitting at the same table as you, watching the latest episode of “30 Rock” on her iPhone), then you probably need read no further. You are a fully engaged member of the millennial generation. If, however, you are reading this on something as quaint as paper and are trying to concentrate despite the loud cell phone conversations around you, you are clearly someone who finds today’s ever-expanding number of new technological devices and tools both amazing and overwhelming.
How do we keep up with the dizzying array of new technologies that confront us daily and the information explosion enabled by these technologies? How, as educators and IT professionals, do we chart a course through this technology minefield? How do we determine which technologies to use and when to use them?
While no one has an IT crystal ball, there are two “adoption criteria” that I consider helpful in evaluating new technologies and measuring the likelihood that any given application of technology will prove to be successful in higher education and beyond.
Keep it Simple
The first time we access successful websites like Google, MapQuest, or Amazon.com, what immediately strikes us is how simple they are to use. There is a text box in which to enter information and a button on which to click. That’s it. Nothing could be simpler or more powerful. By keeping their interfaces simple and their services focused, these sites have been able to make complex technology compelling and accessible. For the most part, the simpler a technology is to use, the more likely it is to be successful.
Another thing to remember in evaluating new technologies is that it’s not about the technology; it’s about what we can do with the technology. E-mail, word processing, and Web browsing together account for the vast majority of technology use in higher education. These are simple technologies that help manage, organize, and communicate information, tasks that are critical to faculty and students. What about newer technologies? Last June, to give you an example that had an impact on alumni, Princeton created a website for Reunions optimized for mobile devices. Thousands of alumni visiting campus used their mobile phones to access information about reunion events on the “Reunions Mobile” website. The application was successful because it solved a real problem: how to get the most up-to-date information about reunion activities while walking around on campus.
Every year since 2004, the New Media Center Consortium has published the “Horizon Report,” an extended review of “emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use in learning-focused organizations.” In its 2009 edition, the report listed, among others, the following three technologies that, I believe, will become increasingly relevant for teaching, learning, and research in the next few years:
- Cloud computing (the delivery of infrastructure, platform, and software services via the Internet)
- Geolocation technology (technologies sensitive to location)
- “Personal Web” applications (tools to manage the ways one views the Internet)
These technologies score well on the aforementioned adoption criteria: they focus on ease of use and solving real problems. Cloud computing is making offsite storage and application “hosting” real possibilities for the first time. Location-aware devices and tools are beginning to open up new opportunities in areas such as field research, cultural studies, and medicine. And personal Web applications are helping individuals create customized, personal views of the Internet that support their professional, learning, and other activities, thereby reducing the work involved in being a “knowledge worker.”
The pace of innovation in IT is not slowing down. Over the next two to three years, we will probably see the emergence of a whole new set of mobile devices and display technologies, along with applications designed to present and manipulate information in new ways. As we try to decide which of these technologies are worthy of adoption, for our campus or for ourselves, it will help to remember that the most successful technologies are those that keep things simple and solve real problems.