Fear of new technologies and chalkboards

Are you today’s equivalent of the Yale student body that protested the chalkboard in the 1830s?

Seems like a ridiculous question and scenario. But believe it or not, this is a true story according to Professor Cathy Davidson. I am taking Davidson’s fantastic MOOC course “The Future and History of Mostly Higher Education”. In the course, she tells the following story:

“In the 1830s, a mathematician at Yale decided he needed to write on a blackboard. The elite Schoolboy Struggling with Math Problemsmethod of learning at Yale, up until that point, was called the recitation, where the professor and the student constantly recited and memorized work back and forth to each other. The idea that a professor would use a blackboard was considered demeaning to the great recitators of Yale, and the students actually rioted when the professor introduced this radical new technology into his Yale classrooms. The students were expelled, and after a while, the trustees decided to reinstate the students, but only under the condition that they accept the blackboard. And, pretty soon, the blackboard spread like wildfire.”

This isn’t the only ludicrous example of individuals’ overreaction to new ways of learning and consuming content. Davidson also noted in the class that in the 18th century, the concept of novel writing caused an uproar. The Founding Fathers believed novels were a distraction, ruined your memory, made you distaste elite literature, made you susceptible to sexual predators and were filled with anarchic ideas.

She also talks about how Socrates believed that the new concept of writing diminished the complexity of thought and ruined the dialogical process between people and hurt the memory.

It is easy in 2014 to laugh at the irrational thought of generations before us. However, not so fast. What about us? I’m sure that there were people just a couple decades back who hated this new technology called email and preferred sending information via FAX. You know – those passwords can be awfully complicated…. In the year 2214, what will our great, great, great grandchildren say about us?

Will they be incredulous to the fact that so few professors are leveraging the power of digital communications to disseminate their thought leadership and expertise? Will they be shocked that there has been resistance to the concept of MOOCs? Will they make fun of us communicators that might have been reluctant to embrace a new social media channel?