Technology — A Two-Way Relationship
Technology has changed the way we work and learn in countless ways, but no more so than in the democratization and infiltration of information. The way we acquire, aggregate, move, and disseminate data would have been unimaginable to most everyone only 20 years ago. At that time, information was housed in special areas that were only available at certain times, by certain people, and in certain places. If you couldn’t access the library, the internal database, talk to the correct people, or have the right book at home, getting the information you needed was difficult. Being knowledgeable has gone from being able to recite facts and stories to understanding how to effectively wade through a barrage of information and put things together in creative ways. Like most things, these changes have two sides: democratization (i.e. freedom of access) and infiltration (i.e. permeating whether wanted or not).
In our professional lives, the influence of technology is evident in every facet of our work. Apply the following example to your own work and see if it parallels:
Only 10–12 years ago, in schools, schedules for over 1000 students were built by hand in one computer system, grades from individual grade books in a different system were turned in each quarter on 3.5" floppy disks because the office system didn’t communicate with individual users, and our email was difficult, if not almost impossible to access at home without IT support. Student contact information and support plans also had to be housed by each individual teacher as well as by the office and support personnel. Lastly, students, parents, and administrators could only check on academic progress by having contact with each teacher.
Now, there are enterprise systems in which grades, schedules, and communication are all on the same platform. Grades can be viewed by students, parents, and administrators in real time through different portals, schedules can be built and changed in seconds, a student’s contact information and any specific learning plans can be accessed by teachers, and the system can be accessed from anywhere. What could also be accessed from anywhere was an email platform that was tied to various calendars and alert systems.
This is an example of the democratization of information because it made grading more transparent and stakeholders could get data on a timelier basis. In addition, many important functions, from attendance, to student information, to scheduling, to grades were in the same system and relevant staff members could get the full picture of a student’s progress in one place. Everyone could find what they needed from a single source that was easily updated and secured by central office using a cloud system rather than on individual servers in each school.
The infiltration, however, also took place because expectations of teachers changed due to greater access. Grades were expected to be updated on a mandated basis, emails could be received or sent at any time of the day, students and parents could question each individual grade, and all staff were required to understand many functions of the platform and use them regularly. Thus, faculty members’ time was increasingly spent on student and parent communication, with expectations of 24hr responses, updating online forms, and keeping their email, lesson plans, and grades updated at all times. The job grew in complexity and the line between home and work blurred significantly.
Another example of this two-sided view of information access can be seen in the way we learn. As late as the early 2000s, information was mainly accessible in the physical manner. Books, journals, newspapers, and teacher or company disseminated materials were really the main ways to access information. At home, your options were limited to whatever resources you had on hand or who you could ask.
Now, even as a grad student who also earned a doctorate, it is rare for me to enter a library for information. Many journal articles can be found online through library purchased online databases, prints of article located within any library in the world can be copied and emailed to me, and only books would need to be physically picked up in person.
This democratization of information is stunning. Knowledge that used to be expensive to buy and maintain can be found either free or for relatively small fees. Everyone has access to information, whether about a topic of study, current events, or a prospectus of a company for potential investment. The Library of Congress alone digitized 7.1 million items in one year and has plans to digitize its whole collection. The internet and digitizing of historical and current information has erased much of the line of access between scholars and the public as more and more information is cloud based rather than physically stored somewhere.
With this more open access to information we now have to deal with an absolute deluge of material. Our phones alert us multiple times for news stories, sometimes there can be thousands of sites about a topic, and add in social media and the overload can be anxiety inducing. There are people who are actually going “backwards” and avoiding the news or taking breaks from technology and the fast pace of information. Then there is the ever-present fear of security breaches and personal identity thefts, causing people and companies to spend large amounts of time and money securing their data assets.
Thus, technology has changed our lives forever in the way it brings information to us. It is neither bad nor good, but simply a complex change that we are just starting to understand and wrap our minds around. While efficiency, communication, transparency, and coordination have improved, burnout, anxiety, and stress have also increased. Laws, norms, and cultural habits have not caught up with the pace of technological change, so while enterprise systems, cloud services, and the internet in general offer greater access to our world than ever before, these same systems also have greater access to us and our lives. We’re living a social experiment and differences can already be seen between younger digital natives and digital immigrants, but how these differences play out in terms of effectiveness at work and personal fulfillment have yet to be seen.