Navigating Cultural Technologies

The first two weeks of June, I am attending the summer institute Digital Media and Composition at the Ohio State University. For the final “digital book” project, I am planning to focus on the issue of how we learn and use ICTs, how we transition and make use of previous knowledge/skills to learn new technologies, and how we navigate cultural/epistemological worldviews that undergird the technologies that we learn and use.

In particular, I am interested in the way people view, understand, use, or assimilate into new ICTs when the new means and modes of communication have little resemblance to those that they have used in the past. Although culturally alien or radically new means or mode of knowledge-making create anxiety and learning curves, people with relatively little background knowledge or skills in new ICTs often seem to be more willing to invest great efforts, expect and accept more difficulty, and explore new affordances of new technologies further than people who have stronger background knowledge and skills. For example, when a person who has never owned/used a land phone will complain less about how cell phones infringe on privacy, influence social relations, and change the “natural” pattern of their life; while it is certainly important that overlapping skills and common grounds behind the two technological constructs (like voice mail box, or answering machine) will no doubt facilitate the learning of cell phone skills for the land phone user much better in some ways, the person who starts off with the cell phone might explore and use new affordances better because expectations, habits, and attitudes don’t hold them back (text messaging, call history, web access, and the wide range of tools and settings). 

There is extensive literature about generation gap and the use of technology in education, but I think the difference of how fast, how far, and how willingly people learn new modes of communication and learning happens as much “within” generation as it does between generations. I’m making an unusually challenging claim, which I’m, honestly, afraid might be very hard to be convincing about. And I can’t just make that argument by using “scholarly” sources in the form of text. I need some unconventional support materials, like your opinions, and resources in multiple modes. When you write, please consider focusing on ONE particular ICT if possible. For example, if your key message is the way slides have radically changed the way you prepare for and conduct a class, you might want to talk about the technology of slide (presentation) from the different angles of the different questions in the survey. On the issue of culture, you might want to reflect on how the strategy of showing while telling worked in your classroom. When talking about a potential cultural difference, you could reflect on how slides help you as a visual person but how your students are not as impressed because of the ways they are used to learning… and so on and so forth.

In societies like ours, ICTs are just beginning to make significant impact in people’s lives, work, and learning. On the one hand, the technologies are shaped by “foreign” communicative and epistemological cultures (they are not made to fit our communicative needs—we adapt to them—and they are not made to suit our learning styles—we learn to learn that way). On the other, many societies have not yet developed a lot of critical discourse about the new technologies—neither in the socio-cultural sphere nor in the academic. The issue that I am interested in here is the effects of introducing ICTs from the top (with neither techno-cultural background nor with deliberate adaptation of foreign-born technologies). My basic hypothesis is that this top-down introduction is not necessarily and always negative: introducing new ICTs that are based on foreign worldviews about communication, work, relation, learning, etc could induce more anxiety but also less resistance, less transfer but also more acceptance/exploration of new affordances, and less adaptation but also more room for radical change when necessary. Now, whether or not the latter terms of my comparison are good etc is a different matter of cultural/political judgment, but I’m interested in how the process of learning a new technology could be facilitated by lower resistance, higher willingness to explore new affordances, and greater propensity for drastic change. That issue about learning and using new technology is what makes “eastern” students like you and I normally perform quite well, and I am trying to argue that schools and teachers (anywhere) who want to integrate new technologies into their curriculum can make use of the qualities of “foreign” learners as a way to promote in their students the deliberate metacognitive strategy of learning new technologies by looking at it as if it were completely new. Such an attitude can be tremendously helpful particularly when negative transfer happens.

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  1. Using Technology: Transition from Shock to Addiction

    Some 15 years ago around 1995, I first came into contact with a computer. I think the first thing that I learned was the MS-Dos program. My instructor taught me how to make the computer do things by using commands like ‘dir’ for ‘directory’ or ‘del’ for ‘delete’–I don’t remember much of that anymore. After a decade, though, when I went to Japan for study, I experienced what could be called a technology shock! I was really surprised that every student in the class had a laptop and they took their class notes in those small machines, instead of on paper notebooks. Realizing how far behind I lagged in my computer skills, I decided to spend more time exploring the use of computer and the internet.

    What followed was technology addiction! I was so excited to find out that I could use Google to access a whole world of knowledge sources or use Google Earth to locate any place on earth! I started using Yahoo Messenger to communicate with my family and friends back home–and I was amazed that I could be a part of a virtual community of people around the world and even create whatever identity I wanted, including that of a female! The internet opened up for me a limitless world of resources of movies and music as well scholarly materials for my study. I most often found myself working and playing with the computer and the internet, which at times was as many as 18 hours a day.

    My reliance and intimacy with information and communication technologies grew when I came to the University of Hawaii in August 2008. Here too, almost everyone in the class had laptops with them, the classrooms had wireless access to the internet, the libraries had unlimited online academic and professional resources, students submitted assignments with e-mails or uploaded them directly to the university database called Laulima, they engaged in continuous discussions online, and the grades and feedback were posted online. Everything looked new and almost baffling again to me in the beginning. But because I love learning new and challenging tasks, I caught up with the high-tech community pretty quickly. In fact, when I started teaching the course ‘Academic Writing for International Graduate Students’ from Spring 2009, I was ready to integrate a considerable range of ICTs in my teaching as well.

    In general, I am always prepared and eager to learn new things and incorporate them in my personal, academic, and professional lives. Of course, I keep stumbling upon a new area in which I seem to be out of the loop. For example, until recently I didn’t even know how to use the ‘comment’ and ‘track change’ functions on MS Word because I had never used them before. I found this particularly useful and exciting because it allowed me to provide comments on the margins of my students’ writing, I could choose a color for my text, and I could compare my students’ final version of an essay with its previous drafts to see what changes they have made based on my feedback. I also loved this annotation technology when my professors gave me feedback for my assignments and term papers. The ability to add, delete, substitute, or move any part of a sentence or essay at my convenience tremendously helps one’s writing. These two tools, among others, have had a big influence in my teaching of academic writing.

    Technology is a wonderful thing; it never stops alluring and encouraging you to explore its functions and uses. I am now attending a Summer Institute in Educational Technology at my university and I plan to teach academic writing course online next fall.

    I might not be very techno-savvy but I easily get addicted by a new technology.

  2. I was born with electronic gadgets like the radio and TV so they are normal parts of my life. I don’t usually notice that the ICTs of my personal life even exist. But when I began to use the personal computer to write computer programs, my academic and professional life took a new turn because this was a whole new mode of communication—talking with the computer. Designing and using formal languages that a computer can understand is something that makes up my profession and career. Also, when I consider ICTs being used in my society in general, I haven’t seen any that could not fit my culture. All ICTs are double-bladed swords. People can use them for good, for bad, or for nothing. It is how people use them that makes them effective, useful, or productive. I don’t think that any ICTs that Chinese people use today have fundamentally influenced the culture. I think we adapt them to the way our culture is.

    I do not think that ICTs bring about much conflicts, difficulties, or learning curves when introduced in different societies. Most ICTs for communication are designed to be so easy to use that you don’t really need to learn them. I do remember that it first took time and effort to develop my computer keyboard skill. Many people can type very fast because they kept practicing. The environment forces you to do so. Knowledge accumulates and multiplies. I also think that in my experience, most of the time I learn a new kind of technology or program, I experience a positive transfer. I learn a new (programming) language from an older one because the two are similar in some way but different in another way. Comparison and analogy is one of the key in this positive transfer.

    I am not a very tech-savvy person. I use technology intensively but only when necessary. However, my personality of curiosity and learning new things contributes to my learning of new technology.

    If I were brought up in a more technologically advanced society than the one I was, I might have contributed more to the technology than I do now. So I think that education is an important way for us to develop technological expertise and high-tech culture in general in our lives and work. Unfortunately, education has been forced to serve as a method of training people doing exams.

  3. Dhruba Neupane

    Fear as a Motivation!

    E-mail was the first ICT that made the first greatest impact on my communicative, social, and intellectual life. I was scared to use it at first because younger people, especially my students, already used it with facility and I was lagging behind in even having an account/address. This fear of being left behind applied with computer skills in general. I was sensitive to my surrounding and was afraid if someone was laughing at my hopeless speed as I typed a message. More fear resulted from the situation when I could not handle even the slightest of problems with the computer. Some of this fear is still there, fear of not being able to handle basic computer problems and having to ask for someone’s help all the time. In general, this is fear of being left behind, fear of not being up to date, fear of being unable to catch up with my students, and fear that lagging behind in the use of technology will stall my professional development. I now realize that not everyone actually has all kinds of skills, and it is okay to know just enough but keep learning. But I am aware that my fear is neither fully rational nor really unwanted!

    If there is one particular ICT that made the biggest impact on our whole society itself, it has to be cell phone. What is interesting is that though this technology has become almost ubiquitous in our society, many people are still fussy about its use that every time they are to use they are reminded of impacts it can have on their daily life and relation. They are afraid to exchange their number with their students because there still is extant the old hierarchy of teacher-student relationship. This kind of fear is rational too because students may not always make the best use of their teachers’ cell phone numbers, and of course it radically affects teachers’ private time, especially their weekends. But once both the students and teachers are able to specify the priorities, there shouldn’t be any potential harm beyond perceived fear. I have loved the idea of text messaging students, especially to remind them of the upcoming program, project, assignment etc but I see that we are reluctant to be in touch with our students outside of our work hours (9-5) perhaps because of our work culture.

    When I moved to a new academic environment of St. Xavier’s College where more advanced technologies were used, my initial reaction was fear and anxiety. Three years back in an e-learning seminar, the presenters were using the best of technology available in Nepal. They were also talking about incredible possibilities of ICT, like the computers that can read your emotion and so on. I was partly excited about the prospect of new technologies in the field of teaching, but I was also terrified to realize that my basic skills with the computer, like my typing speed, were shameful whereas there were already people around me whose skills were beyond my imagination. More than that, I felt bad for not being one of those people who could go inside the system and fix problems in a moment. More recent example is my sluggishness at learning to make quick animation, while my teacher was flashing everything. I could barely follow what was going on. Through practice I could do a tiny bit of what my teacher performed in a second. I just wonder at his overall skill. I do realize, however, that if I focus and try hard enough I can master the basic skills that I need and more.

    My understanding of ICTs has changed tremendously since I started some of them in the last ten or so years. For instance, I had not heard from/of a host of my former colleagues and even some of my relatives outside Nepal. Once the programs like Hotmail, Yahoo and Google for research purposes and important messages and later the social networking like Facebook, Hi5, and a number of other advanced tools that allow you to record voice, video, and images and send and receive message were available, I felt like being a member of world technology or what we often call web-city. New ICTs helped me build my confidence both in academic and social lives, for example helping me feel that “I talked to a guy on the other side of the world about my future plans for studies” or today “Today when I teach the topic ‘postmodernity’ I will have interesting presentation, videos and tools that help my students easily grasp the concepts.”

    I had learned basic skills of computers when the personal computer became available in Nepal. At that time, few people knew that the personal computer was useful for everyone. We learnt ‘typing ‘ ‘word perfect’ ‘excel’ ‘ms-word’ as far as I remember. I did not have any formal schooling or diplomas apart from long past experience. But that experience was a huge bonus later when I came to use computer for academic and social purposes. The fear I have mentioned above is not that discouraging for me. This fear is a kind of positive jealousy or a desire to be like my fast computer teacher. So I would say the past learning, no matter how casual and incomplete it was, has always had really positive impact for learning of new technologies. I feel that I can learn and know if I like and need. My desire and commitment to learn are far stronger than my fear or ignorance. When I think I don’t know enough it means that I have to learn a lot. And nothing discourages me.

    I don’t think that I am a tech-savvy person, at least not yet. I have just begun to feel that I want to be able to use technology efficiently in my life and work. In fact, when I consider that my entire English Studies education just consists of exams I passed on the basis of reading theories and literature, and that my professional life has been teaching basically the same things for many years, I think that only the ability to use technology in my academic career and the ability to integrate technology in my profession of teaching will do justice to both me and my students.

    Although I am not in a technologically advanced society, I have been in a TIME when technology is highly counted. My familiarity is definitely going to impact all lives, socio- cultural, academic-intellectual. I can do a lot to promote my Nepalese culture thus to feel that I have helped the world know about us. Of course teaching today must be aided by technological tools and this necessity is directly related to intellectual academic and more importantly, economic and existential issues. In Nepal, the academicians the administrators alike have viewed technology with high priority but the problem is that calling something valuable doesn’t make real changes. Moreover, most people in the rural and remote parts of the country do not have access to technologies. Very few have personal computers and in many government offices either never use their computers or don’t know how to use them productively enough. Although it may not continue forever, we now suffer heavy power cut everyday, which is extremely discouraging. Many schools don’t have computers and many teachers don’t like to use them. They, if we take an example of teachers, say that using PowerPoint is being lazy. So many people in our country are comfortable with the traditional ways of teaching. Overall, the possibility of our society’s transformation due to the powerful ICTs that a few of us make use of still seems distant.


    The first ICT that made the greatest impact in my communicative and social life was the telephone. I remember a special incident that exemplifies how life changed when the telephone was available in my home. Once in high school during my final exam, I fell sick and couldn’t study much just before the exam (though I have studied for the course during the school year). Worriedly, I called my cousin living in the other town and requested her to help me go through the syllabus and though we were on phone for 2 hours going through each chapter but it did the trick and surprisigly I scored better than even my cousin.
    My personal relationship to contemporary ICTs has greatly been influenced because of my stay in Canada and the US for several years. I went to study in the University of Toronto, Canada in 2004 and that was period I was all alone, not only away from my family but from the whole social system was different; though and fortunately educational system was not much different. I didn’t have old friends or classmates to go ask for help if I and when I am stuck with my studies (here, I would like to add that I am very slow in making new friends). All this made me feel very alone and at times very lonely. Since, I was living in the campus and the main library was just in the next block, so I started going there every evening to surf internet and read the Indian newspapers. Although I had gone from an educational environment (IIT Delhi) where internet was accessible 24 by 7 but I never realized a need t utilize it so extensively but in Canada I used it as the strongest instrument to stay in touch about various happenings at home and with my family and friends. It helped me fill a gap in the social life too, (though it’s not a very healthy means for it).
    When considering the impact of ICTs on the larger society and culture of India, I think that the TV has influenced the way people get information, entertainment, and so on. The internet has similarly created e-societies, which has in someway discouraged people from socialising in their real lives. People spend more time nowadays on the computers and TV instead of going out and knowing more about their neighbourhood.
    While using library computers for surfing the internet I realized that my access is very limited and I can’t use the library computers for my personal use. I bought my first laptop in 2005 and it had helped me utilize the internet for my personal as well as academic pursuits in a very big way while saving a lot of money which otherwise I would otherwise have to spend. I used to discuss my study material, course progress and even my (not sure if that was right) homework with, my friends in India. It provided me another means to prepare for my exams.
    I feel, once you learn how to read and do elementary mathematics, learning any advanced skill becomes easier. Knowledge of how to use home phone will help to learn cell phones and it will help using computers ad other gadgets, too. In my experience, using one information technology has certainly positively transferred into using another similar technology. I am not sure if I want to call myself a tech-savvy person. Although I utilize web and web-related sources extensively to know the things I am not aware about but I still rely more upon the conventional way of learning. But my family background which always encouraged to gain knowledge, education background has helped me learn how to use technology better. I have lived in many places in India and abroad during my education and out of these experiences, I believe my stay at various institutions in India has not only introduced me to latest technology but also laid a very strong foundation about its uses, (it may sound strange to many people but good educational and research institutes in India are equipped with all the new gadgets like any other such place in any other part of the world). If I had been brought up in USA or Canada, I would have been more technologically dependent because of the societal set-up there which encourages individualism. Conventionally, Indian society has been very conscious and encouraging about education. That I think is one reason why we in India are very quick to adapt and make use of western technologies from our educational exposure to them.

  5. Technological Immigrant
    I always have a mixed feeling towards technology. I really want to master some of the important applications, but feel that I cannot do so due to the lack of any formal and systematic education on it. I was more confident about the use of computer in Nepal than I am here in the US even if I have learnt several skills after I came here. This is due to the new context where I find myself much weaker in technology than most of the other people around me.
    For a long time, I was limited to the use of very few programs like Word Processor and Internet and E-mail. I would completely ignore any other programs as the only function the computer would have to perform for me was to produce a word document and to correspond to some people via email. I did not have to use any other programs in my academic career in Nepal.
    However, the more I learn about technology, the more complicated I find it and therefore feel that it’s really beyond my capacity. As Balkrishna has said, even Microsoft Word has wonderful features to facilitate teaching/learning activities. If we explore Powerpoint, we surprisingly find that it has hell lot of possibilities from incorporating videos and images to presenting different things simultaneously. But I still have to explore and learn these things. That is why I undergo through a sense of incompetence as I feel that I cannot even use such basic programs to the fullest extent possible
    What I want to emphasize here about my experience with technology is that it has really overwhelmed me and I have not been able to exactly figure out how I can handle it. Even a simple image editing programs like Photoshop poses several challenges and offers massive possibilities. However, when I need to manipulate images to project some idea or to present some theme, I cannot precisely find the appropriate ways to execute my idea. This is all because of my sudden and abrupt jump into the sea of the world of technology as I did not have any strong background on it. It can also be due to the lack of confidence in me that I can master the necessary skills.
    I don’t consider myself a tech-savy person. I don’t yet feel comfortable using many of the technological tools which I think I should have already mastered. I really wanted to learn all the basic technological tools used for communicative purposes. But due to the lack of pervious knowledge and the lack of focus on technical aspects of communication in our classrooms, I have found myself as an immigrant to this field. Sometimes I feel that the major problem in my case is the feeling that I don’t know anything about technology. I tend to compare myself with other classmates who have a strong background in technology and feel inferior. This can also be due to the nature of my program. Most of the students come from the field of communication itself so that they already have a good level of competence in the use of technology. So, my attitude towards technology is really mixed.
    In my academic life, word processor and internet have been the most important and the most useful programs so far. The use of internet and email have been particularly important as they have made it possible to publish works in places otherwise impossible. In my case, they have helped me bring myself out to the public and overcome the sense of incompetence with which I often find myself engrossed with. Recently, new technological innovations like social media and web 2 technologies have been immensely useful for me to connect myself with my friends, relatives, and even my professors. Social media like facebook or hi5 make us feel that we are part of a global community and feel as if we live together. In case of teaching learning, web 2 technologies have offered wonderful opportunities. As a student I used both of them both to present my ideas and to establish a learning community with the instructors and my classmates. I will use these technologies to teach undergraduates from the next Fall. These technologies are very user-friendly and can be used even by the beginners in the field of computer technology. I don’t think cultural difference makes a big difference in learning these technologies.
    I think Nepalese people are slowly and gradually adapting well with the emerging technologies. However, due to several reasons ICTs have not been extensively used. For instance, the use of web 2 technologies and social media can positively revolutionalize the field of teaching. They can help create a more collaborative and student centered atmosphere. But as far as I know, their use for instructional purpose is still new there. This can be due to, as Dhruba says, the fear that we far behind our students. The lack of readiness in teachers to renounce authority to create more informal and democratic atmosphere in the classroom and the challenge the new situation may create can also be another reason why these technologies are not used there. We should also not forget that there are various other factors behind this phenomenon (number of students in the classroom, availability of these technologies).
    Regarding the transfer of the knowledge of technology, I think the relationship is both negative and positive. For instance, let me see the relationship between the knowledge of word processor with which I came to Clemson and the use of Dreamweaver here. When I started developing web pages using Dreamweaver, my knowledge of using word processor worked both positively and negatively. For instance, when I have to insert an image on a webpage, I cannot copy and paste it wherever I want. I need to go through a completely different procedure. However, there are many common features like selecting font type and size, and determining page properties.
    If I were brought up in a more technologically advanced society or environment, I would most probably feel more comfortable with it. This is because most of the basic aspects of technology would have already been a part of my education or literacy. But sometimes the case is different. When you are completely new to something, you can learn it faster and more easily than when you have some prior knowledge of similar technologies (negative transfer). On the one hand we are more interested to learn new things, on the other hand, we don’t have anything we need to unlearn in order to learn new technologies.
    I feel that some fundamental knowledge of computer technology should be made a part of basic literacy in Nepal irrespective of the specialization one chooses to pursue. In every field, whether it is academic or non-academic, those without basic knowledge of ICTs will feel really lame.

  6. The first ICT that made the greatest impact in my intellectual life was the email. Email allowed me to connect myself with people I did not even imagine “talking” to before I started using it. But the email was just a special and not the most useful ICT in my life. On the larger, social dimension of my life, the cell phone made the biggest impact. This is because in Nepal few people can use the email, our culture highly favors oral communication against written anyway, and because cell phones are also available in rural areas where most people live. As a teacher, I also see the usefulness of these ICTs for teaching. The younger generations are going to use them as we used the written word, the text book, and the letter. For example, my 3 years old daughter easily pronounces words like ‘message’ ‘missed call’ ‘contacts’ ‘picture’ ‘music’ and so on. These are going to become a natural part of her life.
    For our generation of people in Nepal, using digital technologies in social and academic life has been somewhat daunting—at least it has been to me. When I came to the UK, I found myself in an almost astonishingly technological jungle. In this situation, even small things were sometimes stressful. For instance, when I had to use the 2007 version of MS Word, I was really confused. Even after more than a year now, I am not still confident that I can use the new interface. I think that switching from one interface or version to another is a much easier task for people who grew up with the basis of all these technologies. ICTs and the digital/computer technologies in the west have become a kind of culture in most people’s academic and social lives. I believe that most people find learning or switching into new technologies easier than we do. But at the same time, as Shyam indicates, having good background skills, experiences, and knowledge about technology is only one part of the whole story of learning or integrating new technologies in education. How well one learns also depends on one’s willingness to tolerate difficulty, to invest time and energy, aptitude, and so on. When I came to the UK, I realized that learning new technologies will tremendously help me conduct research and write papers, and also explore issues in a particular area and work collaboratively with others. So I was very excited by the way professor gave me feedback using technology, I was proud to be able to browse and search a whole world of academic databases, and I was happy to find numerous web-based applications like speaking dictionaries to help me with my learning. So, even with my fear and anxiety, I am very willing to learn new technologies. If I was more comfortable with what I already knew, the pace of my learning could have been much slower.
    Because of my socio-cultural and academic background, I constantly feel that I lack skills and understanding of the technologies that I must use. But I value technology all the more and I am willing to go as far as I possibly can to learn new ones because I know that ICTs have the power to transform my intellectual life and ease my social life living abroad.

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