Embracing an Era of New Technology in the Communication Fields

By Dave Denomie

Students at the Marquette University Summer Debate Institute.

The way we communicate with each other using computers and smartphones today would be as inconceivable to people living just 50 years ago as it once was for people to think that humans would one day travel across continents in vehicles in the sky. In spite of the strong risk of “dating” myself, I will say that I have personally witnessed our progress in television technology from just 3 channels in grainy black and white to high-definition 3D live and recorded broadcasts on hundreds, if not thousands, of channels delivered via cable, satellite, and the Internet.

Computers were once something that your bank or the electric company used. In the space of less than 30 years we have gone from thinking these new “personal” computers were a strange curiosity for a few “dweebs” to the point where many people now use a range of computer-based devices they consider routine and indispensable in their daily lives.

Is it any wonder, considering the blinding speed of technological advances, we scramble to ensure that what we do continues to be useful and relevant to our students, especially in communication fields? How do we know which technologies will take hold in this shifting landscape, and incorporate their use into our work? Are we using technology in ways that enhance the content of what we deliver or is it serving as a distraction that pulls us from our work or even changes its very nature? How do we measure and evaluate our successes and failures and learn from our experiences to constantly adjust and improve what we do?

The luxury of time to fully consider all the questions does not always exist in communication fields. We cannot control the way the world changes and what new technologies are offered and adopted. There are times when we have no choice but to act. For a long time, I resisted Facebook, preferring nonproprietary forms of networking, but I recently gave in because it is now a network much of the world is using. I realized that I might wish it weren’t so, but it is, in spite of my wishes. I still resist instant messaging and chat because it seems too distracting for me. Perhaps someday I’ll have to give in on that, but not for now.

Once you have decided to adopt a technology, the key then becomes learning to use it effectively to accomplish your purposes. My field is debate/forensics which has been profoundly impacted by new technologies on several levels.

In traditional policy debate at the high school and college levels, we are seeing an inexorable migration from a heavily paper-based activity to one that is, in the case of some schools, entirely electronic. Considering that many debaters wheeled around dollies piled 7 or 8 feet high with plastic bins filled with paper, there is no doubt a positive environmental impact to this trend.

There are, however, drawbacks such as the “digital divide.” Not all schools, and certainly not low-income families, own computers or have access to the internet. As debate and access to debate materials becomes more computer-based, the effect is to give a giant boost to those schools and students who possess these resources while leaving the others behind in the dust. Many schools serving lower-income populations are struggling to offer debate to their students, so this technological stratification can be very discouraging to those at the bottom. In what looks like a coming era of funding cuts for schools, it’s hard to be optimistic that this divide will be closed any time soon.

Another issue related to the research-based nature of debate is ensuring a high quality of materials used in debates. Website information needs to be properly sourced and documented so others can verify the integrity from the original. Debate “evidence” researched by others is traded freely on the Internet. In one sense, this makes it available, often for free, and helps address the digital divide issue. However, it increases the need for critical review and caution in using material that is now third or fourth-party before it reaches the debater. This presents a challenge. Attempting to wade through the masses of materials can be daunting in itself. Yet, with proper guidance from teachers and judges, students can develop a critical reading ability in choosing their materials which will be helpful in the academic and professional worlds.

Parliamentary debate, which is the format we use at Marquette, is current events based and topics change for every debate. The topic is not announced until a short time before each round of debate, leaving 15 to 20 minutes of prep time for both teams to prepare their cases. Under such circumstances, access to the internet is an obvious advantage. Many colleges attempted to prohibit it by closing off their WI-FI network access during tournaments. However, smartphones connecting via cellular networks have now rendered that measure useless. In the end, parliamentary debate has simply had to accept that debaters will access the internet during prep periods regardless of how we might try to stop them. It also seems a valid point that being able to quickly and effectively search the net in order to prepare for a debate is a desirable educational outcome. Being unable to control it, we have to know how to use it as effectively and equitably as possible.

These are just a couple of the ways that technology has affected my field within Communication. Other areas in Communication have been affected even more. An interesting side benefit of participating in meetings about technology in the Diederich College has been learning more about what these challenges are for areas such as journalism, advertising and others.

One thing that has always come to mind in working with tech here and at other places, such as the Milwaukee Public Museum, Discovery World and a charter school, is that it is important for content to drive technology, and not the reverse. That would be a subject for a whole paper so I won’t even try to address it here, being that this is a blog entry. However, it’s always good to remember that technology and new media are tools and not ends.

Though everything changes, and sometimes rapidly, it doesn’t change all at once.  If technology and new media excites us, yet also makes us afraid, that’s probably a good thing. We can use that dialectical energy as we move ahead and do our best in experimenting and improving what we do.

While we will need to adopt and adapt, we should always do so with purpose and caution.

Related Links
New Media, Old Media:How Blogs and Social Media Agendas Relate and Differ from Traditional Press (2010, May 23). Retrieved March 19, 2011, from Pew Research Center Publications

Three Things The Web Can Learn From Old Media (2011, March 9). Retrieved March 18, 2011, from TECHi

International Debate Education Association. (n.d.). Debatabase. Retrieved March 20, 2011, from International Debate Education Association

Dave Denomie is the Director of Debate at Marquette University.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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