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When are Old Reports, Old Reports?
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Two weeks ago, I completely cleaned my home office for the first time since moving into this house in June 1993. 14 years of junk was piled up. I Had stacks and stacks and stacks of papers that I accumulated. So many stacks. I found lecture notes and handouts used in classes over a decade ago. There were even course notes from my first class on creativity that I took with Gary Davis back in January of 1986 at the University of Wisconsin. I thought I had been doing a good job of cleaning up but I guess not. I am a pack rat.

Ok, 12 suitcases stuffed with old papers were taken to the Bloomington recycling center. So many old technical reports, research papers, and workshop handouts were terminated there. Oh that felt good. Just let it go. In return, I recovered many great paperclips--the hard fastener kind. But what was lost? I list a few things below.

1. Cutting Edge Thinking and Seminal Writing: I lost knowledge of those people on the cutting edge educational technology from the 1980s and 1990s. Sure, I kept the most seminal pieces. But what did I forget to save? What might I need someday? What did miss out on in return? Will an article be available digitally if I ever need it? I remember complaints from a doctoral seminar class I taught in 2002 when I included articles that were more than a few years old. I had them reading Seymour Papert, John Seely Brown, Ann Brown, Marlene Scardamalia, Roger Schank, Roy D. Pea, Elliott Soloway, etc. God forbid that some of their classic pieces were 10 years old. I told one of my nearly completed Ph.D. students about the accident Seymour Papert had in Hanoi, Vietnam and he say "Who?" Oh, it sometimes hurts to toss.

2. Memories: In those 12 suitcases where memories. I had so many a battle with those articles--to comprehend them and note what they were missing or what they had that was spot on--and then to use them in my own reports. Each article I read or skimmed has some of those memories. I had been saving this stuff for a reason. Was that reason now gone? Had I, in fact, given up on much of my own field or profession? Had I moved on or was I about to depart? Why was parting with so much of this stuff easy when just a year or 2 earlier, when I had thought about doing it, it was impossible? Had I changed? Was the intersection of educational psychology and instructional technology no longer important or interesting?

3. Expertise: Those who study chess players and other experts, find that expertise takes thousands of hours and perhaps 5-7 years of one's life to build up. So then was my expertise being thrown away? I did not have time or patience to scan 12 suitcases of stuff. Was I moving to a new field? If so, when and what was it? With such extensive amounts of information now gone, was I no longer an expert in the field of e-learning? Or, perhaps, expertise no longer comes from storing boxes and boxes and stacks and stacks of paper. Perhaps it never did. Perhaps we continue to recreate our areas of expertise. And perhaps this recreation process takes much less time than 5-7 years. With 21st century technologies, it is plausible to become an expert at something in a much shorter time span. And yes, we have many more people mascurading as experts simply because they are linked in to other experts from whom they siphon off knowledge when needed. There is good and bad in all that, of course. We have Google and Yahoo as well as collaborative networks in Facebook and LinkedIn to thank for that. We can email out friends with a question whenever one arises or ask for a missing resource that we perhaps mistakenly chucked. If most or our expertise is retrievable from somewhere at one's whim, then what is expertise anyway? And do we need to save papers we are sent or given links to anymore?

4. When is Old, Old? During my cleaning episode, I started to wonder about when my stuff I save really old. I was tossing any technical report that was older than 5 years old. That was one of the most troubling aspects of cleaning up my home office. Sure, I had many reports left and a few that I hung on to but perhaps should not have. I thought that perhaps my fall class would love to see these reports.

I kept many cool reports; including a 2005 report from Australia's ACT Dept of Ed and Training on emerging technologies, the 2002, 2003, and 2004 reports from the Sloan-C Consortium on quality online and blended learning, the Pew/Internet and American Life Project on the future of the Internet from January 2005, a report from the Innovation Advisory Council of New Zealand and one on e-learning opportunities in New Zealand that I got in 2002 during my trip there, 2004 e-learning guidebooks from the United Arab Emirates that I had received during my last trip there a couple of years ago, a report on the State of e-Learning in the United States from around 2000, a couple of ASTD reports including one on a vision for e-learning from 2000, the 1998-1999 Teaching at an Internet Distance: The Pedagogy of Online Teaching and Learning report from the University of Illinois which I helped with in a minor way, a 2005 report from Oxford's Internet Survey that I had just received during my trip there in January, UCLA's famous Internet Report on Surveying the Digital Future, a 2004 e-learning report from the National College of Ireland that I was given 2 years ago, and a 2006 report on Learning for the 21st Century from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in DC.

I kept many others. But I tossed out 5-10 reports for every one that I saved. And how often will I read the ones that I saved? Perhaps not much. I kept them to share with my students as examples of reports that they might write. If not for that, many more would have found their way into the garbage bin; not because they are rubbish but because I do not really need them anymore. Old white papers and technical reports have a much shorter lifespan today then they did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago; especially those in educational technology.

5. Are My Old Reports, Really Old? So, as I was tossing out report after report, I started to get depressed. Not just because I missed the intellectual dances that I had with the writers of those reports or because I realized that I was 5 or 10 years older than when I first read them, but because I started to contemplate what was happening (or had happened) to many of the technical reports that I had done for others during the years. What about that 1999 report on asynchronous conferencing and collaboration I did for the Army Research Institute (Applying collaborative and e-learning tools to military distance learning: A research framework. (Technical Report #1107)), or the 2005 report Vanessa Dennen and I did for the Department of Defense on where the research needs to go on massive multiplayer online gaming (MMOG), or the 2004 Perfect E-storm report I did for the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, and many others? I am sure many of those are history as well. But how long of a shelf life do these things really have? Are they worth doing anymore? They often take 6 months to a year to generate, if not longer. If they only are important for a couple of years, there is less incentive to do them. How long will any of our work be read? In the days of the heyday of Papert's book "Mindstorms," books like that would be welcome reading for at least a few years, if not a decade. Not today. Today we toss. But, of course, if is a good book, Google or Microsoft will likely have at least some of it available online. Still, I had many a depressing reflection about my own works when sending tons of reports from other people to the recycling. I even had fun throwing out my own papers!!!

6. When is New, New? Ok, today, my friend and colleague, Dr. KJ Kim sent an email to my blended learning research team with a note about the recent Sloan-C report called "Blending in: The Extent and Promise of Blended Education in the United States." This is a March 2007 report, so perhaps it is too old for most of you to look up and read. Given my recent Handbook of Blended Learning, it was interesting that this report revealed some decreases in blended learning in higher education. In fact, it noted that fully online courses were more slightly prevalent than blended courses. However, there were larger percentages of blended program offerings than fully online ones (such numbers I think will increase as the advantages of blended become more known). In particular, there were higher percentages of blended programs in business, education, healthcare, computer and info sciences, and liberal arts. Larger institutions were, not surprisingly, more engaged in blended learning than smaller ones. There are many more findings in the report. But when will this report also be old? When should we toss it? And do we even need it given that it is available online from Sloan-C. Why print it out anyway?

See these various Sloan-C links:
See the blended learning report:
Become part of the new blended learning community:
See other Sloan-C blended resources and books:

So what should you save from your stacks is up to you. You will need to decide when old is really old but this is a constantly changing thing and so is your expertise. Right? Right!

Perhaps I am just getting old and cranky. But at least I have a clean home office to work from and view the birds, deer, and trees in the backyard now that the stacks of papers no longer are blocking my windows here in the basement. I wish I had some before and after pictures to share with you all.
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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 10:51 AM  
  • At 7:12 AM, Blogger MW (My Wish) said…

    Would love to see the before and after pictures. But it does feel cleasing, doesn't it?

    My point is that nothing is really old and it is our choice to decide what to keep and toss. But it is human nature to look forward..

    And you can see wild life from your office window? How cool is that!

  • At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 10:08 PM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Ydes, wildlife from my windows Lori. Too often it is just cats and dogs. But includes many other things. Used to have goats and ponys at the bottom of the hill below. Goats are gone now. Goat farm went bankrupt. Now may become city property and park.

  • At 6:02 PM, Blogger MW (My Wish) said…

    What's the name of your town? How awesome to be so close to the nature. Goats and ponies..unbelievable. Taiwanese dry the black mushrooms and soak them tender before cooking them up with soup or stir fries. Perhaps you haven't had that. Next time you are in Taiwan, be sure to try that.

  • At 9:10 AM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    I bet I must have tried such mushrooms when I was there in December but just do not remember.

    The town name is Bloomington. I like to live on the edge of a town where new construction goes up but nature still exists. There must be sidewalks or running paths for me (usually that means being connected to the city) yet feeling a tad removed or distant. Here in Bloomington, Indiana, it just takes 5 or 10 minutes to get that feeling. It you drive 15 or 20 minutes or more from campus, you really have a feeling of being remote or removed. So, we are just in the right location for now or so I think.

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Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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