Every three months, I review what has happened in our technological environment and draft a column for readers of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Usually, there is a “hot issue” or a “current topic” that emerges from the electronic clutter around me, and then sometimes the implications for social work of some latest electronic development have not quite come into focus. This month is one of those times.
Over the years I have been writing this column, I’ve written about accessibility issues for Web pages, efficiently handling e-mail, protecting your computer against viruses and spyware, tuning up your hard drive, and even using the simple statistical procedures contained within spreadsheet software. It has been an interesting journey.
Actually, I was reflecting on this journey with a colleague just the other day:
When I arrived at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in September of 1976, I was an eager young assistant professor ready to tackle the teaching role. It is an awesome responsibility to assume that one is qualified enough to impart the knowledge, values, and skills of one’s profession to the next generations of social workers. I dove into the task willingly.
That same year, Apple computers released the first Apple I, and Queen Elizabeth sent the first trans-Atlantic e-mail message. I didn’t notice. Fax machines (actually, the first ones were referred to more formally as facsimile machines) appeared. “Why would I want to send a copy of a document? Isn’t the U.S. Postal Service fast enough?”
But in 1977, my brother-in-law, Joel Pitt, then the Chair of the Math Department at the State University of New York at New Paltz, showed up at our house in rural Western New York with an Apple II computer. I thought to myself, Why would he pack all this paraphernalia in his car to bring here? He spread it out in our cramped living room, fired up the green-text-on-black screen, and opened a program called “Wizard and the Princess.” It was an entirely text-based line drawing of various rooms (or am I confusing this with later programs?) in which a “character” could be moved from one side of the room to another, or even into additional rooms, by using the arrow keys on the keyboard. When the character had been moved to the desired spot, it was possible to type in a question or statement. “What are the rules for these statements or queries?” I asked. Joel just laughed and said, “Follow your instincts.” He got up and left my boys and me in front of this newfangled contraption, trying to figure out what to do.
Of course, you know the rest of this story: I eventually gave up—already a “digital has-been” at age 37. But my boys persisted, making good progress in pursuing the goal (whatever the goal was, never became clear then). They spent hours in front of the screen, just trying to figure out the correct command syntax from the clues derived from failed commands. I was impressed and interested, but not addicted—at least at that point.
No computers appeared at RIT, where I was teaching, except in sterile computer labs connected to something called a “mainframe.” On these terminals (as I learned to call them), it was possible to “write things,” but not possible to “print things” on paper. One could “print” to the screen, which didn’t make much sense to me. I could “save” what I wrote and come back later, open it up and write some more, but none of this seemed very useful to what I faced everyday in my classroom, so I did it as an interesting pastime, but did not take it seriously at first.
Then, in 1981, BITNET arrived on campus, or at least that’s when I discovered it. The “Because It’s There NETwork” was the early linking of academic, research, and military (no commercial use) institutions for the purpose of sending “e-mail.” What is e-mail? I wondered. I was told that e-mail permitted me to send whatever I could write (i.e., “print”) on my computer screen to someone else at another university, for example. “I don’t know people at another university who would ‘have e-mail,’ and even if I do, how would I find out their e-mail addresses?” I could write them a postcard and mail (the term “snail-mail” was not yet popular) them a request, or I could call them (long-distance phone calls were expensive, charged to my office phone and cause for later scolding conversations with the assistant dean of the college). I passed on learning e-mail at the time, though thought it seemed like a good idea if more people were connected. I went back to my teaching and research in different directions.
The very next year, RIT installed a campus-wide computer network, making it possible to send e-mail to people across the hall, or in the next building, most of whom didn’t even have a computer. Again, I thought, “Now isn’t this a waste of money to duplicate what I can already do over the phone (i.e., local call) or by just walking to my colleague’s office!”
But then, I got an idea: “What if all my students were “on e-mail”! I could send them information about my courses and even help them in my advising role. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that I actually sent the first mass e-mail to all of the students in my department, much to the lack of interest by my faculty colleagues. Even the students didn’t think this was very important or useful. I had managed to develop one-to-one e-mail correspondences with some students, but never had sent something to all social work majors. It opened the flood gates! Suddenly, we had an electronically connected student cohort (probably the first such group of social work students in the country), and my colleagues began scrambling to learn to master their own use of computers in social work education.
The rest is history. You would think that most social work educators and social work students would have no more frontiers to explore in 2006, but I would have to disagree. Just this month, I began the very first e-mail listserv for social work educators involved in teaching in MSW programs. Until now, there has been no such network. There has been an active e-mail listserv for BSW educators since 1994. The BSW list began with only 34 subscribers in 1994 (now over 1,000 subscribers), but the MSW list began with more than 40 initial subscribers and in less than a month is already over 170 subscribers.
There is always a new direction for social work to explore, and apparently always a new direction to creatively apply what we know to address a need, a problem, or an issue.
Marshall L. Smith, PhD, is Professor and Coordinator of Distance Education at the School of Social Work, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.
This article appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. For permission to reprint, please contact Linda Grobman . Copyright 2006 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.