Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Women in technology

Earlier this year (or was it last year?) I pledged that on March 24th I would publish a blog post about a woman in technology whom I admire. It's called Ada Lovelace Day.

I've had several months to think about this and it hasn't been easy. There have been several women in technology that have had a huge impact on my life. I decided to write about someone who is largely responsible for my journey into educational technology 15 years ago. By coincidence, here in British Columbia we are coming up to the 15th anniversary of the Educational Technology Users Group and as part of that celebration we are gathering stories and identifying the people in BC who have made a difference in our lives. So this acknowledgement of Linda's work fits both purposes.

In 1994 I was working as associate registrar at (now) University of the Fraser Valley and while browsing the course offerings at Simon Fraser University for the January 1995 semester I came across a course offered through the School of Communication called Social Context of Information Technology. The 'context' for the upcoming semester was online education and the instructor was Linda Harasim. This title appealed to me. And even more attractive for someone working full time was the fact that this course would be offered mostly online. I signed up!

The course was fascinating. We were learning about online education by experiencing it first hand. I invested in a laptop and a really long cable to attach it to a phone jack in my living room. I took full advantage of that long cable, dialing up to the internet through SFU, wandering around the house, checking in on course discussions at all hours (using First Class), searching the ERIC database for articles, using the lynx text browser, and browsing the newsgroups.

There were a million technical problems and student cries for help. But that was all part of the learning. What I remember most was the course design. Linda expect us to collaborate. We had to work in groups. Our groups had to take turns moderating weekly discussions! I had never done group work in a university course (that I recall). With students leading these weekly discussions everyone was asking: Where is the instructor?

But that was the interesting part. Participation counted for 30% of the grade and Linda was quietly watching us, making an appearance in the course only when she felt it was necessary. We managed on our own. We took risks (role play!). We supported one another. We shared what we learned. Not only did we lead the weekly discussions we prepared a summative evaluation of the experience. We worked out butts off!

That course left me wanting to take more online courses, and to learn more about online education. The next year I took a leave of absence from my job and started graduate school with Linda Harasim as my interim supervisor.

At that time Linda began a new job as network leader and CEO for the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence. She continued to teach so I took a couple more courses with her. A short time later I was hired as a research associate for the Virtual-U project, which opened up a whole new world for me. Linda introduced me to so many people in her network (many women in technology!), and allowed her research team a lot of flexibility in choosing projects. Those were exciting times!

However, Linda's proposal in 1998 to begin an online network to support TeleLearning researchers and educators was a real turning point. The Global Educators Network (GEN) was launched in November 1999 with a seminar facilitated by Linda called "The Virtual Professor: What is it really like to teach online?". Linda hired me to moderate and coordinate GEN, what we came to call an online community, even though I had moved away the Virtual-U lab and was living in a small community in the mountains of interior British Columbia...back to dial up internet! I am forever grateful for that opportunity. Ten years later I'm still coordinating online communities.

So Linda, if you're out there reading this, THANK YOU! And happy Ada Lovelace Day!

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