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Teaching, technology, and my enormous collection of obsolete skills.

By Ross F. Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo.

What should we be teaching journalism students today? What will their future be like?

It's hard to say. But history might help guide us.

Nikkor developing tank and reels.In this case, I'm talking about personal history. I was an undergraduate journalism student in the 1970s. Technology was changing fast. "Hot type" was becoming obsolete. We were preparing our student newspaper using thick sheets of paper, on which we pressed sticky waxed letters produced by a bulky and expensive machine called the Compugraphic. In photojournalism, the 120 format camera had been overtaken by the 35 mm, and you had to add a bevy of pricey lenses. State of the art in the darkroom was the Omega 4 x 5 enlarger. Electric typewriters! No more need for strong fingers. And we could actually produce video on videotapes instead of film.

Sound pathetically old-fashioned? And what makes us think our "cutting edge" technology today will not sound as pathetically old fashioned in a few years? The truth is, of course, that it will. Meanwhile, I'm scrambling to teach all this technology of today, because I think I owe it to students to stay at that cutting edge. Photoshop! InDesign! Illustrator! Dreamweaver! Flash! Blogs! Wikis! Twitter! Blackboard! PowerPoint! With YouTube videos, of course. Microsoft Word! Oh, heck, drop that last one. Students already know Word.

And sometimes they already know a lot of the rest. It depends on their high school background, and personal technical savvy. But other times they clearly do not. We have to teach them. We have to make them ready for that real world—whatever that real world will be.

Still, while I join the rest of the faculty in a rush to the new technology, I sometimes have to pause for a breath—and think back to that pathetic technology of another generation. I'm sure some of my professors rushed as hard as I am now trying to teach those new things. And I learned them. Oh, I learned them well. I spent night after night in the darkroom mastering the skills of turning tiny negatives into high-quality prints. I became a local legend for my ability to stick those waxy strips of type perfectly straight on the makeup sheet. In fact, I spent years learning these skills.

Skills that are now obsolete. Who knew?

Nobody could predict the future then, either. This meant that I was stuck with a bunch of useless skills, and forced to learn a whole new set. A good share of my learning turned out to be pointless in the long run.

But not all of it. Because not all of my undergraduate professors obsessed about new technology. Some of them were much more obsessed about writing a better story, making every word count, asking good questions, critically evaluating sources, ethically approaching sensitive topics, avoiding legal liability, seeing a good photo, designing an attractive page—no matter what the technology. A crusty former editor taught an advanced writing class. Did he care that we now could write stories on that great new IBM Selectric typewriter, with the nice crisp copy it produced? Don’t think so. He did care about writing, in whatever form. Similarly, a demanding photojournalism instructor didn't care about our excuses regarding rolling film in pitch darkness onto those infernal Nikkor developing reels. Technology was a means, not an end, to my education.

So now I'm trying to teach new technology that I never learned myself as a student. I learned it on the job, and on my own. Why do I think I ought to teach the kind of stuff that clearly turned out not to make much difference in my own professional life? Are we so mesmerized with the magic of our technology that we forget to teach what will really matter to students over the long run? Do we conform to the immediate moment, to the sexy new thing, to the pressure of our universities and our industries to get with it, dudes?

Maybe I'll drop those Twitter feeds.