Archive | January, 2013

The Scottish MOOC, Week 1: Are we users or tools?

31 Jan

The following is the first of several blog posts related to a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I am currently taking on “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” which is being run by the University of Edinburgh.

“Lived Experience is a seamless web, but academia in particular encourages specialists to indulge in reductionist interpretation.” —Daniel Chandler

And so I shall indulge in a bit of reductionism, which is not my fault.  It is the fault of the University of Edinburgh and also the fault of this technological tool of blogging specifically and of the Internet’s structure generally.   Because, of course, I have no free will and I take no responsibility for my actions.  I do what the academy and the Internet “tubes” tell me to do.

beavis and butthead

We Americans are good at not taking responsibility for things.  And then suing you for it.  Perhaps we are the United States of Technological Determinism. (Thank you, Lincoln Dahlberg.)  We are, however, very sorry for those performance enhancing drugs we’ve been taking of late.

But seriously, the first week’s readings and videos of the Scottish MOOC do an admirable job of laying out some of the interpretations of technology’s effects on us generally, and on education in particular.

Reassuringly, most folks do not argue towards an uncomplicated dystopian/determinist view of the effects of technology…

…nor toward a similarly monolithic view of technology as the empowering tool that will lead us on to various utopias, personal or collective.

No Place Like Utopia

Yet in many of our debates, we do tend to move in binary, or Manichean, directions, don’t we, especially as the tools get more fraught?

Guns dont kill people

Stop Gun Violence

In a far less fraught environment amongst the 41,000 participants in this five-week MOOC, I’ve noticed that some of the comments on the various forums and social media spaces commonly tend to run in one of two directions:

On one pole, there are a lot of people expressing a feeling of being “overwhelmed” (this could, in fact, be the word of the week).  Certainly I felt this way:  a little bit of, “my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?”  Brave New World, perhaps, trips off the tongue.

And on the other pole (and, it must be said, this is a far less common response in what seems to be a very supportive, positive environment), there is some degree of exasperation, or even condescension from some users, a bit of a sense of “Oh, c’mon, get over yourself!  You don’t know this material/tool/educative structure already?  The instructors give us structure–there’s the pool and there’s the water–and then we teach ourselves.  Hop in!  The water’s fine!”

Dystopians and Utopians?  No.  Pessimists and Optimists.  Still not it.

We’re all here.  Why?  Because (I’ll speak for myself now) we want to figure out how to use these tools more fully, to become more adept users.  We want to think deeply about their implications.  We want, I think, a little guidance.  We want, in the grandest sense of the liberal arts traditions, to learn to act in this world rather than being acted upon.

I am here because I’m interested.  I’m here because I want to learn.  I’m here because I enjoy many of these tools, and I recognize their potential, even as some of them, yes, overwhelm and perhaps even appall me. I also want to help my students to manage this world we’re in, this world we’re entering.

I’m also here in part because I have that vague sense of dread of a Machine taking my job, or else that an underpaid, overstressed, hyper-linking human tutor will.  I’m here because I want to survive, professionally and otherwise.  Though I don’t quite feel that technology has the capability of propelling itself forward without human actors, I do feel a bit of what Chandler calls the “technological imperative.”

Are we living in dystopian (or pre-dystopian) times?  We likely aren’t, but people in places like Syria and parts of sub-Saharan African surely are.  Sometimes the more immediate questions of basic survival and hunger crowd out questions of whether Twitter #mightbehavingnegativeeffectsonus.

Are we living in utopian times?  Of course not.  Would we want to?  I suspect the answer is also “no.”  But most probably do strive for something approaching, but preferably never reaching, utopia.

Whether in matters of education, politics, interpersonal communications, or love, we’d have to think hard about whether we actually would want Utopia as originally proposed by this fellow:

Sir Thomas More

So, time for this digital immigrant to do some more off-line thinking (or is it “processing”?), an act for which I take full responsibility.