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.


6 Responses to “The Scottish MOOC, Week 1: Are we users or tools?”

  1. culturemulching February 1, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    For more from the originator of the term “digital immigrants,” Marc Prensky, you can go here:

  2. Andrea February 1, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Nice ideas been shared here Mike. I think we are sort of tools in the end. For me technology has shaped society and we have reacted by creating more technology, so if technology / economy is the base of society , we are merely actors. Do I want that ? Of course not, but how many out there are willing to dont follow with the flow ?

    • culturemulching February 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks, Andrea. It’s hard not to feel like a tool when you’re feeling tugged like one of Pavlov’s dogs towards a smart phone or a tablet.

      Always feels a bit to me like a version of having to resist the pull of eating more sugar, or of having that extra glass of wine. Does the bottle, like the smart phone, turn the addict into a tool?

  3. epurser February 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    I just love reading your thoughtful, insightful posts Michael, thankyou for putting them out there…. just thinking though, I think we’re always both users and tools…. I mean, I don’t feel like a tool in this environment any more than I do in any other – even as we speak, we are being spoken, by discourses we didn’t author but have learned and are still learning, and being existentially confused by the apparent contradiction of being neither really agentive nor subservient and both all at once… I see it more as the nature of language, and the technologies of literacy we develop, to extend our linguistic communication over space and time, as just that – an extension of the discursive behaviour that we both love and hate and have no choice but to participate in in some way, and have at least some constrained but dynamic sets of choices about how!

    • culturemulching February 7, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Thanks, Emily (if I’ve got the “e” right?), for the comment. I think I agree with you–we fluctuate somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. I know I feel like I do. My title above was merely meant to evoke the two overly simplistic extremes between tool and user as a place to start.

      I suppose we move towards tool the more we don’t mindfully take charge of our behavior (must check my smart phone, must click faster, must reply immediately to this very nice person who has left such a careful, thoughtful post in this particular discourse community/context)…

      …and more toward being users as we think of these spaces as different languages to be spoken. (I am now actively choosing to reply to this very nice person inside this very conveniently placed box…) And when we recognize that it is useful to step away from time to time and not speak the language, to spend a while in silence, whether outside or, as in this sort of anti-app application a student of mine just shared with me, inside:

      Thanks again! The talk continues…

      • epurser February 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

        oh brilliant! love that app – perfect antidote to my negative musings of the day 🙂
        I have been spammed by blogjects and was feeling really sick of being ‘liked’ by machines trying to make a tool of me!

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