Tag Archives: education

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.

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Am I Fantic? Thinking About CAIs and My TAIs

1 Mar

In “Computer Lib/Dream Machines,” Ted Nelson reads as if he could be the spiritual father of Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer and author of You Are Not a Gadget.  (I’d be shocked if Lanier hasn’t read Nelson’s work.) There are a variety of ways in which these two seem philosophically aligned, but I’ll just consider one:  Lanier’s idea of “lock in” and how that goes alongside some of Nelson’s critiques of the American educational system and of “Computer Assisted Instruction” (CAI).

Lanier has written about how certain bad standardized designs in computer programs and on the web have gotten “locked in” so that they are difficult to change, and how those designs help lead to a variety of problematic or even calamitous effects (exploitation of internet users, losses of creativity, flattening of individuality, among others).  I heard echoes of this when Nelson was critiquing some of the problems of our standardized education system and the way it can stifle the creativity and learning of students.  I found myself agreeing with a lot of what Nelson had to say there, and was also heartened to see some of his critiques of CAI advocates.  Nelson strikes a good balance between advocating for the technological and the human.

Among the designs of the off-line world that are indeed “locked in” in many respects, our flawed education system is a prominent one.  I feel this every time I have to grade my students, or every time I have to rush through some lesson in class that this group of students over here needs much more time with while another group of students in the same class is ready to move on.  I’ve often felt that in an ideal world, I could act as more of an individual tutor or guide to each student, pacing the work accordingly to keep them engaged and learning, tailoring my lessons to their abilities and interests. (A modern-day governess, maybe?)  Given the structures and limits within which I have to work, I can only do this to a certain extent.  Computers or CAI may be a way out of this.

But CAI is not a panacea. Nelson appears to know this. To achieve the best results for students, to keep them engaged and foster their individual experiences, it seems to me that there needs to be a very careful balance of CAI and TAI (Teacher-Assisted Instruction).  I suspect Nelson believes this too.

The question for me then comes to this:  do those who advocate for modern-day versions of CAI–including the expansion of on-line learning here at the University of California–believe this?