Tag Archive for edcmooc

E-learning and Digital Cultures Final Project

The Future of Digital Cultures

It’s week 3 of E-Learning and Digital Cultures, which of course means that I am ready to write about week 2! Thankfully, this MOOC is designed to allow for some time flexibility. Here are a few ideas and reflections from the week 2 videos and readings.

During week 2, the instructional team shared some utopian and dystopian views of what future culture might be like in a highly technological age. Interestingly, the two utopian views were both from technology companies, Corning and Microsoft. While both showed a variety of scenes from daily life, they placed a heavy emphasis on business life, particularly business travel. Curiously, the imagined future devices were themselves technically very advanced, but the social applications were very familiar from present-day life. People were shown going to business meetings, attending school, and making their way around the house in a way not at all different from the present day. My favorite: the kids’ school uniforms were straight out of San Francisco Catholic schools!

The two dystopian videos were alarming views of company or state control of society, in which technology is used to keep people captive. Sight is worth a view if you have a spare eight minutes. Wearable computing, video game culture, dating sites, corporate control, and personal greed all come together in this detailed, entertaining and frightening view of the future.

While I fully agree with the need for vigilance against political and corporate totalitarianism, I have too much faith in humanity to believe that these dystopian views will in fact become reality. I am reminded of the historical analysis in Hamlet’s Blackberry, in which William Powers demonstrates that humanity has not only survived but also shaped cultural change in response to past eras of rapid technological change. My favorite example: according to Powers, the telephone was first envisioned as a mass broadcast device. We would all pick up the phone to listen to messages sent from a central agency. Instead, people’s unstoppable desire to connect with each other transformed the telephone into a personal communication technology. Returning to the week 1 theme of determinism, personal agency is alive and well and shapes technologies at least as much as technologies shape people.

In the week 2 readings, Johnston addresses how the Internet is characterized by metaphors to help people understand it. However, metaphors such as “superhighway” oversimplify the true nature of the Internet, limiting people’s ability to fully appreciate its potential. While I appreciate this point of view, I equally feel that innovators constantly invent new Internet applications and thus stretch our collective understanding of what one can accomplish there. While the superhighway metaphor was all about transcending space and time, we have more recently developed new metaphors to reflect more recent applications of the Internet for social connectedness and knowledge creation.

In a self-referential moment, the course brings in two articles about the relevance of MOOCs, Shirky’s “Napster, Udacity and the Academy,” and Bady’s “Questioning Clay Shirky.” I lean toward the less revolutionary Bady, reminded that the more things appear to change in education, the more they stay the same. Channeling Cuban and Tyack, public education in the U.S. has proven remarkably resistant to change, the basic model surviving intact despite repeated waves of educational innovation. I don’t see much evidence to conclude that the most recent set of innovations will break this trend. Our society has a very firmly-held conception of what Cuban and Tyack call the “grammar of schooling,” or what people recognize as school-based education. As long as most MOOCs faithfully reproduce this grammar, they are likely to remain a pale echo of place-based schooling rather than a viable replacement. That people are taking free online classes does not mean that physical schools are now obsolete. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if prestigious universities were offer a number of free courses to the world indefinitely, as an expression of some small measure of public purpose from these giant institutions?

I look forward to the week 3 content. Given the upcoming long weekend, I even have some hope that I will be able to get through it before the week is out!


Determinism in Academic Technology

Week 1 of E-learning and Digital Cultures has focused on technological determinism and its corollaries, social determinism and uses determinism. Technological determinism is the idea that technology itself causes personal and social change. The theory is reductive, simplifying the cause of complex social and cultural changes to a single factor. Expressed in different sub-forms, technological determinism insists that technological advancement is inevitable, affects all parts of society, and operates outside of our control. Technology gains anthropomorphic qualities.

Uses determinism takes a similarly reductive approach but give sole agency to people and their activities. People, not technology, cause social change and shape technology itself to their ends. Social determinism suggests that political and economic factors shape technology. One may see social determinism expressed in terms of digital divide and political power theories for the evolution of technology.

I find this perspective incredibly helpful in clarifying current debates in listserv discussions, education technology conferences, and faculty meetings. Technology is often portrayed monolithically, a single concept that can be described in one word. Technology determinists appear on opposite sides of the debate. Technology evangelists, particularly those who sell technology products, spread powerful messages that the evolution of information into digital form by itself transforms society. The world is now flat, we live in a technology revolution, and our future is impossible to predict–all because of undersea fiber-optic cables. Techno-critics portray technology as a false god, leading us to distraction and consumerism. Our society is in decline. For both techno-enthusiasts and techno-critics, neither individuals nor organizations or society have agency or can shape technology. Neither side of the debate rings true for me.

Most education technologists are uses determinists. In contrast to technological determinists, they assert that technology itself has no independent agency. It is “just a tool” that can be used for good or evil. They feel that master teachers can bend technology to their will, directing it entirely toward the service of teaching and learning. In this view, teachers should first identify learning objectives and then select the technology tools that will best support them in a straightforward, linear process. While this view is helpful to appropriately place technology within a school, it can also be used to control technology or keep it out of the classroom. It also does not do justice to the challenge of artfully using technology, which requires a nuanced understanding of how a technology-rich environment is different from a technology-poor environment.

Social determinists argue that countries and corporations use technology to control others, brainwashing us through media to further their ends, exacerbating the divide between haves and have-nots. In this view, although anyone can learn to program, CEOs rule. Twitter does not cause revolution; rather, governments flip a switch and cut it off when it suits them. In this view, technology companies are seen as having huge power to dictate school program through product features, terms of service, and licensing requirements.

Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere among all three of these ideas. Social and cultural change is too complex to be affected only by single factors. The interaction of society and technology is multifaceted and changing. Individuals, societies, and technology all have some causal agency and are all affected by the others. We have the power to exert some control over our environment, while at the same time, our environment changes us to some extent.

Two extreme positions dominate much of the national debate on education technology. At one end, technology determinists argue that if only schools had more computers, the positive effects on education would emerge automatically. At the other end, both techno-critics and skeptical teachers argue for keeping technology at arm’s length, limiting its effect on the classroom as much as possible. School leaders can move such conversation to a more productive place by both acknowledging the partial validity of any deterministic viewpoint. Some truth exists to any of these perspectives. At the same time, any education discussion is incomplete without balance among the different determinist viewpoints.

Some leading education technologists focuses largely on positive uses determinism. Some have even written books to say so. Let’s take a look at three authors who explore uses determinism to different degrees. In Hamlet’s BlackberryWilliam Powers explores individual agency in a technology-rich world, suggesting that people have faced similar crises of technological change and information overload for all of human history. Powers’ explanation balances the different determinist views, accepting that new technologies have an effect on society, while in time, society responds and shapes technology to serve its ends. The key, Powers argues, is critical thinking and attention — building the discipline of mind to unplug, keep perspective, rediscover the self, and act intentionally in our busy world.

In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold also keys in on attention but advises that we build our mental discipline while using technology rather than by stepping away from it. He ascribes more agency than Powers to the individual and less to technology. Rheingold suggests simple techniques to pay attention to your use of technology, such as setting a timer to remind yourself to check your attentional focus, practicing meditation and yoga breathing techniques, and getting better at filtering useful from useless incoming information. He proposes that attention and mindfulness training become part of the required school curriculum, a 21st century literacy, if you will.

In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson takes attention mindfulness one step further, arguing that the very definition of focus is changing from an industrial-era concept of single-minded attention to an interactive, interpersonal kind of attention more appropriate for a highly connected age.

School leaders who understand the different determinist extremes may better navigate the hazardous waters of education technology change in schools.

E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC

I am excited to start work on the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, offered by the University of Edinburgh through Coursera. This is my second MOOC, and already I feel that this experience will match my expectations better than my first. The course structure is easy to understand, divided into three “blocks,” Utopias and Dystopias, Being Human, and the final assessment. The approach to teaching is more familiar, starting with taking in information through articles and videos, engaging in discussions through a variety of electronic media, and then producing an individual, final product. The path to a rich learning experience seems both in my control and well-informed by the instructors.

The social sciences have for a long time appealed to me as a means to better understand student and teacher engagement with learning. Studies such as Hanging Out, Messing Around, And Geeking Out have helped provide insight and understanding regarding new student behaviors that we did not experience when we were young. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, and other fields help us navigate our changing world and adjust our educational systems to keep up.

E-learning and Digital Cultures promises to use selected artifacts from contemporary culture to illustrate deeply-held feelings about technology and self that underly passionate opinions about technology in education. For example, the opening topic, utopias and dystopias, will explore dominant, deterministic dialogues about education technologies. Not only will this help me navigate the landscape that I experience at work, but it will also help our community members better understand their own conceptions about education technologies. As our school strives to increase its use of computing in the service of learning, I plan to share selected pieces to help people think about their own thinking.

My current position is academic dean at an independent, grades 6-12 day school in Seattle, Washington, USA. I am responsible for oversight of curriculum and professional development, primarily working with administrators and teachers to coordinate the instructional program, facilitate a culture of professional sharing and growth, and help the school grow in new directions.

I look forward to participating in the social aspects of this course, connecting with other course participants through Twitter, discussion forums, Google+ circles, and other vehicles. I hope you will feel free to post comments on my writings here. Thank you in advance to the instructors for planning to hold a Google Hangout to offer some live interaction with participants.