Tuesday, 12 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) - Utopias & Dystopias, Week 2: Looking to the Future


The second week in the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course looked at the future – how is technology, particularly in the context of education, predicted to change over the course of the century and beyond? I am interested in this on a personal level, being curious about how technology will develop, as well as in a professional sense: my job and certainly my career are likely to change as a result of future developments.

Participants were initially required to watch several videos, including two adverts from technology companies which presented visions of the future. Here, technology is seamlessly integrated into everyday life, with classroom walls and car dashboards and kitchen work surfaces acting as touch screens, and families and colleagues sharing experiences and ideas in a utopian community.

Apart from wondering how much all of this would cost, I found the visions presented slightly disturbing – new and exciting they might be, but they were also bland and seemed rather detached from the physical world. In particular, the section in which the schoolchildren used glass touchscreens to look at ‘dinosaurs’ in the forest made an impression on me: using technology to explore and learn is not in itself a bad thing, but I thought it was a shame that the children were ignoring the actual world around them – the trees, grass, sky, wildlife – and viewing everything through a pane of glass. On the other hand, the concept of sharing ideas and experiences is a positive one.

The other three videos presented fictional narratives based on future worlds where technological developments have profoundly affected the way we live, but though these were interesting, the overwhelmingly dystopian nature of all of the worlds was rather dramatic.

The core reading for the week1 looked at how the use of metaphors helps us to relate to the internet and reflect cultural values. Johnston looks at the commonly used metaphors of space and speed, destruction and salvation often linked with the web (and ‘web’ itself is a metaphor), which often encompass the same absolute values of utopian and dystopian viewpoints. Another article by Bleecker2 looked at the concept of an ‘Internet of Things’, in which objects blog and in so doing provide valuable information – such as the location of lost luggage in the airport. I must admit that the reference to luggage “that has lost its human” made me think of the Luggage in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, running here and there on its numerous little legs.

Two contrasting viewpoints were presented by Clay Shirky3 and Aaron Bady4, the one claiming that MOOCs herald a positive educational revolution, with the other arguing that this is by no means certain and that most MOOC providers are profit-driven businesses. Both have vested interests in their respective positions, but I thought that both made valid points. Personally, I have serious doubts whether MOOCs can or should replace traditional university courses: the free model is not sustainable in the long-term and the large numbers of participants aren’t conducive to in-depth group discussion. Without access to the library resources that traditional universities provide, MOOCs are forced to rely on free online resources that may or may not be reliable. As a history graduate, I am sympathetic to the humanities academics cited in Bady’s article who state that MOOCs cannot replicate the general intangible intellectual atmosphere and discussion found in a traditional university environment. Shirky does make the point that contemporary higher education is now hugely expensive, and some students may see obvious advantages in going down the online route. Neither writer refers to the millions of people around the world who lack the Internet access necessary to take a course online – the very same people who are likely to lack the means to enter a traditional university.

It may be that the MOOC is a fad, and online learning may go down the route of correspondence courses which surged in popularity a century ago before dying out.5 Certainly MOOCs are known to have high dropout rates, and according to a fellow course participant, those with Masters degrees and PhDs are those most likely to stick at them and pass – perhaps suggesting that the self-discipline and study skills needed to successfully learn online are those which can themselves be learned best in more traditional study environments. I think it’s notable that within a very short time of this course starting, there were numerous forum posts arranging real-life meet-ups.

I’m still forming my thoughts on this issue, but I’m not convinced that MOOCs and other kinds of online courses will either save or destroy education. After all, the Open University in Britain did not spell the end for traditional institutions. Unlike the correspondence course, I believe e-learning of one form or another is here to stay – but I don’t think that it can or should replace traditional education. Online courses have huge potential for disseminating high quality learning and information, and for sharing thoughts and ideas around the world; but the benefits of a traditional university campus education are too many to be dismissed.





1Johnston, R (2009). Salvation or destruction: metaphors of the internet. First Monday, 14(4). http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2370/2158. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

2Bleecker, J. (2006). A manifesto for networked objects — Cohabiting with pigeons, arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things. http://www.scribd.com/doc/14748019/Why-Things-Matter. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

3Shirky, C. (2012). Napster, Udacity and the academy. shirky.com, 12 November 2012. http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

4Bady, A. (2012). Questioning Clay Shirky. Inside Higher Ed, 6 December 2012. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/06/essay-critiques-ideas-clay-shirky-and-others-advocating-higher-ed-disruption. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

5Carr, N. (2012). The Crisis in Higher Education. MIT Technology Review, 27 September 2012. http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429376/the-crisis-in-higher-education/. [Accessed 12 February 2013].

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