Sunday, February 3, 2013

#edcmooc eLearning and Digital Cultures: Meh…

So let's start positive. It's a free course - see It's run by the Edinburgh University eLearning team who have a great track record - I've used examples of their students' work in the past to show why and how eportfolios can be creative and wonderful ways to assess learners' work.

It's made me do a bit of thinking about the variety of views of technology - "dystopian" (source of all evil), "utopian" (saves the human race) and determinist (new technologies, from the printing press to the iPad, control how our societies develop).

I was disappointed by the content in week 1. There were some "cute" short videos (the best of which, of course, is Michael Wesch and students "The Machine is Us/ing Us"). There was a poorly written essay by Daniel Chandler that listed out ideas, mainly from the 1970s, relating to technological determinism. Social scientists seem to have a very simplistic account of determinism along the lines of "you either think it's the solution or the problem". I've always been a total determinist because as soon as you have the theoretical physics concepts of uncertainty and quantum entanglement, it means no-one can predict the future anyway, so the problem of free will  (mostly) goes away. Causality rules! Every letter I type or mistype here is inevitable. But I can't predict which word comes next so it doesn't "matter". 

Technology clearly does affect society, but since humans are irrational (Kahneman and Tversky's Prospect theory) rather like the problem of free will, it's always a complex interactive factor, never a simplistic good or evil thing. I like Jared Diamond's 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, as a more "nuanced" description of the interactions that occur between resources, ideas and technological possibilities in human societies.

Not very much in the course materials that I could find related the ideas mentioned back to eLearning. The level of comfort learners have with technology varies wildly and can relate to issues of literacy, and preferences towards different types of content. Taking account of this human variety is crucial in creating courses that help learners achieve their aims.

They did at one point ask for utopian and dystopian views of technology:

  • Ursula Le Guin The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) bothers to have BOTH a dystopian and a utopian view of technology (and society). NB a lot of "utopian" fantasy writing also relates to issues of gender. Let's not go there yet...
  • It's actually quite hard to come up with something that's pure utopian (tends to get a bit PollyAnna-ish, no? Since technology is about power and humans will always "misuse" power) but I suppose Robert A Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
  • Franz Kafka's Amerika (1927) struck me as a novel about technology taking control of society in an oppressive way though it's usually read as a novel about emigration/being an immigrant.

Suggestion for Edinburgh: provide a way to add to lists of works tackling utopian and dystopian technology (and maybe a third list for the interesting ones that deal with both?). We could have listed them and voted them up and down! I expect the response will be "you do it!" but guess what guys? Ye are being paid for this, we are volunteering.

The kind of writing encompassing technology issues that I actually like takes a more complex approach. Such as Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. Or the slightly mawkish but, very relevant to eLearning tale, "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes (1959). Yes I know I keep sending you to Wikipedia but what better way to find out if your taste might be like mine without wasting time?

Watching the Google hangout recording was a bit annoying (but then I hate video - it's such a waste of time compared to text you can scan…). First of all there was over 6 minutes of pointless introductory chat from Jen. Followed by Christine waffling on for 6 minutes about the forums without providing any really useful strategies. Then Sian at 17 minutes mentioning the point which I would have considered the entry point for most people… that life is more complex than dystopia v utopia. Do we not know this by about age 16? Now we have Jonathan Knox on digital natives and digital immigrants. Which we also already know - surely - is an over-simplification. So we have oversimplified utopias, determinisms and views of learners. OK, I think we got it - it's complicated! We knew that. We thought you were actually going to teach us something about how to deal with the complexity. 

Now at 24 minutes we have Hamish - he's going to explain the assessment! Should that not have been the first thing on the first page of the course introduction? Waffles on, my broadband gives out, now he's back but still not actually giving any useful information… Apparently it's all intentionally vague to be open to creativity. Well, there's a thing. 

Then every time you tried to vote up the comments, the hangout video restarted. Then the URL for the Chris Swift #EDCMOOC school wasn't copyable and it took some searching to find. Then Google kept trying to make me sign in to the wrong username. So I gave up trying to interact with the comments, which were, in the main, inane anyway.

Something useful at last! Jen suggests reading Martin Hand - Making digital cultures - structures of narratives of promise and threat - utopia and dystopia - to update the dated stuff we've been reading so far. Hamish suggests something else but he takes so long to say it my attention wanders and I miss it. Sian seems to have some sensible things to say and is less waffly than the others. A glossary is suggested. I think Edinburgh should have done this and not be asking participants to do it. Now Jonathan's having a waffle about structured narratives. FFS. Jen's using open source movement as an example of utopia. Fair enough. Another 9 minutes to endure. Sian explains reification backwards by explaining a term that is not reified. The rest of the hangout contained nothing useful except that next week will be… more nuanced! With tasty metaphors!

So there you go. Week one down. Hope things improve. Although I did enjoy the unreferenced Abraham Maslow quote in the Daniel Chandler essay: "to someone who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail".

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