Sunday, 3 February 2013

E-Learning and Digital Cultures: Week 1 Reflections #ecdmooc

Back in early January, I heard Jeremy Knox speak at the Durham Blackboard Users' Conference about his involvement in the Coursera MOOC, E-Learning and Digital Cultures. It sounded interesting and, despite a heavy workload, I decided to sign up. I don't know if I'll complete it, but week 1 has been interesting and I'm still there.

I'll blog about the whole MOOC experience separately. For now, I just want to record my thoughts about the week one content and reflect on what I  might have learned.

First of all, I am a scientist by background, namely computer science and mathematics. While I love reading and the cinema, and I know what I like and what I don't like, I'm not used to analysing and critiquing them. I don't ever use the words "utopia" or "dystopia" in everyday conversation and I'm not comfortable using them. So, this is definitely new to me. I think I have a better idea, after week 1, of their meaning. I can see, I think, how they might be useful as a lens, but I also think the binary nature of utopia versus dystopia won't get us very far.

I tried to use the theme of utopia-dystopia when watching the four short films. I also dipped into some of the discussion boards to see what others were getting from the films (is that cheating?). Here are some very brief thoughts that occurred to me.

Bendito Machine III (see it on YouTube) This is an interesting little film, and definitely dystopian in nature and certainly has an element of technological determinism in it. The new machine has a life of its own, you can even see the "face" of the machine appear, and the impression is that the machine has a malicious intent. But, I'm more interested in the little guy who climbs the mountain at the start, like Moses, and uses his own little machine to somehow call down the new one. Who is this guy, and what is his role in pushing the new technology to an apparently primitive society?

Inbox (see it on YouTube) is a fairly harmless little love story, which inspired much discussion within the coursera discussion boards. Two people find a way to communicate via red shopping bags. It has something to say about the nature of communication in the technological world. Certainly the short messages written on post-its are very like direct messages on twitter. I thought it interesting that the young man felt the need to dress and groom himself before he felt comfortable to engage, as if he had to put on an identity. It was also interesting how quickly the young woman got bored with each form of communication. I don't see the film as either upotian or dystopian: it's just about two people using an unlikely form of communication, and says nothing about society as a whole. Am I missing something?

Thursday (see it on YouTube) I liked this little animation about a day in the life of two normal people in the not-so-distant future. It has some amusing little scenes, like the power cut, the guy not getting the hand scanner to work, the tweeting alarm clock. It could have a dystopian reading - people caught up in a system, going through a routine life, not aware of nature. But, it's a Thursday - maybe they go hill-walking at the weekend! The people seem content and I didn't notice any crime or anti-social behaviour on the streets.

NewMedia (see it on Vimeo) I love this film. Everything about it, from the soundtrack to the grey, desolate colours to the images, shouts dystopia. We have destroyed the world by creating New Media, which have evolved and taken over. Fantastic! Every time I watch it I see something new.

We were asked to think about utopian or dystopian stories of technology in popular films. What I find interesting here is that the best stories of technology told in popular films actually come from science fiction books and are almost all dystopian in nature. I don't think utopian stories would be particularly interesting. I love reading science fiction, in particular Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Iain M. Banks and William Gibson, all of whom have written stories with a dystopian view of technology. A particularly relevant one to this discussion is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Readings: Technological or Media Determinism
After watching the four short films I did move on to the readings. Again, I'm not used to this type of language and discipline, so I didn't find the readings easy, but they were thought-provoking.

The Chandler essay (Technological or Media Determinism) made me question my own language when talking/writing about technology. From Chandler:

Technological determinists interpret technology .. as the basis of society in the past, present and even the future.

This view seems to suppose that technology is the sole driving force for changes in society - that the technology (in itself) drives change.While I suspect that my language sometimes promotes the idea of technological determinism, it is not what I believe. I believe that technology is just a tool and that we, the users, determine how it will be used.

I found the notion of the 'Technological Imperative' very interesting and, as a computer scientist, I believe that it is true. From Chandler:

The doctrine of the technological imperative is that because a particular technology means that we can do something (it is technically possible) then this action ought to (as a moral imperative), must (as an operational requirement) or inevitably will (in time) be taken.

If something is technically possible, then somebody will do it eventually. It will happen even quicker if some agency decides to fund it. And yes, it does imply a "suspension of ethical judgement or social control", but when has that ever stopped something in the past? We have to believe that common sense will (eventually) prevail. Again from Chandler, "the mere existence of a technology does not inevitably lead to its use". Moreover, we often use a technology in a different way from what was originally intended.

I have to admit that I did start the second reading (Dahlberg), but didn't get very far. It's not that I couldn't read it, but rather I ran out of time. Maybe I'll come back to it.

Perspectives on Education

I thoroughly enjoyed reading David Noble's essay on The Automation of Higher Education. In it, he describes the commodification of higher education, that academic staff are being forced to make resources available online and that this will ultimately put them out of a job. This argument is very current, which makes it all the more surprising to realise that the essay was written in 1998 - more than 14 years ago. The promise (or threat) of digital education did not come to pass, though it is still with us.

I particularly enjoyed his paragraph about "the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them". They are still around today and still have the encouragement of their patrons:

... they forge ahead, without support for their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education, without any real evidence of productivity improvement, and without any effective demand from either students or teachers.

See the doctrine of the "technological imperative" above.

Final Thoughts

To finish off this post, a few last thoughts:

What I find interesting in the dystopian view of the future is the sense that somebody or something is in control and is dictating how technology is being used. I think there's more to say here, but have to figure it out.

With my new vocabulary this week, I think I am learning to analyse media artifacts in a new way. But it's very early days and I need to open my mind a bit.

I got through week 1 of a MOOC! I'm still here, and looking forward to week 2.

E-Learning and Digital Cultures: Week 2 Reflection
Being Human
E-Learning and Digital Cultures: Week 3 Reflection 
E-Learning and Digital Cultures: Week 4 Reflection


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