Friday, February 1, 2013

Technological Dystopias and Education

This week's main post addressed the dystopia of technology: the ways in which it can take over our lives; our willingness to worship it regardless of the negative consequences to ourselves, our environment, or other people; and its ability to dictate what types of information we get.

This post is about the technological dystopia that may be present in higher education. It was a fortuitous week to think about these concerns. Earlier this week in the Chronicle, Jeffrey Young published the story "The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook." This article outlined the partnerships between a number of universities and textbook companies for products used either in exclusively online classes or as e-books.

One of the significant dystopic qualities of this story is the power that faculty can or might lose over the material presented in their classrooms. Embedded in this discussion is the concern about "redundant faculty"  David Noble addresses in "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education" (1998). Noble claims that when professors are required to place their material online for students to access, when they are required to build courses, they may also be required to relinquish their responsibilities as faculty members, leaving lower-paid and/or less-qualified people moderating the courses as students move through them.  If lower-paid people are not available, Noble concludes that the number of faculty needed to facilitate an online course will significantly decrease, making the job of the academic not only "redundant" but also untenable.

Noble's concerns about redundancy in the online classroom or material being taken out of context are some of the same concerns surrounding MOOCs right now. If hundreds of thousands of students can take a course, why do those students need more than a few faculty members organizing material for them? Faculty will never be able to assess all of the students, so classes are left relying on crowd sourcing and peer assessment (just as the Coursera MOOC that I am taking does/will).

For faculty, whose jobs rely on having students to teach (whether in face-to-face, hybrid, or online classes), this idea of "redundancy" is certainly a dystopia caused by technology. In many ways, the large lecture hall, with a miked speaker, requires fewer faculty just as a MOOC does, but there does not seem to be seat "cap" on MOOCs where lecture halls certainly do have a static number of seats available to students.

I, like many academics, am skeptical about the future of MOOCs. On the one hand, I can understand their purpose - in my case, I have the opportunity to learn about something which I might not (and did not in graduate school). For this type of learning, what I will call "casual" or "interest-based" learning, the design works well. I get access to information organized in a way I might not have considered, I have the opportunity to speak with other people about the material, and it is not particularly stressful (I know if work gets too busy, for instance, I can always quit).

On the other hand, the massiveness of the MOOC, the number of posters in the discussion boards, is overwhelming. I cannot read all of the posts; it is simply not possible (unlike in a closed online course of 20 students like the one that I am teaching this semester or in a class with a finite number of students). While many ideas are shared, there is a finite number of ideas I can read, address, or consider at anyone time. There are times when I feel like I am certainly missing something by not being in a classroom with others, by not hearing people talk, and most importantly, by not being able to hear all of my classmates speak. Without this specific technology - the Internet - these problems would not exist. In many ways, the size of the MOOC (as technology itself) dictates what type of information I receive, just as the headphones in New Media did for the man "plugged in" to the machine or the different technologies in Bendito Machine.   


  1. I'm really appreciating the blog, Danielle. You're much braver than I am. My college is just dipping its toe in online learning, so this is most valuable for me to see what I may have to be prepared for eventually.

    1. Thank you, Danny. I'm appreciating your blog, too.

  2. I like your post. I think it's definitely an issue that educators especially at the post secondary levels need to consider and think through. I'm a public school teacher and a union trustee (i'm the chief negotiator for my local) and these issues are making inroads into our level as well... I believe as educators we must take on these issues in a creative way... we have to think outside the box (sorry... that's a really old and worn out cliche isn't it). Our fight really isn't about pay structures and such though... I really believe our fight is about real and vital education. I love the MOOC but there are real limitations here... the lack of responsive individual feedback and mentorship from an instructor may be one drawback. I've taken a number of on-line courses and I would say that that is the common complaint amongst the students in my cohort.. but we are mostly older and are mostly post graduate level students... so we're old school I suppose. I think the introduction of social media and such "tools" needs to be adopted by our institutions. We may have to make some concessions and we need to adapt to be relevant. But I also think that there is something here that we need to take hold of to become better at what we do.
    Good post.

    1. John,
      I appreciate the comment. This semester, when I asked my students what they expected of me, nearly all of them said "more feedback and active participation in the discussion boards." I'm intrigued by how we can integrate social media into our classes - not only as teachers, but how students can better use it.