In our house, we spend a lot of time in front of the computer, looking up things on the internet, watching movies, and taking classes. My husband and I are both enrolled in MOOCs, and I wonder how the internet, this constant availability of the sum of human knowledge, will affect our children’s education, now and throughout their lives.
Will this technology isolate us, or bring us closer together? Does it change human nature in any fundamental way? The assigned readings and viewings on the Coursera E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC were oriented more to philosophical reflections than to practical issues, but participating in the forum discussions helped me unravel some of my questions.
My daughter, who is 5 years old, can’t read yet, but she can use a mouse and navigate the internet in a limited way. She likes to watch cartoons and play “Barbie dress-up games,” which are these awful little design games where you pin décor on dolls, rooms, cakes, pets, and who knows what else. She is what they call a “digital native.”
I grew up before the internet, making me a “digital immigrant.” My family got our first home computer when I was 12, and I didn’t get on the internet until my mid-20s. I saw MOOCs as a great opportunity for me to take a few classes here and there without worrying about money or the commute, but I didn’t have a handle on how online learning would work for people who didn’t already have a solid liberal arts education. Could a person get a balanced education out of this super-abundant flood of information, if they didn’t already know what they were doing?
It turns out I was missing a piece of the puzzle: working together. I was thinking in terms of individual learning, in relative isolation, but almost all of a person’s knowledge comes from other people. Collaboration helps us sort through information, and the internet is a highly collaborative medium. I’d experienced it myself through my participation in online forums, where despite some raised hackles people manage to hammer out decent solutions to a wide array of problems.
The means of communication, and how we understand the world around us, changes with technology. For millennia, people kept their knowledge in their heads, and passed it on directly from one person to the next. Literacy allowed people to record knowledge in a more durable form, and the printing press helped them distribute their writings more widely. Now, anyone with an internet connection can look up more human knowledge than was ever contained in a single library, and can also disseminate their own knowledge or opinions. We haven’t lost the use of printed texts or oral traditions, we just have another, dazzlingly powerful new tool at our fingertips, which we’re using it to fulfill the same human needs.
The human connection remains important, but in this interconnected world, learning doesn’t have to be a top-down, hierarchical transmission of knowledge. At one point I considered home schooling for my kids, even unschooling… though I did think of unschooling as something reserved for kids who had well-educated parents at their beck and call.
This week, I came across Sugata Mitra and his “Hole in the Wall” experiments, through a link posted on the EDC MOOC forums. Here is a powerful example of how kids with almost no education learning through the internet. They worked in groups, encouraging and helping each other to learn. Later on, they could dial up the “Granny cloud” of online tutors, but they got themselves started. This experiment shows that self-teaching with the internet, in communities of learning, can work at all levels. Not everyone in the world has internet access, but it’s spreading rapidly, and has the potential to reach communities which have never before had good educational resources before. People can learn together, even without well-trained, full-time teachers, by collaborating with each other locally and online.
Meanwhile, here in our little house in the woods, we can gather around the computer together. It’s different from gathering around a campfire, but talking, studying, and collaborating with people online doesn’t have to diminish the relationships with the people beside us in “meatspace.” We learn, and may even advance human knowledge, here and everywhere that the internet can go.
Note: I did not tackle the discussion of posthumanism and trans-humanism here, because to me it all reeks of science fictional dystopias. I also realize that I’m a bit giddy with optimism. Oh well!