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!
I’m approaching the final segment of my second MOOC at Coursera, E-learning and Digital Cultures. The class isn’t what I expected – it’s more philosophical and less practical, more about the trans-human and less about the mechanics of how to use the internet in learning. It’s also more video-based than text-based, which is a problem for me because I don’t really enjoy watching videos (I know, I’m weird). Still, I can see how it’s appropriate to look at these philosophical digressions along the way to tackling my own questions.
I came into this class with two big questions:
- How can I and other adults in my island community make use of these online learning opportunities?
- I just want to take classes that interest me, possibly sometimes to further my career but mostly just for personal growth and development. And for fun.
- I think that others can use this to further their careers and branch out in new directions, contributing to the diversification of the island economy by developing skills that can be used and marketed online, and are not dependent on our old-timey seasonal economy. The flip side is that we will be in competition with others taking advantage of these same resources, most of whom live in places with a lower cost of living.
- How will this (the internet) impact my children’s education? What do they need to learn as children to make the most of the opportunities available to them as they grow up and learn more and more?
- I’ve mostly answered this for myself – advanced literacy and critical thinking skills. The most important thing is to be able to understand and evaluate information, evidence, and arguments. It’s a big liberal-artsy skill, but includes math and science literacy, too. Kids still need, more than ever, a well-rounded education in humanities, science, social science, etc. with an emphasis on critical thinking. That’s what people need to make anything out of this vast flood of information.
- The other thing I think is that perpetual availability of learning opportunities means that there’s a certain lack of urgency. You’re not going to learn everything in school. Learning doesn’t end with graduation. Schools don’t control access to knowledge or information. They can help tremendously with learning, but it’s quite possible that self-teaching will make the same kind of gains that self-publishing has in recent years. Not totally equivalent, but with some parallels, especially when you think of the process in terms of quality control, and responsibility for the product/process.
I’m planning a final installment in this #edcmooc series, which I’ll post sometime next week. I might even make a leap and put up a video, but don’t count on it!
Last fall, I took my first ever MOOC, Greek and Roman Mythology, with professor Peter Struck at the University of Pennsylvania. I was impressed by how closely this approximated taking an actual university class, and with tens of thousands of students all over the world. I became interested in MOOCs as a phenomenon, and in looking more closely at other ways of learning on the internet. So I signed up for this class, E-learning and Digital Cultures, which is another animal entirely — no lectures, no quizzes, and a lot of videos to watch instead of articles to read. We’re supposed to blog about it, so here I am, jump-starting my blog a few weeks late with some reflections
Many of the week 1 and 2 readings and viewings were too abstract and philosophical to get me going, but I was interested in this article and its rebuttal. In the rebuttal, Aaron Bady contrasts online classes with traditional on-campus education, which he calls “the real thing.” I don’t think it is. The real thing is what happens inside each student, and is largely the result of the work they put in, helped along by interactions with peers, professors, and readings/viewings, etc. which shape those efforts, for better or worse. I like the idea that a Udacity “badge” would tell someone more about my ability to do specific work than my long-ago, woefully non-specific BA from Pomona (one of those “elite colleges”).
I’ve taken classes at at least a half-dozen colleges and universities, and some of them were pretty fancy. I don’t remember all of my professors, and was truly impressed by them only a handful of times — and those times were at the more elite institutions. Even so, there were many times when I didn’t get much from the classes, but I did the assigned work and got the credit and forgot about it. The thing I like about MOOCs, at this stage in my life, is that I feel very much in control of my own learning. I can skim as needed, and go into more depth where I’m more interested in a topic. I don’t need to impress anyone, but if I want competition to drive my ambition, I can find that any time by logging on to the forums.
There’s no “quality control” when it comes to your fellow students, but on the whole that’s probably a good thing. We will weed ourselves out, to a certain extent, and become aware of which other students we want to listen to/read, and whose posts we can just skim past. I only need to learn based on my own goals and from my own starting point. For someone who isn’t focused on getting a particular degree or getting into a specific profession, that’s enough.
In week 3, Humanity 2.0: defining humanity – Steve Fuller’s TEDx Warwick talk (24:08), http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/podcasts/media/more/tedx?podcastItem=steve_fuller.mp4 touched on the topic of democratization and equality of access. Although there’s still a division between the info-rich and the info-poor, more and more people, more and more communities, are coming online all the time. We are moving towards a world in which we all have access to information and education, and that is profoundly exciting. What will we do with that access? I don’t know. Currently, I see a lot of people using it to re-enforce their existing beliefs, to form communities which are closed to divergent opinions. You have to be alert to this pitfall, to be able to evaluate truth-claims, and that’s a skill we can develop in schools and in real life interactions, as well as on the internet. Genuine dialogue also happens, though, and it’s the cutting edge of our evolution as a society. MOOCs alone can’t bring a solid education to the isolated and disadvantaged, but they’re a great resource for those who have attained basic literacy and have the desire self-discipline to continue as independent life-long learners (as long as they have internet access!).
As I see it, the most important things that schools should be teaching, beyond basic literacy and communications skills, is the ability to evaluate what you’re reading and seeing, to distinguish the true from the bogus, the worthwhile from the misleading. That’s a long project.
Anyway, those are some of my reflections on my latest MOOC adventure. I’ll probably post more in the coming weeks.
Sometime in the next week or two, I’m planning to publish a novella based on an old song, “Eddystone Light.” Here’s a bit about how I got to know it, followed by a copy of the song’s lyrics.
My extended family, along with occasional friends, had a tradition of gathering for beach picnics several times a summer. We would go down to the beach, collect driftwood for a fire, and cook dinner over it while seagulls circled for scraps. After dinner and s’mores or oatmeal cake, we trotted out a selection of well-worn songs, including several sea chanteys. We sang them around the fire as the sunset faded and stars came out over the ocean. Our voices were a combination of loud melody lines, skillful harmonies, and tone-deaf digressions – mostly the later.
It’s a good thing that folk ballads don’t demand much in the way of vocal skills. It’s like an overblown session of singing “Happy Birthday.” Participation is more important than perfection. I used to think that these songs had been handed down through the folk tradition, but then I noticed that the vast majority of them had been recorded by Burl Ives and/or The Weavers in the 1940s – 1960s, and that old copies of those records could be found in various family houses. Maybe my parents’ generation learned them from professional recordings, but one way or another, they entered our family’s repertoire.
I’ve always liked those songs, especially Eddystone Light with its “roooooling sea” in the chorus and the slightly ridiculous family relationships. This story is a quick trip into the narrator’s life, starting with the night when he meets his mermaid mother.
Until I started work on this story, I knew next to nothing about the Eddystone Lighthouse itself, only that it was some place in England. Here’s a link to a page about the lighthouse and its history. My story is set in 1888, so it might have looked something like this picture, with the old Smeaton tower and the newer Douglass tower side by side:
Eddystone Light (edited from Burl Ives version to the way I know it best).
My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light
Slept with a mermaid one fine night.
From this union there came three,
A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me.
Chorus: Yo, ho, ho, the wind blows free: oh, for the life of the rolling sea.
One night as I was a-trimmin’ of the glin
A-singin’ a verse from the evening hymn,
A voice from the starboard shouted, “Ahoy!”
And there was my mother a-sittin’ on a buoy.
Yo, ho, ho, the wind blows free: oh, for the life of the rolling sea.
“What has become of my children three?”
My mother she did ask of me.
“One was exhibited as a talking fish
the other was served on a chafing dish.”
Yo, ho, ho, the wind blows free: oh, for the life of the rolling sea.
Well, the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair;
I looked again, and me mother wasn’t there.
But I heard a voice call out of the night
“To Hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light!”
I used to keep a blog over on blogspot, but haven’t posted there in two years. In case anyone is interested in those ramblings, here’s a link: