EDCMOOC Week 1: Utopias and Dystopias

I am in the first week of the five week-long massive open online course (or MOOC) – E-Learning and Digital Cultures, offered by Coursera through the University of Edinburgh.  The course is being taught by Jeremy Knox, Sian Bayne, Hamish Macleod, Jen Ross, and Christine Sinclair.

EDCMOOC Course Entry

To quote from the course information page:

“E-learning and Digital Cultures is aimed at teachers, learning technologists, and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age. The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology. We’ll explore some of the most engaging perspectives on digital culture in its popular and academic forms, and we’ll consider how our practices as teachers and learners are informed by the difference of the digital.”

During this first week, we are looking back at some classic readings on digital culture.  Digital culture is often described as either utopian (creating highly desired effects) or dystopian (creating extremely negative effects).  Martin Hand and Barry Sandywell’s (2002) article on E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel  laid out three utopian claims and three dystopiam claims:

  • Information Technology (IT) possesses intrinsically democratizing properties (U)
  • IT is intrinsically neutral but lends itself to democratizing global forces of information sharing (U)
  • Cyber-politics role is maximizing public access (U)
  • IT possesses intrinsically de-democratizing properties (D)
  • IT is intrinsically neutral but lends itself to de-democratizing forces through ownership (D)
  • Cyber-politics role is resisting and perverting public access (D)

For the first week, we looked at four short videos.  Two that I liked were Bendito Machine III and Inbox.  The first was definitely dystopian and suggested that as each technology comes along, it is adopted with religious zeal, only to be cast aside as the “new thing” emerges.  Inbox was more utopian, suggesting that humans will find connections in spite of the technological issues that emerge.


We also explored a series of decade-old readings (and I found it both interesting and challenging to read these with 2013 eyes).

The first was Chandler, D. (2002). Technological determinism. Web essay, Media and Communications Studies, University of Aberystwyth.  This was 47-pages (and I skimmed) that provided a history of technological determinism.  One of the ideas I thought relevant and interesting was the idea of equating technological determinism with technological imperative – that when we can do something, we are obliged to do it, and it inevitably will happen given time.

Second was Dahlberg, L (2004). Internet Research Tracings: Towards Non-Reductionist Methodology. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 9/3.  Dahlberg described three orientations towards the web:

  • Uses Determination – technology is neutral so what matters is how it is used
  • Technological Determination – more aligned with Marshal McLuhan‘s “the medium is the message”
  • Social Determination – the impact of technology on social context

The different perspectives offer nuances to our exploration of digital culture, and as the instructors noted, the same could be said for e-learning.

The remaining readings focused on education in general.   In Daniel, J. (2002). Technology is the Answer: What was the Question? Speech from Higher Education in the Middle East and North Africa, Paris, Institut du Monde Arabe, 27-29 May 2002, the speaker posits that evolving technology is the main force changing society worldwide.  He suggests that we need to look at the big picture, avoid bias, detect the bull that exists, take a broad view, and seek balance.  Noteworthy to me was Daniel’s viewpoint that in America, we tend to focus on how technology impacts teaching, while in the rest of the world, they examine how technology impacts learning.  This was stated a decade ago, so is it fair (or still fair?)?

In Noble. D. (1998). Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education. First Monday 3/1, David Noble argues a dystopian view that digitized course material online was commercializing higher education at the expense of learning.  Two quotes were interesting:

“Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e–mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities, and responsiveness.”

Fifteen years ago…and yet I would suggest that some faculty today are still citing this fear as a reason not to move into open resources or use digital technology.

Noble also states: “Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind.”  Again, a theme I have heard in the past year…and not just from faculty.  In our current GRAD-602 class, several students have discussed their fear of the use of blogging as an academic publishing platform, because in the hard sciences, others might steal their intellectual property.

The final reading is Marc Prensky’s (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9/5. Recent research has pretty successfully suggested that the digital native notion is not backed by the facts.  Bullen et al(2009) stated that:

“A prevailing view of today’s post secondary learners is that they are fundamentally different than previous generations in how they learn, what they value in education, how they use technology, and how they interact. The notion of the “Millennial learner” or “digital learner” has become accepted as a fact, even though there is limited empirical support for this.” (p. 2)

In another article, Bullen, Morgan, and Qayyum (2011) noted:

“…Our research found that there is no empirically-sound basis for most of the claims that have been made about the net generation. More specifically, the study suggests that there are no meaningful differences between net generation and non-net generation students at this institution in terms of their use of technology, or in their behavioural characteristics and learning preferences. Our findings are consistent with the conclusions of other researchers (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008; Guo, Dobson, & Petrina, 2008; Jones & Cross, 2009; Kennedy et al., 2007, 2009; Kvavik, 2005; Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008; Pedró, 2009; Reeves & Oh, 2007; Selwyn, 2009).”  (p. 2)

Bennett and Maton (2010) noted that some of the original authors had begun to distance themselves from the digital native discourse, including Prensky.  Again, these are 2013 views…one could argue that Prensky’s viewpoint permeated much of the early literature about the impact of digital media on learning.

This week’s “readings” ended with one of my favorite Wesch videos, which I include here for those who may not have seen it.

This look back has been informative for me, and I look forward to next week, where we look ahead and explore Shirky‘s and my friend Gardner Campbell‘s views.

…and now that I am posting this to #edcmooc, time to jump in to Twitter and Facebook and find some fellow classmates’ blogs for their views and commenting!

(…and looking forward to some of the 40,000 taking EDCMOOC to comment here!)


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11 thoughts on “EDCMOOC Week 1: Utopias and Dystopias

  1. Thanks for the summary of this week’s work. The reference to Bullen et al was especially helpful.
    This is my second MOOC, and I’m still wondering if they are here to stay. I’m a fellow Richmonder and glad to have stumbleb onto your blog.

  2. @Diane – neat to know another Richmonder is in here with me! And I wonder too – I’m taking this for the experience as much as the learning (though the class is pretty interesting so far!).

  3. I you can read this I have proven to be “a person”…;-) Thanks for the summary of the first week…saved me some work .. and thanks again for the Prensky-update. I wonder, do man blog more about content and woman about how it is like to be in a Mooc? Anyway..this is mine: http://ilonkahebels.wordpress.com/312-2/

  4. There is no question rockstar lecturers and curricula developers can run circles around the average run of the mill prof. However, a distent rockstar can’t provide the motivation, or the excitement of a given course of study nearly as well as what an even mediocre lecturer can accomplish in person. The other aspect is one of research and greater depth of knowledge in a narrow field, that no rockstar, no matter how well versed could ever accomplish.

  5. You tickle me, Britt! Hope that you have lots of interaction from those in cyberspace. I was pleased to see that your comments about natives and immigrants generated some discussion on FB. I’ll continue to carry the torch as we prepare to revive this mislead and confused about residents and visitors!

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