Cyberdystopia: ...But Be Wary, Reflective about Real Ones

Cyberdystopia: ...But Be Wary, Reflective about Real Ones

Beyond the straw men, there is a deeper concern about the Cyberdystopia scenario which is not so easily dismissed -- what are we truly giving up when we embrace cyberized education?

As we use digital technologies to extend our capabilities in once-unimaginable ways, have we thought deeply enough about what we value and wish to preserve about the human elements of education so that we make sure that we don’t lose something important? And are there real physical, mental, and other dangers which will increase with the ubiquitous presence of cyberized education?

These questions are not excuses to turn away from cyberized education, which in any event is no longer an option. Refusing to embrace a potent technology flies in the face of human nature itself. Human society and culture are inextricably linked with our technology; it does not define us, but our relationship with our technologies certainly does.

Human history teaches us that adoption of new technologies always involves a trade-off; something is gained, something else is lost. When humans gain by extending our capacities, we also tend to lose something of our prior capacities. Let’s face it, as a species our skills have slipped when it comes to pyramid building, cooperage, catapault fabrication, and a lot of other areas. From the legend of John Henry, to computers beating grandmasters at chess, to schoolchildren losing the capacity to do simple math in their heads in an age of ubiquitious calculators, there is almost always something lost and a concomitant sense of ambivalence when we adopt a new technology. This has been true since humans began making technology. On balance, the adoption of a technology has usually resulted in a net gain; the gains outweigh the losses in most cases. The losses are real, but losses are not an argument against change.

There are also always dangers associated with adopting a new technology. Some early cavemen surely set themselves on fire, burned their hands, or died of smoke inhalation; the horrors of working factories during the Industrial Revolution are well-documented. We marvel at the miracle of the Pyramids at Giza, but it’s likely that the slaves who built them experienced more misery than marvel.

Cyberized education is no different; there is real danger here of giving up human capacities in favor of digital ones. One way to see this is to consider examples of online education done badly. One common error made especially in the early years of online education was to try to “replicate” the classroom experience in an online course. Trying to make a copy of a classroom course in an online format is a lot like making a copy of a videotape; it aims to be equal, but it always loses some of its fidelity in the copying process and thus is doomed to be inferior to the original.

Another commonly used but misguided technique is online video recordings of classroom lectures, many of which are simply low production value recordings of classroom lectures with accompanying notes slides. In one Open Yale Course for example, a psychology professor talks for several minutes before turning to write something on the blackboard; his hand disappears off camera -- but we never get to see what’s written.

Arguably, much of this can be explained away as the missteps of pioneers and early adopters learning by doing and making mistakes in the process. A more persistent concern is the loss of important capabilities as the result of becoming dependent on newly adopted technologies. What happens to penmanship when people use keyboards for the vast majority of their written communication? In an age of ubiquitious calculators, to what extent do we need to perserve the human capacity to do simple math in our heads? A high school chemistry teacher I know told me a story about giving his students some paper flip charts for preparing a presentation. They were lost; they only knew how to make presentations in PowerPoint and had no clue about how to use a flip chart for the same purpose.

Each of these examples highlights the central issue with adopting technology: maintaining the “human” capacity to do the function without the aid of technology vs. becoming dependent on our technology by offloading our capacities onto it. Each decision to adopt a new technology demands that we decide what tradeoffs to make in terms of our capacities. The reality is that we as a species are not very good yet at making these tradeoffs intelligently; we tend to adopt new technologies with relatively little regard for their possible consequences.

The answer is to get better at figuring out these tradeoffs -- specifically, by reflecting on our existing capacities and figuring out what is worth keeping and what is not. Too many educators, for example, are simply reflexive about how they teach; they do more or less what they’ve always done, having learned from someone else who did it the same way. Too few teachers exhibit true curiosity about how the teaching and learning process actually works, to a large extent because they have long been hamstrung by a system which actively discourages such curiosity. This approach was never great, but it is even less tenable in today’s world. By contrast, online education has attracted large numbers of faculty who seek, or need, to be reflective in order to figure out how to teach using the new media and delivery mode.

Another concern is the creation of new dangers caused by the implementation of these technologies. For example, at present there is considerable controversy about the potential long-term dangers of mobile phone use. It was years before I learned that I should not put my laptop on my lap because of long-term radiation concerns. Little is known about the long-term effects of staring at computer screens for hours at a time, although these are as much work issues as education issues.

It is helpful to remember/remind ourselves that today’s problems were in part also solutions to previous problems. It is routine nowadays to deride the factory model of education as epitomized by rows of seats in classrooms, and rightfully so, but the factory model was itself a solution to the problem of bringing education to the masses, and as such was seen as a vast improvement over the previous version.

Even the shrillest of alarms sounded by Cyberdystopians are useful for reminding us not to simply adopt new technologies reflexively and uncritically, but to ask questions about the possible consequences. What makes the more extreme Cyberdystopians annoying is their black-and-white response to the adoption of cyberized education. They fit into a long-standing tradition of predicting the end of the world as the result of major, far-reaching change. In fact, it arguably represents the current state of our species’s ability to protect itself while adapting to change. But the extreme Cyberdystopian response is overwrought and over-cautious. Far more useful than predictions of impending doom would be to get better at being able to anticipate possible negative consequences, even while knowing that it is impossible to anticipate all the possible ramifications of the changes which will result from the cyberization of education.

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