Cyberdystopia: Beware Straw Men...

Cyberdystopia: Beware Straw Men...


Most cyberdystopian criticisms about cyberized/online education lack substance -- false dichotomies and other straw men...

As noted in the previous post, criticisms about cyberized/online education, and online education in particular, consist mostly of straw men and false dichotomies. No one has seriously proposed abolishing grammar schools in favor of computers. “Staring at computer screens instead of facing other real human beings” is not an either-or choice, and online education is far, far more than staring at a computer screen.

Plus it’s not as if the classroom is the ultimate venue for interacting with other human beings. Ironically, classroom instruction as we commonly know it was itself designed in part by efficiency experts inspired by Frederick Taylor who wanted a more efficient, productive method -- uniform rows of seats, uniform information transmission, rote learning and assessment by regurgitation, etc. This is the approach which inspired the Saturday Review cover in the early 1970s which showed a head with a faucet on top and a spout coming from the mouth of a typical student. A long succession of education critics over the past 50 years have argued that the classrooms and lectures are essentially dystopian, and there is plenty of evidence to back them, starting with the 20-30% of high school students who have dropped out before graduating each year for the past 40 years, large percentages of college entrants also failing to graduate, and an abundance of spirit-killing experiences along the way. So which education method turns students into robots?

Countering the fear and occasional hysteria is a vast, steady, and ever-increasing accumulation of substantial research which indicates that online education is usually quite the opposite of a dystopian experience. The anecdotal evidence is even more abundant. A few examples:

1) I remember the first moment back in the mid 1990s when I knew that online education would turn out just fine: a psychology professor shared with me feedback from a student of hers who called her online course the best course she had ever taken.
2) A cohort of students in an online graduate education program some years ago who met for the first time in person at their graduation. It was like a reunion of long-lost friends - graduates in other campus-based programs looked around and wondered what all the noise was about -- most of them didn't have such close relationships with their fellow students. Which learning experience was more dystopian there?
3) A listserv post from an online teacher who teaches several online courses; on a whim, he invited his online students to a barbecue at his home during the summer of 2009. He thought it was a nice gesture to make; he didn't expect any to show up, but he said that dozens of his students from all over the country. How dystopian is that?

Of course, one can move beyond the false dichotomies and recognize that it's not an either/or choice. A learning experience can be online, in person, a combination, or by choice depending on student and/or teacher preference. Different modalities have their affordances, and effective learning can be designed with these in mind instead of trying to pit one modality against another in a pointlessly irrelevant conflict.

But beyond the many shortcomings of the extreme cyberdystopian viewpoint, there is a deeper concern which is not so easily dismissed -- more on that in the next post...

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