Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

The Flip (or Dark) Side To Open Learning

In my previous post, I gave a summary of three things that stood out from the e-Fiesta celebration (not conference) that I attended. What stood out in particular was the unconference as a practice and as a participant in it. The practice has already evolved in the mind of G. Ng to become an 'unlesson' which was very helpful as I was figuring out since then how to make unconference a regular practice in class.

As a participant, the unconference took an expected slow and quiet start but it didn't take long before the conversation began to flow. Towards the end, two themes were beginning to emerge:

  1. Assessment and e-Learning.
  2. The willingness of schools and institutions to contribute their resources.

This being a celebration about e-Learning, the conversation about the potential and promise of e-Learning was rather positive which was a point of concern for me. It seemed as if developments in ICT would usher in an education utopia. In no way is this positivity unique to the unconference. Instead, it's a reflection of the mood in digital world. While I do wish and hope that the education utopia will be realised - everyone learning, sharing and collaborating - I was concerned that little attention was given to the potential for abuse and failure. Technology is a tool. The greater its potential for good, so also the greater its potential for bad. With those concerns, I joined in the conversation to contribute two points, namely

  • to urge the community to look beyond the context of education and technology
  • to correct the misconception of the Internet as the 'Space of all spaces'

Competition For Survival

In my experience, the discussions surrounding ICT in teaching and learning seem to assume that education is a separate and exclusive sphere. This leads to a mistaken notion that everyone has the desire to learn for the sake of learning. Schools and governments are often the convenient scapegoat and caricatured as the big obstacle to learning, oppressing students by imposing tests and rigid curricula.

Proponents need to consider the larger context beyond education and technology. In this increasingly competitive economic climate, institutions and individuals are fighting hard to have the distinctive advantage that keeps them ahead of the pack. This struggle for dominance and survival has a large impact on how institutions and individuals behave.   

The benefits of open learning aren't evenly distributed. Larger and more established institutions, with available resource and infrastructure are more likely to be in a better position to leverage on these benefits. With increasing competition for students and more dollars, control and ownership of content is the only way schools are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd. The internet is also a place where every word, facial expression or move of the hand is scrutinised, open to misinterpretation and never forgotten. Again, in a world where reputation counts, these are risks that administrators are understandably unwilling to take.

It does seem exciting as more people with an internet connection and a web browser can get access to the best educational resources from all over the world. However, there is also a need to go beyond instruction and consider how students can be assessed. While the love of learning may be noble, economic survival is a real concern that needs to be addressed. Are institutions, organisations and companies willing to recruit and hire persons with a set of certificates from Coursera? Can these certificates be trusted and how reliable are they? Interestingly, the lack of economic value with these certificates has kept the world of e-Learning free from the ills of competition. However, when top universities and corporations are willing to recruit students who learned solely in Coursera, Udacity and the like, it should be obvious how the current system is open and easy to abuse. Given the stakes involved, it would be of no surprise that massive open online courses will also see massive numbers of students crossing the moral boundary to get ahead.

Just Another Space

Intentional or not, the Internet is often misconceived as the space of all spaces. It is the space that will connect all other spaces so long there is an internet connection. It is the space of all spaces free of limits and boundaries that hinder the real world. It is difficult not to think that way as technology is an exciting domain. Technological progress and development is very tangible and likewise the benefits that follow soon after. 

Whilst the internet as a space is unique and distinct, it is just another space. Just like other spaces, it has limitations and boundaries that enable and constrain at the same time. We need to recognise and be reminded that authentic learning is inherently social and social connection is something we haven't fully understood; in danger of losing the appreciation of its value. Parents have a major influence on the child's learning, perhaps more than the school and teachers combined. Friends and peers also have considerable effects, if not more than the teacher when it comes to learning. Perhaps when technology has progressed to a point where families and lovers are unable to perceive any difference in relations despite geographical distances, that would be the day that the internet has become 'The Space'. Is that a day to rejoice or mourn over?

Conclusion

The reader should not mistaken me as an opponent to e-Learning. If teaching in essence is about communication, then ICT is a tool we should welcome and explore to improve teaching and learning. However, I do think it is important that we remind ourselves that ICT is just that, a tool. Like all other tools, it can be used towards good or bad outcomes. The same tool that spreads the idea of peace can also be used to spread the idea of hate. The same tool that can teach remotely and asynchronously to build a car can also teach to build a bomb. The same tool that opens us to new worlds also opens up worlds we do not wish to see or worlds we do not want others to see. 

At the end of the day, the problem and solution with learning isn't found in technology, it's found in the human heart.

Of Sages and Stages

e-Learning: Education & Humanity; Utopias & Dystopias