wk 1: threads to pattern


well, now I’ve been to the movies and read all the theory, it’s time for the weekly digest…

guided by the thought dichotomy of utopia and dystopia, it’s been fun to explore a few short films and several readings around the topics of digital culture and eLearning

my favourite films this week were New Media and Inbox, as a contrasting pair. I love the visual style of Benito Machine, it stays in the mind, but the eery misery of New Media created the most dramatic contrast with the upbeat Inbox, so they’re at the forefront of my thinking this week.

my favourite readings were Dahlberg, Daniel and Noble, because they resonated most strongly with my experience and concerns in my current teaching and research… I was much less impressed by the papers of Chandler and Prensky – light on evidence, big on questionable metaphor and/or just sloppy and boring (and I’m sure few will agree with me there, but I dare to say what I think in this space, it’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to…!)… as for the sketch video by Wesch, well… I absolutely love the animation, but the ‘argument’ strikes me as specious nonsense, and it annoys me because it’s potentially very influential – the seductive visuals cover a very problematic sleight of hand… should I elaborate?

I guess, because of my immediate interests and concerns in what I’m writing at the moment, I tend to go straight for what theorists of communication say about language – whether they even mention the word, and if so, what they say. I keep finding a lack of language theory, and while that doesn’t surprise me, it does still disappoint me (decades after ‘the linguistic turn’).

Chandler’s section of deterministic ‘language’ for example seems to be using the word as a synonym for a few recurring phrases or keywords, leaving the impression that somehow everything else going on in a linguistic representation (ie his and every text he’s referred to) is NOT language…. which is rather odd. There are of course important patterns he is picking up on, and much of interest in the paper as a whole, it just seemed a great shame to me that there’s no sense of need indicated here for a more sophisticated kind of analysis of  ‘the language’.

I found Dahlberg’s account much more thoughtful, well researched and engaging – even though he didn’t mention the L word either…

Prensky’s argument irritated me a lot I guess because it just takes the ‘accent’ metaphor too far, and his  generalisations and exaggerations throughout do the opposite of persuade for me. It’s simply not the case that all or even most people under the age of whatever are ‘fluent in ICT’ and heavily into computer games – and that leads me to the second gripe, his motivation for such absurd generalisation… Prensky’s argument is just the sort of bias Daniel warns us to beware of (he is after all in the business of selling an educational ‘gamification’ instructional design service!)

Wesch’s ‘argument’ (she said in inverted commas, given that there is no evidence or logic holding it together, just a cool animation), so irritated me I started writing a much longer response (that I won’t bore readers with here and now, but will no doubt emerge somewhere soon)… probably my ‘visual artefact’…

BUT anyway, what I REALLY enjoyed in the material selected for us this week is the quality of the selection itself – it struck me as a very well considered set of films and readings, in relation to each other and to the questions being asked. I also thought the guiding advice was very good – to consider the material in relation to specific patterns of thought; such as the claims identified by Hand and Sandywell, the ‘technological determinism’ stance in various readings of what’s going on with digital culture and eLearning, and whether and how each ‘text’ represents a relationship between utopian/dystopian-ism, technological determinism and a stance towards issues of democracy, access and resistance…. I’m trying to digest all that as I think about the ‘visual response’ we’re tasked to create

I enjoyed considering how these utopian, dystopian and determinist ways of thinking may affect how we / I think about and practice online education, and was amazed to see, particularly in Noble, how current debates were so alive and well articulated in 1998’s educational discourse – absolutely nothing has changed there, I could see echoes of his points everywhere in the debate I’ve been collating over the past month or so

in the discussion forum


I don’t think I can deal with the discussion threads in the course website, they’re just too massive and chaotic and I get lost and overwhelmed because users are not following the basic rules of replying to questions (they are creating new threads on the same topic), and where they are replying there are hundreds of responses, too many to possibly read… so I’m just going there to pick up Jeremy’s questions and answer them here!

  • Jeremy said Benito Machine is one of their favourite films back at ground control, and asked what we think it’s saying about our relationships with technology, and how this  might relate to the ideas of technological determinism… What are the characteristics of the various technologies portrayed in this film, and how might they relate to the ways that technology has been depicted in educational literature?
    I blogged about the film before I’d read the educational literature, so I didn’t comment then about how the technology representation in the film relates to the representation of technology in educational literature (apart from a brief reference to Wesch)…. Thinking about it now that I’ve read the theory (and pseudo theory) recommended, I’d say this film represents mass communications technologies as the opposite of meaningful ‘communication’, as a colonising force and a social and environmental threat. In terms of the literature, it’s easy to classify it as an example of one of the common claims about IT identified by Hand & Sandywell, namely, that while the technology itself may be banal, meaningless and inherently neutral, it is controlled by anti-democratic forces and is therefore dangerous, when people don’t think and resist. I noted as I was reading Dahlberg that it’s example of what he refers to as technological determinism and media reification (as is New Media)
  • then he asked how we think Inbox might suggest utopian or dystopian ideas about the nature of communication in a mediated world, and what kind of educational debates can we draw associations with here…
    as I posted, I find this an entirely utopian view of what can be achieved with social media, by those who use it carefully and for their own purposes. It doesn’t deal with issues of democracy and resistance, but certainly with human agency. In relation to the literature, I found myself noting in the margins as I was reading Dahlberg that we could read Inbox as an example of ‘cyber liberarianism’… but I did find it very interesting, as Angela noted in her post, that the action is very deliberately located within a commercial context, which I was thinking about when I was reading Dahlberg’s comments about social deterministic accounts that inadequately account for how media technologies involve multiple interests, unintended consequences…. and possibilities for alternative uses, as I thought the film was deliberately if subtlely alluding to these things
  • about Thursday he asked what we think it’s saying about technology, what people seem to lose and gain, and whether we “perceive similar themes of deficiency or enhancement in discussions of technology use in education”… I blogged about it a bit, and on reflection now, having read more, I still find it saying least of all four films… it seems to me a benign view of technology, even though the life of people and birds depicted strikes me as a nightmare of mindless conformity and emptiness, and I can’t see anything ‘gained’…. have to admit that this one irritated and bored me a bit, I guess because I couldn’t determine a clear message and because I don’t personally find the cutsie computer gamesy look appealing
  • I couldn’t see a discussion thread specifically about New Media, but I blogged about it here
  • I noted in my reading of the literature that New Media not only does some of what Benito Machine does (reifying media in a depressing dystopian vision), but also seems to represent, perhaps, something of the ‘naturalising’ tendency in some of the discourse ‘out there’, as the sequence moves from a close focus on vegetation covering the built environment smoothly into the more and more threatening images – which don’t seem to disturb the only human we see in the film, who calmly accepts what’s going on as though normal and inevitable. Like Inbox on the other side of the utopian/dystopian fence, this one seems to “encourage mystification” and also (unlike Inbox) passivity.

anyway in terms of the ‘learning objectives’ of the week, I feel that engaging with this material has helped me develop a  greater familiarity with typical utopian & dystopian modes of representation, and confidence to classify material and justify my interpretations.

I’m not yet sure whether I’ve developed better understanding of how such “common constructions of the web, technology and online learning” might be influencing my  understanding of what’s possible and desirable in my own practices as a learner and teacher…. but I’m very much in a reflective process about that at this point in time…

I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘swept up’ one way or the other (into believing that educational technologies are either perfectly wonderful or dangerously disastrous for educational access quality or cost), but I’ve certainly been exposed over the past decade to arguments on both sides of that fence… I’ve been an early adopter of all new ed techs I encounter (and actively seek them out), from the early 90s to now, but at the same time I think (hope) I consider them carefully before inflicting them on my students… at the same time, there are some I have no choice about. I work at a university that is very heavily into ‘blended’ learning, and all subjects have websites, and we’re currently transitioning from WebCT to Moodle… I’ve been involved in part of the evaluation of various platforms and in the peer learning about the one we selected…. I’m happy with some aspects of it and hate others, and so continue to seek out other options, so as to be able to give my students a good set of options to suit their needs rather than enforce a corporatised experience on them….

I learn new stuff every day in this ed tech field, and experience and consider a fairly balanced range of ups and downs with it all… whatever the ups and downs, I rather enjoy thinking about it and striving to improve my own practice, but I don’t adopt a deterministic stance – I think I quite consciously maintain a sense of agency and encourage my students to also, and basically see any technology as an extension of literacy, and therefore a central element of education… not in a simplistic instrumentalist way (as if it makes no difference what ‘tools’ we use, we still ‘think’ the same) – of course we make different meanings as we make meaning differently, but we also maintain much more than we perhaps realise….

the biggest change going on as I see it is simply that so much more of our conversational language is now in writing, and being visible and on the record, this modal shift is in itself jolting people into noticing things that have been rather invisible in spoken conversation… whatever names they might currently be giving it

the end of week ‘hangout‘ run by the teaching team was great!


9 comments on “wk 1: threads to pattern

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  6. Emily,

    As always, your blog has so many thought-provoking ideas. I like the fact that you are trying to find practical implications of the theories and ideas we are exposed to in this class.

    In practical terms, I took away the following lesson from week’s one readings (have not finished it all yet) and short films: to be cautious when adopting new technology (I am using technology here to mean everything from physical products- ipads, computers, cameras to web applications, learning management systems and such). I need to think about how a product was made (its environmental effect and labor costs), what its purpose is (is it purely for profit), whether I really need it (is it just a consumer gadget that I can live without), and how it would affect me or others if I use it (is it going to improve learning/teaching etc).

    Inspired by this Coursera course, I was thinking to implement a project in my online courses that evolves presenting material using one of the many cool digital artifact-creation tools (prezi, storify, etc.) Later I realized that I was thinking too much about the presentation method and exposing students to digital tools rather than the subject of the presentation and the learning objectives of my course, which is basically teaching them to analyze and interpret primary sources. I had to think about whether this new technological tool would really enhance students’ learning. I still have some thinking to do.

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me Desi, always love it when you drop in for a chat !
    Yes it’s hard to get the balance right isn’t it? I am tending now to just give students something of the choice we are having in this environment so they can do their assignments with whichever tools they feel comfortable using – whether that be PowerPoint, prezi, storify, or a digital story made with photo story or iMovie… Or a blog, or just an illustrated word document – I don’t really care, as long as they tell a good reflective story about their own experiences of doing their academic work in English, identify their strengths and weaknesses and plan a workable strategy for development… We’ve been working this way for a couple of years and results have been interesting… I’m always thinking about how to make the task easier yet more engaging… The challenge is always time, so they need tools they can use on mobile devices (to easily and quickly record daily experience) and that they can then save to other places, like blogs or LMS…

    I think what works is showing them a few easy tool options (and examples of what past students have created with them) and letting them choose. They need guidance, but they also need to feel free and creative…

    It’s been a pretty radical departure from the default practice that a lot of language and academic literacy education slips boringly into – as though a particular type of text or presentation mode were more important than the creative processes of observation, principled analysis, critical reflection and communication… documented and shared in whatever ways works

    I’m thinking it must be the same with your history students, no?

    • Hi, Emily,
      I actually do not have much experience with asking my students to experiment with digital tools and have been relying on the “boring” traditional methods of essay writing and expression mostly in a written form. (I would love to hear your feedback on using digital tools and narratives with students in our next hangout.) The challenge I face is that I teach mostly online courses and students with diverse background- some of them are still struggling to figure out how Moodle works, how to save a file in .rtf versus .doc format and similar issues, so my problem is a logistic and time-management one: making sure that everyone understands the instructions and that no student feels intimidated by the digital tools and also managing my time of responding to their questions. Please note that my enrollment cap in each class is 50 students, so there is quite a lot of communication going on.
      The other problem is the nature of studying history. History is mostly studying written texts although we also have all kinds of other sources- digital artifacts, photos, videos, oral history, etc. By incorporating digital tools and digital narratives, we are changing the vary meaning of what “doing” history means, we become both creators of primary sources and observers of the past, so I have to be careful of what they leave the class with. I do not want them to think that a Prezi presentation is necessarily a serious historical analysis of a historical topic. (Perhaps, I am wrong here in trying to make a distinction between serious and superficial, valid and invalid approaches to doing history.)
      My task is primarily to make them think about who wrote a source, what its purpose was, what it is not telling us, what language the author used to persuade us in his or her argument, how it contradicts or compliments other sources – a critical thinking skill to question the intentions and objectivity of a document, which they can apply to analyzing advertisement, news articles, and other contemporary sources. The digital tools and what students can do with them have to be secondary to that task.

      • Hi Desi – I was just by chance watching a rather interesting doco on TV yesterday and was thinking of you as I did so, because it would be the sort of digital resource that students of history would love I reckon – my 13 year old daughter was in the room, and she said just that – if only we got to see professional historians in action, doing something interesting like this, I’d enjoy history…. she didn’t mean just watching a video, she meant having the opportunity, by whatever means, to actually observe professionals observing and interpreting primary sources, and networking with other fields, to create a richer interpretation of past events than they could alone. The doco was made by the bbc, so it’s probably available online.. I didn’t catch the name unfortunately, but I can look it up. They were basically working with bones from a pauper’s grave and trying to reconstruct a life story from the mid 19th century, and ended up being very confident in their named identification of a young woman, and their reading of the cause of death and the socio-economic conditions of her existence and demise… it was a very engaging way to learn of the particular part of London and the lives of women.

        So I guess I was thinking of your previous comment as I watched it in terms of how engaging the story was, and in terms of what students could then do with it – they could compare such an approach to doing and representing the work of historians with the more usual kind of resource students get in school – the textbook – and at first just discuss the pros and cons of how historical work is presented (ie as finished story about “this is the way it was because I said so” vs as interpretive process that we see unfolding)… and later they might work in teams to produce contrasting resources, following similar approaches to representation, telling quite different stories about the ‘same’ event or object as primary source in their own environment….

        just thinking aloud here, but I’m thinking it because one of the things I like about this course we’re doing here is the balance of focus on topics of discussion with consideration of how stories are told, how they are represented (the narrative structures, the material form, the inter-connection with other narratives)…. so readers are prompted to consider how they’re being positioned all the time, rather than to read naively …. I think that’s just as important for kids to be considering (at least that’s the sort of learning environment I inflict on my daughter at home, and she seems to like it! and I’m very pleased with how she never takes anything at face value… although sometimes a bit of mindless blind obedience to my commands would be nice !)

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