What is required?

Although I have stepped back quite a bit from my reading and research in online education, I still have a Google Alert set, and still receive and examine recent articles, when I can stomach it.

The dictatorial tone of both articles in my inbox today is the subject here.

The first, The Necessary Knowledge for Online Education: Teaching and Learning to Produce Knowledge (Ferreira et al), did a study of 27 educators, all in the field of Education, to determine what knowledge (this sort of article usually says “skills”) are needed to teach online. What struck me was the premise, stated in the abstract:

Online education requires pedagogical mediation and the skills and competencies to work with technological resources which promote interaction, collaboration, and co-learning.

Well, that’s just not true. Online education does not require an emphasis on collaboration – rather it is one possible approach. It is also entirely possible to create online education that personalizes the class through different kinds of approaches to content, or emphasizes at every step the learner’s relationship with the material rather than through colleagues and “co-learning”. I understand that the current phase in online education pushes the collaborative approach, but it certainly is not “required”.

The second article, Online Continuing and Professional Education: Current Varieties and Best Practices (Schroeder, et al), features this idea:

Teaching online requires a team, not just an individual. While face-to-face teaching may be a singular effort, online teaching includes a multitude of technical, pedagogical, environmental, and associated considerations that requires a team of experts.

That’s not true either. I have never had a “team”, but rather developed not only my own pedagogical and technological skills, but helped design a “Pedagogy First” paradigm wherein the individual instructor’s strengths were basic to course design. I realize that these days there are more resources (among them instructional designers with advanced degrees and research articles produced by candidates for PhDs in Education), but those do not, by some reverse design, indicate that these things are required.

As the literature has developed over the last decade, much of it written by people who are not teachers and have not taught online, the “options” have become “requirements”, and the possibilities have narrowed into “best practices” (best for whom?) and necessary elements. This creates downward pressure on the creativity of teaching online, stultifying the field and cookie-cuttering our courses. Faculty who want students to focus on content are forced to develop “interactions” which oppose their own pedagogy, common sense, and experience. Helpless in a context they did not create, and for which they are pedagogically unsuited, they are told that not only is the social learning method “required”, but that a team is “required” to help them.

Did I mention I’d stepped back from reading the newest in online ed? There’s a reason for that.

The electronic frontier is closed

With the death of John Perry Barlow, it is time to start writing the history of the open web.

Usually, historians are poor analysts of current events, and poor predictors of the future. Just look at Woodrow Wilson, idealistically trying to build a world of peace after the Great War. One of the problems is that we cannot write the history until something ends*. It is too soon, for example, to write the history of school shootings in America, or of post-rational politics. We are in the middle of these things.

In 1893 at an American Historical Association conference, Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the frontier. In his view, the “wild west” was over. The western frontier had served as an escape valve throughout American history, providing a place for dreamers and those who just didn’t fit in to start a new life, take their chances. But gradually the frontier was contained, mapped by geographers, fenced by ranchers, crossed by railroads. And while imperialists might use Turner’s proclamation to support their own internationally expansionist goals, the point was that the wild west was done, and therefore it was time to write its history.

So now it is time to write the history of the open internet, the electronic frontier, as Barlow called it. As in the wild west, the freedom that marked the early web would be contained, civilized, and gradually controlled by commercial and government interests. As it closed, the shift in the nature of the space gave birth to new threats. Where on the open web bad disruptors were restrained by the community, commercial spaces made possible abuses never seen before, and controlled by no one. From trolls to cyberhacking to international meddling in elections, the enclosed spaces themselves gave rise to horrors.

In its obituary of Barlow, The Economist quoted from his 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” :

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.

Sometimes historians get to experience historical change themselves. While never a computer expert, I learned in the 1980s the mysteries of ProDOS and the Apple IIe. To me, computers were only sophisticated word processors, each generation enabling me to correct errors and write faster. Using Netscape in the late 1990s, I began teaching history on the wild web, grading assignments by email and posting lectures in HTML that I learned from a book.

In education, the wild west began to diminish with the advent of the learning management system, and I spent the next dozen years or so fighting to keep online college classes free of the imposed pedagogy inherent in these systems, even as I learned to use them myself. I also dreamed that the artisan way of doing things would survive the growth of mechanized online teaching. Blackboard and now Canvas are the educational equivalents of Facebook and Google – entities that began with a worthy goal but now manage information in controlled commercial spaces. And, as with the web in general, this control paradoxically encourages the worst elements to emerge. College courses, for so many students the opportunity to think freely, now feature a level of standardization and accountability that Henry Ford would have envied.

I still believe, like Barlow, that the freer the space, the less opportunity there is for abusing our fellow human beings. But all that has passed. It is time now to write the history of the web that was open to all, when everything was possible, where the disembodied voice spoke to a world that wanted to listen and learn. Historians take dreams and wrap them up, explaining events in a way that gives meaning and context. So this is a wrap: the electronic frontier is closed.


*Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France may be the one exception to this rule.