Connected Learning: Getting Beyond Technological Determinism

Life lately has felt like one of those dreams where you’re in a cab with your third-grade teacher on the way to a conference presentation you forgot to prepare for and then suddenly the cab morphs into a giant recycling plant and everything is spinning and…

What? You don’t have those dreams?

I have them when things get busy. It’s like a grand exercise in convergence: everything blurs together.

From the midst of the blur, though, there’s a thread I want to try to untangle from the early weeks of #etmooc (Educational Technology and Media, a collaboratively-hosted connectivist MOOC) and #edcmooc (E-learning and Digital Cultures, my first Coursera effort, offered through the University of Edinburgh). I’m taking both at once, in admittedly a bit of a peripheral way.

But the ideas are starting to bounce off each other and amplify…and then weave back together around this thread of technological determinism. Or, as I like to call it, the spectre haunting networked culture.

Technological Determinism 101
We live in a culture saturated with the idea that technologies are, effectively, things in themselves, in spite of the fact that they arise from and are utilized and therefore given meaning within particular social and cultural contexts. We tend to see technologies in terms of their “thingness” – their shiny gadget glory – rather than in terms of the affordances or action possibilities they enable in different societal situations. This separation of thing from context and possibility leads  to determinism, or the belief that machines have the capacity to act on us and do things to us in and of themselves.

Determinism has a long and fairly star-studded history: from Socrates’ laments about what writing would do to memory through Marshall McLuhan and down to Nicholas Carr’s present-day ideas about Google making us stupid, lots of smart and famous people have forwarded rather deterministic views of the technologies of their times, during those times. Determinism tends towards answers in times of change. Could be why it’s popular?

Now, I’m not saying all determinist conclusions about technologies are wrong. What I am saying is that the way determinism gets to them creates problems. Determinism tends towards a reductionist view of what technologies are and do, assuming direct cause-effect relationships between technologies and what they make possible. Determinism also tends to attribute social phenomena that occur around given technologies to the technologies themselves, rather than what they stand for or enable or afford. Therefore, it renders the perspective on those phenomena forever skewed and tech-focused, so long as the determinist lens is still in place.

What’s wrong with that? Lots.

Technologies Don’t Connect People: Networked Relationships Connect People
The current American gun control debate is perhaps the most dramatic lens through which to illustrate the ways in which technological determinism makes for stupid arguments. On both sides of the fence.

Determinism is, in effect, a world view; one that reduces societal phenomena to “technology x did thing y.” The rest of the factors involved in the conversation get obscured or intentionally dismissed: the power of the technology to act is assumed, even when the determinist is arguing against the statement being put forward. Thus the anti-gun-control maxim “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” isn’t knee-jerk anti-determinism but actually determinism at work. It effectively controls and reduces the conversation to an assertion that guns get up by themselves and commit murder, and then smacks that down.

Now, maybe some people actually believe guns act like the brooms in Fantasia, multiplying and sweeping all by themselves. Most arguments for gun control and gun bans don’t actually operate that way, though. Those that do are determinist, and not very convincing, IMO. Guns and their availability absolutely DO lead to increased numbers of deaths, but no, generally not without people to pull the triggers.

What determinism does, though, is keep the conversation focused around a simple if specious cause-effect assertion and away from the whole host of demographic factors and identity factors and cultural factors that put people at risk from guns and support the arguments for restricted access. Determinism dismisses complexity and reinforces the idea that societal equations are simple, even when it’s pressed into service against simple equations few people are actually making. Culturally, we are trained and conditioned to accept technological determinism as common sense. So the very presence of determinism makes an important conversation hard to have, because effectively…the parties aren’t IN the same conversation, much of the time.

What does this have to do with networks and the admittedly less urgent issues around connected learning and the MOOCs I’m hanging out in? I think determinism and its prevalence as a cultural worldview are a very big part of what make the whole purpose and point of networking essentially invisible to those who aren’t immersed in it.

And I have #edcmooc and #etmooc to thank for converging to point that out to me.

Tech Utopias and Tech Dystopias are All Determinism
The very first week of #etcmooc boldly opened the conversation about digital cultures from an exploration of both Utopian and Dystopian perspectives on digital technologies within cultures, as well as a great foundational reading arguing against determinism. Part of me is tickled by this, because it’s making for great imagination fodder in the tweets and discussion, but I also note that the flights of (really artistically compelling) determinism represented by the best Dystopias and Utopias tend to reinforce the same worldview . Like the “guns don’t kill people” mantra, Dystopian and Utopian narratives frame thinking about technologies in their own binary good/bad terms. So it’ll be interesting to see if and how the class actually breaks down those binaries as we carry on, or if we get stuck there, endlessly debating whether digital culture is Utopic or Dystopic.

For my part, I think digital culture – and particularly networked culture – is neither. It has elements of good and bad, but good or bad is, from my non-determinist’s lens, the wrong question to even be asking.

But I do think determinism gets in the way of many of the conversations I try to have about networked culture, as a teacher and a scholar and a blogger whose work is largely about framing this complex set of practices within various non-networked contexts.

How the Add-On Perspective Misses the Point
I saw this again last night, when I tuned into George Couros‘ #etmooc discussion of connected leadership. George is an actively networked Division Principal who shares his learning and his educational practice, and who advocates for encouraging this type of connection across educational communities and between stakeholders.

In the backchannel chat on Collaborate, there was a lot of anecdotal discussion of the differences connection – ie building networked professional profiles via social media – has made for many of us, as well as a particularly skeptical response from one participant who kept saying things along the lines of, “but we didn’t have social networking sites when I was a kid, and I turned out fine.”

In my life outside of MOOCs, I meet a lot of people with these kinds of positions on social media. Many of them are my loved ones, my good friends, my colleagues and teachers. Many of them have also never really tried the things they dismiss so easily, so kudos to the dude in the #etmooc chat for being willing to engage in the networked environment of the MOOC long enough to make the point, at least.

But it is a point that tends to miss the point. It’s a point that assumes social networks are an add-on, an extra…essentially a tech toy or a diversion from the “real” work or “real” sociality that makes the world go round. This is digital dualism, but it’s also determinism at work. It hears all this enthusiasm about connection as about the social networking platforms themselves – “yay blog!’ or “yay Twitter!” – and not about the connections and actions and forms of identity that those networked environments make possible.

Determinism reduces conversation about social networks to a conversation about platforms and tech, not about people and the ways in which they intersect with those platforms and tech to create new possibilities. It effectively mutes those latter parts of the conversation; refuses them admittance. It insists that a conversation about technologies’ effects is a conversation about the technologies themselves.

Twitter is not a Ferrari
Subtle distinction, maybe. And one that we’ve been acculturated to miss: enthusiasm related to technologies WAS mostly about the tech platform itself, back in the mechanical and even early digital ages. If I’m excited about driving a Ferrari, for instance, it’s likely not the fact that I’m off to see Grandma or wide open spaces that is actually the focus of my excitement, but rather the Ferrari itself.

Now, Twitter is no Ferrari, but early – and pervasive – geek culture stereotypes tend to perpetuate this narrative of the hard-on for the thing in itself rather than what it affords. And those of us who don’t self-identify as geeks – I’m one, for all my immersion in the digitally networked sphere – are trained to recognize this narrative as Other and thus reject it.

Thus to those who’ve never really used a social network other than FB, where you’re pretty much talking to people you know, the chatter about how marvellous being a connected educator or scholar or simply human can be probably sounds a lot like “yay Twitter!” They look at us, and think, “man, those people get TOO excited about 140-character-limits on expression” and we all go about our merry business still completely misunderstanding each other.

Does Connection Minimize Technological Determinism?
The narratives we have around technologies and society and their intersections aren’t hugely visible to most of us. And they tend to shift with use: I have yet to see anyone deeply embedded within networked culture – whether as an educator or a momblogger or a poet – who has a determinist view of technologies. This isn’t a matter of chicken-egg…over nearly seven years, I’ve watched even people who started out quite convinced that their online lives were an add-on utterly separate from their real lives and that blog platforms were fun in and of themselves move to deeply embedded networked identities.

But many don’t start. And I’m thinking maybe being able to recognize technological determinism and address it directly might give those of us who find value in networked connections and connected learning an important tool for building better conversations about this, and therefore better connections.

the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC

It’s a brand new year, people. Four days in, and my brain is still rife with metaphors of new-fallen snow and fresh starts and resolute setting of goals.

But for all the rhetorical power of these conceptual flights of potentiality, I am stuck with the distinct feeling that the old year bloody well followed me home and sits lolling about on my desk, laughing at my attempts to clean slate and begin anew.

“Wherever you go, there you are,” an old friend used to say.

Where I am is still last year’s business. In fact, if 2012 really *was* the Year of the MOOC, I’ll be cozied up with last year for the next three months straight.

The night before New Year’s Eve, I joked on Twitter about Dave & I buckling down to work on the MOOCbook before the zeitgeist of the old year passed.

This morning I opened up my poor neglected blog and discovered the draft of this post, begun in July and last touched in late October, titled, in fact, “the MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC.” Apparently the joke is on me.

That’s the thing about MOOCs. They’re so everywhere that I can’t even keep track of what *I’ve* thought about them in the past couple of months, let alone the other copious buckets of ink spilled on the topic.

The whole damn thing has gotten so vast. And I feel as though it’s anathema to the current professional climate to ever admit one is overwhelmed, especially early in the new year, when one is supposed to be washed clean of all that baggage.

But there it is. Wherever you go, there you are.

Looking around at the broad higher ed/edtech scene, I suspect talking about MOOCs in productive ways is getting harder for everyone.

When there’s a clamour of voices, identifying the places and positions people are speaking from, let alone what’s left to be said, can be an assault from all directions. Trying to research MOOCs and write speculatively about what they may imply for higher ed is a lot like working in the midst of a big ol’ maelstrom. Mostly composed of verbiage.

Traditional models don’t suffice. Good research tends to try to be clear about which shoulders of giants it stands upon, and which gap in knowledge it aims to address. MOOCs are still such a moving target that the gaps in knowledge and direction aren’t really yet clear. And news reporting thrives on a heady mix of sensationalism and actual change, both of which are beginning to wear thin.

Because the biggest obstacle to effective conversation about MOOCs is that none of us IN the conversation – even the biggest names – appear to be clear yet on what MOOCs are or can be, or on where they begin and end.

As Dave put it in his inaugural appearance in ye olde fancy Wall Street Journal, “Nobody has any idea how it’s going to work.”

I’d go a step further, beyond the business model aspect of the conversation. I think the challenge with MOOCs, at this juncture, is that nobody has any idea what they are. This makes talking about what they *can be,* let alone their effects on what *is* in contemporary higher ed, rather a challenge.

Roger Whitson nailed it back in August after the first #MOOCMOOC experiment, with his Derridean claim of “il n’y a pas de hors-MOOC”  or There is no-outside MOOC; there is nothing outside the MOOC.

We *know* what we mean when we talk about higher education, or at least, we believe we do. We have a broadly agreed-upon societal understanding of where the perimeters of that conversation lie. In fact, the perimeters of that conversation have traditionally lain more or less where MOOCs begin.

But where do MOOCs end? If we are talking about experimentation with learning online, on any kind of mass scale, are we then talking about MOOCs? How do we distinguish one possibility from another?

A year ago, MOOCs themselves were a rather small experimental niche; a loose but vibrant network of learning focused around principles of connectivism and openness and distributed, generative knowledge. Then Sebastian Thrun opened up the AI course at Stanford: to those for whom MOOCs were familiar, the term fit.

George Siemens called the AI course a MOOC back in August, 2011. The media gradually caught up, because there was no other equivalent term. When Thrun founded Udacity and the hype began to build, the word “MOOC”  followed. And the rest, as they say, is history. Rather accidental history.

One of the most fascinating things about the proliferation of MOOC buzz is the way in which it’s made visible the networks by which media and higher ed make knowledge today.

But here we are, wherever we go. MOOCs mean video lectures. Or they mean distributed, aggregated means of making new knowledge. Or they mean democratization, or disruption, or whatever other Christ-on-the-cross people want to hang their futures on.

So how do we talk about the Internet happening to education without getting hopelessly mired in Wittgensteinian language-games? How do we begin to sort out and advocate for what we want MOOCs to be, when conversations about them tend to immediately point out that participants are speaking from entirely different reference points and hopes and belief systems?

I wish I knew.  That’d be a heady way to start the new year. Instead, all I know is too much is being conflated under this bubble, as if everybody just woke up and noticed the internet might actually be relevant to higher ed. In that sense, I almost hope the 2012 narrative around MOOCs *is* good and dead, much as I doubt the calendar shift simply erased it.

But I also know that this messy, paralytic conversation remains one of the liveliest things I’ve ever participated in professionally, in almost twenty years in the field of education. The idealist in me says that if we don’t know where MOOCs end, then maybe their possibilities are still grandly open.

For me personally, the value of MOOCs has been primarily in belonging: in finding ways to connect and learn and share within otherwise too-broad networks. In that spirit, then, I’ve signed up for two new (connectivist-style) MOOCs this month – #etmooc and the second #MOOCMOOC – in the midst of the book-writing and thesis-researching on the subject.  I’m hoping the more active engagement will help rejuvenate my own sense of the meta-conversation, and where to speak from.