Back when I started teaching online in 1998, before LMSs and Google and text messaging, the future looked very free and very open. The educational pioneers who realized the potential of the World Wide Web for teaching and learning taught themselves HTML, figured out primitive discussion board programs, and saved images over and over to get them small enough to load over a 28 or (wow!) 56K modem.
Somewhere in the romance of the modem’s buzzing and the joys of webpage design was the feeling of freedom and openness that later would need to be defended.
And defend it we did, in open educational resources and our work on the open web. The enemies were clear: copyright, course management systems, and institutional inertia, as portrayed in this 2005 Flickr comic by Leigh Blackall.
With Web 2.0 came even more enthusiasm, as the web achieved its long anticipated role as a worthwhile tool for global communication, a place for the exchange of ideas and social progress. And the enemies changed too. Unlike the LMS or copyright, it’s been harder to recognize these enemies because they simply were not there before.
Gradually, closed spaces (Facebook, Ning, even Google if you understand what they’re up to) have become the norm, as have monetized sites. The spaces that were free are no longer free, although many of us freely contributed our own work to these sites, providing the basis of their popularity in the first place. Crowdsourcing, celebrated in story and song, has become the exploitation of the work of others in order to make money or provide cheap customer service. The use of personal information for marketing purposes is widespread, and creative people are leaving the platforms that brought everyone into the agora in the first place. Scholars at first enthusiastic about the future now see it as a lonely place. And I see conversations where people who care deeply about the web, education for the 21st century, and learning theories are beginning to back away from proselytizing about academic openness.
A need for protection emerges that wasn’t there before. Few people understand the technology into which they type their credit card numbers and post their status updates. For every party animal posting naked pictures there is a poor noob giving his account information to a sham company. For-profit online “colleges” charge huge fees for canned courses and leave their students poor and jobless. Blogs are watched for signs of terrorist activity. A single post can ruin a career. And if you miss it on the news, you can watch it on YouTube.
The environment has changed, and where before college instructors could take the position that our students know the web better than we do, and after all they are adults, these justifications begin to sound hollow. The desire to move our students into open environments with their ideas and creations can sound as much like ignorance of exploitation as a call to academic freedom and knowledge creation. This isn’t about stupid cat videos and the occasional stalker anymore — it’s about users becoming the products in the marketplace and the amusements in the panopticon.
Where are the safety zones in such an environment? Without new paradigms and innovative thinking, people will logically retreat back into copyright, learning management systems, and institutional standardization. Where before it might have made sense to say we should make sure everyone is web literate, now such literacy extends beyond critical thinking about websites into a deeper understanding of what the using the web means for individual privacy and independence. This time, the enemies of openness and freedom won’t need to argue their philosophical reasons – they’ll argue that they’re protecting people.
And the trouble is, they may be right.