It’s just not working out the way we thought it would

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.

17 comments to It’s just not working out the way we thought it would

  • Which side are you on, Lane, which side are you on 🙂

    This line of thought is deeply depressing, and why I hate higher ed as much as I like it.

    • Your side, Jim, always, always. 😉

      Time to start asking ourselves much tougher questions. It’s what we’re here for, right?

  • For me the notion of completely shielding people from harm is a far worse evil than walking through the danger with them. This is why I have such a major problem with the Department of Education and Training’s white-list policy (, which is in force even at the level of TAFE and affecting grown adults. I question how such an approach really prepares anyone for a life on the open web.

    Like you I’m really frustrated with the constant stream of about-face’s we’re seeing in companies that usee to vow to not be evil, or worse still, the public obsession with closed systems that view their users as assets for a business model (I’m looking at you Zuckerberg).

    I think, though, this makes our battle lines clearer than ever. Yeah it can be a depressing landscape (I’m coming off of a long period of disillusionment myself, as you know), but the thought of people like you and the Reverend packing it up and calling it quits is even more petrifying.

    We need to be the antidote for blind adoption 🙂

  • In this, as in so much, it seems that knowledge is power. And our job as educators is to empower others (and ourselves). Web literacy includes these hard questions of privacy, commodification etc. We need to be clear-eyed about what the web is and what it is becoming, and help our students and communities to be similarly aware. That has to mean, surely, some element of getting out there alongside our students, charting the landscape together.

    Does that mean no playing in closed spaces? No. But it means being very thoughtful about where we play, when, and why. Advocates of walled gardens don’t want the kids playing in the wilderness. Our job is in part to help them find what’s good in the garden, what’s good beyond, and what’s dangerous in both places.

    Place-based education is where it’s at.
    (This pun CC-NC-SA-A)

  • A lot of what I’ve done in the past that might be called “open” now was called “volunteer work” when it was done. Design concepts stolen, hard work that benefited mostly non-contributors. You chose your friends, your community, to serve and if others dine off your efforts? That’s the price you pay.

    How do we scale back our openness so it only benefits those we intended it to? We’re only part way into a change in awareness and new social norms and the literacy of openness turns out to be more complex than we thought.

  • OK, Mike, so we don’t want to shield so much we repress, and we want them to become educated. Granted.

    I like “charting the landscape together”. I think I’ll extend this — maybe we should always go in together. Hold hands. We don’t just model; we take them into the spaces and show them how to stay safe. I don’t know which metaphor I like for this (sherpa, scout master, head of TEPCO Fukushima mitigation team), but we should develop one further. Maybe it won’t work – maybe there isn’t a way to stay safe everywhere and some adventures should be abandoned. While Ed notes that we must help others become aware, I think the level of awareness necessary now may be too broad, high, or deep for many people.

    I guess it is kind of a scaling back, Scott, though that seems so sad. We waded in, got stung by jellyfish. It’s stupid to keep wading out without doing things very differently. Should we back up and learn more about the jellyfish, or wade in more carefully together? Should we wear neoprene socks or something?

  • Just to clarify here, by “walking through danger together” I didn’t mean we seek it out. It’s more about helping develop safe online habits and skills, rather than creating a lightning rod for our own backs. So when issues arise people are capable of identifying the best way forward.

    For instance, whereas you might talk about who or what Anonymous and why they’re not a group to be messed with, you certainly wouldn’t suggest students start trolling 4chan.

  • All right, here’s an idea. What if we consider that it is ethical to violate the Terms of Service of sites that treat people like products and sell their information? Both Google and Facebook want you to use your real name. When I first made a video on joining a FB group without friending or revealing much information, I had recommended a fake name, and I think it was Ed who said I shouldn’t do that, because I was inciting people to violated FB’s TOS. The TOS are not legal in the sense that one is breaking a law – rather one is breaking the rules for being allowed to use that product, and if it is discovered one could lose the use of the product.

    This perspective, though not the innovative thinking I was looking for, might not be as untoward now as it used to be.

    I’m still not seeing a new paradigm for shifting the path.

  • Lisa,

    Not to overuse a cliche but things don’t change over night. When I first started doing MOOCs I picked up Karen Armstrong’s “The Great Transformation” on the rise or the great religions we still recognize today for some insights on change and the main message was the passage of time that goes into change.

    Beyond time comes the change of perception of which community you belong to. During the Vietnam war we marched, protested, got beat up and disillusioned but some core feeling of community held and things finally changed. Part of this was people no longer pretending to be part of the old system any more in order to get by. They modeled at least a portion of the new person they were becoming without apology.

    None of us want to go backwards.


    • It’s very interesting that you mentioned the Vietnam protests, Scott. I was thinking of that scene in The Big Chill when they’re sitting around the table talking about the way their values may have shifted as they became successful in their careers after being radicals in college.

      I also want to be careful about not going backwards. We do have to adjust to changing times, but when the changes are happening in a direction that aren’t realized by so many of the people who are engaged in using the tools, it’s worrisome.

  • Hi Lisa,

    I lived in Taft for a summer where I worked in the oil fields and spent the weekends filling out my conscious objector application. (Which I later got). I felt there was no connection between my Bay Area sensibilities and the locals in Taft, but remember my supervisor driving me to an anti-war film at a church in Santa Paula one night–1967.

    This man had a son stationed in Vietnam and couldn’t bring himself to come in to watch. He couldn’t question the war at that time so I never pushed. People are quiet about many things they question like I was mostly quiet about my draft resistance with him.

    What drove me and my wife to Canada was the incessant stupidity of the political “leadership” and now we have it up here and have to get active again. The good fight–doesn’t end.

    • I’m from Bakersfield and as editor of my high school paper fought against the laws that restricted young people from doing what they needed to do in their lives, and it was always an uphill battle. But I know those oil fields too…

      Individuals who know the stakes, understand the other point of view or at least respect the feelings of others (as you obviously did), and are comfortable making their own decisions are not as common as one might hope. So the larger question is, as educators, how responsible are we for making others aware of how they’re being used?

      In the case of the Vietnam era, it never occurred to some people that they could see themselves in that position, of being used for other people’s purposes. The leaders of the college movements had to reframe the issues in terms of not only constitutional rights (as had been the argument against the draft in WWI) but in terms of individual self-determination, curricular relevancy and participatory democracy. The issues were similar, but they were going forward, not backward.

      I’m looking for such a reframing now.

  • Not sure how to engage people. There seems to be a fog of think only of yourself around that reduces people’s ability to imagine the bigger world around. Along with this comes a sense of false autonomy–the great individual controling their own life but blind to and helpless for being and actor in a larger environment.

    I think MOOCs show a hunger for connection and common ground to work from. Maybe the net will reduce this sense of being scattered about and powerless? The flip side is the net is enabling distance ed (an industry I work in) that sustains the myth of the autonomous individual responsible only for themselves.

    How do we get past the notion that education is more than qualifying for a well-paying job? Maybe start by pointing out that education makes you a little less vulnerable to the whims of others? That’s a hard message to pass on. Have to think about this.


  • I’m rereading Ellen Langer’s ‘Mindfulness’ and she talks a lot about the limitations of certainty. We seem to be in a time of uncertainty where people will listen to almost anything that rings of stability and a predictable future. Seems to me that a way to reframe uncertainty from a source of fear to an opportunity is to return to people the sense of belonging and thriving in the future regardless of how it looks. How can that be done?

  • […] This one relates to my previous post on how it’s scarier out there than we think. […]

  • I’m seeing signs of groups and individuals starting to look at the uncertainty as opportunity because so many existing structure are in such sorry shape. Response to mooc structure are mixed and not always well informed. Anything, no matter how promising, runs the risk of turning into a safe, stifling walled garden, especially in the realm of the Ivory Silo™ Not just managers and counters prefer it that way, but more than a few learners as well.

    The tension between the two types of systems predates the internet, will likely survive it, and is probably not resolvable. The tension may even be necessary, a system of checks and balances.

    What kind of Muppet are you, chaos or order</a<?

  • […] of it. They want everyone in Google Plus, which requires a Google account so they can track you. Given my concerns, I’m not comfortable forcing students into Google-dom just so they can chat with […]