Posted tagged ‘E-learning and Digital Cultures’

Is the pedagogy of MOOCs flawed?

26 August 2013

This is a question that I tackle in my Udemy course The Wide World of MOOCs.

Almost immediately after I uploaded this preview to YouTube, someone on Twitter politely challenged me.

She took umbrage to my assertion that MOOCs are pedagogically richer than “regular” online courses.

Her counter argument was that the pedagogical devices that I cited – readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups – are the same learning and teaching functionalities available in any LMS.

While this claim is partly true, I wish to share with you my [elaborated] defence of my initial assertion. Why? Because I think it’s important to hear all POVs, and I’d like to know whether you agree…

Hand on keyboard

Right off the bat, I don’t believe that all the pedagogical devices that I cited are available in any LMS. They may be available in many LMSs, but certainly not all of them. Moreover, although an organisation may have a subscription to an LMS that offers these devices, it may not have them activated.

That of course is not to say that the e-learning designer is prevented from using these devices; for example, he or she might leverage other non-LMS technology within the organisation or in the cloud. However, in my experience and in conversations with others, it is clear that they often don’t.

Again, that’s not to say that no e-learning designers integrate devices such as online discussions and social media groups into their LMS-hosted courses, but even if they do, the target audience tends not to play ball. How to encourage active participation on social platforms is a hot topic in the L&D sphere, and there is no easy answer because it’s a question of organisational culture which can’t be “fixed” over night.

As for local meetups, in all my years I have never seen this offered in a regular online course!

Network Analysis of the EDCMOOC Facebook group

MOOCs, on the other hand, are the polar opposite. All of the MOOCs I have experienced include readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups. And the participants do participate. Sure, that’s to be expected given the massive scale of MOOCs, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Case in point, the University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is one of the best online courses I have ever experienced. While it had its fair share of pro’s and cons, it was a hell of a lot richer than the boring page turners that too many among us have learned to associate with “e-learning”.

And there was no LMS in sight.

10 hot tips for moocers

1 April 2013

Now that I have participated in a mooc, I am naturally qualified to dispense expert advice about them. Lol!

Seriously though, one aspect of moocs that I think requires urgent attention is the sense that many participants feel of being overwhelmed. This was certainly the case for some in the EDCMOOC, and I fear I was too dismissive of the issue in my previous blog post.

Upon further reflection, I appreciate that what gave me an edge in this mooc was my experience in studying at postgraduate level. By that I don’t mean so much the knowledge acquired from the instructors, but (on the contrary) the skills developed in learning how to learn for myself.

You see, in postgrad you are left very much to your own devices. You are given a tonne of readings, and the most instruction you can hope to extract from the professors is “read this”. The theory is that the students will collaborate with one another, share their diverse experiences, and contribute to robust conversations. Too bad most of them are straight out of undergrad, inexperienced, and don’t have a collaborative bone in their body.

So if you actually want to learn something rather than skate through each subject, it’s up to you to do your prescribed readings, seek more from blogs and journals to enhance your understanding, reach out to your network to ask questions and gather feedback, and generally drive your own education.

The successful postgraduate student is highly motivated, autodidactic, connected, and participatory. I suggest the successful mooc participant shares these same qualities.

So what I’m really trying to say is: I’ve been there, done that. If you trust me, you may find the following tips useful as you embark on your own mooc voyage…

Tiny ship of order in a vast sea of chaos

  1. Before doing anything, ask yourself three fundamental questions.

    Firstly: “Why a mooc?” It may very well be the right mode of study for you, but of course there are many others to consider. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of this mode in light of your personal circumstances.

    Secondly: “Why this mooc?” There are plenty of them around, pitched at different levels and targeting different audiences. Analyse the pre-information of your chosen mooc to ensure it will give you what you need.

    Thirdly: “What do I want to get out of it?” Be very clear in your own mind about the WIIFM, then doggedly pursue that during the mooc.

    Having said that, remain open to new ideas that foster other lines of inquiry. Your goals may change. That’s fine; it’s called learning.

  2. Follow the sequence of the curriculum as arranged by the mooc coordinators. It may be tempting to jump ahead or even lag behind, but it’s wiser to pace yourself week by week.
     
  3. Read the mooc’s instructions! I’ve added the exclamation point in case you think words on screen are merely decorative. Sometimes they’re informative, so take notice.
     
  4. Prioritise the core videos and readings. At the very least, all these should be watched and read. The other stuff is a bonus if you get around to it.
     
  5. Participate actively in the discussion forum. This is your opportunity to share your understanding of the key concepts with your peers and receive valuable feedback from them.

    Don’t just talk at your peers, but rather engage with them. Reply to their posts, build upon their ideas and suggest alternative thoughts. Challenge them (politely) to clarify their position if they appear to be waffling.

  6. Blog. More specifically, use your blog to articulate your learnings from the mooc. Focus on the practical applications that you have drawn from the academic concepts.

    I found it helpful to use the discussion forum to post preliminary drafts of my ideas, refine them, then blog them.

  7. Concentrate your discussion activity on only one or two threads each week. You’ll go mad trying to keep up with all of them, so narrow your field of vision to what really matters to you.

    At the end of the week, abandon those threads. Again, this is about pacing yourself. While the conversation may be rich and rewarding, you can’t afford to go down any rabbit warrens.

    If you’re super keen, you can always continue the conversation with your new-found friends after the mooc has ended.

  8. Pick a social media platform to support your progress. I made the mistake of bouncing between Twitter, Google+ and Facebook in case I missed out on anything, but all that did was waste my time. Next time I’ll pick my favourite platform and stick with it.
     
  9. Do something daily. Whether it’s watching a video, reading an article, discussing an idea, writing a blog, liking something on Facebook, or mulling over a thought in your mind, it’s important to keep the momentum going.
     
  10. Think of moocing as informal learning. If you remember your WIIFM, it will ease the pressure that you put on yourself. You don’t have to finish the course. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. Assume control of your own actions, and become the master of your destiny.

In other words, be the tiny ship of order in the vast sea of chaos.

Reflections of a mooc unvirgin

12 March 2013

CherryI recently completed my first mooc, and I will soon receive the certificate to prove it.

Many people don’t think a certificate of completion means much, but this one will mean a lot to me. I put substantial time and energy into this course, so it will be satisfying to have something tangible to recognise it.

Before I signed up, I had decided to do a mooc because I was blogging about them but had never experienced one for myself. I considered doing Georgia Tech’s Fundamentals of Online Education via Coursera, but I wasn’t attracted to the introductory angle of the content. As it turned out, the course crashed under the weight of its own popularity, so I dodged a bullet there.

I also considered the independent(?) Educational Technology and Media mooc, but I was put off by its heavy connectivist approach. Not per se, mind you, but I was looking for more direction.

Eventually I settled on The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures mooc, because it targeted practising e-learning professionals who “want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age”, not to mention the fact I was fascinated by its coverage of popular culture.

So my first learning – before I even began – was that all moocs are different. You can’t tar them with the one brush.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the EDCMOOC. In my opinion, it had a lot going for it. Having said that, however, every course has its pro’s and cons, and this one was no exception…

Thumbs up

Pro’s

  • The mooc was well prepared. The pre-information on the Coursera site was useful, the promotional video was informative, and both were reinforced by a welcome email upon registration.
     
  • The virtual classroom environment was well structured. Not only were the content streams logically sequenced and accessible in advance, but the administrative aspects of the course were outlined under a dedicated “what, where, how and when” page. An announcement board kept us up to date, the discussion forums were easy to find, and the final assessment was explained clearly from Day 1.
     
  • The pedagogical approach of the course combined elements of both instructivism and constructivism. Each topic included an introduction covering the central concepts, plus a resources page comprising several video clips (not of lectures, but of creative works) and readings. I appreciated the readings being classified as “Core” or “Advanced”, as this allowed me to focus my energies on the ones that mattered, while getting around to the others if I had the time and inclination.
     
  • The duration of each topic was one week. This was enough time to get the work done, but not enough time to tempt you to sit on your laurels. I kept up to speed for the first 3 weeks, but I let the fourth week slip when real life got in the way. Thankfully the resources remained accessible, which allowed me to catch up afterwards.
     
  • The duration of the whole course was 5 weeks, which again I found to be just right. After the novelty of the first couple of weeks wears off, real life competes hard for your attention. In all honesty, I think I would have dropped out if it were any longer.
     
  • The course was supported by social media groups across several platforms, including Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. While I initially found this frustrating (having to bounce between them in case I missed out on anything), I now agree in hindsight that multiple platforms are a good idea – on the proviso that the Coursera-hosted forum remains the plenary. It makes no sense to me to force people onto one arbitrary platform which they otherwise would not use, and it was convenient to self-organise the 40,000 students into more manageable sub-groups.
     

Network Analysis of EDCMOOC Facebook group

  • Through the discussions in the course, participation in the social media groups, and comments on my blog posts, I connected with some incredibly smart people from all over the world. These connections will enrich my learning experience well after the course has ended.
     

EDCMOOC map

  • Assessment for the course was crowd-sourced. Each participant was charged with peer assessing the digital artefacts of at least three fellow participants – and this was enshrined as a requirement for your own completion. The final score was an average of the peer scores.
     
  • I used ThingLink for my digital artefact, which I had intended to try since I first heard about it over a year ago. This mooc gave me the nudge I needed. Incidental learning at its finest!
     
  • The proof of the pudding is in its eating, and at the end of the course I can unequivocally say I learned plenty. Some of the learnings were implicit thoughts that were made explicit, while others were novel ideas to which I would otherwise have remained ignorant. I blogged about my learnings along the way, being mindful to draw out the practical applications of the somewhat academic concepts.
     

Thumbs down

Cons

  • With 42,000 participants, it was inevitable that the discussion forum would be swamped. I witnessed many participants talking at their fellow students rather than with them, and some discussion threads ran on for pages and pages. Of course, this became less of a problem over time as huge numbers of participants dropped out, leaving the keen beans to carry on the conversation.
     
  • During Week 1 in particular, the discussion forum and social media groups were inundated with the likes of “Hi, I’m from Sao Paulo” and “Howdy from Texas”. While I’m a fan of social mores, I don’t specifically care where the 27,347th participant is from.
     
  • Hand-in-hand with the “happy greeter” was the “lost soul”. A lot of participants expressed anxiety at being overwhelmed by the mooc – which I found surprising. Not only were the weekly instructions quite clear, but the target audience was e-learning professionals who are, presumably, seasoned adult learners.
     
  • A bugbear of mine in any discussion forum is the “pretender” – ie someone who posts lofty statements with big words, yet devoid of any substance. There was no shortage of them in this mooc.
     
  • At the other end of the extreme, other participants’ contributions were woefully inadequate. In one thread, for example, the discussion descended into a list of sci-fi movies; no explanation as to how they were pertinent to the conversation, but oh what a list!
     
  • Another problem that popped up was the “parasite” – ie someone who signs up to a mooc just so they can spam the discussions with links to their own irrelevant content. Vomit.
     
  • As far as the course content is concerned, I felt the focus on pop culture was perhaps too strong. While the instructors tended to end each topic with a question about its implications for e-learning, that was rarely followed up in the discussions. In my opinion, the participants roasted the same old chestnuts (such as the spectre of big brother and the inequity of digital access in the third world) instead of synthesising connections to the practice of education in their own world.
     

Open palm

Suggestions for improvement

To be fair, the cons that I have listed above are not unique to the EDCMOOC, nor to online learning in general. I remember similar problems from my uni days on campus.

Nonetheless, they inform my following suggestions for improvement…

  • Week 1 should be set aside as a social week to allow the happy greeters to get their social proclivities out of their systems. It may be tempting to set aside a pre-week for this purpose, but the truth is it will bleed into Week 1 anyway.
     
  • The instructors need to be much more active in the discussions. I recommend they seed each week with a pinned discussion thread, which marks the official line of enquiry and discourages multiple (and confusing) threads emerging about the same concepts.
     
  • More importantly, the instructors should actively prompt, prod, guide and challenge the participants to engage in critical analysis. Explication of the implications for e-learning must be the outcome.
     
  • A moderator should delete the spam and ban the spammers.
     
  • A support page and discussion thread should be dedicated to helping the lost souls, so that they don’t pollute the rest of the course with their problems.
     

All in all, I am glad to report my first mooc experience was a positive one.

I won’t rush out to do another one in a hurry, but that’s simply because I know how demanding they are.

But one thing’s for sure, I will do another one at some stage. I look forward to it!

Putting the moo into mooc

24 February 2013

Well I’ve finally reached the fifth and final week of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course via Coursera.

While I’ve found it demanding, I’ve also loved every minute of it.

The assessment for this course is a digital artefact which “expresses, for you, something important about one or more of the themes we have covered during the course”.

Since I have been blogging my learnings and extrapolations of thought along the way, I decided to use that content as the substantive foundation of my artefact. I also wanted to comply with the course’s instructions to use a mix of multimedia, in addition to honouring the subject matter’s debt to popular culture.

In order to meet all of these criteria, I have created an artefact comprising four images that relate to key concepts covered by my blogs, whilst giving a nod to the king of pop art, Andy Warhol.

Each image has two links associated with it: On the right, a link to my corresponding blog post; and on the left, a link to Wikipedia to shed more light on the esoteric Warholian angle.

Screenshot of Ryan's digital artefact

If you are wondering how I created this artefact, my steps were as follows…

After deciding which images I would use, I needed to source them. I secured the banana from the fruit bowl in my kitchen, I discovered the can of soup at the back of my pantry, and I bought the toy gun for $2 at a bric-a-brac store.

I originally intended to source a bar of Milka chocolate because its wrapper features a delightfully purple cow. However, despite scouring every corner shop and supermarket across the city and the burbs, I could not find a single vendor of this brand in Sydney. I even posted a call-out to Milka’s 234,000 Facebook fans – but to no avail.

Running out of time, I borrowed my wife’s beloved cow statuette.

The next step was to take photographs of each of object with my iPhone. I cut the backgrounds out with a graphics editor, played around with the brightness and contrast, and adjusted the colour balance of the cow to bathe it a Warholian purple.

After combining the four images into a single PNG file, I uploaded it to ThingLink. I used the software to “tag” each image, then I published the interactive media to my channel.

I then tried to embed the media into this blog post, but unfortunately WordPress.com doesn’t allow plugins that contain JavaScript code. So I took a screenshot of the media, uploaded it to Flickr, embedded it into my blog, and linked it to ThingLink.

I hope you like it!

Human enough

19 February 2013

It is with glee that the proponents of e-learning trumpet the results of studies such as the US Department of Education’s Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, which found that, on average, online instruction is as effective as classroom instruction.

And who can blame them? It is only natural for evangelists to seize upon evidence that furthers their cause.

But these results mystified me. If humans are gregarious beings and learning is social, how can face-to-face instruction possibly fail to out perform its online equivalent?

That was until I watched Professor Steve Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 TEDxWarwick talk in Week 3 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The professor explains with wonderful articulation how difficult it is to define a human.

Sure, biologists will define humanity in terms of DNA, yet they can’t even agree on whether the Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species all together.

If we remove our gaze from the electron microscope, we have our morphology. Perhaps a human is an organism that has five fingers on each hand? But does that mean someone who is born with four (or six) is not human?

Perhaps a human is an organism that uses tools? Well, vultures drop rocks onto eggs to break them open.

Perhaps then a human is an organism that uses language? Whales might have something to say about that.

It is an intriguing conundrum that has occupied our thoughts since anyone can remember.

Title page of the first edition of René Descartes' Discourse on Method.

In the 17th Century, RenĂ© Descartes made an intellectual breakthrough. He contended that “reason…is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts”. In other words, we are the only creatures on God’s earth capable of rational thought. I think, therefore I am.

Descartes pushed his point by arguing that while a robot might one day be developed to speak words, “it is not conceivable that such a machine should…give an appropriately meaningful answer in its presence”. And despite astonishing advances in artificial intelligence, the philosophical Frenchman remains right. Even Watson, who triumphed at Jeopardy! and today mines big data to help humans make better decisions, can not reasonably be considered a human itself. It is simply a product of computer programming.

Speaking of machines, if a human were to progressively replace her body parts with robotics – hence becoming a cyborg – at what point does she cease to be a human? According to the humanist tradition of Descartes, the absolute difference between a human and a non-human is a property of the mind. So, arguably she will remain a “human” until her brain is replaced.

But that begs the question: if we flip the scenario around and place a person’s brain in a robot’s body, does that make it a human?

All this philosophy starts to do my head in after a while, and that’s before getting into Freud’s posthumanism.

Somehow I prefer Joseph Gliddon’s simpler definition of a human: something that drinks coffee.

Cup of coffee

It’s not as flippant as it sounds, for it is our artificial enhancements that paradoxically make us more human.

Riding a bicycle, for example, is a quintessentially human endeavour. No other creature does it. Yes, a monkey might do so in the circus, but the reason we find it funny (or at least unusual) is because it doesn’t normally do that. The poor thing is mimicking a human.

Similarly, digital technology is an extension of our notion of humanity. Humans are the only organisms that use computers, surf the Web, write text, film video, record audio, and engage with one another in online discussion forums.

So when we view online pedagogy through this lens, we recognise very little of it that is not human. Consequently the strong performance of online students becomes less mysterious. In fact, it becomes expected because, just as a bicycle enhances our capability for travel, digital technology enhances our capability for learning.

This expectation is supported by a further finding of the Department of Education’s research – namely, that “blends of online and face-to-face instruction, on average, had stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone”. In other words, students who had the technology via the blended design performed better than those who didn’t.

But it doesn’t work in reverse: “the majority of…studies that directly compared purely online and blended learning conditions found no significant differences in student learning”. In other words, those who had the face-to-face interaction via the blended design performed no better than those who didn’t. Apparently the online instruction was human enough.

OK, on that bombshell, I think I’ll ride my bike to the cafe and pick up a cup of joe…

The future of learning management

11 February 2013

People familiar with my blog will know that I’m not a member of the anti-LMS brigade.

On the contrary, I think a Learning Management System is a valuable piece of educational technology – particularly in large organisations. It is indispensible for managing registrations, deploying e-learning, marking grades, recording completion statuses, centralising performance agreements and documenting performance appraisals.

In other words – and the name gives it away – an LMS is useful for managing learning.

Yet while LMSs are widely used in the corporate sector, I suspect they are not being used to their full potential. You see, when most people think of an LMS, they think of formal learning. I don’t.

I think of informal learning. I think of the vast majority of knowledge that is acquired outside of the classroom. I think of the plethora of skills that are developed away from the cubicle. I think of reading a newspaper and chatting around the water cooler, and the myriad of other ways that people learn stuff. Relevant stuff. Stuff that actually makes a difference to their performance.

And I wonder how we can acknowledge all of that learning. We can hardly stick the newspaper or the water cooler into the LMS, although many will try in vain.

No – the way we can acknowledge informal learning is via assessment. Assessment represents the sum of learning in relation to a domain, regardless of where, when or how that learning was done.

The assessment need not be a multiple-choice quiz (although I am not necessarily against such a device), nor need it be online. The LMS only needs to manage it. And by that I mean record the learner’s score, assign a pass or fail status, and impart a competency at a particular proficiency.

In this way, the purpose of learning shifts from activity to outcome.

Wheelbarrow

Having said that, the LMS suffers a big problem: portability.

I’m not referring to the content. We have SCORM to ensure our courses are compatible with different systems. Although, if you think migrating SCORM-compliant content from one LMS to another is problem free, I have an opera house to sell you. It has pointy white sails and a great view of the harbour.

No – I’m referring to the learner’s training records. That’s the whole point of the LMS, but they’re locked in there. Sure, if the organisation transfers from one LMS to another, it can migrate the data while spending a tonne of money and shedding blood, sweat and tears in the process.

But worse, if the learner leaves the organisation to join another, they also leave their training records behind. Haha… we don’t care if you complied with the same regulations at your last organisation. Or that you were working with the same types of products. Or that you were using the same computer system. We’re going to make you do your training all over again. Sucker.

It’s hardly learner-centered, and it sure as hell ain’t a smart way of doing business.

Enter Tin Can.

Tin can in the cloud

According to my understanding, Tin Can is designed to overcome the problem of training record portability. I imagine everyone having a big tin can in the cloud, connected to the interwebs. When I complete a course at Organisation A, my record is recorded in my tin can. When I leave Organisation A for a better job at Organisation B, no worries because I’ve still got my tin can. It’s mine, sitting in the sky, keeping all my training records accessible.

This idea has taken the education world by storm, and some LMSs such as UpsideLMS have already integrated the API into their proprietary architecture.

Furthermore, I can update my tin can manually. For example, if I read a newspaper article or have an enlightening conversation with someone around the water cooler, I can log into my account and record it.

This sounds admirable prima facie, but for me it raises a couple of concerns. Firstly, the system is reliant on the learner’s honour – ! – but more concerningly, its philosophy reverts back to activity over outcome. Recording reams and reams of minor learning interactions all seems a bit pointless to me.

So where to from here?

Enter Plurality.

Plurality is a brilliant short film watched by the participants in Week 2 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The film paints a dystopian vision of the future whereby everyone’s personal details are stored in an online grid, which is controlled of course by the government. When you swipe your finger over a scanner, the computer reads your DNA and identifies you. This is convenient for automatically deducting the cost of a sandwich from your bank account, or unlocking your car, but not so convenient when you are on the run from the cops and they can track you through everything you touch.

Despite the Big Brother message pushed by the film, it prompted me to recognise an emerging opportunity for Tin Can if it were to re-align its focus on assessment and exploit the Internet of Things.

Suppose for example you are sitting in a jumbo jet waiting to take off to London or New York. If the cockpit had a scanner that required the pilot to swipe his finger, the computer could check his tin can to confirm he has acquired the relevant competencies at the required proficiencies before activating the engine.

Or suppose you are meeting a financial advisor. With a portable scanner, you could check that she has been keeping up with the continuing education points required by the relevant accreditation agency.

Competencies and assessment tend to cop a beating in the academic sphere, but in the real world you want to be reasonably confident that your pilot can fly a plane and your financial advisor knows what she’s talking about.

DNA strand

If the film’s portrayal of DNA is too far-fetched, it need not be the mechanism. For example, the pilot could key in his personal credentials, or you could key in the financial advisor’s agency code.

But maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all. The Consortium for the Barcode of Life – based at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, no less – is currently researching DNA barcoding.

And still, maybe Plurality is looking at it the wrong way around. We can already store digital information in synthetic DNA. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future our training records will be coded into our natural DNA and injected back into our bodies. Then instead of the scanner referring to your tin can in the cloud, it mines your data right there in your genes.

And you thought science fiction was scary!

The equation for change

4 February 2013

Guns don’t kill people. People do.

It’s a well-worn saying that Americans in particular know only too well.

And of course it’s technically correct. I don’t fear a gun on the table, but I do fear someone might pick it up and pull the trigger. That’s why I don’t want a gun on the table.

It’s a subtle yet powerful distinction that occurred to me as I absorbed the core reading for Week 1 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course; namely Daniel Chandler’s Technological or Media Determinism.

E-learning and Digital Cultures logo

Technological determinism is a philosophy that has implications for e-learning professionals as we grapple with technologies such as smartphones, tablets, ebooks, gamification, QR codes, augmented reality, the cloud, telepresence, ADDIE, SAM, and of course, MOOCs.

Chandler explains that “hard” technological determinism holds technology as the driver of change in society. Certain consequences are seen as “inevitable” or at least “highly probable” when a technology is unleashed on the masses. It’s how a lot of people view Apple products for example, and it’s extremist.

Like most extremism, however, it’s an absurd construct. Any given technology – whether it be a tool, a gadget or a methodology – is merely a thing. It can not do anything until people use it. Otherwise it’s just a box of wires or a figment of someone’s imagination.

Taking this rationale a step further, people won’t use a particular technology unless a socio-historical force is driving their behaviour to do so. History is littered with inventions that failed to take off because no one had any need for them.

Consider the fall of Aztec empire in the 16th Century. Sailing ships, armour, cannons, swords, horse bridles etc didn’t cause the conquistadors to catastrophically impact an ancient society. In the socio-historical context of the times, their demand for gold and glory drove them to exploit the technologies that were available to them. In other words, technology enabled the outcome.

Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops

At the other end of the spectrum, technological denial is just as absurd. The view that technology does not drive social change is plainly wrong, as we can demonstrate by flipping the Aztec scenario: if sailing ships, armour etc were not available to the conquistadors, the outcome would have been very different. They wouldn’t have been able to get to the new world, let alone destroy it.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in between. Technology is a driver of change in society, but not always, and never by itself. In other words, technology can change society when combined with social demand. It is only one component of the equation for change:

   Technology + Demand = Change   

In terms of e-learning, this “softer” view of technological determinism is a timely theoretical lens through which to see the MOOC phenomenon. Video, the Internet and Web 2.0 didn’t conspire to spellbind people into undertaking massive open online courses. In the socio-historical context of our time, the demand that providers have for altruism? corporate citizenship? branding? profit? (not yet) drives them to leverage these technologies in the form of MOOCs. Concurrently, a thirst for knowledge, the need for quality content, and the yearning for collaboration drives millions of students worldwide to sign up.

MOOCs won’t revolutionise education; after all, they are just strings of code sitting on a server somewhere. But millions of people using MOOCs to learn? That will shake the tree.

Child learning on a computer

So the practical message I draw from the theory of technological determinism is that to change your society – be it a classroom, an organisation, or even a country – there’s no point implementing a technology just for the sake of it. You first need to know your audience and understand the demands they have that drive their behaviour. Only then will you know which technology to deploy, if any at all.

As far as gun control in the US is concerned, that’s a matter for the Americans. I only hope they learn from their ineffective war on drugs: enforcement is vital, but it’s only half the equation. The other half is demand.


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