#EDCMOOC Week 2 – Looking to the future

This week we continued to explore the theme of utopias and dystopias, attention was turned to exploring representations and metaphors of the future in digital culture and in online education, including the MOOC itself. The concept of metaphors to explain and understand what we don’t know is fascinating.

This week I watched five short films and a summary of each follows.

1. A Day Made of Glass http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZkHpNnXLB0
This is a gentle, slightly cheesey, happy, rosy future film with alluring music. Technology is shown as a natural extension of humans to most surfaces – windows, wardrobes, car stereos, roofs, classroom walls, tables, operating theatres and outdoors.

It portrays an extremely utopian view presented with positive imagery involving highly engineered, technology infused glass. There is an inference of the importance of touch as the interface with technology.

I’m left wondering what happens if the wifi breaks or if you can’t afford the latest tablet. Education is shown to be a very happy place, unconfined to the classroom.

2. Productivity Future Vision http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6cNdhOKwi0
This short film is Microsoft’s depiction of how future technology will help people make better use of their time, focus their attention, and strengthen relationships while getting things done at work, home, and on the go. Examples of the technology included are interactive, intelligent spectacles and an impressive use of smart phone type technology to manage time and arrangements seamlessly.

Might people be encouraged to become more lazy and think for themselves less? Will this be affordable or elitist?

Education is visualised as technology-reliant, easy and happy, free from the constraints of the classroom. There is minimal, actual face to face communication in this world.

This is clearly utopian in outlook but I’m left asking if we are on course to become slaves to technology. Will it be only those who can afford technology who are able to prosper?

3. Sight http://vimeo.com/46304267
Sight explores how the ubiquity of data and the increasingly blurry line between the digital and the material might play out in the sphere of human relationships. The focus on the emerging social and educational use of game-based ‘badging’ is particularly interesting.
This film shows augmented reality in action and the gradually-fading privacy at the expense of over-involvement in technology.
Although seemingly utopian, on face value, this film depicts humanity having a dystopian future. The ending is very strong – the protagonist hacks the brain of his date and rewinds her thought processes to change her perception of her reality. The ultimate ending could be rape. Ultimately, this is extremely dystopian and indicates a dehumanisation of personal relationships.

4. Charlie 13 http://futurestates.tv/episodes/charlie-13%20
In this film, a young boy is about to reach the age where, in his society, he will be permanently ‘tagged’ by having a tracking device implanted in his body. Prior to this he has a good look at adulthood and doesn’t like what he sees and disagrees with the requirements of his society. Charlie represents a future with a ray of hope for those who don’t want to conform.

Whilst the majority of humans have given up natural law for technology, Charlie finds salvation with the minority of ‘searchers’ who are looking for the way things used to be. Charlie finds a way to take control of his own destiny.

5. Plurality http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzryBRPwsog
This film has a broad theme of surveillance, throws some time travel into the mix and asks us to imagine a future where the population is monitored through their DNA, and resistance takes the shape of attempting to ‘jam’ the surveillance systems by inserting multiple selves into the grid. The grid can only function if absolute visibility of the movements and identities of the city’s inhabitants is maintained, and therefore practices of hacking become the ultimate threat.

In this film freedom has been replaced with the illusion of safety. It explores the liberty Vs safety binary.

There are interesting messages around power and how it works. In terms of education, it draws parallels with the close-to-surveillance opportunities made easy with contemporary VLEs.

There were four other key resources this week and a summary of each follows.

1. Johnston, R (2009) Salvation or destruction: metaphors of the internet. First Monday, 14(4).http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2370/2158

Johnston draws from the key work of Lakoff and Johnson to highlight the important work that metaphors do in shaping our thinking. She identifies two broad categories of metaphors drawn from the titles of editorials about the internet in late 2008 – those that take a utopian perspective (salvation – transformative and revolutionary) and those that are dystopian (destruction – attacking and supplanting). Noticing the sorts of metaphors that are used to draw comparisons between the unfamiliar and the familiar, or the abstract and the concrete, can be a very useful way of understanding the assumptions that people are making about e- learning (the ‘native’ and the ‘immigrant’, for example).

The primary (or conceptual) metaphors that were used repeatedly in the editorials were those of physical space, physical speed, destruction, and salvation.

2. Newitz, A. (2011): Social media is science fiction. Google I/O conference, 10-11 May 2011, San Francisco.
(7 mins in) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52Ml_zax4A0&t=7m3s

In this video Annalee Newitz describes four common stories that science fiction tells us about the future of social media. The stories are around:
1. artificial intelligence will rise out of social media
2. social media will invade every part of our lives including our minds – surveillance etc. privacy will need to be negotiated
3. social media will lead to mind control – all individual thoughts will match corporate thoughts. Brains crash and can get viruses
4. social media will lead to instant social revolution – journalists will continue to do their work even better

3. Shirky – Napster, Udacity, and the Academy
Shirky uses the MP3 as a metaphor for MOOCs and explores how higher education is being unbundled and disrupted. There is an unbundling of learning , teaching and assessment. There are issues around academic integrity and the value of what people will learn: ‘will anyone learn anything?’

Shirky has an extreme view that does not acknowledge the value and benefit of humans engaging with each other. He concludes that there will always be an elite but MOOCs will work for the majority.

4. Bady – Questioning Shirky http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/12/06/essay-critiques-ideas-clay-shirky-and-others-advocating-higher-ed-disruption
Bady presents a counter argument to Shirky that is from an academic’s perspective.

These two pieces fit together as an initial opinion piece (Shirky) and a critical response (Bady). Together, they provide a good overview of current debates about MOOCs, expressing hopes and fears about what a digital revolution in higher education might be like.

Shirky embraces the perspective that higher education is broken (expensive, limiting, elitist), and suggests that the MP3 (the most common file format for digital music) is a good metaphor for the MOOC. Telling a story of the music industry as surprised, then overcome by the emergence of the MP3, Shirky frames the narrative of higher education in similar terms, warning that institutions are not prepared for the revolution that MOOCs will bring. Dismissing one MOOC critic’s focus on quality, Shirky argues that openness will lead to improved quality: ‘open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment’.

Bady (along with claiming that Shirky sets up his argument so that academics cannot respond without looking defensive) wonders whether the music metaphor, and Shirky’s emphasis on openness, obscure a massive, profit-driven business underpinning MOOC development. He argues that ‘open vs. closed is a useful conceptual distinction, but when it comes down to specific cases, these kinds of grand narratives can mislead us’. He asks, of Shirky’s claim that most higher education is expensive and mediocre, ‘would it be any less mediocre if it were free?’.

Personal Reflection
On reflection I am convinced that higher education is experiencing massive disruption (Christensen, 2011) and that MOOCs are playing a role. The changing landscape of higher education is evidenced not only by disruption but by unbundling, sector scenarios emerging and differentiation becoming paramount. Critical factors in this ‘perfect storm’ include:

• demographics / expectations of students;
• the economic climate;
• technology;
• competition from the private sector;
• fees;
• availability and quality of Open Educational Resources (OER) and
• collaboration, alliances and mergers.

In the context of e-learning and digital culture, I think metaphors are a really useful way to familiarise the unfamiliar despite the connotations associated (Johnston, 2009).

The following thoughts are in response to these questions: ‘Is it possible for MOOCs to be ‘education of the very best sort’? Is this their mission? If not, what is?’

This needs to be prefaced by acknowledging the plethora of learning styles. People are individual and there is one a one size fits all option. That said, I consider that MOOCs have their place and I am sure that employers will soon begin to take notice of CVs with MOOC references, especially those with MOOC provider relationships in place such as Udacity and Coursera (Forbes, 2013).

Doubtless there are many flaws in the MOOC model, not least with issues around the financial model, academic integrity, assessment and accreditation. In an online environment, however, issues are more transparent than when wrapped up in the complexity of a classroom scenario. In an online environment evaluation and improvement is par for the course. It is often better to get something there quick than to get it right. MOOCs will improve as a result of their openness and evaluation and they will continue to destabilise traditional higher education. Nowhere will this have more impact than in emerging economies where a university education is seen as the luxury of the chosen few only. With an internet connection and a laptop/tablet, MOOCs can, and will, reach a massive population.


Christensen, C (2011). The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. Jossey-Bass

Forbes (2013) MOOCs: A College Education Online?
http://www.forbes.com/sites/collegeprose/2013/01/28/moocs-a-college-education-online/ [accessed 05 February 2013]

Johnston, R (2009) Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the internet 14(4).http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2370/2158 [accessed 05 February 2013]


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