And to think we knew her before she made it big.

29 09 2011

Our pal Music for Deckchairs has been named one of Australia’s Top Ten Social Media Influencers by the Guardian. To top things off, she’s also in Sweden this week. [I want to go to Sweden! Of course, it’s pretty hard to name a place in the world where I don’t want to go.] While in Sweden, she’s writing about holding class through video conferencing:

But there’s something about the strange warping of distance and time that occurs when you can see someone sitting in a room on the other side of the country or the world, and you know that they’ve organised themselves to be there when you are. It’s not that different from the small jolt of simultaneity that happens when you catch someone on skype or, 15 years ago, when I taught out in the wilds of IRC.

What moves people about co-presence in time is just that: presence. The other person is there, awake, breathing, thinking, doing stuff, responding, exactly when you are. This is the here-and-now of being human at all that somehow can survive without co-location, and it can even survive when the other person can’t be seen or heard, but simply writes to you when you are sitting there waiting to hear from them.

While I’m tempted to make apropos pop-cultural references to the Buggles and the best Debbie Harry movie of all time, I really can’t muster up the energy because I don’t find MfD’s comments in the least bit incorrect or threatening. As I explained in a quick comment at her place, this stuff is far too expensive to catch on in America. I’ll elaborate here.

Earlier this year, when I was actually considering an online/distance education overload in order to raise some extra money to send my child through college with as little debt as possible, this was the kind of course that our people wanted me to do. It would have scheduled real time meetings with me in Pueblo and students literally all over the world. I was told that they had spared no expense with the technology, and I’d have all the help I’d need to make it work. This wasn’t going to be like Skype, where you can’t see past right in front of the computer screen. This was going to be the real deal.

“Can the students talk to each other?,” I asked. They said no, and that’s why I did too.

Class by video has so many real advantages. Real time conversation is probably the most obvious one, but as long as students can’t talk to each other it’s still inferior to face-to-face interaction. Is anybody going to bother throwing Coke cans at one another if they’re not in the same room? Ironically, the kind of direct interaction I’m looking for here has got to be easier and cheaper when everyone’s logging into a computer platform together, but it appears that real interactive video networking is too expensive as of yet (otherwise we’d have bought the technology to do so).

Even supposing students can get by using cheap web cams, the cost of turning every university classroom into a studio has got to be astronomical. In my place, they’re looking towards one studio with each professor getting their scheduled hour one after another. What happens when they all want 7PM in the evening? What happens when all the students want 7PM in the evening? How many studios does a tele-university need to have? In short, there are no economies of scale here, which is precisely why I predict it will never catch on in American higher ed.

On a related note, Natalia Cecire dropped in here with a long comment on the post I based on her excellent discussion of what I called the Digital Humanities backlash. This is the part of that which really crystalizes the very few differences that I have with Australia’s new social media superstar:

One very useful point that you raise is the distinction between DH and “online education”; one is an area of inquiry; the other is a business “solution.”

Private or public, the entire point of online education in the United States is to make it possible for universities to do more with less. In the for-profit sector, the savings go to the stockholder. In the traditional bricks and mortar sector, the savings go for whatever the administration wants (which is often more bricks and mortar, or perhaps just a climbing wall for the student rec center). Where they don’t go is more investment in instruction, which if you ask me is precisely the problem.

More power to all the Australians and the Swedes who choose to do distance education right, but I have no hope that will ever happen here. In the American context techno-skepticism with respect to online education is not just a self-interested job protection philosophy, I also think it’s the side of the angels.



One response

29 09 2011
Music for Deckchairs


I think if there’s any reward in influence at all, surely it’s in the subtle things, and so I’ve popped in to say how much I appreciate your new thinking about the possibility that some places might do online things well. The waterfront ain’t America, and actually a whole lot of the rest of the world isn’t either.

But your experiences in the US, like a big weather system, do have a really significant impact on the rest of the world, and so your vigilance on what’s going wrong in relation to online learning has in return significantly nudged my thinking.

Still not actually famous, by the way.


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