Monday, June 15, 2009

Darwin in the Machine

As I read the readings for this week, I coincidentally came across a passage from Samuel Butler’s book “Erewhon,” which describes a utopian society that distrusts machines because they find it unacceptable that machines should evolve more quickly than mankind. In his book, Butler quotes from a “history” of machines written in Erewhon:

“Do not let me be misunderstood as living in fear of any actually existing machine; there is probably no known machine which is more than a prototype of future mechanical life. The present machines are to the future as the early Saurians to man. The largest of them will probably greatly diminish in size. Some of the lowest vertebrata attained a much greater bulk that has descended to their more highly organized living representatives, and in like manner, a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress.”

Butler’s description of the “evolution” of machines, back in 1871, is amazingly prescient, and applicable to our discussion as we look at how students, teachers and institutions evolve into the world of online instruction.

Machines – and I include the online worlds of Blackboard, e-mail and such in the realm of machines – are tools. As this week’s readings point out, it is how we use these tools that affects how successful we are as students, teachers and institutions in creating online classrooms. They are means, not an end. As Blair and Hoy write: “. . . the extent to which a course is successful depends largely on the students themselves. Thus there were significant differences in motivation among some students particularly two younger students, in Blair’s first class who were not only taking their first online course, but who were simply not accustomed to self-directed learning models that require active participation.” Student success depended on their adaptability to the curriculum model, not the technology used to deliver the curriculum.

Walker Pickering also points out how developing an online ethos/persona is important for student and teacher success. This is something I’ve noted in past online and face to face courses, in which I’ve created negative and positive personas – not consciously, but subconsciously. Like one of the students Walker Pickering interviewed, I’ve become more aware of what I do that creates a persona, and have consequently learned from the times my persona came across as negative. I’m interested in hearing how others in this class create and moderate their online personas. I’m kind of a hybrid between the two students Walker Pickering interviews: Partly, I let my persona evolve through honest self-expression, and partly I try to moderate what I say and how I say it in order to maintain a persona that is open to other opinions. I agree wit what Walker Pickering writes:

“Students themselves determine from this point [at the division of labor] how they will consciously or subconsciously develop their personas. In addition, at times, other students’ responses to discussion postings will indicate to individual students that certain comments/topics or strategies for communicating ideas are not welcome or should be modified; such responses influence the developing personas of the students as well.”

I’ve been told in past classes that I come across strong-willed, and I recognize that such a persona can introduce communicative barriers. If I ever become overbearing, please know I’m open to correction.

An interesting side note: I have been on Twitter for the past three months, and recently experimented with a tool meant to reveal my Twitter psychological profile. It tells me that, in part, I am aggressive and focus on negative thoughts. That struck me as weird, but it’s also a reminder that words (or phrases, or whatever the psych profile parses) bears meaning beyond what is intended. So again, I am sorry if I come across as aggressive and negative. I do try to moderate myself, as Walker Pickering suggests. Like the student Robert, I’m evolving into “perplexed thinking about how to voice [my] views.”

In reading Meloncon, I realize my persona may be a reaction to the “messy and disorganized” appearance of the online classroom. Not that this is messy or unorganized. It’s just how I tend to react in social situations – again, evidence how students shape the landscape and how self-moderation is important in making sure the landscape doesn’t become so messy as to be intrusive for others who have to walk these same paths. Yes, a lot of navel-contemplating here.

But going back to the Erewhonians and their theory of machine evolution: This navel contemplation is a good thing, because as we build experience with these online landscapes, we become more aware of how we help the technology evolve to our needs, and how we ourselves affect the evolution of classroom tone within that technology.

I wonder if the technology and how students interact with it and with each other invites the constructivist approach, as we discussed last week? I know from past classroom and online experience that I’d rather not have an instructor who takes the didactic approach; I’m much more interested and stimulated when I can interact with my peers, with the instructor working as a facilitator. I don’t see that role as dismissive of the instructor’s presence, as many a wise instructor can, and has, with a quick message, a question, an idea, a suggestion, influenced these online discussions for the better.

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