By Marc Parry
Companies, colleges, and columnists gush about the utopian possibilities of technology. But digital life has a bleaker side, too. Over the weekend, a cross-disciplinary group of scholars convened here to focus attention on the lesser-noticed consequences of innovation.
Surveillance. Racism. Drones. Those were some of the issues discussed at the conference, which was called “The Dark Side of the Digital” and hosted by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies. (One speaker even flew a small drone as a visual aid; it hit the classroom ceiling and crashed.)
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‘A Built-In Inequality’
The conference’s organizer, Richard Grusin, a scholar of new media, worried about the potentially “dire” consequences of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
Education, Mr. Grusin said in an interview, is about teaching people how to think, how to question, how to sit in a room with someone and express a different opinion. Equating it with simple content delivery “denudes” what it means to teach and learn, in his view.
What’s more, when colleges start to award credit for MOOCs serving thousands of students, the result could be a reduction in the need for faculty members to teach those courses, said Mr. Grusin, a professor of English at UW-Milwaukee with a history of tech experimentation. Much of that reduction, he added, would hit teaching assistants. Rather than teaching their own sections or classes, they may find themselves managing online discussions.
Online courseware could create inequalities among colleges, Mr. Grusin added, as he and other professors discussed Ms. Raley’s talk over lunch. “Power gets aggregated by elite universities,” he argued. “Because it’s not San Jose State professors or UW-Milwaukee professors sending their lectures to Harvard students. It’s Harvard professors sending their lectures here. And so, not only is there already a built-in inequality, but this technology is going to enable that to be multiplied and leveraged, to even create a further inequality.”
Ms. Raley, for her part, also offered a dystopian take on the extensive data tracking in MOOCs, which harvest detailed information about students’ online behavior.
Proponents present data mining as a way to improve the experience. To Ms. Raley, it means “disenfranchised students” become “mere statistical material, bodies from which data is extracted, their function to provide the metrics that will legitimate the restructuring of educational institutions as mere automated enterprises.”
[ Full article available at The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Sound-the-Alert-From/139103/ ]