Monday, 4 November 2013

Hyper sexy e-fabulousness dot com dot edu

E-learning happened incredibly quickly. Nerdy types in universities – and one of the great things about universities is that they offer a generally supportive environment for technological experimentation – began to develop ways of using libraries and teaching online as soon as web technologies afforded it. Nevertheless, the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology shows that in the 1990s, most innovation was being poured into multimedia, with the web a more marginal issue for some years. Part of this was download speed: the ‘world wide wait’ was the web’s nickname in the mid-1990s, as cups of tea were made just waiting for basic pages to load over spaceship-looking modems that also inconveniently tied up the phone line. Delivering interactive course materials by CD or even floppy disk was often a better option – and there was no guarantee that students could access the web anyway.

While there were some frustrations as the technology emerged, the web came with some really sexy ideas. Hypertext was one. The idea that information could be organised in such a way that people could create their own pathway through it began to disrupt the idea of the author’s singular and linear authority. Roland Barthes’ 1968 declaration of ‘The Death of the Author’ now had a technology to assist with the author’s ongoing demise.  Putting power into the hands of the ‘user’, the ‘reader’ or even the ‘consumer’ became a key element of the fantasy of the World Wide Web. These had resonance with some of the pedagogies promoted by the likes of Paulo Freire in the 1960s and 1970s that sought a relocation of power and even knowledge, from teacher to student.  Use of technology to support student learning was therefore somehow intrinsically ‘student centred’, a phrase meant to describe a revolutionary pedagogy but which soon became a type of university dogma deployed for enhancing profit – we will get to that later.

In 1996, the landscape changed again when Canadian Murray Goldberg presented WebCT to fellow educational technologists.  In WebCT, Goldberg quickly proved there was a market for mass distribution of what became known as a ‘learning management system’. It was so successful that within four years of that presentation, WebCT was being used by 6 million students in 57 countries. Blackboard Inc. was established in 1997 and showed a similar rate of growth. Those two companies later displayed such predatory behaviour that they bought out nearly every competitor, eventually buying out each other to form a singular eLearning monolith.

It was truly a heady time for the World Wide Web, with investment in anything ending with .com or beginning with e- escalating at such a pace that companies could vastly increase their stock market value simply by adding a prefix or suffix. The total value of the stock market grew at such ridiculous rates that speculators soon identified it, not as the revolution in business that in fact it would eventually prove to be, but an empty bubble – which burst in 2000, just before the internet really came into its own. Several of the dot coms, like Amazon, returned as the slower process of embedded change proceeded, but a good deal was lost in the rush.

The idea that hypertext embodied - that authority over the route through knowledge could now be moved away from central authoritarian experts - extended at around this time beyond the reader’s agency. Now, it was hoped, the web would also be ‘user-generated’ – the reader would become the author. The ‘wiki’, a simple technology that allowed multiple users to produce content online, became increasingly popular. The format (and the idea of shared online authority) was immortalised in Wikipedia, established in 2001.

The soft-anarchist idea of redistributing authority over knowledge, news and information was also disrupting the notion that anyone ‘owned’ knowledge at all, a threat aimed in particular at media empires such as that owned by Rupert Murdoch, but also seen as a disruption to recent global moves in the ‘knowledge economy’ to commercialise education. Movements that opposed traditional constructions of intellectual property and copyright were attached to some sophisticated theoretical discussions. These included the suggestion that sharing knowledge, making it more open, would foster a new kind of wealth for the world: a position advocated by Yochai Benkler in a book published in 2006. An earlier version of this idea was expressed in Lawrenece Lessig’s business, Creative Commons, which in 2002 founded a legal structure by which knowledge and media could be shared. The ‘mashup’, creating something new from a range of work types was a politically subversive act in opposition to big media’s alliance with nation states to control copyright.  Though the mashup is arguably now common practice by nearly every university teacher in preparation for lectures.
The suggestion that the web offered a structure for knowledge that was fundamentally different to older forms of publishing encouraged software developers to think of ways of automating and facilitating user generation of material. Web 2.0 (where the point-zero was pronounced) was the trendy term of the moment, coined in 1999 but still in use a decade later. This form of interaction led to the development of social networking tools, such as Facebook, launched in 2004, which set a new standard for the purpose and nature of the web.

For university policy makers, it was a confusing set of issues to navigate. In the new environment where a growing proportion of university income was from course fees (so that some courses were in open competition with those offered at other universities) should universities go to extra lengths to protect their course material? Or did the new environment give universities a moral imperative to become more open and make their courseware available freely? While most universities initially took the first route, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) very publicly took the second. From 2002, MIT progressively made their courses available. They started with 50 courses and by 2012 uploaded more than two thousand.

The consequences were a little like the avalanche that was caused when universities began to advertise to attract students. An online presence was no longer sufficient for the rapidly growing number of universities. Many found that they now needed to be able to profile themselves through what they made available online. In 2007, apple’s online music store, iTunes, began iTunes U, inviting universities to make use of their popular platform to showcase what they do. Carefully designed widely available mass courses were experimented with by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier in 2008; in 2011, Stanford University offer introductory Artificial Intelligence to more than one hundred thousand registered participants for free, twenty thousand of them completing the course. In 2012, Coursera was established, franchising this concept: Massive Open Online Courses, or in acronym-loving nerd speak, MOOCS. In MOOCS, thousands of students were able to choose (so advocates claimed) the best material by the world’s experts, from anywhere in the world.


--- This is a segment of my first draft of Chapter 9: Knowledge in the Age of Digital Reproduction, from the book I am writing Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press. ----

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