MOOC, day 1: Utopias, Dystopias, and Digital Divides

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Paulo Friere | flickr creative commons user catherinecronin
Paulo Friere | flickr creative commons user catherinecronin

My MOOC starts today, and last night I took some time to get familiar with the site and see what the course schedule is like.

To recap, this is my first-ever MOOC. I signed up for the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course on Coursera.org a couple months ago because I like the concept, and it fit with my professional and personal interests. Since signing up, I’ve met some of the course participants on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ and participated in a live Twitter chat this weekend.

There’s been a lot of anticipation and excitement surrounding this MOOC. (Last time I checked, there were over 62,000 students enrolled.) During my conversations, I’ve met a lot of fellow educators who want to know more about the future of education on the internet and what “digital culture” means.

That’s what I’m most interested in as I begin this course: how do we define “digital culture”? Does such a concept exist? Or, is “digital culture” really just “culture” now?

This idea of the “digital” is in opposition to “analog” or, I guess, “In Real Life” (IRL) culture. Digital also suggests access to technology — a digital culture can’t exist without the digital stuff we use to connect to it. But what makes a meaningful “digital” life? Is it possible to have a digital life without access to technology?

After clicking around on the course site, I felt a sense of anxiety because even though I know I’m a digital native, it took me a while to get used to the course offerings. There is a lot to do in this course. I will have to learn new technologies and familiarize myself with digital recording equipment and course wikis. I do OK with learning new technologies, but for those first few minutes, I felt overwhelmed.

Then there’s the course material itself. I’ve survived grad school, so I think I can handle the material. Yet it’s a lot to get used to. There will be readings each week, course discussions on Twitter and Synchtube, and at the end of the course, I’ll have to create something with digital tools. It’s a lot of new stuff for me.

The first two weeks of the course deal with technological determinism, the concept that technology drives social and cultural change. We are asked to contemplate whether digital technology sets up utopian or dystopian communities. After reading this first prompt, I thought about how vast and otherworldly our digital lives have become in the last two years. We live such a large part of our lives online that we have to make the effort to disconnect.

But what about students who don’t have access to the technology, who live on the other side of the digital divide? Can they understand this concept of digital culture? As I acquainted myself with the course, I realized what it must feel like for a new college student in one of my courses. I use a lot of technology in my classroom. I require students to log into and use Blackboard, an online educational platform used by many traditional universities.

What must it be like for those students? They not only have to navigate the new culture of higher education (and figure out how I, the teacher “fit” into this culture), they have to learn new technology. In some cases, they may not know how to use the software we make them use in the course.

This is sort of how I feel right now. I’m attempting to understand the MOOC culture, not only in this particular MOOC, but in general. I have to learn new technology to take part in this new culture. I also have to put aside my old views of education, the view of it leading to degree completion or better employment. This MOOC is here for my fulfillment, and all I gain from it is a sense of community and a feeling that I have challenged myself in some way.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.