some of us are brave

The Rebirth of Cool: Trust, Tech, and Dystopias

I did a cool thing today. I MOOC’d.

That is, I joined Justin Reich’s massive open online course “Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale“. Justin is a guru at Harvard’s EdX and the class was being hosted on MIT’s “unHangout” platform. I don’t know exactly where the course is housed. I visited a class and I cannot tell you where the class is. Whoa, the future.

I can tell you that despite being the “guest pessimist”, I think the unHangout platform is cool. The integration with google’s hangout was seamless, even on my macbook. The production value was good and the engagement with Justin on video, in real time, worked well.

I kid Justin about calling me the guest pessimist. He had me visit because I’ve talked a bit about the course’s theme for the day: dystopian futures of online education.

The students made some pretty amazing multimedia interpretations of their version of education dystopias. A few stopped me in my tracks.

As I shared with the student-learners, one person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia. The trick is that often both are happening at the same time. One student’s short film imagined a future where “second half” college is slang for the millions of college students who complete half their educational lives in prison. I shuddered because I know the school-to-prison pipeline makes that a very real present for thousands of students.

Justin made the point that his dystopian future is one where its utopia for the few and and hell for the rest. As one student put it, the only thing worse than the dystopia s/he imagines is the present state of public education.


I had a chance to talk about how different groups adopt and hack existing technologies in the service of learning. It reminded me of the life and death of Learn Link at Emory University.

Learn Link was about as dinky a platform feature as they come. It was the kind of feature that you imagine would be on a proprietary  system purchased by two hundred year old institutions. Bless our hearts.

But a strange thing happened. Emory students loved Learn Link. I mean, they loved it.

You could walk the campus and see flyers using organic Learn Link slang for group meetings and social events.

There are rumors that romances were born in Learn Link exchanges.

And then Emory switched email systems. Learn Link had to die.

Students missed Learn Link, not least of all because it allowed them to surveil their professor’s resposiveness.

I thought about this and Justin’s excellent question about how students in my sample of for-profit colleges use technology. Most of those students also adopt and hack existing technologies to create informal learning spaces. But, they primarily use Facebook as opposed to tumblr (another one popular with students I have taught) or their institution’s proprietary communication system.

Why do they use Facebook as opposed to other platforms?

I admit I didn’t ask them. I had a different set of research questions. But, my read of how students talked about their online informal communities is that they it was fundamentally about trust.

They trust Facebook.

Considering the debate about research ethics and Facebook that might seem crazy to you.

But, the students I talked to trust Facebook. Mostly they trust Facebook to exist.

That is, Facebook is large enough and pervasiveness enough that it is a good bet that should a student cycle in and out of an online group, the platform will be there when they return.

Institutional trust is a huge thing when institutions have failed you more than a few times.

And, warts and all, Facebook looks like it is going to stick around.

I suspect there are age and social class hierarchies in how different student groups adopt technology. But common to these two groups — traditional aged students at a selective private university and non-traditional students in online for-profit colleges — there were similar hacking activities. They don’t much like your top-down ed-tech tools. They use the tools they already have in service of what they need and want. They are making spaces that institutions do not provide them. They are adapting those spaces relative to their social locations and I suspect the differences are partially about who and what they trust.


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This entry was posted on November 5, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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