Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Present Shock" -- Some Implications for Online Learning

In his new book, Present Shock,  Douglas Rushkoff argues that, in an increasingly technology-centric world, we need to take care not to let technology replace natural cycles in our lives.  Over the centuries, we have become to see time as linear and to recognize natural cycles within that linear structure.  Technology, however, creates a world of immediate choices: just as the Internet is global—eliminating geography as a defining factor in our lives—it is “timeless:” everything is available at all times.   Each moment ceases to be a point in the linear progression of time; instead, it becomes an immediate choice.   The implications:
Instead of taking our cues from the central clock tower or the manager with a stopwatch, we carry our personal digital devices with us.  Our daily schedule, dividing work time from time off, is discarded; we are always-on.  Our boss isn’t the guy in the corner office, but a PDA in our pocket.  Our taskmaster is depersonalized and internalized—and even more rigorous than the union busters of yesterday.  There is no safe time.  If we are truly to take time away from the program, we feel we must disconnect altogether and live off the grid,’ as if we were members of a different, predigital era” (p. 85).

            Some of the symptoms of this new environment are a sense that we must act immediately, in the moment, to stimuli presented by our digital tools; we have lost sight of natural rhythms—day versus night, time of month, time of year—that used to guide our actions.  Technology gives us many choices, but the obligation to choose is, as Rushkoff writes, “no choice at all”—“especially when it prevents us from achieving our own sense of flow and rhythm” (p.115).
            In response, we have invented new terms—multi-tasking, information overload, etc.—to describe ways to respond to the constant pressure of digital choices. 
            This is a special challenge for those of us who create online educational environments. Not only are we using digital technology to connect students to information and to a learning community, but we are also creating new environments in which students use the technology to develop their ability to transform information into knowledge and then work together to apply that knowledge to solve problems.  In this environment, in which time is replaced by a world of immediate choices, how do we use the digital environment to create new educational opportunities while helping students develop their ability to thrive in this environment?  Here are some beginning thoughts:

Course Designers and Faculty:
·      Since the online environment has no geographic limits, we should be conscious that our students will be in many different time zones.  Course design should minimize synchronous sessions, which require that some students be online at times when they would otherwise be sleeping or doing other things.  Design should optimize the asynchronous nature of the digital environment and let students determine when, during any 24-hour period, they engage.
·      In a traditional classroom, 15-20 percent of the students actively engage in discussion; the others learn by taking notes.  We need to avoid what Rushkoff calls the “quiz show approach” (p. 125) that rewards the first hand up when a question is asked.   Set a reasonable deadline for response—understanding that students are not all available at the same time—and allow everyone to answer before responding to anyone.
·      Let students know your expectations with regard to timing and rhythm of response and interaction. 
·      Be aware of your own daily rhythms. For instance, it may be that you do your best research in the evenings, that afternoons are the best time for you to analyze ideas, but that you are most articulate in the mornings.  If so, use the evenings to seek out content, afternoons to read what your faculty member and other students have said on a topic, and respond the next morning.  Make the asynchronous nature of the environment work for you.
·      Avoid the idea that you must respond immediately to every stimulus.  Don’t feel the need to be the “first hand up” for every question.  See what other students have to say and then pitch in when you are ready.  Make it a conversation, where you both listen to others and share both your original ideas and your responses.  Don’t feel the need to respond immediately; give yourself the time you need to articulate what you really mean to say; that may mean giving yourself the time to do more research before you respond. 
            While any course is about content—gathering information, validating it as knowledge, and applying knowledge to solve problems—it is also about developing learning styles that, ideally, students can take with them into their professions.  The lesson from Present Shock is that we need to use technology in a way that gives us access to choices, but that also protects our ability to optimize the natural cycles that are part of our physical and cultural DNA.  This is a challenge for course designers, faculty, and students alike.