In 1964, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story titled "Dial F for Frankenstein", wherein he postulated the idea that the phone network (this was written long before the Internet as we know it today existed) had become so large and complex it was effectively a giant brain that becomes self-aware.
The central idea of this story is one that has been exploited for decades in such movie franchises as The Matrix series and The Terminator series of movies. Most folks don’t see this as a very credible threat to our existence, even though spam email and bot networks are really clogging the available bandwidth on the world wide network.
Why is this important? Luke Fernandez wrote an article in Campus Technology ("Frankenstein in the University") that also addresses the issue of technology and how it impacts human behavior. One could argue that even though machines are not self-aware, they still require us humans to care and feed them in order to function properly (our IT server administrators keep a very close eye on the Data Center on campus to make sure that it continues to operate and are very quick to respond when it doesn’t, much like training a new pet).
Fernandez suggests that there is some anxiety in academic circles over new inventions that may be controlling the way human beings teach and learn, instead of us humans being the driving force in the learning environment. Ideally, the computer should just be another set of tools such as pen and paper (the traditional method of learning for thousands of years).
For instance, the popularity of YouTube and other video-hosting services such as LiveLeak and even iTunes (which hosts video podcasts) has led to an explosive increase in more visually-oriented materials, even if it is simply an instructor presenting a standard classroom lecture to a roomful of bored students. Fernandez notes that critics of this new technology point out how difficult it is to compare visual media against each other to find the inconsistencies, thus leading to further investigation and deepening our knowledge on any given subject. Written media–this blog entry is an example–can be compared to each other and studied at leisure. In fact, I find the transcript of a video much easier to digest than the video itself, even though the video may be amusing or entertaining on a different level (for one thing, the transcript can be edited to remove the verbal pauses and stutters we are all guilty of when we speak–we don’t consciously notice these, but they are definitely noticeable when replaying a video several times to understand the speaker’s content and meaning).
Continuing with the Campus Technology article, Fernandez notes that many faculty are extremely skeptical of digital learning tools in the classroom. To some faculty, the online course represents a threat to their academic freedom, especially when the move to a technological platform for education is driven by university administrators instead of by the faculty (especially if the faculty have no say in the decision process).
One of the biggest challenges universities face when they adopt technology for use on campus is what technology to implement and how to manage it over a long period of time, especially if the technology does not live up to its promises. Enterprise-level software solutions are hideously expensive to purchase and maintain. They generally require significant investments in time and energy to keep them running. Upgrading software to the latest version also can be expensive, as both the IT staff and the campus community need to be trained in its use and operation (the transition to Office 2007 is a prime example of this).
Fernandez concludes his article on a positive note, commenting that even though technology is here to stay, we should not just give in and accept that we have no control over how it is used. We all retain a measure of agency. There are a wide variety of technological tools to assist us in education. The real challenge is to find the tool that serves our needs best and improves the learning outcomes for students, who have grown up with this technology. They will have to be prepared to deal with the technological challenges of future generations.