Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Social Media. It’s a catch phrase that used to carry with it so much promise. You could keep up to date with friends across the world from the comfort of your home and in your own time. Then came the social games, which offered the chance to play games with all your online friends and gain in-game rewards for the amount of people you had attached to your “friends” list. Then came the gamification of knowledge, with its badges of honour for depth of knowledge as awarded by your peers. Then … Then came this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D5fB5d2mqnc

Now, at first I suspected it was a parody, or a prank being played by a group of hilarious friends… Not so. I went to the website and had a look around.

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Looks fairly innocent, right? Well, let’s look further…

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Ummmmm… So, you’re just the platform on which this craziness can occur, but you accept no responsibility if anyone gets hurt, or if anything illegal happens.

THAT’S MADNESS!!!

See, this is the fundamental flaw that most people seem to not realise about the interwebs. All that stuff we skip past called the Terms Of Service? Yeah, that actually is just a document (for the most part) about how we, the user, accepts all responsibility for the stuff we do through these various services, but that the services themselves accept no responsibility for … well … much at all really.

Service outages? Not their problem.

Damage occurring from use of service? Not their problem.

Illegal activity performed on their service? Not their problem.

Making sure that all challenges are sane, safe and not illegal? Completely the user’s problem! Because we users have been so good in the past at keeping that in mind when doing stupid things on the intertubes.

I think this situation deserves:

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Now, I know that writing about this will provide the site with a multitude of hits, which is exactly what it wants in order to justify its existence. The reason I’m writing, rather than ignoring, is that people I know will sign up to this stupidity and then I’ll be forced to hear about it more… Also, people will sign up without reading the ToS (because that’s what we all do) and will get hurt, try to sue and be slapped in the face with the stupid fish.

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Online Students: What Do We Want?

I’m finally going to write a little a bit about my studies. It seems that not only do a lot of people still feel that online learning and, by default, external learning, is a bit of a cop out, but they really don’t understand what it is that I am studying and how it can lead to anything in the future. Also, I would like to start documenting my intentions for this magical piece of paper I’ve been working towards, and noticing when or if those aspirations change.

First things first: What is it I am studying?

Head of Internet Studies Dept. Prof. Matthew Allen at the Curtin Uni Open Day. For license and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tamaleaver/6064211772/

I am currently undertaking a Bachelor of Arts in Internet Communication through Curtin University (and I’m not supplying these details for kudos or cash FYI). As it stands, Curtin University is the only Uni in Australia that has a dedicated Internet Studies department, which I find particularly strange considering the ubiquitous nature the Internet has these days. I started my line of study through Open University Australia, because it offered a delivery system that I could work around the rest of life. Also, I have to admit, the university system, to one who hasn’t wrangled it is daunting and more than a little intimidating. Given that OUA offered a HECS-style payment system, it also worked in with my available cash flow (ergo: nil), meaning I could study towards getting an awesome job (as yet to be decided upon) and then pay it all back, which I am cool with. Other students find that the more flexible study times, due to the delivery system, are the key to their choice. It allows them to work their study in and around parenting and work commitments.

I am learning about interactions online, why people have flocked to it (and continue to), the issues surrounding online practices and privacy concerns, how writing for an online audience is a little different to writing for an offline one, and how society can find balance between the two “worlds”. It may not sound like much, or its relevance may not be immediately apparent to you, but it is these kinds of studies that will allow people such as myself to develop better practices for the future world in which we all become cybermen, symbiotically attached to our tech… wait a minute! 🙂

I still have just over a year to go of my BA at which point, depending on my grades, I will think about Honours. And, just because I’m crazy and have obviously taken leave of my senses, a PhD application may be thrown in for good measure. Because I can… Or might be able to… Hopefully…

What do I hope to achieve with all of this?

I want to keep researching what is making people tick. Ever since I was a young’un, I’ve been interested in why people like what they like, why they do what they do and what can be done to make people happier. Some days, this comes from a kind of altruistic intention to make the world a better place… If only for myself. I want people to stop their whining (myself included) by aiding them in finding what it is they want or need out of life. Also, realistically a virtual world is only going to become more integrated with “reality” (whatever that is these days) and, as such, if I want to have a place in that multi-world, I need to carve a place out now. I’m not super smart, or a massive tech head. I’m not an engineer and I don’t have a really good head for creative coding (plain and simple stuff I could probably deal with, if I could be bothered updating my language skills, which I can’t), so it’s not likely that I will be heading a development team bringing you the latest installment of what Google Glass aims to be in the future.

What I will be able to give you (at least once I’ve finished all this study) is an in-depth analysis of why your ideas (or their ideas, or that platform for interaction, or … whatever!)failed and what you can do next time to get people to flock to them. I will be able to tell the world why they need to assess what it is they aim to gain from electronically-delivered engagement systems (because the phrase “online worlds’ be become obsolete – stay tuned for my book on that in a few years’ time), in order to spend their precious time, effort and cash in the right places. I will be able to authoritatively show people why employing current slow thinking (as in it takes more than a few months to get an idea out there and have it accepted – look at pressure start-up groups and their success if you don’t believe me) for a world that is changing so fast is a dumb idea (this may also involve revolutionising the way we peer-review stuff, but we have to aim high, right?).

So, online learning vs on-campus learning. Is there even a contest?

Firstly, let me dispel the myth of online learning being easy. It is NOT. Plain and simple. You have to be self-motivated. You have to search out your own community groups if you want to really engage with the material and ideas presented. You have to maintain that level of stamina, all without the scheduled-out-for-you, spoon-feeding that on-campus learning can give you and you have to do so all by yourself. If you don’t have that drive, you’ve got no hope. If you can’t find it in yourself to keep going when you have to do a unit with a university that hasn’t fully understood what it means to provide an online unit, then the chances of you completing your studies are very slim. More on this later. If you can’t handle being interrupted by people who don’t see your head in a book or you typing on a computer as “real study” (I’m talking parents, children, partners, friends who drop in, everyone!), and you can’t tell them to please respect your study time, then you’re going to fail. No sugar coating it. You will.

Using online tools are only useful if they actually offer students something that they need or want from their study. Online tools are only as good as the education they offer. If tutors are not engaging with their students or if the unit materials are not accessible, then what good is the delivery system?

Just waiting for the Quickening. For license and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurelfan/46008993/

Too many times I have heard from students studying units with various universities. That the tutors don’t answer questions sent to them either by the internal mail system or through discussion boards which serve for many as online tutorials. That some units relying on web-based materials, meaning digital copies of papers or articles, have broken links or resources that just cannot be found at all! Simply copying a paper-bound university unit to a digital format does not making an online learning environment. An online student is, unfortunately, at a disadvantage when it comes to finding resources that are not published in a digital format. If your unit still relies on bound text books that an on-campus student would be able to check out of a library, you are doing your online students a dis-service. If you don’t have reliable checks and balances to make sure that your students are receiving the education they have paid for, then you are failing your students. I’m not talking about providing customer service for students. I think this opinion that universities are no longer the bastions of education and research they once were, is a little misguided and black-and-white. So what if students are expecting some kind of a ROI (Return on Investment) in regards to their education? This doesn’t mean that the primary role of a university can’t still be research and attainment of knowledge. It just means that those who help invest in that gathering expect a little something for their investment. The world isn’t as Highlander (“There can be only one!”) as some people would like to make out.

Soooooo… what do students employing online methods of study want?

Candy? Medals? A shiny pony? Not really. Although, having said that, I’d never look a gift horse in the mouth (sorry, I had to).

We expect a system that values us as students. As GENUINE students. We want tutors and lecturers who actually care that we can get and understand the material they are using to facilitate our knowledge. We aren’t expecting our degrees or diplomas to be handed to us on a silver platter. We expect to have to work for them, but no more than on-campus students. By undertaking externals studies we accept that we need to think and act differently to on-campus students, but we still want to be awarded the same level of engagement that on-campus students expect. Though, in saying that, I have heard a LOT of complaints from on-campus students saying there’s a decline in the amount of teachers giving a crap about classes… That may be a rant for another time.

We expect that when we are told that there is no text book required for the unit (as in my experience often happens) that we will be able to access all of the required readings for that unit online.  It’s no fun to play if we can’t get our hands on books or chapters because they don’t exist online. And, as a tutor, please don’t try to tell us it isn’t your responsibility to make sure your students have the resources. If a complaint is made that students cannot access the resources from anywhere online (the university’s library, Google, Amazon and the network of resource pirates out there), then it’s not that they don’t have the resources, your resource list needs revision. You need to make sure your students can actually find the resources so they can understand your lectures and complete assignments.

Which brings me to another point. When studying contemporary issues, such as politics or even Internet Studies, we expect that the topics being covered are from the past four or five years, and even then, it’s a stretch. Ultimately, we’d like within the past two to three. History is history and contemporary is now. Now, I understand the peer-review process is what universities and researchers live and die by, but it is long in the tooth and takes oh so long. I don’t have the answer. I wish I did, really, but the current peer-review process takes far too long to get actual contemporary resources into the hands of students. Think about it this way. It takes up anywhere in the realm of five years to research a PhD. Then it gets submitted for review… Now, I’m no mathematician, but that sure does add up to a lot of time in my mind. Not to mention that a lot may have changed in the world in that time. Now, if you’re doing a science (excluding computer sciences) or mathematics line of study, it’s fairly certain that you’ll be fine. Not much changes quickly there. 1+1 will always equal 2 … unless it doesn’t, in which case it’s already been proven and you can read up on it. If you’re in the Arts, some fields stay moderately constant while others change incredibly fast. My particular field of study looks to be changing and growing at a pace that the peer-review system can’t stay in step with. This causes problems for those of us looking to only use peer-reviewed articles and publications for our work. I am sure you can understand the frustration built up by trying to find something relevant written in the past two or three years when everything written in that time frame is still under review, or not widely accepted yet.

We ask that universities don’t try to charge us for services we cannot use. Yes, we are glad that should be able to we can use the physical library, or the student services centre or any of the wonderful services your on-campus students have access to. Personally, I am in something of a rare position amongst my external study peers, in that I am able to get to my university’s campus. Most of the other students I know who have been studying through external studies live too far away from their university to make use of the facilities. Some don’t even live in the same state! I think there needs to be more work done into as to what services a university might actually provide their external students that will benefit them, rather than assuming they require the same services as on-campus students.

A silly cap, a smile and a piece of paper. License and info: http://www.flickr.com/photos/willfolsom/5702452656/

We really really really (as in “cannot stress this enough”) need a checks and balances system outside of individual institutions, making sure that the level of education, educators and materials is sufficient to facilitate learning. We aren’t asking for our learning to be spoon-fed to us. We want to have to seek our own understanding, but we need to know that the help will be there if we simply don’t understand a concept or ideology. Universities and providers like OUA do their best with regular surveys asking how we felt the particular unit was delivered. Sadly, these do not seem to make a lick of difference when the same units receive the same complaints, or the same tutors receive the same complaints made against them, study period after study period. It’s not that we want studying to be easy, but we need to know there is some degree of accountability for our educators. I suspect this is a universal issue, rather than an online-specific one.

If you are in education, please understand that the world you may have learned in is changing. This means that older methods of thinking also need to change, in order to keep the pace. If you are a student or are considering undertaking online study, be patient with your institution. They may not understand the “game now. They may never understand it properly but unless you give them the chance and  provide them with appropriate feedback, they will never understand how to provide properly for the brave new world.

The Australian Internet Filter.

All the cool kids are doing it, so why not me?

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Just in case you haven’t heard of what this is. Let me recap. In essence, the Australian government has already started paving the road for a mandatory internet filter of the internet for all Australian citizens. There will be a secret blacklist for sites that will be banned, which no one has access to. There is no real recourse if your site ends up on the list to get it off. There is no real disclosure on what might get your site onto this list, suffice to say the official line is: “Items refused classification”. This could anything deemed illegal, immoral or otherwise.

There’s that curly word again… Immoral. It’s a word that makes my skin curl. I am all for deciding that illegal thing should be banned. Child pornography, bestiality, those such things. But how do I know that even typing those words won’t get my site on the blacklist? But what if I have a site about polyamory? Homosexual health issues? There are some that would consider that immoral. Who is to say that what I am saying is or isn’t immoral? Who has control over the list?

Another issue that has not really been brought up has been the implications on academic internet research. Those researching potentially “suspect” subjects may find that they are not able to access such sites that contain articles concerning such things. Where will that leave our universities and other researchers?

What I am afraid of is this being just yet another extension of the Blame Game. What’s that, I hear you say? What I call the Blame Game is people suggesting the magical “someone” should that magical “something” about whatever. There is a trend that is growing in the world that we do not want to take responsibility for our own actions. Suing a major technological corporation over false advertising is one thing, but suing them if you were surfing, got dumped by a wave and ended up in a wheelchair claiming they needed to erect signs warning about the dangers of the surf is another thing. Take responsibility for your actions people!

In the same way, parents arguing that the internet has become too ubiquitous and “someone” needs to do “something” about keeping the children safe is just another attempt to forgo some hard-line parenting and discipline. I am not suggesting that you do not allow you children to use the internet at all, although if that works for you, go for it. What I am saying is educate your children on the right way to use it. Yes, that may mean NOT using the computer as a substitute for the babysitting television. Yes, that may mean actually sitting down with your children and using the computer with them. Yes, it may even mean that you have to go and educate yourself on safe internet practises. Heavens forbid you actually have to take time out of your schedule for the betterment and protection of your children! You decided to have kids. Go wild and actually be a parent to them. Stop using the magical “someone” and “something” to fix all your problems.

Why should adults be told what they can and cannot view? Australia already has some of what are viewed to be the most strict censorship guidelines in the western world. Surely we don’t need more restrictions? We seem to be making a bee-line for the ultra restrictive days of the 1930s where books were banned under the Indecent Publications Act (look up the first book to be banned: ‘Upsurge’ by J.M. Harcourt) for having communist tendencies and immoral leanings (yes, there’s that word again).

Even beyond that frightening trend is the fact that this filter will not stop future governments from banning to their own agenda. With the increasing power pressure groups such a Family First and others, developing significant say in the parliament through members we can only project that the future in one in line more and more with seemingly science-fiction films as Equilibrium and V for Vendetta. Harsh? Idealistic? You think? We see in other countries that panic spreads amongst people and they rally to a previously uncharismatic leader who finds strength in the people’s “time of need” (post 9/11 fiasco). We see that a coupe in Australian politics (K-Rudd vs Gillard) is viewed with disgust but no real outrage. We in Australia have become so terribly disconnected from our government that most are still unaware that decisions are being made in the parliament despite politicians not having read senate inquiry reports, not even waiting for them to be published before the vote is tabled!

“The concept of the Web is of universal readership.” – Tim Berners-Lee

The sad part is that the Web which runs on the internet, when invented, was never supposed to be ruled over by governments. It was supposed to be a depository for all the collective knowledge of the world. Yes, it may have gone a little out of proportion and out of control, but Tim Berners-Lee was on to a good thing when he said no government or corporation would have control over the whole web.

Make no mistake, this is a far-reaching topic that will go through unless there is a major outcry from those that our politicians supposedly have been elected to represent. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t felt very represented in the parliament of late. What can you do about it? There are a number of on line petitions and such useless ways of making yourself feel like you’ve done something, but if you rally want to do something about this, write your local member or senator a letter or email detailing what your concerns are. Call them. Make them realise that this is an actual problem that they can finally step up and act the valiant politicians just like they dreamed they could.

Want to know more about this topic? Here are a few links for you to take a look at:

The OpenNet Initiative.

The Australian Government Classification website.

The No Clean Feed website.

news.com.au: Enemy of the internet: Australia under surveillance for violating online freedoms.

Communications minister Conroy misleading public about the filter.

 

Image courtesy of Sally06 on Flickr