A look at online learning and digital wisdom from Madeira

July 4, 2016 Tony Bates

Curral das Freiras (Nun's Valley) in the centre of Madeira

Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley) in the centre of Madeira

Madeira

Madeira is a Portuguese island in the Atlantic about 200 kilometres west of north-west Africa. I’d never been there before this year, but now it’s twice in two months. The first time I had an eight hour stop-over when travelling by ship from Puerto Rico to Malaga in Spain. This time I took almost a week, not just to attend a conference, but also to have time to explore this amazingly beautiful island, which has many different kinds of flowers, such as hydrangeas, clematis, nasturtiums and birds of paradise, all growing wild on the mountain sides.

The island of Madeira is basically a huge extinct volcano rising over 6,000 feet, often almost vertically out of the ocean. This leads to exciting bus rides, which tend to take the high road to get round the coast and the deep ravines.

The conference

I was here to give a keynote speech on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ in the e-learning strand of the 10th Multi Conference on Computer Science and Information Systems in Funchal, Madeira during July 1-4. The conference was organized by IADIS, the International Society for the Development of the Information Society.

Those of us who are specialists in online learning tend to forget that online learning is just one aspect of the information society. What this conference did was to bring together participants from the various branches studying different aspects of the information society. The conference was multi-stranded and covered the following areas:

  • e-Learning
  • Theory and Practice in Modern Computing
  • Game and Entertainment Technologies
  • ICT, Society, and Human Beings
  • Web Based Communities and Social Media
  • Interfaces and Human Computer Interaction
  • Computer Graphics, Visualization, Computer Vision and Image Processing
  • Information Systems Post-implementation and Change Management
  • Connected Smart Cities
  • Big Data Analytics, Data Mining and Computational Intelligence

I was the keynote speaker for the strand on e-learning.

Above the clouds at Pico d'Areeiro

Above the clouds at Pico d’Areeiro

Online learning as a disciplinary area

Given the breadth of the conference, many of the participants in the e-learning strand were either just getting into online learning, or were looking in from the outside. Some who have been working in the field of online learning for many years, can get very frustrated or even angry when new entrants start re-inventing the wheel or discovering for themselves things that have been known for many years within the profession. This was certainly evident from some of the parallel sessions I attended.

However, I think it is pointless to get worked up about this. It is healthy for the field of online learning that it is constantly expanding and bringing in new blood and new perspectives, as well as reinventing the wheel. As a discipline, we have not done a good job in communicating effectively evidence-based knowledge and sound pedagogical principles to newcomers. This is one reason why I wrote my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, and why I was pleased to be invited to talk to this conference. We need more efforts to break down the artificial knowledge boundaries in the field of information and communications technologies. Thus I was here as much to learn from others as to teach.

Developing digital wisdom

It would be impossible in the space available to cover all aspects of the e-learning strand. There were sessions on communities of inquiry, online professional and vocational training, inter-cultural differences in online learning, data mining and analysis, and many other topics, but I want to comment on one presentation that focused on the larger societal shifts resulting from a digital society, and in particular suggested a strategy for developing a ‘good’ ICT (information and communications technologies) society.

I was interested in this because of my growing concern about the relationship between the impact of digital technologies and alienation in humans. (It should be remembered that it is still only a week since the British voted to come out of the European Union, and Donald Trump is now the official Republican contender for President of the USA). Put bluntly, are social media in particular leading to the dumbing down of our society?

I therefore went along to a very interesting keynote presentation by Gunilla Bradley, Emeritus Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. She was talking about her forthcoming book, ‘Digital Wisdom’ (not out until 2017).

In her presentation she pointed to a great deal of convergence between globalization, information technologies, social environments, and multiple roles and identities for individuals. As a psychologist, she was particularly interested in the effects of this convergence of forces on human behaviour.

This convergence of forces challenges our sense of:

  • self-identity,
  • self-esteem,
  • integrity,
  • trust in others,
  • empowerment,

These convergent forces also:

  • challenge our ability to empathize,
  • and increase stress.

In particular, individuals are increasingly struggling to find a balance between emotionality and rationality, their gender role, and a balance between involvement and alienation.

In order for humans to achieve this balance in a digital society, she enumerated 10 principles that should influence how digital technologies are deployed and regulated. I won’t list them all but they include

  • democratic versus free market regulation,
  • a focus on human well-being and meeting basic human needs,
  • balance and harmony, etc.

For these principles to be implemented, she recommends 10 actions. Again, I won’t list all these but give some examples below:

  • be guided by the ‘Golden Rule’: treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself
  • revision of economic theories to take account of the 10 principles
  • make these principles a focus for politics at local, national and international levels
  • focus education on developing the 10 principles, particularly at a pre-school level

My comments

This is a selective summary of a much more complex thesis, but I had a number of responses to the presentation

  • I am very glad that someone is looking at the broader implications of the impact of digitalization on society at large. In particular, Bradley’s analysis was not negative but wholly positive and optimistic, accepting the many benefits of digitalization but also questioning how we can reduce the negative elements;
  • it is important to look beyond the immediate and short-term implications of new technologies and think about their longer term impact. For instance, in a rather narrow sense, what is the long-term consequence likely to be of reducing class time and increasing online activities in education, particularly as this pushed down to the younger age groups and pre-school children. How do we get the balance right between screen time and other activities in education?
  • Bradley’s approach is a direct challenge to the neo-liberal, free market approach to ICTs. To date, with the possible exception of the original Internet and the original World Wide Web, the introduction and use of digital technologies are dominated by the desire to make lots of money for private corporations, who control much of the world’s use of ICTs. Is it possible to build alternative pathways for the development and use of ICTs that focus on the general good without destroying innovation and accessibility? What alternative models of governance and control of ICTs are possible?

My immediate reaction to Bradley’s presentation was that she was being hopelessly optimistic and naive, but on reflection, we do need alternatives to the current free market, value-free approach to the development and application of the digital technologies that increasingly dominate our lives. Without a clear vision for the future we want we are unlikely to get it, and Professor Bradley has put forward such a vision. This is becoming more urgent as the consequences of the alienation associated at least in part to the digitalization of our personal lives, work, business, social communication and economics manifest themselves in political phenomena such as Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election.

I am really looking forward to reading her book when it comes out – hopefully as an open, online book!

Funchal seen from Cabo Girão

Funchal seen from Cabo Girão

Images: Tony Bates

Previous Article
Getting faculty and instructors into online learning
Getting faculty and instructors into online learning

I mentioned in an earlier post that we don’t always do a very good job in helping people new to the field o...

Next Article
Brexit and online learning in Europe
Brexit and online learning in Europe

Little England triumphs Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial En...