Being “Online” – The Future is Now

The Net was an oddly prescient film about a reclusive systems analyst whose identity is stolen by a hacker.  Sandra Bullock’s character conducts her life online; she orders pizza online, chats with men on dating sites, and works from home.  From the vantage point of 2015, her life is not atypical from many adults in the developed world.  Yet, the film was released in 1995, long before the web 2.0 revolution, the dot.com bubble, the release of Google, etc.  Angela Bennett, Sandra Bullock’s character in this film, embodies the fears and challenges of many people living in the digital age.  She lacks basic human interaction and becomes the target of a worldwide hacking scandal.  At the time of the movie’s release, the ‘world wide web’ had become a part of the American vernacular.  Netscape, an early web browser had just been released and even by 1996, only 20% of Americans had logged onto the web.  In 1995, the web was still mysterious to most people  Later films, like You’ve Got Mail, explored the lighter side of this new virtual world.  But films like The Net evoked an apocalyptic, the-future-is-now anxiety about our relationship to technology.  What if, for example, we all become recluses due to technology?  What if the web allows evil forces to perform more spectacular acts of evil?  How do we negotiate personal identity in a virtual world?  What if our identity is robbed from us? The questions seem far-fetched in 1995, but they are incredibly relevant ones in 2015.

The Internet has redefined how we conduct our lives and flattened social hierarchies.  This is particularly true when one considers how online education has impacted the roles of teacher and student.  Online education is still new in the sense that many of us lack a social script and/or a mental framework for understanding how it works.  Education is a mutli-faceted process that involves far more than the transmission of knowledge.  Removing social context of learning creates new challenges.  How, for example, does one ‘teach’ online?  How does an online instructor do the things that are taken-for-granted in the face-to-face classroom, like gauge students’ confusion and provide clarification?  How can a student feel comfortable learning from someone who seems anonymous?  Teaching and learning in the online environment has many long-term, paradigmatic implications as well.  For example, students openly question the need to recollect facts when they can simply Google answers.  What is the value of learning facts when simple facts can be easily retrieved online?  And how this redefine who is a expert on a subject?  Many educators, like myself, opine that the new online world requires new literacies, such as information literacy and media literacy.  What and how do we teach online learners these skills?  As a librarian, I can attest that library instruction has evolved from how to find information (i.e. by looking up a book in the catalog) to how to sift through tons of information that is already freely available.  The latter, not the first, is a more valuable skill in the digital age.  I believe that online education will fundamentally change our teaching priorities.

For years, educators have been able to put off these questions since few institutions had the infrastructure to offer online courses.  The Internet was a novelty, not a necessity, in education.  Now the picture has changed as it is possible to take courses and earn accredited degrees online; every step in the process can be done virtually.  The ongoing recession and de-industrialization of the U.S. and the West has created a market for online degrees.  Workers need specialized training to be gainfully employed and often cannot afford to attend full-time or have time to attend physical classes.  Like spectators of The Net, educators are now faced with a scenario of the-future-is-now.  I can’t speculate what exactly will change, but I strongly feel that online education ‘revolution’ (pardon the hyperbole) will be more than translating what educators have always done in face-to-face environments online.  Instead, I think it will be a fundamental re-imagining of education.

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