- 1 Ulrich (Uli) Bernath graduated in Economics. He holds a Dr. phil. from the School of Education of C (...)
- 2 Thomas Hülsmann (MSc, MA, PhD) was recently nominated Visiting Researcher at the University of Sout (...)
Ulrich Bernath and Thomas Hülsmann, Question 1: Otto, your book “Against the Tide. Critics of Digitalisation. Warners, Sceptics, Scaremongers, Apocalypticists. 20 Portraits” was published in June 2013. Also in June 2013 the first disclosures of Edward Snowden were published by The Guardian. Up to that point, probably for most of us the qualitative and quantitative dimension of worldwide surveillance and intelligence practices of the American as well as the British secret services had been unimaginable. During your analysis of the critics of digitalisation and your realization and conclusion thereof have you already had a notion or idea of what you have found after these disclosures ?
Uli and Thomas ! Thank you for this question. My answer : I had more than just a “hunch” about the possible rigor of control, supervision and surveillance brought about by digitization. In my Introduction to the book I referred to Aldous Huxley’s famous book “Brave new world” (1932) in which he warned of the dangers of a state in control of modern technology which according to him would finally lead to totalitarianism. Four of the critics presented in my book (Weizenbaum, Cebrian, von Hentig and Turkle) described the danger of totalitarian control by pointing to Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” in which he prophesied “public mind control”, “official deception” and “secret surveillance”. And the critic Don Tapscott prophesied already in 1999 that “fundamental civil rights and liberties will be undermined” and that “the human right to privacy will be eroded in such a way that makes us shiver”. I sympathized with the ideas of those critics. This means that I was intensively aware of these dangers when I started writing the book. To reveal them was my main motivation. Some of my fears were even worse as I agreed tacitly with Virilio and Baudrillard who described the possible “apocalyptic end of humanity”. However, I did not expect that governments would exploit the digital system so early and with such unconditional force in order to supervise, control and spy people globally. Edwards Snowden’s disclosure of the global control and espionage activities by US-American and British secret services show how long-sighted and sagacious several early critics of digitization have already been.
U.B and T.H., Question 2: When did you start your work on your book and what were your motives, your intentions, your aims?
I started collecting relevant material and began literature recherché in 2010, but voiced some of my concerns already earlier. They were published in the fifth edition of “Distance Education in Transition” in my chapter on “Limitations” (2010, p. 169)). Four major motivations made me write this book.
Firstly : The idea to deal with critics of digitalization originated from my impression that many of the supporters of digitalization were internet enthusiasts who did not care about or even denied disadvantageous aspects of it. I came across “naïve champions” and quite a number of convinced “cheer leaders” for the sake of digitalization. My goal was to make them consider and to re-examine their inadequate attitudes and to round up their concept of digitalization.
Secondly : Usually people know only one or two critics of digital- lization and consider them as marginal persons who are likely to dismiss their critical arguments. I intended to show that criticism of digitalization is not at all a singular phenomenon, but has been aroused by a considerable group of authors in many countries. They should be taken notice of.
Thirdly : Another motivation sprang up from my methodological concern. It can be expressed best by the motto of the book : “Unless you say the opposite of something as well, you only say half. Nothing is true anymore without the opposite” (Martin Walser). Soberness and truthfulness demand that risks of digitalization be recognized. I found that their arguments should be reflected and related to the incomprehensively great chances of digitalization.
Fourthly : By showing the acute and deplorable negative effects of digitalization I intended to drive home how powerful and significant it really is. As it has changed drastically our individual lives, our institutions and values I found that bringing also disadvantages of digitalization into focus is just another way to emphasize its basic meaning and enormous significance.
U.B and T.H., Question 3: Which portrait or portraits of the discussed authors made the biggest impression on you and why?
It is difficult to answer this particular question as each of the critics has different and very specific merits. I admire most Nicolaus G. Carr because of his general scholarly approach, his comprehensiveness, his sound judgments and flawless literary style. I esteem Sheryl Turkle because of her empathy with the digitized learners, of the vast dimensions of her field research as well as of the change of her attitude after becoming aware of the negative consequences of mobile telephones. This was brave as by this change she came across the opposition of most of her colleagues. I appreciate Hartmut von Hentig because of the fact that he developed a pedagogical program for digitized students – although he described himself as a harsh critic of digitalization. And, of course, I am in favor of the contributions of the two French philosophers Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio who have shown that digitalization is not at all a phenomenon of the last twenty years, but an organic continuation of our intellectual history. Both of them excel as great critics of culture.
U.B and T.H., Question 4: In the late 1990s you were one of the pioneers of internet- and web-based learning. In your book “Distance Education in Transition. Developments and Issues” published in 2002 you already analyzed in-depth the so-called “Digital Learning Spaces” from different perspectives. In your chapters on “New Chances and Opportunities” and “Vision, Hopes, Expectations...” you took a rather optimistic perspective up to the fifth edition in 2010. Your book found widespread interest and was translated amongst others into Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. From today’s point of view, has there been a significant change concerning your analysis of “Digital Learning Spaces” ?
You have referred to my positive ideas about grandiose chances and opportunities of digitalization. They can be explained by the peculiarity that I am a pedagogue. As such I saw the enormous new possibilities for learners and teachers alike. I recognized especially the advantages for the education of self-learners, autonomous learners and for the establishment of a healthful and tolerable mass education. And I described the emergence of ten digital teaching-learning spaces. Indeed, I was of the opinion that distance education could be generally raised to a higher pedagogical level by online learning. I carry this conviction also today. My only reservation is that principles of instructional design should be given definite preference to the nearly excessive interest in technical innovation.
On the other hand I realized at the same time that in teaching-learning situations bodily presence and oral communication remain significant. They cannot be wholly replaced by virtual communication - for quite a number of reasons. I tried to describe them by in my paper “A plea for the oral dialogue in online learning”. And there is a second concern. More and more I see that children being tied to their mobile phones and computers are quite often deprived of significant traditional oral communication with family members, classmates and friends. In the long run those learners will be deprived of their natural ability to get along with people easily. From a pedagogical point of view this is a dangerous development as well.
U.B and T.H., Question 5: You regard “autonomous learning” as THE key pedagogic leitmotif, one of your guiding themes. When analyzing “Digital Learning Spaces” you saw a possibility to approach the vision of autonomous learning. Do you still hold on to this vision ?
Since beginning of the twentieth century a group of progressive German pedagogical theorist and practitioners advocated the liberation of classroom students. They criticized that our schools educated primarily dependent learners and hoped that independent students could actively develop their own learning individually – as this was considered the real and natural form of learning, especially for adult learners. Receptive learning should be replaced by active learning. The main task of the teacher was then imparting adequate media and strategies of self-learning and of pedagogical support. However, apart from some exceptions, this program failed for a number of reasons and is still failing over a period of more than a hundred years.
However, the advent of computerized learning changed the situation and opened up new chances and possibilities for self-learning. Theoretically autonomous learning became an ultimate pedagogical objective which could be approached and perhaps even achieved by exploiting the numerous technical media contained in a computer and the Internet and by a fundamental pedagogical change. The persistent resistance of most teachers and learners can be explained by the fact that the traditional concept of expository teaching and receptive learning is rooted deeply in their long learning experience. It cannot be overcome easily. Today experts have to admit that the demanding objective of educating autonomous learners can only be realized slowly and step by step. But it remains a significant teaching and learning objective. If we intend to educate self-reliant persons, who have integrity and self-respect, who are able to solve problems, to think critically, to work independently and creatively - then we have to stick to and must be committed to the concept of the autonomous learner.
U.B and T.H., Question 6: A completely new development of internet- and web-based learning is represented by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with their theoretically unlimited number of participants. If we hold on to the definition of distance education as mediated education and keep in mind that mass media and distance education made a very successful coalescence in the past the following question arises : To what extent do MOOCs open new, promising and, possibly even, revolutionary future prospects for distance learning ?
It is really an outright surprise to see how fast the new form of teaching and learning attracted undivided attention and how many MOOCs have been already established in many countries in a short time. Ideally speaking this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that the concept that one excellent and famous professor (the “very best thinker” as an advertisement has it) reaches thousands and even millions of eager students is very attractive indeed. And this concept seems to be even more attractive when tuition fee is not expected and its global perspective is brought into focus. The great number of MOOCs indicates that there is obviously an exorbitant demand for additional higher education opportunities which, seemingly, cannot be met by traditional educational systems. They have failed to see and to take care of this new category of learners.
After the establishment of about 80 open universities in the world MOOCs seems to become just another global instructional system for providing higher education to very great numbers of students so far neglected. This may be fitting at a time when governments are increasingly compelled to deal with problems of mass education.
However, a closer look shows that running MOOCs create a number of problems. The didactic design is simple : Lectures are delivered by a professor and are spread online in dimensions comparable to the coverage of “broadcasting” of radio and RV stations. This means that MOOCs preserve and reinforce the format of the much criticized traditional lecture and stick to the old fashioned methods of expository teaching and receptive learning. Under the aspect of instructional design the new teaching and learning has not been innovated and improved. This deficit has been recently emphasized by Burkhardt Lehmann and Rolf Schulmeister.
Teaching massive groups of learners is difficult also in other respects : The vast numbers of students do not allow for individualized teaching and learning. Students cannot be examined orally. They have to take multiple choice tests which do not examine the results of their own thinking processes but only their ability to remember and their luck in taking chances. The most important deficit of this one-dimensional teaching is the absence or slightness of individual support. Students studying without direct contact to teachers and classmates need special forms of support. Open universities establish local or regional study centers for this purpose in addition to their online and book learning.
My most important reservation is this : learning should be embedded in the cultural environment of the learner. Dealing with the same content may turn out to be a different one when taught e.g. in USA, in India or in China. When you cater for students everywhere on this globe you will run into difficulties. Rolf Schulmeister illustrated this by pointing to a MOOC in which many baseball examples were given which are certainly incomprehensive to learners in most parts of the world. It may be telling that up to ninety percent of MOOC students drop out and do not pass final course examinations. Although I understand the present hype about MOOC I am not sure that this incredible and amazing new format of teaching and learning will really last for many years. Nor will it revolutionize our educational systems. And I do not expect a general pedagogical revolution.