Saturday, July 23, 2005

Early Film, Early Internet, Early Days, Network Learning

(Amazingly, just before I hit publish on this post, Peter Le Cornu posted a link to a paper by Gerry White for Education.au limited! Beyond the Horseless Carriage, looking at the evolution of ICTs in education, the reasons why education has been so slow to take up new technology, and an argument for the urgent need to review curriculum.)

Lately I have been hanging about at the Internet Archive checking out movies. Last night I found the 3o second commercial for Admiral Cigarettes made in 1897! Its a really lame ad by today's standards or course, but is an extremely interesting case study to look at the early adoption of a new communicative technology. This little film offers us a chance to reflect on our own adoptions of another new medium more than 100 years later!

It might be worth getting the film so we're on the same page with it. I grabbed the 256K Mpeg 4 Version, Its only 1.2meg and plays on the Quicktime player no worries. (You might have to open it through Quicktime though, as a double click straight on the file didn't work for me first time round).

Did you see it? Wacky hey! It really struck me as a great example of how poorly prepared those early adopters were in understanding the uses and impact of that particular new technology. You can see in the film an almost zero comprehension of the grama of movies, no sense for the unique language structures of a movie that would begin to form more than 20 years later. Obviously the creators of the Admiral Cigarettes ad saw movies as simply an extension of the theatre. Actors on a stage, extroverted movements, big props, 2 dimensional... But they failed to understand and speak a new language of the new medium. Shall we call them movie immigrants?

I think we have faced the same language and perceptual barriers with the Internet as the Edison Manufacturing Co did with their cigarette ad in 1897. Its obvious really, especially if you look at art and education and their early attempts to enter the digital Internet era. When the Internet first started hitting my street in 1995, I was at art school. By 1998 the first websites started to come out for the art school, they were being called virtual galleries. These virtual galleries were simple click through tours of paintings, drawings, sculptures and the odd installation just to be difficult. Just as Admiral Cigarettes created a virtual stage, the 'artists' created virtual galleries. Some were so committed to the idea, that they even started looking into virtual reality technologies as a way to bring familiar dimension into their virtual galleries.

Of course much later, with the benefit of Internet hindsight I have been able to find many truly artistic expressions of the Internet that where being created at the same time, such as the work of Eric Loyer. Works that really engaged with the language of hypertext and connectivity, creating artistic experiences in those new languages and cultures. They weren't as much recreations of what was already understood (gallery exhbitions) - they were something new, or at least beginning to exhibit something new.

Now taking a look at slow old education... The early adopters of these new mediums (digital and the Internet) have been suffering from the same incomprehension as the early adopters of movies. Just like the early adopters of movies, and the artist's virtual galleries, educators using digital media and the Internet are largely relying on familiar methods, creating virtual classrooms, treating knowledge with traditional print industry processes, and trying very hard to retain the old teacher student relationship by narrowing scope into learning management systems to deliver courses.

I think its important to look at digital media and the Internet as separate entities in the language unfolding by the way. Its unfortunate that digital media and content creation has held the lime light in education for so long, and that the connectivity offered by the modem has, to a large degree been ignored. Most discussion in the eighties for example seemed to focus on computer programming, and developing experiences that could be understood as educational. Take a look at this edition of the Computer Chronicles TV series broadcast in 1984. In it the hosts and their guests are looking at computer programs in the classroom, and what sort of cognitive development such programs might achieve with students. Even though one of the speakers in this edition actually uses a modem to link into one of their demonstrations, they fail to even talk about the implications of that technology, instead they focus on content and that more tangible device the PC. And think about that Disney movie Tron. A movie that framed popular perceptions of computers but again focuses on programming and content without much interest at all in the connectivity offered by the modem.

Into the 90's and the focus remained on content development with CD ROMs and Instructional design. Huge amounts of money were (and still are being) poured into "shelfware" that were really just finished content - digital text books with mildly interactive graphics, and the odd light weight program for drilling and quizzing. Here were attempts to bring bring the massively evolving spheres of information into portable content that could be used and understood in the terms of traditional teaching and learning practices.

When I came into the picture, after the millennium bug, I was a budding Flash developer being asked to develop still more finished content but this time for delivery over the network, not on CD ROM. The CD ROM developments were now being required to develop their content complient to standards, (theoretically sharable and adaptible content) deliverable over the network. Massive investments were being made in Learning Management Systems, that again failed to understand the new language of learning that was evolving, merely replicating the communications capacity of the Internet, leaving out the global connectivity in the name of IP, privacy and security. And this time I was creating more virtual classrooms and simulated training environments with the popular graphics and 'interactiveness' of Flash. All the while I must admit, I had a sneaky suspicion that what we were doing was way off and not the slightest bit 'future proof', but having no idea what the new language of learning would inevitably be in the approaching era of network learning and Internet 2.0.

Costly and unsustainable content development comes from the focus on computers and programs in education throughout the 80's and 90's and a lack of focus on the connectivity and collective learning offered by modem mediated communications. It seems to me that the content creation is very much tied to the process of learning, and that the connectivity offered by the Internet challenges everything about our traditional teacher / student / course / content methods. The content is created by learners as they learn, such as this blog post, what I'm typing and the links I am pointing to. Let me explain.

Tonight I have had an idea or a realisation, spawned from past ideas, readings and discussions, stimulated by a little old movie. The Internet and this blog gives me an opportunity to voice my idea to a network of readers, open for comment and reactions, now and in the future. That opportunity and openness motivates me to think about the argument I'm making, link together a few things to support what I'm saying, and format it into a reasonably coherent expression. Once 'out there', I both wait for comments and responses, and continue thinking about it until the next idea comes along that will build upon these past experiences. This is a learning process for me, and for those who engage with me in it. This post is not so much an outcome of any particular study (such as a paper or essay might be) but is more a piece in the process of learning. Its an ongoing conversation of learning, with the recorded voices in the conversation contributing to the content used in someone else's learning.

This process seems to me to be quite a natural way to communicate and learn over the network, and a remarkably sustainable way of developing content. Already, technologies are developing that will improve the richness of this content. Audio blogging and podcasting bring audio to the record, and mobile phone connectivity with their multi media capabilities bring another dimension all together.

So, just as the movie started as a recreation of the theatre, later developing into a language and expression of its own, online learning will develop from virtual classrooms and courses to something more appreciative of connectivism. This is not to say that the methods and approaches we develop along the way will be superseded by such a new practice (theatre is still video recorded after all) it just means that a unique language and practice for the new medium will develop, and it will likely have no resemblance at all to the methods we recognise today.

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2 comments:

Joan Vinall-Cox said...

I agree. But whenever we humans move to a new communicative medium, we always start by using the methods from the medium we previously used. Many (teachers) are still using wordprocessing as a typewriter with a few gagets added, rather than seeing (and teaching) the compositional elements such as the Outline View and even Styles.

When change happens in less than a generation, it is hard to marry the old and the new, and students and education are suffering because they can't be kept the old medium and are being abandoned in the new.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for the comment Joan, and your blog (or team blog by the loks) is very interesting. Your observation about word processing helped bring it home for me Joan. I can now easily see where my own resistance to change may lie.
Thanks