Monday, March 18, 2013

I have a horse in this race.


As a communication scholar, much of my research involves educational applications of emerging technologies. One might think that this would make me predisposed to the MOOC vision, but I'm actually quite skeptical about the claim that MOOCs represent a serious threat to small universities such as Trinity. 

It is important to acknowledge three factors that bias my interpretations. 

First, I have a vested interest in the continued existence of the face-to-face interactive lectures and discussions that flourish at Trinity. I simply do not want to imagine a world in which MOOCs would make my job obsolete. My concern is not solely based on economic self interest. One can always hunt for other lines of work, and almost anything related to programming would actually pay more than most teaching gigs. I'm more concerned about the quality of life. Everything about this job makes me happy. Even on the first Monday after Spring Break, with stacks of grading piling up on my desk, this job is amazing. 

The first startup was named
 Metaversatility. The second
company was (and continues
to be) Elastic Collision.
Second, my interpretation of MOOCs is necessarily shaped by the fact that I was once an evangelist for the virtual world Second Life. In fact, I took a year of unpaid academic leave to co-found two startup companies that developed virtual spaces for commerce and education. I rode the wave at the right time, returning to the academic fold at the exact moment when the real-world economy crashed, bringing Second Life's economy with it. Five years later, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I recognize that there were many flaws with the grandiose visions promoted by virtual world boosters. Though I remain convinced that something like Second Life will be very important in the near future -- perhaps even merging with MOOCs and wearable interfaces -- I'm far more skeptical about virtual promises than I once was. 

Third, something changed in my life five years ago that significantly undermined by enthusiasm for virtual interaction. I married my best friend (also a Trinity professor), and I became a step-parent to a super cool seven-year-old. It soon became clear that I could not be fully present in my face-to-face relationships when spending ten, twenty, or thirty hours a week in Second Life. When I was touting the benefits of virtual classrooms, I thought of virtual interaction and face-to-face interaction as substitutable ingredients. Today, if asked to choose between face-to-face and virtual interaction -- whether in my personal life or in the classroom -- I am far more likely to opt for face-to-face interaction.

I understand that virtual interaction is often quite meaningful, and I have little patience for those who think that online communication is somehow pathological or strange. But life experiences have instilled in me a far deeper respect for the importance of being physically proximate to other human beings. 

A close family member is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Type 2A breast cancer. (She is doing quite well, I might add.) During Spring Break, I spent a week with her in California. Physical proximity and the ability to hug my family members was essential. Second Life wouldn't have been the same for so many reasons, including the fact that chemo-related neuropathy has made extensive typing and avatar navigation very difficult for this person. She's a highly technical person who has been programming computers since the 1970s, but she's not currently able to take full advantage of virtual conferencing technologies. The avatar is too difficult to control, typing is only possible in small amounts, and the all-seeing gaze of the web-cam is far too intrusive for someone undergoing chemotherapy. 

If money or other circumstances made it impossible for me to visit my family in California, Second Life (and other virtual platforms) would be better than not interacting with her at all. But it would be a distant second to physical proximity. 

So, these are three biases that influence my observations: 1) I have a vested interest in the status quo, 2) my previous enthusiasm for Second Life has left me with "once bitten twice shy" skepticism, and 3) life-changing experiences have helped me understand the deep importance of physical proximity and face-to-face interaction.