Cybermedia is the title of a new media unit in the School of Communication and Cultural Studies at Curtin University of Technology, aimed at examining the sociocultural implications of the new media technology (the Internet). In the process dimension, students develop practice and refine skills and competencies requiring them to make critical judgements regarding the nature and impact of these technologies on society - as it now exists, and as it might become. The unit is presently run in the traditional physical classroom environment. Students contextualise virtual critique on physical premise, especially on issues relating to virtual communities such as IRC, News groups, Usenets and MUDs. By re-situating the classroom to a virtual environment, it is expected that students' 'lived' experience of the object of study (the Internet) will enhance their understanding of the subject matter and improve their critical skills.
The research aims at finding among others if there is a marked improvement in students' performance after the transition, and if the technique could be applicable to disciplines other than Internet related units.
The unit introduces students to some of the prevailing discourses in the new media. It looks at pedagogical issues such as hypertext and the notion of readership and authorship. It questions social issues such as the position of individuals in communities and communities of people. It reassesses cultural values such as sexuality and gender, philosophical issues such as intelligence, rationality, space and time and examines the political and economic implications of the new media in an era of globalisation and its effects on developing world cultures and politics. In the process dimension, students develop practice and refine skills and competencies requiring them to make critical judgements regarding the nature and impact of these technologies on society - as it now exists, and as it might become.
Presently the unit is run on the traditional physical classroom environment. Under this condition students' physical experiences impede their contextual analysis of virtual environments. They contextualise virtual critique on physical premise, especially on issues relating to virtual communities such as Internet Relay Chats, News groups, UseNets and Multi-user Dungeons (MUD). By re-situating the classroom from the physical to the virtual, it is expected that students' 'lived' experience of the object of study (the Internet) will enhance their understanding of the subject matter and improve their critical skills.
But among the various users of Internet based virtual classroom programs, none has incorporated a component that seeks to critically evaluate the virtual environment itself. There are many websites that critique the culture of the new media technology such as those maintained by Heim, Kroker, Rheingold and a host of others but these are not classrooms or educationally based sites. There are several institution based sites which take various approaches to the study of the Internet but none to my knowledge seems to be focusing on the learning effects of the Internet on students. The closest academic researches in this domain are the MA thesis of Elizabeth Reid (1994) from the University of Melbourne and Robin Hamman (1996) from the University of Essex UK. Both theses reported different aspects of the Internet and were also published on the Internet.
Can we be right to infer that computer literacy is appropriating the position that traditional education used to occupy in our 'then' modern world? If it does occupy this position of knowledge as we (used to) know it, are we then substituting entire knowledge with computer literacy or are we adapting entire educational processes to fit into computer modules? On the other hand can we see computer technology as we saw medicine, engineering and law at the dawn of industrialisation? There is an important point we should bear in mind here, the new computer mediated communication technology (referred to as Internet) can be seen as both a tool and a discipline of study. But the problem we seem to face is when to apply computer technology as a tool to enhance learning and when to see it as a discipline in its own right.
It is true that for every new change there is an initial caution. Stability is what defines our identity else how could we have accounted for our identity in the midst of a Heraclitan flux. The dilemma of modern society is similar to the paradox posed by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's theses as described in Neil Postman's interesting book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it we are warned, "we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression" according to Orwell's 1984, while Huxley's Brave New World infers that "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think" (Postman, 1987: vii). Perhaps Orwell's apocalyptic 1984 really came to pass and we failed to notice. Perhaps we were too preoccupied with physical expectations of an asteroidian Armageddon just like the Jews were expecting a noble messiah and failed to notice the little carpenter's son. Perhaps Orwell and Huxley's theses are not paradoxical at all. Perhaps we are the paradox ourselves, luxuriating in our new found cybernetically digitised identity (less human more mechanical) or what Huxley calls being 'controlled by inflicting pleasure' and at the same time fighting 'inflicting pain' or oppression.
Modern technology has almost taken over that remaining human element in us through its hyperreality. Are we still in control or have we handed the baton over to our own creation to take control of our intellectual property? John O'Neil in his book Plato's Cave said:
If we look behind our images we may find no solid reality. Yet if we surrender ourselves to the "hyper-reality" of appearances, we shall lose the ability to discriminate light from darkness and thereby lose even our own shadow. We therefore desperately need some sort of tele-vision that is not a way of "seeing through" the media because of a refusal to be caught looking at them, but a way of seeing further, of seeing longer, and of seeing more steadily the risks we engage if ever we subordinate our intelligence to sensory modes of light and sound whose own intelligibility has been colonised by agendas that waste the body politic. (O'Neil, 1991:14)We have come to the stage when the war is between our own creation and us. We seem to be fighting a losing battle because the self mutating gene of the new technology has resulted in a dynamic or geometric progression while our conceptual ability is regressing. The perfection of technology has also created a serious ethical and intellectual dilemma in society. The boundary between reality and illusion is becoming too blurred and we even question our own intelligence. If modern computers can emulate signs of life we may have difficulty differentiating human life from mechanical life. From all indications it is becoming evident that human machine synthesis cannot be retraced. The phenomenon has become a part of modern civilisation (Springer 1996: 19-23). Despite Descartes' scepticism noted in Anscombe and Geach, (1971: 41-44) machines have become more human while humans have become more mechanical. The danger according to Woolley (1992: 2) is that the perfection of the artificial over the natural leads to a neglect of the natural.
On a socio-economic level, Shields (1996: 2) sees easy global information access as a threat to less secure cultures and economies. But Erick and Lynda Von Schweber in Hi-Tech Hate, Cyberville- Informaniac (Motion Picture, Channel 4) assert that technology is not being used to enhance an individual, but to break down the wall between an individual and enhance our status as colonial organism. In one way or another humans are still enslaved and colonised. (Note Rousseau's 'Social Contract' "Man is born free - but everywhere he is in chains"). Toffler says that there are two things happening at the same time in the age of superhighway: at one level is the "economic cycles of boom and bust" at the other end is the "revolutionary restructuring of markets, culture, technology and work" (Plunkett 1994: 36). How does such restructuring affect the average member of society? Are we too dependent on technology, does technology increase employment, is electronic information really secure, is new technology making us into mindless consumers, is technology de-personalising our society, will we fall for the illusion of the global village even when there is no village at all? These are some of the questions McKay has raised (1994: 41-2) which we must anticipate and be ready to face in confronting a new technological culture. Unfortunately none seems to have been adequately addressed, and yet we have almost created not just a McLuhanian extension of 'man' but an almost replacement of society with such constructs as MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons), VR (Virtual Reality environments) and IRC (Internet Relay Charts), Usenet etc. We are unprepared for the imports of the new media technology both in application and intellectual cognition.
IIMS is a program geared towards this empowerment. It provides a tool for analysing students' progress. Related instructional histories of individual students can be recreated over differential time periods and compared with a range of variables for decision- support/learning activities. IIMS automatically records detailed audit trails as individuals use it, supervisors can obtain profiles of how the performance of students and/or teachers are changing by viewing sets accumulated over selected periods of time unobtrusively.
Barlow, John Perry, in Richard Barbrook HYPERLINK http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/ Hypermedia Research Centre of the University of Westminster, London.
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|Please cite as: Anyanwu, C. (1999). Using the Internet to study the Internet (research in progress). In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 18-23. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/anyanwu.html|