Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Using the Internet to study the Internet (research in progress)

Chika Anyanwu
Communication and Cultural Studies
Curtin University of Technology
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.


1. Brief Background

The more perfect any new technology seems to be the more conflicting it seems to make our concept of human identity and spatial positioning. The telegraph changed our sense of time and space, cinema and television changed our sense of community and entertainment and now, computers have come to challenge our intelligence and efficiency and even existence. The big question is whether these changes are phases in human history or humans are the phases in their evolution. To delve into this frightening but true question of human identity in the age technology, this research utilises a unit specifically set up to investigate human identity in this period of flux (Cybermedia) to examine our roles (if we still have one) in the entire scenario.

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.

2. Previous works

The use of the Internet in course delivery is neither new nor unique to this project. Many universities have set up virtual courses on the web, especially for distance education purposes. Murdoch University is a close example. The University of British Columbia in Canada designed the WEBCT program that this project wants to utilise. WEBCT has attracted many international users including Curtin University of Technology. Some users at Curtin University of Technology are Christine Bauer who uses it for Electronic Commerce (EC 201), Bill Willesse uses it for Law 101. It is also used in Sports Physiotherapy. Clare McBeath uses it for a graduate Diploma program in education but also alternates with physical classroom situation. Peter Taylor of SMEC of TAFE is currently designing a WEBCT program for one of his courses.

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.

3. Research aims and objectives

Through the result of this research we should be:

4. Theoretical background

The new media technology of the Internet has created a sense of euphoria both within and outside academic discourses. It has created a new social sphere. Several literature to this effect have appeared within its short period of existence. Educational and corporate establishments have embraced the new media with open arms yet little other than procrastination has been made of the sociocultural effects of this "alternate world syndrome". Emphasis has been on its technical efficiency as a substitute for human labour and even intellectual growth. Just as I was still writing this paper Channel 9 Network News of 30th November 1998, had a special report on the new classroom environment where primary school teachers and students have embraced this new method of course delivery with a lot of enthusiasm. Although some of the people interviewed including principals and parents could not have enough facts to back up the needs for new technology but the general feeling was, "if we do not give the children computer skills they will be marginalised in the New World". And the interviewed teacher seems very excited that the kids have developed keen interest in this new classroom toy. About three weeks back, the BBC world service reported that research conducted in Britain showed that computers enhanced students' interactive and communication skills.

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.

5. Dilemmas

The first question we may ask ourselves is what the implication of the new media technology is in our concept of education and definition of knowledge. Are we intellectually capable of keeping up with the pace of change in the new technology? If not what becomes of the role of the educator and where is the institution in the public sphere of knowledge (or perhaps market sphere of survival)? Some of the problems we face with new technology in education can be summarised as follows:

6. Methodology

The major challenge of this research is finding ways to tackle some of the above dilemma. In order to perform this assessment the research will use an IIMS (Instructional Information Management System) interfaced with WEBCT to run the unit in the virtual environment. The advantage is that both programs will not incur additional cost since they are both user-friendly and site licensed to Curtin. According to David Carter in his paper titled "Articulating Curriculum Purpose with Student Assessment" there are two ways of using technology to achieve information rich environment. One is for the purpose of automating and the other is for 'informating'. It is evident that an academic environment cannot be advocating for the automation of curricular but for informating. To informate therefore is to "empower educators as professionals".

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.

7. Evaluation

There is an evaluation mechanism made up of a group of internal evaluators. There are three types of evaluations being carried out in this project: In the formative evaluation, monthly focus group interviews are conducted. The focus groups include reference group focus group, student focus group and staff focus group. Weekly students' performance assessment is conducted. This is done through peer assessment technique currently used to assess tutorial presentations. Semester students' assessment of the mode of delivery is also conducted. This is done through questionnaires. The Meta evaluation is to be carried out twice during the project to authenticate both the processes and data gathered from the formative evaluations. The summative/product evaluation focuses on two major areas: The baseline data from the physical classroom environment will be triangulated with the formative data from the virtual classroom. It is anticipated that baring all obstacles, the quality of students research report in the virtual classroom should be better than their research report in the physical classroom. Generally, the evaluation processes will enable the project to discover both the intended and unintended results.

8. Time frame

The project is divided into two basic stages. The first stage and first semester of 1999 will be used to both run the unit in the traditional classroom environment and also design the virtual classroom environment. During this period baseline data and trials of the new medium will be conducted. By the second semester of 1999, the entire program will be on a virtual classroom environment and the final data collection will be conducted and triangulated with the baseline data at the end of the semester.

9. References

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Barlow, John Perry, in Richard Barbrook HYPERLINK http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/ Hypermedia Research Centre of the University of Westminster, London.

Carey, J. W., Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston, Unwin Hyman 1987

Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Revised and expanded edition), London, Temple Smith, 1970.

Descartes' Philosophical writings, Anscombe, E. and Geach, P. T. (eds. and trans.), Nelson (for) the Open University Press, Revised edition 1971.

Fisher, Jeffrey, "The Postmodern Paradiso: Dante, Cyberpunk, and the Technosophy of Cyberspace." in David Porter (ed.) Internet Culture. London, Routledge, 1997.

Heim, M., "The Design of Virtual Reality", in Featherstone, M. and Burrow, R. (Eds.) Cyberspace Cyberbodies Cyberpunk, London, SAGE Publications, 1995.

Herring, Susan C. "Gender and Democracy in CMC" in Kling R. (ed.), Computerization and controversy: Value Conflict and Social Choices, San Diego, Academic Press Inc. 1996.

Hoogvelt, Ankie, Globalisation and the Postcolonial World, Hampshire, Macmillan Press Ltd. 1997.

Katz Jon, "Birth of a Digital Nation", Wired, April 1997.

Lull, James, Media communication, Culture: A Global Approach, Oxford, UK, Polity Press, Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Lupton, Deborah, "The Embodied Computer/User" in Featherstone, M. and Burrow, R. (eds.) Cyberspace Cyberbodies Cyberpunk, London, SAGE Publications, 1995.

McLuhan, M. and Powers, B. R. The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, NY, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Morely, David, Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. London: Routledge, 1995.

O'Neil, John, Plato's Cave: Desire, Power, and the Specular functions of the Media, NJ Ablex Pub. 1991.

Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death, London, Methuen 1987.

Shields, Rob, Cultures of Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies. London: Sage, 1996.

Simons, Geoff, Silicon Psychosis: Derangement in the Global Network. Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989.

Springer, C. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Post-industrial Age, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1996.

Thrupp Sylvia L. (Ed.), Millennial Dreams in Action: Essays in Comparative Study, Hague, The Netherlands, Mouton and Co. 1962.

Whittle, David, B. Cyberspace: The Human dimension, NY W.H.Freeman and Company, 1997.

Woolley, B. Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality, Oxford UK, Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

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


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