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Blurred Boundaries

by Dallas McPheeters

There is a new generation of technology natives that do not view technology as "other." This new generation sees technology as an extension of human identity; hence, the label "Cyborg" is applied, indicating a kind of hybrid of human and technology.

First published in Tech & Learning Magazine, November 30, 2008

"The Internet is composed of a 'cloud' of computers, constantly shifting, never stable and that will therefore have a direct effect on our notions of time and space, and the traditional boundaries associated with those concepts when they are fixed rather than fluid." (Lawson & Comber, 2000, pg. 420)

What impact is technology having on education in the 21st century and how should we view it? This question has been the subject of much study during the past three decades, both in the United States and Europe. The focus of these studies falls mainly in one of two schools of thought.

The first school of thought will be labeled the Technofascists who view technology a wonderful tool to use in the education process and therefore promote its spread by way of legislative control. The second school of thought will be labeled the Technophobes who fear the rapid spread of the use of technology in education and therefore try to slow its spread by way of legislative control. Notice that both sides wish to control technology but for different reasons. And both sides view technology as other, alien, and something to be governed or controlled.

But a third view has emerged among the new generation of technology natives that does not view technology as other. This new generation sees technology as an extension of human identity; hence, the label "Cyborg" is applied indicating a kind of hybrid of human and technology (Cybernetic Organism). Rather than technology being applied to human identity, technology actually becomes part of the human expression itself. Thus the clear boundary between man and machine is being blurred by the technological revolution and to legislate such a revolution becomes irrelevant in the view of Cyborg culture.

The two traditional schools of thought among the technology immigrants react differently to the blurring of cultural boundaries caused by the technological revolution of the postmodern (and posthuman as Cyborgs believe. See page 9) world in which we live. Let me explain a bit further before introducing the salient arguments from both sides and issuing my own conclusive call for a radical paradigm shift in mainstream pedagogical practice based on the emerging native view.

Historical Approaches to Education

Consider the boundaries that have neatly defined our society and culture for centuries. Since the time of our nation's founding, clear-cut boundaries defined gender, profession, status, and rank. From the rigid and external Behaviorist views of reward and punishment as motivating factors in learning, to the internal perspectives of Cognitivism, each social theory of learning sought to explain our world in black and white. The box was understood and taught clearly in order that future generations would be able to think inside the box. Then the Constructivist theory came into vogue as the "New Deal" among social learning theorists, defining a somewhat blended and macro approach to education, viewing learning as the result of social construction. Even the recent developments labeled as Connectionism or Connectivism seem little more than a variation of Constructivism, only with technology added as an additional factor in the social connection equation. Regardless, all of these attempts are based on the premise that learning, education, schools, and schooling are based on domains of knowledge that can fit in a box, even if that box is constructed socially and especially if that box was outside all previously known boxes. Cyborgs realize humans are not box shaped and therefore limitations that fit in boxes are irrelevant.

As a further illustration, when I was growing up in the '50s, we were taught absolutes. Even Hollywood depicted clearly who the good guys were and who the bad guys were by of the color of their hats. As children, we knew that boys would grow up to marry girls and girls would marry boys. We expected to learn a trade or career and work for 40 years and retire with a gold watch. We would raise a family in the suburbs consisting of 2.1 children and including two cats and a dog as pets. The knowledge-base du jour was manageable and we could learn everything necessary for our living in 12 or 16 years of education. But today, the half life of our knowledge-base is fewer than 4 years; the time it takes to get a college degree. The box has outgrown our mental grasp. And as we continue to spin toward an unknown future, the older generations of technology immigrants seem to be frantically racing to define what may be beyond definition; even bigger than the whole itself. We are living in a conundrum whose solution is not possible with the old formulas. Today we are living in what has been described as a "culture of uncertainty" (Lawson, 2000) with each domain of knowledge increasing faster than we can learn it. How can education teach what cannot be learned?

Comfortable with the Unknowable

Children today—as natives to technology—are growing up in a world where boundaries are blurred. Within the present and politically-correct society, gender distinctions are in question. We understand that Race no longer has a scientific basis. The corporate hierarchy and rank that industrialized the world is being replaced by project oriented, team playing personnel whose "roles are ill-defined and shifting" (Lawson, 2000). Even our physical human identity is blurred by the introduction of virtual worlds enabling participants to engage in multiple realities both physical and imagined. Clearly delineated time boundaries are blurred by asynchronous communication tools. The Internet brings information to us that is no longer boxed in by time and space. And according to Thomas Friedman, author of New York Times bestselling book, The World is Flat, says we are at the "end of the beginning" (flat earth, 2000). Friedman believes we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg compared to what lies before us. According to Friedman's research, we are embarking on a shift of a magnitude that boundary-restricted minds are unable to conceive or manage. He calls this next wave of technology to come, Web 3.0. I call its impact on learning "Education 3.0" and technology will drive us there whether we prepare for it or not. Just as we moved from Web 1.0 (Static web-based documents with hardware as the intersect) to Web 2.0 (Social networking with software as the intersect), we are now on a collision course with Web 3.0 where the Internet itself becomes the intersect. In the same way the World Wide Web has evolved, education has evolved from teaching the three R's (1.0) to the incorporation of multiple channels of input and interaction (where we are today—2.0), to the fluid and boundary-less future (3.0) on the horizon. The impact of this shift will be as paramount as the invention of the wheel, but the speed of the change could occur in the twinkling of an eye.

The distinction between the two immigrant schools of thought reacting to these changes is important to understand if we are to critically discern the situation for what it is and our role in its transformation. Those insisting on going back to the good ole' days of clearly defined boundaries (we could call this group the fence builders) see the coming changes as other and therefore uncomfortable and difficult to navigate with the customary tools of the modern age they thought they knew. These technophobes perceive technology as outside, apart, and foreign to human existence (though some acknowledge technology's added convenience). Technophobes don't mind progress as long as it fits in a box and can be taught in the traditional way. Yet even the technofascists differ little in their final assessment despite their desire to increase technology's use in education. Technofascists still seek control in order to manage (box in) the increased use and usefulness of new technologies.

These two sides—represented by the technofascists and the technophobes—take issue with each other at every juncture along the path of current pedagogical theorizing. The fence builders believe the construction of the computer as "educational" is hype induced by political and corporate greed. Neil Selwyn, when researching what he saw as a techno-romance between U.K. governing authorities and the use of the computer in education, wrote, "There is now currently mounting political pressure on teacher and other educationalists to 'prove' technology's worth after the past 20 years of apparently ineffectual use" (Selwyn, 2002, pg. 441). Selwyn goes on to claim the hype is motivated by media-driven greed and has taken on a religious fervor "containing elements similar to faith, belief, and heresy" (Ibid). Selwyn believes the fixation we have on computing as 'educational' is discursive and driven by non-educational motives. And based on the present state of education, from Selwyn's 1.0 viewpoint based on his 1980s research, he may be right. But alas, the world outside the box is changing faster than our boundary-laden minds can keep up and this change has to be taken into account in the final analysis.

Resistance is Irrelevant

Traditional approaches to change the traditional methods has become irrelevant and the neo-native Cyborg culture knows it. As Gabriele Piccoli notes in her study of virtual learning environments, "The frustration with technical issues may also be masking a more fundamental cause of dissatisfaction. ...This lack of familiarity and developed learning strategies for the new environment may lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety" (Piccoli, 2001). In other words, measuring the effectiveness of emerging technologies with antiquated systems may be difficult to perform accurately without first coming up with new methods of assessment, (we can't put a stone wheel on a sports car and then measure the cars honest capability for speed).

The pressure placed on the educational institution today has lead to the overburdening of educators to endlessly test and assess for effectiveness. But isn't our appetite for assessment simply our 1.0 and 2.0 worlds striving to make sense of changes, to neatly define and package the increasingly blurred 3.0 world toward which we are racing? "Internet technologies are having a significant impact on the learning industry...but little is known about their effectiveness compared to traditional classroom education" (Piccoli, 2001). We have grown so accustomed to the mountains of data measuring the effectiveness of traditional classrooms that we are uncomfortable with our inability to measure non-traditional means. And what we don't understand, we often fear and seek to control. Both fascists and phobes are hungry to control a new reality that is bigger than all of us.

The important matter to understand here is that the crisis created by the Internet (Lawson, 2000) is only a crisis for the two schools of thought represented by the immigrants. The power-struggle today exists between the immigrant Technofascists and the immigrant Technophobes, both of which fight to regain the former, secure, walled world in which they came of age. The former wish to control it in order to profit from it. The latter wish to control technology in order to slow its fast-paced growth. However, Cyborgs, as natives to technology, should be thought of as neither acculturated nor UNacculturated. They are native and not immigrant and therefore do not need to adapt to their own emerging culture. Therefore, the contention exists primarily between the immigrants who embrace technology and the immigrants who resist it. Where it may be quite true that, "the mouse is more powerful than the remote control" (Lawson, 2000), both are other to immigrants whereas the power of neither is relevant to the native Cyborg of today's posthuman cyberculture. Virtual equality is achieved via a superhighway of communication where status, age, and gender can easily be masked.

How Cyborgs Learn is Different

The third school of thought is held by those Charles Garoian names the Cyborgs. Cyborgs go beyond even postmodern thought to what Garoian calls posthuman. "Posthuman thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate" (Garoian, 2001, pg. 340). Garoian is saying in effect that human identity is not replaced by technology but rather that technology has become the extension of human expression just as our physical body expresses our mind, as has already been noted earlier.

The third view emerges from the Cyborg culture but this view is near impossible to see from the immigrant's perspective. For Cyborgs, the battleground is not the use of computers in this arena or that sphere, but rather the view of technology as other, as separate from human identity rather than technology being the evolved expression of the posthuman creature (Garoian, 2001). Consider, as an example, the transition experienced by our agrarian society during the industrial revolution of the late 19th century. Agricultural society's sedentary practices were emulated by "the segmentation and dynamism of machine technology" (Garoian, 2001, pg. 334). The mid 20th century witnessed the "development of cybernetics as the means by which intelligence could be separated from the body and installed in machines" (Ibid). These two developments—machination during the industrial revolution and computerization during the technical revolution—both attempted to mimmic the electro-chemical human by electro-mechanical means. With machination, the bigger the better. With computerization, the smaller the better. Therefore the intellectual human supersedes the physical though both can be expressed in material terms. Now meld these two developments. The body in cyberculture is a body that "combines the virtual and the real, the avatar and the actual" (Ibid). Where immigrant cultures see inventions such as hearing aids, pacemakers, and prosthetics as other, Cyborgs blur the boundaries between the human and the non-human. In a world fighting over boundaries, Cyborgs are nomads reterritorializing on deterritorialization itself (Ibid). Cyberculture is the new paradigm but not from the vantage-point of technofascist immigrants. Immigrants see a mind/body distinction but Cyborgs see a physical/virtual distinction. Yet even more "the cyborg ... signifies ... a continual state of ... ephemerality ... as an unfinished aesthetic. Cyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living being and narrative constructions" (Ibid, pg. 338). This is why the future is unknown and why boundaries are irrelevant. The posthuman experience remains indefinable by nature.

Blurry Beyond Education

Now let us turn to the social context outside of education and examine the corporate business world. The recent global financial crisis should be proof enough of the irrelevancy of old paradigms and the fast changing nature of technology-based platforms blurring the vision of old-school expertise with its failed practices. If education serves the purpose of preparing the young to function in society, surely business is a driving force as the primary benefactor of the educated community. And if technology is affecting the educational community, certainly it must be having a similar effect on the corporate community. Trond Petersen's study of the effect of technology on hiring practices, published in the year 2000, compared the influence of merit versus social networks in the hiring process. In the hiring arena, abstraction has increased with technological advances. Where once clear boundaries were governed by meritocracy, today (thanks to the Internet and Web 2.0) social networks are setting the new precedent. Technology use in the hiring process has blurred both gender and age boundaries where once the treatment of such delineations bordered on discriminatory, to say the least. Concerning social networks, Petersen claims, "their importance is unambiguously and extensively documented for several countries" (Petersen, 2000, pg. 768). Minorities and women were more restricted in the non-technological and hierarchical past and therefore discriminated against more easily. The playing field of business is more level today because of technological advances and this is the field for which our youth are being educated and trained. Technology makes available social networks of every kind such that participants can meet people who have similar interests, read the same authors, enjoy the same foods, destinations, hobbies, and the list goes on. Web 2.0 is about social networking and this is having a transformative effect on the corporate framework. It's only reasonable to extrapolate the same effect on education. If meritocracy is being diluted in the workplace, surely the meritocratic focus in the sphere of schooling (i.e.. grading structures) must follow suit. Social networks affect final salary offers (Petersen, 2000). In other words, social networks pay off in one of two ways; they can drive or trap participants.

The challenge that perpetuates the battle is that even though the integration of technology has narrowed the space/time gap, the virtual is "still acquiring its meanings" (Stella, 2004). But never forget that these so-called meanings only bear importance in the eyes of immigrants who seek to understand how the boundaries are being blurred and attempt to prevent it if not reverse it altogether. Like building a wall along the U.S. and Mexican border, such enterprises are not important to everyone. In fact, building barriers is becoming less relevant. Nomads do not dispute over borders and Cyborgs are nomads. But times of transition bring out the immigrant in those of us born pre-technology, and the acculturation struggle continues. According to Stella, it's all or nothing. "Developments in any country affect the ... scenario globally" (Stella, 2000). Yet Stella, an immigrant to technology himself, asks, "Can technology replace human contact without significant loss of quality?" To this I would restate that to Cyborgs, technology is human contact. When this understanding is adopted by the majority, the stigma attached to learning platforms like distance education will be eradicated because the distance student will no longer be viewed as different from the classroom student. Postmodern culture will become fully posthuman.

The immigrant conflict is not limited to the United States. Across the pond, the current debate in the U.K. concerns the demand for evidence that computer aided instruction (CAI) has any educational benefits at all. "CAI does not appear to have had educational benefits that translated into higher test scores" (Angrist, 2002). Ouch! Teachers everywhere can empathize with this quote from a recent study centering on the effectiveness of classroom computers and pupil learning. Test, test, and test some more so we can prove that students are regurgitating what teachers are teaching. And because schools have included technology in the classroom experience (and because the inclusion of technology comes with a high price), taxpayers demand proof that the value is worth the investment. Of course, in Angrist's study, the teaching of computer skills is not questioned. The doubt raised focuses on the use of "computers to teach things" (Ibid). Remember, these arguments come from the immigrant schools of thought, regardless of whether fascist or phobic. Among the technophobe immigrants is the criticism that, like Sesame Street, computers "give you the sensation that merely by watching a screen, you can acquire information without work and discipline" (Ibid). To these technophobes, the resources consumed by schools for technological enhancements is a waste of funds that should have been used to hire trained teachers which "would have prevented a decline in achievement" (Ibid). Fortunately, Angrist is objective enough to conclude the possibility that the disruptiveness education is experiencing may be due to the transition itself and the measurable benefits of computers in teaching may simply take time to develop.

The ultimate dilemma between the fascist and phobic contenders rests in their addiction to assessment and how assessment can be accomplished effectively. Both technofascists and technophobes acknowledge the challenge of "internet-driven change to which Education has not been immune" (Piccoli, 2001). "Internet technologies have allowed small entrants to compete with established dominant incumbents" (Ibid). And to complicate matters, virtual learning environments are broader than the computer aided instructional ones. The added dimension of communication in the virtual learning environment expands the individualized experience to one that can "foster communities of learners" (Ibid). Where traditional learning environments were defined in terms of time, place, and space; the virtual world, according to Piccoli, adds technology, interaction, and control as three further dimensions. The addition of these three new dimensions has made learning more studentcentered. But in terms of assessment, virtual learning presents a far more complex challenge to resolve. And like Angrist, Piccoli understands we are in a stage of transition that can frustrate the immigrant population in ways the natives would neither experience nor understand.

The Next

If men are indeed from Mars and women are from Venus, perhaps the same is true concerning those on the two sides of the 'technology-in-education' debate. However, within the technology sphere, a third view is emerging among the natives of today's cyberculture. These Cyborgs will not accept our three dimensional, spatio/temporal existence as an end in itself. Therefore, a reformation must take place. But if reform is the answer, what is the question? Technology is the roadmap to an uncertain future. Technofascists embrace technology. Technophobes would slow technology. Yet neither is relevant because both seek to box technology in. Only the posthuman, neo-native Cyborg can adequately express the new technology-based hybrid identity and educators must facilitate the Cyborg's introduction into this boundary-less realm. Command of the knowledge-base can be the goal of education no longer. Lifelong learning is relevant because discovery is the norm, not understanding. Perhaps grade schools will give way to gradeless schools where students are no longer boxed in by gender, age, race, or ability but instead are grouped according to domains of interest. Such gradeless schools could teach adaptability above capability and train an uncertain culture for its unknown future in a world none of us sees clearly.

At the time this was written, Dallas McPheeters was an Instructional Technology Liaison for the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona and author of various blogs where he thinks critically about senseless contradictions. You can reach Dallas at dallasm_at_me_dot_com.

References
Angrist, J., & Lavy, V. (2002). New evidence on classroom computers and pupil learning. The Economic Journal, 112(482), 735-765.

Bowden, J. (2007). Learning for the unknown future. Swinburne University of Technology, iTunesU, Downloaded from the internet September 18, 2008.

Friedman, T. (2005), The world is flat, MIT World: OpenCourseWare, Downloaded from the Internet 8/28/08, iTunesU.

Garoian, C. R., & Gaudelius, Y. M. (2001). Cyborg pedagogy: Performing resistance in the digital age. Studies in Art Education, 42(4), 333-347.

Lawson, T., & Comber, C. (2000). Introducing information and communication technologies into schools: The blurring of boundaries. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21(3), 419-433.

Petersen, T., Saporta, I., & Seidel, M. L. (2000). Offering a job: Meritocracy and social networks. The American Journal of Sociology, 106(3), 763-816.

Piccoli, G., Ahmad, R., & Ives, B. (2001). Web-based virtual learning environments: A research framework and a preliminary assessment of effectiveness in basic IT skills training. MIS Quarterly, 25(4), 401-426.

Selwyn, N. (2002). Learning to love the micro: The discursive construction of 'educational' computing in the UK, 1979-89. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 23(3), 427-443.

Stella, A., & Gnanam, A. (2004). Quality assurance in distance education: The challenges to be addressed. Higher Education, 47(2), 143-160