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Thoughts on Cyber-Ed: Should we hand hold?

Upon completing Unit 2’s course readings for LRNT 521, part of my Masters Degree at Royal Roads University a recurring idea was proposed, that instead of simply supplying web storage to students, or a walled in computer based learning environment where students can only act in ways dictated by the system, that universities and other schools should provide web space, hosting or virtual private servers with a student created URL to encourage them to experiment and become contributors to their own educational experience. I am referring here specifically to the following articles: The Web We Need to Give Students, by Audrey Watters & A Personal Cyberinfrastructure by Gardner Cambell, though other authors made some similar suggestions. On the one hand I wholeheartedly agree, “This is fabulous idea!”, but on the other I think, “Wait a minute… What is stopping students from doing this already?”, and the answer is, “nothing.”

Thinking of my own educational experience, and the insight in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture by Henry Jenkins where he notes that more than half of American teenagers, 57% according to a 2005 Pew research study, can be considered “media creators” and that they accomplished this feat not in the classroom of a formal education system, but in their own spaces and on their own time. This being the case, then the argument of formal education outlets such as universities doing more surely looses some of its “great-ideaness“. Maybe institutional encouragement to build your own website, for example, is not what is really needed. Maybe what institutions can do is simply to encourage and reward “creativeness”, “creative desire”, and “creative expression”?

Hitting closer to home, I consider my own computer literacies and how I acquired them. Little, if actually none of the skills I currently possess resulted from formal learning. i started using computers before “computer classes” came into public Canadian schools. In High School I did take computer classes but not with the goal to learn new things. I just wanted to play with computers. Since my ancient public school days I have never stopped learning, developing competency with computers, and creatively expressing myself online. How have I done that?

Well, like the 57% of American teens in the Pew study, I figured it out on my own using the internet. You want to learn how to host your own blog on a web hosting platform, search it. You want to learn how to code, search it. You want to get and use game development software, search it. The internet, the “Information Highway” as it was called by un-savvy computer using politicians in the 90’s is the worlds greatest self perpetuating machine. Every nut and bolt that holds it together and makes it run can be sought out and analyzed by any of its users who can then take that knowledge and expand the machine a little bit more. The only thing holding people back is themselves. They don’t want to try. Their curiosity is dead. How many people reading this have ever clicked that little wrench icon called “developer” in their Firefox’s menu, and from there clicked “inspector” just to take a look at the code making the site they are viewing, exist?

This is the ghost in the machine, the nuts and bolts, and it’s so easy and accessible to see.

So what should educational institutions do to get more people to be residents or creators and contributors online? Incite curiosity, is my answer. Bring back the nuts and bolts to education. Show students a little bit about what is happening behind the curtain. Maybe even bring back DOS programming classes so people have a sense of code, not clicks, making their computer experiences possible. I would be willing to bet that if a university or any other educational institution were to go out and buy VPS accounts and domain names for students that there’d be no more students invested in internet creation than there currently is unless their curiosity had been peaked, unless they had some glimpse of what was possible. After that, they can use Google as well as anyone, find a host, buy a URL, learn to code, etc.

But what about simply being creative? For example, editing a photo or designing a logo? How can people be encouraged to do that? The answer is the same, exposure to tech that already exists. Schools can provide free of charge all the design, editing, creation software any student could ever want. In my case, the saving grace as a poor student was, pirated software. That’s how I learned to ue Adobe, Corel, Cyberlink, and a host of different creative software. I didn’t have the hundreds of dollars to go out and buy software I may have not been able to use, but I could download pirated copies and fool around with them, but had my school had supplied it, I’d not have pirated it (In case you are wondering, I own all my software these days.). That’d be far more valuable then $5 a month web hosting and a $10 Domain Name. Thankfully, these days, open-source software has become ever more the norm, think WordPress and Unity for example, but still most is proprietary and comes with a hefty fee.

So, should educational institutions “hand hold” and provide every student with free web space or should they provide free tools and tell students to go find out and do it themselves? My answer is the latter, with the educational institution’s role primarily focused on building the interest in students required that they find out what they need to know and do. Having written this on RRU’s WordPress space, I can’t help but wonder if participants would be better off if their instructor simply said “You need to have a WordPress site for this course. Go create one.”? Participants would have learned more for sure through the experience. They’d know how to register a domain, how to navigate cPanel, Direct Admin, or server manage in Linux. They’d have been presented with far more tools and customization options. They’d have perhaps bought their own scripts and just maybe created a child theme and did their own HTML and CSS editing. And perhaps they’d have connected it to WordPress.com and would be viewing their web analytics in Jetpack testing out new SEO tools to attract more search engine traffic. Maybe…

Campbell, G. (2009). A personal cyberinfrastructure. Educause Review, 44(5), 58-59.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. MIT Press.

Watters, A. (2015, July 15). The Web we need to give students. Bright.

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