Sunday, March 6, 2011

Online Education: A Vital Presence in the Future of Education

Online Education: A Vital Presence in the Future of Education
Education is one of the most important aspects of a progressive world.  As such, there are currently over 8,600 universities in the world, with over 2,000 of them in the United States alone (Klaus, 2011).  Many of these institutions, in an effort to stay competitive and offer the best education available, now have online education degrees.  “The proportion of institutions with fully online programs rises steadily as institutional size increases, and about two-thirds of the very largest institutions have fully online programs, compared to only about one-sixth of the smallest institutions” (Allen, 2006, p. 2).  Online education programs are beneficial to individuals from all walks of life, from young college students looking for that one extra course to those “working full-time, older, married, and/or with children” (Survey, 2011, p. 1).   
In order for the United States to stay competitive in this ever-changing global economy, it is important for education to allow for flexibility and advancement in the workforce.  I posit that online education is vital in the continuation of this pursuit.  However, as it exists, online education has numerous detractions that need to be addressed to ensure its survival.  This paper will address what online education entails, why it is so necessary in the future of learning, what shortcomings it possesses, and what future research can be done for its improvement.

What Does Online Education Entail and What Theories Can Be Applied?
In order to appropriately address this topic, a discussion of certain definitions should be addressed.  Firstly, online education is education in a learning community where “an open and distributed learning environment uses … views of teaching derived from learning theory,… enabled by the Internet and Web-based technologies, to facilitate learning and knowledge building through meaningful action and interaction” (Colorado, 2010, p. 5).  In online education, success is dependent on numerous items, namely instructors, to be discussed in another section, and the cohesion of learning communities.  These learning communities are best described as:
            A group of people who have a shared interest in a topic, task, or problem; respect for the diversity of perspectives; a range of skills and abilities; the opportunity and commitment to work as a team; tools for sharing multiple perspectives; and knowledge production as a shared goal or outcome…Students learn to work in teams…this makes students in a learning community interdependent. (Wallace, 2003, p. 263)

As such, individuals in learning communities gathered in online education virtual classrooms create an environment that includes intellectual, social, and emotional support.
            This interdependence and support makes online education easily addressed through the lens of several communication theories, including communication imperative theory, social cognitive theory, and transactional distance theory.  According to the communication imperative theory, “we’re born to communicate and are driven to maximize our communication satisfaction and interaction.  This means we invariably circumvent any practical or technological obstacles which might otherwise prevent us from having the kind of relational fulfillment we desire” (Thurlow, 2009, p. 51).  Therefore, the interpersonal relationships developed in the learning communities in online education can be examined through the communication imperative theory. 
Furthermore, the learning communities, as well as teacher involvement, can both be viewed within the framework of social cognitive theory.  In social cognitive theory as related to online education, interaction with instructors and fellow students factor into individual motivation, which, in turn, modifies that individual’s social and cognitive behavior (Wallace, 2003).  In other words, having teachers and fellow students that actively participate in online learning, discussion, and thought formation directly affects an individual’s motivation and behavior regarding attitude, willingness and ability to learn. 
Finally, the theory of transactional distance is extremely important in understanding the dynamics of online education. 
            The transaction that we call distance education occurs between teachers and learners in an environment having the special characteristic of separation of teachers from learners.  This separation leads to special patterns of learner and teacher behaviors…With separation there is a psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner.  It is this psychological and communications space that is the transactional distance. (Moore, 1997, p. 22)

The theory of transactional distance is directly proportional to discussion and inversely proportional to structure.  In other words, the more dialogue that occurs between learners, as well as their instructor, results in small transactional distance and greater control of a student’s own learning.  Likewise, the more structure placed upon the learning environment will cause greater transactional distance and less control.  For example, peer and instructor discussion in a real time virtual chat room leads to high levels of dialogue and low transactional distance.  On the other hand, courses structured will lecture alone causes less autonomous learning and high transactional distance.  Studies of these theories and others are imperative to the process of online education as they will work to improve the process to ensure its vital continuation for students in the future.

Why is Online Education Vital for the Future of Learning?
The continuance and improvement of online education is necessary for numerous reasons.  To begin with, colleges are simply becoming too expensive.  Tuition at traditional four-year institutions has been steadily increasing at a rate of approximately 9 – 30 percent over the past couple of years.  While small increases in tuition were always normal, the situation is becoming more extreme as states attempt to find ways to climb out of their huge deficit situations (Coast, 2010).  Solutions to this financial problem are including such increases as well as “layoffs, enrollment cuts, and reduced course offerings” (Coast, 2010, p.2).              As such, access to these institutions, as well as community colleges, is also decreasing.  “Enrollment at the nation’s 1,173 community colleges has increased 17% since 2007.  But community colleges are at capacity, and with all the schools struggling through the recession, funding is scarce” (Isaac, 2010, p. 1). 
In addition, due to the reduced course offerings, individuals that could be able to attend these face-to-face institutions cannot due to conflicts in scheduling or location.  Many people that now look to online education do so because they have job and family responsibilities that restrict them to night and evening classes.  With the decrease in courses, as well as degrees, at local universities, individuals that want or need to further their education are now forced to turn to other alternatives.  “Online education provides a level of access to those who would not otherwise be able to attend college on campus” (Allen, 2006, p. 10).
Furthermore, the recession that has hit the colleges and universities is also hitting the average American.  With unemployment rates at about 9 percent in the United States, people are looking to continue, or completely shift, their education (The Employment, 2011).  With the decrease in job availability, companies are becoming more particular on what qualifications they will require in new employees and are “looking to hire highly educated professionals with hands on experience” (Online, 2010, p.1).    Jobs that once existed in certain industries no longer do.  This is leaving individuals either unemployed or with little prospect of job advancement.  After many months looking for possible, or different, employment, many people are signing up for courses to expand their options.  And, as stated above, as these people often have other responsibilities and limited funds, the options, freedom, and flexibility offered to them by online education are attractive for this expansion. 

What are the Shortcomings in Online Education that Need to Be Addressed?
Online education is still an immature delivery method due to the fact that it has had a relatively short shelf life in comparison to face-to-face universities.  The oldest continuously operating degree-granting university in the world is the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 in Fes, Morocco.  In the following 363 years, nine additional universities were founded worldwide in countries such as Egypt, Iran, Italy, France, England, and Spain (Holtz, 2009).  A full 414 years following that, Harvard University, the oldest university in the United States, was founded (History, 2011).  By comparison, online education, with its first class offered in 1981, is still in its infant stages.  As such, it has not had the time to refine, perfect, and establish its presentation methods and widespread support.  Therefore, the following detractions to online education, while understandable, certainly need to be addressed.
One of the most obvious slights against online education is the idea that many students lack the self-discipline required to successfully complete courses.  This lack of discipline is supplemented by a perception of course difficulty or lack of communication between student and instructor (Bejerano, 2008).  While this seems to be a problem that is student specific, steps could be taken by a university with regards to communication and support that can vastly improve the discouragement and increased dropout rates.
Another shortfall in the world of online education is a lack of focus on differing learning styles and higher cognitive learning.  In a 1988 study, Gunawardena and colleagues developed five phases of knowledge construction for online interaction.  They are as follows:
1.     Sharing/comparing of information
2.     Discovery and exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts, or statements
3.     Negotiation of meaning/co-construction of knowledge
4.     Testing and modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction
5.     Agreement statement(s)/applications of newly constructed meaning (Wallace, 2003, p. 247)

Reaching the last of these phases will result in the highest level of cognitive learning, or the most effective way of acquiring knowledge.  Unfortunately, they found that students in online education courses rarely moved past the second stage, staying primarily in the first.  Students were hesitant to create or address dissonance and simply agreed rather than create disharmony (Wallace, 2003).    This resulted in views remaining unchanged and new meaning remaining uncreated.  Once again, this problem must be addressed and altered for online education to effectively continue.  Part of this alteration will have to include addressing professor uncertainty.
            Many professors find online education classes difficult to lead and, in response, do not participate in the course as much as they should.  “Particularly problematic [with regards to online education] is the role of the teacher once the class begins” (Wallace, 2003, p. 255).  This is a confusing concept for instructors and students alike.  To begin with, online education removes the face-to-face interaction and nonverbal cues “that lets you know when learning is actually occurring” (Vanhorn, 2008, p. 32).  This time-tested interaction is no longer available to allow for comprehension and comfort in the subject.  In addition, professors are faced with the obstacle of technology.  In online education, instructors are now required to have an intimate knowledge of both their subject matter and how to effectively communicate said matter over the Internet without dry erase boards and the nonverbal signs stated earlier.  This can prove exceedingly trying if, for example, an English as a Second Language professor is attempting to teach Calculus.  Odds are that comprehension of this subject would be difficult to achieve in a face-to-face situation; online, that challenge is all but daunting. 
Furthermore, professor presence is required for ascension into the higher stages of cognitive learning. “Stalling of the discussion at the lower levels of the critical inquiry process occurs when there is not adequate teaching presence in the computer conference” (Wallace, 2003, p. 256).  Instructor’s active presence in the online discussion assists in student involvement and the associated positive learning behaviors, in part because
            In CMC the exchange of information is slower than in face-to-face interaction.  Therefore, in comparison to face-to-face communication the construction of interpersonal knowledge is slower.  In the beginning, CMC is more task-oriented than person-oriented and less powerful.  In this phase, the communication style in computer-mediated situations is regarded as more informal but one is also likely to find cues for tension and extremely emotional evaluations of the communication partner or the communicational setting.  (Wallace, 2003, p. 257-258)

Higher teacher presence throughout the online learning process encourages motivation and a willingness to learn.
            Finally, online education and their associated online degrees are still faced with a stigma of not be as appropriate as degrees from face-to-face universities.  Corporations are slow to recognize the rigor of online coursework and there are few organizations and alumni networking systems available to disprove this misconception (Issac, 2010, p. 2).  As a result, only 34% of organizations view online degree applicants as favorably as they view face-to-face degrees.  In addition, 43% of corporations state that online degree applicants are acceptable for entry level positions while only 15% of these organizations agreed with the acceptability for an executive level position (Hiring, 2010).  These pre-conceived notions regarding online education must be abolished if the United States is to continue to be competitive in the global economy.

What Future Research Can Be Done to Alleviate The Above Shortcomings?
As shown above, online education is still in need of refinement to become as effective as possible.   Since it is still in its infancy stages, much research can be conducted in order to improve numerous aspects of its process, presentation, and usefulness.  To begin with, communication researchers need to further examine online education through the lens of the three communication theories and others to structure effective learning environments as well as address the presentation of material through correct learning styles.  In addition, research literature to this point does not address what students are likely to learn past Gunawardena’s first phase of knowledge construction.  “None of these studies has investigated what it would take in terms of course structure or teacher mediation to reliably engage students in discussion that [leads] to a deeper understanding of subject matter” (Wallace, 2003, p. 254).  Furthermore,
            Fruitful areas for fruitful research are the relationship of teacher presence and immediacy to students’ engagement in knowledge construction and to student learning; developing and analyzing other constructs that might better characterize the teacher’s role in online classes; and considering the interplay of the teacher’s role with the particular demands of the subject matter being taught. (Wallace, 2003, p. 260–261)

The role of the instructor must be further examined and understood, for without the instructor, education is meaningless.
            Further research also needs to be conducted regarding student satisfaction.  This can be done, in part, through examination of online education via the transactional distance construct as well as general interviews and analysis.  If students are not satisfied in their learning situation and environment, they will not be motivated to engage in the learning process and continue to further education.  Finally, addressing and remedying the stigma of online education from the viewpoint of the employer is vital to ensure its success.

            The world is continuing to become a more competitive place with regards to education, job fulfillment, politics, and the economy.  In order to continue to be a major player in the world, the United States must focus on education to prepare its citizens for this constantly changing environment.  Online education, while still in its infancy stages, is poised to act as one of the major ways in which individuals can either train, or re-train, themselves to prepare for the future.  However, due to its youth, online education still possesses shortcomings that need to be addressed in order to become the nuanced environment that face-to-face universities have already achieved.  As such, I agree with Mr. Wallace when he states “there is much research to be done to better understand, and invent, what can be done to take advantage of the any time, any place, and, perhaps most important, everybody opportunities that online teaching and learning provide” (Wallace, 2003, p. 275). 

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Thurlow, C., Lengel, L, & Tomic, A.  (2009).  Computer mediated communication.  London: Sage Publications.

Vanhorn, S., Person, J. C., & Child, J. T.  (2008).  The online communication course: the challenges.  Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 9 (1), 29 – 36.

Wallace, R. M. (2003).  Online learning in higher education: a review of research on interactions among teachers and students.  Education Communication and Information, 3 (2), 241 – 280.

Friday, February 18, 2011

OMG...LOL! Is Technology Hurting Communication Skills?

Reflection Paper #3: Is Technology Hurting Communication Skills?

            “AYT?  HAU?  CTC ATEOTD?  HAK!  TMB!”  To anyone exceptionally well versed in the world of text messaging, the statement above makes perfect sense.  To those unfamiliar with texting acronyms, this is simply a grouping of letters instead of the conversation “Are you there?  How are you?  Care to chat at the end of the day? Hugs and Kisses! Text me back!”  (Rakoczy, n.d.).  “Teens have created a new form of communication.  We call it texting, but in essence it is a reflection of how teens want to communicate to match their lifestyles” (Cell, 2008, p.2).  While personal expression is valued and welcomed in society, a potential outcome of the more than one billion texts sent each day is a loss in the ability to communicate effectively (Cell, 2008).  The purpose of this reflection paper is to examine the question: Is technology hurting communication skills?  This will include a clarification of terms, positive and negative positions regarding the answer to this question, as well as a final personal opinion. 
The terms that I believe need to be defined to properly understand the question are “technology,” “hurting,” and “communication skills.” Firstly, my definition of technology closely mirrors the one presented by the International Technology Education Association in the United States: “the diverse collection of processes and knowledge that people use to extend human abilities and to satisfy human needs and wants” (Thurlow, 2009, p. 25).  To me, technology is any creation, idea, process, et cetera that makes the existence of humans better.  A butter knife, a hammer, a cell phone, a computer (depending on the day and the internet connectivity), all of these are technologies.  However, the level of convenience they impart is determined by the individual.  Second, hurting is defined as something that is detrimental, something that hampers a situation (Hurt, n.d.).  Finally, communication skills are the set of skills that “enable a personal to convey information so that it is received and understood” (Communication, n.d.). 
According to Walter Ong, writing is “something to be manipulated, something inhuman, artificial, a manufactured product (Ong, 1986, p. 27). It eases the pressure of having to memorize, as was done in oral cultures, and allows for a greater multitude of individuals to participate (as opposed to the bards and the masses) (Ong, 1982 and Ong, 1986). Furthermore, Ong considers writing one of the most dramatic technologies as it “initiated what printing and electronics only continued, the physical reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the world from the living present, where alone real, spoken words exist” (Ong, 1986, p. 30). 
             In addition, writing leads to the betterment of humans. To begin with, “no other writing system restructures the human lifeworld so drastically as alphabetic writing. Or so democratically, for the alphabet is relatively easy to learn” (Ong, 1986, p. 35). It encourages human potential and transforms human consciousness, thereby enhancing human existence (Ong, 1986). The technology of writing has also resulted in a cornucopia of other technologies, i.e. the printing press and the computer, among others.  From these readings, I conclude that, when considering the question of technology hurting communication skills, Ong would reply that, as writing is a technology as well as a type of communication skill, technological advancement is not only not hurting our communication skills, technology is enhancing it. 
On the opposing side, in his writings, Neil Postman discusses his belief that new technologies lead to casualties.  An example of such a casualty is the fact that children today are unable to learn to read, logically organize thoughts, write simple paragraphs, or focus on lectures for more than a few minutes at a time (Postman, 1992).  He goes on to state “computer technology has not come close to the printing press in its power to generate radical and substantive…thought…although my students don’t believe it, it is actually possible to write well without a processor and, … to write poorly with one” (Postman, 1992, p. 118 & 120).  After reading this, I gather that Postman’s answer to this question would be that, given the fact that students can’t read, write, or organize thoughts, communication skills are most definitely being harmed by technology.
Interestingly, there is a possible mid-point between the two extreme positions.  In the article, Teachers Say Text Messages R Ruining Kids’ Riting Skills, Kate Ross, an instructional coach for Utah School Districts, argues that due in part to text messaging, students are now writing with as few words as possible while failing to account for audience and appropriate voice.  As a prime example, in a school district in Highland, Utah, only 86% of students passed the state-mandated Direct Writing Assessment test.  This statistic shows that technology can, in fact, hurt communication skills.  However, in an attempt to improve scores, the district implemented a computer program called “MY Access!”  This is an online writing program that gave writing assignments while offering instant feedback and corrections.  As a result of implementing this technology, communication skills improved, resulting in passing scores of 94% the following year (Ross, 2007).
I have attempted to address possible answers to the question: Is technology hurting communication skills.  There are definitive positions at the two extremes as well as positions that concede that technology both harms and assists communication skills.  Overall, I believe that the results are inconclusive and much more research and analysis needs to be conducted to determine technology’s effect upon communication.  However, from my research, as well as my personal experience as a high school teacher, I posit that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  If left unchecked, communication skills could be irreversibly harmed by the ease and instant gratification of technology.  Yet, if individuals and educators make a concerted effort to restrict the acceptance of laziness and slang while simultaneously enforcing proper and correct communication skills, especially by implementing technology into the process, as was done in the Utah school district, then technology, rather than being harmful, can be exceedingly beneficial. 

Cell phones key to teens’ social lives, 47% can text with eyes closed.  (2008).  Retrieved February 15, 2011 from

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Ong, W. (1982).  Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word.  London: Routledge Publishing.

Ong, W.  (1986).  Writing is a technology that restructures thought.  In G. Bauman (Ed.),  The written word (pp. 23 – 50).  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Postman, N. (1992).  Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. New York: Knopf Publishing.

Ross, K. (2007).  Teachers say text messages r ruining kids’ riting skills.  Retrieved February 15, 2011 from

Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., and Tomic, A (2009).  Computer Mediated Communication.   London: Sage Publications Limited. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reflection Paper #2: Virtual Communities & Online Gaming

 I follow the thinking of sociologists that the concept of community is a social construct.  While some communities may have physical addresses, what makes a community a TRUE community is shared experiences, shared values, shared goals, and shared lives (Bartle, 2007).  This paper will address the question: Is it possible to form a virtual community?  I strongly believe that, by the standard above, online communities DO exist and are re-shaping our relationships.  To support this position, I will cite personal examples regarding online communities, including a jaunt into the World of Warcraft; address the re-shaping of relationships; and highlight statistics regarding concerns raised regarding online gaming.
The experiences, values, goals, et cetera that form communities do not have to currently exist; they may have existed once in the past.  For example, I was part of a wonderful community of sorority sisters in college.  We had experiences that I will always treasure.  Even though we are no longer together in the same house, at the same school, and in the same city, I still consider myself a part of that community.  In addition, through the use of recently available technology, this community has morphed into a virtual one.  I have found many of those girls on Facebook and keep up with their lives with posts and by instant messaging when we are simultaneously on the site.  While the underpinnings of the relationships of my sorority sisters were formed face-to-face, today, this community is dominated by virtual interaction.
Because of personal experiences similar to the one above, I scoff at the notion that virtual communities cannot form.  Isn’t our online communication masters degree an online virtual community?  We are all gathered together with shared values towards education, shared goals for higher degrees, shared experiences through postings, and shared lives through our eight weeks together.  To this point, I agree with Howard Rheingold’s reasoning for online communities as social aggregations as well as Amy Jo Kim’s concept of virtual communities as augmented reality where “you’re ‘you,’ and you’re there to integrate with your life – deal with the issues in your life… shaping your life” (Thurlow, 2009  and Boetcher, 2006).
To further my experience in virtual online communities, I ventured into the world of Massive Multiple Online Role Playing Games, specifically, World of Warcraft. In online gaming, a virtual world is a “persistent, synchronous computer-simulated environment wherein a network of users interact with each other and the three-dimensional environment” (Doodson, 2009, p. 1).   These worlds are virtual gatherings closely mimicking the physical world complete with towns, businesses, currency, and communities.  In these worlds, characters, called avatars, are surrogate projections of yourself that are controlled by the operator via a mouse or computer keyboard.  Avatars gather together in these shared groups and bond through experiences, discussions, battles, tasks, or other collective goals.  Much like our online class, I found that the World of Warcraft fit my definition of community as there are shared experiences in all of the gaming interactions, shared values in the desire to play and interact with others via computer mediated communication, shared goals in relaxing and meeting others to advance the game, and shared lives in the time spent together in this virtual world. 
Another common occurrence between my online class and my World of Warcraft experience was the desire and available mechanism to connect outside of the virtual world.  I have spoken to several of my classmates and look forward to meeting some of them in my three-day on-campus course this summer.  World of Warcraft provides a similar outlet in their Real Life Friends option noted in their Terms of Use. This feature allows access to all personal information and communication through a system similar to Facebook where “those people you designate as ‘real life friends’ will be able to see the names of your other ‘real life friends,’ and your name will be visible by those people that your ‘real life friends’ have designated using the same feature” (, 2010, p. 8).  This addition to the World of Warcraft system is simply one more way to tighten the shared bonds, experiences, and lives between members of the online virtual community that it has created.  Though my online class and World of Warcraft offer mechanisms for contact outside the virtual world, I still consider both of these to be dominantly virtual communities as the majority of all interaction occurs online.
As the introduction of online technologies has re-shaped some of my relationships and offered me entry into new communities previously unavailable, the introduction of the written word long ago offered a similar revolution.  Writing “separates the knower from the known” (Ong, 1982, p. 46).  Part of this allowed separation involves an ability for people to break away from the individuals who knew and told the stories.  No longer required to stay close in a community to hear the oral traditions, humans in a written society are allowed to adapt, create distance, and form new communities.  Interestingly, this is what the computer has also done.  When moving from an oral culture to a written culture, there was resistance and criticism that changes like this would lead to the demise of the community when, in fact, it simply re-defined and re-shaped communities.  With the move from a written society to a computer society, the same has occurred.   It has allowed humans to adapt, create distance, and form new communities as well.  “In the noetic world, separation ultimately brings reconstituted unity” (Ong, 1986, p. 48).  To me, this means, in part, that, while computer mediated communication may have altered some face-to-face community situations, it has also provided for an entirely different sort of community.
As with any period of change, concerns have arisen regarding the impact of virtual gaming and online communities.  Arguments have been made that extended time in virtual communities and playing online games can result in an exaggeration of already existing social disorders.  For example, some individuals are not comfortable interacting in face-to-face situations.  As an outlet, a number of these individuals turn solely to online communities to have relationships, neglecting the physical world (Thurlow, 2009).  While this is a prominent concern, statistics to do not support it.  A study conducted by two German scientists found there was no “indication that playing [online games] leads to a weakening of offline social relations,” which agreed with Johannes Fromme that there is no “need to be alarmed about electronic games leading to social isolation [as] ‘in most cases (gaming) seems to be fully integrated into existing peer relationships” (Kolo, 2004, p. 14 & 16).  But as our use of the virtual world is evolving quickly, further study of potential drawbacks and benefits should be examined.
I have contended online communities not only exist, but are re-shaping our relationships. Furthermore, virtual communities and online gaming, used within moderation, can have numerous positive impacts upon individuals.  It can improve antisocial behavior and cognitive skills, encourage different educational practices, reconnect friends, and introduce people to new communities.  The studies conducted on members of these online communities are still in their early stages and I look forward to the publication of further documentation to determine the advantages and drawbacks to what is fast becoming a mainstream activity.  Ultimately, I believe that virtual communities and online games can provide immeasurable positive benefits to people on many different levels.  

Bartle, P. (2007).  What is community?  Retrieved on January 25, 2011 from       terms of use (2010).  Retrieved February 3, 2011 from
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Doodson, J. T. (2009).  The relationship and differences between physical- and virtual-world personality.  Retrieved January 26, 2011 from

Kolo, C. and Baur, T.  (2004).  Living a virtual life: social dynamics of online gaming.  Retrieved             February 3, 2011 from

Ong, W. (1982).  Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word.  London: Routledge             Publishing.

Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., and Tomic, A. (2009).  Computer mediated communication.  London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reflection Paper #1: The Amazing Aspects of Technology

The Amazing Aspects of Technology
            Pierre Bordieu is known, in part, for his four Pillars of Intellectual Life.  These ideas include the Demolition of Simplistic Either-Ors, The Critique of Received Ideas, the Freedom to Respect Those in Power, and the Respect for the Complexity of Problems (Thurlow, 2009).  To this point, members of our class have spoken volumes that could easily be attributed to one or more of the aspects present in the Pillars of Intellectual Life.  Much of this discourse has revolved around Neil Postman’s speech “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change,” and has, I feel, taken on a bit of his fatalistic tone.  Therefore, I would like to address technological advances from the perspective of the wonders that they have performed.  While I understand the concept that “for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage” as well as the idea “every new technology benefits some and harms others,” I posit that there are some technologies that have advantages that vastly outweigh disadvantages and present benefits that hugely help the masses (Postman, 1998).  The purpose of this reflection paper is to address the amazing aspects of two different technologies: dwarf wheat and vaccines.  This examination will include a description of pre-technology situations, the technology itself, possible disadvantages, and post technology situations in an attempt to show that Postman’s belief that the masses are the losers does not always ring true.
Dwarf Wheat
            In the mid to late 1960s, India was at the brink of destruction.  Due to successive droughts and a focus on industry rather than agriculture, food shortages were plentiful and famine seemed imminent.  The problem seemed so dire that biologist Paul Ehrlich insisted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980” (Singh, 2005).  When situations seemed their bleakest, enter Norman Borlaug.  He and his colleagues had created a strain of pest resistant dwarf wheat with thick stems, making it less likely that the stalk would collapse under the weight of the grain.  This allowed it to produce two to three times more grain that traditional wheat varieties.  Upon hearing of this wheat, India promptly charted Boeing 707s to transport 16,000 metric tons for planting, cultivation, and harvest.  By 1974, India had not only avoided a wide scale famine, it was self-sufficient in the production of all cereal grains.  The successes in India spread to Pakistan, Mexico, and Asia, resulting in higher production of food, and less chance of starvation. 
            Critics of this monumental technological advancement view the production of more food via crossbreeding, and the subsequent sustainment of human population, as contrary to the order of the natural world.  To these people, Burloug responds in two different ways: the first is that Mother Nature herself crosses species and spouts new creations; wheat is example of such a union.  Secondly, in response to the lobbyists against his work, he has said:
Many of them are elitists.  They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger…If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things. (Singh, 2005)

According to the Centers for Disease Control, vaccines are one of the “greatest achievements of biomedical science and public health” (Achievements, 1999).  In the years leading up to the creation of the vaccines for smallpox, polio, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough), illness and death related to these diseases were widely reported in the United States.  Since vaccine invention, smallpox has been completely eradicated, polio has been eliminated from the Western Hemisphere, measles outbreaks have decreased to miniscule numbers in the United States, and US cases of diphtheria are practically nonexistent (Achievements, 1999).  
The prevention of illness, and the resultant improvement in lifestyle due to vaccines can hardly be contradicted.  Unfortunately, there is a current trend by some to move away from vaccines.  These individuals believe that vaccines given to young children are the cause of the increase in autism that is occurring in this country.  The basis for this belief is a report published in 1998 by a British doctor named Dr. Andrew Wakefield where 12 cases of autism were linked to the MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccine (Snyderman, 2011).  Since the publication of this study, the journal has retracted the work, it has been proven the research was faked for monetary gain, the England General Medical Council has revoked Dr. Wakefield’s medical license, and numerous studies involving upwards of 2 million children have found no link between vaccines and autism (Snyderman, 2011 and Thomson, 2010).  However, critics toward vaccines have continued to refuse to vaccinate their children for fear of autism.  As a result, measles and whooping cough are on the rise once again.  Beginning in 2008, measles cases began to be reported into the hundreds and, in 2010, California experienced its worst outbreak of whooping cough since 1955 with 4,000 cases and nine deaths (FAQ, 2011 and Thomson, 2010).  In defense of vaccines and in response to this growing problem, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, a woman with a severely autistic niece and an autistic son, believes that the rise in autism diagnosis has occurred, in part, due to an expansion in the parameters of what is considered autism.  Furthermore, she states:
I want to say to everyone, you’re entitled to your opinion.  I know the pain of autism.  But you’re not entitled to your own science.  This is where we have to stand back and trust the concrete science.  There is not a conspiracy here. (Snyderman, 2011)

            Technology has been present in our society since the dawn of time.  While some, according to Neil Postman’s position, may be created to sequester the masses, favor the elite, and cause more harm than good, I believe that there are technologies present that primarily provide immense advantage to the masses.  In presenting dwarf wheat and vaccines, I have attempted to show two such technologies that, although containing some fault and detractors, overall have immense benefit to billions of people.  In this sense, the masses are not the losers.  While the elite, the winners in Postman’s view, may receive some monetary benefit from these billions of people, I would argue that their benefit is secondary or tertiary to the widespread good of the average individual.  To Postman, I would finally say, these technologies cannot be to the benefit of the elite simply because they do not number into the billions.

Achievements in public health, 1900-1999 impact of vaccines universally recommended for children – united states, 1990 – 1998 (1999).  Retrieved on January 18, 2011 from
FAQ: resurgence of measles in the united states (2011).  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from
Postman, N.  (1998, March).  Five things we need to know about technological change.  Paper presented in Denver, CO. 
Singh, S. (2005).  Norman borlaug: a billion lives saved.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from
Snyderman, N. (2011).  Autism-vaccine fraud leaves a lot of mistrust to mop up.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from
Thomson, B (2010). As I see it: vaccination saves lives.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011 from
Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., and Tomic, A. (2009).  Computer mediated communication.  London: Sage Publications Ltd.