Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Connected World

We live in a connected world. What does that mean?

It means that instructional designers can create lessons, courses and curricula (a) that involve links to rich resources available via the Internet, (b) that connect remotely located students with each other and with remotely located instructors, tutors and experts, and (c) that make these resources and people available almost anywhere at almost any time. Is that connectedness? It is only one interpretation of connectedness. There are other ways to think about connectedness.

Many can watch a particular tragic event via television or online news media and see the effects of that event on individuals involved. One possible result of such viewings is a feeling of sympathy for those affected. One might feel connected to a complete stranger who is an innocent victim of a tragic event that occurred halfway around the world. Is that connectedness?  These words from a Phil Ochs song come to mind: “There but for fortune go you and I.” 

Social media and mobile devices allow strangers to come together on short notice to show support for a common cause. Is that connectedness? There are mobile applications that allow one to find a nearby eating establishment or find a ride to a particular destination. Other apps allow one to post updates of activities or follow the activities of other individuals. Is that connectedness?

The notion of virtual connectedness may come to mind when one considers these relatively new possibilities. The word ‘virtual’ arose with the emergence of mainframe computers and the limitations of primary computer memory (fast and immediately accessible by software – now called RAM or random access memory). Secondary memory (not immediately accessible until brought into primary memory – e.g., stored on reserved external disk space) was used to extend the limitations of primary memory by moving code back and from between primary and secondary (virtual) memory. To the programmer, what was stored in secondary memory could be treated as if were in primary memory as the operating system managed the movement of code to and from secondary memory. The point of this brief excursion into computer history is only meant to suggest the word ‘virtual’ originally referred to something that appears to be there but is not actually there. 

As computer technology advanced, primary memory limitations were expanded and the mechanisms for moving objects to and from primary memory became faster and more efficient. The need to distinguish the contents of RAM at a particular moment from what might be in RAM at a different moment faded. 

In a similar way, the notion of a virtual classroom arose in the beginning of the e-learning movement. The intent was to distinguish face-to-face classrooms from those in which connected students and instructors met online via synchronous or asynchronous means. Virtual classrooms were then classrooms that appeared to be there but in fact were not. As technologies have advanced and more and more people have access to the Internet via fixed and mobile devices, it seems that many face-to-face classrooms now regularly integrate things that might be considered virtual. Hybrid learning environments are becoming a primary approach to learning and instruction. The result might be that the need to distinguish face-to-face classrooms from virtual classrooms will fade into history. Those connected via the Internet can experience many of the same activities and interactions available in a face-to-face setting. That which was virtual has become ordinary and expected.

The point of these remarks is that what began as a strong distinction between the actual and the virtual with regard to computer memory and with regard to classrooms has become a less significant or a blurred and fuzzy distinction. At least that is my superficial interpretation of those selected pieces of recent history.

That interpretation has led me to wonder about the nature of human interactions and activities. Will the distinction between virtual and physically present interactions and activities also become less distinct and blurred, perhaps passing into the annals of history? I wonder. 

I fondly recall physically present interactions and activities with my children as they grew up. Now I have grandchildren whom I see in person only occasionally, but I do connect them with via social media more often. Are those virtual interactions and activities sufficiently similar to physically present interactions and activities to ignore the differences? I do not think so.

Returning to mass media reports of tragic events and the impact on individuals, I wonder if the sympathy I feel is sufficiently similar to what I felt when I witnessed such an event in person? Certainly not. I recall Tolstoy’s recounting of witnessing a public execution in Paris in the mid 1850s and the personal impact that event had on Tolstoy (see Tolstoy’s Confession). I sometimes read Tolstoy’s account to a class, and there is a visible reaction to hearing a second-hand account. However, none of my students have given away their wealth and taken up teaching in a remote rural school (as Tolstoy did). Perhaps other forms of impact did occur on account of my reading Tolstoy’s account, but I am not sure what they might be.

I wonder if living in a connected world is diminishing in some ways how and when and where we interact with others. I recall the debate in the USA about universal healthcare and the fact that many Americans had no medical insurance. The mass media reported many accounts of what not having medical insurance coverage meant to specific individuals with significant medical needs. The mass media also reported some reactions to those accounts. Many of those who had seen the media accounts of people suffering due to lack of medical coverage and the associated healthcare were surprisingly non-sympathetic. A frequent response was “I am so glad I have coverage.” An even less sympathetic response was this: “The person should have gotten a job that included medical coverage.” That is an anecdotal account of the lack of sympathy for others whose experiences were presented in a virtual (not physically present) manner. 

Perhaps that analysis is superficial and misleading. There are, however, other potential downsides to living in a connected world. One can easily find many who agree with one’s biases and beliefs. One can easily ignore those with different biases and beliefs. Is that a healthy outcome? Is that actually happening?

We live in a connected world. What does that mean? What could it mean? It could mean that one’s neighbors are not just the people living next door. It means that one’s neighbors are everyone. That concept (a.k.a., the golden rule) has a long history, dating back to Leviticus 19:18 (in the so-called Jewish Bible) and to earlier references in Hammurabi’s Code, in Confucionism, Hinduism and other ancient contexts. Love your [connected] neighbor as yourself is a long-held universal ethical principle. In Judaism, when one asks G-D for forgiveness on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, each entreaty in the prayer(called the Al Hayt begins with the words translated into English as “We have …” One is asking forgiveness for everyone – not just oneself – based on the belief that if anyone in the community has committed that transgression, then all are responsible due to lack of proper care, upbringing, kindness, etc. That seems to me to be a real sense of connectedness – or it is the sense of connectedness that I was taught.

Love everyone. Forgive everyone. Possible? Probably not. Worth considering? Probably. Yet in this connected world we find a great deal of divisiveness, disrespect, disregard, and even hate. Perhaps the possible connections can address those shortcomings in some small way. Would that not be wonderful?

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