Educational Change and Censorship

In The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson discusses the use of the internet as a platform for education, and the future of learning in our modern, ever-changing society. She begins by claiming that the most important characteristic of the internet is its exchanges for learning. Our society needs a transformation in the learning infrastructure: creation of virtual institutions. Websites are institutions, not just collaborative platforms. A current example of a virtual institution: Wikipedia.

The infrastructure of these virtual institutions is crucial to our understanding of the transformation in need. In our society, modes of learning have recently vastly changed due to technological advances, but modes of teaching have remained much the same. This is because institutions of higher learning have remained very successful, so they maintain the traditional modes of teaching.

Interestingly, virtual institutions put into question the modes of teaching (there is no physical teacher, etc.). Some traditional hierarchical structures in education are put to question and some completely cease to exist when one crosses the boundary from the classroom to the internet. However, contrary to common belief, some of the most “inventive” virtual institutions only exist because of an extensive non-virtual infrastructure behind the scenes. These institutions are not just completely online.

Davidson emphasizes the process: “participatory learning”—the use of virtual platforms as an inclusive intellectual community. This idea is about the learning process and not just a final product or demonstration of learning. Participatory learning is virtually very functional; however, traditional universities have a hard time sustaining it. Universities demand individual learning (which again, is very much focused on a final product).  Davidson notes that in order for a transformation to occur, we don’t just need to change how we teach and learn, but also the knowledge that is being exchanged. She closes with 10 principles for the future of learning: (pg 26 – 35)

self-learning: not to be confused with individual learning—rather, this refers to our increased ability to find knowledge online

horizontal structures: the destruction or blurring of teacher student hierarchies online

question of authority turns into question of credibility: communal participation results in a new responsibility—how does one decide what knowledge to trust and not trust?

make use of the resources of our era: for example, let students use Wikipedia for class assignments

networked learning: instead of individual learning, virtual institutions create online networks for knowledge exchange

open-sourced learning: the objective should not be to copyright our knowledge

learning as connectivity and interactivity: learning is a communal struggle and growth, rather than individual

lifelong learning: we are constantly learning!

learning institutions as mobilizing networks

flexible scalability and simulation


Who knew a cute cat could be so deceiving? Image by Flickr User Tambako the Jaguar / Creative Commons licensed BY 2.0

In our second reading, “Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression,” Ethan Zuckerman examines the use of social media as a tool for political activists to share online political speech. There is a wide use of social media in political and social uprisings (Arab Spring protest) versus the less effective use of “publishing platforms designed with activists in mind.” These platforms are smaller in size, more easily tracked, and therefore censored.

Zuckerman proposes the “Cute Cat Theory:” non-political internet tools centered on consumption are useful to activists because government censorship can only go so far without angering the consumers (both political and non-political). In the 2000’s, there was a huge burst of online commercial consumer tools run and maintained through user contributions, which eventually became an outlet for activist speech.

With increased political use, governments try to find ways to censor certain things… This leads to the creation of more clever strategies by online users, such as the use of anti-censorship technologies. Zuckerman lays out the reasons for the use of SMS by political activists:

easy to use

latent capacity: when political issues arise on SMS, non-political users can easily share the content and become temporarily activist

resistance to DDoS attacks: this is a tool that censors small/medium sized websites, but is not effective on large sites like Facebook, etc.

Zuckerman goes on to analyze government reactions (censorship) to online political movements in Tunisia and China, of which both governments and users had different tactics. For example, it is much easier to track down and censor words than it is images. This was used much to the advantage of artists and activists like Ai Weiwei (warning: contains nudity) in China.  Lastly, even though many businesses use the internet for infrastructure and communications, the government also has the power to shut down the internet, and activists would not have any defense against that.

Discussion Questions

Do you think that the digital divide (both racial and socioeconomic) can be fixed by a societal transformation of educational structure into virtual institutions?

Do you think the above transformation would be helpful to the schooling of little children?

What are some examples of government shut down of the internet, and how have these actions helped or hindered the political situation?


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