Caught Up in the Net
An Interview with Dr. Linda Harasim,
April 13, 2018 Vancouver Arts Colloquim
In today’s world, where online learning is so easily accessible to students at all levels and in so many disciplines, it’s hard to imagine that the idea of online education had to first be conceptualized and tested by someone, and that such an invention occurred only little more than 3 decades ago thanks to the work of Dr. Linda Harasim – known to her students as Prof. Linda – a current professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication.
A pioneer in the field of online learning, Prof. Linda became interested in the idea of communicating and collaborating over the Internet long before others caught on to the potential. She first became intrigued with the idea of a “computer-mediated human network” after being introduced to computer networking through email and computer conferencing in the late 70’s. “At that time, for most people, a ‘computer network’ just meant linking your computer to the printer,” Prof. Linda laughed as she recalled the early years. Despite the lack of resources at the time, she was already visualizing how to use the Internet to link human users to build local and global communities that connect people across boundaries of time and place, and was driven by this ideal to eventually develop and teach the first online courses for university students. The first online for-credit course in the world was envisioned and taught by Prof. Linda in January, 1986, with a totally online graduate course in education taught at the University of Toronto.
As we chatted over tea, Prof. Linda described her experiences in online education. The first decade of Online Education – the mid-1980s to the 1990s – introduced the concept of teaching courses entirely online, researching early online learning activities, and disseminating the best practice to a world increasingly interested in online education. During the second decade, beginning 1995, Prof. Linda won one of Canada’s prestigious Networks of Centers of Excellence grants, receiving approximately $50 million for 7 years of research: $25 million government funding plus at least equal funding from public and private sector sources to support the opportunity for key centers of excellence across Canada, to collaborate in interdisciplinary research relevant to online education. The TL*NCE linked learning scientists with social scientists, computer scientists, and engineering scientists to study, develop technology, and spark educational start-ups in online education to build the 21st century economy in Canada. Canada became a world leader in online education.
Prof. Linda served as the CEO of Canada’s TeleLearning Network Centre of Excellence (TL*NCE) from 1995-2002, engaging 120 university researchers from 30+ universities across Canada, with 225 public and private sector partners. The goal of the program was to facilitate the transfer of new educational technology and good teaching practice from university research laboratories into practice in Canada’s schools, universities, and training institutions, as well as develop new state-of-the-art educational tools and approaches. Some of these online learning networks included mentoring projects that extended to Canada’s arctic regions, learning classrooms linking Canada’s Nunavut regions with urban schools across Canada, and even global connections with countries such as Singapore. The TL*NCE ended in 2002, but many researchers continue their work, linking with one another and transforming the educational environment in Canada.
Prof. Linda is active in post-secondary online education research and practice in North America, as well as having engaged in projects in Brazil and Jamaica. Most recently Prof. Linda has been invited to give talks and workshops in the Asia Pacific region, where university medical schools are eager to develop online medical education programs and degrees. Today’s challenges are even more complex with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), as well as new technologies such as Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Gamification. The medical schools in the Asia Pacific region see the need to incorporate advanced technology, but are also concerned that AI can become too powerful and take control away from medical practitioners. The view of the superiority of AI over human intelligence is in fact a core issue and challenge, according to Prof Linda. AI is being developed and promoted to replace humans, whereas she argues that AI should be developed not to replace humans but to augment human work and creativity.
Despite her successful career and the importance of online platforms today, Prof. Linda believes that there are key issues regarding the growth of online networks and digital media that need to be voiced, discussed and understood in society today. “Social media is becoming digital media,” she said. When I asked for clarification, Prof. Linda explained that while humans have developed social media (which includes music, art, dance, stories, by Prof. Linda’s definition) as part of our civilizational development, the term “digital” media refers to the ever-increasing use of AI in the world today. AI is quickly taking over platforms meant for human communication, and social media is becoming digitized to harvest data on human behaviour, thoughts, actions, whereby it restricts rather than enhances social, cultural, and productive human encounters. This is because the Internet is entering not only our social and work communication, but also our homes, streets, cars, etc. An example is the notion of the “Internet of Things,” which describes how our home appliances, security systems, furnace, power, and hydro are all connected to the Internet, which is controlled by a few powerful digital titans referred to as GAMFA: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. These mega-corporations now hold immense power and control over society. Smart cities mean that data networks are everywhere, and monitor human activity at all times. Recently, China put in a system of face recognition in which anyone who jaywalks is immediately identified by cameras and automatically receives a fine via the Internet. Moreover, individuals no longer own the information about them, such as their medical files, family history, socio-economic data, purchasing profiles, and photos and work saved in the cloud; they can easily be held hostage. “It’s imprisoning us,” Prof. Linda said.
“But our generation more-or-less understands that social media isn’t private,” I objected, not fully convinced of the need to condemn social media so harshly. “This surely doesn’t stop us from doing great things with the Internet?”
Prof. Linda smiled kindly at my counter-point. “It’s true. Your generation is growing up, and AI is inevitable. That still doesn’t mean that the Internet should be controlled by two or three companies.” Prof. Linda suggested that the Internet could be a public industry, and AI could be made to be open-source, so that everyone has access, not just a very few very rich and powerful corporations.
Moreover, Prof Linda suggests that perhaps it is time to consider whether university students, professors and researchers working on AI, machine learning, data mining, etc. should take an oath of ethical behavior, much like the medical profession, which vows to do no harm. Computer scientists, engineering scientists, and robotics engineers are making major decisions in their work that will have an unprecedented impact on all humanity, forever. Additionally, these professionals should engage more actively with social scientists in interdisciplinary research, and engage with the public to discuss and vet their ideas, their inventions, and the directions that they are taking and to receive feedback from us. Currently the AI Labs are black boxes, and no one can see what is going on, ask questions or provide feedback.
University programs such as computer and engineering sciences in general might consider orienting less towards industrial power and profit than is currently the case. I was fascinated by this idea, as the word of caution that Prof. Linda immediately gave when hearing about the VACS’s theme of integrating arts and sciences was this: “be careful, or else science will take over.” According to her, applied scientists today “focus on solutions” rather than “ask questions”, and tend to prioritize results and efficiency over effectiveness, ethics, and/or creativity. She raised the notion of singularity, popular among many applied scientists who are eager to reach the point at which AI will be superior to humanity. Another extreme example is transhumanism – the idea of transforming human bodies into machines, which is attracting many scientists as AI technology continues to develop. Even if not on such a literal level, AI is starting to replace human labour in many areas of our lives. While the idea of a driverless car sounds like a blessing, Prof. Linda emphasized that we would be “letting machines make important decisions that affect our lives.” She supported this with a classic moral dilemma: if your car is about to collide with a bus full of children near a cliff or drive off a cliff which would kill you and your family, should the car be making that decision? On what basis? The automated car would not have the conscience of a human in such a situation, and the engineers who develop the algorithms are not being trained in ethics. Surely, such a dilemma wouldn’t happen in the first place if all cars are automated? I wondered, playing the devil’s advocate again in my head. Even if it does, wouldn’t the cars be capable of making utilitarian decisions that ensure the minimum loss of life, if they’re intelligent enough to be trusted to drive around? Numerous examples of problematic futuristic “utopias” in fiction flashed across my mind. Brave New World, The Matrix, Psycho-Pass… These works question not only the level of trust we should give authorities, but the meaning of being human in worlds where the human mind is barely needed. Perhaps we’re not that far from these sci-fi worlds after all?
Bringing the topic back to the present, Prof. Linda also mentioned that virtual reality is replacing real life interactions. Teenagers hang out in groups but stare into their own phones. Furthermore, as virtual reality takes over, people are becoming appendages to digital media, who take in stimuli online without active interpretation or constructive communication. While the Internet was invented as a tool to enhance distance communication, it is becoming something that undermines local communication opportunities and skills. “Take community activities, for example. Community centers in Vancouver’s west side could become more active to promote neighborliness, and opportunities to engage” Prof. Linda suggests. People need mechanisms and channels to increase communication and meet one other within the local community. Additionally, it would be enriching to promote public art and crafts around the area. “Why not have community suppers, or have decorative lights all year round or build community gardens?” she proposed, half-jokingly but with a certain fervour. Keiko Honda, the founder of the VACS and whose house the interview took place in, chimed in by bringing up the AIR Salon – a gathering open to people of any discipline or background, where food is shared and a different speaker in the group open up about their personal experiences each time. Prof. Linda’s eyes gleamed with excitement. It was clear that this was one of the ways of bringing the community together that she was looking for. “I wonder if we can also have salons online!” she deliberated, already connecting the idea of a salon with online communities.
According to Prof. Linda, the perfect formula for an online community has yet to be formed. Much of online education focuses on simplifying the process of assessment with concrete solutions and narrow answers rather than encouraging open discourse. In terms of a solution, forums seem optimal for discussion, though trains of thoughts can end up in a disarray. Real-time chats convey information clearly and directly, but is not always the most convenient option. Prof. Linda does not have the perfect solution to these problems yet, but stresses that it is the convergence rather than divergence of ideas that online education and online communities in general should strive for.
As an active blogger from a generation brought up with the Internet, this is my experience. I have bonded with more lovely people online than I could under normal circumstances in real life, and do not feel like this blogging community I pride myself in being a part of is in any way less genuine. Surely, even if WordPress is lacking, there are ways to go about enhancing the community experience through using multiple social media platforms in conjunction with one another? At the same time, the inclusive, open atmosphere of Keiko’s AIR Salons is something I have not experienced elsewhere that continues to captivate me. Can I truly say that one of these communities is inherently better than the other? That being said, it is crucial to recognize that the Internet as it is today has its limitations and lends itself to certain dangers, as Prof. Linda pointed out.
With the inevitable arrival of AI in our world, it is up to a collaboration between artists and scientists and especially including the public to integrate technology safely with the human values that make us who we are. To do this, my conversation with Prof. Linda shed light on how communication both online and offline is one vital step that should be recognized and honoured by us collectively. May the Internet be a net that represents connections, rather than one which ensnares.