‘We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us’, goes a popular summary of the philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s work. The ‘we’ and ‘us’ in that quote, however, are rarely the same people. Usually, we here at TU Delft fall in the first category. But with the rapid sprint towards remote learning, many are content in the second, passive, role. A shame. And unnecessary.
For years now, grand promises have been made about online teaching. But now that we are actually trying it out en masse, remote learning turns out to be just that. Very remote.
On top of this, in practice, the online university comes down to lots and lots of Zoom. Or Skype. Or Teams. Same same. It’s sad to see how enthusiastically everyone is jumping into the closed systems of private, profit-making, data hungry companies. Our education is being shaped by tools that are shaped by people with completely different interests than ours. Students are forced to give up privacy and security. And the hard work of improvising teachers all too easily disappears behind locked doors.
It reminds me of recent research with self-driving cars. These too are predicted to bring us a wonderful future. And here too, we are supposed to spend our money on what private corporations deign to offer of us instead of working on a public alternative. The car industry, after all, has more money than the railways; Tesla’s marketing will always be more glamorous than that of bus companies.
‘Let’s invest in free, open software’
This fantasy world was recently put to the test as well. Researchers gave a group of test subjects a robotic car from the future, simulated by simply using hired drivers. The result? Test subjects sent their car out to do anything and everything. Back home because there was nowhere to park at work; to the supermarket to autonomously pick up an order; to drive their kids to friends when they didn’t have time for it themselves, etc. These ‘smart’ cars drove many more kilometres than their dumb predecessors and could therefore be disastrous both for our mobility and for the climate. A golden future? Not one bit. Well, maybe for the car industry. The test subjects travelled less by public transport and once they were used to the convenience of their wonder cars, they did not want to give them up again.
Just as with those cars, we have to be careful that we don’t quickly get used to all that shiny software from America, including its huge disadvantages, and then stop looking for alternatives.
In a crisis you grab the first tools available. But as soon as the urgent need has passed, we, as a public institution, should put our efforts into public utilities. Let’s invest in free, open software to record and edit our videos. TU Delft can set up hosting for H5P, Jitsi, and BigBlueButton. We can expand projects such as Zesje to become a public infrastructure for our colleague academic institutions.
We cannot help but be shaped by our tools. So we had better choose tools that we ourselves can shape.
Bob van Vliet is a teacher at the Faculty of 3mE. Before, he was a teacher at Industrial Design Engineering and Architecture and the Built Environment.