Intellectual Productions for Digital Games and Learning Class

Hello everyone,

This past semester I enrolled in a graduate class on digital games and learning. In the class, we had to produce a series of ‘intellectual productions’ answering specific questions. I’ve decided to post all of them here, so checkout the following posts!

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The MOOC Debate

I have a confession.

mooc cow

MOOC… that’s that sound a cow makes, right? Err… maybe it’s some kind of sketchy dairy cow club then? I got nothing.

Until the summer of 2014, I’d never even heard of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Somewhat ironically, I was first introduced to them through an online computer course I enrolled in over the summer for my undergraduate degree.  As it happens, MOOCs have sparked a bit of a debate about how they will change education, because the courses are offered free of charge to anyone with Internet access around the world.  As a result, there can be thousands of students enrolled in a given course.

Personally, as a university student whose diet consists of cheap pasta and whatever veggies are in season, I was intrigued by this because my tuition costs had once again risen.  And here, just under my nose, were courses that I could register for and complete for free while sitting in my pajamas.

It sounded too good to be true, so I quickly did some research and it didn’t take long for me to realize the incredible potential that MOOCs have to change the economy by providing people with the education they need for free.

economy chart

Higher education equals a higher-earning job which leads to spending more money within the community.

After all, a higher earning potential is usually correlated with a high level of education.  This means that anyone with a computer and Internet access would have the opportunity to secure a high-paying job without the financial barriers of tuition, rent, etc.

I continued reading up on MOOCs, but found that I was quickly coming up with a growing list of questions that didn’t quite seem to have definite answers.  For example: Were people able to receive credit for the courses they completed ?  Could they eventually replace post-secondary institutions if no one needed to physically go to class? How would this impact researchers if universities began closing down?

To try and explore some of these questions in detail and give you as much information as possible, I’ve decided to explore the existing issues associated with each letter of the acronym “MOOC.”  So put your thinking caps on, because it’s time to re-learn the alphabet… MOOC style.

M: is for Massive

Because MOOCs are open to anyone around the world with Internet access, the result is often a blended community that can include thousands of participants.  Some could be students looking to test out a course before they pay thousands of dollars to take it at university, some may be people who are updating their education for a job, some could just be interested in learning for fun, and some might be high school students looking to put something extra on their college or university application.

So because these people can come from anywhere in the world, the online community is a diverse community full of participants of varying ages and backgrounds.  For example, there was a free programming course offered by the University of Toronto and one of the students who participated resided in Malaysia.  The professor of the course, Paul Gries, commented by saying:

“These are people I’d never, ever have imagined teaching.  This is a big rush” (Professor Gries).

This is just to show a brief example of the kind of community that might arise in such a course.

…Yeah, I think I need to see the prof in her office hours for this one.  Oh wait, there are no office hours for MOOCs.

However, these “massive” courses concerned me, as I often felt that my professors were limited in their time to review assignments with me as they had a couple hundred students to see to.  How would this change if they had 15,000 students?  Wouldn’t the students just be lost with such a low professor to student ratio?  Could they ever find answers to their questions?

A potential answer to this question came via Dr. Couros, a URegina academic who experimented by inviting 200 experts from around the world to participate in a mini MOOC.  While 200 participants is a much smaller number than 15,000 (and they were experts) the result of the study was still surprising and worth mentioning:

“Instead of the ratio being one instructor to 20 students, it ended up being 10 mentors to every student, which was sort of amazing” (Dr. Couros).

So maybe students could still receive help and guidance throughout the course after all, but we do have to keep in mind that experts with degrees already don’t behave the same way students do.  Therefore, all we can meaningfully say about this finding is that MOOCs do encourage innovation and collaboration – between experts.  After all, it’s students who are most likely to be taking the course, because they’re precisely NOT experts!

But there might be hope that students will mentor each other in the same way.  This idea of collaboration and group learning via MOOCs is further explored in a TED talk by MIT professor Anant Agarwal.  An example he cited was how a student posted a question to the course discussion board, and it was incorrectly answered by student who was quickly corrected by yet another student within a matter of minutes.  Ultimately, I think this demonstrates how students can learn from each other’s mistakes and teach each other while enhancing their problem-solving skills, which might eventually lead to the way the experts mentored each other in Dr. Couros’ experiment.

So while students can learn from each other, I do know from experience that come exam time, the discussion boards can be a bit chaotic to navigate with questions and comments flying every which way.  And I can only imagine that this frenzy would be even harder to navigate for students who aren’t fluent in the language that the MOOC is offered in, and difficult for faculty to understand them.

can't understand accent prof

Pretty much sums up my first-year calculus experience…

Personally, I have enough trouble understanding calculus in English, especially if the professor has a thick accent that is unfamiliar to me.  I couldn’t imagine learning it in an entirely different language!  So just how “open” are these courses, especially to participants who don’t speak the language the course is offered in, anyway?

O: is for Open

While I’ve already discussed that MOOCs are open in the sense that they’re free, and they eliminate the need to physically be present at an institution (meaning that anyone in the world can attend) there’s still something that seems not-so-open about these courses to me.  The problems that exist are lack of Internet access and language barriers.

First, let’s tackle the issue of the language barriers.  Depending on which institution is offering the MOOC, it’s likely to be offered in a specific language.  So while it might be free for the student in Malaysia to access the computer programming course at the University of Toronto, they would have to be fluent in the English language in order to participate.

language barriers

Now imagine the guy in the black shirt is also your quantum physics professor.

Hypothetically, let’s say a non-English-speaking student decided to learn English to take a course in English.  Learning something new is difficult on its own, but learning something new in an entirely different language would be incredibly cumbersome.  And even if they were somewhat familiar with English, it would still be easier for them to learn in the language they grew up with, as some words can be lost in translation.  Dr. Yang Liu, the Director of Education for Guokr (a platform for a community of MOOC users who work to bridge the language barriers between English and Chinese) agrees:

“Nowadays, a lot of people know English but it’s still comfortable for them to learn new things with their mother language” (Dr. Liu).

Evidently, there is a demand for MOOCs to be offered in languages other than English to make learning easier for all participants.  But do they exist?  Well, people who speak Chinese might just be in luck.  Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, an education platform that offers MOOCs, has hinted at demolishing this barrier by offering courses in Chinese:

“Almost any way you slice it, China is the No. 1 country in terms of the potential for growth and impact on students. In terms of expanding our reach, China’s a huge market and helps us reach their market” (Andrew Ng).

So while MOOCs are “open” courses there is definitely a need for them to be offered in multiple languages to accommodate students from different parts of the world.

Additionally, the second issue I have with the term “open” is that MOOCs require the user to spend a significant amount of time online, and not everyone has a personal computer with Internet access.  While they may be able to access one at their local library or somewhere else during times after school or work, there may be regulations limiting how much time they can use the computer per day.  So while it’s technically possible right now for a university student without a computer to attend a lecture and then try and find a computer at the library after, it’s a definite challenge, especially because there’s only a few computers.

I know at my school, it can get so busy sometimes that people actually arrive at the library as soon as it opens before classes even start just to secure a place to study.  And trying to secure a computer is even harder.  I know every time that I try and use one, I can never find one that isn’t in use, so I usually have to wait until I go home to work on anything that requires a computer.

But I suppose if courses were online for free, perhaps more students could save up for a computer because they wouldn’t have to pay such hefty tuition fees.  However, I’m concerned that acquiring a degree through entirely online courses may not be beneficial.  As a student in a combined arts and science specialization, I have to be physically present to attend labs that compliment my lectures.  While some of my courses have had online simulations for their laboratory components, it’s just not quite the same as the hands-on experience in my opinion.  Which leads to my next question: Is online really better?

O: is for Online

As previously stated, one of the advantages to an online class is that institutions can save money by not having to build classrooms and laboratories to hold students.  In fact, less professors would be needed as many can teach hundreds of students online, meaning there would be less offices needed which would save even more space and money towards building fees, and students wouldn’t have to find apartments to rent. After all, in a growing world of online interactions (and with many students already skipping class) isn’t online the way to go anyway?

On the one hand, students are more free to direct their own learning and work at a pace suited to their needs, as long as they’re careful to meet specific deadlines for projects.  This means that the students who need to re-read or re-watch a lecture can do so at their own speed, while accommodating those who wish to work ahead.  In this way, MOOCs may lead to more autonomous learning as students will be responsible for deciphering the material with little instructor intervention and will rely more heavily on peer communications.

Oh c'mon... admit you did this at least once before in school.

Oh c’mon… admit you’ve done this at least once.  The prof will post her notes online anyway, so why go?

But some people disagree and think that students aren’t getting the full benefit of the lecture unless they physically attend it (though I’m sure the students that skip class in school would disagree).  They might be more focused on the material instead of trying to multitask on their computer while listening to the lecture, and they’d be free to put up their hand and ask questions mid-lecture, whereas online, they might have to wait for a response.  Plus they’d get the benefit of hearing other’s questions and the lecturer’s response.

Online classes also mean that it would be difficult for groups to interact online instead of in person while they’re collaborating on group work.  Can you imagine having a group member from Malaysia, one from Toronto, and one from Ottawa and trying to meet up at the library to work on your project?  I suppose they could use Skype or other video-call services, but the connections are usually faulty and I know I’d be a little apprehensive about Skyping with someone I’d never met before.

However, the case could be made that because the discussion boards are so heavily utilized (especially in online courses), they serve as a sufficient replacement for the group interaction and communication, so maybe group projects aren’t necessary in the first place.

Science-Dog-Has-No-Idea

Figure 1. 96.7% of all online chemistry majors.

But what about things you do have to be physically present for?  What about laboratory work as a chemist, or circuit work as an engineer?  I don’t know about you, but when I wanted my license to drive a car I had to pass both a written component and multiple road tests to prove that I was a safe driver.  After all, would you hire a chemist who completed their degree online without any laboratory experience?What if they just had to pass a laboratory exam?  Wouldn’t they lack the physical experience for the workplace?

Carl Wieman, a recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics certainly seems to think students need hands-on experience to learn science effectively, which he mentions in a paper he published on optimizing science education:

“Currently the implicit roles are that the faculty member simply transfers their expertise, as if it were bits of information, to the receptive students, much like pouring water from a large jug into a set of small receptive cups. This model is inconsistent with what we know about how people learn science” (Carl Wieman).

Here, Wieman argues that students are not passive receptors that simply receive information from faculty.  Instead, they need to physically experience science hands-on in order to get a full understanding of it, which he explains in his paper.

While some traditional courses and MOOCs have computer simulations for laboratories, I know I’d still feel like a pretty lousy biochemist if I didn’t at least have some real-life laboratory experience (even if it does sometimes consist of me trying not to spill hydrochloric acid on my lab partner… but that means at least I know some lab safety because I’m aware of techniques to prevent accidents).

I would imagine this would also affect the quality of education post-bachelor degree, and might even slow research as more people would be entering into the next level of education without any practical experience if MOOCs went viral.  This ultimately brings me to my most important question as a student who needs a degree behind my name to enter into graduate school:  Are MOOCs even formally recognized as degree credits?

C: is for Courses

As you’ve probably guessed, there is a pretty controversial argument as well.  While the American Council of Education, which is an advisory council for college presidents, has recommended  that 5 MOOCs should be offered for credit, it is ultimately up to the individual presidents and universities to decide.

What’s particularly interesting is that some institutions like the University of Maryland are offering MOOCs for credit, by providing students with the opportunity to specialize in the field of cybersecurity.  Wallace Loh, the university’s president argued that:

“These specializations take MOOCs to the next level by adding structure and consistency.  We just pioneered a MOOC specialization with another institution, and now we can expand the concept at home, drawing on our many strengths in cybersecurity” (Wallace Loh).

So while some universities might begin to embrace MOOCs, Steve Kolowich, a reporter who specializes in technology thinks otherwise.  He argues that by accrediting MOOCs, institutions diminish their ability to invest in promising students who are likely to succeed after they graduate.  This will likely reduce the chance that they will donate to the university after they’ve graduated because they may not feel as connected to their school.

scumbag university

I think most alumni would vehemently decline donating even more money.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  How many people actually donate more money to the school they had to pay at least $45,000 in tuition fees to?  It turns out not much. But those who do donate usually donate significant amounts of money which is beneficial to the university.  For example, the University of Guelph recently unveiled a $300,000 bronze Gryphon statue that was paid for almost entirely by alumni donations.  So while not many people donate, those that do make a significant contribution to the school.  And if people take more MOOCs and miss out on that connection, they’re less likely to donate later.  So that means that smaller institutions who rely on such donations are at risk of losing some serious investments.

Furthermore, it turns out that MOOCs have very high drop-out rates, which could give a university a very bad reputation and a resulting loss of income if 90% of the students enrolled in a MOOC failed or dropped out.  Why is this?  According to one of Coursera’s co-funders, Daphne Koller, it’s because most students who register for a MOOC don’t ever plan on completing it:

“Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content, and move on to something else” (Daphne Koller).

To me, this makes sense.  Those who enroll have nothing to lose by dropping out, and may not be enrolling to complete the course for a degree requirement.  They could just be trying to learn something quickly for a job requirement, or to fulfill their own interests.  They don’t need to complete the course because they don’t need it to count towards a degree requirement.  As a university student, I have a different incentive to complete a course because I need it for my degree.  And if I fail, I’ll not only have a blemish on my academic record, but I’ll have to pay another $800 dollars to re-take it.

Would people have a higher incentive to stick with the MOOC they enrolled in if failures and drop-outs had marks on their permanent records? Perhaps.  But what about those who just wanted to take a MOOC to learn something new, and weren’t interested in the course? Would enrollment rates plummet because they were discouraged?  Would employers even consider an online degree through MOOCs to be valuable, especially against another applicant with a traditional degree?  Ultimately, it’s hard to say for sure if MOOCs should be accredited or not, especially when each institution has its own private policies.

Conclusion: Every Letter is Controversial

So, on one hand, MOOCs are great.  People can take them from anywhere in the world, for free, and sit at home in their pajamas, and receive potential accreditation (from some universities, not all!) for a higher-paying job so they can make significant contributions to the economy.

On the other hand, not everyone (universities, employers, or otherwise) thinks highly of MOOCs, and not all of them are for credit, and even if they are, so what? Would a graduate school associated with the University of Toronto accept a student with an accredited MOOC degree from the University of Maryland?  Don’t look at me, I have no idea.

Personally, I’d rather take my classes traditionally, because I think I get more out of them than online classes.  But at the same time, I’m not fond of having to pay money to live away from home and for my tuition.  Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about MOOCs anymore, and I think the conclusion to this debate is that there really isn’t a formal conclusion.

To end off, I’ll leave you with this last image because I think it captures just how controversial MOOCs really are:

mooc

 

Why the Internet Will Cause the Zombie Apocalypse

I don’t know if anyone else has ever experienced this, but there’s nothing that terrifies me more than waiting in a professor’s office in agitated silence as they review one of my essay drafts.  In fact, during my second year as an undergraduate, I can remember sitting in my philosophy professor’s office as she did just that, fidgeting as I mentally imagined her destroying my paper, sentence by sentence.

Finally, after an eternity of fidgeting and resisting the urge to bite my nails out of pure terror, she slowly put down my paper and looked up.

This is it,  I remember thinking,  I’m going to have to re-write the entire paper in a night because it’s due tomorrow and drop out of school because I still can’t write an essay and I’ll have to live with my mom forever and start my own dog-walking business at age 30 and…

“I can tell you like to read books,” she said, unknowingly interrupting my thoughts, “it shows in your writing.  It’s got a rare flow to it.”

After I expelled a (hopefully) silent breath of relief, she proceeded to tell me how a lot of her students had trouble writing essays that flowed coherently.  She attributed this to the fact that her students were reading an average of 0-1 books during the summer, which she found out when she started asking her classes.

…Maybe my professor has a point

…Maybe my professor has a point

She told me that she attributed their dwindling writing abilities to a lack of reading  and excessive Internet usage, where admittedly, they did read, but they were reading things like grammatically-incorrect Facebook statuses, and short articles by questionable sources.

Intrigued by this (and not wanting to go off purely anecdotal evidence), I decided to do some research to see if people really were spending more time on the Internet.  I was shocked by what I found:

U.S. Internet users spent a combined 230,060 years on  just social media sites during the month of July 2012.

While the aforementioned statistic came from a report from NBC News, I found another report on Internet usage from 2005-2009 provided by Statistics Canada that revealed that 12.4% more individuals accessed the Internet from 2005 to 2009.  Furthermore, the CBC reported that the average female user above the age of 24 spent about 8.8 hours online per day in 2011, a 33% increase from the year before, and males above the age of 24 spent 6.5 hours online, with a 39% increase from the previous year.  Furthermore, people aged 18-24 spent the most amount of time online in 2011, averaging about 10.8 hours per day (a 67% increase since 2010), while users under 18 spent about 9.4 hours per day (a 59% increase since 2010).

To put this into perspective, this means that the average person spends more time online than they do during their entire day at work or elementary school.

So it turns out that my professor was right; people really were spending more time online.  But so what? Was that necessarily a bad thing? I decided to conduct some further research on this, to see if the Internet could negatively affect users.

I found that overuse of the Internet can indeed result in some seriously negative consequences, and might even have the power to damage our neural networks so badly that we might begin to resemble zombies…which could trigger a zombie apocalypse sooner than we might think.  So, here’s a few reasons why I’m convinced the Internet will turn us into zombies.

Why the Internet Turns Us into Zombies – #1: Our Relationships are Declining

One of the articles I found by the CBC revealed that social media is affecting teens’ concepts of friendship and intimacy because they are turning to social media to receive support, rather than real-live-breathing friends.  Instead of having a group of friends to turn to, their audience has changed to an online one where they receive feedback from “likes” and comments from people they may never meet in person.

This may be affecting their ability to form close relationships as they are voluntarily disclosing intimate relationship details (that would normally only be shared with close friends) to a wide online audience.  According to Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA developmental psychologist and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles:

“The whole idea behind intimacy is self-disclosure. Now they’re doing self-disclosure to an audience of hundreds” (Patricia Greenfield).

Or, in other words, Greenfield says that this ultimately leads to a decline in intimate relationships.

I decided to see if anyone else held this view, and found that author and literary critic William Deresiewicz is also concerned about the state of our relationships.  He explains in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that friendships in ancient times were highly valued and only extended to few individuals who had proven their loyalty and trust.  Deresiewicz feels that social networking sites create a false illusion of friendship by convincing the user that they have a vast community of connections, while in reality they just give us a “sense” of connection; not an actual genuine, face-to-face connection with another person, which takes time and trust to build.

I mean, I did wish you a happy birthday after all.  And that makes us friends... I think.

I mean, I did wish you a happy birthday after all. And that makes us friends… I think.

After all, how genuine is that birthday message typed on your Facebook wall by that girl you met at camp when you were 12 and never spoke to again?  She didn’t actually remember your birthday, Facebook just conveniently notified her.  Real friends remember your birthday without notifications, and usually have something more meaningful to write than “I know we haven’t talked in almost 12 years, but I hope you have a great birthday today!” 

Evidently, our relationships are changing from the classical, few, close friendships that existed in ancient times to a kind of synthetic community of friends (who we may not know in real-life) that we keep in contact with on social media networking sites.  Note that networking is different than friendship.  So basically, because we’re spending so much time online, the Internet is impeding our ability to form close friendships like we used to.

But wait, I know what you’re thinking.  It’s not like you’re always online, right?  I mean, you went out with your friends after a long week just last weekend!  Surely that proves that the Internet isn’t really impeding our real-life relationships, right?

Well, think again! Have you ever been in the same situation as the girl in the image below before?

Can't you do that at home? It's kind of rude. I mean, I'm right here.

Can’t you do that at home? It’s kind of rude. I mean, I’m right here.

I certainly have, and it’s really really annoying in my opinion.  I mean, here I am, choosing to spend my Saturday with my friends, but they’re always distracted with incoming text messages and Facebook updates that they just have to reply to.  Do they not value our time together?  It’s almost like they’re zombies with their slow, shuffling walking abilities and dwindling attention spans.

Further evidence for our decline in face-to-face relationships is revealed through the rise of online dating sites and more recent sites where you can rent fake friends.  According to the company’s creators, 1,500 people have already signed up for the site as of the end of March 2014.  Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman commented on the issue:

“People are more estranged from one another than ever before. They go out together only to spend the night glued to their phones. If I had a patient considering…[renting a friend]… I’d work to find out what’s preventing him or her from connecting with people organically in the first place, and work on solutions to that problem. This service is a Band-Aid fix for serious psychological problems” (Dr. Carole Lieberman).

Zombie need to reply to text message first, then, eat brainnnss…oh wait, I just got another Facebook notification. Hold on

Zombie need to reply to text message first, then, eat brainnnss…oh wait, I just got another Facebook notification. Hold on.

So not only is the Internet causing our real-life friendships to decline and causing us to turn into living zombies, it’s also seriously messing with the limited social time we do get to spend together.

In fact, maybe our phone-checking friends do have some kind of psychological problem, as Lieberman suggested.  Perhaps they’re becoming addicted… to the Internet.

Why the Internet Turns Us into Zombies –  #2: Internet “Addictions” are on the Rise

So far we’ve established that people are spending more time on the Internet, and that this is affecting their friendships.  But we haven’t discussed why they’re spending so much time online.  Could it be an addiction?

Some people definitely seem to think so, including the Director of Addiction Medicine in Beijing, Dr. Tao Ran who announced in 2007 that ~13.7% of Chinese adolescent Internet users are addicted to the Internet – that’s about 10 million teens!  This is what prompted China to act in 2007 to open various Internet addiction camps.

Since then, Korea and other countries have followed suit, including the U.S. when it opened its first in-patient Internet addiction hospital in 2013.  According to the program founder, Dr. Kimberly Young:

“[Internet addiction] is a problem in this country that can be more pervasive than alcoholism” (Dr. Kimberly Young).

But according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) , (which is basically the bible for diagnosing mental disorders for U.S. health care professionals), Internet addiction on its own isn’t actually recognized by the scientific community as a disease.

Why not?

Well, according to The American Medical Association, there’s nothing uniquely addictive about the Internet.  Henrietta Bowden Jones, a psychiatrist at Imperial College in London, England agrees, and feels that the Internet itself isn’t addictive; it’s that it allows us access to other things we can be addicted to.  She also attributes the growing Internet usage to be in part because of changing job requirements:

“We are doing it because modern life requires us to link up over the net in regard to jobs, professional and social connections – but not in an obsessive way.  When someone comes to you and says they did not sleep last night because they spent 14 hours playing games, and it was the same the previous night, and they tried to stop but they couldn’t – you know they have a problem” (Henrietta Bowden Jones).

Well, that's the real question, isn't it?

Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it?

Basically, it’s hard to determine that someone’s problem is really the Internet in and of itself, and not some underlying problem, like an impulse control problem, gaming, or pornography addiction.  For example, the DSM-V does recognize gaming as an addiction.  These addictions have existed for years, and the Internet just makes accessing online games easier, so it would be misleading to diagnose someone as being addicted to the Internet when really they’re just using it as a medium to access online games, pornography, or something else.

Furthermore, the potential criteria that would be used to diagnose an Internet addiction has proven to be highly controversial.  Michigan State professor Joseph Walther argues that the potential criteria that could be used to call someone an Internet addict could also be used to show that most professors are “addicted” to academia.  Although studies have been conducted to try to prove Internet addiction exists, there aren’t very many of them available, meaning that there’s a lack of evidence according to Walther:

“No scientific evidence has emerged to suggest that internet use is a cause rather than a consequence of some other sort of issue.  Focusing on and treating people for internet addiction, rather than looking for underlying clinical issues, is unwise” (Dr. Joseph Walther).

Personally, I agree with Jones’ claims that the extra Internet use over the past few years is partially because of job requirements, but I do think the ease of access users have to addicting material is problematic, even if Internet addictions aren’t formally recognized. Especially if your gaming addiction is keeping you up all night as Jones cited as an example, which could cause you to be fired from work, or ruin your relationships with your friends and family (which I discussed earlier).

Therefore, I do think the rise in Internet usage is concerning, not only because it allows people easy access to addicting material, but because a few studies I researched supporting Internet addiction have revealed some disturbing findings, primarily that abnormalities exist in the brain structures of adolescents who have been known to use the Internet excessively.   This leads into my final argument as to why I’m convinced the Internet will result in the zombie apocalypse; because it may be irrevocably changing your neural network structure as you read this.

Why the Internet Turns Us into Zombies – #3: Our Neural Networks Could be Changing

So far we’ve established that as a society, we’re using the Internet more than ever before, which is damaging our sense of close friendships that would normally take years of trust to establish.  We’ve also explored potential reasons why we’re using the Internet so much (eg, for work, to social network, to play games) and discussed the possibility that some of us may even be addicted to the Internet, or using it as a medium by which to access things that we’re addicted to, such as pornography or online games.  Now, we’ll discuss if the reason why we’re using the Internet so much is because of our brains re-wiring themselves.

As previously mentioned, a Chinese study revealed that adolescents who excessively use the Internet actually have different brain structures (zombie like brain structures?) than the average user.  The aforementioned study utilized 17 subjects who were thought to be addicted to the Internet and used 16 healthy controls who did not exhibit signs of Internet addiction, and examined their brains using MRI scanners.  The results showed that the addicted subjects had impaired connections in the white matter in their brains involving regions that were required for emotional processing, attention, decision making, and cognitive control.  Similar patterns have been observed in subjects with other forms of addiction to substances such as alcohol and cocaine.

So, does this prove that the Internet changed their brain structures? Are they actually addicted? DOES THIS PROVE INTERNET ADDICTIONS EXIST!?… it turns out we still don’t know.

It's important to have a large sample size so that your results will be more conclusive

It’s important to have a large sample size so that your results will be more conclusive.

The study only used a few subjects, meaning that their findings aren’t very conclusive, because it’s hard to make inferences about the whole population based on a small sample size.  For all I know, the researchers could have just accidentally picked the 17 people in the area who were born with brain abnormalities (and there’s also no way to tell if the impaired subjects were born with their strange brain networks, or if they were caused by something the subjects were exposed to …and we can’t even prove that that exposure was the Internet either).  Ultimately, there aren’t a lot of studies that have been conducted on Internet addictions, so this is an area that needs to be investigated through research.

However, there are other articles that support the notion that the Internet is changing the way our brains are wired; one such article was written by author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Carr, who has years of experience writing about technology, business, and culture.

In his article, Carr claims that our neural networks are indeed changing; our memory is being reprogrammed so that we exhibit shorter attention spans, and as a result, we’re losing the ability to interpret and absorb information through long passages of text.

At first, I thought this was crazy, but then I realized Carr had a point.  How many times have you been caught “skimming” a long reading for class or an article, because you were on page 2 and thought it still isn’t finished yet? How about your aversion to watching long 10 minute videos recommended by friends on Youtube, yet watching 1-2 minute videos seems easy?  Was my professor right about the Internet causing her students to read less books?  Is that why 7-second Vines are so popular now? Hmm…

Is the distraction avoidance to homework, or the result of our neural circuits being rewired?

Is the distraction avoidance to homework, or the result of our neural circuits being rewired?

Carr claims that we’re refining our skills (and also strengthening our neural connections) that involve “power browsing and “decoding information quickly and efficiently,” which means that our neural connections involved in close readings where we have to interpret what we’re reading aren’t being used as much, and as a result, they’re weakening.  He claims that this may be the reason why newspaper articles are becoming shorter with more summaries to fit our new tastes.

Further support for Carr’s argument is provided by a study by scholars from University College London who examined the habits of researchers who utilized a popular research site, found that the researchers were “skimming” content more and rarely read the article from start to finish:

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” (Authors of the study).

Ultimately, Carr thinks that the Internet is affecting our brains because our attention spans are decreasing and the effort required for some of us to simply read a book from start to finish is becoming too difficult.  He fears that we may be relying on computers and the Internet to the point where our own intelligence is diminishing… and with Google’s new development of microchips and Google glass, this new technology will allow us to be online even more than we already are, which has the potential to further impact our neural circuits.

open internet browser forget why I'm on internet

Forgetfulness? Addiction? Or because your brain was hacked by Google?

Our changing brains might even make us resemble zombies, with our declining intelligence and slow, shuffling movements exhibited while texting and walking.  Or perhaps our brains could even be hacked and a virus could be implemented to turn us into zombies.

No one can really predict what the future of technology has in store for us, or how it will affect our brains, so the need for research in this area so we can be as prepared as possible is critical.

Conclusion: The Internet Will Might Cause the Zombie Apocalypse

While Carr’s article is compelling, and there are a few studies and articles out there that support his argument, we do need more research to completely validate these claims.  But the possibility of the Internet re-wiring our brains is disturbing, and may explain why teens are turning to social media to form friends because it’s simply faster to post a profile and share all your intimate details than build up the years of trust that close friendships rely on.

Perhaps we don’t have the attention span for it anymore, as our neural networks are changing.  And maybe the reason why we’re using the Internet to the point where people are crying “Internet addict!” is because we really do have some serious psychological problems caused by brains that might be re-wiring themselves to strengthen our “browser” abilities while diminishing our impulse control abilities.  Maybe our cognitive abilities will decline to the point where our brains won’t remember how to re-wire themselves.  And if that were to happen …the Internet might just cause the zombie apocalypse.

zombie internet 2

 

 

 

 

 

Online Privacy: Think Before You Post

Online Privacy: Think Before You Post

Do you want to know when I started getting really concerned about my online privacy in an expanding world of technology? No?  Too bad, I’m telling you anyway.  I had been posting an add on Kijiji about babysitting for the summer a few years back, and I’d included my name, sex, and age in the post, as parents usually want mature female babysitters.  The next day I checked my e-mail and had some responses.  However, to my horror, one was from someone claiming to be a 64 year-old male who “looked 50” and wanted to know if I was “interested in babysitting.”

crab man face

I’m almost certain my faced looked like this while reading his e-mail.

I actually replied with the image to the left, and never heard from him again.  However, that’s when I started to get a little concerned about the consequences of what I posted online, who could access that information, and what they could learn about me from it.

What’s the Big Deal about What I Post Online?

The consequences about what you voluntarily post online are discussed in a recent TED talk, where computer scientist Jennifer Golbeck from the University of Maryland talks about how by accessing information you post online, she can infer a lot about you, like yourgender, sexual orientation, intelligence, religion, personality, political preferences, relationships with other people, etc.To illustrate this, Goldbeck uses the example of Facebook.  Because millions of people have Facebook accounts, there is a huge amount of demographic data available.  And because Facebook doesn’t care about your privacy, it has no problem breaching Canadian Privacy Laws by sharing your personal information (even after you’ve deactivated your account) with developers.

During the TED talk, Goldbeck refers to a study where scientists surveyed which pages people had “liked” on Facebook, and then used that data to infer certain things about them.  She admits that it would be very easy to collect this data, makes inferences about you, such as how well you work in teams, how reliable you are, etc. and sell it to companies so they could screen for the best employees.

robot fan page

Um… I can explain. “Liking” this means I’m… creative. ….Right? RIGHT?           

Getting worried?  Me too.  But do you know what’s even scarier? Some employers are already starting to use Facebook as a way of running a background check on potential employees.  They may do this by requesting that you supply your Facebook password during an interview, or asking that you log in in front of them, or asking you to “Friend” them on Facebook so they can see what you’ve been posting.  Which is bad news for you if you post things like the image to below as your status.

Spoiler: NASA's never going to hire you now.

Spoiler: NASA’s never going to hire you now.

Wait, isn’t it Illegal for Employers to Access My Facebook Information?

Technically no, as they’re only required not to discriminate based on age, sex, race, gender, medical conditions, disabilities, etc. but I’m sure some bias would creep in if they saw pictures of you drunk at a party… or if you posted the above image as your Facebook status.  I know I’d never hire you if you posted it.

However, if the employer were to see a questionable post or image, it opens up a whole other can of worms.  For example, if they were to see your party pictures from last weekend, and noticed that you drink, they might ask something like “How much alcohol do you consume per week on average?” which may lead to further questions like “Have you ever had your driver’s license suspended? Was it due to alcohol or something else?” This might seem harmless, but if you had your driver’s license suspended due to medical conditions, like a stroke, then you’ve admitted to having a medical condition that might make you appear less capable of performing the job compared to someone else without that condition.

facebook profile cover letter

At least you won’t have to write any more cover letters, right? Your profile picture is likely enough.

Employers aren’t supposed to discriminate based on medical information, but now they’re aware you have a medical condition, which might play a heavy role in deciding if you’ll be hired or not.  The thing that really bothers people is that the company wasn’t supposed to have access to that information in the first place, because they may be biased against you and choose not to hire you, even though they’re not supposed to discriminate based on something like a medical condition.

But, what if you were aware of these issues and chose not to disclose your Facebook information to an employer, knowing that they may be biased anyway towards your medical condition? Wouldn’t the employer infer you had something to hide? Would that play a role in their decision to hire you too?

Evidently, this can get complicated pretty quickly, and you can read more about it here if it interests you.  However, it’s important to remember this is just one scenario where what you voluntarily post online can be used against you, so if you’re reading this blog and looking like the image below right now, I don’t blame you.

Figure 1. The cover of “How to Protect Yourself Online for Dummies.”

Figure 1. The cover of “How to Protect Yourself Online for Dummies.”

Another Cautionary Tale: The Story of Yuri Wright

I remember being in high school and attending an assembly on the dangers of posting too much personal information online.  A former sports player was speaking about how he lost his scholarship to a university sports team because of something he posted online; this is similar to Yuri Wright’s story of how he was expelled from school for posting inappropriate messages on his Twitter account that his school found out about.

Should he have posted the messages in the first place? Of course not.  He even received warnings and didn’t listen.  But did the school have a right to expel him based on something he posted from his Twitter account?  Again, this is another grey area.  Some people might feel that what they post online shouldn’t really have an influence in the “real world” – that their online persona and actual self should be kept separate… but by posting online to such a popular social media site like Twitter, wasn’t he kind of advertising his messages anyway, despite being warned?

See how complicated this can get?

I’m not really sure there’s a definite answer to any of these questions, but you’re going to have to excuse me for a moment because I’m going to get all philosophical on you.  But before I do, I want you to think of the definition of “self” for a moment.

And don’t you dare read ahead. Seriously, think about it.

What does “self” mean to you? Can you have many concepts of “self”? Do you have an “online self” that is separate from your “real-life self”? Personally, I think your private “online self” and your “real-life self” are the same person, after all, it’s still you posting stuff, right?  That’s why I think Wright should be held responsible for his actions, because if what you post online has “real-life” repercussions, your “real-life self” should be held responsible.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself Online?

I think the safest thing you could do would be to stop reading this blog right now, deactivate all your accounts on social media sites, and never write another post, tweet, or e-mail again. Seriously.  If you’re still tempted to use your computer, smashing it with a big hammer into bits should do the trick.

Muahaha, I’ll never be tempted to write another embarrassing Facebook status again!

Muahaha, I’ll never be tempted to write another embarrassing Facebook status again!

What was that? You need your e-mail address, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter account to tell your friends about that adorable video of kittens playing on Tumblr?

Well, I’ll offer some other advice then.  Just keep in mind that this is only a short list of ways you can protect yourself online, and there are many more precautions you can take, so do your research and don’t limit yourself to just these suggestions:

#1 Common Sense.  In my opinion, this is the best tool you have to protect yourself.  Next time you’re writing a Youtube comment or Tweeting about how many beers you drank last weekend or ranting on Facebook about how horrible your boss is, stop and think.  What if my boss saw this? What if my mother saw this? What if my school saw this? How would it affect me?  You can also refrain from filling out all your profiles on social media… personally I never fill out where I live or supply my phone number or personal e-mail.

#2 Be Aware of Privacy Settings. Did you know that many social media sites have privacy settings so you can restrict who has access to your posts?  For example, on Facebook, there are privacy settings that allow you to regulate who sees your posts and sends you messages and requests.  You could allow just your Facebook “friends” to see them, or “friends of my friends,” or just certain people.  Furthermore, if you’re worried about people seeing the not-so-glamorous photos or posts you’re tagged in, there’s even an “only me” setting where no one can see what you’re tagged in – only you can, and you can choose to approve them should you want someone else to see.  There are even ways to regulate who can post on your wall.

Privacy settings mean you can block that annoying relative of yours (y'know, the one who always posts pictures of their kids) from commenting on everyone one of your Facebook statuses with "lol."

Privacy settings mean you can block that annoying relative of yours (y’know, the one who always posts pictures of their kids) from commenting on everyone one of your Facebook statuses with “lol.”

However, it’s important to note that whenever Facebook updates, it usually restores all your settings to the default “public” (meaning anyone can see them), so be sure to check your settings regularly.

#3 Spread the Word! Tell your friends, family, and pet cat about these issues, and inform them how they can protect themselves.  You might even learn some other ways to protect yourself that aren’t on this list.

Hopefully, by now you’ve learned a little more about your online privacy, and how to protect yourself.  To conclude, I’ll leave you with this last image.

privacy eggs