Is it a phone, a camera, a PDA or an mp3 player? Does the music we listen to determine who our friends are? Is Google taking over the world?
These and other questions have been inspired by the current trends toward convergence. Convergence refers both to the consolidation of information into a small number of sources, like Google, and the evolution of multi-functional hardware to handle this information, like the iPhone. Convergence technologies are meant to make our lives easier. They are certainly having an impact on post-secondary education. But at what cost? In an age where individual software and hardware have a myriad of functions in educational and daily life, educators and media commentators are questioning whether the convergence trend is healthy. This article considers first the impact of convergence on education, nationally and at Dartmouth. It then takes a fanciful look at what might happen if we let convergence go too far.
Convergence in Education: A Case Study
Digital convergence seems like a boon for college students and professors alike. At its best, convergence makes it easier to find and disseminate information. Educators across the nation are therefore exploring what role convergence hardware—in particular, iPhone and iTouch—might play in post-secondary education. At the forefront of this movement is Abilene Christian University.
Over the past 10 months, ACU has been conducting research on the ways that iTouch, in conjunction with an extensive resource network provided through iTunes U, might enhance students’ educational experiences. This fall, the University will be providing each member of its incoming freshman class with an iPhone or an iTouch, with which they can access the school network wirelessly from any point on campus. In addition to easy internet and email access, students will also be able to use their iPhone/iTouch to download class schedules, course materials, lecture podcasts, and a number of other educational resources. Special podcasts—including some on convergence culture and the Christian faith—have been developed and are available at iTunes U (at the iTunes store).
Reactions to the program thus far have been positive. ”This is exciting to me,” remarked Dr. Dwayne VanRheenen, ACU provost, on the university’s website, “not only because we’re giving students new tools, but because we are transforming the learning environment. The extensive research that’s been done on campus in the past 10 months has prepared us to launch with freshmen this fall, and research will be ongoing as we expand the program in the future.” Although ACU will be the first university to hand out iPhones to its students, other schools participating in the pilot program include Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and MIT.
Convergence at Dartmouth: Blitz and Beyond
While Abeline Christian University will be the first college in the US to supply each of its students with an iTouch, convergence software isn’t new to Dartmouth. BlitzMail, Dartmouth’s electronic mail system, has for twenty years been the college’s central unifying convergence software. Within the college, Blitz has successfully replaced alternative communication platforms, including instant messaging, Facebook, and even mobile telephone use. Besides keeping users in touch with other members of the Dartmouth community—whether it be with someone on a term abroad or someone down the hall—Blitz is used to store and exchange images, songs, notes, and photos. Prior to Blackboard (and perhaps even now), Blitzmail has been used as a teaching tool, by which professors distribute class information, respond to student questions, and facilitate peer work. In fact, Blitzmail is so engrained in the psyche of Dartmouth alums that most elect to maintain an active Blitz account after graduation.
Those who don’t attend Dartmouth find it difficult to understand how email could be such a central and dominating force in a college student’s life. But for Dartmouth students and faculty, living even for a few hours without Blitz leads to feelings of disconnection. Blitz plays a large part in determining the social behavior of Dartmouth students; phrases like “blitz me,” “blitzjacked,” and “blitz-out” are commonplace among the student vernacular, and student groups rely heavily on “blitzlists” to distribute information about the club.
As technologies progress, Blitz will likely begin to lose its grip on Dartmouth culture. Indeed, many professors use Blackboard, not Blitzmail, to conduct class business (though some combination of Blackboard and Blitzmail is currently the norm). In this way, Blackboard has become the chosen convergence software for Dartmouth’s academic enterprise, while Blitz maintains its social exchanges. It’s not difficult to see how the iTouch/iPhone experiment being conducted at ACU could yield fruit here: an iPhone could converge the social and academic enterprises, making them accessible on a single portable device. At first consideration, there seem to be no drawbacks to such a plan. After all, the College has long been interested in the living/learning as a converged enterprise. However, we suggest that Dartmouth first consider the broader social implications of convergence before making a decision as to how (or whether) it will buy in.
The Danger of Convergence: Epic 2015
From one perspective, convergence technologies empower users: anyone with a computer or an internet connection can contribute to or author this information space, thereby participating in a democratic and collective intelligence that is, in its way, the true manifestation of a global village.
On the other hand, convergence dis-empowers users as they find themselves at the mercy of emerging convergence monopolies.
In recent years, information technology conglomerates such as Google, Apple, Wikipedia, and the Facebook have emerged as informational juggernauts. These corporations are rewriting our ideas of communication by consolidating multiple media platforms and vast amounts of digital information, much of it personal, user-submitted content.
The following video, EPIC 2015, produced by Pointer News University student Robin Sloan engages viewers in a thought experiment that makes chilling predictions for the near future. Sloan bases his predictions on current trends towards convergence of information and mergers of large media corporations. The film has several interesting social implications, especially regarding the user-generated nature of content. Invest nine minutes; see what you think. Is convergence really the way to go?