As Latour and others remind us, social networks predate the concept of computer networks–the two should not be confused or conflated. And yet, there does seem to be something about computer networks that has made our encounters with networks more palpable or visible.
For example, the typical professor delivering lectures, assigning print readings, writing on a chalkboard, grading student essays, etc: this person’s work and actions emerge from a complex network. Still, we managed to conceive of this work in terms of academic freedom. While we might wrangle over what this means in terms of "sensitive" or "political" subjects, generally this has meant at least a wide latitude in terms of course design: the readings, the assignments, the grading, and so on.
However, with emerging technologies all of this has shifted somewhat.
Again, for example, let’s say I am assigning my students to create and upload a podcast. This brings a whole assortment of other people and objects into the situation:
- What access do students have to hardware and software for producing a podcast?
- What network access do they have for their files?
- What kinds of telephone or online support might they receive?
- Will there be face-to-face help in labs?
- Who has the ability/permission to solve problems related to student online accounts?
- What college policies, such as those related to copyrighted material, might affect student work?
It’s true that a professor might create a podcasting assignment without considering such matters (though I wouldn’t recommend it). However, it’s certain that these conditions will shape the work students produce.
In a meeting today at my college with faculty and information resources staff, we discussed how faculty might inform staff about their plans to assign these kinds of projects, so that support might be planned. It’s interesting b/c I don’t think faculty are in the habit of informing others about the assignments they are giving or other plans for their courses. Instead professors are used to working in relative autonomy. The network that supports traditional teaching is largely invisible.
So what would it mean to imagine even the fairly conventional course migrating into a more "technological" one as a migration into a situation where the professor is negotiating such matters as part of course design and evaluating student work? Perhaps, over time, if these practices become more regular, this network will become less visible, much like the network of librarians, tutors, and word processors that support that traditional research paper. But for now, that’s not the case.