Dr. Jay Smith is a long-term AU faculty member, and the course author of Political Science 480 (also available at the graduate level as POLI 580). He recently took time to answer some questions about the course for The Voice Magazine.
First of all, what is your role with Athabasca University, and the course?
I have been a professor at AU since October 1, 1981. I wrote the course about 15 years ago when it was becoming obvious that the Internet and digital media were disrupting traditional political practices and activities which normally occurred within a state and its territory. The course was also very much linked to my research on online politics.
When was the course last updated or revised?
The last significant revision was in 2012 but? the course is another person’s hands [now, so] other small changes may have been made since then.
What does the course cover? Could you summarize some of the major ideas or topics discussed?
At the heart of the course is a core concern. Will these digital technologies serve as technologies of freedom and emancipation strengthening democratic processes? Or will they serve as instruments of control, by corporations (?Little Brothers?) or governments (?Big Brothers?? through, for example, mechanisms of surveillance? Does the latter mean that privacy has ended?
The first part of the course examines the capacity of digital technologies and social media to make it possible for anyone with Internet access to be a producer of knowledge and communicate across borders. This is, in effect, part of an information-technology revolution that is providing challenges to existing power structures. The new power that is arising is a form of networked power. The course discusses the rise of a globally networked information economy, an economy that many perceive as working for a few, concentrating economic wealth and creating economic crises (such the 2008 financial crisis which almost resulted in a depression.)
At the same time, the creation of a global informational economy has met with globally networked resistance by those who have been hurt by it. In sum, a theme of the course is the dialectic between domination and resistance.
The course also explores the effect of informational technologies on the democratic processes of the state, its political institutions, its administration, and civil society. In particular, it looks at web tools, including Web 2.0 and its components, such as political blogs, and their effects on the political process. Examined as well is the dark side of the Internet both in terms of surveillance and terrorism.
The course syllabus notes that there are four assignments and one exam in this course. What can students expect, in terms of course structure? Can you talk briefly about the assignments and exam?
Assignment one asks students to write a short essay based on course materials analyzing contradictory aspects (eg. control versus promoting freedom) of digital technologies and the internet.
Assignment two is a research essay proposal whereby the student identifies a topic, explains why this topic was chosen, how it fits into the course, and identifies references and the methodology chosen for the essay.
Assignment three builds upon assignment two and the feedback from the tutor.
Assignment four [online discussion posts] is self-explanatory. The discussion posts are expected to relatively brief and come after Units 3 and 11.
The final examination is a mixture of short answers and essays covering the entire course in which there is choice.
What about course materials? Are there hardcopy books, etexts, online readings, or a combination?
Yes, there are 4 hardcopy books and online readings, the latter found in the course Digital Reading Room.
About how many students take this course in an average year? Is there anything about this course that students tend to find particularly challenging?
As a senior level course, [there are] about 20 [students] per year.
Two texts have a lot of detail but here the students are asked not to miss the forest for the trees. That is, the focus is on the big picture stuff not the micro details. Sometimes students (mistakenly) think they have to know everything.
Why do you feel that this course is valuable for students? Are there parts they find particularly challenging? Why should they choose to enrol?
I think if students want to know what to know about the huge changes that are occurring in the way we practice politics and organize politically, changes which may have profound effect on their lives and careers, then is a good course for them.
Is there anything students know if they’re thinking of taking this course?
If you mean that students have to have a certain prerequisite, then no. However, it is advised to have taken a senior political science, sociology, economics or communications course.
Bethany Tynes completed her MA in Integrated Studies through AU, and is a Canadian politics junkie.