Archive for January, 2007

Design and Choice

Friday, January 12th, 2007

The design of things is usually not a conscious focus for most people. We may say things like: “Why didn’t they put that link over here”, or “Why does the windshield wiper only have two settings”. Whether physical or digital, design has an enormous, often stealth-like impact on what we do with products.
Making too many choices for end-users is poor design. Designers must obviously make some choices to simplify a software platform, vehicle, computer, or phone. Apple, for example, in the development of their new iPhone, made many choices – the most significant being to eliminate physical phone keys and instead rely on software to do the work of formerly physical objects. The choices made during the design process obviously impacts everything that follows.
Instead of reducing opportunities, design should open possibilities for individuals. Digital Rights Management, copyright law, identity management, intellectual property, and even patents, serve to walk a line between what the developer or originator of a resource would permit us to do (and in the process, conceivably protect their investment in a resource), and what we as consumers or end-users of a product or resource would like to do.
But we design more than software and physical items. We design media. We design spaces and structures. Consider the music and movie industry. Music, until only a few years ago, was designed to be sold in 10 – 12 songs per album. Other than with the release of select singles, we had an “all” or “nothing” choice with music. Napster changed that. iTunes made it legal by the music industry’s definition (but more restrictive for end users than a truly open system).
Now we are hearing of an interest “skinning’ feature in newer technologies like HD DVD where viewers can conceivably change the color of a car in a video…and potentially even add their image over the face of a character in the movie. Individuals can watch clips on YouTube when they want, rather than when the network schedules. How we experience news is similar – instead of submitting to an editor’s perspective, we are able to hear accounts first hand. Perhaps the greatest change in society over the last five years has been the shift of choice from the needs of the institution to choice in the hands of the end user.
Choice obviously has many facets. On one level, choice might be about what color we would like a piece of clothing. On another level, choice might be about how we would actually like the clothing to look (i.e. to customize the physical design, not only the color). Too much choice can also be paralytic. When we go into a grocery store and see too many kinds of toothpaste, we often revert to what we are most familiar with (I read a study on this, the link doesn’t come to mind now). Similarly, design decisions with software determine whether we can only change the color of a screen or background, or whether we can extend the software for additional functionality. Open standards (or software) and APIs enable mashups and re-creations beyond what initial designers had planned. The end-user, not the designer alone, determines what can be done.
Choice is quite inconsequential for most people – like how the lid of a medication bottle (except for people with arthritis). The more substantial the choice, however, the more important it is that it rests in the hands of everyone. While I’m likely not to get too riled up (just irritated) when the wiper on my car doesn’t function as I would like it to, certain choices should be ALWAYS in the hands of individuals. Democracy is one example. Learning is another. And that brings me to the point of this short article.
Too much of our learning is being designed as if the choices of the learners didn’t matter. We design LMS’ to lock learners into our format, our model. When the learners leave our institution, we eliminate their choice of further access to learning materials. When a learner would like to demonstrate competence in a certain way (for assessment purposes), we instead require a 2000 word essay. With education, the design of learning should follow a similar model as with any other design process: namely to balance the needs and intent of the designer with the end user. In terms of educational design, the choice has traditionally rested with the institution.
The draw of blogs, wikis, podcasting, video logging, social bookmarking, and other social tools for educators arises from direct observation of what happens when learners are given choice. It’s enormously motivating to watch learners learn through dialogue – forming connections with learners and experts beyond the walls of a classroom (or LMS)…seeing passion replace routine, engagement replace passivity.
Ideally, our design should permit the greatest possible diversity (even when we intend to move learners toward a particular outcome). Essentially, as educators, we design the ecology in which learning happens. Learners create the network that expresses personal interest, and the patterns that project personal meaning and sensemaking.
I’ve stated previously that our challenge with learning (and business, and democracy, and roughly everything else in society) is “how to create clear aims through decentralized and distributed means”. Our learning design should allow learners to “speak themselves into the process”…i.e. to form connections and explore areas of personal interest. This must, in formal education, be balanced with curricular needs. For example, programs of applied learning often have their curriculum needs defined by an advisory board.
Personal choice and freedom for exploration must exist in balance with the needs of a school, program, society, and industry. Control needs to be balanced between all participants. Education is holistic. Many participants comprise the whole. With purely informal learning, the learner is the only “stakeholder”. As process of learning is enlarged – into the public sphere or into corporate environments – additional stakeholders are added. Educating a child for example, involves more than just the child (I’m bypassing the obvious discussion of “do we actually educate” or do we only create the context in which people learn). Families, communities, and societies are active participants in enabling (and benefiting from) learning.

Dialogue online

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

The shape of dialogue changes based on the medium. Television only permits one-way flow (with the rare exception of call-in shows…and even then, the feedback voice is only audio). Radio has a lower access barrier for two-way flow, with greater symmetry in voices. Newspapers and magazines are largely one-way flow, with limited feedback in the form of “letters to the editor”. With all media, the feedback flow is subject to power or control by some type of filter (the editor, the DJ).
Classrooms have a similar dialogue model to traditional media. The expert pontificates, the learner responds based on parameters set by the expert. The space of learning is created and bounded by the educator. Exploration is held within the structure created for the learners. In this model, learners do have a voice (hence a capacity to dialogue), but the voice itself is shaped and influenced according to intentions and interests of the teacher. Learners are generally not able to explore free-range interests or hold serendipity-inducing conversations.
The controlled nature of the learner voice in dialogue has the (I assume) unintentional effect of eliminating the learner from the conversation. The learner is not able to speak herself into existence as her voice is held within approved (filtered or controlled) parameters. Admittedly, not all subjects require a great deal of dialogue (basic level biology or physics function at a memorization level, and there is limited room to debate how photosynthesis occurs). Once we have formed a base in a discipline, or if the discipline itself consists of soft knowledge (i.e. politics, sociology, or any subject area where perspective and bias play greater roles), dialogue becomes critical to ensuring the situation is seen in all its complex glory. Instead of falsely simplifying a concept for ease of understanding, we need to complexify (i.e. Weinberger) the subject matter sufficiently to understand its nuances. Decision making happens only after understanding the messiness and chaos of a subject. Instead of permitting the educator to filter out elements not deemed relevant, the learner maintains control over the depth of complexification. In the end, understanding is achieved as a function of comprehending the diversity (and complexity) of an issue – a concept quite antithetical to how most of our learning is designed today. Learning is often designed to eliminate not accentuate complexity. I argue that complexity, held in context, is the more effective model of sensemaking and, as a result, decision making. Moving forward not-knowing is more valuable than moving forward assuming we know. Doubt, not certainty, is the foundation of reasoning, emotion, and learning.
If traditional media and classroom models strip learners of voices, and in th process, their ability to understand the nuanced complexity of a discipline or subject, what is the alternative? Which model should we be considering as we move forward with attempts to better align education today with the needs of learners and society? Social software adds a new component of dialogue not found in other tools/media. Consider blogs as a simple example. Blogs allow for two significant levels of dialogue:

  • Direct – author and reader interact in comments – a model where the author still maintains control to delete or filter unflattering comments
  • Parallel – author interacts with authors of other blogs through his own blog. Someone writes something on their blog in response to what I write here…and I can reply in parallel conversation on this blog. We essentially write in awareness of each other, even though we do not directly engage in dialogue.

Most of my conversations online are parallel, not direct, in blogs. I am frequently criticized (via email) for the lack of commenting feature on my elearnspace blog…with the implied suggestion (is there any other kind?) that I am not practicing what I preach by not permitting feedback. While I’m in danger of rationalizing (and I do intend to add comments in the future, once I have an appropriate spam filter), that line of reasoning is a hold over from the framework of thought created by both traditional media and education. I cannot silence anyone’s voice today. Dialogue happens regardless of my urge to stifle criticism of my ideas.
Dialogue does not need to be direct in order to be effective. Dialogue of greatest value is what I call parallel, or dialogue of awareness. At this level, the comments and views of others are within our cognitive network (i.e. we know they exist) and their influence weighs in our reasoning and thought formation. It’s the same way we come to know people. We have a sense of how a colleague or family member will react to something we say or do because we function with an awareness of their views, personality, and character. This is not to say that we lose our identity in consideration of others. We affirm the value and individuality of others not by changing our mind sets to reflect theirs, but rather by creating our world views with an understanding of the world views of others.
In a learning space, blogs and other social software, allow learners to have full control over their own voice. Filtering is not in the hands of the educator, the editor, or even colleagues. The right of expression, a requirement for parallel dialogue, enables each individual to explore and walk where he or she is inclined. Perhaps this gets to the heart of my concerns with LMS (learning management systems). An LMS is intended for direct conversation (discussion forums, email, etc.) where individual voice is shaped by the instructor (i.e. post here, talk about this, and do it by this date). This has been the long history of education.
A parallel conversation, on the other hand, is one where the learner controls the space of their interaction. As I’ve said previously, we need to stop expecting learners to come to our space to dialogue…and instead, we should enable our content to come to the learners in their space, and to hold the dialogue in a manner that permits individuals full control. Let learners aggregate their digital personalities, rather than force them to splinter themselves into hundreds of digital identities in our LMS’, organizational blogging systems, or community blogs.
The space of dialogue has changed. Instead of a physical or even virtual space (newspaper, TV, radio, classroom, or discussion forum), the connections we form have now become the space. The connection is the space. In direct dialogue we still hold control of voice (through filtering and silencing)…because the ownership of the space rests in the hands of one individual (or a particular group of people). In parallel dialogue, we separate the control of the space from the conversation. The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space – a space not held or controlled by others. I fully expect that we will start to see a much more pronounced demarcation between the “come talk us in our space” mindset and the “I’m here talking in my own space” mindset. Main stream media is starting to see it. I hope educators will not tarry too long.