Archive for March, 2007

Future hope against today’s reality

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

I listened to a presentation last week by Gary Bertoline. I’m normally fairly non-committal in responding to the work of others, as I understand the nuances and challenges of developing and presenting opinions and views. Our expression is so heavily based on context – I can’t really take a single point emphasis without a clear understanding of the factors which influenced the development of their whole mindset.
Gary’s presentation was well argued (I enjoyed his discussion on the development of computer modeling and simulation as the “third pillar” (theory and experimentation being the other two) of science), but he made a few statements relating to technology that I find quite at odds with moving the learning technology industry forward:
1. Technology lust. “Use a new technology in your class everyday”. Ok…so that would equal 30 different tools over the course of a term. I lose students after 2 or 3 new tools dispersed over a course. While I imagine Gary’s point was for impact, the tone was largely one of “use technology for technologies sake”. We need to move forward with learner at the center
2. Students should drive curriculum. This is a challenging concept. Partly for educators, partly for student, partly for society. Most academic fields have structure and some type of accountability. Curriculum is bounded. A pure self-guided model of learning is not one that matches well with how academic institutions are structured. The learner’s exploration of curriculum is where we can innovate.
We are at a period of trying to find new balance points. What is the role of the expert? How much content should be predefined? Created by learners? What about “teaching” versus learner exploration? What’s the balance between content and conversation? Who filters?…and the list goes on. We are developing our sea legs in this new environment. We really can’t say with certainty where we are going to end up – it’s a function of adapting and reacting to the contexts that arise as we move forward.
For example, the success of Wikipedia has resulted in a competing project – Citizendium, which places greater emphasis on the role of experts in filtering and validating content. For some, the stamp of approval by experts raises the authenticity of a resource. We assume that experts have a greater breadth of understanding of a field, and can, as a result, provide a more nuanced interpretation of “what things mean”. That works well when we are in fairly stable environments where change is consistent or predictable. When even the experts are overwhelmed with change, it becomes difficult to filter information against a particular goal or target (or through the use of a particular metric). When the very foundation we use to compare, contrast, and make decisions changes, we can’t really move forward toward a clear target. We are largely in a “sense and respond” mode of relating to knowledge and the world around.
Our future hope for content, learning, and engagement clashes with our current reality. Too often the illustrations of what is possible centre on only a few illustrations (i.e. the use of blogs or wikis in a classroom). The skills and passion required by educators to use emerging technology are not distributed evenly across the academic community. We stand with a foot in the world of possibility…and a foot in the world of practicality with all its attendant frustrations and limitations. The hype of a brave new tomorrow is dulled, as it probably should be, by the challenges of today. Our blog/twitter/wiki/podcast/user-generated/vlog/social-networked/ distributed/decentralized/mashed-up hype storm will translate into reality only if we are able to provide relevance today…and accept that implementation will be a function of sharpening our hope against today’s reality. History is littered with numerous examples of great ideas that failed due not to validity, but to lack of connection to existing mindsets – essentially not providing a path for the majority to effectively adopt the ideas being espoused.
The “big ideas” (learner content-creation, active engagement, new tools – as listed above) being promoted by many edubloggers gain institutional relevance only when we can translate them into meaningful metaphors of how our discipline has changed. I know there are those who suggest the way out is to abolish education as we know it – a hangover from Illich’s provocative (but could be argued, impractical) assault on schools (though his learning web model is almost prophetic). Revolutions rarely succeed in abolishing entirely what existed before (often the power of the existing structure is reflected in how the revolutionaries react to it in the creation of an alternative model – not based solely on what works best, but out of a desire to destroy remnants of what exists…an activity that has the recursive effect of actually embedding the undesirable elements permanently in the new structure).
I’m not even sure of the defining, motivating principles that are moving us forward. For many, I think it’s simply “wow, this is cool…I can use this to improve learning”. Others have more clearly articulated the philosophical underpinnings, or guiding principles, that shape their actions. Some are adrift without a defining view, content to simply enjoy the high level of dialogue. We edubloggers are largely a ragamuffin band – dissatisfied with today’s reality, stepping forward tentatively to what the future might entail, uncertain of factors which will derail our actions, and seeking a philosophy which will steel our desires to continue. And, I think, in the spirit of the age, we shall not find this philosophy. Nor should we. Our path to change will wind, guided by context, loosely articulated (possibly competing) visions, hobbled by prematurely impose structure, and set in perpetual ambiguity.
This is the backdrop of where many of us stand today in our desire to create a better learning environment…a more equitable future. Our unsettled visions of technology as an enabler are buffeted by the reality of today’s institutions, society, and what seems to be, an emerging sense of distrust of technology as an academic tool (in recent conversations with educators in K-12 and higher education, I’ve noticed a strong emphasis of resistance…which isn’t bad, we need to critically evaluate everything we do. The problem arises when the perspective is not informed through experimentation, experience, or research, but is instead an outgrowth of personal beliefs).
As I try to balance practical implementation and adoption with glee-filled (and who wouldn’t like to be filled with glee?) encounters with new tools, I’m struck by how distant our two worlds of future hope and today’s reality have become. And I fear that the divisions are not resolving, but are becoming more entrenched. Moving into warring camps – each with its own terminology and ideologies – is not a path we should take. Maybe this is why I have some resistance to a premature articulation of what we are moving toward. Principles – yes. End target – no. The onus of communication rests on those who wish for revolution. We can’t do that as long as our language remains “they just don’t get it”.

Advice to Google: What I need with search

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

I have some advice for Google…and other search engines.
My need for search has changed over the last few years. When Google first appeared, their search results made me an instant convert. By utilizing network approaches to determining the value of information (PageRank is essentially a valuation model drawing on the activities of a network), relevant resources were a click away.
The search industry has moved through broad stages – from hierarchical (remember the Yahoo search page with 1500 links by category??) to network (Google and most new search engines) to emerging visualization. But lately, I’m finding that I’m no longer as enthralled with Google (and web search in general) as I once was. My concern is no longer of access to information. My concern today is centered on relevance. Or more specifically, on having search engines function as a second brain.
I spend my time in two primary search activities: a) finding information I need, b) re-finding information I encountered previously, but have no clue where. So I have a mashup of tools that symbolize the transition to digital state we are still in.
I use Bloglines/Google Reader to follow information/conversations. These tools essentially me to form my personal learning network – as expressed in my initial paper on connectivism and explored more deeply during our recent online connectivism conference.
The information I wish to keep and share is posted to my elearnspace blog, furled, or posted to del.icio.us
Information I wish to use as a basis for collaboration is posted in a wiki
So my main information use habits include:

  • Reaping information from my network
  • making decisions about what I’ll need later (and how I might search for it or remember what I did with it)
  • Capturing key information for:
    • Reflecting

    • Sharing
    • Collaborating
  • Making connections between information sources
  • Determining meaning (patterns) from the information I encounter

I still use Google for search…but not as much as I once did. Prior to forming my sloppy suite information management tools (and harnessing the information provided by trusted sources in my RSS reader), I used Google to search specific items – treating knowledge as an object to be acquired. But, as I presented in my book Knowing Knowledge – knowledge today is not an object. Knowledge is a process. What I need today is a search tool that captures and searches my activities in interacting with knowledge as a process. I want a search mechanism that knows:

  • the books on my physical book shelf (even though I may need to enter this information into LibraryThing),
  • the articles I’ve read in journals,
  • what I’ve blogged,
  • whose blogs I read,
  • what I’ve archived and shared (in Furl, del.icio.us, flickr),
  • what I’ve moved to a collaborative environment.
  • what type of relevant information I may need based on what I’ve done in the past.
    …and it should

  • Connect related areas of interest or activity
  • Display basic patterns emerging from my information habits

My current information/knowledge approach is pieced together – not integrated. Really, how hard would it be for Google to allow me to define which areas I would like to search (my bloglines, my furl, my del.cio.us, my physical books, my wikis, my social networks (at this point, openID becomes attractive). And visualizes information for me, showing connections and related areas/topics of interest (kartOOand Quintura are starting with this) – and to do so based on my history, my self-declared profile, and my searching activities or habits. A search engine needs to become a part of who I am and what I do (what I’ve written, ideas I’ve had). Search needs to become useful (again).
Search needs to be intertwined with my own knowledge habits and personal learning network – helping me to re-find the knowledge I need. Search shouldn’t be an explicit activity – it should be a background activity, operating largely without my conscious awareness. Finding (the current premise of Google and other search engines) is “knowledge as product”. Re-finding (the required focus of future search tools) is “knowledge as process”.
In many ways, search today is reflective of the environment in which it originated – after all, our new approaches serve to solve the problems of our current world (simple image of the process)…and as our new tools create new affordances, we end up in a cycle of innovation where we need to break from our mindset that existed at the time of the first innovation. Google needs to shift from serving the needs I had in a more physically-based world (with fairly static knowledge) to the digital world awash with rapid change and fluctuations – with limitless connections and information that is overwhelming in quantity.
This is different from personal search (i.e. searching your own networks or sources Rollyo looked like a neat concept, but hasn’t really taken off). I’m suggesting an integrated search tool reflective of what I do on a daily basis.
Obviously, there are privacy concerns – i.e. at what point does Google know too much about me? But I’m quite certain the big transition required in search is one of breaking away from the product-based views of information to one that embraces the process-based views that reflect what we are starting to do in our digital lifestyles. Search should become less about search and more about “using and doing”.