Archive for August, 2007

Networks, Ecologies, and Curatorial Teaching

Friday, August 24th, 2007

About four years ago, I wrote an article on Learning Ecology, Communities, and Networks. In many ways, it was the start for me of what has become a somewhat sustained dialogue on teaching, learning, knowledge change, connectivism, and so on. Connectivism represents the act of learning as a network formation process (at an external, conceptual, and neural level …and, as I’ve stated previously, finds it’s epistemological basis in part on Stephen’s work with connective knowledge). Others have tackled the changes of technology with a specific emphasis on networked learning - Leigh Blackall, for example). And some have explored network learning from a standards perspective (Rob Koper). While not always obvious, there is a significant amount of work occurring on the subject of networked learning. What used to be the side show activity of only a few edubloggers now has the attention of researchers, academics, and conferences worldwide. Networked learning is popping up in all sorts of conference and book chapter requests – it’s largely the heart of what’s currently called web 2.0, and I fully expect it [networked learning] will outlive the temporary buzz and hype of all thing 2.0.
Obviously numerous factors are at play here: the tools we use to connect (blogs, wikis, podcast, Facebook, Twitter, Ning), the theories of learning we adopt (connectivism, situated cognition, social constructivism, activity theory), affordances of tools and theories, and finally the systemic or structural changes required as a result of tools, theories, and affordances. We are well on our way in all areas, though systemic change is lagging. But I expect this is a temporary resistance as anomalies build under the existing system and weaknesses become increasingly apparent. Growth of information, new literacies, globalization, technology, open source philosophies, and collaborative mindsets are only a few of the change drivers.
The design of future learning institutions (both physical and pedagogical) is currently actively debated (see Christian Long, School 2.0, Chris Lehmann, Will Richardson, David Warlick and many others). The theory and act of teaching has a similar level of activity (I’m partial to work with connectivism, but there are many important conversations occurring). And we have much happening in terms of defining what is acceptable authority for information and knowledge (I’ll throw my own book Knowing Knowledge into this space, David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, and the practical example of wikipedia). In the corporate space, we have individuals like Jay Cross questioning training structures and approaches and Dave Snowden expressing knowledge and sensemaking as functions of complex systems and interactions. The convergence and cross over opportunity is amazing. All in all, it’s a rather delightful time to be in the knowledge, learning, education, technology field.
Here is our current state:
We are actively networking. Wow, are we ever. Twitter. Facebook. Blogs. Podcasts. Mobile phones. We are hyperconnected. In some cases (I feel this way periodically) we are so connected that connection forming, instead of gleaning value from connections, is our predominant task. The connection becomes tyrannical. But connection forming is natural. It doesn’t need coercion. We do it with language, images, video. We create, express, connect. And software is now available that aids this innate activity with unprecedented fervor. We build competence, make sense, learn, and growth through our connections. Tools of connections are driving discussions of networked learning and organizational applicability. Surprising to see how quickly the network theme has spread into education and training.
We are discussing the spaces of learning. I use the term learning ecology. Dave Cormier has more recently adopted habitat. John Seely Brown suggests atelier learning, a concept Clarence Fisher adopts as studio learning. For me, an ecology, habitat, or studio is simply the space for fostering connections. Networks occur within something. They are influenced by the environment and context of an organization, school, or classroom. Certain ecologies are more conducive to forming connections. Take the internet as an example. If the barrier to connection forming were higher than a simple click, adoption would be greatly reduced. Connection barriers are aspects of an ecology. As a result, password protected sites and articles largely fly under my radar of resources. The nature of the ecology influences the ease, type, and health of networks created.
And, in the mix, I have paid little attention to the role of the “individual formerly known as teacher” in education. Well, that’s not true. I’ve paid much attention to our role as teachers and instructors, but I’m not satisfied with how the conversation has progressed. I’m rather sick of “sage on stage” and “guide on the side” comparisons. The clear dichotomy chafes. While power in classrooms has shifted from the teacher at the centre, it’s important to note that educators play a vital role not fully addressed by some of the current conversation. Clarence has adopted the term “network administrator” to describe the role of teachers. I like it. It’s the basis on which teaching and education should be founded. But I think something more is needed, something that places some level of value or interpretation on content, knowledge, and concepts being explored.
I’ve been involved with numerous museum organizations over the last few years. I’m always intrigued by the role of the curator – the hidden expert behind displays and artifacts. An ongoing discussion on the iDC list on curatorial roles in the digital space heightened the concept for me. Teaching, learning, and knowledge are obviously closely linked. The trio have different relationships in different contexts. A corporate trainer, for example, will likely be focused on creating clear, measurable outcomes that translate into increased organizational capacity to compete or innovate. A primary teacher will be focused on building basic literacies, skills, and mindsets to function in the society the learner will inherit. A professor is focused on extending these basic skills in order to prepare learners to be active members of a discipline (a field of experts) and a critical thinker and creative contributer to society. Those complex tasks cannot be solely accomplished through laissez fair approaches to learning. Sugata Mitra demonstrated the tremendous curiosity and self-motivation learners can display during his famous “hole-in-the-wall” experiment. Such experiments demonstrate clearly the natural potential of humans as self-selecting learners. But learners get into trouble. They sometimes walk unproductive paths (though any path leads to at least some learning) that someone with experience can readily direct them around.
Consider our happy little edublogger world. Some members have been blogging for a long time (notably Stephen Downes, Will Richardson, Jay Cross). Through their established networks, they can serve important roles of guiding and directing others to resources and concepts. Their experience enables them to put new developments into a historical context. They assist others to create networks…but they do more. They serve as curators of ideas, connections, philosophies, and world views. They create frameworks of interpreting and understanding history, new technologies, and trends through their work and public dialogue.
The joint model of network administrator and curator form the foundation of what education should be. An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored. While learners are free to explore, they encounter displays, concepts, and artifacts representative of the discipline. Their freedom to explore is unbounded. But when they engage with subject matter, the key concepts of a discipline are transparently reflected through the curatorial actions of the teacher.

Wikipedia and Google: Control vs Emergence

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

While the debate surrounding Wikipedia often centres on authority, questioning whether a group of amateurs can create a trustworthy resource, the real issue is about access. We use Wikipedia not because it is authoritative, though that argument can be made. We use it instead because we can access it for “quick and dirty” knowledge. How is beer made? What’s elearning? Wikipedia provides “gap filling” information, not necessarily foundation information on which we base world views. For foundational world view information, we don’t rely on a singular resource. We blend many – experts, our own experiences, our own thinking, influences of colleagues, articles, books, and so on. People sometimes are mislead in this discussion when they fail to acknowledge that we require different types of information for different purposes. And, for most of my daily quick and dirty information needs, Wikipedia suffices. I am therefore drawn to it because it is at my fingertips. The information source is in line with my information needs. I use the web for the same reason. Do complete books exist on the history of Greek philosophy? Of course. But if they are not in my home library, then I must trudge to the library. I need to be highly motivated for this trek. Instead, I can access an online resource within seconds. Access barrier: Library: 30 minutes. Internet: 1 minute. Repeat as required for Britannica and Wikipedia.
But all is not well. Wikipedia has a fatal flaw, evidenced by frequent criticism about deletions of articles or persons not deemed to be of note (Peter set up a wikipedia page for me and connectivism – an experiment to see how long until I’m classified as not notable :) ). Wikipedia, at its core, is an extension of how we do things in the physical world: a group of people, for whatever reason (position, reputation, authority), make decisions for the vast majority about what should be permitted to be viewed. This is necessary for Wikipedia, or any centralized resource aspiring to authority/impact status, to work. Wikipedia filters for readers. News programs do the same. So do academic journals. And newspapers. The underlying assumption is that some can make decisions for others. The vast majority of people prefer this. But not all. If you’re on the fringe, Wikipedia serves a silencing gate-keeping role. By its very nature, it is intended to do this. In order to be more effective, it applies democratic processes such as voting and discussion. In the end, however, someone still makes a choice on behalf of others.
This flaw of making decisions for others is handled in an entirely different way by Google. Wikipedia assumes a target, sets metrics, and holds discussions against those standards. When someone is deemed “not notable”, their biography is eliminated…and for subsequent searchers, ceases to exist. The flaw arises from its structure – centralized and controlled. Google, on the other hand, adopts a more decentralized model. Instead of centralizing information and determining what can exist (let’s briefly lay aside Google’s activities in relation to China), Google makes its decision after something exists, not before.
Yes, a search engine’s algorithm expresses and ideology and determines what is weighted. Universities, established media outlets, and government sites carry greater authority. But search engines (especially blog search sites like icerocket and technorati) seek to reflect what is occurring online. They attempt to reflect the patterns produced by many interactions. Are search sites like Google neutral? No, not entirely. But they impose less bias onto the information space than Wikipedia does. Search engines express the emergent structure of information, instead of applying mechanics of inclusion up front.
Why is this important? I think Wikipedia harbors a structured content mindset that is reflective of its physical (and now online) competitors (Britannica). Most people find value in the centralized nature of this information. It’s easier to search, the coherence of content requires less cognitive effort to make sense of a subject, and it has a growing degree of name recognition (and thereby, trust). But it is a model that I don’t think is sustainable in the long run.
We will need to outgrow our digital manifestations of physical assumptions. We have the same struggle with online learning content: “Hey, let’s move this content online”. We transfer instead of transform. It works in the short term because we are familiar with the approach and process. In the long run, it impairs innovation. Once access is not a barrier, the model of “a few selecting for many” produces information with inherent bias.
To this end, Google is a better foundation for information’s future. The less bias our initial source of information, the more options we have for repurposing it. If we apply intelligence at the level of need (search) instead of the level of entry into a system (the evaluation/editor model of Wikipedia and other centralized services), we have greater options for future use. Keep the initial source pure. I can’t see why an effective search engine, in the near future, can’t create an “on the fly” representation of a wikipedia article. We type in a term; it generates an article complete with references and differing viewpoints. Not sure we’ll need Wikipedia in the future. I think it’s a transition tool, a temporary crutch, as we align ourselves to the new context and characteristics of information.