Becoming Net Smart with Howard Rheingold

I just bought the Kindle edition of Net Smart, Howard Rheingold‘s new book, published by the MIT Press. I participated in various of Howard’s courses: one about literacies of cooperation, another one about mind-amplifying tools, and now I’m involved in a collaborative project facilitated by Howard aimed at creating a peeragogy handbook.  Peeragogy is like peer to peer pedagogy, self-learners collaborating via a variety of social media to create, deliver, and learn an agreed curriculum (which they compose themselves).

More about peeragogy by Howard during his UC Berkeley Regents’ lecture:

UC Berkeley Regents’ Lecture: Howard Rheingold (Presented by Berkeley Center for New Media) from Berkeley Center for New Media on Vimeo.

In Net Smart Howard explains that we’re in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology. This is not just a book about how to become a more efficient user of digital technologies, there is a bigger social issue at work here: “if we combine our individual efforts wisely, enough of the right know-how could add up to a more thoughtful society as well as enhance those individuals who master digital network skills.”

The author does not hesitate comparing the web’s architecture of participation to the invention of the printing press and the spread of reading skills which amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Of course, it also lead to revolutions, bloodshed, manipulation and fanaticism. These experiences make it abundantly clear how important literacies such as crap detection and the avoidance of echo chambers are. In other words, Net Smart is a book which is a must-read for people seeking a balance between their physical and virtual environments, for parents, young people, business people and educators.

It’s not just about learning skills which one can practice alone. It’s about the ability to use these skills socially, in concert with others, in an effective way. Howard distinguishes in his book five literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network smarts.

Howard is a talented inventor of new words and concepts. He’s the guy who came up with the notion of “virtual community“. More recently he coined the term “infotention”: “a mind-machine combination of brainpowered attention skills and computer-powered information filters” (also have a look at the Infotention Network).

Watch Howard explaining his book and project for the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) Change11:

 

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Amplifying my mind

Among my lofty intentions for the new year is amplifying my mind. This will be facilitated by Howard Rheingold. I really enjoyed Howard’s previous course, Toward a Literacy of Cooperation.

Introduction to Mind Amplifiers, is a five week course using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter.

Some of the texts we’ll read in the course will be familiar to the readers of the priceless The New Media Reader (MIT), like As We May Think (Vannevar Bush), Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (Douglas Engelbart) and Man-Computer Symbiosis (J.C.R. Licklider). These texts are incredibly deep and inspiring and could be the subject of whole course (we worked on them during the Digital Awakening Course, which had regular sessions in Second Life).

Howard is a master in inventing words and concepts – he is credited with inventing the notion of ‘virtual community’. In this course we’ll work on yet another of his ideas, infotention:

Infotention is a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters. The inside and outside of infotention work best together: Honing the mental ability to deploy the form of attention appropriate for each moment is an essential internal skill for people who want to find, direct, and manage streams of relevant information by using online media knowledgeably. Knowing how to put together intelligence dashboards, news radars, and information filters from online tools like persistent search and RSS is the external technical component of information literacy.

As I learned during the previous course, Howard expects his students to be very active. This culminates in the final session(s) which are prepared and organized by the participants. In this course we’re also supposed to apply what we learn by developing an attentional-informational strategy, organizing an information dashboard etc. It’s my intention to do this focusing on the themes developed in the book Race Against the Machine (Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee).

I’ll report here, on MixedRealities, about my experiences during this new course.

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The real book is a virtual book | Race against the machine

Earlier this year we discussed professor’s Tayler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation. He claims that the innovation in our day and age is less impressive than it seems, compared to the automobile, electricity etc. You could walk around in a house of the year 1953 and find that it is not that fundamentally different from what we are used to now  (at least not in the affluent West). Of course the internet is the big innovation of our time, but then again it does not generate the profits, revenues and employment like the emergent mass production of automobiles did.

Now I’ve been reading Race against the machine, an ebook by the MIT-researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They seem to have a different vision:

We’re entering unknown territory in the quest to reduce labor costs. The AI revolution is doing to white collar jobs what robotics did to blue collar jobs. Race Against the Machine is a bold effort to make sense of the future of work. No one else is doing serious thinking about a force that will lead to a restructuring of the economy that is more profound and far-reaching than the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age.

However, I think that Cowen as well as the MIT-experts are all worried about jobs and are all advocating more science, research and clever innovation. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee explain, the digital development is exponential, meaning that what at first seems like a relatively slow start evolves to a more impressive pace and ends up leaving us all behind, in shock. So yes, maybe what we’ve seen as to now is just rather impressive but not completely disruptive, but the self-driving Google-car and the IBM-computer Watson (winner of Jeopardy!) point into the direction of such a disruptive change.

Here is a must-see video, featuring Erik Brynjolfsson, presenting a sheet depicting the book cover, but telling the audience that the real book is a virtual book.

Race Against the Machine from Compass Summit on FORA.tv

 

And here is Tyler Cowen, giving his take on these questions:

 

Here are a number of bookmarks I’m curating via Pearltrees, about the deep structural changes in technology and the economy:
deep change in tech and economy in Roland Legrand (bearbull)
So, in which vision do you believe? The idea that innovation is slowing down, or on the contrary, that it’s accelerating and creating very challenging issues for education, the labor market, politics, the economy?

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A knowmad’s thoughts about Thanksgiving

Welcome to another episode in which I post about my strange journey through the Wonderland of online courses. Last week I had a most wonderful session of the Digital Awakening course in Second Life: we discussed professor Sherry Turkle’s fascinating text Video Games and
Computer Holding Power
, and we also had Howard Rheingold (from the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation course) visiting us. For a great overview of what Howard is up to these days, have a look at the Meeting Howard Rheingold post on the course blog.

I kept thinking about the notion “holding power of the computer”. Watching people staring at the screens of smartphones, tablets and laptops I realized the importance of that idea. What should we think about it? Is it bad, like an addiction?

Compared to the holding power of the television screen it seems to be better as there is interactivity and user generated content – even though not every creation is another Wikipedia.

What about our perception of reality? Is the world of the computer richer or poorer compared to physical reality? One of those interviewed by Turkle prefers his world of games, considering it richer. These are worlds governed by rules which we can, in principle, discover and exploit.

The rules of the non-game world are more intractable and sometimes mysteriously suspended. People lose or fail in the “real world” and they feel cheated, while the computer program just follows its rules and sequences. So is this gaming universe the new ’opium for the people’? Professor Edward Castronova would disagree as he reads characteristics of virtual and game environments as a kind of revolutionary program and the environments itself as a New World where settlers start a new society: read his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality. Another story about settlers and starting all over again, seems appropriate for Thanksgiving.

But while games are here with us to stay, the debate seems to belong to another era. The big shift in games did not lead to massive mainstream adoption of sophisticated graphical environments, but to social and casual games.

The big dream of a 3D internet in which the 2D web would just be a less exciting part, appears to be – at least for now – just that: a dream.

It’s interesting to see what Philip Rosedale, the founding father and chief visionary of Second Life, is up to these days. He’s all about coworking spaces and virtual currencies which are being used in the ’real world’ to facilitate exchanges in resilient networks (which does not mean he declares Second Life dead and buried).

’Resilient’ and ’durable’, local while staying connected to global networks is the new rallying cry now. A lot of the user-generated creation ethos is making the transition from isolated virtual spaces to connected virtual spaces (using standardized technology which can be used in many environments), to mixed reality spaces (augmented reality) and plain good old reality (co-working spaces) even though using all the affordances of the net and eventually mobilizing the knowledge acquired while running virtual worlds (management of virtual currencies).

On Queen Street Commons I read this from Robpatrob:

Back in 1800, 80% of people in America worked for themselves. The rise in industrialization created the Job as the new normal. By 1980, the apogee of the Industrial model, 80% of us had jobs. But look now at what has happened in only 40 years. 40% of us now work for ourselves.

The Industrial Revolution made work and life in factories, big offices and institutions the new normal. Our education system became more efficient in preparing youngsters for those environments.

Even though our Western societies were advocating the free market, for most workers and students their daily life was governed by that other major steering system: the bureaucracy.

Evangelists of the network economy now see a new “new normal’: back to the micro-projects and -companies, but this time as parts of networks and using aggregation platforms.

There are three pillars mow: markets, bureaucracy and cooperation. This is not detrimental for the market, quite the contrary. If it pushes back something, it’s bureaucracy. Companies rely more on markets for stuff they used to organize internally by bureaucratic procedures.

At the same time more market makes it harder to accumulate capital: the network economy exerts relentless pressure on profit margins (if any). On the other hand, the cost of living could diminish also as people share rather than wastefully underuse computing capacity, transportation, certain household appliances.

People define new Commons and rediscover & modernize old design principles for governing those Commons. Life seems to become more interesting instead of less so: compare a holiday in another country in some fake resort to participating in a ’share the couch’ network.

Or compare indebting yourself for getting a degree from one of the leading education factories to organizing peer2peer learning, deciding your own objectives. Have a look at this TEDxBrisbane video featuring Edward Harran talking about the “knowmad” movement, “an emerging generation that has the capacity to work, learn, move, and play – with anybody, anytime, and anywhere”:

 

 

I must admit I feel sometimes like a “knowmad”, traveling from one course session in Blackboard Collaborate to another in Second Life, while exchanging ideas on The Well or in Howard Rheingold’s social media classroom. My fellow-travelers come from North-America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia (unfortunately, there are few or no fellow travelers from Africa). My esteemed US co-learners are about to start the Thanksgiving festivities, which inspire me to think about our journey.

There is this so often used word to describe what I feel about my learning and exploration experiences, a word which sounds very American to me: “awesome”. It’s the feeling of awesomeness I recognize in Harran’s talk, which I share and understand. But at the same time I’m also worried. Knowing how to use online media to organize your own learning together with others is much easier when you already had a decent education – and I’m afraid getting such an education is getting harder, not easier.

Those who lack the talents and skills to become an individual entrepreneur are at risk. As the economist Raghuram Rajan says in his article The Undeserving One Percent?, we use to speak about the one percent and the wealth they accumulated. But we could also look at the top ten percent and about how differences in education and opportunities split the middle class into a upwardly mobile, innovation-minded group and a group which gets poorer and is at risk of being left behind.

Who will help them? Are we sure we’ll have an infrastructure for helping those who have great difficulties in gaining access to the education system, those who are needy, or will the networked society leave gaping holes in which the elderly, the digital illiterates, the socially disadvantaged and the sick will conveniently disappear, out of sight for the young creatives? Will taking care for the poor become once again a feel good-activity for the rich?

There is a challenge here. We should not retreat completely in our networked micro-companies, in our resilient durable local communities. There remains the challenge of scaling up and influence big corporations, the schools and universities, big government, the international institutions because they remain relevant and important. Toppling dictators and challenging university chancellors is not easy, but we do know people can do it. The next phase should be going beyond our local or theme-based networks and contribute to solutions on a macro-level.

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What Aristotle teaches us about our being cyborgs

Applying Aristotle on interactions between humans and computers: it can be done. Just read Brenda Laurel about The Six Elements and the Causal Relations between them (in the New Media Reader, MIT, links and documents here) as we did in the Digital Awakening course.

Aristotle talks about drama as an organic whole. He distinguishes six qualitative elements: action, character, thought, language, pattern and enactment.

I’d like to pick out just one nugget out of this text: how we’re humanizing our tools. Once computers were being considered as big, clunky, intimidating and often maddening machines, a kind of dumb administrators.
Visionaries such as Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson saw very early on that computers could be much more.

It’s not just that the entertainment and social aspects of computers (in all their forms) prove to be so appealing. It’s that something in our relation with those devices is changing dramatically.

In her discussion of the element ’Thought’ Laurel mentions the familiar conundrum:’can computers think’ and the answer is surprisingly easy: ’computer-based agents, like dramatic characters, do not have to think (in fact, there are many ways in which they cannot); they simply have to provide a representation from which thought may be inferred.’

When you double-click on a folder of your Mac and it divulges its content, it seems as if it understood what you wanted. Does it actually understand anything at all? It does not matter; “The real issue is that the representation succeeded in getting me to make the right inferences about it’s “thoughts”. It also succeeded in representing to me that it made the right inferences about mine!”

This idea of making inferences about the “thoughts” of devices spreads of course as our computers become slick, small, nigh-powered devices we carry all the time with us. Increasingly, we’re no longer limited to double-clicking folders, but we can speak to those devices – humanizing them even more.

This may seem self-evident, bit it’s obvious this is a vast project and we’re just in the initial phases. Just think about how we deal with news media. Instead of searching desperately in unwieldy online newspaper archives, your smartphone – as your personal assistant – will alert you when there’s breaking news about, let’s say, Occupy Wall Street (OWS).

You’ll enter into a conversation, you’ll ask a question to get more details, a background question about someone who is mentioned in the report. Your personal assistant will use lot’s of sources, narrating the answers to your questions, indicating sources or taking into account the reputations stats of the sources. Chances are it will not be some mainstream media company developing such an assistant, but yet another young tech company.

The GigaOM Roadmap conference discussed this kind of evolution. Om Malik reports on GigaOm:

Mathew Ingram. The thread I was most interested in that came out of RoadMap was what Jack Dorsey called “the arc where technology meets humanness.” The Twitter and Square founder talked about using technology to help us connect more with what makes us human, Tony Fadell of Nest talked about making devices that respond more intuitively, and Mark Rolston from frog design was really passionate about getting the computer out of the way, to the point where we barely even realize there is a computer at all. Put together, all those make for a very powerful message that I wish more technology companies would pay attention to.

In Natural Born Cyborgs? by Andy Clark the author says:

Understanding what is distinctive about human reason thus involves understanding the complementary contributions of both biology and (broadly speaking) technology, as well as the dense, reciprocal patterns of causal and co-evolutionary influence that run between them. We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature’s very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind.

So the computer becoming human-like is not something external, which happens “out there” and involves just one of the many tools we humans use. It actually is another evolution of our extended mind, our becoming increasingly cyborg-like.

It also has implications for our perceived identity. This could be an aspect of this remark in Clark’s above mentioned text:

In addition it may soon be quite important (morally, socially, and politically) to publicly loosen the bonds between the very ideas of minds and persons and the image of the bounds, properties, locations and limitations of the basic biological organism.

The nice thing for my course-program this Fall is that these texts and discussion allow me to “connect the dots”: Clark and his thinking about the extended mind is an important part of a previous course facilitated by Howard Rheingold (Introduction to Mind Amplifiers) which is not unrelated to his other courseToward a Literacy of Cooperation, while the discussion about Brenda Laurel and the Six Elements is part of the above mentioned Digital Awakening course. Next Wednesday we’ll meet Howard in that course (in Second Life), and we’ll discuss Sherry Turkle’s text Video Games and Computer Holding Power (documents, program and practical details can be found here). One of the aspects of Turkle’s research is about role-playing and the exploration of “aspects of the self” and seems to fit very nicely in the context of the previous discussions.

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One course ends, but the cooperation is just beginning

social media classroomImagine you explore in group wild and exotic lands. After six weeks the journey is over, and it’s time to say goodbye. Often that is a sad experience – just sharing the same experiences creates a bond between people, and when they leave, one feels a void.
This was what I felt after six weeks of Toward a Literacy of Cooperation, a course facilitated by Howard Rheingold (see previous posts like this one about the grand narrative or the most recent one about the G20).

I appreciated the format and the process of the course. The format was asynchronous (using wikis, forums, blogs, mindmaps, social bookmarks) and synchronous (live sessions using Blackboard Collaborate – the former Elluminate). Sorry, dear virtual worlds friends, there was no session in Second Life, OpenSim or other virtual environments. However, we used video and audio during the live sessions.

session in blackboard collaborate

Using video was very interesting – it was as if we were looking through that small window into each others world. It really was something which made us connect more. But this was not only about the tools but also about the process.

Howard incited all of us to take up roles during the sessions: people taking notes, others summarizing, participants watching over the mindmaps, other looking up useful links, adding those links to the pearltrees bookmarks. In-between the sessions he encouraged us – pushed us – to participate more on the forums and blogs.

Doing all that stuff was quite an experience, because it made one discover how rich in content each of those one hour sessions was (not to mention the abundant required and recommended reading and the forum discussions). The experience of collaboratively real-time mindmapping was most interesting – it was a demonstration of the power and joy of cooperation. I must say, I already was a user of mindmaps, but now mindmapping has become a fundamental part of about all my project and I try to incite my fellow journalists and members of our newspaper community to use mindmaps.

The last session was very special as well: the learners had to organize and produce themselves the Big Picture of this course. We had so much to discuss we finally needed two sessions and more than two hours in total – after which we all realized we were just beginning this learning journey.

It’s very hard to summarize the content we discussed during the past six weeks, but this TED-talk by Howard will give you an idea what is was all about:

Not the end

Even though this course had ended for us, the journey continues and I guess most of us will continue meeting at the Alumni Community which is organized in pretty much the same way as the course itself, using the asynchronous tools but also very regular live sessions.

The participants have all kinds of projects, from studying the neuroscience of cooperation over media and journalism projects to online community management and peer2peer-learning and I’m sure the Alumni-community will be a great help for these projects.

We’ll also continue discussing the design of this learning process. What about the relation between the inside and the outside? The participation in the course is not for free, and the number of participants is limited. What are the benefits and the drawbacks of these choices?

Also, I’m convinced that using a virtual environment such as Second Life has its advantages. Creating 3D mindmaps in a persistent environment, where one can share a same virtual space and enjoy ‘watercooler chats’, is something I’d personally like to add to the “social media classroom experience” at Howard’s project.

As our esteemed facilitator would say,

Onward!

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Do the G20-leaders have a wiki and other questions

I had some busy days covering the European debt crisis for my newspaper De Tijd and trying to keep up work for my online courses. I had to focus on the Toward a literacy of Cooperation course, facilitated by Howard Rheingold, as the course itself is now in its last days and we, the students, had to cooperate to create to last session, ‘The Big Picture’.

Somehow my experiences liveblogging the G20 in Cannes, France and the Cooperation course got linked together.

– As I was liveblogging the G20 (I was in Antwerp, Belgium, and my fellow journalist Peter De Groote was in Cannes), we made a very intense use of Twitter. It was remarkable how Twitter, as experienced through my list of financial journalists and commentators, became like an augmented, open, international newsroom.

Journalists in Athens provided a realtime translation of the debate in the Greek parliament, other colleagues in Cannes translated, commented and analyzed what was going at the G20 itself. They were reaching out to each other, on the ground and on Twitter, regardless of nationalities or commercial interests. I think the readers of the liveblog somehow sensed that what they were reading was a curated collection of human voices, with all the seriousness, drama and humour involved.

– While the spontaneous virtual newsroom emerged, one could ask whether our beloved world leaders are very knowledgeable in the practice and the ethos of social media. Just wondering whether there is something like a wiki for world leaders, where they can brainstorm, exchange references and ideas. The G20 wanted to discuss new ideas for a new world, but instead it was all about solving the problems of the eurozone. I have no doubt it is crucially important for world leaders to meet each other at such summits, but I can only hope they also cooperate using some kind of secret wiki, forums, blogs and mindmaps. But somehow I doubt they actually use that stuff. Maybe the dominant model of competing nation-states is not compatible with online social tools? But then again, maybe cooperation is at least as important as competition…

– Which brings me to the Toward a Literacy of Cooperation Course. One of the many discussion topics is the application of the principles for the governance of common pool recources (cfr Elinor Ostrom) on online communities. Another one is about collective intelligence. One of the leading thinkers about collective intelligence is the French scholar Pierre Lévy. Howard Rheingold had this video interview with Lévy:

 

Watching this, I had some other questions. Not only whether world leaders do use or do not use social media tools, whether or not in a confidential settings. There is an even more serious issue: do they have the framework and lenses necessary to even see the importance of the amplification of collective intelligence? Because this amplification brings along opportunities and challenges and makes paradigms shift. It demands new literacies – do our education systems provide those literacies? Do those systems change themselves fundamentally so as to be relevant in a post-industrial society? Do they understand that even the notion of “learning” itself might be changing, as is discussed in the MOOC Change11?

I have my doubts. And the disconnect between the formats for cooperation on the level of our world leaders and the disruptive changes caused by globalization, networks, and the amplification of collective intelligence will lead to even more upheaval.

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“Yes, they are digital natives, but not tech-savvy”

I’ve been thinking about the term “digital natives”. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 Tony Bates facilitated a week about “Transforming teaching and learning through technology management“.

In a blogpost about this subject Squire Morley says:

So one of the questions Tony asks of us is whether universities can change from within or if new institutions are required for the 21st Century. Unless there is a disjuncture then there is no incentive to change. The system seems to be self-perpetuating. The training (or apprenticeships) of research graduates to become the next generation of lecturers and academics in the same ways as previously is at least partly responsible for this, as are the pressures for advancement through publication in closed, peer-reviewed journals.

But maybe one of the driving forces for change (facilitated by the use of social media) are the students? A new generation of digital natives? In my own experience, primarily among young journalists and journalism students, the fluency of digital natives in using social networks on a personal level does not really mean they “automatically” use these skills in the context of their learning or journalism. There is a subtle difference between being a “digital native” and being “tech-savvy”.

I gave a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée, Belgium and I had this video interview with facilitator Damien Van Achter:

Visitors and residents

But maybe “digital native” is too problematic a term to use. On the TALL blog David White uses the distinction between “residents” and “visitors” instead of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”:

(Hat tip to Stephen Downes for mentioning this video and blogpost). This distinction between “residents” and “natives” is not age-related nor even skill-related. Residents of the internet seem to inhabit a certain “space” and to maintain and develop a digital identity. Visitors seem to consider the net as a tool box.

This insight could be very useful. I often despaired when presenting Twitter to non-Twitter users, or Second Life for that matter: one can explain easily enough the buttons which one has to press and the basic practices (hashtags, lists for Twitter, creating an avatar and learning how to move around and communicate for a virtual world), but even then people are often reluctant to put that “knowledge” to good use.

So maybe the real issue is not the technology, but a cultural (often unconscious) choice for being a visitor and not a resident (I think active Twitter users are more like residents just as virtual world users are clearly “getting” the spatial metaphor). Which does not mean that promoting stuff such as Twitter is hopeless – it just means that the reluctance has to be recognized and addressed on the right level.

SmallTalk

I could not participate at the weekly Digital Awakening course session in Second Life, but I did my required reading: Alan Kay/Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media“.

In that 1977 essay the authors foretell the importance of notebook computing. “While most saw the computer as a tool for engineers or, at most, businesspeople, Kay thought computers could be used even by children, and could be used creatively”, so it is explained in the MIT New Media Reader.

One of the great aspects of the Dynabook project was that it involved children as users. The kids were not just consumers or filling boxes which were provided by professional designers and developers, they were also programmers:

Considering children as the users radiates a compelling excitement when viewed from a number of different
perspectives. First, the children really can write programs that do serious things. Their programs use symbols to stand for objects, contain loops and recursions, require a fair amount of visualization of alternative strategies before a tactic is chosen, and involve interactive discovery and removal of “bugs” in their ideas.

Second, the kids love it! The interactive nature of the dialogue, the fact that they are in control, the feeling that they are doing real things rather than playing with toys or working out “assigned” problems, the pictorial and auditory nature of their results, all contribute to a tremendous sense of accomplishment to their experience. Their attention spans are measured in hours rather than minutes.

The kids used the Smalltalk-language: “Smalltalk was created as the language to underpin the “new world” of computing exemplified by human–computer symbiosis. It was designed and created in part for educational use, more so for constructionist learning” (Wikipedia)

I cannot help but contrast this enthusiasm with my experiences during a recent debate about the future of the newspaper industry. When I suggested journalism students (so university level, not junior high like in the Dynabook project) should have some basic experience with programming in order to see new story-telling possibilities, there was great indignation. A journalism instructor said that his students would not be interested in such a thing and an editor-in-chief exclaimed that such talk made him very nervous: journalists have to write stories, have scoops, not to mess around in programming languages.

Which means that more than thirty year after these Dynabook experiments, we failed to convey the message that computing literacy is not something for “the nerds in the basement”, but fun stuff which enables people to envision tasks and projects in very new and exhilarating ways.

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Are we building a new grand narrative, or are grand narratives things of the past?

At our latest live session of Howard Rheingold’s course Introduction to Cooperation Theory we discussed about narratives in the US and Europe about competition and cooperation. A European participant suggested that the narrative in the US is about competition, while in Europe cooperation is a more common theme. The American Howard Rheingold expressed doubts about this opposition: the US and Europe are big places with huge internal differences, and where different narratives co-exist.

We also discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement and how it spreads worldwide. There is a sentiment that the world leaders fail in addressing the problems and opportunities caused by worldwide disruptive forces (related to technology, globalization, changing preferences etc). My first question is whether we can reasonably expect that world leaders constitute a platform or world government for worldwide cooperation tackling the ecological, social and financial problems.

I’d like to refer to what Elinor Ostrom describes as polycentric governance of complex economic systems. Maybe the definition of the problems, the study of possible solutions and the implementation of those solutions have to take place at different levels. In the European Union we have a lot of experience with “polycentric governance”: there is not one obvious center (the European Commission is rather different from the federal administration in the US), and we try to allocate tasks and decisions to appropriate levels of governance. However, confronted with world financial markets, it seems this model has at least one important shortcoming: when optimal decisions should be taken on the top-level, the decision-making process is very slow.

Narratives

We also discussed the importance of narratives supporting cooperation. It was claimed that president Obama fails in delivering a mobilizing grand narrative, contrary to FDR (or president Reagan – whether one agrees with the narrative or not, at least there was a big narrative about markets, deregulation etc). My second question relates to this issue of “grand narratives”: is it a coincidence that leaders worldwide fail to provide a convincing grand narrative (do they even try)? Or is this a structural phenomenon, that the era of grand narratives is behind us? After the demise of communism, of social democracy (debt crisis) and of free market ideology (inequality, rogue banking and housing industries… ), what is left to believe in? It seems people distrust even the structure itself of a “grand narrative” – as postmodernism demonstrates, grand narratives can easily be deconstructed, and this not only on an academic level, just look at the news to see how shaky the certainties of the big ideologies have become.

So the third question is whether the cooperation studies (in biology, sociology, anthropology, economics, pedagogy, learning theories etc) could lead to a new grand narrative. If so, would this new narrative fall apart just like the older stories, or can we construct the cooperation narrative in such a way that it would be a fundamentally different kind of narrative, more flexible, adaptable, convincing and relevant than other narratives? Do we need such a narrative, and if so, what are criteria to judge it?

The thinking of such a new grand narrative has its own history of course, with people such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener, J. C. R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson among the Philosophers of our Daily Disruptive Digital Revolution (have a look at this site of the Digital Awakening course).

Education

discussion of Ted Nelson's work in Second Life
Last week we discussed Ted Nelson in Digital Awakening (see picture above), and one of the texts which provoked the most emotional reactions was No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks (in Computer Lib / Dream Machines). In this text from 1974 Nelson is highly critical of the education system:

Some premises relevant to teaching
1. The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in
varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone
or severely diminished when we leave school.
2. Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting. Schooling systematically ruins
things for us, wiping out these interests; the last thing to be ruined determines your profession.
3. There are no “subjects.” The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative
convenience.
4. There is no natural or necessary order of learning. Teaching sequences are arbitrary, explanatory hierarchies philosophically spurious.
“Prerequisites” are a fiction spawned by the division of the world into “subjects;” and maintained by not providing summaries,
introductions or orientational materials except to those arriving through a certain door.
5. Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources.
6. Most teachers mean well, but they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes and style of order that very little else can
be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively.

Is Connectivism, as practiced for instance in the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 more than a practical answer to contemporary challenges for the educational system? Could it also be part of an emerging new grand narrative, together with related components from network theory and cooperation theories? Learner Weblog gives some insights in the discussion about the practical and theoretical merits of connectivism.  In the embedded presentation Frances Bell claims that connectivism has far more impact as a practice than as a theory. Then again, we should reflect on what “a theory” is, and whether our notion of “theory” is changing, just as maybe our notion of “narrative” is being transformed.

Roland Legrand

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