Three observations about perseverance in online learning

The blog has been idle for about two weeks now – because of family emergencies, the launching of a liveblog and a column at my newspaper. Which allows me to reflect on the issue of loyalty toward online projects and communities.

Gameification does not really work for me. I also participated at CodeYear (the course/campaign to learn coding in 2012) but I gave up on that. CodeYear uses gameification elements, and I got a number of badges, but to be honest: I don’t care about badges. And to give full disclosure: I’m notoriously bad in self-discipline, I cannot count the number of online courses I started without ever getting close to finishing them – like the famous MIT-open course stuff. I even managed to sign up for a Stanford open course thing without ever starting it. I also participated in the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens – with some more success, even though I’m mostly a lurker there. This being said: CodeYear has developed an interesting social layer, such as a forum where participants help each other and also meet-ups in the physical world.

However, I do care about other participants in a course or a project. I had more success in continuing my efforts during a course about the Digital Awakening (reading a selection of texts from the MIT New Media Reader). We met in Second Life, about each week, for synchronous sessions – and doing so we created this feeling of being together in this project, and I experienced a group pressure to keep up with the course.

I had exactly the same experience participating in Howard Rheingold’s courses about Mind Amplifiers and Cooperation Theory. In addition to using synchronous sessions (using Blackboard Collaborate, the former Elluminate) there was also the opportunity to tell more about personal projects in the forums. All of which creates social bonds and a sense of being part of a project – or even a tribe.

Paying for something helps. There is yet another aspect: the two Rheingold courses I mentioned were not free. I’ve the feeling that paying for a course adds some sense of “well, I paid for it, so I’d better get value for my money”.  So, when organizing some course or even a peer2peer-learning project, this is something to consider: maybe asking others to contribute financially can actually help them to pause and ask themselves “do I really want this?”.

Identity. Of course, there is not only the issue of the format (synchronous, asynchronous… ), the group dynamics and whether or not to contribute financially.  It’s about content and practice as well. Again facilitated by Rheingold we’re working on a Peeragogy-handbook (about peer2peer learning). Also, there are other venues such as the WELL  or the Rheingold U Alumni. The project and venues are not really limited in time, and I do contribute from time to time, feeling some guilt when I don’t for a longer time. Why do I care? Because they are important for my “personal value system” – I think that peer2peer learning in the broadest sense of those words is in many ways crucial for our societies and even the planet.

It’s not just about narrowly defined education (like formal school stuff for young people), it’s about more even than lifelong learning because peer2peer learning can lead to peer2peer production and business. (Maybe that’s the reason I’m not really active in the MOOC-courses as they are heavily oriented toward educators in schools and universities while I’m more interested in much broader applications of the MOOC-principles.) In other words, peer2peer could very well become a pillar of our economies while at the same time I feel it resonates with my very personal anarchist sympathies – I really am deeply suspicious about  authority and hierarchical organization (while recognizing these are necessary in many contexts – but then again, in many other contexts classical authoritarian structures are not efficient at all). So a long rant to point out that loyalty to some online learning project also depends on this feeling that the practice and content is an important core of who you are or want to be. This includes the two other aspects: if it really matters, the personal relationships you develop along the way will make those projects even matter more, and eventually you’ll be ready to invest money and time.


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:


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.

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.