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.

 

Social discovery services turn the world into a virtual environment

There is something strange going on with virtual worlds. MixedRealities used to focus heavily on worlds such as Second Life, but these days less so as I no longer think that Second Life is “the future of the internet”. It’s an interesting niche product, but not about to go mainstream, not now and I suspect it never will in its current form.

But on the other hands, the physical reality now gets augmented by all kinds of social and mobile layers. For now augmented reality as such did not go mainstream either, but that could change if ever the “Google Goggles” would indeed be launched by year-end and if it proves popular. But in a less spectacular, but more pervasive way, virtual worlds elements are finding their way to mass adoption.

First, what do I mean by “virtual world elements”? Well, everything related to “social discovery”: you look around on a virtual world map, and typically you see those dots representing other participants. You click on a dot or hover on it, and you get access to their profile, you get means to chat with them etc. In Second Life at least I’ve the impression that the text chat function is extremely popular: lots of avatars standing around, not moving, seemingly away from keyboard (AFK) but in reality happily text chatting away.

Now look at the mobile & social internet. On SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, social discovery services the new big thing. Apps such as Glancee, Highlight, Sonar, Banjo and others allow you to see who is around, and (some more than others) try to filter those present in function of their relevance to you: number of contacts you both share on the social networks, interests you share via Facebook… Basically they use the information which is out there about you (via social networks, via the localization data of your smartphone) in order to match you with “relevant people” close to you (hence a new version emerges of the filter bubble danger, I guess).

The world, looked at through your smartphone, becomes a map where your contacts are localized in more or less real time. A touch and you get more information about those people: what was it again you have in common? And of course the possibility to chat with them is another touch away. Well, this is something virtual worlds people are used to.

The social discovery services go beyond the individual level. Shadow Cities allows you to play a World of Warcraft kind of game based on your location, and to unite in a guild. Wallit! builds virtual walls which can be seen by everyone but where you need to be in the neighborhood in order to leave a message on the wall – maybe it could be used for neighborhood projects. Localmind organizes the participants as “local experts” who can respond to questions.

For more information about the action going on in the “personal discovery field” in Austin, read Robert Scoble. Remember: the 2007 edition of SXSW brought us Twitter, in 2009 Foursquare (and Gowalla) was the talk of the town and in 2011 “group texting” was the big theme – so chances are we’re witnessing now another big move in the social&mobile evolution.

No doubt not all of those personal discovery thingies and other location-based services will survive, but the trend is clear: an overwhelming supply of apps allowing you to “discover people” locally, to exchange information and collaborate locally. Add this to wearable devices, to face recognition and our physical world blends with the digital realm in such a way that we can, indeed, consider it a “mixed reality”. Which will very soon be a concept for non-digital natives, as the new generations will just consider these services as part of their one and only reality, just like we no longer think that phones and televisions are some kind of special dimension.

But we, who lived through the first adventurous steps of bulletin boards, chat systems, forums and virtual environments, see the evolution and cannot help being amazed, and also a bit worried. But more about that later.

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.

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.

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!

Should we apply Ostrom’s design principles to online learning communities?

Getting ready for a second session of Howard Rheingold’s course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation. Today we’ll study Elinor Ostrom, the American political economist who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

As is explained on The Cooperation Commons, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:

1. Group boundaries are clearly defined.
2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
5. A system for monitoring member’s behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
6. A graduated system of sanctions is used.
7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
8. For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

What interests me is that those rules could be used for the management (or facilitation) of online learning communities. Most of the time rules for online learning communities have already been established by the organizers of the platform, but it would be interesting to let the community somehow devise rules and monitor them.

How would that work with large online learning communities? One of the problems would be the boundaries of the group and the monitoring of behavior: can we really identify members (not necessarily by ‘real names’ but by online reputation and persistent avatar identity?).

It seems being part of a group, working together durably so that issues of reputation become relevant, enhances reciprocity and cooperation. I guess that is also the way communities of practice work.

However, how close-knit a group has to be? Is antagonism with other groups desirable because it probably even increases this intra-group cooperation? Is it not a bit suffocating to belong to a community of practice which tries to uphold a certain tradition, a hierarchy of members? (E.g. a group of media professionals, ‘accepting’ student journalists in order to ‘teach’ them the proper principles of journalism – with the best intentions and probably good results… )

The question (and I don’t have the answers yet) I ask myself is whether we can go beyond communities of practice. In the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) #Change11 the learning&teaching experience is based on the connectivist philosophy/practice. This is what Wikipedia says about one particular aspect of connectivism:

One aspect of connectivism is the use of a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning. In this metaphor, a node is anything that can be connected to another node within a network such as an organisation: information, data, feelings, images. Connectivism sees learning as the process of creating connections and developing a network. Not all connections are of equal strength in this metaphor; in fact, many connections may be quite weak.

So connectivism is allowing for weak ties, which often turn out to be quite interesting, as those nodes may provide new insights from other perspectives, even though they are not high-level members of some formal or informal group hierarchy.

There is also a price to be paid for the connectivist approach: could there be a higher risk that the principles of cooperation and reciprocity are lost in a connectivist approach? That we’d all end up as lurkers, not contributing anything and just attending silently several meetings or courses, without really engaging ourselves? (In this sense, lurkers would be ‘free riders‘).

In fact, I think there’s not much of a problem. Lurkers do not contribute to the discussion, but they are not harmful as ‘consuming knowledge’ is non-rivalry: the knowledge available for all does not diminish because some people listen without intervening actively.

It appears that even in the absence of “the real possibility” of punishment for non-cooperation people act as if that possibility somehow functions – so lurkers should be given the benefit of the doubt: maybe that mysterious push to contribute will manifest itself once they start attending sessions on a regular basis.

But maybe the problem is not so much ‘free riders’, but participants who contribute negatively. In the case of trolls monitoring and gradually sanctioning can help. But often the problem is not so clear-cut: what if one wants an in-depth discussion, and too many participants add just noise – without really transgressing the boundaries of civil discourse?

Typically learning communities ask their members to do some required and/or recommended reading, so as to ensure at least a minimal common background. While this may be common practice for academically inspired communities, it’s much less self-evident for newspaper discussion groups for instance.

An interesting experiment for media could be to organize discussion groups for specific topics, with the aim to learn stuff or to formulate solutions for certain problems, enabling the members to define rules and expectations, to monitor and sanction the behavior of participants. Such groups would use synchronous (web conferencing, virtual meetings…) and asyncrhonous (forums) communication tools and/or a blogging platform. Gradually more challenging tools could be introduced such as collaborative mindmapping and wikis.

Journalists/bloggers would be facilitators of the interactions and would help introducing the tools. This is one of the major lessons I learn by participating in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11): how tools have to do with augmenting our humanity.

As became clear during this week’s discussion of Augmenting Human Intellect (Doug Engelbart), introducing a new tool such as a computer (or a portable, a smartphone or tablet) requires careful consideration of the many ways in which a new tool can change our practices. All too often people use new tools with the mindset of a previous phase: using a desktop as a typewriter, a portable as a desktop etc. The same applies for online social tools: social networks risk being used as just the continuation of the office or pub conversation, while they could also empower people to reach out and explore new possibilities. So maybe that’s yet another thing to take into account when designing online learning communities.

How real-time collaborative mindmapping ended up being mind-amplifying

Should we give up things in courses because we need time to teach new media? It was a question on Twitter, in the #nmfs_f11 stream of the Digital Awakening course.

I think we don’t need to give up anything at all. It just boils down to doing what you already did, but on public platforms. Taking notes on a blog, bookmarking on a social platform, collaborative mindmapping, reaching out for ideas and help on social networks. As Howard Rheingold would say, new media are mind-amplifiers.

The three online courses I participate in as a student (see previous posts) all use some combination of blogs, social networks, social bookmarks, wiki and chat sessions. I’m getting the feeling (the hope?) this will become “the new normal”.

This picture of the latest session in Second Life of participants in the Digital Awakening course (#nmfs_f11) shows our virtual discussion space, a mindmap and other media, while the participants of course also blog and tweet.

course participants in second life

In Toward a Literacy of Communication, (#cooplit) the course facilitated by Howard Rheingold, we use collaborative mindmaps, working on them in real-time using the webconferencing tool Blackboard Collaborate (previously Elluminate). One clever aspect is that one sees in real-time how the map changes, but we cannot see which participant changes what – I have the feeling this helps people to experiment because they don’t have to fear ‘losing face’. It’s a very intense experience: working on a very rapidly changing map, structuring parts of the course as it unfolds and adding additional insights by the participants.

webconferencing session in progress

While in Second Life I more felt like sharing a space with the other participants – allowing for more informal meetings before and after the discussion – we did not (yet?) have a very intense group-mindmapping experience in that virtual world.

One of the texts we’re studying in the Digital Awakening course is The Computers as a Communication Device (1968) by J.C.R. Licklider.

His arguments for online communities, computer-assisted meetings and his thoughts about working collaboratively on the same screen are still very relevant today. It’s disappointing that these habits are not yet commonplace in many smaller and medium-sized organizations and companies.

In Toward a Literacy of Cooperation, we talked about game theory (prisoner’s dilemma, assurance game, chicken game…) and the notion of zero-sum game. People have this idea that life is a primarily a competition where one person’s gain is another’s loss. In reality there are plenty of examples of non-zero sum games, where collaboration makes all participants better off.

But non-zero sum does not necessarily mean “we all win”. As author Robert Wright explains, it can also mean we all lose. The same technology and learning practices which promise to better mankind, can also be used for destructive planning, especially in conjunction with nuclear, biochemical, biotech or nanotech technology:

Which means that our efforts are also moral issues. The visionary work of people such as Vannevar Bush and J.C.F. Licklider seems to be inspired by the fact that they realized we would have to make sense of a very complex, dangerous and rapidly changing world. Making sense of it, finding solutions and implementing them, needs a kind of augmented or amplified humanity.

Often the disruptive changes we study develop so rapidly that the usual scholarly research publication systems are getting behind. In yet another course, the Massive Open Online Course #Change11, Professor Martin Weller explained how the digital, open and networked world is changing scholarly research (while also provoking tensions in the academic communities).

Historically, we humans had to recognize the humanity of others in the context of a certain class in city-states, then broaden this to bigger entities such as what we call today nations, expanding to whole continental regions and finally arriving at a planetary scale. This recognition of the humanity of humans everywhere will hopefully be expressed and realized through the need for cooperation.

In this context experiencing the real-time collaborative making of a mind map by a bunch of course participants dispersed over the planet (Europe, North America, Australia) was a mind-amplifying experience in itself.

Roland Legrand

Comparing online courses: Change11, NMFS_F11 and Toward A Literacy of Cooperation

Tomorrow I’ll give a presentation at a journalism masterclass in Belgium, MasterClass IHECS 2011 – with Open Newsroom – at Eghezée (or just #MC11). The class is facilitated by Damien Van Achter. These last few months I’ve been thinking about a social media production flow for bloggers and journalists, updating regularly my presentation Conversation tools for information professionals on Prezi.

Presentation

I use Prezi because it’s not a production flow which follows some fixed sequence of steps. It’s more like a rhizome-like processus (like the horizontal stem of a plant) which inspired the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Also, Prezi allows me to have a conversation with the participants, rather than giving a classical presentation. It’s also more in line with the Connectivism idea which is the theoretical underpinning of the Massive Online Open Course Change11 I participate in.

Three courses

I will not limit the conversation to the “conversation tools”. These days I’m participating in various online courses: the Massive Open Online Course #Change11 and Awakening the Digital Imagination (#nmfs_f11). I also registered for a third course, facilitated by Howard Rheingold, Toward a literacy of cooperation:

A six week course using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter to introduce the fundamentals of an interdisciplinary study of cooperation: social dilemmas, institutions for collective action, the commons, evolution of cooperation, technologies of cooperation, and cooperative arrangements in biology from cells to ecosystems.

The three courses are content-wise rather different. MOOC is about learning styles and tools, the Digital Imagination studies foundational&inspiring texts about new media. At the same time these courses are “new media in action” and they use different formats and philosophies. The MOOC is very much participant-directed, open and flexible, the Digital Awakening is more syllabus-based, Rheingold’s course is highly directed by the organizer even though Howard made it clear that he wants us to form a learning community.

Why talk about these courses at a journalism class? Because for me journalism and blogging is a kind of learning. A lot of what educators do, and especially the massive open online formats, can be compared with media practice. So the tools and formats they use, as also the issues about business models, are very similar. If learning involves writing blog posts (in the three courses), making video, designing a game maybe, then we should no longer limit the relevance of education theories and practices to schools and universities.

This is a very preliminary wiki mindmap (yes, you can modify and add things) comparing the three courses. Use the icons to enlarge, zoom and edit the map:

Read also: Deconstructing learning through social media: virtual seminar, MOOC and OpenCourseware

Lessons in new media: don’t forget the old, simple stuff