Monday, December 12, 2011

The End

I'm wrapping things up here at Junct Blog, and hopefully passing the torch on to some other West Campus adjuncts or otherwise interested parties. I'm moving on to the Ankeny campus in January where I'll be a full-time instructor, mainly teaching literature, but hopefully still thinking about issues pertaining to technology. In the future, I'd like to develop a course about technology and literature, for example.

For now, here's a couple of links.

I'll be blogging at my website:

Also, here is an essay I wrote, called "The Singularity is Near-Sighted: Joseph Campbell's Vision for the Internet Age." It just posted on Beams and Struts. It grew out of a few posts I wrote here criticizing certain aspects of Ray Kurzweil's Singularity movement, as well as negative aspects of internet culture.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ditch the GPS; Get Lost Instead

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky points out that major changes to society often happen so quickly they don't leave time for anyone to adjust. This results in chaos that traditional solutions can't fix. In fact, tradition has been displaced. There is no plan for going forward, but no way to go back. Shirky's main example is the beginning of the Industrial Era in London when a rapid influx of people into the city created social chaos, new opportunities for leisure, and mass drunkenness. Eventually, people began to use their surplus time to organize, become educated, and develop civic infrastructure. Ergo, we have modern democracy. (Sort of)

We are entering an era of chaos. The traditional approaches to education are being challenged by rapid changes in technology and economic pressures. And if the old model falls, we're simply not ready to replace it. We don't have any good ideas. Or...we have a lot of good ideas but no big picture.

In his opening post for Week 13 of #change11 MOOC, Clark Quinn addresses this problem:

I’m really arguing for the need to come up with a broader perspective on learning. I’ve been calling it learning experience design, but really it’s more. It’s a combination of performance support and learning (and it’s badly in need of some branding help). The notion is a sort-of personal GPS for your knowledge work. It’s knows where you want to go (since you told it), and it knows where you are geographically and semantically (via GPS and your calendar), and as it recognizes the context it can provide not only support in the moment, but layers on learning along the way. And I think that we don’t know really how to look at things this way yet; we don’t have design models (to think about the experience conceptually), we don’t have design processes (to go from goal to solution), and we don’t have tools (to deliver this integrated experience). Yet the limits are not technological; we have the ability to build the systems if we can conceptualize the needed framework.

[....] There’s lots more: addressing the epistemology of learners, mobile technologies, meta-learning & 21st C skills, and deep analytics and semantic systems, to name a few, but I think we need to start with the right conceptions.

Quinn suggests we think about "slow learning" as a way to make the reality of how our brains work match the pace and functional aspects of education design.

This sounds great. What I don't like is GPS as a metaphor. The problem is that the GPS simultaneously knows too much and too little. Have you ever watched someone follow their GPS around and around the block, expecting the little robot to do all the work? Chances are, if the driver would just look up and read a few street signs or use common sense, he could save 15 minutes of wandering.

We need to get lost. We don't need our locations constantly re-calibrated. Learning often means getting lost in the woods and finding your way out. It doesn't mean having a controlling voice talking you through everything, measure, assessing, re-assessing. That's one of the big problems with education now. Let's not replace a human program with a digital one. You can't hear yourself think with such a dominant narrator.

A better metaphor, I think, is the Hero's Journey of Joseph Campbell. Most of those myths would have been utterly destroyed with the careful directions and constant updates of a GPS. Heck, even Luke Skywalker, in his world of advanced technical wizardry, needed to close the blast shield and listen to his own voice .

It might be trite, but it might be true: do we need to focus more on the journey, less on the destination? (Destinations are good, too). The GPS won't shut up until the correct result is reached. We become dependent. We need her every time we go somewhere. We never learn to shut her off and read the landscape directly.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Children Raised by Wolves are the Only True Self-Taught Learners #change11

In Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert says that all psychologists are required, at some point in their careers, to write a sentence that begins with "The human being is the only animal that..." According to Gilbert, the answer is "imagines the future." My personal choice would be "wears socks with sandals," but I haven't done the field research to back that up.

A recent Discover Magazine article take a crack at this and comes up with the following answer: Humans are the only animals who teach.

At first, this seems like an overreach. Anyone who has watched chimpanzees interact has seen acts of imitation. It seems clear that other primates teach, and, just like humans, often do it for peanuts.

Discover Magazine is ready for this objection:

I know this may come as a surprise, but it does so because we tend to mix up teaching and learning. A young chimpanzee can learn how to smash nuts on a rock by watching an older chimpanzee in action. And when she grows up, her own children can learn by watching her. But in these situations, the students are on their own. They have to watch an action and try to tease apart the underlying rules.

I think we're about to head down a rabbit hole having to do with "intention" and the depth of conscious awareness in primates. Ultimately, this would be a pointless debate. The question is, "Is our children learning?" No, sorry, old joke.

The question is, "Has Learning Occurred?" We aren't necessarily going to know how it happened, who was responsible for it, or what the exact ingredients of the educational cocktail were. Therefore, it doesn't matter whether a child learns to tie his shoes because he was taught or because he imitated an adult. In fact, these distinctions are merely linguistic.

This discussion makes me think of the so-called "self-taught" learner. That term is a misnomer. The only self-taught learners we have on record are children raised by wolves or neglected in massive orphanages. Those children have little or no human contact. They must teach themselves. They don't do so well.

Just like you can't avoid learning (it's in our DNA), you can't avoid teachers. The world is a teacher. Maybe not on purpose, but it is.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Using Twitter on the Half-Dipper Bridge #change11

Based on I.S.T (Internet Standard Time) , this 2010 David Carr article about Twitter is ancient. However, I've just come around to David Carr after watching the brilliant Page One, so forgive me for coming late to the party.

Carr, who was initially a Twitter skeptic, has come to find great value in the micro-blogging software:

At first, Twitter can be overwhelming, but think of it as a river of data rushing past that I dip a cup into every once in a while. Much of what I need to know is in that cup: if it looks like Apple is going to demo its new tablet, or Amazon sold more Kindles than actual books at Christmas, or the final vote in the Senate gets locked in on health care, I almost always learn about it first on Twitter.

I find this to be true when preparing for class or exploring ideas for research. If you're following the right people on Twitter, it can be an endless source for material. Carr's quote also made me think of a passage from Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, where he explains the proper way to draw water from a stream:

If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery, just before you enter you will see a small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo, which means 'half-dipper bridge'. Whenever Dogen-zenji dipped water from the river, he used only half a dipper, returning the rest to the river again, without throwing it away. That is why we call the bridge Hanshaku-kyo, 'half-dipper bridge'. It may be difficult to understand why Dogen returned half of the water he dipped to the river. When we feel the beauty of the river, we intuitively do it in Dogen's way. It is in our nature to do so.

I guess it's best to avoid drinking too deeply from the stream of information, to let some of water pass back into motion. Carr warns that Twitter's power can wash you away:

All those riches do not come at zero cost: If you think e-mail and surfing can make time disappear, wait until you get ahold of Twitter, or more likely, it gets ahold of you. There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.

All that gurgling can also be misleading. Carr quotes Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky, who has long praised the wisdom of crowd-sourcing your problems and allowing the hive-mind to go to work (how's that for larding up my prose with buzz words?)

Twitter helps define what is important by what Mr. Shirky has called “algorithmic authority,” meaning that if all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal.

Maybe. You'll see "Kim Kardashian" trending on Twitter more frequently than "Eurozone." Collective intelligence is powerful, but so is collective ignorance. Sometimes the stream of consciousness is just water under the bridge.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bryan Caplan Needs to Get Out More #change11

Bryan Caplan, who often presents himself as the paragon of reason and reasonableness, has written an incredibly illogical article about education called "The Magic of Education." Here, Caplan uses "magic" as a shorthand for "things he doesn't understand." This is a common trick for self-proclaimed reason-meisters to dismiss anything that involves more complexity than a land-line poll as "woo woo." Caplan mocks his own profession (he's an Economics professor, but I bet you guessed that based on his glasses) by describing how he thinks unenlightened teachers view the education process:

Step 1: I open my mouth and talk about academic topics like externalities of population, or the effect of education on policy preferences.

Step 2: The students learn the material.

Step 3: Magic.

Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.

This is, of course, a huge straw man argument. Obviously no one (except the insane) over the age of 8 believes in magic. By using this term, Caplan creates a slam dunk argument for himself. To disagree with him is to believe in fairies, the power of crystals, and auras. This is lazy.

He complains that academics don't live in the real world (more on this later), but that isn't Caplan's problem at all. He needs to get out of his department more and run his articles past the Philosophy Department in order to correct his soft thinking. (This is not to mention that most economic theories have more in common with magic than does traditional pedagogical thinking.)

Here is Caplan's biggest philosophical error, and it's based on such a terribly trite bit of rhetoric, we might suggest he head over to the English Department after visiting the logicians. It's that tired line that some kind of "real world" exists, its outward circumference becoming visible just as College Street begins its ascent up the hill toward the glistening ivory tower where absent-minded, bearded, sandal-wearing gnomes frollick in the clouds and pass around 300-page dissertations on the anti-agrarian symbolism of Joyce's use of the semi-colon in Ulysses. (Okay, some of that is true.)

Here, Caplan is free to leave fantasy land and explore the real world of any office setting. (NBC's The Office, to many people I know, is not a farce, but a striking bit of realism. Many doctors have also told me that Scrubs is the most realistic depiction of hospitals television has ever seen.) This is not to mention the proliferation of magical thinking found in Anywhere, USA. Does Caplan honestly think that harder-working, more reasonable people will be found if we simply hop over the brick walls of the academy and mingle among the "commoners," you know, the residents of the real world?

What a silly, stupid distinction. It crumbles upon the slightest questioning. Is an over-worked adjunct with two kids and a freelance job in the real world or the fake world? Is a lazy, frequently unemployed construction worker who believes in Voodoo in the real world or the fake world? What if he jogs a few blocks to the local college? What if he takes one class on campus? What if he straddles the property line of the campus while holding Chaucer in one hand and the National Enquirer in the other?

If there is no magic occurring in Bryan Caplan's classroom, it's probably his fault.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Page One Tells us About Education #change11

Page One, the documentary about the writing and editorial staff of the New York Times, is streaming on Netflix, and I recommend watching it if you want a glimpse into the future (or present) of education.

Once again, the story is about abundance, as Clay Shirky reminds us early in the film. With so much free journalistic content available online, and the collapse of advertising revenue, newspaper across the country have been biting the dust. The model is no longer sustainable due to threats from outside the traditional institutions.

However, as the highly watchable David Carr keeps reminding us in Page One, that doesn't mean that the traditional institution doesn't have irreducible value. Actual reporting, boots on the ground, critical questions, authentic sources, journalistic standards and discretion....there aren't many (or any) online magazines or do-it-yourself bloggers who can match the New York Times' authority and integrity.

If traditional journalism still means anything, then the Times will find a way to survive. People will realize they want more than amateurism.

This is, I think, a perfect analogy for the world of education. Just because you can make a cheaper model and challenge the role of the traditional institution, doesn't mean you'll make a better model. Educators need to remember what they can do that new competitors can't, and then do it well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thus Sprach der Super Committee

I believe that since I am of German ancestry (I have been to the Motherland, where strangers approach me and start conversations as if we were long-lost roommates) I am entitled to make any number of potentially disrespectful German wordplay jokes. (There aren't many other cultural benefits of being German, unless you count spaetzle as a cultural benefit)

I also believe, given Mussolini's definition of fascism as a merger of the state and corporate power, that it is fair to say we are being hoodwinked by an Über-Committee, not a particularly super one. (This translation relies on the Super-Über transposition common to most bad translations of Nietzsche, but it also more accurately reflects the utter lack of heroics in Congress while, at the same time, adding a certain, shall we say, uncomfortable Germanic overtone.)

Anyone who thinks the Über-Committee represents the will of the people didn't closely follow committee member Max Baucus (to pick one example) during the Health Care deliberations. He was less a person and more a suit stuffed with lobbyist dollars, hollow enough inside to play the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion at once in a Congressional production of Wizard of Oz.

Of course, we all know who's behind the curtain. The Über-Committee is not made up of members of Congress, but chess pieces. And we all know that when push comes to shove, there won't be cuts to Defense as promised (Obama is fibbing; Leon Panetta won't allow it, and anyway, it costs money to start a cold war with China), no new revenues generated, and no movement on the deficit. Don't worry though, the Über-Committee will be there to pick up the pieces when the economy collapses.

Über-Committees are always willing to share their resources, provided you play by their rules.