Atoms to Bits, and back to Atoms

In his classic 1995 text – Being Digital – that laid so much of the groundwork for subsequent thinking on the digital revolution, Nicholas Negroponte wrote:

The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable.

How right he was, and how right he still is. But with the advent of 3D printing, I wonder to what extent we are seeing the worlds of atoms and bits finally coalescing? In the world of bits, the capacity to create infinite numbers of perfect copies of digital artifacts so easily is what is wreaking revolution in so many domains: music, publishing, and even education in time.

What effect will the capacity to reproduce atoms from digital models just as easily as we currently reproduce music or texts or learning content have on so many of the ‘atom-creating’ industries? I can already see the debates and firestorms we are witnessing in the ‘bits-creating’ industries shift across to the manufacture of physical artifacts too. The process of disintermediation is about to cross the chasm from the bit to the atom!

Could be interesting!

I Am Malala

…the most recent figures published by UNESCO in their Global Monitoring Report show that 61 million children don’t receive an education.

A further 200 million remain illiterate despite attending school. Equality of opportunity remains a hollow dream.

The petition in support of Malala Yousafzai has now attracted almost 1 million signatures worldwide. As Gordon Brown points out in a piece on the BBC news website, time is running out on meeting the Millenium Development Goals. Progress has, to say the least, stuttered, with many millions of children still working instead of learning, many millions of girls still being forced out of the classroom and into loveless marriages:

We have around 40 months to meet our deadline for universal education. We have one chance left to deliver in these three years. If the tragic story of Malala tells us anything, it is that we must do all we can to achieve it.

The Taliban thought they were halting a one-girl campaign for the education of girls; instead they created the impetus for worldwide movement that should strengthen the resolve of those world leaders who meet at the joint summit on this critical issue of our time between international agencies and governments in April of next year.

They need to do it for Malala and the many millions of girls and boys around the word who are still being denied a basic education. There is simply no more important international campaign than this one.

The greatest edtech development in 200 years? I hope so…

….the same three-person team of a professor plus assistants that used to teach analog circuit design to 400 students at MIT now handles 10,000 online and could take a hundred times more….

So said Anant Agarwal, the computer scientist appointed by MIT and Harvard this year to head edX, a $60 million joint effort (currently including UC Berkeley and the University of Texas, as well as MIT and Harvard) to stream a college education over the Web, free to anyone who wants it. Their aim, in time, they say is to reach 1 billion students by this means.

MIT's Technology Review has published a business report on Digital Education that includes a piece that asks, is the MOOC the greatest edtech development in 200 years?, and another piece that takes a strangely myopic look at the development of the technology of the MOOC (myopic because it gives not the slightest mention to those who actually synthetized the concept and who coined the term itself). Given that this is in the context of a business report, perhaps the somewhat progressive, left-leaning, anti-corporatist inclinations of many of those involved in the origins of the MOOC simply keeps them below the radar of those writing for the Technology Review. I genuinely hope that is not the case.

However, while my pedagogical sympathies are somewhat closer to the MOOC's prime movers, I also have a lot of admiration for what the big players are doing too. Coursera and Udacity, as well as the likes of edX, are all non-profit social enterprise ventures, and while their pedagogy is primarily a 'knowledge-delivery' model (as opposed to social-constructivist or connectivist model), they are very much part of a broad-based set of developments in education that, I believe, are coalescing into a major storm that will sweep through the structures and assumptions of formal institutional education in the next few years. Of course, there are many other MOOCs out there too: Stephen Downes offers a recent list of international providers.

Agarwal's quote at the top of this piece itself confirms that these big MOOC providers are basically taking the model of delivery straight out of the lecture halls and classrooms of higher education and onto the Web. That's fine, so far as it goes, but it means that much (most?) of the real power of the MOOC as originally defined, namely that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and that learning therefore consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks is dissipated.

That foundation in the pedagogy of the lecture theatre also means, of course, that the big providers are also hoping to find the commercial holy grail of trusted, authenticated and secure accreditation via the MOOC.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to watch what the effect will be on all those universities across the world currently licensing courses from the big providers. I doubt that they are licensing their own annihilation, as some of the more lurid commentators might suggest; but i do think they are hastening a massive and welcome shift in the centre of gravity in higher education globally.

The MOOC is a development that, like all great innovations, is a culmination of inventions, formations, thinking, experimentations, mistakes and triumphs that came before it; it is also like all great innovations in that it is a game-changer. The game is changing in higher education, and in education generally – of that there is no doubt – and while the MOOC can only be a part of that change, it is a critical part. The MOOC will never be able to cope with all the requirements of learning and of study: there will also be a need, in some disciplines, for lab work, ground work, work in the field, whatever.

So, the greatest edtech development in 200 years? I certainly hope so!

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out

A couple of years ago, on my personal blog, I recorded some observations (since republished on this blog after I closed my old blog) on what I saw in the bar of a large Middle Eastern hotel, where groups of young people were making use of social technology in an interesting way. In that particular case, they were using bluetooth chat tools to cut through the socially conservative constraints that were in place to limit opportunities for young men and women to consort openly with each other in that part of the world. Apart from the immediate personal and social implications for the young people concerned, I speculated on the long term social, political and cultural reverberations that might occur as younger generations around the world break down barriers in this way.

I learned something interesting in that hotel bar back in August, something I am happy to admit I had thought little of previously. But one of the key issues with respect to the developing use of social technologies, social media, social networks and gaming by young people is the profound ignorance of most commentators about the realities of the online lives of young people. Not only are most commentators ignorant of these realities, they are often ignorant too about the risks associated with them and often completely oblivious to the dynamics of friendship, identity, communication and collaboration within the social technology spaces that young people inhabit. Too many ‘experts’ are willing to sound off, at the drop of a moralistic hat, usually in portentous terms, about the perils of social media in the hands of young people.

So, given the general levels of ignorance in this area, it is great to see the publication of a book – Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out – reporting on some fascinating and very wide-ranging research into precisely these issues. Funded by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Informal Learning with Digital Media Project was a three year initiative, the aim of which was to document:

…youth practices of engagement with new media…[and analyze]…how these practices are part of negotiations between adults and youth over learning and literacy…

The question of negotation arises out of some key questions that the research project tried to answer in relation to the place of adult authority in the process of educating and socializing young people. Two divides lie behind these questions: one is the oft-mooted generational divide between youth and their elders today; the other is a divide that has been noted to exist between how learning happens in school and out of school.

The discourse of digital generations and digital youth posits that new media empower youth to challenge the social norms and educational agendas of their elders in unique ways. This book questions and investigates these claims.

The multi-faceted 3-year ethnographic study and this resulting book provide an exceptionally rich seam of data for those who genuinely want to try to understand the issues in young people’s use of digital technologies – it will probably be of little interest to those who are happy to continue to peddle
prejudice and specious assumptions. The book contains chapters on teen friendship and love, networked public culture, growing up in a cyber age, play, gaming, creative production, the world of work, and much more. A rich seam indeed.

A digital version of the book is available to be read online.

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Writers Teaching Writing

Euan Semple has a knack for short posts that force me to confront some assumptions. A recent one is a case in point, entitled Mass Illiteracy:

Are those who espouse the primacy of face to face communication really just hiding the fact that they are illiterate? I mean this in the sense that they are not very comfortable expressing themselves in writing. Most people don’t really have much experience of putting thoughts down “on paper”. Not many people keep journals, letter writing isn’t what it once was, and business documents are really a very small and undistinguished subset of what is possible with the written word!

Just wondering …

It’s not quite the same issue, but Euan reminded me of something that used to bug me throughout my teaching career: the idea of young people being taught how to write (beyond the mechanics of basic literacy, I mean) by teachers who rarely if ever did any writing themselves. How many teachers teaching writing have ever actually tried their hand, successfully, at sustained writing of any sort: journalism, report-writing, essay-writing, short story writing, writing a novel….whatever?

There is a wide gulf between the ability to craft a well-honed sentence and the capacity to plan and write a sustained piece for a particular purpose.

I would be interested to hear if others think it matters.

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Habermas on Human Discourse

I am reading an interesting book on my iPad’s Kindle App at the moment: Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…in their own words. A chapter by Jack Mezirov entitled An Overview on Transformative Learning caught my interest. In this, he outlines the concept of transformative learning using the work of practitioners, writers and theorists as diverse as Paulo Freire, Thomas Kuhn, Roger Gould, Harvey Siegal, Jurgen Habermas, and others.

In particular, I liked some words he took from Habermas in which the German philosopher set out what he considered to be the ideal conditions for human discourse. By doing so, he was attempting to define the ‘optimal conditions for adult learning and education’.

To freely and fully participate in discourse, learners must:

  • have accurate and complete information
  • be free from coercion, distorting self-deception or immobilizing anxiety
  • be open to alternative points of view – empathetic, caring about how others think and feel, withholding judgement
  • be able to understand, to weigh evidence and to assess arguments objectively
  • be able to become aware of the context of ideas and critically reflect on assumptions, including their own
  • have equal opportunity to participate in the various roles of discourse
  • have a test of validity until new perspectives, evidence or arguments are encountered and validated through discourse as yielding a better judgement

Of course, these could just as easily be applied to the ideal conditions for effective learning generally.

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Constructivism, Connectivism & Convergence

So what distinguishes a connectivist perspective from social constructivism? The difference is fairly subtle. As far as I can see, connectivism resonates with similar principles as social constructivism does, but acknowledges a greater degree of complexity in the nature of knowledge and learning, enabled by advances in technology.

Lindsay Jordan, a lecturer in Learning and Teaching at the University of the Arts London, offers a few initial thoughts on the differences between Connectivism and Social Constructivism. She discusses the different treatment of complexity in each, the nature of knowledge as acknowledged by each, and the scope and nature of networked learning in each. In such a short piece, Lindsay can only ask a few questions and make a small number of generalizations. But it is good to see the two perspectives brought together in this way.

I would love to see a discussion get under way, not so much about the differences between Connectivism and Constructivism, but more around how a convergence of the two perspectives might be constructed (or should that be connected?) – or even a discussion about whether this is at all possible or practicable. Perhaps this is a discussion that is already well under way out there in the academy and elsewhere – if so, I would appreciate someone pointing me towards it.

As an educator who brought an instinctively constructivist approach to most of my educational thinking and practice for the longest time, but who was then also struck by the sound logic and the sheer aptness of the connectivist / networked learning approach when i first came across it in the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes (and others since), I now find myself with a strange hybrid attachment to both.

I have been thinking my own thoughts of late on how the two approaches might be brought together and i will expound on these in the next week or so, but of course I would be happy to learn from any others who have been working on the same or similar questions.

Is it possible to make sense of this strange hybrid by somehow bringing the two edifices together, synthesizing them in a philosophically coherent way, or is it simply a lost cause before i even begin?

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From Electric Typewriter to the World Wide Web

In view of the possibility for developments of this machine, therefore, there would seem to be no reason why a man sitting at his Zerograph in London, may not, in the future, be able to hold written converse with his correspondents in the furthermost parts of the globe, without the intervention of any physical connection.

This was written 102 years ago, by George Carl Mares, in 1909, in his book: The History of the Typewriter Successor to the Pen: An Illustrated Account of the Origin, Rise and Development of the Writing Machine. Even a century ago, sharp minds, going on little more than an early and relatively crude electric typewriter, were dreaming of a networked future.

Quoted in Alex Goody‘s superb book: Technology, Literature and Culture. If you have an interest in the relationship between writing, culture and technology, this book is an absolute must-read!

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Publishing as a 21st Century Literacy

I have to admit that I had never heard of the five-paragraph essay until I read a piece by John Jones in DMLCentral: Teaching Publishing as a 21st Century Literacy. It seems to be a common way to teach writing in primary and secondary school in the USA – it might well have a wider reach for all I know – i found a description of it here.

Jones writes:

…you don’t often see these essays outside of the classroom in magazines or newspapers or other public writing venues…

Often? Try never :)

I think the central point of his post though is spot on:

One of the goals of education—digital or otherwise—is to prepare students for thinking and doing outside the classroom. And while it is true that the goal of teaching writing has always been to prepare students for writing beyond the walls of the schoolhouse, this is even more the case now that digital publishing has become so widely available in our society. In other words, as much as possible, the task of teaching writing is also teaching writing for public consumption, and teaching writing for public consumption in the network society means teaching writing and publishing as being inseparable.

Although some traditional educators might choose to forget on occasions that, since writing is always for a purpose, even if sometimes only a very personal one, then learning to write should always happen with that core principle in mind. Jones offers three short ideas for how teachers can think about the overlapping literacies of writing and publishing:

  • Published writing is written for an audience.
  • Published writing depends on writing technologies.
  • Published writing helps students learn identity creation.

Some may question his use of the term publishing since, often, ‘publishing’ today can simply mean sharing or giving access to what we produce – but whether we think of it as publishing or simply as sharing with others doesn’t really matter. The knowledge of how to share with others, and the implications that such sharing has on the writing itself, are all important enough to be considered as important skills today.

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