A long rambling excursion to start the new year

January 1, 2006 at 9:53 pm | In yulelogStories | 8 Comments

Maria tagged me for a “four things” meme, but I just can’t bring myself to follow up on it. I did start — yesterday — but then had to blow the computer up because something got hung. I was downloading a whole bunch of Stephen Downes‘s audiocasts to my desktop (they’re MP3s), so that I could then drag & drop them into iTunes (yes, there’s a feed, but I was doing it this way). Something went funky while I was downloading them, and suddenly I couldn’t even open a terminal window: total colour wheel freeze. Had to unplug the iBook and take out the battery, and there went my unsaved scribble about the four movies I like, the four jobs I’ve had, the four things….

I’m no good at these games anyway. The notion of picking out four movies or four CDs as “favourites” seems absurd: tomorrow or 4 minutes from now, I might think of something I like better. Twenty years ago I didn’t like comedies as much as I do now, but that’s because I had a lot more navel-gazing leisure time for contemplating life-the-universe-and-everything type issues. That question (the four movies you could watch over and over again) did, however, take me back to Hanna Schygulla, and today I downloaded an MP3 interview with reading of Schygulla from Die Zeit. Tomorrow I’ll listen to it when I take my dog for a walk.

Yes, for my birthday I got an iPod mini (that’s last year’s version). I have become a pod-person, and I’m not at all sure I can live comfortably with this. Having missed out on the whole Walkman thing, I never did the mobile listening moves. Yesterday was my first experience of walking down the street while earbuds provided not an extension but an intension of my sensory self: dodging traffic, trying to pay attention to ambulance sirens, and watching in fascination as nearly half a dozen London Drugs employees raced on foot after a thief escaping on bicycle (he got away), trying to ensure that my dog’s 8-metre retractable lead wasn’t making anyone trip on the sidewalk, etc. All the while I listened to Stephen Downes’s nearly year old 2005 Northern Voice presentation, Community Blogging, which I found totally compelling (it’s a rant against The Long Tail (i.e., power laws), against tagging, against all this old hierarchical stuff that’s mutton dressed up for lamb by new technology). But it was like work, and not at all like a walk along the city streets. That silly sheep was suddenly neither fish nor fowl.

Incidentally, the earbuds are terribly painful in my shell-like ears and they don’t match my earrings at all. As a fashion statement, it’s like wearing stiletto heels (uncomfortable) with a knitted toque: doesn’t match.

One of Downes’s main objectives (I think) is breaking down hierarchies. I’ve listened to some of his other talks on e-learning, which are inspirational as well as infuriating. As a parent, as a former professor, as someone who struggled with the breakdown of the canon in art history, I sympathise with his agenda, but I also worry about how a body of knowledge still gets transmitted without being discombobulated to the point where it no longer is a body that I or some other expert in some other niche would recognise (the signature Downes question, oft-repeated in his talks is “Paris”: he asks the people in the room to think of Paris, and determines that no one has the same idea about it. It could be “Paris the capital of France,” it could be “Paris Hilton,” it could be “plaster of paris.” In every case, “Paris” is something that is constructed through connectivism (see here, too), and I’m totally in sympathy with that p.o.v. What do I do, however, if I want to construct for learners (plural) a body that is recognised as “Paris the capital of France,” a body I happen already to have an image of? This brings learning-and-education much more firmly into the realm of design, specifically product design. I’m thinking here in particular of Del Coates’s chapter, “Form and Information,” in his book Watches Tell More Than Time; also of course Donald Norman’s Things That Make Us Smart.). These questions cut across the disciplines, whether his (e-learning) or mine (formerly art history: how do you teach art history? as a linear history? thematically? what happens when you present cave paintings next to modernist abstraction? or Chinese ink paintings next to Dutch 17c landscapes? do you get a bunch of people making connections that are just stupid, because they’re missing all sorts of information from inbetween the two points in time and place from which each form derived? what is time? why should one teach something within the context of a narrative? who gets to speak/ create that narrative? isn’t that a political question? what does it mean to claim that the narrative has any kind of formal significance? does it at all, or is this too just a construct that upholds hierarchies that anyone in their right mind wants to call into question? Design and really good e-learning/ distributed education brings with it a focus on the individual (the individual learner), but we’re also still in world where teachers are asked to instruct entire groups (hence my emphasis, above, on learners, plural). Until we really can make the individual learner the focus, we’re stuck with most of these old industrial factory school problems. Big problems.

And so on. The title of this post wasn’t a joke: it really is a long rambling excursion. Did I mention my earrings yet?

And that’s at the metacognitive level. What about the (seemingly?) simpler level of, say, teaching cellular biology or organic chemistry, which after all is less a matter of interpretation (as art history is) and more a matter of understanding basic scientific concepts which aren’t “themes” or tropes? A theory about abstract painting is a theory about abstract painting, but an allele is an allele. DNA is DNA. A chemical equation has to balance, period. How do you break down the hierarchy of learning there? How is it really possible to get away from the “I-Teacher have some knowledge which I will transfer to You-Learner”? Where is it possible to draw the line and say, “well, the student/ learner who studies high school biology is mature enough to make certain decisions about her learning [the famous: “take learning into one’s own hands, be an active learner”], but the student at the [fill in the blank: elementary, junior/middle school level, whatever] isn’t, and he must be led, like a horse, to water. We’ll figure out how to make him drink later.” Naturally, leading that student to “water” is plain silly, which helps account for the fact that teachers and their ministries (or departments in the US) are struggling mightily with nonsense like “no child left behind,” and various buzzword-type variations on “measuring” progress.

Think “outcomes,” for example: outcomes-based assessment is one of the latest hot topics in education. But Downes has a hilarious analogy how this, too, can just end up as mutton dressed for lamb. Say you decide to assess getting rid of all highway rules and regulations, based on outcomes. No more speed limits, no rules about which side of the road to drive on, nor what is allowed on highways, nothing. We’ll assess whether the new plan is working based on “outcomes.” Of course the outcomes come after the new situation has been experienced for some time — multiple road fatalities, lots of minor accidents, that sort of thing — which in turn will necessitate increased bureaucracy and policing to manage. You, the user-of-the-highway (or learner in the school) won’t benefit from this outcomes-based assessment because (a) it’ll be too late (you’ll already have been killed on the road, or missed learning a subject in school), and (b) you’ll have more “authority” to deal with than ever before (insurance companies figuring out how to deduct points from your “good driving” premium; education ministries figuring out how to punish schools and learners for not learning).

Anyway, this particular talk of Downes’s is especially interesting for those of us who blog because it’s all about blogging and “community,” and how and why the long tail is just another hierarchy, and why tagging doesn’t work as a true “folksonomy.” I’m not clued-in enough to understand all of Downes’s points, nor can I assess what he says about semantics, metadata, and other arcana (sometimes he seems wildly optimistic, other times less so), but, yikes, it sounded like there were some really upset people asking questions (shouting, actually) at the end. Fascinating.

n.b.: edited today (Jan.2/06) to add links for “The Long Tail” and added link to “power laws” — see comments) (Also, the Hanna Schygulla audio is of someone reading from her book, not an interview. The excerpt is fascinating: death is the leitmotiv, and there’s lots about dreams/ dreaming, and how an actor liberates herself from the “marionette-like existence” of acting through recording dreams, and about ageing. Quite good.)

8 Comments

  1. Oh, I tagged you … but I didn’t mean to make you fret over this meme. I don’t put much stock in them as such, but I like to play sometimes, only because by following the links I do discover interesting voices. The four things in each category were my favorites of the moment in which I set out to answer — by no means are they representative of some kind of Platonic essentials in my cave of pleasures….

    By having the meme, I find it a neutral subject that connects different voices a lot easier than just a link would do — a bit like Downes “connectivism,” though I am not familiar with his work or with connectivism. But you seed, now, because of the meme, here I am reading your post and learning something new … even if my idea of connectivism might be more like plaster of Paris than either Paris Hilton or Paris, capital of France….

    Comment by maria — January 2, 2006 #

  2. I don’t like tagging either (and I’ve no idea what the long tail is). It could be because I’m too busy or that I too rarely find out anything interesting about people from these memes. I’d rather know why people like a movie or whatever, than what they like.
    You do raise very interesting questions, but at the metacognitive level how can any individual separate him- or herself from the way the community orders things. Learning is inherently a social activity. Another reason I don’t like the memes is that most people who do them (most people who blog – in English at least) are American and I don’t understand a lot of their cultural references (I’m Australian). I’ve never even heard of half the musicians, movies, writers, etc. that they refer to. It doesn’t help me if you refer to someone called, say, Downes, unless you put him in context for me (which you did thanks). Maybe what he means is that these kinds of memes are exclusive – you have to be part of the community in order to appreciate the different voices within it. In other words you have to have learned the ‘canon’ already. In fact I think that whatever we know is rooted in some kind of ‘canon’ or other (including the one about DNA).

    Comment by melanie — January 2, 2006 #

  3. As you are already know, “breaking down the walls of connectivity” has already been tried in the fine arts and crafts. It’s the reason the late 20th century has so very few artists and artisans, and some crafts are in serious danger of extinction. Don’t get me started on that rant….

    Comment by Lioness — January 2, 2006 #

  4. As you are already know, “breaking down the walls of connectivity” has already been tried in the fine arts and crafts. It’s the reason the late 20th century has so very few artists and artisans, and some crafts are in serious danger of extinction. Don’t get me started on that rant….

    Comment by Lioness — January 2, 2006 #

  5. Don’t worry, Maria — I didn’t fret over dropping the meme. Now, send me a chain letter and I’ll agonise for weeks about breaking that! (Just kidding….)

    Melanie, take a listen to that MP3 by Stephen Downes — you might find it really interesting because the points you raise against being “impressed” by what everybody else is saying are right along his lines, as well. The sound quality of this file leaves much to be desired (it probably didn’t help that I was dealing with traffic noises, too, while trying to catch everything said), but other than that, lots of good points. The Long Tail is explained nicely on Wikipedia (and I’ll edit / update the main entry to reflect this link):

    The phrase The Long Tail, as a proper noun, was first coined by Chris Anderson, drawing on an influential essay by Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality” that noted that a relative handful of weblogs have many links going into them but “the long tail” of millions of weblogs have only a handful of links going into them.

    From the Shirky essay (linked to in the above quote):

    A persistent theme among people writing about the social aspects of weblogging is to note (and usually lament) the rise of an A-list, a small set of webloggers who account for a majority of the traffic in the weblog world. This complaint follows a common pattern we’ve seen with MUDs, BBSes, and online communities like Echo and the WELL. A new social system starts, and seems delightfully free of the elitism and cliquishness of the existing systems. Then, as the new system grows, problems of scale set in. Not everyone can participate in every conversation. Not everyone gets to be heard. Some core group seems more connected than the rest of us, and so on.

    Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

    In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution. From Shirky’s Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality

    Downes does a nice job of taking that apart.

    Lioness, nice jewelry! Was it the mention of earrings that attracted you? 😉

    Comment by Yule Heibel — January 2, 2006 #

  6. Just a couple of lighthearted points re. “Paris,” and also highway rules (outcomes): I think Stephen needs to bring in the apple of discord (nice play, I think, on Mac) and the resulting judgement (front view, rear, or side?), based on the three graces (scroll down to “3s”). The other point is re. highway rules: I had an entry recently about Hans Monderman, who specifically advocates abolishing traffic rules (albeit not the ones about which side of the road, I don’t think). He asks, “Who has the right of way?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.” See A Path to Road Safety With No Signposts. Thinking about Monderman’s ideas together with what Downes talks about, I’m wondering whether it isn’t possible to eliminate rules IF we create conditions that require personal / individual accountability. That’s surely a whole different design issue….

    Comment by Yule Heibel — January 2, 2006 #

  7. Yule, Thanks for the explanation. I did know about long tails, but didn’t know what they meant in the blogosphere. I listened to the speech and found that I’d also somewhat misunderstood what tagging meant as well (something about not being part of the technorati community???).

    Actually, I know from experience, about 10 years ago in Vietnam, that traffic without rules can work quite well. People set up conventions. However, you always get a few selfish people or stupid people who mess things up and cause accidents. Also, as the volume of traffic increases, it isn’t quite so efficient to ignore the red light and weave your way through a higgledy piggledy mess. It tends to cause gridlock. This idea of not having rules reminds me of Adam Smith who, however, also recognized that the occasional dominance of the ‘passions’ over ‘sympathy’ necessitates rules and enforcement of them.

    Comment by melanie — January 3, 2006 #

  8. “Think “outcomes,” for example: outcomes-based assessment is one of the latest hot topics in education. But Downes has a hilarious analogy how this, too, can just end up as mutton dressed for lamb. Say you decide to assess getting rid of all highway rules and regulations, based on outcomes. No more speed limits, no rules about which side of the road to drive on, nor what is allowed on highways, nothing. We’ll assess whether the new plan is working based on “outcomes.” Of course the outcomes come after the new situation has been experienced for some time — multiple road fatalities, lots of minor accidents, that sort of thing — which in turn will necessitate increased bureaucracy and policing to manage.”

    This is exactly how the Vietnamese are learning to drive. The first time I went to Hanoi, there were three traffic lights in the whole city (population six million). A couple of years later I live there for a year & by the time I left there were at least a dozen. And traffic cops on scooters. But out on the highway between cities, all the hierarchies are flat as rice fields.

    Comment by joseph duemer — January 3, 2006 #

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