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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

non-linearity: a new game

About a year ago, I posted that we should grab our x-d glasses and take notice of what the web has to offer us. This well announced paradigm shift in education is no fad. This is a monumental change.

So how can we use the web for good? How can we start using tech in ways that make us more human? How can we capture more rich time in our day by letting tech do what it wants, to help us? How can we drink in huge slurping gulps of the web, taking us to the limit, as x approaches the edge, where we can experience several heres at once and not be overwhelmed but rather, come together.
Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody,

In times of revolution, …when a real, once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad, as with the grown-ups arguing over the pocket calculator. ..
Young people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models, not because they know more useful things than we do, but because they know fewer useless things than we do.

As we move away from a linear, static, compulsory content, and facilitate a new standard of access, dimensionality becomes huge. Video is huge. Hypertext is huge.

I can’t get enough of Mark Pesce’s insight as he writes on The Human Network. I see such a fractalian overlay in all he writes, like it’s speaking directly to education. From the post Whatever Happened to the Book (per word and per video):  [I added some links, and underlining, unless otherwise noted, all quotes in the rest of the blog are from Pesce.]

Networks are the foundation of how we think.
We all crib from one another’s spoken thoughts.  It’s the secret to our success.
While the great strength of hypertext is its capability for non-linearity – you can depart from the text at any point – no one had reckoned on the force (really, a type of seduction) of those points of departure. A link is pregnant with meaning, and passing a link by necessarily incurs an opportunity cost.
Consider two different documents…. One of them is an article from the New York Times Magazine.  It is long – perhaps ten thousand words – and has, over all of its length, just a handful of links.  Many of these links point back to other New York Times articles.  This article stands alone.  It is a hyperdocument, but it has not embraced the capabilities of the medium.   Nearly all articles I could point to from any professional news source portray the same characteristics of separateness and resistance to connect with the medium they employ. …there is a financial pressure to keep eyes within the website, because attention has been monetized.  Every link presents an escape route, and a potential loss of income.  Hence, links are kept to a minimum, the losses staunched.  Disappointingly, this has become a model for many other hyperdocuments, even where financial considerations do not conflict with the essential nature of the medium. (recall the Day-Care experiment) The tone has been set.
On the other hand, consider an average article in Wikipedia.  It could be short or long – though only a handful reach ten thousand words – but it will absolutely be sprinkled liberally with links.  Many of these links will point back into Wikipedia, allowing someone to learn the meaning of a term they’re unfamiliar with, or explore some tangential bit of knowledge, but there also will be plenty of links that face out, into the rest of the Web.  This is a hyperdocument which has embraced the nature of medium, which is not afraid of luring readers away under the pressure of linkage. Wikipedia is a non-profit organization which does not accept advertising and does not monetize attention.
Without this competition of intentions, Wikipedia is itself an example of another variety of purity, the pure expression of the tension between the momentum of the text and centrifugal force of hypertext.
In most circumstances, we will decline the challenge.  Whatever it is, it is not salient enough, not alluring enough.  It is not so much that we fear commitment as we feel the pressing weight of our other commitments.  We have other places to spend our limited attention.

When i saw Gary Flake intro getpivot on his TED talk, I resonated with the x-dimensionality legit web offers us for better conversation and collaboration, the navigation needed to till Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus. Our peek at and ensuing test trial at self-directed learning in public ed. More from Pesce:

At this point a question needs to be asked: what’s so electronic about an electronic book?  If I open the Stanza application on my iPhone, and begin reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am presented with something that looks utterly familiar.  Too familiar.  This is not an electronic book.  This is ‘publishing in light’. I believe it essential that we discriminate between the two, because the same commercial forces which have driven links from online newspapers and magazines will strip the term ‘electronic book’ of all of its meaning.
I’m curious if some of the project-based learnings, no doubt some of our best experiences existing today, resemble Pesce’s publishing in light. An incredible improvement, but does it strip self-directed learning of it’s purest potential. Is it truly self-directed. Have we redefined self-directed learning to be self-directed within a given learning. Could that small change create a vast difference in the adjacent possibilities to a learner? Not to mention even the slightest decrease of intrinsic motivation.
These questions are important – essential – if we want to avoid turning living typeset texts into dead texts published in light.  That act of murder would give us less than we had before, because the published in light texts essentially disavow the medium within which they are situated.  They are less useful than typeset texts, purposely stripped of their utility to be shoehorned into a new medium. This serves the economic purposes of publishers – interested in maximizing revenue while minimizing costs – but does nothing for the reader.  Nor does it make the electronic book an intrinsically alluring object.  That’s an interesting point to consider, because hypertext is intrinsically allurng.
The reason for the phenomenal, all-encompassing growth of the Web from 1994 through 2000 was because it seduced everyone who has any relationship to the text.  If an electronic book does not offer a new relationship to the text, then what precisely is the point?  Portability?  Ubiquity?  These are nice features, to be sure, but they are not, in themselves, overwhelmingly alluring.  This is the visible difference between a book that has been printed in light and an electronic book: the electronic book offers a qualitatively different experience of the text, one which is impossibly alluring.
I see such comparisons: Britannica to PBL, or to most things we see as ed fixes, to the national curriculum even; and wikipedia to self-directed learning. Should I see that? Do you?
I see it as compromising the opportunity we now have to actually be facilitating a self-directed learning. To students actually taking over.
We’re doing a lot of things today, in a scramble to do good, to do better. But are they the best?
(and gosh, this is another story, but why can’t we even just stand up to what we know to be the worst?)

We shouldn’t try to constrain our idea of what an electronic book can be based upon what the book has been. Over the next few years, our innovations will surprise us. We won’t really know what the electronic book looks like until we’ve had plenty of time to play with them.
Yet we come to books with a sense of commitment.  We want to finish them.  But what, exactly do we want to finish?  The electronic book must necessarily reveal the interconnectedness of all ideas, of all writings – just as the Web does.  So does an electronic book have a beginning and an end?  Or is it simply a densely clustered set of texts with a well-defined path traversing them?  From the vantage point of 2010 this may seem like a faintly ridiculous question.

Perhaps in our urges to match learning to core standards, to at least have some say in some sort of parameter, some sort of rubric, we are limiting the very essence of intrinsic motivation and authentic learning. Perhaps our best move would be to forgo the urge to manage, the urge to validate, by simply asking and showing each other, what we have learned. No beginning. No end. Just always.

What ever happened to the book?  It exploded in a paroxysm of joy, dissolved into union with every other human thought, and disappeared forever.  This is not an ending, any more than birth is an ending.  But it is a transition, at least as profound and comprehensive as the invention of moveable type.  It’s our great good luck to live in the midst of this transition, astride the dilemmas of hypertext and the contradictions of the electronic book.  Transitions are chaotic, but they are also fecund.  The seeds of the new grow in the humus of the old.  (And if it all seems sudden and sinister, I’ll simply note that Nietzsche said that new era nearly always looks demonic to the age it obsolesces.)
Jim and I started discussing  logging/mapping as a means to monitor growth. Since what we’re doing, a huge piece of the paradigm shift, is experimenting, we are always trying things, and reflecting, and often failing, and changing things up. We started out logging per google doc. Upon watching kids, we started  to wonder about  video logging, tagging convos. We looked into Roger Schank‘s just in time stories, imagining that getpivot type navigation to create even more serendipitous connections. Can we create serendipity? Can we sophisticate our virtual meet ups to the point we feel like we just left the coffee house? With the benefit of streamlined recall? On those connections that matter?

Finally, there is another path open for the literary text, one which refuses to ignore the medium that constitutes it, which embraces all of the ambiguity and multiplicity and liminality of hypertext.  direction (like ed)
As texts become electronic, as they melt and dissolve and  link together densely, meaning multiplies exponentially.  Every sentence, and every word in every sentence, can send you flying in almost any direction.  The tension within this text (there will be only one text) will make reading an exciting, exhilarating, dizzying experience…

As our texts become one, as they become one hyperconnected mass of human expression, that new thing will become synonymous with culture.  Everything will be there, all strung together.  And that’s what happened to the book.
Deb Roy‘s recent TED talk brings the abilities of the web out of the closet even more.
A picture of what we can do now.. seamlessly. Gyrating from the vertical to the horizontal at whim, sophisticated zooming in and out, we’re in the system, we’re out of the system, we’re large, we’re small.
And without us even thinking it’s work, or that we’re doing it, or forcing it.
Is what tech wants for us, that we can just be? And that the freedom from just being, the extra time/money/energy from letting tech work the chaos, is allowing us to notice things we’ve been blinded to – for all the order we thought we craved – we were missing mindfulness.
Emergent value and life in perpetual beta.. how lucky are we?
Hagel’s writes on the neurobiology of passion: -

Scientific research increasingly demonstrates that our brain wiring patterns can be significantly shaped by where we choose to focus our attention, particularly if we can sustain that focus over an extended period of time.

So this freedom, this space we’re now given, to notice more, makes us rich.
It’s tough to let go, and trust. But the potential is huge.. which makes good risky.

When there is a revolution going on, … net value is useless, since the society before and after the revolution are too different to be readily compared.

Our principle challenge isn’t in deciding where we want to go, but in staying upright as we go there.
Instead of each member of the group tracking favors from each other member directly, certain kinds of help simply become social norms.

This does not mean there will be no difficulties associated with out new capabilities – the defenders of freedom have long noted that there are problems peculiar to freer societies. Instead it assumes that the value of freedom outweighs the problems, not based on a calculation of net value, but because freedom is the right thing to want for a society.
-Clay Shirky  Here Comes Everybody



Nothing is for everybody. Which is why this non-fad happening is so extremely cool. We can now facilitate that. We can now offer everything,… in public ed.

My new friend, Dale, shares his his Poke the Box thinking:

Time is not money. Time is time. You could spend time making money, but you could also spend time changing the world—it’s up to you.
Time is irreplaceable.
You are irreplaceable.
Don’t waste either.

The unfinished project is alluringly waiting for us.

I’m currently reading Richard Restak’s The New Brain, and more of Pesce’s blog – The Human Network.

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About monika hardy

experimenting with the intersection of city and school. http://about.me/monika_hardy

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