The Web We Want and the Stories We Tell

We’ve been thinking through the “Awakening” of the Digital Imagination all semester, and today the New Media Seminar concludes with Scott McCloud’s “Time Frames” and Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the HTTP protocol that created the World Wide Web.  Now that the Web is in it’s twenty-fifth year I wonder how we might think about what’s behind us (there’s a cool timeline to help with that here) as well as the road ahead.

Berners Lee intended the World Wide Web to be “a pool of human knowledge, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas.” (NMR p. 792) Initially geared toward the needs of physicists and engineers, the suitability of hypertext to scaling allowed the the Web to quickly transcend the Particle Physics Laboratory where it was born and move across the internet over the entire world.  Indeed the web has become so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted.  As John Naughton pointed out in 2010: “A funny thing happened to us on the way to the future. The internet went from being something exotic to being a boring utility, like mains electricity or running water – and we never really noticed.”  Now, the web and the internet are not the same thing (internet = infrastructure, web = particular kind of freight or traffic on that highway), but Naughton’s  suggestions for how we might reflect on the great changes that the internet — and the web — have brought and will continue to bring are still salient.  There are nine of them, and of course I find those that invoke historical contingency (a popular topic this week) and frame the current transformation in terms of past revolutions (Gutenburg 1450, Russia 1917) especially resonant.

Earlier this year, the web’s inventor looked back on “the Web at 25” and proposed that we write a Magna Carta for the web.  Like Naughton and many others, Berners-Lee acknowledges the powerfully positive as well as the scarily negative possibilities for the web’s future. You can check out his short  TED talk and view the transcript here, but the nugget that seems most relevant to the kind of learning the web facilitates is this one:

What sort of web do you want? I want one which is not fragmented into lots of pieces, as some countries have been suggesting they should do in reaction to recent surveillance. I want a web which has got, for example, is a really good basis for democracy. I want a web where I can use healthcare with privacy and where there’s a lot of health data, clinical data is available to scientists to do research. I want a web where the other 60 percent get on board as fast as possible. I want a web which is such a powerful basis for innovation that when something nasty happens, some disaster strikes, that we can respond by building stuff to respond to it very quickly.

For me, a web that would serve as a really good basis for democracy would be a web of innovation, collaboration and creative exchange — a highly social, highly interactive web, where transparency was the norm, but where one would remain firmly in control of one’s digital identity and could opt out of (or into) the communities, aggregators, surveillance regimes, etc. of one’s choosing.  This web would also be the best foundation for the kinds of active co-learning and peer-to-peer collaboration we’ve been exploring all fall in the Connected Courses Cmooc.  And it would implicitly further the project of “de-Schooling” our educational institutions by networking information, artifacts, expertise, resources, and people in ways that would erode the silos or at least make them more porous.

Check out the World Wide Web Foundation’s report for 2014-15 to see how far we’ve come — but more importantly, how far we have to go in this regard.

The connection between comics and the Web We Want might not be obvious, but it’s important. In Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art (1993), Scott McCloud showed how comics use visual space to represent time and shape narrative, thus suggesting how users of the graphical user interfaces that were becoming more widespread at the time would engage the web and each other in ways that facilitate the construction of meaning and the creation of networks. Where Brenda Laurel invoked the principles of Attic drama to understand human-computer interaction, McCloud, also known as the “Aristotle of Comics” adapted the ancient conventions of analog comics to the digital medium by making the frame optional and offering the vision an “infinite canvas” which treats the screen as a window rather than page.

The nugget that best explains why this vision for an expansive, recursive, multi-media and interactive comic art is vital to my imagining of the web and connected learning I want comes from McCloud’s 2005 Ted Talk (The Visual Magic of Comics):

I think this is important because media, all media, provide us a window back into our world. Now, it could be that motion pictures — and eventually, virtual reality, or something equivalent to it — some sort of immersive display, is going to provide us with our most efficient escape from the world that we’re in. That’s why most people turn to storytelling, is to escape. But media provides us with a window back into the world that we live in. And when media evolve so that the identity of the media becomes increasingly unique. Because what you’re looking at is, you’re looking at comics cubed: you’re looking at comics that are more comics-like than they’ve ever been before. When that happens, you provide people with multiple ways of re-entering the world through different windows, and when you do that, it allows them to triangulate the world that they live in and see its shape. And that’s why I think this is important.”

I think that’s right.  We do use windows and stories to escape, but cubing adds perspective, dimension, meaning and connection. Windows and stories also offer openings and insight. The web we want, the one so many of us engage every day, offers all of us the opportunity to make meaning, discover something new about ourselves, to work with and learn from others, and to narrate a meaningful canvas of our human experience.  It also needs the attentions of the humanists — the Scott McClouds, the Brenda Laurels, The easy, tigers, the musicians, and the librarians, (all the librarians ;-)) as well as the mathematicians and the historians of science and technology.

De-Schooling for Connection

At the end of an evening of tinkering — fiddling, exploring and stirring — tired and scattered, but invigorated by newly-made connections and the promise of more coherence tomorrow, I offer these modified nuggets-cum-stepping stones from the learning webs of Ivan Illich to those of the 21st-Century connected course.

1) From the introduction to De-Schooling Society (1971)

Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.

2) Word cloud suggesting the power nodes of a learning web:

Illich's Opportunity Webs
Illich’s Opportunity Webs

 (From De-Schooling Society, Ch. 6 “Learning Webs“)

3) Connected Learning brings Illich into the 21st century by embracing interest-powered, peer-supported and academically oriented learning founded on an abiding commitment to equity, social connection and full participation in the educational experience. It does this by bringing communities of learners (teachers, peers) together for a shared purpose in an openly networked environment.

“Connected learning is a work in progress, building on existing models, ongoing experimentation, and dialog with diverse stakeholders. It draws from social, ubiquitous, blended and personalized learning, delivered by new media, to help us remodel our educational system in tune with today’s economic and political realities. Connected learning is not, however, distinguished by a particular technology or platform, but is inspired by an initial set of three educational values, three learning principles, and three design principles.”

–Principles of Connected Learning (2014).

4) Connected courses leverage the creative potential of learning resources, tools and materials that are freely accessible and available in a networked learning environment.  They empower students to take charge of their education, to create more than they consume, and to develop and pursue their talents and expertise in meaningful ways. Connected courses may begin in a classroom and/or on a course website, but the measure of their success will be their contribution to an ongoing (and Illich would say increasingly urgent) process of deschooling society.

5) Tools and strategies to grow by. (Illich would say “tinker with”)……I have ticked several things off this list of twenty-one things every 21st-Century Teacher should do this year.  Looking forward to my next connected course, I will take on more — although I’m counting on my students to parody the hit songs (and really looking forward to that!).

Infographic by Sean Junkin: https://twitter.com/sjunkins
Infographic by Sean Junkins: https://twitter.com/sjunkins

Time for Co-Learning

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The world within my hands – Capture Queen (2007) Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/2FDMjK Licensed by Creative Commons 2.0

It’s week thirteen of the semester and I no longer pretend I’m going to catch up. Read, make, watch and blog half of what I want to for Connected Courses? Revise and submit the Belyaev fox paper? Pick up the threads of chapter four of Space Dogs? Nope. Not going to happen.

Because when you teach two or more connected courses that is just about all you do (besides the committee work and administrivia that are as inescapable as research hours are elusive). I am not complaining. I love teaching this way. In fact I was enormously relieved to hear Howard Rheingold emphasize during one of the #ccourses Webinars this week that engaging students in co-learning using a networked environment just takes time. This has certainly been my experience, but I think until now a piece of me thought that I was missing something — that because I spend hours and hours thinking about and with my students I must be doing something wrong. I’ve just been teaching this way for a year or so. Maybe more practice, more experience will make me more efficient, better able to balance all of the parts of my job?

Before I taught this way I did have some semblance of balance between teaching and research. I have always loved the classroom, but I used to see it as a physical space where I met students two or three times a week. I prepped for class, taught class, graded and returned papers. Remixed, recycled, repeated. Everything was fine — good even. I liked my students. They mostly liked me. They sent me nice notes telling me how much they enjoyed Russian history, asked me to write recommendations for them, invited me to their weddings, and asked me  to help translate the old letters they found in their grandmother’s attic. As faculty at a research 1 institution, I knew from day one that I needed to be a good teacher, but that I should not spend too much time teaching if I wanted to get tenure. After all, books and articles do not write themselves. Ask just about anyone in the humanities what they need for their research, and I bet nearly everyone would put “time” near the top of the list.

Connected courses dissolve the physical and temporal boundaries of the classroom in ways I believe benefit our students tremendously. They learn to research and synthesize their findings by writing about subjects that interest them. They create something meaningful to them and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Over the semester their blog posts become more sophisticated — the writing improves, they become more adept at finding and analyzing high-value sources, they learn and model collegial dialogue about their findings by commenting on each others’ work, they curate their content more expertly and seek out feedback on it, they interact with the instructor and the editorial team as co-curators and co-learners, because we all share in the creation, presentation, and maintenance of the weekly digest that is our motherblog. By the time the course ends, they have a blog of their own that illustrates their skills in historical analysis and demonstrates their understanding of the key developments in Soviet History (or the Deep History of Domestication, or historiography….). In addition, students on the editorial team gain experience in peer-to-peer mentoring (on line and during class), and proficiency curating content for a fairly complex site.

Most of this happens outside the 150 minutes we spend together in class each week. And whereas in the old model I assumed that students worked harder (and spent more time) on the course than I did, teaching a connected course requires that we be more equally invested. It’s an investment I’m happy to make. I look forward to responding to weekly posts in a way that I never did for reflection papers or essays. I am energized by working collaboratively with students on their research projects using shared documents on GoogleDrive. Because the docs are always there I can comment and respond to questions on them anytime. If I see that the student is online when I am we can chat about their project. I can put them in touch with each other and they can point me toward shared concerns and challenges. When someone posts about a topic I find interesting or troubling I can find related material or another source and include it with my comments. And when the discussion in a comment thread really takes off I can stay up and chime in — or just watch.

Being connected with the editorial team also makes for some terrific interactions — usually late in the evening — when we meet each other in our shared folder and make curatorial decisions for the weekly digest. What did you like about this post? Which image do you think will look best in the slider? Did you checkout the Pravda article he cited about the invasion of Afghanistan?

Making the motherblog the class keeps us all engaged with the content and each other much more consistently over the week than the traditional formula of 2 meetings/week + written work=class. Which is wonderful and valuable. But there are obvious tradeoffs here for faculty who are supposed to be equally attentive to research and teaching. This semester, I have been able to re-calibrate some of the time I spend with my co-learners in ways I hope haven’t compromised our shared enterprise. But I’m not sure I can encourage my pre-tenure colleagues to join me in this synergistic connected space because it seems that the challenges of juggling these kinds of courses and producing the research needed for tenure could be overwhelming.

Obviously there are some larger issues in play here — the rewards / incentive structures for faculty at research institutions, the two-tier system of tenure-track and adjunct / part-time faculty, the broader challenges of this nugget from last nights #ccourses webinar:

But I have to think we can make this work, that there is a win-win here for students and faculty, and for our institutions as well. I need help figuring this piece out. How do we develop incentives for faculty to embrace co-learning modalities? For some of us the uptick in student engagement and competence are reward enough. And here at Virginia Tech, Ralph Hall uses GoogleGlass to combine research on sustainability with teaching connected courses. Identifying more ways to integrate teaching and research definitely seems promising. But we also need something more. We’ve figured out how to empower students to leverage the amazing resources of networked learning environments. Now we need to find ways to support faculty, especially junior faculty, who want to embrace the connected courses / active co-learning model but also want and need to devote equal time to research. Thoughts anyone?

Double Creative Disruption Nugget

The internet’s disruptiveness is a consequence of its technical DNA. In programmers’ parlance, it’s a feature, not a bug – i.e. an intentional facility, not a mistake. And it’s difficult to see how we could disable the network’s facility for generating unpleasant surprises without also disabling the other forms of creativity it engenders.     — John Naughton (2010)

My connected courses this semester have been full of unpleasant surprises of the technical kind. Many people of good will have tried to help coax overloaded servers back to the front lines. But without a warp drive we are all left peddling along.

Faster Captian Picard, faster!


Taking control would make things easier: We should lock down that platform, kick out those unruly widgets, limit the size, shape, and format of the content — for the sake of stability, for the sake of control, for the sake of the greater good.  Right?  Resistance is futile, right?

Not so slow!!!! Let’s not take away the flexibility that enables the creativity as well as the unpleasant surprises. Instead, let’s fix the warp drive so the Enterprise-internet can do what we made it to do, and what we do with it every time we engage it.

This nugget from John Naughton’s piece “Everything you need to know about the internet” highlights the yin and yang of creative disruption. In the seventies Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn sought to design a future-proof system that would link networks simply and seamlessly.  They did that by setting up a decentralized net where no one person or entity has ownership or control and by embedding “neutrality” in the core architecture of the system. The network is simple in that it moves data packets from point to point. But it is neutral as to the content of those packets. So the same features that facilitate so many unpleasant surprises (malware, cyber stalking, incompatibilities) support the amazing, invigorating good stuff that brings us together and makes us smarter (communication, creation, augmentation, innovation).

Fencing off a little corner of the net as a kind of sandbox for students is a natural impulse.  Locking things down will keep us safe, make things more efficient, and short circuit the frustration. But natural as it is, the impulse to exercise this kind of control thwarts the simple, empowering, free-range qualities that make the net the net and make the web a wonderfully flexible communication medium. The safe, impulse-drive installation would limit the unpleasant surprises, but it would also hamstring the creative potential that brings us here in the first place.

The disruption can be negative or positive, but it is embedded in the net’s DNA. Fiddling with that disruptive capability undercuts the whole enterprise. Disruption is a feature, not a bug.

I need to understand that feature better in order to deal with the unpleasant surprises and cultivate more pleasant surprises. I need to take Ted Nelson’s injunction to heart:

Computer Lib cover by Ted Nelson 1974.png
Computer Lib cover by Ted Nelson 1974” by Ted Nelson – The New Media Reader (2003), page 302. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Because creativity requires facility, disruption enables innovation, and bugs in a web can be beautiful.

Oh, Had I A Golden Thread
Oh Had I A Golden Thread – Loco Steve (2010)

Oh, had I a golden thread
And a needle so fine
I’d weave a magic strand
Of rainbow design…..

Thinking Animals – The “Why” for a New Connected Course

Rainbow Web
Rainbow Web by Jennifer Nish

My “why” for previous connected courses has centered on developing empathy (closeness) and analytical perspective (distance) for things that really matter. For me, those things include: people, animals, and an appreciation of the unique cultural contexts in which we relate to each other.

In an honors colloquium on domestication we worked to unpack the assumptions we have about what domestication is (answer: on ongoing multi-lateral interspecies relationship, rather than an event or engineering feat). We gained insight about how our historical assumptions condition our current experiences with real animals and left the course with a more robust analytical toolkit for moving those relationships forward.

Last fall I shifted my Soviet History course to a “100% class-sourced” model, by having students research and author blog posts for a weekly digest. Rather than trying to convey my understanding of the Soviet experience to them and then testing them on it, I helped them identify high quality research materials for topics and events that were interesting to them.  We produced a rich compendium of analytical posts in which students not only demonstrated competence with the research process, but, more importantly, developed an appreciation for historical contingency and cultural relativism. Studying a history steeped in negative stereotypes and a society that seems quite “foreign” on their own terms gave us a more constructive perspective on the contemporary political climate and an appreciation of our own cultural baggage.

I’ve been amazed and invigorated by the power of networked technologies to amplify the learning experience.  I still have a lot to learn and will continue to develop the two connected course models I currently have in play.  I am also looking ahead and thinking seriously about a course that would connect students and faculty from different campuses in the interdisciplinary field of animal studies. The why of that course is that relationships between humans and animals are fundamental, essential, but often unacknowledged or certainly unexamined aspects of our lives as social creatures embedded in historical contexts.  Animal studies, a developing academic field that mobilizes practitioners from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and applied fields to study our relationships with non-human animals in theory and in practice seems ideally suited for a connected course.  Such a course could bring together faculty with different areas of expertise,  practitioners outside the academy, and students at any level to create a dynamic web of inquiry, expertise and action.  I will be knocking on the doors I know exist shortly.  If yours isn’t one of them and you are interested, please let me know!

Old Meets New in the New Media Seminar

Despite the best efforts of a recalcitrant widget, a freshly pressed motherblog is just about ready for a new cohort of seminarians.  The New Media Seminar kicks off tomorrow, and while the syllabus addresses the “Awakening of the Digital Imagination” (i.e. the intellectual and cultural history of new media up to Web 2.0), the workings out and implications of that history in the twenty-first century will be front and center, especially as they relate to networked teaching and learning.  We are a talented group of faculty, staff and grad students representing fields as diverse as music, math, architecture and music,  as well as librarians, IT specialists, sociologists and computer scientists. And of course there are historians!

Many of us are also participating in the Connected Courses Initiative that is just getting underway across the country and here at VT, which enhances the possibilities for cross-fertilization of ideas and networks.  It’s should be a rewarding adventure,  and I am eager to begin.

And…I almost forgot – the newest part of this year’s seminar is The Learning Studio where we will meet. Picture an expertly equipped, almost infinitely flexible multi-media, networked space that facilitates collaboration, creativity, learning and listening  — sometimes all at once.  More about what’s happening there soon!