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.

Time for Co-Learning

The world within my hands – Capture Queen (2007) Flickr: 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?

New Galaxy, New Horizons

We are reading Marshall McLuhan this week for the New Media Seminar, which gives us a nice pivot to thinking about how we prepare for the future and understand the past, especially in times of great change.

One of the themes of McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy is that societies on the verge of massive changes are unaware of the imminent paradigm shift. At the same time, periods of transformation often make the dynamics of the immediate past more apparent. In The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi examines the effects of the industrial revolution on the human psyche and the transformations of traditional relationships of redistribution and reciprocity into a “market society” in 18th and early 19th-century England. McLuhan leans on this analysis to develop his own argument about the mesmerizing effect of new communication technologies, insisting that their long-term significance might be inversely proportional to their perceived importance when they first appear:

“What Polanyi observes about the insentience of those involved in the expediting of the new machine industry is typical of all the local and contemporary attitudes to revolution. It is felt, at those times, that the future will be a larger or greatly improved version of the immediate past. Just before revolutions the image of the immediate past is stark and firm, perhaps because it is the only area of sense interplay free from obsessional identification with new technological form.

No more extreme instance of this delusion could be mentioned than our present image of TV as a current variation on the mechanical, movie pattern of processing experience by repetition. A few decades hence it will be easy to describe the revolution in human perception and motivation that resulted from beholding the new mosaic mesh of the TV image. Today it is futile to discuss it at all.” (New Media Reader, p. 199)

The historian in me appreciates McLuhan’s nod to historical perspective. By temperament and training historians value the analytical clarity afforded by (chronological, spatial, conceptual) distance from the events and processes we study. The familiarity of the known present brings the salient pieces of the unknown past into high relief. But anticipating the shape of things to come is another matter entirely. As we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wide Web this month I find myself drawn to assessments of the web’s influence and the essential role it has played in shaping the present. Some late twentieth-century predictions about the digital future seem remarkably prescient, including these from MIT’s William J. Mitchell and former Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow:

The body net will be connected to the building net, the building net to the community net, and the community net to the global net. From gesture sensors worn on our bodies to the worldwide infrastructure of communications satellites and long-distance fiber, the elements of the bitsphere will finally come together to form one densely interwoven system within which the knee bone is connected to the I-bahn. – William Mitchell, 1994

We’re going to have to look at information as though we’d never seen the stuff before … The economy of the future will be based on relationship rather than possession. It will be continuous rather than sequential. And finally, in the years to come, most human exchange will be virtual rather than physical, consisting not of stuff but the stuff of which dreams are made. Our future business will be conducted in a world made more of verbs than nouns. – John Perry Barlow, 1994

(both from:

Other predictions were more dire, and many of course, were just wrong. Take a few minutes to browse through the Time Capsule in Elon University’s Imagining the Internet project and you will see what I mean.

As we take stock of the Web at 25 and the internet at about 40 it is both compelling and daunting to think about where we might be headed.  One project worth investigating is Digital Life in 2025, a collaborative effort between the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Looking at the report’s “fifteen theses about the digital future,” I was relieved that eight of them are characterized as “hopeful.” These include the promise of more democratic, open, knowledge-generating and ignorance-banishing communication between individuals tapping into an enhanced global connectivity, as well as the potential for the internet of things, artificial intelligence and big data to give people more control over their health and well-being. Also in the “hopeful” category is the potential for mobile technologies to facilitate peaceful change and political transformations. The six (much) less sanguine theses about the shape of things to come focus on the potential for “abuses and abusers” to “evolve and scale,” as well as on the intensifying efforts of governments and corporations to use the internet for political and social control.  Concerns about privacy are well-founded according to the “less-hopeful” predictions, which also caution (a la McLuhan) that many of us do not appreciate the profound changes already underway that will disrupt our basic understandings of ourselves as social, political, human animals.

The fifteenth thesis comes as advice more than prediction:”Make good choices today” the report suggests, encouraging us to imagine the different paths into the future and leverage the affordances of the internet to make sure some of the more promising ones come true.  Echoing Virginia Tech’s branded slogan, the final thesis promises: “Foresight and accurate predictions can make a difference; ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it.’”