Time for Co-Learning

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?

Ground Control to Brenda Laurel

David Bowie Is Museum of Contemporary Art, November 2014
David Bowie Is
Museum of Contemporary Art, November 2014

I caught a glimpse of the orange sign on my way to the conference hotel.  “David Bowie Is.”

“I am going,” I promised myself.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Even if you are too young to remember Ziggy Pop, or cringed through the “Let’s Dance” era, this exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art is worth whatever it takes to get you there — especially if you found yourself reading Brenda Laurel (1) this week for the New Media Seminar.

Because experiencing David Bowie Is puts you right into the middle of a drama that is organic, whole, collective and unique. Like the pioneer-master of the multi-media spectacle it honors, the exhibit integrates, re-mixes, and poaches creative juice from the breadth of human culture and wealth of digital technologies. It abounds in cool artifacts: the letter documenting David Jones’ decision to change his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with David Jones the Monkee, Brian Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer used for the recording the album “Heroes”, handwritten lyrics, and costumes — the amazing technicolor dreamcoats, moonboots, and kabuki inspired pants. And of course there is video — lots of video — clips from famous performances, interviews, session tapes, highlights from Bowie’s film and stage career (including a wrenching clip from Elephant Man and a haunting scene from The Prestige). But what makes the installation so powerful is the modality of its execution, which is both collective and highly personal.

Groups are admitted to the exhibit every thirty minutes, and each person receives a player and headset at the entry. Push the green button and off you go. But this is much more than the self-guided audio tour one can take in any number of museums these days, because the players are wireless receivers that sync your physical location in the room to feed in the audio that goes with what you are seeing. (2) As you approach the screen where Space Oddity is playing, the soundtrack appears and gets louder in your headset — AND it is synced perfectly to Bowie’s lips on the video.  Stand near the other people hearing, “This is ground control to Major Tom” and you can feel them savoring the chorus, lost in their own space, or smiling at the two little girls in pink uggs rocking out at knee level. Take a few steps to the side and the soundtrack shifts. Space Oddity fades away and as you look at the display case you hear a different song, or a narrator providing background for the artifact. Step up to the recessed video a bit further on and hear Bowie describe the development and use of the Verbesizer, the computer program he developed with Ty Roberts to generate and re-order random phrases into lyrics.  Want to go back and hear quasi-alien-alienated Bowie singing while you contemplate a gorgeous glimpse of Earth from space? No problem. The receiver picks up the right audio feed as if by osmosis.

It will take you at least ninety minutes to make your way through the entire exhibit.  You will savor every immersive, personal-dynamic, media-is-the-message moment. I promise.  You are together and alone, experiencing David Bowie.

(1) More focused responses to “The Six Elements and the Causal Relations Among Them” are here and here.

(2) For a more technical description of how the audio works and a more detailed review of the exhibit click here.

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…..

What kind of symbiosis?

Co-existence – only 1 in 10 of our cells is human by chrisjohnbeckett / © Some rights reserved. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license

Writing in the late 1950s, Norbert Wiener and J.C. R. Licklider both saw the future of computing as an interdependent relationship between people and computational machines. Wiener, founder of cybernetics, framed the information age as a second industrial revolution. The first  had replaced the energy of humans and animals with that of steam engines. In the second, computers (machines) would become sources “of control and communication.” We would communicate with machines and machines would communicate with us and with each other. This worried Wiener, who feared that advances in automation would cause massive unemployment and our veneration of  newly powerful computers might lead us to sacrifice our humanity to them. The latter concern grew from his understanding of computers as evolving entities “capable of learning.” Machines that could learn might quickly outpace their human masters, a haunting prospect that Wiener framed as a genie who could not be talked back into the bottle.(NMR, p. 72).  Current studies of human-computer interaction suggest that his fears were not entirely unfounded.

Licklider  also anticipated computers as new enablers of communication and problem solving, but was more sanguine about their relationship with humanity. Indeed he looked forward to a productive human-computer partnership, a relationship of interaction and interdependence he described as symbiosis.

I am struck by how both men invoked physiology and biology to explain computers. Wiener found them analogous to the nervous system and the homeostatic mechanisms that regulate bodily conditions and functions. As one might expect in the heyday of behaviorism, he described the nervous system in mechanistic terms, equating  the firing of synapses to a binary switching operation in a computing machine. Licklider also invoked the nervous system in his vision for computers, but seemed more open to the creative possibilities presented by machines that would not only assist in problem solving, but also “facilitate formulative thinking.”

Computing machines can do readily, well, and rapidly many things that are difficult of impossible for man, and men can do readily and well, though not rapidly, many things that are difficult or impossible for computers.  That suggests symbiotic cooperation, if successful in integrating the positive characteristics of men and computers, would be of great value. (NMR, p 77)

Biologists think about three kinds of symbiosis — mutualism, where both parties need each other; commensalism, where one partner benefits but has no effect on the other, and parasitism, where one party gains at the expense of the other. Licklider’s vision of symbiosis seems most closely aligned with the mutualist model, which is often invoked to describe the relationship between humans and dogs, or between clownfish and sea anenomes.  For Wiener, parasitism offered the more powerful paradigm, and I doubt he found comfort knowing that even the nastiest parasites still need the host to survive.  What I find most intriguing about all of this is the invocation of biological concepts that help us understand evolutionary relationships.  Even if the machine is us(ing) us, it seems clear that we are in this together and changing each other along the way.


At a time when the world seems awash in an ever-expanding sea of information, Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think reminds us of the promises and challenges of making sense of a world increasingly recorded, mediated, and represented by digital technologies.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bush summoned scientists to develop technologies that would make the “inherited knowledge of the ages” accessible to all.  He was particularly interested in making vast realms of information immediately available. From our vantage point today, his vision of the memex with its monoculared user and stores of microfilm seems almost quaint, and at the same time eerily anticipatory of the latest wearable computing technology such as Google Glass.

But the last sections of As We May Think suggest that Bush recognized that the real power of the future Memex depended on the process of association – not just locating bits of information, but connecting them in meaningful and unique ways.  He knew that leveraging the selection of information by association, rather than indexing, was the key to extending the power of human beings’ creative, symbolic and associative reasoning capacities.

And to me, this is the most prescient moment of the text. It suggests the power of the future we are now living, where the internet and digital media not only put infinite amounts of information at our disposal, but enable us to make meaningful associations, create new knowledge, and form networks that leverage expertise and mutual interest in ways that must have seemed truly fantastic (if not fanciful) in 1945.

While Bush is rightly given founding father status in the evolution of computing and the networked age, he was not the only visionary to bump up against the implicit difference between accessing or “having” information, and being able to mobilize it strategically or transform it into something new.  A decade before Bush imagined the memex, the Belgian lawyer and peace activist, Paul Otlet, conceived of a network of “electrical telescopes” that would use telephone lines to access a multi-media archive connected with symbolic links and return selected items via “fax” to a screen.  Also compelling is a short story written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941. Ostensibly about espionage in World War II, “The Garden of Forking Paths” employs a structure that is equal parts labyrinth and web to present time as a recursive, unfolding force shaped by contingency and subject to infinite narrative outcomes.  As with Otlet, the idea of hypertext – of the power of linking one thing to another — gives life and multiple meaning to the Borges’ garden, where narrative forks create shifts in time rather than motion through space:

….[Y]our ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time.  He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times.  This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries embraces all possibilities of time.  NMR, p. 34

Like Otlet, Borges embraced a vision of the information age that was more symbolic than Bush’s memex, a vision perhaps more suggestive of the inviting and haunting possibilities of an expanding digital universe.

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!

Porcupine Condos

Bill Viola‘s “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” is one of the richest and most perplexing readings we engage in the New Media Seminar. As rhetorical questions go, “Will there be Condominiums in Data Space?” is a bit consternating, since the point of view behind it is not immediately clear. Going in, you don’t know whether Viola thinks condos (in data space or elsewhere) are a good thing or not, so it can be challenging to work through an essay that starts with an observation about the unbroken nature of individual existence and then spends quite a bit of time exploring the ways different cultural practices work to create memory systems and idea spaces that presume a kind of holism of experience and creativity. But then you get to this: “There is always a whole space, which already exists in its entirety, onto which ideas and images can be mapped, using only that portion of the space needed.” (NMR, p. 465) Ah ha! someone committed to an infinite conceptual geometry is probably not a fan of sub-divided, individually owned living spaces. Therefore condominiums are probably bad. Whew. And near the end, Viola (writing in 1982) says they would indeed be built into data space: “Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere — there will be condominiums in data space (it has already begun with cable TV).” Got it. Take care of ourselves or be colonized by condos.  Nurture your networks and pull the plug on the YouTube cat memes. “Little boxes, on a hillside…..” Then, in a most un-McLuhanesque moment, Viola warns that “Applications of tools are only reflections of the users — chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.” (NMR, p. 469) Lots of food for thought there.

But the kicker comes in the form of a coda about a porcupine’s encounter with a car on a dark night:

Late one night while driving down a narrow mountain highway, I came across a large porcupine crossing the road up ahead. Fortunately, I spotted him in time to bring the car to a stop a short distance from where he was standing. I watched him in the bright headlights, standing motionless, petrified at this “dose encounter of the third kind.” Then, after a few silent moments, he started to do a strange thing. Staying in his place, he began to move around in a circle, emitting a raspy hissing sound, with the quills rising up off his body. He didn’t run away. I realized that this dance was actually a move of self-defense. I cut the car headlights to normal beams, but he still continued to move around even more furiously, casting weird shadows on the trees behind. Finally, to avoid giving him a heart attack, and to get home, I cut the lights completely and turned off the engine. I watched him in the dim moonlight as he stopped his dance and moved off the road. Later, while driving off, I realized that he was probably walking proudly away, gloating over how he really gave it to that big blinding noisy thing that rushed toward him out of the night I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness. (NMR, pp. 469-470)

What do you do with that???? I’m sure our fearless discussion leaders will have their own ideas about the significance of the porcupine’s “grossly inflated” world view, and I look forward to hearing what the group thinks about Viola’s advocacy of matrix structures.

I find something new and invigorating in this piece every time I come back to it.  This time, I was struck by Viola’s artistic commitment to tap into the essential aspects of our humanity – the life cycle and our collective experience.  (You can check out many of his video installations on You Tube.)  I also appreciated the understated summons to think about the “why” as much as the “how” that underlies “Will there be Condominiums…?”  The first video below offers a more explicit discussion of the importance of the why.  The second complements the middle section of “Will there be Condominiums” really nicely it you still aren’t sure how data structures relate to art.  If you are already clear on that, check out the last bit (starting at about 4’15”) on the internet as a representation of human social relations and the “real” meaning (and limitations) of “code.”