What I used to think I knew isn't helping: adventures in higher ed open source

Archive for August 2009

Learning as Autism

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I’m working my way – more slowly than I want – through Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy. It’s a misleading title, especially coming from an economist, but the sort of economy he has in mind is the kind created in one’s head.  An economy of attention, of mind.

His basic thesis seems to be that the Web is allowing us to organize our lives in different ways, ways better suited to a”‘cognitive profile” associated with autism, which he in no way means pejoratively. He even goes as far as to say that education is essentially about cultivating our own autistic tendencies: the focused attention to the organization of “small bits.” This is a good thing.

It’s not hard to take him primarily as an autistic apologist. He claims that we have defined autism by its instances of failure, and in the process failed to recognize it as a way of coping with the world with its own characteristic strengths; that there are more successful autistics than we realize, and we should come to appreciate the virtues of this pattern of mind. That is the moral element of the book.

It’s however more interesting to me as an explanation of the Web.  Where conventional wisdom dismisses online activity as shallow, amateurish and inauthentic, Cowen finds in it a framework for a new neurological health, an ordering of large quantities of small pieces that can deepen social connections and bring new meaning to our lives.

The autistic person, in Cowen’s interpretation, is acutely sensitive to the data the world bombards them with.  They are overwhelmed, and they find ways to cope with their minute sensitivity or they don’t, but it’s a mistake to interpret the end result as mere dissociation or impassivity.  Someone at a rock concert may betray symptoms consistent with deafness, but the deeper explanation is that they are awash in an excess of sound. So also the autistic person, and so also we members of the information age, awash in ideas, factoids, opinions, artistic productions of all stripes, and other trivia like our coursework and understanding of the world.  Cowen offers a rebuke to Nick Carr’s “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  It allows us to think differently in amassing and associating larger quantities of smaller pieces, and it’s a dim view that finds in this structural change only deficiencies.

I think about Sakai in these terms, not as a support for education or even academic collaborations, but rather a tool to help make sense of a disordered world – or at least a certain set of experiences within it.  As the boundaries between one’s years of study and work dissolve, and as academic success has come to be understood as a great deal more than mere coursework, so also does this set of technical tools need to situate itself within a broader ecosystem of people organizing their experience.


Written by khomotso

August 22, 2009 at 11:50 pm

Posted in elearning

Scalable Peer Learning

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A colleague of mine in the teaching and learning center is fond of bursting bubbles with a simple claim: “We already know what the best way to learn is – it’s not a mystery. It’s the private tutor.” In a world where most of the advice and best practices hinge upon what are essentially strategies for managing the activity of large numbers of people, leading with that point can be a bracing way of recognizing “good teaching principles” for the pragmatic tradeoffs they are. I was reminded of this when I came across John Hagel’s use of the phrase ‘scalable peer learning’ in his breakdown of the Big Shift.

Technology hype has become such a pervasive danger to clear thinking that even technologists are usually better off starting from the luddite’s vantage point. But every now and again that healthy, self-critical practice itself wears a rut – like it has for me recently – that one needs to climb out of. Technology is just a tool, I say. It’s about mechanical efficiency, and like all tools, when used inappropriately it just  gets in the way; what’s more, it is most often used inappropriately … and so on, until I start asking myself: why do I work in this field again?

It’s good to be reminded, from time to time, why technology might have such a deep role to play in spaces like learning and collaboration in general. ‘Scalable peer learning.’ Tightening down the pragmatic superstructure (like the management techniques of traditional teaching) in order to draw nearer to what’s essential, what’s most powerful, and maybe in the process achieve something qualitatively different.  The Web did not create the world of sterile mechanisms deflecting us from our real goals – we had that already – but its particular mechanisms may help us get closer.

Written by khomotso

August 9, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Posted in elearning

Zombie LMS

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Mark Notess has a rejoinder to those who talk about the LMS being “dead.” I think it’s a fair argument as far as it goes, but it seems to respond more to the use of the word than to a position anyone is really advocating.

… my caution is against predicting the demise of the monolithic institutional LMS so early that we lose interest in improving something likely to be with us for many years to come.

Maybe this is a problem, I don’t know. If it’s a risk it doesn’t feel like an especially threatening one, since all the practical pressure is going the other way.  Edupunk, for example, isn’t a threat to the LMS, quite the contrary: it’s a division of the research and development wing of the industry, taking the risks and bearing the costs for what will soon be commodified. But that’s a blog post for a different time.

I think what I find most interesting about the argument is that the reasons offered up for favoring an LMS have really very little to do with an LMS as such.  Mark refers to Michael Feldstein’s reflections on “control,” but wants to break down the case along different lines: privacy, simplicity, and focused attention.  These belong, in my mind, to a class of implementation detail: I can imagine most any given LMS product configured and deployed in such a way that it can support or undermine these desires (or, perhaps better put, “user choices”). What does it mean when the reasons for survival are so independent of the thing itself?  Could that not offer a fair indication of impending demise?

But that’s a cheap jab, and not my real question.  My real question is why an LMS can’t support those varieties of user choice. Why not provide a default private, simple, focused space while also allowing you to (easily) open yourself up to as much clamor, clutter and rewiring as you’re comfortable with?  Not so much “control” as “controlled exposure.”

Someone should do something about that.

Written by khomotso

August 4, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Posted in elearning