Tuesday, July 28, 2009

we're kinda like the doozers, kinda like the fraggles: tweeting as identity play

I haven't smacked the New York Times down for a woefully outdated take on new media in, oh, several weeks at least. But a recent column on how Twitter prevents us from making real connections with people forced my hand.

The piece, by novelist Lucina Rosenfeld, describes Rosenfeld's attempt at joining the Twitter revolution. She joins but doesn't know what to tweet, despite her editor's advice:
Imagine you’re at a cocktail party, she said. The things you’d say to people you met there — those are the kinds of things you should tweet. Also, people like links.

I kinda thought we were past the "I don't know how to tweet!" confessional fad. Apparently not. We're apparently not past the "social media is ruining our ability to connect with others" fad, either: Rosenfeld goes on to identify what she suspects is our dirty secret:
that no one actually wants to see anybody anymore. It’s too much work. You have to dress nicely. And make actual conversation. And there’s a recession. It’s cheaper to stay home — and e-mail old friends about how “it’s been so long it’s criminal,” and “we really have to get together.”

Except we never do anymore. Which is kind of sad when you start to think about it. It’s hard to pour your heart out in 150 characters. It’s hard to have a great time, too, when the most you can hope for from a friend is LOL (note to Mom: that’s e-mail shorthand for “laughing out loud”) vs., say, being bent double over your bar stools while comparing notes on a mutual ex.

Last week, my friend Katie took me sailing for the first time ever. Afterward, over drinks, a young sailor named Aurelian turned to me and said "Why do you Twitter?" I paused, taken aback. Katie knew exactly what to say, though: "That question suggests twittering needs justification."

What she meant was that people don't ask "why do you go sailing on Thursday nights?" or "why do you take taxidermy classes?" or "why do you go to singles night at Kevin's Pub?" They're all just excuses for making a connection with others, just some basic scaffolding to hang our social impulses on. Rosenfeld's caution, her resistance to engaging with participatory media for social purposes, is a throwback to the days when we still thought people got online to feed an addiction and not because of the deep social connection they felt by engaging with others across deeply personal, deeply social affinity spaces.

Twitter is one of those sites--like Facebook, which Rosenfeld acknowledges that she both understands and enjoys--that provides a platform for users to manage their friends across multiple affinity spaces. On Twitter, I follow Clay Shirky and John Seely Brown, two people who I'm sure do not yet know I exist; I follow (and am followed by) Henry Jenkins , Lance Speelmon and Mark Notess, colleagues who do know I exist; and I follow (and am followed by) Katie, my friends Clement and Stephanie, and my sister Laura.

Rosenfeld struggles with figuring out anything worth tweeting about. She couldn't, she writes, figure out anything interesting to say or any link worth posting. That's because she's following the letter of Twitter and not the spirit. Posting updates and links isn't a simple matter of finding interesting things that others might care about or figuring out what your followers might be interested in hearing; it's a complicated dance both with and against the established norms of the space. Any twitterer worth her salt is both creating and constantly tinkering with her identity. Each link, each post, becomes part of a public persona both more simplistic and more complicated than the one we present in the physical world to the people we interact with in face to face encounters.

This is not, despite Rosenfeld's implications to the contrary, a lesser social experience than those that call for face to face interactions. It's actually not a greater experience, either. It's simply different.

When faced with different, we have a couple of choices: We can react with caution and angst, as Rosenfeld does in her piece. We can embrace without caveat or trepidation the trappings of different, as many believe I do here. Or we can embrace different with intelligence, enthusiasm, and an analytic eye toward both its affordances and its constraints. When the NYTimes starts heading for that final category, I'll start extolling its innovative approach to participatory media.

I also feel a nagging impulse to notify Rosenfeld that tweets are limited to 140 characters, not 150.

Monday, July 27, 2009

be nice or suffer the consequences

why it's more vital than ever for corporations to value and empower their employees

Rumor has it that
Borders employees are being pressured into signing non-blogging contracts. It's an interesting move since, as everybody knows, book stores are like the shangri-la of potential bloggers: overeducated, underemployed, and underpaid, they're just dying for a pastime that challenges them without costing them any money or putting their health at risk, since a good portion of bookstore workers are also uninsured.

I know this because I worked for a Barnes & Noble for two years during and just after college. My coworkers included a classically trained musician, a budding writer who had just finished a master's degree in Joyce studies, and a 30-something brilliant college dropout who called himself Sloth. This was the late 90s, so blogging was not yet a widespread activity, so instead we spent a lot of time...well, mainly we hung out and argued about books.

As A.J. Kohn, the author of the Used Books Blog, argues, this type of crew is well poised to offer Borders virtual reams of free advertising:
Imagine if Borders employees were encouraged to write about the great books just arriving. The hidden gems, the stuff they’ve just read. Tweets about upcoming readings. There are so many ways you could make this work.

There is, Kohn writes, "only one prerequisite, investing and empowering your employees." And it appears, he writes, that this is the one thing that Borders has failed to do.

You can bet that policies restricting the use of social media indicate a deep sense of unrest among employees, many of whom are paid just over a living wage and hanging on so tenuously that they neither dare nor have the energy to vocalize their discontent. I know this well, from my previous experience in the employ of a corporation that restricted, as a matter of policy, social media use among employees.

The corporation was a veterinary hospital chain called VCA, and my branch was VCA South Shore Animal Hospital. (Will they come after me? Will they come after me? Bring it on.) When I worked there a handful of years ago, MySpace and Facebook use was on the rise among employees, and management cracked down on any employee who mentioned the company in entries there. Why? Because there was just so much negative energy that almost no employee who logged on to MySpace with the intention of writing about VCA had the intention of communicating something positive. It was a shitty place to work, with terrible management policies that served to disempower and disenfranchise employees. Wages were criminally low, and support for professional development was nonexistent. While the veterinary care was and still is excellent, customers pay through the teeth for it because of local administrators who value the bottom line over the service they provide to owners who would pay anything to help their pets.

When I worked there, many employees weren't simply dissatisfied; they loathed coming to work. Several explained why on their social networks, and at least one coworker, a receptionist who was kind, caring, and hard-working, was released from employment because of a scathing critique she posted about hospital administrators. (Will they come after me? Will they come after me? I'm ready.)

People wonder how managers catch people posting negative material online. In this case, there was a snitch--someone who trolled MySpace and Facebook looking for fire-able offenses. When he found one, he brought it to the attention of management. Presumably, he was rewarded for this, though certainly not by currying goodwill among his coworkers.

Recently, social marketing guru Faris Yakob posted on his blog a presentation he delivered called "Be Nice or Leave." The crux of his argument is that marketers who want to leverage social media platforms to sell their products don't get to control whether or even how people discuss their goods; if they try, he explained, they will fail. We might apply the "be nice or leave" principle to corporate relationships with employees. It's easier, though less cost-effective, to just oppress your employees and scare or coerce them into silence; but this becomes less possible (and more expensive) nearly by the day, as social platforms make it easier and more interesting to disclose bad policies and bad management.

The other, trickier and more time-intensive approach is to simply create a positive working environment, one that makes employees want to leverage their social platforms of choice to spread the word about their fabulous employer and the wonderful services it provides. Trouble is, lots of employers don't know how to make this kind of environment happen or simply don't care to try.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

it might not be a lot but I feel like I'm making the most

living and leaving with less

This is my last weekend in Boston. In a few days, I'll be closing up shop, losing my internet access, piling some items into a truck, and heading to points midwest.

I'm not going to bother using this post to detail the emotional tumult inherent in this kind of move, because that feels lamely self-indulgent, even to someone who spends a huge chunk of her time broadcasting her thoughts on at least three different blog sites (here, here, and here). Besides, you're probably reading this blog for one of two reasons: You know me and therefore care about my emotional state, but have received private updates; or you don't know me and don't particularly care how I'm feeling this morning.

Instead of tearing open my chest and splaying my guts across this post, then, I just want to focus on something interesting I've noticed while packing: It's a whole lot easier to get rid of stuff than it was during my previous moves (of which there have been nearly two dozen in the last 14 years, including three major regional moves and multiple cross-town or cross-state relocations).

For one thing, I no longer need to carry with me certain types of materials. I've gotten rid of hundreds of books, including over a dozen dictionaries, thesauruses, and style guides. (I kept the dictionary I won as a spelling bee champion, but only for sentimental purposes.) I shredded and recycled reams of paper documents: tax returns, credit card bills, rental agreements and contracts. I don't need them. They're all online.

For another thing, we just don't generate as much physical stuff as we used to. My friend and former coworker Debora Lui experienced a complete laptop failure--her second in a year--last summer as she was finishing her master's thesis. While the first failure reduced her to working from "printed pages, (her) memory, or scattered hand-scribbled notes," the second failure was a much different experience. She writes:
Miraculously - with all my Google Doc usage, emailing out, saving my information on remote sites - I found that I not only had one good copy of my thesis, but several copies, saved and transfered at different points of revision. I found that my other files like photographs and videos (which normally I would have been upset about losing) were also strangely distributed across the web through sites like YouTube and Facebook. While I had previously thought of my life as being contained in one place, it was suddenly shown to me as a vast network for links and uploads.

As Deb explains, we--and young people especially--collect and hold on to more everyday detritus than ever: More photos, more written communications, more logged and archived conversations. Yet because of digital technologies, the space this material takes up is so close to zero that it is, as Chris Anderson writes in Free, "too cheap to meter" and "too cheap to matter."

Why not take a hundred photos of yourself posing in front of a full-length mirror? Why not save every email you ever received or sent from every single one of your friends? Eventually your gmail account may hit 5% of its total storage space, but it's more likely that Google will increase storage capacity before you even hit that number.

My buddy Russell Francis, playing on Dorothy Holland's notion of history in person, calls this phenomenon "history in laptop." Summarizing a study he conducted of graduate students' media habits, he writes that

Over time traces of students’ lives, past and present, become ingrained into students’ personal media environment through a process of inherited, evolved and mindful design. Archives of e-mails, letters, essays written as undergraduates, digitised photographs and digitised music collections also started to accumulate on many students’ laptops. Traces of Jacob’s participation in various environmental groups, traces of Jim’s participation in multiple human rights organisations and traces of Clinton’s long history of avid news reading were evident in the links, shortcuts and contacts designed into their personalised mediascapes. Furthermore, traces of their connections to others accumulated as entries in contacts folders and instant messenger ‘buddy lists’; tools that allowed students to remain in touch with former lives and former practised identities.

The point is well taken, though the term itself seems a bit of a red herring. The term seems to imply a history that's located in a concrete place, albeit one that uses space in a way that's much different than, for example, books and letters and mementos do. In fact, history in laptop may be a more accurate term for how identity was stored as recently (and as long ago) as 3-5 years ago; today, history is stored across a virtual space no longer constrained by such silly contraptions as hard drives and memory cards. If my computer crashes, I'm likely to retrieve nearly all of the data that was stored on it--okay, let's say somewhere around 80%. Still, that's an awful lot to retrieve, given that history that resides in the brain is gone as soon as the blood flow is cut off.

Anyway, my point is that I carry around less stuff, and the less will get lesser with every passing year. Interestingly, this makes it easier to drift physically but harder to drift emotionally. We can, and often do, maintain the types of everyday connections with family, friends, and acquaintances that at least approximate the experience of physical promixity. My sister can send me a photo of her wardrobe choice for her first day of law school; we can chat online about which shoes she should wear, where she should buy her books, and how heavy her backpack is. I can follow her blog, her Facebook updates, and her tweets, and she can do the same for me. And, more importantly, all of these things are equally possible for me to do with, for example, the cluster of people I met at a recent conference, whether they live in Boston, Bloomington, or Cape Town.

For now, let's call it "history at large."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

the blogosphere is yesterday's news

The term "blogosphere" has run its course. Aside from the fact that using it in mixed company feels a little like saying "information superhighway" or capitalizing the word "internet," it turns out the word was coined as a joke. (See its apparent first appearance here; see Wikipedia's explanation of the term's origin here.

Then there's the fact that we're slowly but surely moving away from using metaphors from our physical world to describe the features of the internet. We don't call it an information superhighway anymore because the metaphor--and its imagery--began to fail us. Calling it the "world wide web" works out okay, kind of, but we're increasingly dropping the www even when we share links with each other in the "real" physical world. ("Go to nytimes.com," I say, meaning www.nytimes.com. And when you type in nytimes.com, the internet just goes ahead and adds in the www for you.)

For real, you guys, it's time for a new word. I offered up blorizon, blorld, and blandscape; but these still link to the weird phenomenon of smashing blog together with a worldly metaphor.

My Twiend Mark Notess offered up these: Blatherworld. Bloviationspace.

So far, bloviationspace tops my list for its clever leveraging of our wordsmashing tendencies for a gentle swipe at all this weird neologistic nonsense.

Any ideas or suggestions?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles"

My friend Clement showed me this video describing irrefutable proof of the existence of a higher power, starring Ray Comfort and our very own Kirk Cameron.

Oh, and here's the video that debunks every single key point in the video above.

Best of all possible worlds, indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

one thing I'll miss when print journalism finally dies

what will we do without really good exposés of cults and such, like a recent shredding of the Church of Scientology?

Aside from skimming the occasional story about Scientology's hold on celebrities or following the campaign of the civic protest group Anonymous, I really don't pay a lot of attention to the day-to-day workings of the Church of Scientology.

A recent three-part expose of the Church of Scientology's leaders, including its head, David Miscavige, caught my attention. The piece, published last month in the St. Petersburg Times, points to a long history of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse codified in the tenets of very religion itself. Members of the church are pressured to confess, in writing, all transgressions, and these documents are held in order to be used against defectors. According to the piece, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard
wrote a policy stating that a person leaves as a kind of noble gesture when he can't help himself from injuring the church. To justify leaving, Hubbard believed, the person thinks up bad things to say about the church.

Anyone who leaves has committed "overts" (harmful acts) against the church and is withholding them. The church is obligated to make such people come clean, Hubbard said, because withholding overts against Scientology can lead to suicide or death by disease. They must write down their transgressions to remain in good standing when they leave.

The story hinges on the word of four former executives in the Church of Scientology, all of whom paint a picture of extreme dysfunction (regular beatings, cruel and avaricious deceits, and the death of one emotionally troubled young woman while in the care of the notoriously anti-psychiatry church) and all of whom have suffered ongoing smear campaigns in an effort to discredit their accusations and their motives. The campaign, like so much of what this particular religion sets its mind to, is incredibly run--so well run, in fact, that though I'm predisposed toward suspicion of organized religion and especially cults like the Church of Scientology, I still wonder about the veracity of the defectors' accounts.

Particulars aside, this series is about as thorough, intricate, and detailed as you can get. It's the product of countless interviews and weeks of poring over legal documents, transcripts, and complicated news reports. The journalists, Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, have done fine work that represents the best of the journalistic profession.

It's one thing we're likely to lose, at least for a good while, as the profession continues its steady decline. Citizen journalism is good for an awful lot, but it can't offer up a detached, professional, and multi-perspectival story like this. At least, if it can, I haven't yet come across a good example. I hope someone out there can prove me wrong.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

what's a 17-letter word for mixed blessing?

You guys, I really love word and number puzzles--crosswords, sudoku, cross sums, word mines, the whole deal. One of my most long-standing hobbies is working through a ratty pile of Dell puzzle magazines. (Never Penny Press; I hate Penny Press.)

It didn't occur to me until I read this post in Good Magazine arguing that the decline of print media may also signal the decline of printed puzzles. Suddenly, I'm terrified: What if Dell Magazines goes out of business? Would I have to turn to Penny Press as the only alternative, however distasteful and what if Penny Press goes out of business too?

My fear of losing my printed puzzles (there is, so far, no evidence to justify this fear) helps me get some perspective on the people who are terrorized by the notion of their local newspaper shuttering its windows and boarding up its doors. In Boston, where I live, the prospect of failure looms large at the Globe--a long-time money sieve--after its parent company, New York Times, Inc., began looking for buyers. The Globe is only the most visible example in a trend toward faltering print media sources as revenues decline amid the emergence of participatory media.

It's a fair bet that the failure of a big chunk of our country's newspapers won't signal the death of journalism; it's not the desire for news but the medium of choice that's unsustainable.

But the readers who are most terrified of losing the Globe are a lot like I am with Dell puzzle magazines: If the Globe stops printing, they'll have to turn to the dreaded Boston Herald (which really is one of the world's lamest newspapers).

If the Herald follows suit, people may resort to the Phoenix, the Metro, or a non-local paper; and the more papers fail, the less likely readers are to find the features that drew them to a particular news source in the first place.

As a kid, I lived in a house that subscribed to both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. I was drawn to the Freep for lots of reasons, from its larger comics section to its more interesting columnists (Mitch Albom, Susan Ager, Leonard Pitt) to its more readable print type. If pro-print media types were honest, they might say that the real issue is not (just) the potential decline of journalism but their deep affinity for the features of one newspaper or another.

Losing the small delights of a particular print news source means finding new sources of delight, just like I would have to do if my puzzle magazine of choice were to shut down its presses. I suppose if this were to happen, I might start reading books before bed instead, or crochet, or develop some other evening hobby to take up the slack. I might even be the better for it. The puzzle industry might be better for it, too, if it could find more cost-effective ways to deliver its product to the populace. It might, after all, be agathokakological.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

luddites hate jetskis

Today my sister and I almost missed the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince because she misread her watch. I don't wear a watch, see, and she wears an old-fashioned analog wristwatch so it was her job to keep track of time.

As our timekeepers get increasingly digital, it appears, we have a tendency toward being less capable of quickly interpreting analog time markers. So at 1:00, she thought her watch said noon. She caught her error five minutes before the show was scheduled to start and thanks to our ability to bustle when required and theaters' tendency to start movies much later than scheduled, we got there with enough spare time for me to get my popcorn and for my sister to settle her smuggled-in candy on her lap before the previews started rolling.

The argument that relying on technologies makes us dumber is not a new one; Plato kinda started it by opposing writing because he believed that it would
introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have came to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

It was downhill from there, of course; and it may be that we hit bottom, at least in terms of networked technologies, with Nicholas Carr's June/July 2008 Atlantic piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

In considering the changes to his own orientation toward text (he's less able to read lengthy articles or books; he gets fidgety when he tries to focus on one text for an extended period of time), he writes:
The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

In fact, in drafting this post I zipped along the surface of multiple different texts, from Plato's Phaedrus to Carr's piece on Google to Jamais Cascio's response piece in this month's Atlantic, "Get Smarter." (It argues that technologies and pharmacology can help boost our intelligence.) I may not know what swims beneath the surface of any of these pieces, but I am familiar enough with all of them to use my spare cognitive energy and time to craft a blogpost that links the three. And I did it by typing (without watching the keys) at a rate of approximately 100 words per minute. I employed some basic html code, some of which I know by heart and some of which I keep on an electronic clipboard. I was able to publish it immediately, to the delight or dismay or general apathy of my intended reading public. I could (and, if you're reading this, probably did) direct traffic to this post via Twitter, Facebook, or any number of other blogs.

God knows I could have spent the time reading Plato's Phaedrus in its entirety, and I'm not disputing that I would have been enriched by the experience. But you can't argue that what I did with my time instead (synthesizing, devising an argument, increasing familiarity with html basics, crafting the argument with an intended public in mind, then circulating it among that intended audience) was not an enriching experience.

Back to the jet ski metaphor: Comedian and philosopher Daniel Tosh argues that it's impossible not to be unhappy on a jetski. "You ever seen a sad person on a waverunner? Have you? Seriously, have you?...Try to frown on a waverunner."

Watch the clip till the end. He talks about how people smile as they hit the pier--and they hit the pier because you're supposed to hit the gas to turn--"it goes against natural instinct," he says. Well, maybe at first, but once you get the hang of it, I imagine you learn how to use the gas in ways that keep you from hitting the pier. It's just that most of us hit the pier once and once is enough: we stick to dry land, which is safer but far less fun.

Okay, I'll confess: This entire post is really just a plug for Daniel Tosh's amazing new show, Tosh.0. It airs Thursdays at 10:00 P.M. ET (9:00 Pacific) on Comedy Central, and it may be the funniest half-hour show I've ever seen in my entire life. Even so, it might get canceled because of low viewership. Please just give it a try. I guarantee you'll laugh out loud at least once or your money back.

Tosh.0Thurs, 10pm / 9c
Motorcycle Granny
Daniel ToshMiss Teen South CarolinaDemi Moore Picture

Friday, July 17, 2009

the week in #lame

So much lame stuff has been happening recently that I've decided to manage it with a weekly post summarizing the lameness. This is the very first installment of 'the week in #lame.'

Massachusetts gets all anti-immigration, protectionist, a tiny bit stupid

The country's only commonwealth, the first to legalize gay marriage, the first to legalize universal health care coverage, has backed away from that last thing by lpassing legislation that excludes 30,000 legal immigrants from state-mandated health insurance.

The immigrants in question are, again, in the country legally but arrived within the last five years and fall into the low-income category. According to reports, the move is an effort to reduce state deficits, but given that this newly excluded group will most likely still get sick, still go to the hospital, and still require care--just the more expensive, unsubsidized kind--it's not clear how this will actually resolve any budget woes over the long haul.

South Carolina governer, wife, still on speaking terms

According to the Associated Press, Mark Sanford skipped a meeting with economic advisors this week in favor of spending time with his wife.

Sanford, you recall, is in loooooooOOOOooooove with a hot Argentinian. Or...he was in love with a hot Argentinian. Or...he's in love with his wife. Just when we thought his wife was going to do us all proud in the face of this scandal, she turns around and lets her husband be in her presence.

Italian boxer Arturo Gatti, known for "relentless violence" in ring, strangled to death
subhead: probably by wife

Gatti, 37, was beaten about the head and then strangled, apparently by a purse strap. He was, according to reports, on a second honeymoon with his wife, who is the prime suspect in his murder.
Gatti's widow, 23-year-old Amanda Rodrigues, has proclaimed her innocence despite being the only suspect in her husband's murder.

A vocal minority in the news once again
subhead: some people actually believe America's moonshot was a hoax

Incredibly, a group of people exist who still do not believe anybody has ever landed on the moon. As a recent New York Times article points out,
Forty years after men first touched the lifeless dirt of the Moon — and they did. Really. Honest. — polling consistently suggests that some 6 percent of Americans believe the landings were faked and could not have happened.

There are movies. There are books. There are websites.

Forty years ago, American astronauts landed on the moon. They really did. Honest.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

why I love social media

because social ties are inherently interesting--and media platforms that support new kinds of social ties are changing everything

Perhaps predictably, the best analysis of the future of news media that I've so far come across comes from technology guru Clay Shirky.

Shirky compares journalism to driving: the ability to drive spread from people who were paid to drive to the general public. "We still pay people to drive," Shirky writes,
from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers.

Like driving, journalism is not a profession — no degree or certification is required to practice it, and training often comes after hiring — and it is increasingly being transformed into an activity, open to all, sometimes done well, sometimes badly, but at a volume that simply cannot be supported by a small group of full-time workers. The journalistic models that will excel in the next few years will rely on new forms of creation, some of which will be done by professionals, some by amateurs, some by crowds, and some by machines.

We're not headed for a journalistic upgrade, Shirky explains; "[t]he change we’re living through isn’t an upgrade, it’s a upheaval, and it will be decades before anyone can really sort out the value of what’s been lost versus what’s been gained."

This is precisely why Matt Jones' recent provocatively titled article "Why I Hate Social Media", is not only dangerously misguided, it's also painfully short-sighted. Jones' justification is fairly simple: media just isn't that interesting.

People are interesting. Ideas are interesting. Stories are interesting. Real stuff is interesting. Brands are interesting (or, at least, some of them are). Even ads can be interesting. But media? Media just connects those things. It's a conduit. Media is not interesting. Not even the "social" kind.

I reject the very premise of Jones' argument and did so publicly in the comments section beneath his article. But in fact, I learned more about why Jones is so short-sighted by tracking readers' comments. Here's a gem from a reader calling himself Wildebees:
There's a well known media theorist called Marshall McLuhan. Heard of him? He said "the medium is the message". It's not just the content of media that's important. The way the content is transmitted itself significantly impacts how our world works. If you don't get the medium, you are going to make the wrong suggestions to your clients....

Get this. All media is social. From the printing press, to the telephone, all the way to Twitter. But the process of becoming social have dramatically accelerated with the convergence of the telco and computer industry. Social media is not a trend, but a fundamental human urge to communicate. And now we have the media do do so.

Wildebees was fairly easy to track, and I'm now following him on Twitter. He is, in fact, the one who linked me to the Shirky piece in the first place. And this points to a big piece of why Jones is so very, very wrong about social media: new platforms offer us new ways to connect with like-minded people--to join a vast series of what network theorist Yrjo Engestrom calls "knotworks": dynamically changing and distributed collaborative networks structured around participation in projects or tasks. The emergence of new media platforms means I can rely on a group of like-minded people--who are also relying on their own sets of like-minded people--to track, filter, and identify information that I might find useful. They do it for me, I do it for them, everybody gets smarter in the process.

I can't imagine being the kind of person who finds this phenomenon "uninteresting."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

cross-post: on matthew robson, teens & twitter, and why we're such fans of the declarative sentence

cross-posted from my post at the Guardian's CIF: America

You know you're living in the middle of a social revolution when all of the following things happen:

The story of Matthew Robson is, depending on your general stance toward social media, young people, and media moguls, some combination of comic and / or terrifying and / or compelling and / or sad and / or absurd. Meanwhile, freaked-out CEOs worldwide are asking: "Is Robson right that teens don't use Twitter?"

That, my friends, is the wrong question. The right question is this: Why did this teen's memo, short on evidence but long on declarative sentences, get so much play among mainstream media outlets? In other words: Why is one 15-year-old's middling analysis of teen media use being interpreted as the new bible of social media?

The answer is simple: We're lost in a forest and we're looking for a guide to lead us out. We live in a world where knowledge is abundant and access is near-ubiquitous. What's scarce is the ability to sift through the information, to extract, synthesize, and circulate key ideas to a public that's starving for someone to serve as an intelligent filter.

The knowledge-abundance model is a first for humankind, and we're struggling to come to terms with what this shift means for every institution we've erected, from economics to education to religion to work. Older adults especially, and especially those who feel overrun and overburdened with media messages, are alert for anybody who appears to speak this new "knowledge-abundance" language with anything approaching fluency. Young people, more adaptive in general and more capable of living with ease in a high-stimulus media environment, make social media seem so easy that people who should really know better will sit still and soak up every word.

Robson's memo, all questions of accuracy and expertise aside, displays a remarkable air of confidence and credibility. Look at this sample passage, about teens' willingness to read print media:

The only newspapers that are read are tabloids and freesheets (Metro, London Lite…) mainly because of cost; teenagers are very reluctant to pay for a newspaper (hence the popularity of freesheets such as the Metro). Over the last few weeks, the Sun has decreased in cost to 20p, so I have seen more and more copies read by teenagers. Another reason why mainly tabloids are read is that their compact size allows them to be read easily, on a bus or train. This is especially true for The Metro, as it is distributed on buses and trains.

So: in a revolutionary shift, nearly everyone has nearly the same access to the bulk of human knowledge. Knowledge, ostensibly the great equalizer, doesn't in practice equalize a thing because there's simply too much information out there for any one person to make sense of it. We're surrounded by so many unfamiliar trees that we can't begin to figure out which of them might bear fruit. It's why we rely on blogs and Twitter to distill our news and point us, quickly, to a few key stories; it's why we keep track of a vast network of friends and acquaintances through social networks like Facebook and MySpace; and it's why a 15-year-old intern's memo is taken at face value because it offers a simple roadmap for navigating social media use among teens.

When you're lost in a forest, it appears, you'll follow anybody who promises to lead you to a clearing. The next question is: How long until we realize that the guide may be walking quickly as if he's following a path but is in fact just as lost as everyone else?

Monday, July 13, 2009

america is the weirdest country in the world

I got this via the awesome blog Things You Wouldn't Know If We Didn't Blog Incessantly (tywkiwdbi for short).

Acceptance of Evolution in Western Countries:

According to the National Geographic story that accompanies the image, only 14 percent of Americans polled believed that evolution is "definitely true," and Americans are actually three times more likely to be undecided about evolution than they were 20 years ago, up from 7 percent of those polled to 21 percent.

Also, this study indicated that fewer than half of Americans could offer even a minimal, informal definition of "DNA." Okay, if anyone asks, you tell them this:

DNA is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms.

Comment is Free (and bloggers are cheap)

For all my bluster about how traditional media outlets are no longer economically viable, I was still taken a bit aback when the Guardian, which pays me to contribute to CIF America, sent out notifications that budget cuts would result in a decrease in payments to commissioned bloggers. The decrease amounts to about a 30 percent pay cut per piece.

My first thought was: This is exactly what I deserve for mouthing off to Big Media. My second thought was: I wonder what I should write about next.

You see, I'm still so surprised--stunned, flattened, overwhelmed, overjoyed--by the prospect of somebody actually wanting to pay me on top of giving me what I wanted anyway (an international platform to broadcast my ideas) that even after the pay cut I still feel like I'm getting away with highway robbery. I've been a writer for most of my adult life, beginning as a beat reporter for a local newspaper (you get paid, but not very much, and nobody really cares too much what you think as long as you tell them how the school board voted last Thursday), then drifting toward creative writing (poetry; and no, you don't get paid) before landing in the world of online reportage. I'm young enough to be electrified by the seemingly limitless potential of a good blogpost to draw in traffic and responses, yet old enough to not completely accept that blogging is a real, authentic form of journalism (and many of the commenters to CIF, as I'm sure they will point out, agree with me on this).

Technology guru Clay Shirky writes that "the future belongs to those who take the present for granted." He argues that young people are better poised than any previous generation to take advantage of new media platforms "not because they know more useful things than we do, but because they know fewer useless things than we do." I'm old enough, for example, to know for sure that the privilege of broadcasting your opinions to thousands of readers is the sacred domain of the elite few. I'm old enough to believe in the scarcity model of knowledge: The right to speak is reserved for the privileged few, because if we all had the right and resources to speak then nothing would be worth saying at all.

And now I'm unlearning all of these things, because they're less true with every new blog that gets tossed up, with every new online forum, with every drop in price of video editing software and word processing technologies. It's not, after all, knowledge that's the scarce commodity anymore; everybody with Internet access has a passkey to approximately the same information as everybody else, regardless of credentials, experience, or IQ. Now, the commodity is the ability to filter that knowledge, to identify key ideas and spin them in an interesting way for an information-laden audience that's waiting to hear something new.

When we do it well, we become the touchstones for hundreds of others to weigh in and have their voices broadcast to the thousands. That's what the Guardian commissions its writers to do. That's why it pays. It may not feel like work to me, but then again, I suppose the best jobs never do.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

why I'll never be a seminal thinker

Two words you'll never catch me using: "seminal" and "disseminate."

Both words come from the latin root seminalis, or seed, from which we also get the word semen.

Now: seminal, disseminate, semen. All linked to the notion of the seed, the germination of all things that can grow: the sowing of ideas, of genes, of the next generation of people, texts, and theories. The terms, though we may not think of it in daily use, are innately masculine--innately male. A seminal idea is one that has taken root, has grown, has spread; it engenders offspring in which we can see (genetic) elements of the initial idea, text, or approach. There's not even a feminine equivalent. What would we say? He's an ovulant thinker in his field?

As a female scholar, I resent the notion that my ideas may, if I'm lucky, be likened to the very masculine process of impregnation. I resent the paradigm that leads us to consider seminal ideas that allow other thinkers to bear fruit.

It's just such a lame way of thinking, especially for scholars who are ostensibly far beyond this masculine approach to scholarship. Besides, we have tons of other possible terms to choose from, as evinced by the brief thesaurus included below:

seminal: critical, crucial, fundamental, important, influential, original, primary, distinctive, distinguished, esteemed, extraordinary, famous, foremost, incomparable, leading, notable, noted, noteworthy, preeminent, prominent, formative, generative, ingenious, innovative, unprecedented, untried, unusual

disseminate: distribute, scatter, broadcast, circulate, diffuse,disperse, promulgate, propagate, publicize, publish, radiate, sow, spread, strew, radiate, bestow, deal out, deliver, devote, disburse, dish out, dispense, mete, communicate, declare, decree, make public, spread, proliferate

I have two close friends, both male, both academics, who use seminal and disseminate with reckless abandon. I don't guess this post will stop them from using those terms in the future. But it will at least explain why I make a funny face every time they do.

Friday, July 10, 2009

on picking a dissertation topic

I remember learning about the higher education credentialing system for the first time from my mom. I was pretty young--maybe five or six--and she was trying to explain what the phrases "bachelor's degree" and "master's degree" meant.

...and if they're really smart, she added, some people even become doctors.

"But to get their doctorate, they have to write a paper that's about something that nobody's ever written about."

I wondered: How do they know that they have a topic that nobody's ever written about?

Her answer: "There's a book with the titles of all the dissertations ever written. When it's time to pick a paper topic, they look through the book to make sure they have a title that nobody's ever used before."

I remember thinking at that time how boring and time-consuming it would be to have to read every single title of every paper ever written. Now I think, if only it were that easy.

I do hope they're working on putting that book online, and that it gets uploaded in time for my dissertation proposal. I'd hate to have to walk into an actual library--they smell funny and the graphics aren't that good.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

nerdcore is dead? long live nerdcore

Chaos has ensued after post-punk laptop rapper MC Lars proclaimed the death of nerdcore this week. The post, RIP Nerdcore (1998-2009), begins with this video:

Lars prefaces his pronouncement with the following "important truth":

I have love for ANYONE trying to make a career for him or herself as a professional musician. The odds are stacked against you incredibly. No one buys CDs, so you're going to have to make your living off of touring and selling t-shirts out of a suitcase. GarageBand is in the hands of any and everyone, so unless you have more than a remedial understanding of home recording, the competition is ridiculous when it comes to the need for your product to be presented professionally. Plus, on top of all of that, nowadays everyone knows how to market themselves with Myspace and Facebook and Twitter and blah blah blah, so unless you get extremely lucky with the best song ever written played for the exactly right people at the exactly right time with the most dope YouTube video ever filmed, you're dead in the water.

Then, however, he goes on to explain that "unless you are MC Frontalot, it's time to stop trying to make 'nerdcore hip-hop'." Too many people, he explains, want only to jump on the nerdcore bandwagon (it's a very small bandwagon, ha ha) and do it by trying to sound exactly like Frontalot, the originator of the nerdcore movement. He writes:

I get demos all the time by kids who self-identify as "nerdcore hip-hop artists". And I tell them all that before you try to artificially incorporate yourself into a subgenre, that they need to UNDERSTAND its genesis and BE PREPARED TO PUSH IT FORWARD. Sounding exactly like the dopest people in the scene is not enough.

Well, as you can probably imagine, members of the nerdcore scene got their Star Trek Underoos all in a bunch over this post. Over at Hipster, Please!, the author points out that not only does Lars misunderstand the value of labels like "nerdcore" ("geek rock," "chiptunes" etc.) for describing a musician's proximity to one musical approach or another. He adds that
Lars similarly glosses over a significant chunk of applicable MCs that I fear he perhaps doesn't in his treatise on nerdcore. Whore Moans, The Ranger, Grandmaster Pink, MadHatter, Navi and Super Dragon X are not new to hip-hop. These are cats who were making beats and recording rhymes (with varying levels of nerdy slant) without the insulation of a nerdcore "scene," but who used the loose affiliation that sprang up in the wake of Rhyme Torrents and Nerdcore For Life to find similar, like-minded artists. At times many of them have expressed their own dissatisfaction with the direction of the scene, but their collective antidote has been to make their own shit that much more dope.

Then MC Frontalot himself hosted a forum for discussing this very issue: Is nerdcore dead? It's a lengthy and lively forum, and I think it's safe to say that any proclamation that engenders this amount of backlash may have been made in error. Nerdcore is dead--long live nerdcore.

Lars, to his great credit, is weathering the storm he brewed up with grace and aplomb. Not only has he not vituperated back at the people spitting venom at him, but he's been linking to other people's thoughts on the issue via his Twitter feed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

some thoughts on Sakai 09: here's the church, here's the steeple, open the doors...

I've been liveblogging day one of the Sakai 2009 Conference in Boston, MA. One key theme in all of the panels I've attended so far is this:

We (designers, programmers, educators, faculty, administrators, students) need a shared language for talking about open education, open technologies, and Sakai.

Which makes me wonder: Why is there such a dearth of faculty and, specifically, education faculty at this conference? My sense so far is that the majority of the 500-odd attendees of this conference are in administration, technical support, and Information Technology. A few presenters are also faculty members, but this is generally a split role--IT folks also teach part time.

If it's true that we need a common language, if it's true that we need to think about how to support adoption of and deep engagement with the tools made possible through Sakai, then we need a wider variety of people at the table. A common language cannot be devised until everybody starts talking.

Sakai is an ambitious and admirable project, and designers and programmers have developed a robust system that supports a wide range of interaction types. What's missing seems to be the conversation about pedagogy. Presenters have pointed to the tool's affordances, but I wonder how much work has been done exploring what kinds of learning experiences are supported through Sakai, and how the results of Sakai-based courses compare to those of offline courses of courses that work through other types of collaborative learning environments.

Where are the education folks? Were they not invited?

Sakai 09 Panel: Closing the Deal

Closing the Deal: Seeing Sakai Adopting as a Sales Process
Sarah "Intellagirl" Smith-Robbins, Senior Director of Emerging Technologies, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University
Roger Henry, Instructional Technology Consultant, Indiana University

Roger and a Back Story

Roger is, first of all, awesome. He started his presentation by trying to figure out what kinds of support people at IU would need to adopt OnCourse, which is what Sakai is called at IU. He met with faculty, administrators, deans, and staff to try to find strategies for encouraging adoption; and he also reached out to Kelley Executives affiliated with IU's Kelley School of Business. He explained that he presented some of his ideas about the results of this at last year's Sakai Conference in Paris.

Also, Roger added that there's more backstory to last year's Sakai presentation in Paris--he was trapped there for three weeks.

"But don't worry," he added, "I consoled myself."

Sarah's Presentation: The difference between higher ed and executive ed

First of all, Sarah is awesome. She points out key aspects that differentiate traditional higher ed from executive education. Here are her key points about the differences:
  • The "students" are different (for one thing, they don't want to be called "students").
  • The learning goals are different. in a traditional classroom, the instructor defines the learning goals; in executive education, students come to the program with needs.
  • The courses are different. The topics are usually very narrow and specialized to a specific business issue. They also bring their own culture, instead of integrating into the IU culture that's already established.
  • The expectations for Return on Investment (ROI) are different. If you have students who are working adults and paying for their own education, they have different expectations than the typical undergrads. In executive education, the transaction is linked to economic value. "I think we're going to see more of this kind of expectation among students, as well," she added. "We're already seeing students push bak and say 'This isn't directly related to the job I want, so I'm not going to take it.'"

The Circumstances
  • Exec ed clients aren't students in the university system.
  • Most companies are looking for online learning solutions and have failed. (Sarah explains: People find software, then try to solve a problem instead of identifying the problem first and finding software to solve it.)
  • Exec Ed courses are short and constructed on short notice.
  • University faculty aren't typically able to build unique settings for Exec Ed

OnCourse: The Solution
  • Supported by a large university system
  • Available globally 24/7 (and also scalable)
  • Familiar to faculty
  • Flexible enough to accommodate a range of learning experiences

One significant shift, Sarah said, was offering a new kind of learning experience. Typical corporate approaches align with the "death by PowerPoint" approach--everybody sits in a room while somebody talks at them and everybody just tries to get through the day.
"So the first question people ask," she said, "Is 'Can I upload my PowerPoints to it?'"
This is one of the key issues they address on a regular basis.

Sarah tosses up Here Comes Everybody and I swoon with joy. Seriously, you guys, read this book.

"Promise Tool Bargain," she says. At which point I link you to every blogpost I've written on exactly this framework.

Sarah points out the promise of OnCourse, and Roger stands up to talk about the tool. He is, he explains, a choral conductor by training, and his research focuses on how the tools we use shape our practice.

"Most of the problems I hear at IU," he said, "are tied to using the tool."
A lot of questions, he said, are also about what will happen when things go wrong.

He points out that a big part of offering the tool is linked to ensuring people that when problems arise, they will be resolved as quickly as possible (and gives the example of a flurry of emails that went out last night at 11:30 about a problem somebody was having; it was solved by the morning).

Another key, Roger said, is managing expectations: "We're not selling a perfect tool." It will break, it will slow down, it will go down for maintenance, and the key is to be as responsive and communicative about these things as possible.

The Bargain
Sarah speaks to the bargain: "Faculty have to engage with learning the tool in a new learning paradigm. They can't use a lecture format and expect it to be as good as or better than a classroom.

"Using a tool that is so transparently requiring participation can cause some issues with the expectations, both of faculty and exec ed students."

Another part of the bargain, she said, is being honest about the weaknesses and problems with the tool as well.

Sarah said she uses the "promise, tool, bargain" paradigm to approach faculty issues.
Example: When faculty says "my students are not participating" Sarah asks where did the bargain break down.

Did you not promise they would be evaluated on their participation? Are you giving them lame questions? Are you using the wrong tool to facilitate the discussion? Have you explained to them the requirements and the energy required to put in in order to get a good conversation out of it?

Another example: If a CEO says he talked to someone on the phone and got an unprofessional interaction, she asks: Did we promise to offer professionalism at all times?

***my thoughts***
Of course I'm thrilled to hear Clay Shirky mentioned--and, especially, the "promise, tool, bargain" paradigm that I love so well. Though Sarah and Roger pointed to the value of this framework for engaging executive clients, this approach has tons of potential for bringing people in to the open education movement that Vijay Kumar pointed to in his opening keynote this morning.

Sakai 09 Update: lunch was awesome

The food was okay, but what really rocked was the conversation I had with a guy named Aaron Watters, a software engineer from Rutgers University. Here's the main thing: He's a computer scientist and he said it's not too late for me to learn programming!

This, you guys, is my secret dream: getting under the hood of the open source movement for the purpose of opening up education. Aaron recommended that since I have experience with html code, I could try working with building dynamic websites with php.

"You'll know you're a real programmer," he said, "when you enter the pupal stage. It's the stage where you stop eating, stop sleeping, stop talking to everybody for about three weeks.

"And when you emerge," he said, a magical expression on his face, "you're a real programmer."

I want what he's having.

Except, of course, that it happened to Aaron when he was 14. I'm more than twice that age. Do you guys think it's too late?

Sakai 09 Panel: Faculty Success Stories

Encouraging successful teaching with technology

Description: To foster innovative teaching and learning with technology, Indiana University’s technology services (UITS) widely shares stories of successful teaching and learning with technology. The sharing process relies on principles of Appreciative Inquiry, strategically chosen communication channels, and a sustainable system to generate stories.

Presenters: Michael Morrone, IU; Jan Holloway, IU; John Gosney, IU

Indiana University calls its Sakai program OnCourse and these IU faculty and staff have worked to collect stories of faculty uses of the tool. Their data collection strategy was to gather stories.

This panel, presented in clear language with good use of multimedia materials, makes the important point that institutions need to have a common language for discussion technology use--and that this language needs to extends across departments, programs, and expertises. This means that IT guys, designers, faculty, and students need to be able to communicate easily.

Michael Morrone:
"When I started doing interviews, I learned that faculty use Sakai in a lot of different ways. There's a lot of good energy that needs to be harnessed so Sakai can be harnessed."

Michael starts with the following clip from Star Trek to suggest that we shouldn't be slaves to our technologies.

"There's a big divide and a lot of diversity in the way faculty come to the use of tehcnology. We talk about technology in very different ways, even among the faculty. When you start looking at faculty vs. technology, the divide in how we talk is even bigger."

How do you get across the river?
Michael Morrone shows a photo taken from his office of a river and asks: How would you get across the river? Then he asks: How would you get all of us across the river?
One person can cross in tons of ways; lots of people cross in lots of different ways. If we all wanted to get across the river, we have to have a shared language. We have to be able to talk about the problem in the same way.

One of our hopes for today's session is to find out how we can get ppl at our institutions to talk about teaching and learning with technology in similar ways. If we can do that, then the teaching with technology doesn't become something we fear. It becomes something we embrace.

How do we do this?
"We did it with stories."

Why stories?

Stories brand tehcnology mission through shared language
"People don't like to think of a university as a business. They don't like to think of students as consumers. But you have to brand because if you don't, people think about you how they want to think about you. Successful corporations have an image and an identity, and "your technology has to have an identity on campus."

Why stories? "Humans thrive on stories.... Stories are a way to start dialogue, to get people interested. This is a way to create conversation, intrigue, dialogue. Once we start doing that, then together, we start constructing the language that will work for us as a community."

Morrone showed this video of Randy Isaacson, associate professor of Educational Psychology at IU South Bend, who uses Oncourse CL to teach his students about metacognition.

Key points from the video:
1. You have to have experienced faculty.
2. You have to use technology in tons of different ways.

John Gosney is up next: Once we gather the stories, how do we get them out to the IU community?
A key strategy is a "multi-channel approach"
  • OnCourse "announce" listserv/other mailing lists
  • Teaching center consultants
  • Weekly "e-news" (264k distribution including Big Ten and beyond)
  • Internal communications (uits.news.edu, podcast portal)
Second video: Kathy Lay, Asisstant Professor of Social Work.

**side note: I am a subscriber to the uits.news.edu listserve and I NEVER read it. Though I imagine I will start reading it now.**

Getting faculty engaged: some strategies
  • Developing "grassroots" faculty conversations (faculty-to-faculty)
  • Normalize IT use (comparisons and conversations give people baselines and ideas)--we don't want it to seem so complicated that it becomes onerous. Indeed, Gosney points out, even being cutting edge may not always be necessary--a cutting edge tool requires work to learn, and that's not always useful.
  • Change nature of conversations so that language is highly relevant to teaching and learning as opposed to "tool based."

Gosney makes the important point that video often works much better for faculty than text. "And the technology is very inexpensive, simple to use...and once you film it, it's incredibly easy to upload in Sakai."

Question: Communications seem very one-way (listservs, email communications, etc.). Can you talk about thoughts about how you might foster more discourse on these topics?
John: "My boss (Stacy Morrone) brings up a very good point." We set up a one-way conversation to limit negative comments--not because we didn't want to hear it but because we didn't want to foster" a negative space. "I think a real challenge is trying to get that ongoing kind of discussion, and we can blanket the universtiy, and in many cases we do...but until we get that kind of grassroots level faculty-to-faculty communication...that's what we're really after. And once that starts, the rest kind of takes care of itself. It's a real challenge getting this communication and sustaining it."

Think / Pair / Share
Current practices for showcasing teaching with technology
Process for identifying best practices
Identify possible stories that are appropriate for your institution
Identify other criteria / guidelines for stories at your institution
Should success stories be housed intra-university? How?

**my thoughts**
I've been working with OnCourse at IU for the last several weeks with my advisor, Dan Hickey. Despite my engagement with a variety of classroom and other educational communities, I find OnCourse somewhat onerous in terms of developing fluency with its features. Stories in themselves are helpful, but they can't magically lead to engagement with the technology itself. I see OnCourse has a lot of .pdf's and other "getting started" materials, but I'm not positive this is sufficient, especially for faculty who are anxious about working with new technologies.

I happen to be the kind of person who doesn't read instruction manuals or watch instructional videos--if I can't figure it out on my own, I don't bother. I'm going to spend some time working with OnCourse after this conference, then I'll get back to you.

Sakai 09 Megasites panel: my reach exceeds my grasp

Liveblogging Sakai panel: MegaSite Lessons Learned

Session Description: This session will present examples from three universities demonstrating the unique challenges associated with mega sites-- single sites serving hundreds, even thousands, of students. What kinds of needs are we being asked to meet at this scale? Which tools are the best fit? What customizations were employed? Finally, what do mega-sites need from 3.0?

Presenters: Diana Perpich, University of Michigan; John Leasia, University of Michigan; Stephen Marquard, University of Cape Town; Margaret Ricci, Indiana University; David Martinez, Polytechnic University of Valencia.

Margaret Ricci: "Mega Sites or, as I call it, shoving a round peg in a square hole. Doing this makes Sakai do things that...it's a big stretch."


I've learned something important in this session: There is a good deal of information about Sakai that is out of my range of understanding. It's possible that this session was just misplaced--I suspect I'd have a better sense of the connotations of megasites once I have a sense of a regular old normalsite--and it's possible that the panelists were rushing to make up for Vijay Kumar's keynote going 15 minutes over schedule. It's also possible that my next session will be chosen to give my confidence level the powerboost it now needs.

Sakai 09 Keynote: Vijay Kumar

Keynote: "Learning OUTed: Open Ubiquitous Transformational"

Vijay Kumar is MIT's Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, Director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, and a member of the Advisory Committee for MIT's OpenCourseWare project. He was also an editor of Opening Up Education, a new and key text for the open education movement. (Dr. Kumar's full bio can be accessed here.)
"My god," Dr. Kumar says, "I thought...this is our Woodstock!"

Remarking on the number of new attendees, Dr. Kumar said:
"There's at least a 50% growth (new users) and that speaks volumes of the strength of this community--which is why it's a particular privilege for me to be here because Sakai's an important marker for something I'm quite passionate about: the open education movement. And yes indeed, it is a movement."

Kumar identified the open education movement one that's both global and accelerating. He notes MIT's OpenCourseWare project as a key momentum-driver, but a wide range of other proejcts too, including work in the k-12, publication, and textbook sectors in addition to higher education. "We need to make sure," he adds, "that this movement doesn't die or meet the future that so many movements have faced."

Going back to the title: Learning OUTed:

"I think one of the most significant impacts that this growing education movement has had is really making learning very ,very visible--learning in all its flavors...in all its diversity... and suddenly attention is shifting in focus. I think this is the really sustainable impact of the open ed movement.

"For me, what's significant, why I think this is indeed a really dramatic movement, is because it's become part of the discourse of educational change--nationally, globally, whether it's at the micro level or at the level of national or international crusades.

"The fact that this has become a part of the discourse for educational change...is what really signifies the impact of this movement--that this movement is really something to be reckoned with."

Pointing to Opening Up Education, the book he recently edited, he asks this question: "How can we advance teaching and learning by taking full advantage of open education?"

Kumar points to the "iron triangle" of access, quality, and cost--if you want to increase, for example, access, typically either the quality suffers or the cost has to go up. He points to the need for gatekeeping if you want high quality.

"One of the things about open education is that it offers the opportunity to do better things with more quality at lower cost and increased access. It makes the iron triangle much more flexible. It has the ability to render the previously inflexible triangle flexible."

The implications of the iron triangle are much more significant for developing companies and large institutions, he said, but also relevant in developed countries.

Open Education Vision Elements

Kumar points to two areas where Open Education has the most vision-changing promise:
Blended Learning: "When we talk about blended learning--and this isn't a new notion--I'm talking about how open education enables intelligent combinations of the physical and virtual, formal education with informal education..."this is one of the transcendental promises of open learning."

Boundary-less Education: "I am not talking just about traditional geographical and political boundaries, but boundaries that are much more subtle Between disciplines, between research and learning, between on campus and off campus....in fact, there's a lot of talk about lifelong learning. I'm talking about all the boundaries that exist between these sectors...between living and learning. And the possibilities of open education presents the transcending of these boundaries in multiple ways."

Dr. Kumar points to multiple examples from MIT, including OpenCourseWare, the Spoken Lecture Browder, an iLab, an open-ed project based at MIT but open for use in multiple sites (therefore boundary-less). Labs in general are expensive, he points out, not just in terms of actual cost but also in terms of the learner's time. One of the criteria of good courseware is that it is efficient on learners' time. iLabs offers a strategy for addressing latency--the phenomenon of a class followed by a lab two or three days later (during which time learners lose information).

One issue he points to is the problem that a lot of learning materials (esp. on blogs) is difficult to package for ready use. We need to consider viability and appropriateness of converting material into open resources.

Kumar adds: There's a lot of assumption that making something available is making it usable, but unless we have ways to show the pedagogical underpinnings of a course, the educational value of some material is debatable--is in fact suspect."

Design, Kumar explains, "is a very, very important influence in who participates in this open education revolution, and in terms of the kinds of choices we enable, and in terms of the kinds of things that can happen." Just having things open is not enough, he explains, unless the design allows access.

Readiness for Opening Up Education: Organizational Cultural Factors

Running out of time, Kumar offers final comments in the following categories:
  • Scarcity vs. Abundance (reliance on situated learning / push teaching vs. demand pull learning)
  • Sense Making (ordering the digital disorder, pedagogical shifts [individual learning=collaborative, social learning], codevelopment of knowledge with learners)
  • Accountability and Accreditation (massification implications for Quality and Preparation; Distributed; Open Knowledge and Learning)

Kumar ends with this quote:

"we are seeing the early emergence of a meta-university--a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced." Charles M Vest, President Emeritus, MIT

**My thoughts**
Vijay Kumar is a big name in the open education movement, especially for anyone who's done any reading or conferencing. I'm already a convert to the open education movement and therefore found his talk fascinating; but there was a mass of newbies in the audience, and this was a moment to grab and convert the fence-sitters. Even if it's true (and I'd be willing to believe it) that everybody in the audience is already a fan of open education, I wish Kumar had spent more time galvanizing us around the notion of community. As Michael Korcuska noted, attendees came from all over the world. We're meeting for the first and, for some of us, the only time--we're converging in the name of open source, open technology, and open education. Let's value, admire, and rally around the ethos, the spirit of open education, that brings us together. Kumar pointed to this in discussing the newly flexible iron triangle, but while that hits me right in my logic center, I'm also here to get hit in my passion center.

Okay, that's the mini-critique. What I'll add is that Kumar is a fascinating, smart, excellent speaker whose ability to talk about complicated, difficult issues in the economics of education is impressive. Mind-blowing, really. As noted in the Twitter conference feed,

You can follow Sakai tweets with the hashtag #Sakai09.

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