Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Update on the zombie apocalypse: newspapers won't survive either

In a precise exercise in timeliness, two days ago I explained on this blog how humankind might survive a zombie apocalypse. In that post, I explained that offering strategies for self-defense against zombies was the wrong conversation, and that instead, we need to focus on strategies for mass coordination using social tools. I wrote that "too much control of information in government hands can lead to mass information and, ultimately, disaster" and that the people can mobilize and coordinate mass defensive maneuvers using Twitter, text messaging, and smartmob tactics.

Now today, alert reader ZedWord has notified me that zombies have attacked journalism. Paul Dailing has uploaded early details at the Huffington Post. As I predicted, social media played a key role in reporting the invasion. Dailing explains that
[n]ews of the zombie apocalypse swarmed through the Twittersphere, then the blogosphere, the statusphere, the vlogosphere, the Facebookosphere, the Xangasphere, the LavaLifeosphere, the mesosphere for some reason and the screamingmobosphere....

TV stations sent their bustiest reporters boldly into the fray as newer and better logos were designed. Morning shows asked viewers to text in their opinions of death by zombies - text 1 for "The undead should not eat our babies," text 2 for "The undead should."

"The undead should not" won decisively, except on Fox News.

The best part of the piece, though, is what happened in the comments section. The first response came from the Zombie Anti-Defamation League, which wrote:

We at the Zombie Anti Defamation League (zadl.org) object to the vitalist tone in which the article is written.

Too often in films, popular culture, and news reporting are our post-vital friends depicted as mindless ghouls. We would hope in these enlightened times of the 21st century, that we can finally begin to rise above those vitalist stereotypes, and present a more honest and inclusive view of Zombies. This is the reason for the ZADL. We do not seek to cast aspersions upon you, but only to provide a voice, and educate people about the vitalist attitudes that pervade our culture.

Words like "menace" and "undead" are considered distasteful to us, and we seek to change the dialog about Zombies by using more Zombie-conscious terms like "post vital."

We thank you for your attention in this matter.

Go to the article to read Paul Dailing's response to the ZADL.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

How to survive a zombie invasion: still pretty much impossible

but new media platforms offer a tiny glimmer of hope, if we can find a way to use them

In a recent post detailing how to survive a variety of extreme disasters, I explained that there is no way to survive a zombie invasion. Now, from David Hambling, comes a Wired article on how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Enough already. The information Hambling offers is sound, but his premise--that careful planning and the right weaponry can help you survive a zombie attack--is woefully misguided. This article, like so many others, asks and answers the wrong questions. It's not a matter of how to kill a zombie but how to coordinate a mass defense in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Unless we can find a way to shift the conversation toward the latter, the hope for human survival hovers right around zero percent.

First, the details. Hambling explains that while three major classes of zombie exist,
mostly you're likely to encounter the type of Alien Zombie favored by George Romero. These are reanimated by an extra-terrestrial force; this is an infectious form of zombiedom that seems to be spread via biting. They are oblivious to most injuries but can reliably be taken out by destroying their brain.

When battling this type of zombie, you are basically trying to stay alive and get to a place of safety, as there are likely to be far too many for you to defeat them.

While Hambling's assertion that this type of zombie is animated by extra-terrestrial force is a matter of some debate, he is correct to assert that this type of zombie is by far the most common. So-called "natural zombies" are created through the use of toxins leading to severe brain-damage and are therefore generally harmless. A second category, the "supernatural zombie," is supposedly animated via either angelic or demonic power; if you're faced with this kind of zombie, you have bigger things to worry about than surviving the actual attack. (Hint: hit your knees and get to a-praying.)

Hambling's list of defensive weaponry shows an impressive amount of research. His weapons of choice--flamethrowers and extended-magazine firearms--are the most likely to inflict the type of wide-range destruction necessary to escape zombie hordes. He also makes the important point that a cool head is required, as panicked shooting into a crowd of zombies will not result in the head-shots necessary to kill, and not simply slow, an approaching zombie. He points to a recent analysis of armed encounters with police officers:
The police officer's potential for hitting his adversary during armed confrontation has increased over the years and stands at slightly over 25% of the rounds fired. An assailant's skill was 11% in 1979...

In 1992 the overall police hit potential was 17%. Where distances could be determined, the hit percentages at distances under 15 yards were:

Less than 3 yards ..... 28%
3 yards to 7 yards .... 11%
7 yards to 15 yards . 4.2%

It has been assumed that if a man can hit a target at 50 yards he can certainly do the same at three feet. That assumption is not borne out by the reports.

An attempt was made to relate an officer's ability to strike a target in a combat situation to his range qualification scores. After making over 200 such comparisons, no firm conclusion was reached.

I'm not, in fact, taking issue with any of the suggestions Hambling offers in his article. The question is not whether zombies can be killed by calm, prepared citizens; the question is whether enough citizens can be prepared for the zombie apocalypse to successfully tamp down the invasion.

When it comes down to it, the issue is not one of weaponry; it's one of communication and coordination. After all, all the Glocks in the world are useless unless people know that only a headshot will stop a zombie. And even if everyone in Pittsburgh knows to shoot for the head, it's useless if nobody in Boston figures it out.

Creative new uses of social media tools offer us some hope that mass coordination can happen. As recent fictional accounts of zombie attacks demonstrate (see for example here, here, and here), too much control of information in government hands can lead to mass misinformation and, ultimately, disaster. We also know that traditional media sources like television and radio broadcasts, while useful for providing defense information, are useless for mass coordination. Assuming the internet and cell towers survive the first wave of the zombie attack, an engaged citizenry can share information, coordinate defensive maneuvers, and stake out safehouses for waiting out the invasion. Indeed, the social networking site Twitter already has a vital community developing around several zombie-related hashtags: #zombie, #zombies, and #apocalypse.

Cellphone communication--and especially the kind of mass mobilization through text messaging that we've seen in recent political uprisings (for example, the organizing of tax-protest teaparties through flashmob tactics)--offers an additional avenue for reaching people who are AFK and on the front lines.

Hambling's advice is solid and valid, but ultimately useless without a platform for spreading it. Our only hope--and it's a small one--is to work to shift the conversation away from weaponry and defense strategies and toward modes of communication in the case of zombie invasion.

One last thing: If the zombies invade, we may also have to kill everybody over the age of 50, since these people are known to lack facility with new media. It may be humankind's only hope for survival. Sorry, Mom.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Beavers do it loaded

MIT's pistol team, 7 other sports, eliminated

It turns out that my employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not only has varsity sports teams, it has 41 of them. Well, it used to have 41, until pressure to cut spending across the institute led to the elimination of eight different sports teams.

The eliminated sports are: Alpine skiing, golf, men's and women's gymnastics, men's and women's ice hockey, pistol, and wrestling.

In a letter to the MIT community, Costantino Colombo, the Dean for Student Life, writes: "We make this decision with sadness and with great awareness of how painful it will be to many members of the MIT community." Colombo also explains, however, that the financial burden of supporting so many teams has weighed heavily on the Institute since before the economic downturn--mainly because sponsoring 41 sports is simply extremely expensive. According to Colombo, even after the cuts MIT still offers twice as many varsity sports as the average Division III university and will sponsor more sports than any Division III university in the nation.

Cutting sports teams is completely lame, of course, especially for the participating students. That doesn't mean I'm going to just ignore this from Will Hart, MIT's pistol coach:

“We’ve been a varsity club since 1937, so this is something entirely new for us,” Mr. Hart said of the pistol program, one of the top-ranked in the country and one of the institute’s most popular physical education classes.

“M.I.T. has a certain culture,” he added. “The students need release. I hope they find something else that was as close to enjoyable as their sport was.”

This sounds ominous. Do you think it was intentional?

Friday, April 24, 2009

In other news, I'm about to smack down the New York Times.

In the April 23 New York Times, Liz Shannon Miller analyzes the newest platform in the gay marriage debate: online video.

The piece is titled, painfully, The Gay Marriage Debate and Online Video: So Right for Each Other, They Ought to Make It Legal. Assuming the cutesy headline doesn't leave you puking in your shoe, you can read on to learn about major internet video campaigns in the gay marriage debate. Miller focuses mainly on the "Gathering Storm" vid put out by the National Organization for Marriage (I wrote about it here), focusing on its big mistakes:

the immediately recognizable set-up (a diverse group of people standing in front of rainclouds), the extreme earnestness, and the over-reliance on the storm metaphor have made it an easy target for video mash-ups and parodies....
Oh, and the people featured in the real Gathering Storm ad? They’re actors. How do we know this? Because the Human Rights Campaign found the complete audition footage — and instead of claiming that it was faked, NOM filed a copyright claim with YouTube to have it removed, thus proving its veracity (the footage can still be found on Vimeo).

Other big moments for Miller: The remixes and parodies of "Gathering Storm" and the restart of the debate after celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, a judge for the Miss USA contest, asked Miss California her stance on gay marriage.

It's bad enough that this story feels kinda...old. After all, if there's time for the proliferation of creative responses that Miller points to, then the phenomenon is not actually news to most of us. What's worse is that Miller tries to argue that the key takeaway here is that hey, at least people are talking about gay marriage. She writes:

Each side of this debate comes to it from an incredibly personal place — after all, at the core of it we’re discussing the definition of love in the eyes of the government — and sometimes it seems like each side is more focused on energizing its base than actually trying to have a discussion about the issues. But along the way we get dozens of videos, millions of views, and thousands of comments. Whether it succeeds in changing anyone’s mind when it comes to such a personal issue is tough to say. But somewhere in this mess, people are actually trying to talk about it. Which is something (italics mine).

Nope, sorry. The main point is not that people are trying to talk about gay marriage--the main point is that NOM's ad campaign was an epic fail, and not just because its message is stupid and bigoted. NOM failed because it treated the internet like it was television, only more so. It figured, hey, let's make a really powerful video about why gay marriage is teh suck, put it online, and get people to forward it on to their friends. That way we'll recruit a whole army to get behind our evil, bigoted anti-gay agenda!

The problem for NOM is that the internet is not TV to the somethingth power. It's something else entirely--a new expressive space so different from TV that any comparison is utterly useless. Advertisers and technology writers who fail to treat it as such are making the Space Odyssey mistake. Clay Shirky describes a scene from 2001 in which

space stewardesses in pink miniskirts welcome the arriving passenger. This is the perfect, media-ready version of the future--the technology changes, hemlines remain the same, and life goes on much as today, except faster, higher, and shinier.

The takeaway of the NOM campaign and its parodies, and the immediate spread of the Miss California interview, and the spread of almost anything about gay marriage or gay rights that's in any way repurposable, is not the platitude that "at least people are trying to talk about it." The takeaway is that any campaign that treats people as passive consumers just sitting around waiting to be told what to think is so out of step with the social revolution brought about by new media that it's practically begging to be bitch-slapped by the people with the power to bite back, which is to say almost everybody.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

bigot update

They're still losing.

For the first time in American history, someone has been convicted under a state hate crime statute for the murder of a transgendered person.

Allen Andrade, 32, was convicted today in a Denver court of first-degree murder and a bias-motivated crime for killing Angie Zapata, 18, in 2008. Andrate met Zapata, a transgendered woman who was biologically male, online and spent three days with her in Zapata's Greeley apartment prior to bludgeoning her to death with a fire extinguisher. For a sense of just how heinous Andrate's actions were, lookit CNN's summary of the police affidavit from the trial:

According to [the] affidavit Zapata was out of the apartment when Andrade noticed photographs that made him "question victim Zapata's sex."

Andrade confronted Zapata, who declared, "I am all woman." Andrade then grabbed Zapata and discovered male genitalia.

According to court records, Andrade told police he began hitting Zapata with his fists, knocking her to the ground. He then grabbed a fire extinguisher and twice hit her in the head.

Andrade told police he thought he had "killed it," referring to Zapata, and covered her with a blanket. Realizing what he had done, he then cleaned up the crime scene, the affidavit said.

Andrade told police he heard "gurgling" sounds coming from the victim and saw Zapata sitting up. He hit her again with the fire extinguisher, he said, according to the affidavit.

To repeat: When asked, Andrade said he thought he had "killed it"--"it" referring to Angie Zapata, an 18-year-old woman. Here she is:

In 2007, both houses of Congress passed a federal hate crime bill called the Matthew Shepard Act, but it died after famous homophobe and former President george w. bush threatened to veto it. Representatives have re-introduced the bill after President Obama indicated his support for the law.

I can't decide what's worse: Killing one woman in a homophobic rage or refusing to protect thousands of other Americans from the threat of people like Andrade.

sleeping alone and starting out early renamed! ...kind of.

Originally, the one-liner I attached to describe this blog was: "an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and crocheting." I have officially removed crocheting from the subhead and replaced it with "the social revolution."

I suppose this is an early sign that I'm starting to take myself more seriously. On the other hand, look at this tag cloud I made of all of my posts so far:

Whether it's time for me to get serious about myself or not, it's certainly time for greater truth in advertising here at sleeping alone and starting out early.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What would a fireside moonbat do?

I just caught the last several minutes (I was going to say "the tail end" and thought better of it) of the 2008 film "Zombie Strippers!" starring Jenna Jameson and Robert Englund. If you haven't figured out the plot yet, then there's no point explaining it to you. I only want to focus on a scene late in the movie where the Army commandos have shot the heads off of the zombie strippers and walk into a room where two people are clutching each other in the corner. It's not clear to the commandos whether these guys are humans or zombie strippers, so one of the muscleheads walks up to the pair and says "Say something human--and it better be ontological."

I'm officially claiming this quote as the motto of my reading group, the Fireside Moonbats.

Two key members of the Cambridge, Massachusetts,-based reading group, the Fireside Moonbats

You know how Art Garfunkel keeps a running list of every book he has read since the 1960's? I think I may start doing that for the Moonbats, too--especially since, if our motto is public, our reading list should be as well. Below, I've included the beginnings of that list. I hope to continue to build this for anybody who wants to follow along.

The Fireside Moonbats Reading List: First Draft

Shirky,Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin Press, 2008. Introduction and chapters 10 & 11.

Ito, Mizuko, Heather A. Horst, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Becky Herr-Stephenson, Patricia G. Lange, C.J. Pascoe, and Laura Robinson (with Sonja Baumer, Rachel Cody, Dilan Mahendran, Katynka Martínez, Dan Perkel, Christo Sims, and Lisa Tripp.) Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning, November 2008.

Latour, Bruno. On Interobjectivity. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3.4, 1996. Available at http://educ.ubc.ca/faculty/bryson/604/Latour.pdf.

Latour, Bruno. On Recalling ANT. Keynote speech for the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Nov. 30, 2003. Available at http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociology/papers/Latour-Recalling-ANT.pdf.

Barton, David, and Mary Hamilton. Literacy, reification and the dynamics of social interaction. David Barton and Karin Tusting (eds.) Beyond Communities Of Practice: Language, Power And Social Context. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Clarke, Julia. A new kind of symmetry: Actor–network theories and the new literacy studies. Studies in the Education of Adults Vol. 34, No.2, October 2002

Leander, Kevin M., and Deborah Wells Rowe. Mapping Literacy Spaces in Motion: A Rhizomatic Analysis of a Classroom Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 2006), pp. 428-460

Francis, Russell. The Predicament of the Learner in the New Media Age (2009). Dissertation being prepared for publication.

Wertsch, James V. Mediation. The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky, Daniels, Harry, Michael Cole, & James V. Wertsch, Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nardi, Bonnie, Steve Whittaker, & Heinrich Schwarz. NetWORKERS and their Activity in Intensional Networks. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 11: 205–242, 2002.

Nardi, Bonnie A., Diane J. Schiano, Michelle Gumbrecht, and Luke Swartz. Why We Blog. December 2004/Vol. 47, No. 12 Communications of the ACM.

Nardi, Bonnie A., Stella Ly, & Justin Harris. Learning Conversations in World of Warcraft. Proceedings of the 40th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2007.

Davydov, Vasily V., and Stephen T. Kerr. The Influence of L. S. Vygotsky on Education Theory, Research, and Practice. Educational Researcher, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Apr., 1995).

Edwards, Anne. Let’s get beyond community and practice: the many meanings of learning by participating. The Curriculum Journal Vol. 16, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 49 – 65

Engestrom, Yrjo. Knotworking to Create Collaborative Intentionality Capital in Fluid Organizational Fields. Collaborative Capital: Creating Intangible Value Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams, Volume 11, 307–336 (2005)

Gee, James Paul. A 21st Century Assessment Project for Situated and Sociocultural Approaches to Learning. Grant Proposal for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

Gee, James Paul. Human Action and Social Groups as the Natural Home of Assessment:Thoughts on 21st Century Learning and Assessment. Draft paper for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

This is just the beginning of the list, and I'm going to summon the Fireside Moonbats to help me build on it. Stay posted for an longer and more detailed list.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

the sleeping alone film review: State of Play

Summary: I liked it better when it was called The Pelican Brief, had a relevant storyline, and wasn't a caricature of itself.

If you're interested in further proof of how relevant print publications were in, say, 1996, you can watch State of Play, a hopelessly outdated rocking-chair thriller rollicking new action film about a hard-bitten newspaper journalist pounding the pavement for the big breaking story that will save his paper from tumbling into obscurity--that is, if he can get the big sources on the record in time for the article to make it in the morning print time. It appears, god help us, that nobody involved in the making of this film has any sense of how new media has changed its key plot point--how news breaks in a new media age.

Two huge--huge--issues dog this movie, which I suppose hopes to be viewed as a throwback to the good old days of journalism but ends up looking more like a PBS documentary from 1972 showing young viewers how newspapers are made. First, State of Play hinges on the premise that old-time print reporters and their editors are playing by new rules mandated by corporate conglomerates whose primary interest is revenue--fair enough, right? Except that as the key characters struggle to keep newspapers relevant, they showcase the filmmakers' enormous blind spot for what led to the print media scramble in the first place. We've seen this story before, many times over--only this time, little effort is made to update the details. Perhaps the film's producers hope to sell it on the headliners.

In this case, Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, the whiskey-in-a-dixie-cup print reporter, Helen Mirren is his starchy but matronly editor, and the paper is the "Washington Globe," recently purchased by MediaCorp and undergoing a major makeover in an effort to boost sales. Part of the makeover is the new "Internet" division of the Globe (they actually have a sandwichboard sign marking off their section of the newsroom--I'm serious!), represented by Rachel McAdams as Della Frye, the hungry young blogger in search of a big story to cut her teeth on. When McAffrey's friend, U.S. Rep. Stephen Collins (played by Ben Affleck), finds himself embroiled in a sex-turned-political scandal, McAffrey and Frye form an uneasily alliance in an effort to peel back the layers of scandal and, perhaps, rescue McAffrey's friend from an impending political undoing.

Problem number one: The newsroom is laughably isolated from new media--and even old media--news sources. Helen Mirren's office appears to feature the newspaper's only television, a plasma widescreen, which is invariably turned off. Della, the token blogger, is never shown online, even to post her stories; and the reporters use old-timey, spiral-cord phones to contact sources on their cordless home phones. Even non-media types seem agog at the breakneck pace of news coverage these days--when Collins's mistress is killed, he is astounded to see the story covered on six (count 'em, six) TV channels at the same time.

Problem number two: The reporters break the story in a pathetically analog way, with McAffrey and Frye pounding the ol' pavement in search of reliable sources. A running sub-plotline of the film is that Frye keeps getting caught without a pen during crucial information-gathering moments, while McAffrey always has writing utensils at the ready. A key source is put in a bugged hotel room and his confessions are recorded using bulky equipment that apparenty requires two operators, a pair of television monitors, and a stacked set of electronics. I don't think the recorders themselves are even digital.

This would be forgivable in a movie that didn't try so hard to position itself in the middle of current events. The corporate buyout of the newspaper and the accompanying pressure to increase revenue by getting in front of breaking stories sets the date as 2009, even though the narrative and set design try for 1996. "The real story," shrieks Helen Mirren, "is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!"

And that brings me to a second fundamental problem: The plot is presented as a timely consideration of political corruption by private interests, but it plays out as a hackneyed remake of news items that were old to us a year or more ago. Corporate conglomerates are corrupt monopolies that will stop at nothing to secure the bottom line! A private company run by ex-military types is securing key security contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq! Company officials may be bribing and corrupting politicians! A sex scandal threatens to bring down the earnest young politician who hopes to expose the company! And everywhere, people who know too much are dying mysteriously! It's enough to make you...cough politely and shift your feet because they, too, are falling asleep.

Near the end of the film, Helen Mirren gives the journalistic odd couple a hard deadline for breaking the news story: She tells them they have to finish it up within eight hours, when the paper goes to press. As that deadline nears and the pair haven't yet gotten enough information to expose the roots of the scandal, they push the deadline...and push it...and push it, while the entire newspaper staff lingers in the newsroom, waiting for the signal that the article's ready to print.

I'm calling bullshit on this plot point. A paper that wants to break the story first runs what it can online, following up with online updates and a print version that continues to develop the story. It doesn't put a wholesale stop on a story that runs as wide and deep as the central scandal of State of Play does--some blogger or new media newshound will get to it first, neutering every detail in an instant.

When the reporters finally gather enough information to break the story, McAffrey offers it up for a blogpost. Frye smiles and says, maturely, "For a story this big, people should get newsprint on their hands as they read it."

"Haha!" chuckled the elderly couple sitting behind me. Their exclamations of surprise and pleasure at various pithy one-liners and plot twists peppered the movie. When photos of the dead congressional aide showed up in the personal effects of a murdered drug dealer, for example, they gasped in unison.

"This is such a good movie!" the woman said, and her husband agreed in a whisper. I bet they especially loved the closing credits, which ran over a documentary style presentation of the newspaper printing process. In this depiction, the headlines are transferred to transparencies, lined up on printing presses, and printed on thousands of front pages that are then bound in cellophane and loaded on to idling trucks for early morning delivery. In the amount of time it must have taken for the breaking story to print, alert readers would already have read the entire story online and many of those would have already extended the story with blogposts, comments, or stories of their own making new connections between details.

I'm not disputing, mind you, the effort and care that goes into the printing of a newspaper; I'm only disputing the assumption that people would find the process interesting enough to stick around through the credits. I only stayed because I was already mentally composing my blogpost about the movie when the final insult of the closing scene started to run. I sat there until the bitter end, god help me. I did it for you, the reading public of sleeping alone and starting out early.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

awesome: social media classroom

A letter of support for Howard Rheingold's Open-Source Education Project

I've been participating in a pair of hosted communities at Social Media Classroom (SMC), an open-source web service that offers social media tools for educators and students. If you've been following my posts on sleeping alone and starting out early, you probably already know that if it's open source, I'm gonna be on it like Henry Jenkins on fan practices. (For proof of my open sourceness, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Actually, though, it was the experience of working with SMC that led me to my open-source fervor. When I first joined the community, I didn't even really know what the open source movement was. The experience convinced me that open source software and its younger cousin, open education, have tremendous potential for teaching and learning.

Okay, first, some background. As the main site points out, Social Media Classroom was started by Howard Rheingold, through a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Arts Collaboratory) award, and is supported by lead developer Sam Rose, among others. The Drupal-based service can be installed for free, or SMC developers will host a community site for people who don't want to install their own.

Okay okay okay, that's the background, but here's what's awesome about the project itself: It sets up a goal of opening up education by offering spaces for sharing, collaboration, and remixing of class content via forums, blogs, wikis, chat, social bookmarking, widgets, and a load of other features. The "Invitation to the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory" offers this description of the project:

It’s all free, as in both “freedom of speech” and “almost totally free beer.” We invite you to build on what we’ve started to create more free value....This website is an invitation to grow a public resource of knowledge and relationships among all who are interested in the use of social media in learning, and therefore, it is made public with the intention of growing a community of participants who will take over its provisioning, governance and future evolution.

To that end, we’re launching an instance of the Colab as a community of practice for learners and teachers, educators, administrators, funders, students of pedagogy and technology design, engaged students who share a common interest in using social media to afford a more student-centric, constructivist, collaborative, inquiry-oriented learning.

Not to beat a potentially dead horse, but: promise, tool, bargain, you guys. The promise comes in showing community members that their engagement matters. Clay Shirky argues that in order to get a social group off the ground, the founders need to engage as much as possible (or as much as is required) to convince the community that their participation will be noticed and will make a difference. Focusing on the photo-sharing site Flickr, he argues that building up a critical mass of engaged members took a lot of early legwork:

Like the proverbial stone soup, the promise would be achieved only if everyone participated, and like the soldiers who convince the townspeople to make the stone soup, the only way to hld the site together before it reached critical mass was through personal charisma. Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, said she'd learned from the early days that "you have to greet he first ten thousand users personally."

When I joined Howard's SMC group, I posted an introduction to myself which got a near-immediate response from Howard Rheingold himself. I was all, "omg Howard Rheingold TALKED to me! *swoon*" And you know what happened next? I headed right back in to join in on other conversations on the site--because, after all, HOWARD RHEINGOLD WAS PAYING ATTENTION. The community is still small enough that a core group of participants are able to recognize and engage with each other in a highly personal way.

For Howard, promise and tool appear to be linked. As a new-ish open source project, SMC is not perfect; but as my sensei Dan Hickey has pointed out, "open source software succeeds by failing"--and Howard and Sam have been enthusiastic about getting community members to identify problems and offer suggestions. In fact, my experience is that if you point out something that's not working, they fall all over themselves to try to find solutions. This means that part of the promise of the site is that members can help refine the tool itself. (Hey, Howard and Sam: Do you think you could add a "search" feature so I can find past posts more easily?)*.

Okay, that's promise and tool. The bargain is something like this: We'll offer you a space to create a vibrant, active collaborative learning community, and we'll respond quickly to problems or suggestions; and your job is to fill in the vibrancy, the activity, and the collaboration. Which is exactly what's happening in the SMC site for two of Dan Hickey's classes in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. (Alert readers may remember that this is the program I'll be joining as a doctoral student in the fall.) What's neat about this space is that even though the classes are held in a physical learning environment exactly 1008 miles from my house, I get to participate in discussion about the readings, join in on collaborative activities (like working together to build a pathetically measly Wikipedia entry describing the field of Learning Sciences), and--if I write something especially awesome, get included in class discussions even though I'm not actually present. To quote Eddie Murphy, What a bargain!

A map depicting the shortest route from my house to Indiana University

In making the graduate-school decision, I recently talked with a third-year doctoral student at a school other than IU. She told me that she recently got into an argument with a professor and challenged a key idea he presented about education.

"...and I realized," she said, "that I'm starting to feel like I can engage with professors, like I know enough now to challenge them."

Maybe I'm just too mouthy for my own good, but though I haven't officially begun doctoral work yet, I've been challenging--engaging with, asking questions of, pushing back on ideas of--professors on SMC for the last year. What I didn't realize until talking to this student is that my experience is not common.

And this is what's neatest about Social Media Classroom: It's a space for thinking about how participatory culture and social media can change how we think about expertise, knowledge, and community. It's no longer that a handful of experts can, should, or do hold expertise in their head and dole it out as they see fit; in a participatory culture, knowledge is distributed across media environments and can be accessed by people who buy into the promise, tool, and bargain of those social spaces.

It's working, so far. So far, it's working. And it's why my crew (Dan Hickey, IU doctoral student Michelle Honeyford, ELA teacher Rebecca Rupert) and I are planning to work inside of this platform in the service of exploring Spreadable Educational Practices. Keep an eye on this space for updates on our work on SEPs, that most awesome of projects.

[Update: as proof of concept, Sam Rose responded to my request to add a "search" feature within minutes of my publishing this blog. The beginning of his response:"Thanks Jenna!! FYI, there is a search feature up at the top if the site (over to the right) :-)"]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education (Part 2)

In a recent post, I reviewed parts of an important new book called Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (2008, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.). In that review, I focused mainly on a broad overview of the book and on the final chapter, which considered the future of the open knowledge movement. Today I want to focus on a chapter in "Open Educational Technology," the first section of the book. This section, the first of three (technology, content, and knowledge), offers a consideration of various approaches to designing open learning environments. In the introduction to the section, Owen McGrath writes that "the term 'open educational technology' has broad meaning that extends well beyond any lowest-common-denominator definition such as 'open source software for education'." Key thematic questions McGrath presents include the following:
  • How should open educational technology be built, extended, and maintained in the large cross-institutional and international efforts?
  • How can the teaching and learning activities supported by the technology be evaluated in an open way?
  • How do the perspectives of teachers and learners inform these projects?

In "A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance," Trent Bastson, Neeru Paharia, and M.S. Vijay Kumar consider potential applications of open knowledge to higher education, emphasizing the value of sharing and remixing of pedagogical content, which they argue will dissolve the silos that traditionally separate content areas in higher education. They work from an assumption that open knowledge does not feel to all like a panacea; they readily acknowledge that it will feel deeply threatening to many members of our society. They offer the example of baby boomers coming of age under the shadow of parents grew up during the Great Depression. For these "Dionysian offspring," the authors explain, their parents' "poverty assumptions--lie low, hide your wealth lest it be stolen, do not display emotions, life is full of danger--" were more than silly or nonsensical; they directly opposed the youths' approach to life. As the authors of this chapter write,

We now appear to be facing the same cultural fissure 40 years later: Open educational resources (OER) are so abundant that the scarcity-based assumptions of educators are challenged.... In short, we are moving toward a knowledge ecology characterized by unfettered access to educational resources, choice, and change in the context and clientele of higher education.

Interestingly, the authors see learners themselves as presenting a significant obstacle in the progress toward open education--perhaps even more so than faculty. As they explain:

[W]hile some faculty members may boldly go where open education leads them, some students, despite their expertise in some uses of the Internet and IT tools, can be very conservative in their expectations in the classroom. They may come to college expecting that regardless of the IT toys on campus, in the classroom itself, their teachers will still tell them what to know and then test them on what they have been told.

This is only one of many potential and existing barriers, of course; and the authors briefly consider many obstacles. They imagine "a vibrant Web community of learners at something called Peer-To-Peer University, or 'P2PU.' P2PU would not be a 'real' university, but rather, a group of self-learners and tutors who work together to emulate some of the functions an academic institution would carry out, in a peer-to-peer fashion." They then consider the obstacles to realizing this dream: How can a "vibrant" eLearning community be fostered when passive learning is so much more likely? How will people react to the decentralized authority of an open knowledge learning system? And, perhaps most importantly for them, "[I]f the remixing process is speeded up and a million eyes replace 'gatekeepers,' then is knowledge enriched or watered down?"

It's an interesting thought exercise to imagine this Peer-To-Peer University--and it brings to mind an important issue that's only glanced at in this chapter: An ongoing shift in how we both think about credibility, both in assessing others' and establishing our own in a variety of online, offline, and hybrid social spaces. I wrote about this some in a recent blogpost on the online university phenomenon, where I argued that

While web 2.0 technologies increasingly allow us to offer expertise in a variety of areas, with or without educational credentials, the desire for evidence of expertise lingers in our collective psyches. Ultimately, we still believe that when our cat's kidneys start to fail, the single veterinarian who spent 8 years in school followed by years of field experience can provide better advice than the two thousand cat owners on a devoted forum.

And we're not necessarily wrong to think this way, at least in some situations--after all, as I explained in that post, if my cat needs surgery, I'm taking him to the board-certified veterinarian, rabid pet owners be damned.

But at the same time, those rabid pet owners may provide valuable advice that helps me decide when it's appropriate to go to the credentialed veterinarian. And here's where educational technology people like the authors of this chapter could learn a thing or two from people who participate, in various ways, in a participatory culture: They exist, happily and without too much turmoil, in the space between online and offline cultures, easily crossing the membrane and increasingly failing to agree to consider that there even is a membrane. Many people--and most young people--would agree that there's little functional distinction between friends they make in face-to-face interactions and those who communicate primarily or solely via virtual tools.

In principle, it seems, the authors of this chapter agree; writing about ccMixter, a "community music site featuring remixes licensed under Creative Commons where you can listen to, sample, mash-up, or interact with music in whatever way you want", they explain that the ccMixter community often rewards its most talented participants with CDs or even recording contracts "so they could receive more exposure and social credit for their efforts." In this example, the virtual community is the real community, regardless of its physicality.

A visualization of the network of authors in the ccMixter community

The authors seem willing to bestow this gift on virtual communities that extend their reach into the physical world; but when considering physical learning environments, they seem less eager to consider a blurred line between classroom and engaged learning community. Take a look at how they describe the "typical lecture hall":

the teacher is up front and the students sit in chairs that are fixed to the floor. Such physical inflexibility restricts (italics mine) how the teacher can interact with students and students can interact with each other. Software design has followed a similar pattern, favoring tools that support faculty, rather than student, management in digital space.

It's that word "restricts" that hits a sour note. We might just as easily consider affordances of a typical lecture hall: It affords a certain kind of learning which has value in certain context, and it only becomes "restrictive" when people try to use it to achieve some purpose for which it was not intended or to which it cannot be applied. Even then, it's not the fault of the physical space that people are trying to bend it to their will. As Clay Shirky writes, "There is no such thing as a generically good tool; there are only tools good for particular jobs."

Followers of this blog know that I'm no fan of traditional or conservative approaches to schooling, but I do also see the value of considering what is afforded by a traditional learning space like the lecture hall or, more broadly, the brick-and-mortar university. And the authors of this chapter aren't necessarily averse to this approach; indeed, they grant that

existing academic institutions do help to navigate through the human sea of knowledge. They organize it into majors and requirements to make the decision process much easier and more goal oriented. They provide a teacher and classmates to both guide and motivate. They provide a structure and a social context to help bridge students from beginning stages of learning toward maturity. They help students address issues of finalizing work by providing a schedule of "deliverables" (assignment sets), of matching the learner with the job market, of certifying the value of students' learning, and the general issues of being a young person at home.

If it's true that the traditional university has served and continues, and will continue, to serve important cultural purposes, then we would do well to consider what types of learning experiences it can afford learners who are preparing for careers that may not even exist yet. Given that P2PU is a kind of pipe dream, and a more hybrid learning environment much more realistic, we need to think of ways to not only consider what purposes the university is good for but also how to speak to key stakeholders. In times of cultural revolution, those who believe most ardently in the need for it are also often the ones whose language is the most shrill, the most strident, and most difficult to hear.

This is not to say, of course, that the affordances of traditional universities should or could not also be considered constraints. In the end, though, the constraints are more on our ability to envision new words and worlds wherein authentic learning experiences can happen and less on our ability to leverage traditional learning spaces to make these visions real.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bruno Latour, Facebook, and some Moonbats

On the (misguided) attempt to reduce social media to a series of complex interactions

Do you guys know Bruno Latour?

I'm new to Latour, having been only recently introduced to his work by my friend and colleague, Katie Clinton. A few weeks back we read and discussed a canonical Latour piece, "On Interobjectivity," for our weekly reading group, the Fireside Moonbats.

I'm not going to pretend I understand most of what's going on in this piece. Any attempt to summarize it would just reveal my hem, so I'll leave that to someone better equipped. It's one key idea from that piece that interests me for the purpose of this post: The distinction Latour makes between complexity and complication. He writes:

'Complex' will signify the simultaneous presence in all interactions of a great number of variables, which cannot be treated discretely. 'Complicated' will mean the successive presence of discrete variables, which can be treated one by one, and folded into one another in the form of a black box. Complicated is just as different from complex as simple is.

Latour uses groups of monkeys (complex) in contrast to human societies (complicated). For Latour, "complex" describes a social society wherein interactions between members are intricate and informed by multiple dynamics and variables--but all of these variables are present in the interaction. A society is "complicated" when its moments and interactions are colored by a limitless number of discrete variables, layered throughout history, hidden beneath the surface and spreading out in every cultural direction. As Latour explains,

We say, without giving the matter too much thought, that we engage in 'face to face' interactions. Indeed we do, but the clothing that we are wearing comes from elsewhere and was manufactured a long time ago; the words we use were not formed for this occasion; the walls we have been leaning on were designed by an architect for a client, and constructed by workers - people who are absent today, although their action continues to make itself felt. The very person we are addressing is a product of a history that goes far beyond the framework of our relationship. If one attempted to draw a spatio-temporal map of what is present in the interaction, and to draw up a list of everyone who in one form or another were present, one would not sketch out a well-demarcated frame, but a convoluted network with a multiplicity of highly diverse dates, places and people. Those who believe in social structures often make the same criticism of interactionists, but they draw quite another lesson from it. They suggest that nothing happens in interactions that is not an activation or materialization of what is already completely contained elsewhere in the structure - give or take a few minor adjustments. But interaction does more than adjust, it constructs - we learned this from the monkeys as well as from Goffman and from the ethnomethodologists. However, it displays contradictory forms: it is a framework (which permits circumscription) and a network (which dislocates simultaneity, proximity and personality). Where can those contradictory qualities in humans come from, and why are they so different from interaction as understood by primatologists with respect to naked, co-present monkeys?

If it seems confusing and heady, it is. I suspect it's even more confusing, even headier, than it seems. But the distinction Latour makes--these terms "complex" and "complicated"--have some use for us in considering how to talk about the values and norms of social media. I'm increasingly encountering people who view Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks as as high-tech versions of Foucault's panopticon. For them, too much social media is a bad thing: It means you're always on, it means someone is always watching you.

Add to this a critical mass of media analysts (especially marketers and PR people, who are doing their best to find a way in to a world that seems cultured and maintained by and for the young) seem to work from a general assumption that social media work by leveraging our narcissism. PR guy Brett Borders identifies an entire category of self-absorbed social media users: "Social Media Narcissists." What is a social media narcissist? Borders writes:

There are plenty of people online who have managed to create a sizable audience without much in the way of skills or selfless community contributions. These social media narcissists participate heavily in the online conversation, but if you look closely you will see that most of it is just chatter about themselves, their opinions and their friends.

Some of my friends agree. "It's so weird," said one friend, an academic who's approximately my age, about the phenomenon of the constantly updated Facebook status. "Everybody can see what you're doing, all the time. It's why I've never posted a status update, and why I never will."

My sense of it, though, is that people who think a "close look" at the "chatter" on Facebook, Twitter, and similar networks amounts to self-centered self-promotion either aren't looking as closely as they think they are or are confusing the Latourian notions of complication and complexity. Facebook may seem like a flat social environment in which every monkey is watching every other monkey to figure out where the tribe is going, but in fact, every interaction is the product of an infinite number of variables that exist outside of that moment, that update, and that social environment. In this way, social media is complicated, not simply complex.

Presumably, calling most of what happens in social media "just chatter" is a way to relegate it to meaningless drivel: Picture yourself sitting on the train after a hard day at work. Picture a smiling, absurdly cheerful woman sitting next to you and telling you all about herself, her day, what's on her mind right now. Picture this happening incessantly, consistently, every single day, eventually driving you away from public transportation altogether. Picture yourself buying a nice, sensible SUV.

Nobody likes chatter, after all (even though we all engage in it from time to time). We're a culture that thrives on complication, that doesn't really know what to do with mere complexity. If all that happened within social media sites was chatter, engagement with and use of these tools wouldn't be rising so dramatically.

The game of social media is, after all, figuring out the rules, working through the layers of what seems at first like complexity. We are never exactly the words we type into the "what's on your mind?" box (formerly "What are you doing right now?"), just as we are never just the words we say to the person sitting next to us on the train.

Quick personal example: Recently, I had a friendly argument with a Facebook friend when I posted a link to my blog on her wall. Here's how the interaction went, with names and pics blurred out to protect those not directly affiliated with sleeping alone and starting out early:

Did I violate an unspoken Facebook norm? Oh, probably. What's more interesting to me, though, is the public scolding and my reaction to it. First, if I had violated a similar norm in a "face to face" interaction, this person might have taken me aside to let me know--but she might not have said anything at all, since she wouldn't necessarily have had the authority to do so. She's a friend, but not a close friend; a colleague, but not a coworker. It's not that the social hierarchies that govern our offline existences disappear in online social networks; it's that new hierarchies, new norms for engagement not linked to traditional cultural markers, emerge and get negotiated.

Which is why I reacted so strongly to what amounted to a public scolding. My friend chose to respond to my comment with a scolding instead of simply removing the post, which Facebook makes it pretty easy to do. I had posted something to her wall; she found it inappropriate and assumed the authority to tell me so; and my reaction? I was mad. What right does anybody have to tell me what I can or can't do on Facebook? I thought, outraged and annoyed. That was me questioning whether she really had the authority to chastise me out in the public square, where everybody could see.

If this moment were nothing more than idle chatter, my friend and I would not have reacted as we did. She would have, perhaps, seen my posting as a violation of norms, but she would have chosen to ignore it instead of responding. And I could have ignored her response, but I didn't.

As a complicated society, we are more than Latour's mass of monkeys whose choice of direction for travel arises anew each morning, from "an order that no one member has given, and that none can claim as their own." And Facebook, and other types of social media, provide new words and worlds for intricate, infinite, and complicated relationships, given the users' capacity to make it so.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bigot update

They're losing.

Over at Talent Imitates, Genius Steals, Faris Yakob is promoting a New York-based campaign called Equality and Justice Day because, as he writes, "Social media seems like a good place for social causes." The video below provides the rationale for the one-day rally in Albany on April 28.

And just in case you haven't been following the recent news about various legislative and court actions legalizing gay marriage in several states, the following Daily Show clip should catch you up nicely.

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And let's see, in case you're not yet fully convinced, plz to watch this 2007 video of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders--a Republican--reversing his position on gay marriage and indicating, his voice breaking with emotion, his intention to sign a bill legalizing gay marriage. I've yet to find a more compelling argument for gay marriage.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

brb rooting out bigots

That was easy.

I'm resisting my impulse to comment, because I think the video speaks for itself.

Okay, okay, just one comment, from my friend Ryan, who writes: "These a-holes need a Care Bear Stare, STAT."

Here's a video rebuttal of the National Organization for Marriage ad, by GoodAsYou.com:

For additional rebuttals, visit the Human Rights Campaign's EndTheLies site at http://www.hrc.org/endthelies/.

Reading with mouse in hand

I was recently notified that I'm not appropriately sensitive to how difficult the act of writing is for some people. This notification came as my friend and colleague Katie Clinton was finishing up co-authorship of a paper with two of our colleagues for an upcoming conference. I was in the process of complaining that my normal flood of email to the three of them was garnering little response.

"Why is everybody ignoring me?" I whined.

"For some people," she explained patiently, "being in writing mode takes all of their energy, and they don't have the headspace to think about other things. It's hard for you to get it because it comes so easy to you."

Fine, yes, Katie's right: Writing comes easily to me. But it's more that--writing comes easily to a lot of people, but that doesn't mean they spend literally all of their free time posting to their blog (unlike some people I know). In fact, there are entire groups of people--I include myself in this group--for whom "writing" is inseparable from the everyday activity of making meaning of the world. This is a break from traditional notions of writing as separate, as requiring a separate focus, a separate head-space. Something else--something extra and much more complex--is going on here.

I'd like to introduce the concept of "reading with mouse in hand," a notion developed by my colleague and friend Katie Clinton. It emerged through a collision of the work we've done for Project New Media Literacies on curriculum for high school ELA classrooms and our thinking about Spreadable Educational Practices (here and here) in collaboration with my sensei Dan Hickey and my mentor and partner in crime Michelle Honeyford. This work has been heavily influenced by media scholar Henry Jenkins and tech guru Clay Shirky, and we've recently been circulating the video below of Shirky talking about the revolution in and via social media (originally posted at WarrenEllis.com). It's 15 minutes long and worth every penny:

Today's youth, as Shirky explains, understand that a product that ships without a mouse ships broken. They exist in a world where writing is one practice among a host of generative activities that are inseparable from media consumption.

This is not, in some important ways, fundamentally different from the act of "reading with a pencil in hand," a common practice among professional writers and voracious readers. The difference, though, is in what happens to the generative activity linked to reading: In the video example below (featuring Wyn Kelley, Melville Scholar and Senior Lecturer in Literature at MIT, and edited by Debora Lui, an alumnus of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program), annotation and ornamentation are introduced as a means of filtering information, possibly for future publication or, at the least, generative work. These activities adhere to a traditional "filter, then publish" format of information transmission.

In contrast, reading with mouse in hand adheres more closely to the "publish, then filter" approach defined by Shirky. In a "publish, then filter" world, everything goes live, most of it open for public consumption and appraisal, and it's now our job as readers of all of that generative work to sift through it and figure out what matters to us or to our interests and work.

A few months back, I attended a talk by literacy theorist Deb Brandt, who made a compelling argument that we're in a second stage of mass literacy. In the first stage, she argued, reading literacy was key--and it was during this stage that the assumption of reading literacy as a basic human right was established. This second stage, according to Brandt, is characterized by writing as a more common practice than reading.

"[People are] reading to write," she explained, "and they're learning to write by writing to people who write."

Not only that, Brandt argued, but what we write is increasingly available for co-opting by corporate interests. "Your language is for hire," she said, "and that's...weird."

I suppose so. On the other hand, instead of "weird," we might say "complex in ways we hadn't anticipated." As physicist Philip Anderson says, "more is different."

As a blogger, I write more now than I ever have, even when I was a graduate student in a creative writing program. These days, I'm up to thousands of words a week just on my blog, and that's in addition to the writing I do for my day job, in emails, internal and public documents, and reports to colleagues and collaborators. What's more, I always read with my mouse in hand, which is to say that I read with an audience--a public--in mind. As what Howard Rheingold calls an "intelligent filter," I am conscious of my role as a sifter of information, a synthesizer of news items, a writer for an audience, however limited.

What happens when "writing comes easily to me" and "I always got good grades on my papers" become "I know how to act on what I consume" and "My blog gets hundreds (or thousands) of visitors a week (or day)"?

We can--and should--start thinking about ways to address the concern Brandt and others have raised that education institutions have not figured out how to accommodate the shift toward a generative literacy. Shirky writes that "the future belongs to those who take the present for granted." It's a nice sound bite, and as such, perhaps somewhat more sweeping than it is strictly true. But the deeper truth that Shirky points to--that a revolution is underway, and that no amount of nostalgia can turn back the tide of social change--is a deep, important truth that once accepted will change, dramatically and forever, the terms and frame of the conversation.

Monday, April 6, 2009

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education

Good book on the open education movement: Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (2008, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.). You can purchase the book through the MIT Press, though an electronic version is available for download under a Creative Commons license here.

What makes this book so useful is that it offers up a framework, from inside of the world of open education, for analyzing--and, if I may be so bold, at times criticizing--the early fruits of its own movement.

Below, I summarize and review one chapter from the book, followed by a critique of MIT's OpenCourseWare, one of the flagship projects of the Hewlett Foundation's Open Educational Resource Initiative; if you want, you can skip the review and jump down to the meaty stuff down near the bottom.

The Review

The book is divided into three sections: Technology, content, and knowledge. As the authors explain, this division is intended "largely as a convenient and easily understood framework. Naturally, the three categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, their natural interrelationships become evident from the very beginning."

I want to skip ahead to the very last chapter of the book, "What's Next for Open Knowledge?" by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings. The authors point out that the vision of open education--"dramatically expanded educational access, more widely effective teaching models and materials, and ongoing, systematic improvement in teaching and learning as educators generate and share new pedagogical knowledge and know-how"--is more than just a vision. In fact, many educational institutions have embraced and joined in on a shift toward open educational resources (OER's), and have assisted in the building of what Huber and Hutchings label, borrowing from their own earlier work, "teaching commons: an emergent conceptual space for exchange and community among faculty, students, administrators, and all others committed to learning as an essential activity of life in contemporary democratic society."

How, then, the authors ask, do we continue to expand and preserve the ethos of open education and the teaching commons? "It is well and good," they write, "to make as many educational resources as possible accessible to as many teachers and learners as possible. But, to borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, if we build it, will they come?"

Promise, Tool, Bargain
The Field of Dreams question is one echoed by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, only for him, the question aligns with entrepreneurial impulses to build and market the next killer app. The question, then, is something closer to "What can we build to make people come?"

Shirky's answer is simple: "Promise, tool, bargain." These three elements, properly aligned, he argues, will lead to success of a group relying on a social tool; improperly fused, they lead to failure. (For an example of how this does or does not work, take a look at my blogpost on the promise, tool, and bargain of Facebook here.)
Given that there are really only three things to worry about, then, why do so many new groups or movements fail? Two reasons, according to Shirky:
First, because getting each of these elements right is actually quite challenging, while getting all of them right is essential. Second, as with groups themselves, the complexity comes not just from the elements but from their interactions.

The application of promise, tool, and bargain of open education: Promise

Though Huber and Hutchings use different language, choosing to focus their efforts on two distinct categories--"Knowledge that Matters" and "Inviting and Maintaining Openness"--they are essentially considering the categories Shirky identifies. (Know that aligning Huber and Hutchings with Shirky is a somewhat arbitrary move; I might just as well have said that Shirky essentially considers the categories identified by Huber and Hutchings.) The promise, Shirky writes, is the "why"--why a person would want to join a group or use a tool. For Huber and Hutchins, the "why" is more aptly described as "knowledge that matters"; in considering this point, they explore the promise of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a program that
seeks to support the development of a scholarship of teaching and learning that: fosters significant, long-lasting learning for all students; enhances the practice and profession of teaching, and; brings to faculty members' work as teachers the recognition and reward afforded to other forms of scholarly work.

To Huber and Hutchings, "knowledge that matters" is collaboration and sharing of scholarship and research around contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning both within individual classrooms and on a larger scale. This knowledge is built and shared around situated approach to teaching, a presumption that context matters. "In short," the authors write, the momentum that the scholarship of teaching and learning has established over the past decade clearly points to the value of pedagogical knowledgte that is deeply contextual and closely tied ot the particulars of classroom settings.

We might say, then, that the promise of joining a program like CASTL--the "why"--is that it offers teachers the opportunity to draw on a bunch of lesson plans, assessment strategies, and so on to the immediate benefit of their own teaching practices, and at the same time offers a feedback loop whereby teachers can share classroom successes with other teachers. They give back to the community of educators and in so doing have an opportunity to influence teaching beyond their local environment.

Tool: the "how"
The tool, Shirky explains, is the "how," and in open education this becomes a question of how to develop resources that invite and maintain openness without standardizing or allowing for decreased quality of the content. As Huber and Hutchings explain,
Where traditional views of educational reform tend to assume a small number of approaches that can be "scaled up" and widely adopted, open knowledge (and, more broadly, open education) offers a different path to improvement, eschewing the "fat head" for the "long tail" (to use Chris Anderson's now well-traveled metaphor) in which many approaches find smaller groups of adopters and champions.

Often, the authors write, the "how" is ensured in development of tools that allow for "close-to-the-classrom knowledge" to be captured in ways that will travel to other settings." The authors offer the exampe of the KEEP Toolkit, which they argue provides a useful model that combines user-friendly features with readable and usable templates.

The bargain: What we expect from one another
The bargain, Shirky writes, is where things get tricky, "in part because it is the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one the users have the biggest hand in creating, which means it can't be completely determined in advance." The bargain is the--ideally shared--agreement between users about community expectations.

For Huber and Hutchings, the bargain of open educational resources is, put simply, openness. Openness, in this case, means both access and the spirit of collaboration and community. As they explain,

The "stuff" of open knowledge for teaching and learning is on the rise, happily, both in supply and in the variety of materials and representations of teaching and learning.... But having good stuff is not enough. Those committed to this work must also push for policies and practices to ensure that what is open stays open in the fullest, most vital way. This means maintaining access, certainly, but it also means creating a culture in which people want that access, both as contributors to and users of knowledge in the teaching commons.

First, they write, it's essential to allow the commons to remain open for teachers across disciplines who want to contribute to collaborative knowledge-building, even if they contribute only infrequently. This, however, gives rise to a second concern: Questions about who can (and can't) contribute. "Open education," they write, "does not necessarily mean 'free.'"

Additionally, the bargain in education is not simply between users and makers of educational content; increasingly, teachers and learners are being held accountable by outside stakeholders. (Most significantly, we see this in the phenomenon of testing the souls right out of our young learners.) Huber and Hutchings express concern

about how to maintain a space for educational experimentation and exchange in a period that seems headed for increasingly bottom-line forms of accountability, with its concomitant calls for institutions to make evidence of student learning outcomes available to the public.... At one level, the value of evidence is something that any responsible educator would share. Faculty care about their students, and they want to know that the resources they find in the teaching commons will serve those students well. The danger comes when high stakes constrict people's ability or willingness to explore new pedagogical ideas.

Case Study: MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW)

Promise, tool, bargain. It's a difficult combination to get right, even when you have financial backing, institutional support, and a critical mass of contributors, as MIT's OpenCourseWare project proves. Let me be clear: OCW is a success, at least in most important senses of the word. But in its efforts to succeed, it has had to sacrifice some of the most important tenets of the open education movement.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll once again make clear that I am employed at MIT, though I am not affiliated with the Hewlett Foundation, the group that funds the OCW project, and not in any way connected to OpenCourseWare.

The project is awesomely ambitious. As the OCW site explains,

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines.

And that's the modest explanation. In a February 2007 report on Open Educational Resource projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation, Atkins, Brown, and Hammond exclaim:

This world-changing project emerged from MIT faculty and administrators who asked themselves the following question: "How is the Internet going to be used in education and what is our university going to do about it?"

The answer from the MIT faculty was this: "Use it to provide free access to the primary materials for virtually all our courses. We are going to make our educational material available to students, faculty, and other learners, anywhere in the world, at any time, for free.”

Fantastic premise, right? And MIT, backed by Hewlett, is putting its money where its mouth is, investing resources into the continued and ongoing development of OCW. The result is a fabulous early stab at an open education resource, one that really does offer high-quality content to the general public--absolutely free.

It turns out, though, that while OpenCourseWare is strong on promise ("You can access course content from some of the greatest minds of this generation!") and bargain ("...and it's all free!"), it's still a little light on tool ("...but genius is not included."). As I mentioned in a previous post, I read voraciously and omnivorously in my capacity as the primary blogger for sleeping alone and starting out early. One place I never, look, though, is on paid-content news sources like the Wall Street Journal. Another place I never look is OpenCourseWare. Why? It kinda...well, first, the download process is confusing, and once you successfully figure it out, you're rewarded with a file folder that looks a lot like this:

Assuming you eventually manage to extract the relevant content, all you really get is a pile of .pdfs, a syllabus, and some course notes. The brilliance, the spark, the certain something that makes a class a mind-blowing experience...that's not available for download.

And, of course, there's the cost involved: Approximately $25,000 per uploaded course, according to the Hewlett report. Add it up: 1,800 courses means $45 million. (Just FYI, that's enough to cover four years of public college for more than 6,800 students, according to stats from the College Board.)

OpenCourseWare is an admirable, but so far unsustainable, model for opening up education--especially since OCW seems to prohibit free appropriation and remixing of course materials. As the site explains under the FAQ category of intellectual property,

The intellectual property policies created for MIT OpenCourseWare are clear and consistent with other policies for scholarly materials used in education. Faculty retain ownership of most materials prepared for MIT OpenCourseWare, following the MIT policy on textbook authorship. MIT retains ownership only when significant use has been made of the Institute's resources. If student course work is placed on the MIT OpenCourseWare site, then copyright in the work remains with the student.

These are meaty issues for Hewlett, OCW, and the open education movement to keep working on. As goes OpenCourseWare, after all, so goes the movement.

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