Sunday, October 29, 2006

More for the Record

Just cleaning up some loose ends. Here is the email that prompted me to do the checking reflected in my previous post, and my reply. With any luck, this will end my involvement in this issue. It was, after all, just a single post in OLDaily. Had not the people involved made such a big fuss over my criticism, it would have ended there.

De: Gwen Solomon []
Enviado el: sáb 10/21/2006 11:41
CC: Cheryl Oakes; Scott McLeod; Jeff Utecht; Dave Jakes; David Warlick; Miguel Guhlin; Terry Freedman; Wes Fryer
Asunto: Attacking do-gooders

Hi Stephen,

I've been reading some of your comments about other bloggers and want to respond directly to you. First, however, please take a look at You will not see the logo of the company you seem to hate so much - CMP. We were never a big part of that company and we are now part of a start-up called NewBay Media.

I want to tell you how much I admire people who work with students, teachers, and administrators and who are willing to share their experiences and expertise with others. The bloggers on TechLearning whom you've criticized are great examples. I've been lucky to know most of them and that happened because they've shared what they do with our readers by writing for our ezine over many years.

When blogging became so important, they were willing to help me get that started too. (Miguel explained how it came about.) Their blogs and articles are extremely popular with our readers and they are very highly respected. They deserve every bit of that respect.

It always dismays me to see anyone attack people rather than ideas. (When I ran School of the Future, one of our core values was respect for ourselves and others.) I don't see you arguing with them about what they say by commenting in our TechLearning blog. I just see you ranting against them as people in your own space. If I read your words correctly, you are condemning them for being good writers and presenters who are devoted to helping educators and doing a lot of good work. (Like yourself, right?)

Btw, Techlearning isn't associated with the K-12 Online Conference (I wish we were) but I think what they are doing is wonderful. It's a grass roots group of educators helping others; it's the spirit of open source. What could be better?

Thanks for listening. And lay off my friends please. It's beneath you.


Gwen Solomon

Hiya Gwen,

You may have seen my post on this, but I would like to draw it to your attention, so you can be aware that I did not simply read and disregard your email.

Minimally, what I link to shows quite conclusively that NewBay Media is not a simple startup, as you suggest in your email, but part of the Wicks Group of Companies. Moreover, the Wicks Group has acquired at least some, if not all, of CMP. So it is quite misleading to suggest that, as you write, "We were never a big part of that company and we are now part of a start-up called NewBay Media."

I would also take issue with your suggestion that I am attacking people rather than ideas. I have been specific in what I have criticized, and have not criticized the character of any person; rather, I have criticized what they have said and what they have done. When you say "you are condemning them for being good writers and presenters who are devoted to helping educators and doing a lot of good work" you are very much misrepresenting what I have said.

For the record, my concern was with the commercial nature of the enterprise (a point most readers managed to understand). While the conference was being represented as "a grass roots group of educators helping others," it was not clear to me that this was the case. It seems to me very clear that this is a commercial enterprise, albeit one that has managed to recruit a certain amount of volunteer support. This is why I mentioned the very strong connection with the same group of people who write for NewBay Media. It is also why I mentioned the connection with the Shanghai University. And it is why I questioned, in this context, the promotion of the conference and some of the speakers. It is my hope that the volunteers associated with the conference have a very clear understanding of the commercial nature of the conference, as they may not have had this understanding when they originally volunteered.

This argument sits in a wider context of a argument to the effect that it is contrary to the nature of blogging to try to elevate some people (especially paid consultants or journalists) to the position of thought leaders. This is the sort of thing, I would comment, that characterizes commercial enterprises, as they try to direct traffic to their own properties. But in my view, good ideas exist throughout the blogosphere, and it does people a disservice to suggest otherwise. Especially in the education blogosphere, a commercial presence distorts and diminishes the very real contributions of teachers and others. Moreover, the representation of this conference as the best, or only, means of connecting with other educators was, particularly in the blogging environment, misleading, and in my view did more to damage educational blogging than to support it.

You are of course free to disagree with my argument, and I would encourage you in this. However I would request that this disagreement remain congruent with the facts regarding your enterprise and reflect faithfully my arguments as I have stated them. As for what is beneath me, let me suggest, that this is my concern, and not yours.

-- Stephen

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Just For The Record...

I have had a few people write me to say that the organizers of TechLearn have nothing to do with CMP Media. It's just a startup, I was told, and would I please cease writing as though they were some big company.

I remember seeing a CMP logo on the TechLearning site, but that is long gone. But there is a NewBay Media logo on the site, and the site states, "TechLEARNING is brought to you by NewBay Media LLC."

So why did I think NewBay is associated with CMP. Well I just checked it briefly, so I had to go back and find again what I saw. What struck me were two things:

First, that the link opens to NewBay media.

Second, that the Latest news page talks mostly about CMP Media.

Not satisfied, I dug a bit further and found this:

"The Wicks Group of Companies, L.L.C. (the "Wicks Group"), a New York-based private equity firm, today announced that it has acquired, through its affiliate NewBay Media LLC ("NewBay"), certain assets of CMP Entertainment Media, Inc., CMP Media LLC and UEMedia Community Sites, Inc."

and this

"United Business Media is an international media and business information company. UBM operates in two principal areas of business activity: PR Newswire, a global leader in news distribution; and CMP & Commonwealth, bringing business-to-business buyers and sellers together through events, publications, online media and business information."

So is newBay part of CMP. I haven't a clue. It's all a big mess of spaghetti. But really, the ownership doesn't matter a whole lot here, does it?

PLE Diagram

Another attempt - this time using Gliffy - to illustrate my own thinking about what a PLE should entail.

I created a demo of a part of this concept ages ago, here - it is never listed as among the "examples of PLEs" but is in fact a first draft of what I think a PLE should look like (I promise to lose the yellow, though). It doesn't really work in Internet Explorer, but it works just fine in Firefox.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Selling an Idea

Probably the hardest thing to do in the world is to sell an idea.

Some ideas just don't sell. For every global religion there are thousands of off-shoots, cults and sects. For every grand political philosophy dreamers have come up with a million more crackpot schemes, splinter groups and ultra-orthodox interpretations. There is, as with so many things, a long tail of ideas, and thus, most ideas are destined to languish in the dustbins of history.

But it is possible to have an idea that catches fire, to find yourself associated with a movement that seems to be sweeping the nation. The internet has been a rapidfire producer of such ideas. And so we've seen the emergence and wild popularity of things like open source, like Creative Commons, like podcasting, like Web 2.0. Oh, and so many more - it would take a long time to list them all.

Even so, even if the idea is hugely popular, it is still hard to sell. There are some reasons for this. For one thing, people soon realize that ideas, even your idea, are free, and that if they want, they can have it without paying you. Ideas, and especially good ideas, are the sorts of things that will attract followers, devotees who will spread them for free. And finally, ideas have a notoriously short lifespan. There's always a newer idea, a better idea, just around the corner.

What I have observed over the years, though, is that for every idea there is a cluster of people around that idea who think it can be sold - or at least, so it would appear. People have ideas, or become associated with ideas, and then the dollar signs begin to flash before their eyes, and they break away from whatever it was they were doing, to follow the dream. And there is no shortage of people who will help them do this, who will encourage them in this enterprise.

But in fact, ideas don't sell, no matter what you've heard on the radio. People may create a career chasing an idea, but that's different. The idea itself, the having of the idea, doesn't pay one red cent. Even if the idea sweeps the nation, you get nothing for it. Don't believe me? Ask Jorn Barger.

This brings me to the subject of the K-12 Online Conference, my comments about which have drawn so much ire in the last few days. Was I really just in a grumpy mood, in need of the blue pill? Well, yes, I have been grumpy lately, in a sour disposition, if you must know. But while my being grumpy has everything to do with my disposition, it has nothing to do with the acuity of my observations. What I said was accurate.

I wrote, "It's kind of like a 'Coming of Age', only presented as a conference. Oh hey wait, it's the same people!" The comparison with Coming of Age is in my view a perfectly apt one, since both are a collection of educational bloggers' opinions about educational blogging. It was also apt given the big Coming of Age logo splashed on the conference home page. And it was also apt given that it involved, as I said, the same people, which I took the time to link to.

Now some people thought I meant in my comments everyone at the conference, which is an utterly absurd reading of what I said. That's why I offered a link. And if you follow the link, though there's no list per se (there used to be one but I can't find it any more) you can see it easily enough in the 'categories': David Jakes, David Warlick, Jeff Utecht, Mechelle De Craen, Miguel Guhlin, Cheryl Oakes, Scott McLeod, Terry Freedman, Wesley Fryer.

OK, why these people? Why this association?

Well, part of it is stuff like this, from Terry Freedman's blog: "This is a great opportunity to take part, in some way, in a pioneering exercise. The idea was, I believe, first mooted by Will Richardson. It's being run by Will, in conjunction with Darren Kuropatwa, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, and Wesley Fryer, all of whom (apart from Will) are contributing to the second edition of Coming of Age. The first keynote to kick off the conference is being given by Dave Warlick (another contributor)."

You know, and items like this catch my eye, and this and this and this and this and this ("
Sure, the blogerati--David Warlick, Wes Fryer, Terry Freedman, David Jakes and the Unknown Blogger--bring a lot of topics to the table..." - see what I mean by "according to themselves"? ) and this (" David Warlick, Wesley Fryer, Miguel Guhlin, Terry Freedman, and David Jakes are the Techlearning blogerati.") and even this, a little bit, which would be nothing by itself, but in context means a bit more. And I could keep going but I have a flight to catch tomorrow.

My description of what I have observed is not wrong - it is something I have been seeing over and over. The K12 Online Conference is just the latest instantiation of it. And if you're wondering why I picked this event, well, I didn't pick this event at all, I simply got tired of seeing these guys once again telling everyone how great they are. As though they are the voice of educational blogging. So I made a few remarks to that effect and tossed them into a post (it wasn't that much effort, really).

So what's going on?

Well - it all comes back to this thing, that it is hard to sell an idea. First you have to lay claim to it, to own it. But even then, you find, pretty quickly, that the idea, by itself, doesn't sell. So then you have to hunt around for things to sell. Books, maybe? Conference appearances, perhaps? Or even whole conferences? Perhaps some marketing and advertising, if you can get a big enough name and nuture a relationship with some of the relevant tech companies. Product, if you actually have a product or the skill to make one.

It's a hard life. The books don't sell, really, and unless you're Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman or Chris Anderon you're not going to make a lot of money that way. Unless you already have a deal with a publisher (who will do the marketing you need to get this kind of sales - because that's the only way to do it) you may as well give the book away for free, hope to get a little income from library orders, and focus on other things.

Like what? Well there's this company that can address these problems for you. They combine product marketing with information services such as conference hosting. This would be a good company to be associated with, especially if the idea you have chosen to sell has something to do with Web 2.0 in education. This company does Web 2.0. In fact, this company claims it owns Web 2.0.

This company is also behind TechLearning
- which happens to be where I linked the first time when I said it's the the same people. They publish a magazine - oh hey, there's a Dave Warlick feature article. They sponsor events - oh, hey, there's David Jakes giving a talk - and here he is as a keynote.

See, the thing is, when you decide you want to sell an idea, you eventually have to turn to selling something else, and when you turn to selling something else, then in some cases, it becomes a matter of selling yourself, and when this becomes the brand, then you begin, bit by bit, to sell out - to be available to the highest bidder, to fluff up your presentation of knowledge and awareness, to seek alliances with like-minded people who will help promote the brand - the usual.

Because that's the way it's done when a discipline - any discipline - becomes show business. And if there's anything show business can sell, it's an idea - even if they have to grab it from the commons, gussie it up, give it a little spin and a little flash, get the corporate sponsors on board, disnify it to make sure it's clean and squeaky, and then market it as the brand new thing that nobody ever thought of.

Now the people at the K12 Online Conference can believe whatever they want. If some of these things are new to them, then I guess they are new, because in this world perception is everything. And if the TechLearning crowd tells you they are the edublogging digerati enough times, then I guess they are the digerati, because what the media says is always true, even if they write the media. And if it's all about volunteers and having a voice and coming together - well, no harm, no foul, right?

Except - these will now be the voices of our discipline. These voices, who are already fluffing it up, emptying it of substance, adding flash and positioning themselves for the Big Sale. These, who are already in deep with a marketing company that has demonstrated that it doesn't care one whit for the community, doesn't respect one whit the real origins and bases for the ideas it sells.

The only thing that would the the capper would be were Warlick or Freedman or the bunch of them became spokespeople for Blackboard, if Cmp had Blackboard sponsor the e-learning 2.0 conferences, and where they could all get together and celebrate the market and the idea. As though they had invented it.

As it is, I will return to the original line I had when I first posted about this: I aggregate more than 300 edubloggers and try to represent their contributions as fairly as I can in these pages. And that is to me the core of edublogging, not self-styled A-listers.

As for some of the others who are involved in the conference, some of whom actually are among the leading edubloggers, allow me to say what I said to one of you last week: "You should also be sensitive to the fact that other people will use you and your standing as a means to attempt to advance their own. It has certainly happened to me. What happens is they start pumping you up, and then you start reciprocating." Because you feel you have to.

And you know, come to think of it, that's why I have been in a sour mood for the last while. Because nobody likes to think that they are just a means to some end. As Kant knew so well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Multiculturalism (2)

Clint Brooks writes,
The problem is of course that people don't always view their differences as abuses, or share the foundational concepts that might create common ground for recognition of abuses.... My reading of Stephen is that he would disagree and hold that these rights and freedoms are primary and that multiculturalism as he understands it and defends it is in agreement. That is a position I can find little to no fault with.
Not exactly.

I personally believe that these freedoms and rights are foundational. But my personal view does not carry the day in a multicultural society (nor, indeed, does anyone else's). Rather, what happens is that my personal view, along with that of many others, becomes a matter for discussion and negotiation.

Our rights and freedoms are neither inherent nor inalienable. The proof of this is the millions of people who are forced to live without them in repressive regimes. Or the ease with which they are disregarded on 'private' property such as malls, or in the workplace, or in schools. The existence and potection of our rights and freedoms is a social construct, an artifact created by society for the preservation of society.

Hence the nature and extent of these rights and freedoms is the subject of a coinstant negotiation between members of the society. The rules under which this negotiation takes place - nominally, a constitution - is established so as to create a balance between varying parties, both in the majority and the minority, to ensure that the mere (and often capricious) will of the majority does not aribitrarily extinguish those rights. The negotiation, because it is constant and ongoing, ensures that the debates are focused at the 'edges' - the points of disagreement that are typically minor, but serve as indicators for deeper divisions.

This is why no right is absolute. Freedom of speech is reigned by common sense (no shouting 'fire' in a movie theatre), consideration for others (no off-colour jokes) and legislation (no slander, defamation, no disclosure of national secrets). A society that embraces multiculturalism will typically exhibit sanctions of some sort against hate speech, or speech that fosters and encourages acts of discrimination or violence against a minority (which, when you think about it, is in force and nature indistinct from legislation prohibiting threats against the person of the President, or prohibitions banning 'incitement to riot'). The purpose of such legislation, though, isn't some sort of social engineering - it is to ensure the security and safety of all members of society.

That said, even the safety and security of all members of society is not sacrosanct. It, too, is a matter for negotiation. People engaged in dangerous activities are not guaranteed safety and security. People who break the law, and do so in a violent fashion, may be treated with deadly force. Some societies (happily, very few) even sanction the state-sponsored execution of its citizens. Additionally, safety and security is interpreted in some societies, as in Canada, to include medical care, while in others, this is not considered a social goal, and is left to private enterprise.

In general, though, what seems to have been found in practice is that societies that recognize and protect the rights of individuals, usually interpreted as the basic freedoms (of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of religion, of movement) and the basic rights (to safety and security, to autonomy, to ownership or property, to sustinence, to information or education) tend to be more stable than those that don't. The denial of a freedom or a security is usually grounds, eventually, for a civil insurrection (or requires a use of social force deemed intolerable by the rest of society). This is why the substantial majority in a multicultural society, once order and stability is established, recognize the value of protecting and preserving these rights.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


I think that people misunderstand what I mean by autonomy. It's like when I talk about learner-designed learning. People seem to assume I am talking about casting learners unaided into the sea to fend for themselves. As though they could never ask for advice. As though there would never be anyone willing to guide them or support them.

The same with autonomy. The presumption is that what I mean is a person who is an island, who does not depend in any way on others, who is ruggedly individualistic. Some sort of weird Ayn Rand fantasy of epistemological superhumans, a Nietzsche-inspired fantasy about people being able to completely determine, with no input from anyone or anything, what is true, what is right, what is good.

But that's not what I mean at all. Nothing close. That's why I have included openness and connectedness as additional criteria for epistemic goodness. That's why I talk about communities and networks at all. I do believe that the contributions of other people are important and essential. I am well aware how much external influences - yes, including media and advertising - can and should help determine our thoughts and beliefs. I would even draw you a picture depicting the causal relationships, how sensations effect neural states. Like this:

(Source of Diagram)

For one thing, maintaining an opposite point of view is irrational. Given what we know of human cognition, there are no belief states that are completely independent of our experiences. We are not born (contra Descartes and a whole school of misled Rationalists) with ideas burned into our brain, like some sort of mark of the Creator. What we come to believe is caused by what we experience. Our mental contents are reflections, perceptual echoes, the materials of our experiences playing back against each other, mixing and mashing and reforming.

In just the same way, contrasting autonomy with determinism is irrational. When I say that somebody's contribution to a network was 'not autonomous', I do not mean that they are under some sort of mind control, a robot at the whim of some Svengali. Yes, again, it is true that all mental states are caused by perceptions and experiences. But it does not follow (and should not be inferred) that all mental states are determined by these perceptions and experiences.

These sorts of extremes - complete independence, and complete dependence - are the result of what I might call a naive causal view of the world. This is the view (that all of us were taught as children) that the world operates like clockwork. That when you do something, there is a knowable and determinate effect. A causes B. And if there is a B, then there must be some determinate A that caused it. But the world isn't like that. Once events reach a certain level of complexity, the story about causation breaks down.

Consider, for example, a bolt of lightning. We have all (I presume) seen lightning, and know that it occurs during a thunderstorm. We are told that the cause of the lightning is the buildup of electrical charge in the thundercloud. The thundercloud, in turn, is caused by the buildup of water droplets in the air, condensation caused by the interaction of a warm and humid air mass with a cold front, this cold front in turn caused by the rotation of the Earth and the uneven heating of the Sun.

I remember once, one hot July night in Edmonton, returning home from the Power Plant, mad at the world and just wanting to get away, I saw the lightning flashing south of the city and jumped into my car to go chase it. A couple hours later I was out on the flat prairie, the lightning bolts shooting straight down, huge, towering, overwhelming bolts from the sky. I got out of my car and walked around the field, feeling the rain pelt against my face, watching the bolts streak down, one after the other, feeling so terrified by the storm I was at the same time one with it, part of it.

And I asked myself, had I been struck by lightning at that point, what would have been the cause of it? Would it have been the dismissive behaviour of those around me in the bar? Would it have been some irrational perception on my part? Would it have been my foolish walk around the field in a thunderstorm? Would it have been the buildup of an electrical charge in a cloud? Would it have been the uneven heating of the Earth by the Sun? What would have caused that bolt to have that impact at that time? And the answer is: nothing. That when we say this thing caused that thing we are placing an interpretation, based on some gross oversimplification, on the state of affairs.

There is no contradiction between saying that our thoughts and experiences are caused, and saying that we make choices. This becomes especially the case when we see that our choices in turn result in new thoughts and experiences. What we are is that entity (that amorphous assemblage of neural connections that, when thought of as a unit, can be seen as recognizing input and creating output) that recognizes certain states of affairs as states of affairs - as things, as causes, as Herman from next door.

So when I am talking about one thing being autonomous from others, I am not talking about the one thing being free from the causal influence of others, but rather, I am telling a story about how it is that the input of that one thing to the network as a whole is determined, and more accurately, how it should be seen as determined, how it should be regarded as determined, how - were we building a network of some sort - it should be enabled or permitted to be determined. When I say something is 'determined' or 'not determined' I am talking about, not some essential state of nature, where all things are one of These or one of Those, but rather, how we should consider that thing to be.

What was the cause of the lightning? If it was determined, then something made it strike at that time in that place. If it was undetermined, then the storm decided to hurl a lightning bolt at that time (neither wording really satisfies - and yet these are the words we have to work with, because our bias toward a naive causal view of the world is built into the language). What I want us to do, with respect to humans, is to take the attitude that the storm decided to hurl the lightning bolt. Not as an uncaused completely indeterminate event (because obviously it's not) but rather, seen this way, as a grounded, meaningful event (indeed, the source of meaning).

What does that mean in practice? It means that we ascribe to ourselves the possibility of choice (in fact, Gestalt alternatives, oscillating ways of seeing the world, the decision to perceive a duck rather than a rabbit), that this choice will be ascribed as the cause of our external actions, including especially our contributions to the network, in the sense that "When I say 'A' it is me that is saying 'A', and not some other person saying 'A' through me." In other words, we are saying that we see the origin of 'A' as being located inside ourselves rather than external to ourselves. It would be like saying that the cause of the lightning bolt is in the storm - it isn't some direct consequence of warm and cold air masses, and it wasn't in some sense 'drawn out' by some foolish person walking in a field tempting fate.

What this means in practice is that there ought not be an identifiable dependence (that is, an explainable correlation) between what someone else says or does, and what you say or do.

Think of it as akin to the distinction between being told to do something, and having someone suggest that you do something. These two circumstances may be perceptually indistinct. In each case, a person leans over to you and says, say, "You should vote no." And then you utter the words, "I vote no." The difference between the two states is one of interpretation, one where we decide as observers or as participants to apply one frame to it, as opposed to another. The difference between thinking to ourselves, on hearing the words, 'I have no choice' as opposed to 'I have a choice'.

In order for it to be possible for a person to rationally say that 'I have a choice' there must, in fact, be a choice. It much be possible for the person to have uttered some statement other than the one that was suggested. This implies, first, that some sort of consideration or processing of the suggestion occurs, and second, that as part of that consideration, alternative actions emerge as genuine possibilities. So that you could, as a rational person, see two possible and acceptable states of affairs, one where you said 'I vote no' and one where you said 'I vote yes' (and even one where you decline to vote at all).

What would prevent you from having that choice? First, your input might be in some way circumvented. For example, when somebody purports to express your vote for you, but substitutes their own point of view for yours. Second, your input might be coerced. For example, when the consequences of uttering 'I vote yes' are so horrible that it cannot be considered as a viable alternative. Third, you might fail to consider or process the request. For example, you way respond automatically because you have been conditioned or hypnotized in some way.

Now again, it is important to keep in mind, what these scenarios describe are ways of seeing a situation, as opposed to three ontologically distinct types of entities. This is not some sort of taxonomy that I am offering (I don't offer taxonomies). These are three vectors you can consider to be more or less the case such that, when the preponderance of the interpretation is in one direction, the choice was non-autonomous, and when the preponderance of the interpretation is in the other direction, we say the choice was autonomous.

And these vectors are very much matters of point of view. To take the most obvious case, what constitutes 'so horrible that it cannot be considered as a viable alternative'? This clearly will vary depending on the person's point of view. Some people may be prepared to tolerate anything but death or dismemberment. Others would not fear the same being done to themselves, but will fold at the thought of it happening to a loved one. Others would not consider expulsion or exclusion by a group to be tolerable. Being singled out as the lone dissenter might be unbearable for some. This circumstance - what counts as too horrible - is a matter of interpretation.

So when a person, acting as a node in a network, wishes to participate autonomously in a network, what this means is that this person would prefer that, on the whole, (a) their utterances be expressed to other members of the network accurately, (b) that there not be sanctions or punishments for making certain utterances, and (c) they be afforded the time and the capacity to consider matters in their own light before making an utterance.

So when a person, building or designing a network, wishes the participants to participate autonomously, what this means is that they would tend to (a) ensure each member's voice is communicated accurately and completely, (b) create a space or mechanism for that person such that they are shielded from sanctions or retributions, and (c) ensure they are presented with information in a timely manner and given the tools (including the education and the background knowledge necessary) to make informed decisions.

These considerations explain why I tend to disfavour small groups. See also Konrad Glogowski, 'To Ungroup a Class'. Small groups tend to fail on all three counts. First, when the decision of a group is reported, the view expressed is often the reporter's (and there are no mechanisms in place to prevent that). Second, for some people (namely, me) small groups create greater pressure to conform (especially when the group is given a task to perform or an outcome to produce). And third, the process is often constructed in such a way as to prevent consideration of the matter at hand - wither there is no time to present such considerations, or the considerations are overwhelmed by group members who have not taken the time to consider.

I haven't talked here about why autonomy is necessary in well-functioning networks. The long story is probably the subject for another day. But in a nutshell, the response is this: better decisions are made when more perspectives and more variables are taken into account. Each person in a network brings new perspectives and variables to the table. This, increasing the number of people in the network improves the functioning of the network. If, however, their participation is not autonomous, then the impact of those perspectives and variables are never brought into play. They are overridden by whatever entity is creating the non-autonomous behaviour. This weakens the network, because of the missing perspective, and worse, it disguises this weakening because the individual entity may be perceived as autonomous, even when not.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Managing Your Blog Entry - 11 Better Tips

What is it about the writing of lists? Here we have yet another post that needs to be deconstructed because the author seems to have just slapped something together rather than thinking the topic through. In this case, it's journalist Vincent Maher. His stuff is in italics, my reply in plain text.

  • A blog entry is a stub for conversation
    One of the key ways to create a loyal audience for your blog is to create a community of readers who interact with each-other on your blog. This means that your blog entries should be structured in such a way that they start conversations. This means they need to be short and punchy, with a clearly defined point or set of points.
No it isn't. The point of a blog isn't to gather a loyal cadre of readers around you dutifully writing comments. And you certainly should not be writing your blog simply to entice the commenters. And if your readers aren't capable of reading anything other than short and punchy, are you sure you should be writing to them? Think this through. A blog entry isn't some place you create to prompt conversation. A blog is a place where you say something. As for the commenters, they should be writing on their own blogs, where people can actually link to them.

  • Think about the perspectives of your audience
    Getting the audience talking means you have to consider what their perspectives may be on the point you are blogging about and position your point accordingly. It doesn’t make sense to waver from one point-of-view to another in your blog entry unless that’s the point you want to make.
So, like, if you have conservative readers, you should position your posts around their perspectives, making sure (of course) not to actually state their perspective. If you are going "huh?" that's because this is really bad advice. Why should I align my writing to my readers' perspectives? Why shouldn't I waver around, consider different points of view, examine things from all sides. Sure, it makes it more difficult for these same conservative readers to respond with the snappy comeback that makes them read you day after the day. As for the rest, though, they appreciate the fact that I don't treat readers like morons. I mean, sheesh. One point of view?

  • Write tight headlines that encourage interest
    Remember that many readers will be scanning your RSS feed along with many others, so the poignancy of your headline is critical. If the headline doesn’t grab a reader’s attention there is little likelihood they will click on it. (thanks to Colin Daniels for this one)
If the whole point of your blog is to attract readers, then you'll have to bait-and-switch them with catchy (but ultimately misleading) headlines. Like, say, Sex Up Your Blog. For the rest of us, though, we know that our readership will be looking at more than just the headline, though if they need some way to decide, our informative and straightforward headlines will give them a good guide.

  • Make points or lists and make then scan-friendly
    Online readers don’t like to read long columns of text unless your content is extremely compelling. A better way to get a series of complex points across is to create a list of key points that readers can scan, along with a description of each point. This will also help you structure your thoughts in a way that seems more lucid.
Well, you could write compelling content. Barring this, however, you will have to give ways for readers to comment on your posts without actually having read them. Of course, you are doing this at the expense of actually creating an argument or an explanation - short pithy descriptions are all you can manage. The rest of us, though, address readability issues with good design and leave the writing to take care of itself by writing deep and compelling content rather than tripe.

  • Link to the context
    If you are blogging about something that other people are talking about, provide links to their conversations so you don’t seem to be speaking out of context. Linking to other sites is a plus rather than a minus because it will help your readers understand where you’re coming from.
Most people link to web pages and posts, not contexts. Of course, what the author means here is that you should link to the posts you're responding to. But he won't say that, because then you might have to link to sites that disagree with you, giving them Google juice and all that. To heck with it. Link to the source and let Google (and your readers) take care of the rest.

  • Quote indirectly and link
    If you feel the need to quote other bloggers, don’t take the easy route and copypaste a blockquote unless there is something very specific about the original wording that you want to preserve. Rather, rephrase the quote indirectly and link it to the source.
If you quote somebody, quote them directly. And link to them, of course. By quoting directly you give the reader to se your point respond to theirs side by side. It's harder to respond to an actual argument rather than to a paraphrase, because you still have to interpret what they said, but you will now be held accountable for both your interpretation and your response. Quote directly and respond precisely.

  • Format long documents for print
    If you have an essay with long paragraphs and an argument that needs careful development, rather make a PDF and provide a short summary of it on your blog with a link to the document.
If you have to format your long documents for print then your web page design is broken. PDF doesn't do anything you can't do in HTML, except it needs a special reader and and bloats the files like crazy. Design your pages for readability and forget the special PDF and print formats - those are for people who can't design.

  • Never delete anything
    In blogger culture deleting something after people have read it or commented is a cardinal sin. Don’t do it, rather post a correction on the original entry.
Delete spam, trolls, vile insults from right-wing attack dogs, and other garbage. Correct your spelling mistakes, fix your broken links, repair lost or gibbled images. Change your content, too, but be honest with your readers - if you update something significant, leave a note. Did you say something really stupid? You can delete it if you want to - if people want the original, there's Google Cache. Remember, it's your website - keep your website clean and accurate and don't let the commenters tell you what you can't do.

  • Troll the blogosphere for secondary conversation
    If your blog entry is successful then other bloggers will blog about it. Use tools like Google Blog Search and Technorati to track what other bloggers are saying about your blog entry and update your blog with links to those conversations if they add to yours.
If you think of what other people write on their own sites as secondary then you have some serious rethinking to do. These other writers have taken the time to read what you've written and to expound in some length (usually much more than you can do in a comment). If you have a pimary audience, this is it. If you are engaged in a conversation, this is the conversation. Yes, use these tools to find ut what people are saying, not because you're tracking but because you genuinely want to listen to what others say about your comments.

  • Be active in your own conversations
    Don’t sit and watch the comments streaming in and do nothing, get in there! Unlike traditional journalists, the blogger’s role is to steer and be part of the conversations they start.
The blogger's role is to blog. If it feels to you that this includes responding to comments, do that. If you'd rather make sure your responses are highlighted and indexed, respond in a new blog post. But don't let anyone convince you that you have to be some kind o chatterbug to be a good blogger. Respond if you have something to say and be a good listener otherwise.

  • Create buzz everywhere
    Make sure there are lots of inbound links to your post. Find other blogs that are discussing the same issue, or your blog entry, and post comments with links to updated content or highlighting some of the perspectives put forward by your commenters.
People who do this sort of thing are called link spammers. Yes, in every community there's a group of people who do this, who link to each other endlessly, as though it builds some sort of blog juice. People like that demonstrate only that they don't know how the rankings work. Link as appropriate and be selective. The purpose of linking isn't to make your site popular, the purpose of linking is to refer people to other sites. If you don't understand this, you don't understand the web.

You see - it's like two points of view at work here. Overall, what we have is Vincent Maher who, despite writing in a new medium, still can't let go of those old media roots. To them, it's still all about accumulating as many readers as possible, about keeping them on your site, about pandering to your audience - about everything, in other words, except saying something meaningful and being honest to yourself.

I've seen a lot of former (and not so former) journalists go this route, in my own field as well as others. It's disturbing, because they (and sometimes others) think they gain some sort of credibility through popularity, as though if they grab a large enough mass of readers they will, by this fact, be important.

It's a chimera, of course. The keys to blogging (if not being Prom Queen) are honesty, integrity and meaningfulness. You will gain much more if you just write what you need or want to write and let the audience fall where it may. Even if you have only three readers, if you are able to connect with and really engage with them, then no number of hangers-on will replace them after the switch from substance to dross.

Rules for Life

This email, with some 'rules for life', has ben making the rounds for years. I doubt very much this was written by Bill Gates. This is political propaganda. I've seen it before. Now, at last, I've written a long overdue reponse.

Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

It doesn't follow that nothing is fair, or that nothing should be fair. Justice, in particular, should be fair. Instead, therefore, of simply 'getting used to' unfairness, people should demand fairness.

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

The 'world', thought of as an inanimate object, won't care. The 'world', thought of as your community and friends, will care. Or should care. People who don't care are called 'psychotic'. The author may be defending his or her psychosis by projecting it onto the world. You should not be taken in by this. Normal, caring, feeling people do care.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

You won't, of course, unless it's the interest on your inheritance, or unless you got a nice job because your father is chairman of the board or a former prime minister. Don't believe this stuff about 'earning' the cash or the title or the phone. That's what they will tell you while you're young to keep you from expecting too much. What they mean is, you'll never get it. Because these things aren't earned at all.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

That's why you need to join or form a union. Because there are laws in the real world to prevent people from acting in the workplace like a tecaher acts in the classroom. The laws, though, don't stop people from acting in an abusive or bullying manner when they are in positions of power. This is why you will need to protect yourself. You should put up with it in school; you should definitely not put up with it in the workplace.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.

Flipping burgers is a noble and dignified occupation. You are providing food for the hungry. Earning $4.50 per hour, however, is beneath your dignity - no person should be expected to work for less than poverty-level wages. And the working conditions - rotating shifts, noisy workplaces, sbusive bosses - are beneath you. Flip burgers if you have to, but remember this: our society is set up in such a way that, if you do not work under demeaning conditions for miserable wages, you will be forced to be homeless and starve. This is that 'unfairness' they told you about. Don't just accept it. Demand better working conditions, better pay, and your fair share of the wealth you create.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

You are responsible for the outcomes of every decision you make. Everyone knows that. But this responsibility does not hold your parents blameless for the sort of person you turned out to be. If you are abusive toward animals, if you are a religious fanatic, if you suffer sever issues of self esteem, you may want to look at what impact your upbringing had on that. These things are not your fault, and you should stop holding yourself completely responsible for all your failings. Do your best with what you have, but give yourself a break - a lot of people did a lot of stuff to you, and you have to deal with that.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Raising children does not mean losing your ideals, even if this is what is suggested here. If your parents have lost their high hopes and dreams, this is a sad thing, and you should reflect on the sort of society we live in that would do this to a person. Do clean your closet (I'm sure you do anyway) but don't accept this state of affairs. The rain forests matter, and they will continue to matter even if your emnployers are trying to reduce you to a state where all you can think about is day-to-day existence.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers,but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Schools have not abolished failure, and when you write a test, you only have one chance to write the answer. So you should ask yourself why the author would make such a false statement here. It is to promote the idea that life is about winners and losers, right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Educated people know better; they know that there can be environments where winners and losers don't exist - a town picnic, a concert in the park, rowing on the lake, a walk in the forest, to name a few. They know that people who think that they succeed by diminishing others are seriouly disturbed. They know that there are points of view, and that sometimes you need to look at a problem at different times, and in different ways. And they know that, when we say a child is a failure, we have failed, for we are the ones responsble for the child's education.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

You should get summers off. That's eight weeks vacation a year. Some countries manage to povide that, and they have not fallen into decay and ruin. You should wonder why yours can't. You should wonder why you can't spend time to in yourself, and ask yourself why your employer is so emotionally disturbed as to not care whether you are happy or not. And you should take that summaer off, if not every year, at least once in your life, even if it means sleeping in the park and living on handouts, because you are the most important thing in your life, which means the most important thing in your world. How can anyone tell you to diminish that? How could they?

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

In television, people have jobs - Lou is a newspaper editor, Sam is a bartender, Maxwell is a secret agent, and so on and so forth. In fact, people are always working on television. What we never see is how the low wages limit their options, how they are always underfed and chronically short of money, how their children have to give up educational opportunities, how they have to move from one job to another because of bad working conditions, how they have to work two or three jobs at once to get by.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

If this is the only reason you can think of to be nice to somebody, then you need to look at yourself more closely. Why would you not be nice to nerds? Well - you would probably be nice. But the author of this item writes as though he would dump a nerd in the river if he thought he could get away with it. Don't be like that - be nice to people because you are nice, not because you are afraid of reprisals.

If you agree, pass it on.

Or - you can pass this on, a long overdue response to this very disturbed view of life.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Unlike (it seems) others, I see multiculturalism as a matter of individual freedom.

When Brad Jensen (in a DEOS discussion) says things like 'multiculturalism is treating people as a member of a group first' he is basing his precept on the idea that most cultures do, indeed, occur in groups.

It is this same sort of precept that leads someone like Clint Brooks to say that some aspects of culture must be over-ruled. These are precisely aspects where the norms of the group (say, to not speak freely) appear to over-ride the freedoms of the individual.

Except. That's not what multiculturalism is.

Multiculturalism is, at heart, the right of each person to choose to participate in a culture, where participating in a culture includes maintaining a language, following a religion, having certain values and beliefs, observing certain dress codes, and the like.

That this is a right is expressed by the consequence of a multiculturalist policy, specifically, that there shall be no reprisals or discrimination on the basis of their having made that choice, and that, all other things being equal, law and process will respect that culture (in other words, will respect the choices made by the individual).

In Canada, there was no specific opposition to the use of a specific cultural precept, including Sharia Law, to resolve civil and even minor criminal matters. Indeed, there is a lot of precedent for it. Canada employs both civil and common codes of justice. It also allows for First Nations healing circles. My own experience is that it also allows for various practices of mediation and arbitration.

Where objections tend to be raised is in the matter of whether a given individual has voluntarily chosen to be a member of a culture, and to be governed by such sanctions. This is particularly tricky in the case of minors, where such decisions are made by the parents. It is also tricky in cases of power imbalance, as for example a young woman under the control of her father and other males in the community.

But these concerns are not objections to multiculturalism. They are objections to coercion and abuse in the name of multiculturalism (or in the name of a particular culture). And these objections apply across cultures (and to a large degree are based on objections to the sanctioned mistreatment of women that appears in almost all cultures, including Christian, Muslim, Hindu and others).

This observed, there is utterly no contradiction between multiculturalism and freedom and democracy in a society.

Take the matter of free speech. I may belong to a culture that prohibits free speech. It may even require a vow of silence. If, however, I am free to walk out the front door and to cease being held by that vow, then my freedoms are not being infringed. It is only in the case of coercion that my freedoms are being infringed.

The law, properly so-called, in a multi-cultural environment, bedcomes therefore something other than an instrument of enforcing moral policy. It is not intended to ensure adherence to basic values that we all share. Because we don't share them, and because values are not a matter of law, they are a matter of choice.

The purpose of law is to ensure that the different cultures can co-exist in a mutually supportive environment. To ensure, at a minimum, they they don't kill each other, take each other as slaves, impose their own religions and values on each other, and the like. The law is, in this sense, a lot like the traffic code. It is a pragmatic system that people respect becvause they see it as the shortest and simplest means to allow the preservation and practice of their own culture.

When one thinks of it, there can be no other way. No nation, no matter how assimilated its population, can ever hope to produce a monoculture. This means that in any nation there will be cultural differences. A system of law based on a culture - a religious law, say - will effectively discriminate against that culture. Members of that culture then face two choices: oblivion or resistence. A not insignificant number can be counted on to choose resistence. Hence a system of law based on culture can be predicted reliably to be an eventual cause of conflict and civil strife.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What's The Number for Tech Support?

The article in Science Daily is pretty misleading, when it says "Human Brain Region Functions Like Digital Computer". To most people, to function like a computer is to function based on a series of instructions encoded into some (binary) language. This in turn leads to the idea that the brain is like a computer program.

This, of course, is precisely not what O'Reilly is saying in the article (unfortunately not available online, though you can find numerous others of his articles). Probably the recent online article most corresponding to the Science article is Modeling Integration and Dissociation in Brain and Cognitive Development.

In this article he is pretty specific about how the brain respresents conceptuial structures. "Instead of viewing brain areas as being specialized for specific representational content (e.g., color, shape, location, etc), areas are specialized for specific computational functions by virtue of having different neural parameters... This 'functionalist' perspective has been instantiated in a number of neural network models of different brain areas, including posterior (perceptual) neocortex, hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex/basal ganglia system... many aspects of these areas work in the same way (and on the same representational content), and in many respects the system can be considered to function as one big undifferentiated whole. For example, any given memory is encoded in synapses distributed throughout the entire system, and all areas participate in some way in representing most memories."

This is tricky, but can be broken down. Basically, what he is proposing is a functionalist architecture over distributed representation.

"Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part."

For example, when I say, "What makes something a learning object is how we use the learning object," I am asserting a functionalist approach to the definition of learning objects (people are so habituated to essentialist definitions that my definition does not even appear on lists of definitions of learning objects).

It's like asking, what makes a person a 'bus driver'? Is it the colour of his b lood? The nature of his muscles? A particular mental state? No - according to functionalism, what makes him a 'bus driver' is the fact that he drives buses. He performs that *function*.

"A distributed representation is one in which meaning is not captured by a single symbolic unit, but rather arises from the interaction of a set of units, normally in a network of some sort."

As noted in the same article, "The concept of distributed representation is a product of joint developments in the neurosciences and in connectionist work on recognition tasks (Churchland and Sejnowski 1992). Fundamentally, a distributed representation is one in which meaning is not captured by a single symbolic unit, but rather arises from the interaction of a set of units, normally in a network of some sort."

To illustrate this concept, I have been asking people to think of the concept 'Paris'. If 'Paris' were represented by a simple symbol set, we would all mean the same thing when we say 'Paris'. But in fact, we each mean a collection of different things, and none of our collections is the same. Therefore, in our own minds, the concept 'Paris' is a loose association of a whole bunch of different things, and hence the concept 'Paris' exists in no particular place in our minds, but rather, is scattered throughout our minds.

Now what the article is saying is that human brains are like computers - but not like the computers as described above, with symbolds and programs and all that, but like computers when they are connected together in a network.

"The brain as a whole operates more like a social network than a digital computer... the computer-like features of the prefrontal cortex broaden the social networks, helping the brain become more flexible in processing novel and symbolic information." Understanding 'where the car is parked' is like understanding how one kind of function applies on the brain's distributed representation, while understanding 'the best place to park the car' is like how a different fuunction applies to the same distributed representation.

The analogy with the network of computers is a good one (and people who develop social network software are sometimes operating with these concepts of neural mechanisms specifically in mind). The actual social network itself - a set of distributed and interlinked entities, usually people, as represented by websites or pages - constitutes a type of distributed representation. A 'meme' - like, say, the Friday Five - is distributed across that network; it exists in no particular place.

Specific mental operations, therefore, are like thinking of functions applied to this social network. For example, if I were to want to find 'the most popular bloggers' I would need to apply a set of functions to that network. I would need to represent each entity as a 'linking' entity. I would need to cluster types of links (to eliminate self-referential links and spam). I would then need to apply my function (now my own view here, and possibly O'Reilly's, though I don't read it specifically in his article, is that to apply a function is to create additional neural layers that act as specialized filters - this would contrast with, say, Technorati, which polls each individual entity and then applies an algorithm to it).

The last bit refers to how research is conducted in such environments. "
Modeling the brain is not like a lot of science where you can go from one step to the next in a chain of reasoning, because you need to take into account so many levels of analysis... O'Reilly likens the process to weather modeling."

This is a very important point, because it shows that traditional research methodology, as employed widely in the field of e-learning, will not be successful. This becomes even more relevant with the recent emphasis on 'evidennce-based' methodology, such as the Campbell Collaboration. This methodology, like much of the same type, recommends double-blind tests measuring the impacted of individual variables in controlled environments. The PISA samples are an example of this process in action.

The problem with this methodology is that if the brain (and hence learning) operates as described by O'Reilly (and there is ample evidence that it does) then concepts such as 'learning' are best understood as functions applied to a distributed representation, and hence, will operate in environments of numerous mutually dependent variables (the value of one variable inpacts the value of a second, which impacts the value of a third, which in turn impacts the value of the first, and so on).

As I argue in papers like Public Policy, Research and Online Learning and Understanding PISA the traditional methodology fails in such environments. Holding one variable constant, for example, impacts the variable you are trying to measure. This is because you are not merely screening the impact of the second variable, you are screening the impact of the first variable on itself (as transferred through the second variable). This means you are incorrectly measuring the first variable.

Environments with numerous mutually dependent variables are known collectively as chaotic systems. Virtually all networks are chaotic systems. Classic examples of chaotic systems are the weather system and the ecology. In both cases, it is not possible to determine the long-term impact of a single variable. In both cases, trivial differences in initial conditions can result in significant long-term differences (the butterfly effect).

This was a significant difference between computation and neural networks. In computation (and computational methodology, including traditional causal science) we look for specific and predictable results. Make intervention X and get result Y. Neural network (and social network) theory does not offer this. Make intervention X today and get result Y. Make intervention X tomorrow (even on the same subject) and get result Z.

This does not mean that a 'science' of learning is impossible. Rather, it means that the science will be more like meteorology than like (classical) physics. It will be a science based on modelling and simulation, pattern recognition and interpretation, projection and uncertainty. One would think at first blush that this is nothing like computer science. But as the article takes pains to explain, it is like computer science - so long as we are studying networks of computers, like social networks.

Thanks Guy Levert for the email question that prompted the title and the remainder of this post.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

That Group Feeling

I still remember Vacation Bible School, at the Christian Reformed Church. I’d take an almost two hour bus ride each way, winding my way through the farm towns east of Ottawa until we arrived at the church on Russell Road. The lessons and the songs were OK, but the best was reserved for the noonhour.

That was when we all gathered in the field outside – it was the middle of summer, after all – and worked on our football team. We were the Water Buffalos and we had our team chant, “Hort! Hort! Hort!” We never played any other team, but instead spent the two or three weeks of the school scrimmaging among ourselves.

It was because of the Water Buffalos that I wanted to return, and I was disappointed to find that I would not be welcome the following year. As I understood it, there was something about needing to actually be religious to go to VBS. It seemed unfair to me; I believed what I believed, and didn’t believe what I didn’t believe, and there wasn’t much that was going to be done about that (my career as a Sunday School teacher met the same fate for the same reasons).

There were some intimations that were I to develop religion over the winter I would be welcome back, but they didn’t press and I didn’t change. I was about the age for summer camp by then, and soon the Water Buffalos were just a dim memory. But that group feeling never left me – nor the memory of the price I would have to pay to join.

It wasn’t a big deal at the time, really. All through my school years I was in and out of religious denominations like a substitute running back. There was my time as an Anglican alter boy. My time as a Pentecostal evangelist (I even went to a church retreat in Peterborough with them, where I played – you guessed it – more football). I dabbled as a United and poked my head in the door of St. Catherine’s. I still remember discussing the game with the priest as I was trick-or-treating one Halloween. “Football,” he exclaimed. “It’s the greatest game in the world.” I didn’t much like it, I said.

I never did pursue a football career but team sports remained for me – as they did for every Metcalfe boy, past and future, that ever lived – the cornerstone of my social life. Oh sure, there was the debating team and the chess club and the Reach For The Top team and even the drama club, but the only teams of consequence were the sports teams. This is why, 25 years later, when I attended my high school reunion, I found my life there wiped from existence. The true stars of my school were the tall blond athletic Dutch kids, the Vriends.

The less said about my history with teams in Metcalfe, probably, the better. The soccer team was particularly brutal. I was placed on it because I finished 4th in the school-wide three mile run (and once ran a mile in under five minutes – too bad we never had a track team). Nobody ever thought to ask why I was such a good runner; I was placed on the team for two years, never played a single minute, and was regularly roughed up by the rest of the team (the details of the shorts incident are best left out of a family column). Because I was the weakling, the runt. Because I was different.

Amazing that I persisted. Amazing that I showed up for every practice, every game, for two years, even when my shorts were ripped to shreds and my shoes had huge gaping holes in them. It was that time of life, I suppose, when I would risk anything to belong. To risk anything for that team feeling.

Happily, life is not the battleground that characterizes high school locker rooms, and I did eventually find fellowship and spirit. With the computer operations team at GSI, until new managers were imported from Texas and all our groups broken up. With radical leftist journalists at university, until I graduated and was sent to Edmonton. With various executives at the Graduate Students’ Association, until the time came to move on. With, even, the e-learning group here in Moncton, until it was dismantled.

To belong. To move as one. To operate in synch, one purpose, one goal. I understand. I know, I have felt, the sense of belonging such a thing. The joining together. The feeling of being valued, of being vital. Part of the team. All for one and one for all. Oh I know, and honestly, still yearn for that team feeling. Despite the risks.

It’s funny, though, how our emotions can cloud our other senses (I am told: first comes the thought, then come the emotions – but it’s the emotions that spur to action, the emotions that give meaning and value – as Hume said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions").

While still a radical leftist journalist, I once did a fairly in depth exploration of a thing called the Hunger Project, and consequently, Erhard Seminars Training (EST). This beame a longer look at cults (and a great feature article) and a nice compliment to my knowledge of the logical fallacies, which I was also developing at the time. And what I discovered there seems to be the most natural thing in the world: how the desire to belong to a group is manipulated in order to subsume one’s sense of individual identity, individual well-being, and even one’s rationality and reason, in order to join the group.

Recent years have been bad years for cults. The memory of Jim Jones in Guyana was still fresh (and ‘drinking the xxx Kool-Aid’ has never left the lexicon). David Koresh would take down his Branch Davidians in a hail of explosions and gunfire, echoed a couple of years later by Timothy McVeigh. Then there were the Heaven's Gate suicides who thought they were traveling to space.

But there is nothing new to what these cults have been doing. We’ve all seen the movies that begin with the military boot camp experience. “First you break ‘em down, then you build ‘em up.” Sensory and sleep deprivation. Being constantly on the move. Recitation of the group mantra. The suffering of hardship together. These bind a few loosely connected humans into a group – it works nearly every time, and if there are some misfits that need to be dealt with harshly, well, that simply gives the group something to bond over.

I’ve seen it over and over. The ‘pods’ we had in grade five (me, Jane, Brenda and Chris – we were the best, the brightest, and even had charts on our desks to record test ‘victories’). Various Cub and Boy Scout troops and events – I still remember the triumphant entrance made by the other group after the overnight at camp Opemikon, the entrance of all six members of the group bearing a canoe that had been absolutely destroyed by the rapids. Lifelong memories, that.

We are – as critic after critic has reminded me since my ‘network’ talk – social animals. We are beings that not merely want, but need, to stick together. That is why we have families, religions, teams and nations.

And we are. For humans, being in a group is a survival tactic. Stand in the bush alone in the middle of the night (do it! I have) and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not simply that we feel isolated and vulnerable: we in fact are isolated and vulnerable. Most anything in that bush larger than a rabbit can both outrun and outfight us. Many things climb trees better than we do. And heaven help us should we run into hostile humans.

We need the group – we need it to survive, we need it at a deep and primitive level. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Until…

There comes a certain point where our group identity becomes more of a burden than a blessing. Different people might draw this line at different points. Some draw the line at religious, ethnic and nationalist fanaticism, the sort of mass mania that can lead to fascism, war and mass murder. We all know the stories. Others draw the line at anti-social behaviour closer to home: the cults and the gangs, the terrorist organizations, the cartels and warlords, the motorcycle clubs.

So where is that dividing line? Where functional and healthy becomes dysfunctional, obviously. Somewhere between (most) football teams and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Somewhere between family bonding and wiping out your neighbours with machetes.

In my books, that line is the line between reason and emotion. To put it most simply, groups are based on passion while networks are based on reason. Groups meet our need to belong and to survive, while networks meet our need to connect and learn and to know. In a group, passion drowns out reason, in a network, reason drowns out passion. In places where passion and emotion should not prevail – when building bridges, say, or launching space shuttles – groups should not prevail. In places where passion should prevail and is even an asset – in team sports, in family bonding - groups should prevail.

When we look at learning, therefore, and when we ask which model should prevail, the group model or the network model, we are asking fundamentally what the role of our educational system should be. Should it be to foster an emotional attachment to a group, be it a nation, religion, or system of wealth distribution?

This is not as straightforward a question as it may seem. Certainly, the attachment to a group plays a major role in religious education, whether the instruction be moderate or extreme. In the United States, students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, an explicit affirmation of the role of schools in forming an affiliation to a national entity. Schools may form around family groups, community groups, ethnic groups. There is no shortage of people wanting schooling to fulfill not only a learning but also a socialization function.

And this, then, is where passion in schooling begins to subsume reason. This, then, is where the teaching becomes less a matter of cognitive function and more a matter of indoctrination. Or call it what you will. But when the fostering of allegiance to a group becomes a major, or primary, function of education, then the traditional agenda, thought of as learning, is left behind.

To those that believe schools should foster good citizens (or soldiers, or Muslims, or factory workers) what is more important on graduation is not that the student can think, reason, learn and know, but whether the student is relevantly the same as the rest. The offering of standardized tests, far from fostering learning (and its worth noting that no amount of evidence on this front has swayed adherents even slightly), is intended to foster groups, group identity, and sameness – sameness of curriculum, sameness of the educational experience (if there are specifics to be learned, Disney, Fox and MSN can fill in the details later – what is important now is the receptivity).

The terrible danger of this is, as I allude above, that people will do anything, take any risk, in order to be part of the group. And those who for one reason or another fail to meet the group standard are dealt with harshly and sometimes brutally. How brutally? Well, consider the case of the homosexual in Wyoming, tortured and then hung on a fence, left to die. Consider the gang of young girls in Vancouver ganging up on and killing a member or their class. Consider the volence exerted on students at Canadian residential school against First Nation students who ared to speak in their own language.

There was a time, when wild animals were a genuine threat and when tribes would raid, enslave and kill each other, that this aspect of learning played an essential role. But today, it threatens us all.

We can no longer afford dogmatic tribalism. That is not to say we can no longer afford groups – we want to continue to have sports teams and families and friends. But in matters affecting economics and finance, environment, government and nations, we can no longer afford group-based tribalism. The implications of subsuming reason to emotion in a complex society should be apparent.

They should be apparent at a national and international level, where the prevalence of group identity has led to disasters like the second world war, the Cultural Revolution, and the genocide in Rwanda (to name only a few). Where the subsumption of reason to emotion and passion has led to widespread beliefs in fictions – the continued resistance to measures to combat global warming, the rise of religious fanaticism and terrorism, the sanctioning of torture by national governments. These are not political issues: they are a headlong clash between people who identify most strongly with their particular group, and people who look at society as a whole, between people shoes beliefs are based on emotion, and people whose beliefs are based on reason.

It seems clear to me that in endeavours where we, as a society, would prefer reason to prevail over emotions, we should prefer to organize ourselves as networks rather than as groups. It seems additionally to be clear to me that education is probably one of the most critical areas where this needs to be the case, as it will be necessary for citizens of the future to be able to respond to an increasing set of global crises from a ground of reason, rather than emotional attachment to a group.

I want groups to continue to exist. I want that feeling of unrestrainedly shouting “Hort! Hort! Hort!” in a suburban field, of forming a bond with a group of friends, of feeling the strength and support of my community and my family. But not at any cost. Not at the cost groups, unrestrained, can inflict on the outcast. Not at the cost that indoctrination, practiced as a theory of learning, can inflict on a society and on a planet. Not at the cost the tribe mentality, as exercised in the schoolyard, can inflict on an individual.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Should All Learning Professionals be Blogging?

It was pretty much a given that most if not all of the responses to this question, posted on the Learning Circuits blog, would be "no". So this is probably why Tony Karrer sent me an email asking whether I would contribute.

My response, naturally, is "yes" - but this needs to be understood in a very specific way.

First, to turn to Rodolpho Arruda, who offers several good reasons why people should blog:
  • blogging can organize and promote someone’s research
  • you can get feedback from people
  • postings to reduce the “distance” between us
  • active students can intensify their learning spiral
  • it forces you to do your homework
The point, and I take it as such, is that blogging is an excellent research and learning tool for professionals, one significantly better than most alternatives (perhaps I'd skip blogging if I could have sat in on those evening meetings with Russell, Wittgenstein and Moore - but not for much else, and I'm probably want to write about it, as Anscombe eventually did).

But here the caveat mentioned above comes into play, and it is this: if (as Dave Lee suggests) other technologies can do the same job just as well, then we can let go of the idea that every professional should be blogging per se: "Web 2.0 has created all sorts of ways for people to share content and create new meaning alone and together. Blogs, wikis, lists, voting, rss feeds, timelines, photo sites, podcasts, vlogs, plogs, mashups, etc. let everyone find their own way of making meaning." (aside: I wish people would stop using the phrase 'making meaning' - meaning isn't something that is made, it is something that semantical entities (which are made) have.)

In order to see this in a clearer light, it is in my view useful to look at what the role of a professional should be in a networked environment. Because we are now able to move from an environment where some (failed?) professionals move from their own domain and into teaching, to an environment where every professional can incorporate some teaching as a part of their regular practice.

To gloss over a lot of stuff at this point, this is the difference represented in the shift from traditional classroom based learning and network learning. The idea of the latter is that learning occurs when the learner immerses him or herself in a community of pratice, learning by performing authentic tasks, learning by interacting with and becoming a member of the community.

But this only works if the members of the community share. It only works if they are prepared to make talking about what they are doing a part of doing what they are doing. As Arruda points out, there are good reasons why they should do this. But I would add, it's the only real way to effectively incorporate large numbers of new members into the practice. By doing and showing, practitioners can as effectively teach as teachers teach by telling
(indeed, I would argue more effectively). And they can do it without having to establish a special infrastructure and institution.

This leaves the question that Jim Belshaw raises, that of time. Where does a busy professional find the time to blog (much less record video, create MySpace pages, create mashups, and the like)?

The answer I have given when asked is to suggest that they replace offline in-secret activities with online and open activities. Professionals engage in a great deal of professional discussion - not merely specific cases but also generalized issues. They read (and often write!) professional literature, they write to each other informally, they exchange resources and information.

For example, the group leaders and others in my organization call regular meetings at which they give us updates and other information. Why not just blog it as it comes up? They are more likely to cover more information, there is more space for others to respond, and they can skip the meeting!

The problem is, of course, that such people are not typically able to write a post quickly. So if they have a session with, say, upper management, and they need to pass something along, it will take a lot more time to write it out than to simply state it in a meeting. Yes, this creates a much greater demand on time on the part of the other people, but since the leader is in control of the process, he picks the method that favours his own schedule.

What needs to happen is that the normal note-taking that happens in the meeting - whether by an official recorder or by attendees (or, ideally, both) becomes the blog. The process of having the meeting is the process of creating the post. The result is that the creation of the blog post takes no extra time, and so both the group leader and other staff save a lot of time.

Yes, there remain issues. For example, the first thing people will think about is that these meetings are often secret, or at least, contain confidential discussions. Yes, which means that posts need to be flagged as 'open' or 'confidential' or 'author only' (even Blogger has a 'draft' and 'publish' mode).

So - should every professional participate in the community fo practice in this way? Understood thus, my answer would be yes. And I think that after a time, once a significant number of professionals did act in this way, the reasoning would become apparent.

What can you know about a profcessional who doesn't blog his or her work? How do you know they are competent, that they have the respect of their peers, that they understand the issues, that they practice sound methodology, that they show consideration for their clients? You cannot know any of this without the openness blogging (or equivalent) provides. Which means, once a substantial number begin to share, there will be increasing pressure on all to share.

Don't expect this to happen quickly, of course. The professionals - who inherited a system created in the Dark Ages - will not lightly let go of their mystique.

(p.s. having the respondents reply on their own blogs, rather than the centralized Learning Circuits blog, represents a step forward for that organization).

Monday, October 02, 2006

Diagrams and Networks

Responding to Paul Ellerman:

I was actually pretty careful with the diagrams, though on reflection I considered that I should have, for the network diagram, used the standard connectionist (neural network) diagram. See eg. this.

Now in fact there are even in networks people like myself, Will Richardson and Dave Warlick, and they are sometimes called “leaders”. But from the perspective of a network, what makes an entity emphasized in this way is the number and nature of the connections it has, and not any directive import. People like Will, Dave and I stand out because we are well-connected, and not (necessarily) because we are well informed, and certainly not (necessarily) because other people do what we say they should do.

There are in fact two major ways that such people can emerge in a network:

First, as a consequence of the power law phenomenon. This is discussed at length in the discussion of scale-free networks. It is essentially the first-mover advantage. The person who was in the network first is more likely to attract more links. This is also impacted by advertising and self-promotion, phenomena I would not disassociate with the list of names you provide.

Second, as a consequence of the bridging phenomenon. Most networks occur in clusters (prototypes of Wenger’s communities of practice) of like-minded individuals. Philosophers of science, say, or naturalistic poets, or the F1 anti Michael Schumacher hate club. Some people, though, have their feet in two such clusters. They like both beat poetry and the Karate Kid. And so they act as a conduit of information between those two groups, and hence, obtain greater recognition.

In neither case is the person in question a ‘leader’ in anything like the traditional sense. The person does not have ‘followers’ of the usual sort (though they may have fans, but they most certainly don’t have ’staff’ - at least, not as a conseuqnce of their network behaviour). They do not ‘lead’ - they do not tell people what to do. At best and at most, they exemplify the behaviour they would like to see, and at best and at most, they act as a locus of information and conversation .

In the diagram, this difference is represented by depicting the ‘traditional’ leader and group as a ‘tree’, with one person connected to a number of people, while at the same time depicting the network as a ‘cluster’, with many people connected to each other.

Pushing the model back to the ‘leader’ mode suggested by this item would push the diagram back to a ‘cluster’ or ‘hub and spoke’ model. See this or this — which I was anxious to avoid. Not because it doesn’t depict a network (it does, technically, a scale-free network) but because it depicts what I would call a ‘group’ dominated by ‘leaders’, where the leaders have a directive function.