sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘distributed cognition’ Category

‘blogging is not serious writing’: Oh, re-he-he-he-heallllly?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 27, 2009

file under: you can’t be serious.

Blogging, writes Jose Quesada over at the Academic Productivity blog, is not serious writing. Quesada references Jaron Lanier’s essay,“Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” in which Lanier argues that

writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

Far from challenging either the notion that “writing meant to last” is not “just reactive” or that blogposts are somehow just reactive and not meant to last, Quesada agrees with Lanier’s stance and adds that

[a]ll academics are painfully aware that writing well takes time, and some know that writing well is not a prerequisite for having a successful blog.

So, basically, it doesn’t pay off to painfully slowly distill ideas for a blog post. In a sense, consuming blog posts –let alone microblogging 140-character blurbs- warrants you a so-so level of refinement…. Playing to the crowd –what bloggers must do, according to Lanier- does not require incredibly solid thinking; it’s a completely different skill.

Truly, I’ve had enough of this outdated stance with respect to blogs. It’s worth pointing out that Lanier’s essay dates back to 2006eons ago, from the perspective of the social revolution. Here in 2009, blogs have come into their own as spaces for serious engagement with serious ideas. (Author update 9/27/09, 11:18 PM: Not to press too hard on this issue, but Lanier’s essay is so outdated that it refers to Wikipedia as “the Wikipedia”–not once, not twice, but twenty-one times. Just imagine the alternate universe where we talk about looking up information on the Wikipedia–akin to tweeting on the Twitter or posting a new status update on the Facebook. That would make for a very different the America, that’s for sure.)

Academics have embraced the platform in a variety of ways. Media scholar Henry Jenkins uses his blog for presentation and exchange of serious ideas. Over at the Tiger Beatdown, Sady Doyle takes on the outrages of a deeply sexist society with a playful tone (she explains her blog is about “ladybusiness”) that only heightens her deeply effective expression of rage. HASTAC co-founder and Duke University professor Cathy Davidson uses her blog to work through key issues (social media, literacy practices, academia) in an informal, inviting, colloquial tone. Though I’ve only offered three examples, academics are in fact embracing the weblog in their own interesting ways by the dozens–by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands.

Quesada argues that “blogging will do nothing in an academic CV.” I couldn’t disagree more. While it may be true that blogposts don’t yet count as “serious” academic discourse on par with publication in peer reviewed journals, not having a blog is increasingly a glaring omission, especially for academics who are or should be focused on the role of social media within their discipline (which is to say just about every academic).

Career advancement issues aside, Quesada seems to be arguing that producing thoughtful, intellectually challenging blogposts is not a productive enterprise for academics–that if they choose to blog, they should use it to reach a popular audience instead of using it to present deeper intellectual work. “What I think could work,” he writes,

is a hybrid between a focused paper (that nobody would read other than a close circle of scientists) and a blog post that ‘plays to the masses’ and tries hard to capture attention at the cost of rigor and polish.

(Shut up! the blogger in me wants to holler. At the cost of rigor and polish? Do you even read any academic blogs? *cough* *sputter* ::regains composure::)

One of the most significant obstacles to intellectual progress is the difficulty of getting interesting but new or untested ideas circulated among other thinkers–academics and non-academics alike. This is especially true for young academics (like me!) who have an awful lot to say but neither the credentials nor the years of research to back up their ideas. My work in maintaining a blog–and using it to present ideas that I think are both rigorous and fairly well polished–allows me to not only offer up my thoughts for examination by thinkers whose opinions matter to me, but also to refine, build on, or dismiss ideas based on input from others. (I got Ted Castronova to comment on my blog!) Further, when other academics whose work I admire keep a blog, I have the opportunity to weigh in on and perhaps contribute to their ideas. (I get to comment on Henry Jenkins’ blog!)

In short, academic blogs drop the barriers to participation in productive, valuable and meaningful ways–and the more seriously academics take this platform, the more likely it is that blogs will increase in significance (and, incidentally, upping the odds that blogging will come to mean something on an academic CV).

We would do well to remember that academic productivity is about much more than finding ways to get your work done efficiently. It’s also about being a productive member of a larger community of thinkers and researchers, all of whom benefit from the wider circulation of more ideas, from more people, in more participatory ways.

Posted in academia, academics, blogging, collective intelligence, distributed cognition, Henry Jenkins, participatory culture, writing | 25 Comments »

putting the "our" in "open source": on the dearth of women in the open source programming movement

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on August 4, 2009

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I wanted to link you to Kirrily Robert’s keynote at this year’s O’Reilly Open Source Convention. Robert’s keynote, “Standing Out in the Crowd,” focused on the dearth of female developers in the open source movement. She offers this image from the 2008 Linux Kernel Summit:


Image credit: Jonathan Corbet, lwn.net

Robert writes:

This is a normal sort of open source project. I’ll give you a minute to spot the women in the picture. Sorry, make that woman. She’s on the right. Can you see her?

While women are a minority in most tech communities, Robert explains, the gender disparity in open source development is more pronounced than in other technology disciplines. While women make up between 10-30% of the tech community in general, they comprise about 5% of Perl developers, about 10% of Drupal developers, and (according to an EU-funded survey of open source usage and development, called FLOSSPOLS) about 1.5% of open source contributors in general.

Robert surveyed female developers to find out why women seem to be so reluctant to contribute to open source projects; the most common reason was some variation of “I didn’t feel welcome.” She points to a pair of innovative projects whose members have actively worked to recruit women. One is the Organization for Transformative Works’ (OTW) Archive of Our Own (or AO3); the other is Dreamwidth, a blogging and community platform forked from the LiveJournal codebase. Both projects focused on recruiting women, not to be inclusive but because they felt it was essential for the success of the projects.

The entire talk is worth a read-through or a listen, but I want to highlight one key point from the set of strategies she offers for recruiting diverse candidates: Find potential users of the application and teach them programming, instead of recruiting good programmers and teaching them about the value of the application. She says:

If you’re working on a desktop app, recruit desktop users. If you’re writing a music sharing toolkit, recruit music lovers. Don’t worry about their programming skills. You can teach programming; you can’t teach passion or diversity.

I’ve been thinking about this very aspect of the open education movement since the Sakai 2009 Conference I attended last month. Sakai offers an open source collaborative learning environment for secondary and higher education institutions, emphasizing openness of knowledge, content, and technology. This embrace of openness was evident in every aspect of the conference, except for one: The notable lack of educators in the panels and audience.

If you want a good open education resource, you need to start by recruiting open source-friendly educators. Otherwise, you run the risk of developing a highly robust, highly functional tool that’s limited only in its ability to offer the features educators actually want.

Posted in distributed cognition, feminism, open education, open source, pedagogy, sakai | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 25, 2009

living and leaving with less

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

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

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

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

For another thing, we just don’t generate as much physical stuff as we used to. My friend and former coworker Debora Lui experienced a complete laptop failure–her second in a year–last summer as she was finishing her master’s thesis. While the first failure reduced her to working from “printed pages, (her) memory, or scattered hand-scribbled notes,” the second failure was a much different experience. She writes:

Miraculously – with all my Google Doc usage, emailing out, saving my information on remote sites – I found that I not only had one good copy of my thesis, but several copies, saved and transfered at different points of revision. I found that my other files like photographs and videos (which normally I would have been upset about losing) were also strangely distributed across the web through sites like YouTube and Facebook. While I had previously thought of my life as being contained in one place, it was suddenly shown to me as a vast network for links and uploads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, let’s call it “history at large.”

Posted in blogging, distributed cognition, Facebook, graduate school, participatory culture, Twitter | 1 Comment »

luddites hate jetskis

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 18, 2009

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

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

The argument that relying on technologies makes us dumber is not a new one; Plato kinda started it by opposing writing because he believed that it would

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

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

In considering the changes to his own orientation toward text (he’s less able to read lengthy articles or books; he gets fidgety when he tries to focus on one text for an extended period of time), he writes:

The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

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

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

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

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

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

Tosh.0 Thurs, 10pm / 9c
Motorcycle Granny
www.comedycentral.com
Daniel Tosh Miss Teen South Carolina Demi Moore Picture

Posted in collective intelligence, creativity, culture, distributed cognition, humor, joy, movies, television, Twitter | Leave a Comment »

Let’s rethink OpenCourseWare

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 29, 2009

You can’t knock down the gates around higher education by putting up virtual borders instead.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I’m on the open source movement like Daniel Tosh on videos of people puking.

Which is why I engage with MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative as if I were trying to embody the very definition of insanity itself. This time, I’ve gotten my dander up over the promise and disappointment of an awesomely titled course, Research Topics in Architecture: Citizen-Centered Design of Open Governance Systems. Here’s the description from the course’s syllabus:

Imagine if networked computers and other devices could unleash full democratic real-time participation in official decisions by all stakeholders. To date, member-led debate and decision-making has always been subject to physical limits in space, time and numbers of participants. Current technologies and business practices can allow architects and planners to break through the traditional constraints to member involvement in the agoras of our public and private institutions. The implications for corporate transparency and accountability, as well as for more responsive government are provocative.

In this seminar, students will design and perfect a digital environment to house the activities of large-scale organizations of people making bottom-up decisions, such as with citizen-government affairs, voting corporate shareholders or voting members of global non-profits and labor unions. A working Open Source prototype created last semester will be used as the starting point, featuring collaborative filtering and electronic agent technology pioneered at the Media Lab. This course focuses on development of online spaces as part of an interdependent human environment, including physical architectures, mapped work processes and social/political dimensions.

Perfect, right? And not only that, but I keep going back to the noble origins of OCW and wanting the tool to live up to its promise. As the site proclaims,

In 1999, MIT Faculty considered how to use the Internet in pursuit of MIT’s mission—to advance knowledge and educate students—and in 2000 proposed OCW. MIT published the first proof-of-concept site in 2002, containing 50 courses. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines. Going forward, the OCW team is updating existing courses and adding new content and services to the site.

It’s an expensive–according to the site, it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to upload materials from a single course–but laudable effort, ideally suited to highly resourceful learners looking for ways to supplement their formal or informal learning.

Again and again I return to OCW. Again and again I’m disappointed by how hostile OCW materials are to even the most dedicated, passionate learner. The materials are easy to download and unzip but difficult to unpack: They’re so dense, and so decontextualized in their current format, that they’re nearly nonsensical.

The architecture course is a case in point. While I’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect class for the likes of me, the materials, though organized according to the course schedule and packaged with lecture notes, handouts, and supplemental readings, are simply too much to make head or tail of. Here, for example, are the class notes from week 1, “slashdot as example”:

Class Notes

  1. Slashdot.org – Karma – six levels – terrible, bad, neutral, positive, good, excellent
  2. Self-Organizing
  3. Fiction (Jeremy) – similar point system
  4. Pathfinder (Stylianos)
  5. Shock Experiment – Anonymity
  6. Slackdot – takes time to penetrate – no ‘design’ (‘blurb’ upon ‘blurb’)
  7. Legibility should be more important
  8. Hard to read – squint eyes
  9. Only get ‘tip of the iceberg’
  10. Graphic way of searching for info – rhizome.org (starry night)
  11. The Brain EKP – Enterprise Knowledge Platform
  12. Spider Map – Irish PM interface – drag and drop
  13. How things get ‘about the iceberg’ – organized on screen – very different
  14. Slashdot – every user is not equal – ‘superusers’ have more input – antidemocratic
  15. Mediation – 3rd party neutral – resolution among themselves.
  16. Arbitration – 3rd party neutral – arbitrator rules based on evidence.
  17. EBay- used same technology to resolve dispute
  18. High reputation, good feedback – typically did nothing wrong – past performance
  19. Filters – like minded people (ie ACLU) or only hi-karma people
  20. Maybe have user-defined (voted for things you also want)
  21. To what extent are user comments and actions transparent?
  22. Is real identity necessary?

Next Week:

How to preserve minority rights – mediation – therapeutic circles!

Debate Notes:
#2
What do you mean by project based experience?
Really there is 2 proposals – eliminate GRE, use project-based evaluation
Other criteria still valid.

I’m sure this makes perfect sense to the student who was able to sit in on that week’s lecture, but it’s all but useless without that guidance. Though I’m sure the readings and other assignments clarify nicely, it’s up to me to locate the texts, read them alone, and figure out the link to the key ideas of the course. This is only slightly better, and perhaps a good deal more time-consuming, than if I were to simply email the instructor with a request for reading recommendations.

The resources aren’t completely useless, of course; the reading list saves me the time and energy of having to locate, contact, and wait to hear back from the instructor. I imagine, too, that OCW is an invaluable resource for higher ed faculty and administrators as they approach course planning. Used right, this kind of resource could help us make enormous strides toward leveling the higher education playing field.

But I’m not sure what using it right might look like. Should all universities compare their course offerings and reading materials to that offered by MIT faculty? Should all students pick an accompanying OCW course to complement their chosen field of study? Or should we ignore the content and emulate the approach: Making all course materials at all universities available to anybody who wants to access them?

Perhaps, as a colleague pointed out, it’s not fair to use a course from 2002 as proof of OCW’s failings. After all, as she explained, 2002 was too early to judge anything by today’s criteria: “In 2002,” she said, “the New York Times was still charging for content.”

Fair enough. But more recent courses appear similarly information-dense and context-sparse. All I’m saying (and I’ve said it before, here on this blog) is that while the impetus behind OCW is grand and noble, it doesn’t seem like anybody’s getting their $10,000 to $15,000 worth. It seems much more valuable–not to mention cheaper and more readily accessible–to capture one or two key lectures per semester, surround those lectures with related readings designed by the lecturer for the OCW context, and link learners to a cluster of resources available through other open educational resources, online networks, and offline texts. This seems much more closely aligned to the spirit of the open educational movement, an effort that hopes to break down archaic and arbitrary geological, achievement-oriented, and class-defined gaps in participation.

Okay, now I’m just repeating myself.

Posted in academia, academics, distributed cognition, education, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source | 7 Comments »

if I can’t be free of bullies, I don’t want to be part of your revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 10, 2009

In an interesting show of poor timing, the New York Times celebrates Mother’s Day by considering why female executives are such obnoxious bullies.

It turns out female bosses are perceived as bullies almost as commonly as male bosses are. A full 40 percent of workplace bullies are women, and 70 percent of the time, they choose women as their targets.

This, of course, comes as no surprise to most working stiffs out there. Bullying from bosses knows no gender and is therefore not constrained by it. But when it comes to an examination of why women are viewed as bullies, and how their “bullying” behavior compares to the behavior of male bosses, it gets a little complicated.

The Times first considers this phenomenon from a pure numbers standpoint. One reason women bully may be because it’s still excruciatingly difficult for them to break into the upper echelons of the country’s top corporations:

After five decades of striving for equality, women make up more than 50 percent of management, professional and related occupations, says Catalyst, the nonprofit research group. And yet, its 2008 census found, only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 officers and 15.2 percent of directors were women.

The article also suggests, though, that gender stereotypes makes us more likely to see a female boss as “overly aggressive” than we might perceive a male boss engaging in the same kind of behavior.

Research on gender stereotyping from Catalyst suggests that no matter how women choose to lead, they are perceived as “never just right.” What’s more, the group found, women must work twice as hard as men to achieve the same level of recognition and prove they can lead.

Yes, okay, fair enough. But let’s look at it another way: While assertive or aggressive female bosses are more likely to be perceived as bullies, then we can assume that the female employees who largely perceive themselves as targets are also victims of stereotypes. If female bosses are perceived as bitchy or pushy if they assert themselves too strongly, then female employees are likely to be perceived as whiny or gossipy for complaining about behavior that feels inappropriate or excessively spiteful or unjust. This is why lots of woman-on-woman bullying, I believe, never gets reported. Or, if it does, it gets reported when the working relationship is so bad that one or both women are probably on their way out.

Then there’s the issue of the male heads of organizations, the people who often adjudicate bullying complaints. Many of these men self-identify as either feminist or sympathetic to the feminist movement. Many have done what they could to help their female employees advance. They know how hard it is to be a female boss, and because of this they’re likely to support an embattled woman even in the face of multiple accusations of bullying. First, they may carry around that father complex, the one that makes them want to take care of the ladies who need them; second, their politics require them to defend the woman from charges of bullying because it’s just so hard to be a female boss. This, we might say, is the soft bigotry of kneejerk feminism.

Fortunately, a change is on the horizon. The emergence of participatory cultures and new valued practices means we can and must develop new models for formal and informal organizations. Increasingly, effective collaboration, collective meaning-making, and the ability to tap into expertise that’s distributed across networks of people and tools are far more important than being the single visionary of a company. The old, single-genius model is less and less relevant, and bosses–male or female–who adhere to this model will bully themselves right out of a job as the social revolution takes hold.

Posted in bigotry, collective intelligence, distributed cognition, feminism, participatory culture, politics, social justice, social revolution | Leave a Comment »

awesome: social media classroom

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 15, 2009

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) :-)”]

Posted in academia, awesome, blogging, Clay Shirky, Dan Hickey, distributed cognition, education, Howard Rheingold, open education, open source, participatory culture, Ph.D., social media, spreadability | 4 Comments »

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 6, 2009

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 anotherThe 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.

Posted in academia, assessment, book review, Clay Shirky, convergence culture, distributed cognition, education, intellectual property, MIT, new media, open education, open source, participatory culture, schools, spreadability, teaching | 3 Comments »