Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education

In OLDaily this week, Stephen Downes, in a comment on a post by Sasha Thackaberry, makes what to me is an astute point – that the future of education is not the same thing as the future of colleges. This was the trap that the webinar hosted by Bryan Alexander, with invited speaker Cathy Davidson, fell into this week. The event was advertised as ‘reinventing education’, but for me (and I can’t find a recording of the webinar to check my perception and understanding), the discussion was more about how and what changes could be made to the existing education system (in this case the American education system).

Having followed Stephen’s e-learning 3.0 MOOC at the end of last year, I know that he has done a considerable amount of ‘out of the box’ thinking about the future of education, and has recently made at least two, that I know of, presentations about this. See:

This thinking is very much influenced by his knowledge of advancing technologies and how these might be used to ‘reinvent education’ but it is not only influenced by technology. For the e-learning 3.0 MOOC these are the questions that we discussed:I regard myself to be adequately proficient with technology, but I don’t have the skills, as things stand at the moment, to keep up with Stephen.  However, I am always interested in thinking about and discussing how our current education systems could be improved, and what we might need to do to change them. I am also particularly interested in the underlying concepts, systems and ethics, i.e. the philosophical perspective through which we view education. It seems to me essential that this should underpin any discussion around ‘reinventing education’.

Other ‘out of the box’ thinkers

Recently I find myself drawn to the thoughts of three well-known thinkers – two current and one from times past; Iain McGilchrist, Sir Ken Robinson, and Étienne de La Boétie (best friend of Michel de Montaigne).

Iain McGilchrist (in a nutshell) believes that our view of the world is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain and that to save our civilisation from potential collapse we need more balance between the left and right hemisphere’s views of the world. I know this sounds melodramatic, but you would need to read his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, where he makes a very good case, backed up by loads of evidence, to find support for this claim. Later on this year, on a course offered by Field & Field here in the UK, I will be running a discussion group/workshop where I hope participants will share ideas about the possible implications of Iain’s work for rethinking education.

For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a Table* (click on it to enlarge) which briefly summarises some of the differences in the ways in which, according to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere view the world. The right hemisphere’s view of the world is presented in purple font; the left hemisphere’s view of the world in blue font. These statements have been culled from many hours of reading McGilchrist’s books and watching video presentations and interviews.

*I am aware that this Table is (necessarily) an over-simplistic, reductive representation of McGilchrist’s ideas. It cannot possibly reflect the depth of thinking presented in The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is simply an introduction to some of McGilchrist’s ideas, which might provoke a fresh perspective on whether and how we need to ‘reinvent’ education.

In relation to McGilchrist’s work, my current questions are: Do we recognise our current education system in any of this? Do we need to change our thinking about education to achieve more balance between the left and right hemisphere perspectives?

Linked to McGilchrist’s ideas (and I will qualify this below, because it would be easy to get the wrong end of the stick), another ‘out of the box thinker, for me, is Sir Ken Robinson. Like many people, I first became aware of Sir Ken Robinson in 2006, when he recorded a TED Talk which has become the most viewed of all time ( 56,007,105 views at this time). The title of this talk was ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ and the thrust of the talk was that in our education system, we educate children out of creativity.

More recently in December of last year the question of whether schools kill creativity was revisited when Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed by Chris Anderson under the title ‘Sir Ken Robinson (still) wants an education revolution’. In this podcast the same question is being discussed more than ten years later and it seems that little progress has been made in ‘reinventing education’, at least in terms of creativity.

Just as McGilchrist is at pains to stress that both hemispheres of the brain do everything, but they do them differently, for example, they are both involved in creativity but differently, so Sir Ken Robinson says that we should not conflate creativity with the arts. The arts are not only important because of creativity; through the arts we can express deep issues of cultural value, the fabric of our relationship with other people, and connections with the world around us. Creativity is a function of intelligence not specific to a particular field and the arts can make a major contribution to this, but the arts are being pushed down in favour of subjects that are dominated by utility and their usefulness for getting a job. We are now locked into a factory-like efficiency model of education, dominated by testing and normative, competitive assessment.

In 2006 Robinson told us that education was a big political issue being driven by economics. He said that most governments had adopted education systems which promote:

  • Conformity (but people are not uniform; diversity is the hallmark of human existence)
  • Compliance (such that standardised testing is a multibillion-dollar business)
  • Competition (pitting teachers, schools and children against each other to rack up credit for limited resources)

I am recently retired, so a bit out of the loop, but from my perspective not a lot has changed between 2006 and 2019, in the sense that education has not been ‘reinvented’ – notably there hasn’t been, at government and policy-making level, a change in philosophy. McGilchrist believes that our current approach, where left hemisphere thinking dominates, has significant negative implications for education;  see The Divided Brain: Implications for Education,  a post that I wrote in 2014 after hearing McGilchrist speak for the first time. Robinson believes that although some schools are pushing back against the dominant culture there is a lot more room for innovation in schools than people believe, that we can break institutional habits, and we can make innovations within the system.

But can we? What would this take? Would students and teachers be willing to risk ‘bucking the system’ to embrace an alternative, non-utilitarian philosophy of education?

I am currently reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book about Michel de Montaigne – How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  In this she discusses the close relationship/friendship between Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie and, in relation to this, refers to Boétie’s treatise ‘On Voluntary Servitude’. On p.94 she writes:

‘The subject of ‘Voluntary Servitude’ is the ease with which, throughout history, tyrants have dominated the masses, even though their power would evaporate instantly if those masses withdrew their support. There is no need for a revolution: the people need only stop co-operating ….’

Reading this immediately reminded me of the introduction in 2002 of the Key Stage 2 SATs (compulsory national Standard Assessment Tests) here in the UK – the testing of 11- year olds and the start of league tables pitting school against school. Key Stage 1 SATs (tests for 7-year olds) were introduced before Key Stage 2 SATs, so these teachers of 7-year old children had already been through the process. Therefore, by the time the Key Stage 2 SATs were introduced, schools and teachers had a very good idea of their likely impact, and Key Stage 2 teachers complained bitterly. I remember thinking at the time, if all the Key Stage 2 teachers in the country downed tools and refused to deliver the SATs, then there would have been nothing the government could do, but as Sarah Bakewell points out this type of collaborative, non-violent resistance rarely happens.

The power to change

Perhaps reinventing education will have to happen from the ground up, in individual classrooms/courses and institution by institution, rather than nationally. But how will this happen when the teachers and education leaders that we now have in place are themselves a product of an education system which has not: valued creativity as discussed by Sir Ken Robinson; a right hemisphere perspective on the world, as explained by Iain McGilchrist; or a rethinking of concepts, systems and ethics needed to take a new philosophical approach to education as envisaged by Stephen Downes?

This was the type of question that I had hoped would be discussed in the ‘reinventing education’ webinar that I attended earlier this week. It goes beyond tinkering – it’s more of a paradigm shift, or as McGilchrist says, it requires ‘a change of heart’. This is how McGilchrist sums it up:

… we focus on practical issues and expect practical solutions, but I think nothing less than a change of the way we conceive what a human being is, what the planet earth is, and how we relate to that planet, is going to help us. It’s no good putting in place a few actions that might be a fix for the time being. We need to have a completely radically different view of what we’re doing here.

Security, identity, voice, opportunity and agency on the distributed web

The topic for the final week of the E-Learning 3.0 course is Agency. Agency is one of those words that, if you work in education, is very familiar, but when it comes down to it, are we clear about what it means? Off the top of my head I would associate choice with the word agency, i.e. learners have the freedom and ability to make choices about their learning. Looking up definitions of the word agency reveals explanations related to business and organisations, but a search for agency in education resulted in the following two definitions:

Agency is the capacity and propensity to take purposeful initiative—the opposite of helplessness. Young people with high levels of agency do not respond passively to their circumstances; they tend to seek meaning and act with purpose to achieve the conditions they desire in their own and others’ lives.

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions.

The first definition relates closely to the work being done by Silvia Baldiris, who works with the Fundación Universitaria Tecnológico Comfenalco (Colombia) and Universidad Internacional de la Rioja (Spain), and Jutta Treviranus, Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) and professor at OCAD University in Toronto. I found their conversation with Stephen Downes this week, very thought-provoking and surprisingly moving, so I think I can understand why and how Stephen’s recent trip to Colombia resulted in him creating a video about what peace means to him.

Silvia and Jutta talked about how they are working to give vulnerable young people in Colombia, who have different and diverse learning needs from the norm, and are therefore marginalised by the education system, opportunities for finding their voice and identity, through shared storytelling. They described the success of the work they have done thus far and their aspirations for future work. It is well worth listening to the recording of their video for details of their work.

I am not going to write any more about it here;  a very good account of their discussion, which covers all the main points has already been posted by Roland Legrand – Diversity, Data and Storytelling  and you can find out more about their very impressive work from the resources listed at the end of this post.

Once again Stephen posted a very helpful Synopsis at the beginning of this topic on agency. This prompted the following thoughts/questions which I will insert (in blue font) into Stephen’s text (in italics).

Each of the major developments in the internet – from the client-server model to platform-based interoperability to web3-based consensus networks – has been accompanied by a shift in agency. The relative standing of the individual with respect to community, institutions, and governments was shifted, for better or worse.

What do we mean by agency in this context?  Do we mean choice and if so can too much choice be confusing? What examples do we have of ‘the relative standing of the individual with respect to community, institutions, and governments’ being shifted for better or worse. Is agency a myth?

Each stage in technological development is inspired by social, political and economic aspirations, and understanding the next generation of learning and technology requires understanding the forces that shaped them. So we close our enquiry with a consideration of issues related to power and control, to peace and prosperity, to hopes and dreams.

This brings up questions around technological determinism. To what extent are social, political and economic aspirations inspired by technological development? What are the forces that will shape the next generation of learning and technology? Is it true that more agency on the distributed web will mean more power for learners, or will power continue to be concentrated in the few that know how to manage distributed learning and understand how to use it?

McLuhan said that technology is a projection of ourselves into the community, so we need to consider how human capacities are advanced and amplified in a distributed and interconnected learning environment. Our senses are amplified by virtual and augmented reality, our cognitive capacities extended by machine vision and artificial intelligence, and our economic and social agency is represented by our bots and agents.

We are the content – the content is us. This includes all aspects of us. How do we ensure that what we project to the world is what we want to project, both as teachers and learners? As content and media become more sophisticated and more autonomous, how do we bind these to our personal cultural and ethical frameworks we want to preserve and protect?

Does projection of ourselves into the community also come with risk – risk to our data and identities? Agency will only be a reality if people know how to do this safely. Power will be in the hands of those who know.

These are tied to four key elements of the new technological framework: security, identity, voice and opportunity. What we learn, and what makes learning successful, depends on why we learn. These in turn are determined by these four elements, and these four elements are in turn the elements that consensus-based decentralized communities are designed to augment.

Is there a hierarchical relationship between these four key elements, i.e. security must be in place before identity and then voice can be realised, and opportunity with agency rely on security, identity and voice being safeguarded. Security, identity and voice will enable the confidence needed to take advantage of opportunity, exercise agency and make safe choices. Is agency a lottery?

Learning therefore demands more than just the transmission or creation of knowledge – it requires the development of a capacity to define and instantiate each of these four elements for ourselves. Our tools for learning will need to emphasize and promote individual agency as much as they need to develop the tools and capacities needed to support social, political and economic development.

Is this referring to technological tools?

It is difficult to imagine a world in which education is not solely about knowledge and skills. But as we transform our understanding of learners from social and economic units to fully realized developers and sustainers of the community as a whole, it becomes clear that education must focus on the tools and capacities for agency along with the knowledge, culture and skills that sustain them.

I find these last two paragraphs don’t quite fit with my experience, in which learning has always been more than just transmission or the creation of knowledge. I have always understood learning to be the process through which learners learn to become the person they want to be. So yes learning is about much more than acquiring knowledge and skills, but it always has been, and yes we want learners to have agency and take control of their learning, but we always have. So what can the distributed web and the latest technological developments offer to make this a reality in everyone’s educational experience?

Resources
What Peace Means to Me
 Dec 20, 2018 video The only path toward peace and freedom from authoritarianism is the path that leads toward the creation and maintenance of the civil society. The just society. The caring society.

The Three Dimensions of Inclusive Design
GitHub, 2018/12/18
The three dimensions of the framework are:

  • Recognize, respect, and design for human uniqueness and variability.
  • Use inclusive, open & transparent processes, and co-design with people who have a diversity of perspectives, including people that can’t use or have difficulty using the current designs.
  • Realize that you are designing in a complex adaptive system.

You can edit this work on GitHub. Web: [Direct Link]

Social Justice Repair Kit
Inclusive Design Research Centre, 2018/12/18
The goal of the Social Justice Repair Kit project is to support youth at risk who have learning differences to re-engage in education through an inclusively designed social justice platform that integrates authentic project-based learning. For youth with identified and unidentified learning differences, the Kit will add inclusive design supports to remove barriers to participation.Web: [Direct Link]

Contando el valor de la diversidad!
Cuentalo, 2018/12/18
These stories serve as a reference to other people who identify themselves in them and who discover in them similarities with their own life story, which in some cases may turn out to be unfavorable, however, in this discovery, possible methods of coping are identified that allow resolving or resignifying adverse situations optimistically. Web: [Direct Link]

Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers
u Hong, Scott E. Page, PNAS, 2018/12/18
“We find that when selecting a problem-solving team from a diverse population of intelligent agents, a team of randomly selected agents outperforms a team comprised of the best-performing agents.” See also Problem Solving by Heterogeneous Agents, by the same authors. Web: [Direct Link]

Learning to be creative on and off the distributed web

Backwaters, Kerala (* see note below)

Although the final week of the E-Learning 3.0 course is almost over, I haven’t yet finished thinking about the penultimate week on Experience.

The guest speaker for this week was Amy Burvall.  I really enjoyed her conversation with Stephen Downes. The recording is below.

Amy is a creativity expert, who tries to ‘make’ something every day. She believes in remix as a culture, transparency of work and multi-media work and has a website and many videos to prove it.  She has published a creativity handbook for teachers, which has recipes for creative thinking and has been designed to be remixable. Teachers are encouraged to take a prompt, work with it and share it with a given hashtag. Interestingly, Amy said that a community was growing around this hashtag, which is what Stephen thought could happen around the #el30 hashtag for this course, when the topic focussed on community.

Stephen sees creativity as pattern recognition and Amy suggested that creativity is being able to see juxtapositions and relationships that others don’t. Both these ideas fit with my experience.

Amy also believes that constraints help creativity and that learners should be encouraged to articulate why they made what they made. I’m not sure about this. Whilst I can see the value of articulating learning processes for the learner, a part of me says that a work of ‘art’ should be able to speak for itself, and doesn’t need to be accompanied by the artist’s explanation, but I think it depends on what the work of art is. A question has just entered my head – Is art that is created online, using technical tools, always conceptual art?  This question feels significant to me, but at the moment I can’t put my finger on why.

For Amy a computer can create art, but she asks where is the backstory that touches her heart and makes the emotional connection. I think this is why she feels that learners should be encouraged to explain their art. She says we are craving experience rather than stuff and agrees with Stephen that the creation of the content is part of the content. I can see that the creation of content is part of the content and that art should touch the heart and make an emotional connection, but I am still not convinced that this needs articulating.

Serendipitously in the same week that I listened to Amy’s conversation with Stephen, I listened to a podcast of a conversation between John Cleese and Iain McGilchrist (the first night podcast), who also talked about creativity, but in different terms.

They started by bemoaning the fact that creativity for comedians is being constrained by political correctness and that they can no longer make fun of people. (John Cleese stressed that this should be in an affectionate, not in a nasty way.) For John Cleese, all humour is about human imperfection, and is needed because we are not good at laughing at ourselves. All humour is critical. You have to be creative to be a comic.

In their conversation they touched on a number of ideas which overlapped with Stephen and Amy’s conversation, as well as coming at it from a different perspective. Some of the points they made were:

  • Creativity is mainly stopping doing things. We have to allow space for new ideas. (I have heard McGilchrist talk about this before – Exploring the Divided Brain. Creativity, Paradox and Negation.)
  • Artists let go and let things happen.
  • Creativity is non-intellectual and unconscious.
  • Moments of insight come out of the blue.
  • You can’t create to a schedule.
  • The moment you have an idea, allow the creative idea time. A new born idea needs time to grow.
  • Creative artists know how to play and take longer to make their minds up. It’s a healthy habit not to give snap answers.
  • There’s wisdom in I’ll just sleep on it.

Amy Burvall also talked about negative capability and living with ambiguity and uncertainty. She said creativity is a way of being, a way of approaching the world. We should live like an artist, dance as though nobody’s watching, and kill that internal editor! I think John Cleese and Iain McGilchrist would agree.

Stephen has provided some great resources for this topic which I am copying here as I still have to catch up on quite a few of them.

I can again particularly recommend his summary Feature Article.

*Note about the photo: Backwaters Kerala. This is my current location for the next three weeks, which also explains why I am a week behind on the course!

Resources

Feature Article E-Learning 3.0, Part 8 – Experience
stephen@downes.ca, Dec 20, 2018.
The challenge for educators and for society in general will be in managing and accepting the transition from emphasizing ‘what people learn’ to ‘how people learn’. Like the creative process itself, what’s important is not what is created – it could be anything from a cake to a cathedral – but rather how it is created. It is the history, process and provenance of the creation that gives it meaning, relevance, and ultimately, truth.

How to Be an Artist
Jerry Saltz, Vulture, 2018/12/12
Good advice that could be applied not only to art but to anything (substitute ‘research scientist’ for ‘artist’ and you get the same useful tips): “How do you get from there to making real art, great art? There’s no special way; everyone has their own path. Yet, over the years, I’ve found myself giving the same bits of advice. Most of them were simply gleaned from looking at art, then looking some more. Others from listening to artists talk about their work and their struggles. (Everyone’s a narcissist.) I’ve even stolen a couple from my wife.”

Twitch
2018/12/12
“We are a global community of millions who come together each day to create their own entertainment: unique, live, unpredictable, never-to-be repeated experiences created by the magical interactions of the many. With chat built into every stream, you don’t just watch on Twitch, you’re a part of the show.”

Fostering Creativity
Amy Burvall, YouTube, 2018/12/12
Amy Burvall offers a series of pink Post-It notes talking about aspects and properties of creativity – running from ‘remix’ to ‘messy’ to ‘constraint’. Web: [Direct Link]

Openness to Experience and Creative Achievement
Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American, 2018/12/12
Openness to experience– the drive for cognitive exploration of inner and outer experience– is the personality trait most consistently associated with creativity. Web: [Direct Link]

Stephen’s Web: Creativity
Stephen Downes, Stephen’s Web, 2018/12/13
I’ve covered the topic of creativity quite a bit over the years. This is a listing of the posts I’ve written referring to different resources on creativity. There’s a lot to pick and choose from. Web: [Direct Link]

The Sources of Innovation and Creativity
Karlyn Adams, National Center on Education and the Economy, 2018/12/14
The following pages represent a comprehensive summary of current research and theory on the sources of innovation and creativity, both in individuals and organizations.  Based on the recurring concepts in the existing literature, the paper concludes with some recommendations for how education systems can best foster these attributes in students.

#getsmART: Lessons from the Artists
Amy Burvall, YouTube, 2018/12/16
What insights can we gain from studying the lives and creative processes of famous artists? Thinking like an artist means being porous, pushing past, and playing. This talk was given (in a slightly different form ) at TEDxWestVancouverED. Web: [Direct Link]

Crushing It with Creativity- The Virtual Summit EU keynote
Amy Burvall, Slideshare, 2018/12/16 Web: [Direct Link]

Creativity
Amy Burvall, AmusED, 2018/12/16
All of Amy Burvall’s posts on creativity. See also: Amy Burvall’s website. Web: [Direct Link]

E-Learning 3.0 Experience

The task for this penultimate week of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC on the topic of Experience is:

Here is my submission


This is the musical accompaniment for the verses below. Please sing along.

For the introduction to this week’s topic, see Stephen Downes’ Synopsis.

I posted my initial response to this text in a previous post – Creativity and Experience on the Distributed Web.

See also Kevin Hodgson’s post for one example of how to respond to this task. Stephen wrote: “Here’s a good example of the sort of thing you could create, by Kevin Hodgson (who apparently also studied mind reading as he completed this Task before it was posted).

A Conversation about Community in the Distributed web

This image created by Kevin Hodgson, a participant in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC, as Stephen Downes said on Twitter, ‘basically completes the Task for week 8’.

For an interactive version of this image see: https://www.thinglink.com/fullscreen/1129211585894547458

The final discussion about the topic of community in the E-Learning 3.0 course centred on a Google Hangout discussion between Stephen Downes and Roland Legrand. The Hangout was open to anyone and there were a few people, including myself, in the chat, but only Roland Legrand in the Hangout with Stephen. This worked really well, allowing the conversation between them to develop and dig deeper into some interesting ideas. I can recommend watching the video recording, as their discussion helps to clarify some of the issues we have been struggling with in relation to this topic on community in the distributed web.

The discussion started with a review of how the week’s task had been experienced. Stephen had asked participants to create a community through consensus, without giving us any indication of how to do this, or what else to do, and ideally without using a centralised space. Laura Ritchie, Kevin Hodgson  and Roland put forward proposals on how to do this and ultimately we went with Roland’s initial suggestion, whilst also taking account of Laura and Kevin’s thoughts. Stephen pointed out in the Hangout that had the course attracted a larger number of participants the task would have been more difficult, because there would have been more proposals and people would have organised into groups. How then would we have chosen which community to join (the task stipulated only one community)? How do you solve consensus generally?

Roland thought that his proposal only required minimal commitment from participants, but Stephen thought that it could have been even more minimal. Whilst we all (those who participated) reflected on our course experience in our individual blogs, Stephen suggested that all we had needed to do was to provide evidence that we were there, maybe by posting the #el30 hashtag and stating that anyone who posted this was a member of the community. By making the task performative (writing a blog post) did it become exclusive? Roland questioned how posting a hashtag would work. Wouldn’t people be too dispersed?  He asked, ‘Why even talk about community?’

For Stephen (and see his summary for the week for further thoughts on this) the concept of community is important in the context of truth and facts. How do we know we belong to a community? This relates to how do we know a fact is a fact? And how do we know which facts to believe? How do we meet each other to discuss this?

Roland suggested that we need empathy and openness beyond the facts, because when faced with alternative facts our identities are threatened. The first thing people need is to feel recognised and safe. His question was, if we want people to meet each other to discuss alternative facts and perspectives, won’t the distributed web make things more difficult? Stephen agreed that lot of things are harder on the distributed web. It’s easier to build and work on a centralised platform, but as Stephen pointed out, we are already living in a world where information is distributed. For him centralised to decentralised is six of one and half a dozen of the other. He also pointed out that the decentralised web flourishes in the financial community and that there is no empathy in this community.

Roland questioned whether there is a planetary community and thought that the idea of a planet-wide lack of empathy was a bleak vision. He wondered whether we are too negative about it all, saying that humanity is more peaceful today than ever before, and most people can be trusted. But, as Stephen said, whilst most people the world over are ‘good’ there remain bad actors. We have to build resistance to bad actors and that’s why making things harder, through blockchain, encryption and managing our own data, might be a good thing. But Roland suggested that encryption and managing our own data might also be bad for security. Stephen agreed that there is tension between openness and privacy, and that a balance is needed.

They then went on to discuss whether we could set up some sort of community/forum to continue to discuss these complex ideas and whether this space should be open or closed, on a centralized platform or on the distributed web. Roland is keen to continue the discussion.

From my perspective the community topic has been very challenging, causing me to question my understanding of what we mean by community on the distributed web, and the role that trust, truth and consensus play in the formation of community on the distributed web. I have not come to any firm conclusions yet about how all the ideas fit together and why they are significant. But as I have mentioned in a previous post, I think it may be necessary to rethink the language we use when discussing how community is formed in the distributed web. A verse from the King James Bible comes to mind.

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.

Many thanks to Stephen and Roland for a fascinating discussion.

Creativity and experience on the distributed web

The topic for the penultimate week in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is ‘Experience’. We haven’t really started discussing this yet, but Stephen Downes, who is running this course, has posted a Synopsis to get us going. I am copying this below, with some initial thoughts/responses/questions inserted into his text in blue font. Stephen’s text is in italics.

“It is a truism that we learn from experience, and yet creating a role for experience in learning has been one of the most difficult problems in education.

When I think of experience in relation to learning the first thing that comes to mind is ‘field trips’. One my earliest strong memories is of a week-long field trip to Seahouses (Northumberland, UK) for my ‘A’ level Biology course. The week was spent gathering data on the beach and then recording it in a whole variety of ways in the evenings. I have had many such experiences in my ‘learning life’. My understanding of why these experiences are important and different is that they are ‘embodied’ and elicit an emotional response to a given topic. A photo of a Water Boatman on a pond-life chart might help you to recognise it, but won’t have the same impact as actually lifting one from the pond in your net, so that you can study it live under the microscope (in pond water of course!). My experience is that educators have to believe in the value of hands-on experience for it to be included in a curriculum.

But it is also a truism that we don’t always learn from experience. Some learners can make the same mistakes over and over again.

And so much of education continues to rely on indirect methods depending on knowledge transfer – reading, lectures, videos – rather than hands-on practice and knowledge creation.

This is true and I think stems from a belief that it is the ‘content to be covered’ that is important and there is ever more content; therefore time is short. Hands-on experience, for example field trips, take time. Just last week a friend was running a management game for a group of MSc students. The game takes a week to complete. Students are required to work in teams to solve simulated ‘real-world’ problems. In previous years the students have described this game as the most valuable learning experience of their course, but next year the game will be cut from the course. There is no time!

The emergence of the web, YouTube, Web 2.0 and social media was a great step forward, assigning a role for creativity in the learning experience. But experience, ultimately, requires an openness that media platforms were unable to provide.

The importance of creativity has long been recognised and the loss of emphasis on this in the curriculum (here in the UK) has long been a subject of concern. I remember in 1999 how stimulating it was to go to a conference on the newly published report – All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. Ken Robinson who chaired the publication of this document has been pushing for more creativity in the curriculum ever since. But there is increasing evidence that creativity in the curriculum is being squeezed out. This theme was taken up by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she awarded this year’s Turner Prize to Charlotte Prodger. The lack of creativity in the curriculum remains a concern.

Source of image

New technology is beginning to combine the ability of teachers and role models to model and demonstrate successful practice and the need for learners to practice and reflect on their learning in that environment. Content distribution networks and live streaming are transforming real-world events into hands-on learning experiences.

This is a course about the distributed web and so, of course, we are thinking about how the distributed web can promote hands-on learning experience. Hopefully this will not be confined to experiences through our screens, but will also promote experience of the real live world, as opposed to the virtual world.

A good example of this is the live-streaming platform Twitch and especially games like Fortnight, in which players become spectators, and back again, over and over. And using applications like xSplit or Open Broadcaster Software individuals can make their experiences part of the learning experience shared by others.

I have never played computer games, so I don’t know how individuals make their experience part of the learning experience shared by others works in these contexts. What would be the equivalent off the internet?

It is a model in which the creation of the content becomes a part of the content itself.

I interpret this to mean sharing the working processes that lead to content.

We see this with the recent self-shredding art by Banksy or the inside look at how the single-scene time-lapse sequence in Kidding was filmed. Some artists have made working openly part of the act – Deadmau5, for example, showing how electronic music is produced. Being able to see and experience how something is created is a key step on the way to becoming a creator oneself, and becoming a creator, in turn, becomes a key part of the learning experience.

Isn’t this what mathematicians, for example, have always done? Even small children in schools are encouraged to show their ‘workings’ – how they have arrived at a result. And artists frequently do this with their sketchbooks, but the difference is explained by Stephen below. We now have the possibility of creative activities becoming distributed and democratized. This has reminded me of Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, but I don’t think this is quite what Stephen has in mind. Whilst the choir is distributed it is not democratized, in the sense that each singer cannot edit the final piece, but can only contribute to it. 

The difference between previous iterations of learning technology and that which we are experiencing with E-Learning 3.0 is that these creative activities become distributed and democratized. Just as multiple authors can edit Wikipedia articles or work on code in GitHub, participatory learning media enables learners to interact creatively without management or direction; the outcome is a consensus determined not by voting but by participation. Experience in learning changes the relation between teacher and student from one of persuasion (and even coercion) to one of creativity, co-work, and construction.

I’m wondering what effect this will have on an individual’s creative ability. If we take painters, for example, there are very, very few artists who work collaboratively on a painting. Off the top of my head I can think of the Singh Twins and Gilbert and George. Most painters create their work individually, even if they employ teams of people to produce their ideas. How will the fine arts change if they become a result of consensus. What will happen to ‘genius’?

Workplaces, and especially distributed workplaces, are beginning to create self-organizing consensus-based co-production networks. Early awkward and exploitative platform-based efforts such as Uber and Airbnb are giving way to more sophisticated and equitable network alternatives such as Steam, Koumbit and Medium.

Will consensus lead to a ‘dumbing down’ and loss of creativity, or to a different kind of creativity, or to increased creativity? And to what extent will this creativity be a result of embodied experience? What type of experience will it result from?

These are just some initial thoughts at the start of this topic.

Trust, Truth, Consensus and Community on the distributed web

The seventh topic in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC  has been Community. I have invested quite a bit of my time over the years learning about community – or more specifically communities of practice. I have been a founder member of a community (ELESIG which is still going strong) and a facilitator/moderator in a community (CPsquare – which no longer functions as a community, but relationships still remain – see image below). I have attended courses on CoPs to dig deeper into the theory behind them (BEtreat workshops ), published three research papers about communities of practice and have written numerous blog posts. (I should add a page to my blog about this). I thought I had a reasonable understanding of what it means to be a member of a community, but this week has made me doubt this understanding.  Why?I have been asking myself this question for quite a few days now, and today it occurred to me is that it is a language problem. The way in which language related to community is being used in this course about the distributed web, i.e. what we mean by community, consensus, trust and truth in the distributed web, is not how I have previously understood it.

Let’s start with trust.

Trust is thought to be an essential component of communities of practice. In their book (p.8) Digital Habitats, Wenger, White and Smith write:

‘Learning together depends on the quality of relationships of trust and mutual engagement that members develop with each other, a productive management of community boundaries, and the ability of some to take leadership and to play various roles in moving the inquiry forward’

And in Wenger, McDermott and Snyder’s book, Cultivating Communities of Practice  (p.85) they have written:

The trust community members need is not simply the result of a decision to trust each other personally. It emerges from understanding each other. As one oil reservoir engineer observed, “Sometimes you can share an insight that is so useful it saves a well from going down, but you don’t save a well at the first meeting.”

In other words, communities take time to develop, which is also depicted by the diagram above.

But in the conversation that Stephen had with Pete Forsyth they both agreed that the internet is a trust-less environment. In his post on ‘The Problem of Trust’, Vitalik Buterin has written:

If you were to ask the average cryptocurrency or blockchain enthusiast what the key single fundamental advantage of the technology is, there is a high chance that they will give you one particular predictable answer: it does not require trust.

This suggests that trust either functions differently or doesn’t exist at all on the distributed web. Stephen and Pete both believe that trust is an aspect of community. So both trust and community on the distributed web, in their terms, seem to mean something different to Wenger et al.’s understanding of it.

Pete Forsyth suggested that in Wikipedia (which I have written about in a previous post) we put our trust in facts and not in people. I can accept that on the distributed web it probably makes more sense to understand trust in these terms. That’s not to say that there won’t be trust between people, but perhaps we don’t need this on the distributed web. So the meaning of trust might be more limited term on the distributed web?

But what about community?

In a draft document he has shared with us (I have typed draft in bold, so that we can acknowledge that it might change), Stephen distinguishes between what he calls ‘natural’ communities as opposed to ‘organised’ communities of the type discussed by Wenger and his colleagues. He describes natural communities, e.g. ‘your average city’, as lacking in trust, where there are enforcement mechanisms, because we don’t trust people to obey the law or rules. ‘Cities are polyglot, factional, disjointed. Yet, still – they are communities’, he writes. I have yet to be convinced by the idea that a city is a community.

I believe that there can be and are communities within cities, but that cities are not communities. I agree with the author of this post about ‘What does community mean?’ where s/he has written: ‘just living near each other, as in a suburban neighborhood, doesn’t mean you’re in community.’ (The rest of the post is also interesting). ‘Neighbourhood’ may be a more appropriate term for a city, as Mike Caulfield suggested for FedWiki – which could be described as a decentralized distributed wiki (see my previous post for further discussion) and ‘network’ may be more appropriate for the distributed web.

But there is a reason for Stephen’s focus on community this week, which seems to be that working on the distributed web requires consensus; consensus to agree on what information can be trusted to be true. How do we achieve this consensus on the distributed web where there is no ‘leader’ and no ‘common ground’? Stephen believes that we do this through community and that community is consensus.

My question is, do we have to have community for consensus on the distributed web?  Unless I have completely misunderstood this, the evidence from Preethi Kasireddy’s post How does distributed consensus work? would seem to suggest that the answer is ‘No’, unless we are attributing the word ‘community’ to non-human actors. I have a horrid feeling that I have completely misunderstood all this, but from where I am standing, the word ‘community’ being used in this context just does not fit with any of my prior understanding.

In relation to achieving consensus on the distributed web about what information we can trust, we are told by Waggoner et al. that there are many consensus methodologies, to the point where they have written a paper questioning whether there is a consensus on consensus methodology.  From this article we can see that many researchers are working on how to achieve consensus in relation to the trust we can put in facts on the distributed web.

But what about in society? What are the consequences of a consensus driven society which relies on agreement. As John Kay wrote way back in 2007 in his article ‘Science is the pursuit of truth, not consensus’, ‘Consensus finds a way through conflicting opinions and interests’. (The Financial Times has blocked me from posting a link to this article. You will need to ‘trust’ me that this is what he wrote!) Kay seems to suggest that consensus is often arrived at, at the expense of truth. If this is so, should we ‘trust’ in the ‘truths’ arrived at by consensus?

In his article: Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus), Arthur Charpentier seems to suggest that the words we use matter. He writes:

This plurality of words, and the absence of a reference word, is not unlike the philosophy conveyed by crypto-currencies: instead of a centralised mode of governance (validation, certification), it is a global validation by a network, a consensus, which will prevail. Have we changed our definition of what truth is?

This resonates with me because this week I have been asking myself similar questions. What does community mean in relation to the distributed web? Can community function on the distributed web? Do trust, community and consensus take on different meanings on the distributed web? Perhaps we need to go back to what these words mean and whether they have taken on different meanings for use in discussion about the distributed web.

Stephen Downes’ summary of this topic – Community – Summary of the topic

https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=68638

Source of images

Stages of development of a community of practice  – https://www.slideshare.net/richard.claassens/communities-of-practice-stages-of-development-388654

Fake News, Wikipedia and Blockchain (Truth and Consensus) – https://freakonometrics.hypotheses.org/52608