Category Archives: informal learning

WordPress as Content Directory: Getting Somewhere

{I tend to ramble a bit. If you just want a step-by-step tutorial, you can skip to here.}

Woohoo!

I feel like I’ve reached a milestone in a project I’ve had in mind, ever since I learnt about Custom Post Types in WordPress 3.0: Using WordPress as a content directory.

The concept may not be so obvious to anyone else, but it’s very clear to me. And probably much clearer for anyone who has any level of WordPress skills (I’m still a kind of WP newbie).

Basically, I’d like to set something up through WordPress to make it easy to create, review, and publish entries in content databases. WordPress is now a Content Management System and the type of “content management” I’d like to enable has to do with something of a directory system.

Why WordPress? Almost glad you asked.

These days, several of the projects on which I work revolve around WordPress. By pure coincidence. Or because WordPress is “teh awsum.” No idea how representative my sample is. But I got to work on WordPress for (among other things): an academic association, an adult learners’ week, an institute for citizenship and social change, and some of my own learning-related projects.

There are people out there arguing about the relative value of WordPress and other Content Management Systems. Sometimes, WordPress may fall short of people’s expectations. Sometimes, the pro-WordPress rhetoric is strong enough to sound like fanboism. But the matter goes beyond marketshare, opinions, and preferences.

In my case, WordPress just happens to be a rather central part of my life, these days. To me, it’s both a question of WordPress being “the right tool for the job” and the work I end up doing being appropriate for WordPress treatment. More than a simple causality (“I use WordPress because of the projects I do” or “I do these projects because I use WordPress”), it’s a complex interaction which involves diverse tools, my skillset, my social networks, and my interests.

Of course, WordPress isn’t perfect nor is it ideal for every situation. There are cases in which it might make much more sense to use another tool (Twitter, TikiWiki, Facebook, Moodle, Tumblr, Drupal..). And there are several things I wish WordPress did more elegantly (such as integrating all dimensions in a single tool). But I frequently end up with WordPress.

Here are some things I like about WordPress:

This last one is where the choice of WordPress for content directories starts making the most sense. Not only is it easy for me to use and build on WordPress but the learning curves are such that it’s easy for me to teach WordPress to others.

A nice example is the post editing interface (same in the software and service). It’s powerful, flexible, and robust, but it’s also very easy to use. It takes a few minutes to learn and is quite sufficient to do a lot of work.

This is exactly where I’m getting to the core idea for my content directories.

I emailed the following description to the digital content editor for the academic organization for which I want to create such content directories:

You know the post editing interface? What if instead of editing posts, someone could edit other types of contents, like syllabi, calls for papers, and teaching resources? What if fields were pretty much like the form I had created for [a committee]? What if submissions could be made by people with a specific role? What if submissions could then be reviewed by other people, with another role? What if display of these items were standardised?

Not exactly sure how clear my vision was in her head, but it’s very clear for me. And it came from different things I’ve seen about custom post types in WordPress 3.0.

For instance, the following post has been quite inspiring:

I almost had a drift-off moment.

But I wasn’t able to wrap my head around all the necessary elements. I perused and read a number of things about custom post types, I tried a few things. But I always got stuck at some point.

Recently, a valuable piece of the puzzle was provided by Kyle Jones (whose blog I follow because of his work on WordPress/BuddyPress in learning, a focus I share).

Setting up a Staff Directory using WordPress Custom Post Types and Plugins | The Corkboard.

As I discussed in the comments to this post, it contained almost everything I needed to make this work. But the two problems Jones mentioned were major hurdles, for me.

After reading that post, though, I decided to investigate further. I eventually got some material which helped me a bit, but it still wasn’t sufficient. Until tonight, I kept running into obstacles which made the process quite difficult.

Then, while trying to solve a problem I was having with Jones’s code, I stumbled upon the following:

Rock-Solid WordPress 3.0 Themes using Custom Post Types | Blancer.com Tutorials and projects.

This post was useful enough that I created a shortlink for it, so I could have it on my iPad and follow along: http://bit.ly/RockSolidCustomWP

By itself, it might not have been sufficient for me to really understand the whole process. And, following that tutorial, I replaced the first bits of code with use of the neat plugins mentioned by Jones in his own tutorial: More Types, More Taxonomies, and More Fields.

I played with this a few times but I can now provide an actual tutorial. I’m now doing the whole thing “from scratch” and will write down all steps.

This is with the WordPress 3.0 blogging software installed on a Bluehost account. (The WordPress.com blogging service doesn’t support custom post types.) I use the default Twenty Ten theme as a parent theme.

Since I use WordPress Multisite, I’m creating a new test blog (in Super Admin->Sites, “Add New”). Of course, this wasn’t required, but it helps me make sure the process is reproducible.

Since I already installed the three “More Plugins” (but they’re not “network activated”) I go in the Plugins menu to activate each of them.

I can now create the new “Product” type, based on that Blancer tutorial. To do so, I go to the “More Types” Settings menu, I click on “Add New Post Type,” and I fill in the following information: post type names (singular and plural) and the thumbnail feature. Other options are set by default.

I also set the “Permalink base” in Advanced settings. Not sure it’s required but it seems to make sense.

I click on the “Save” button at the bottom of the page (forgot to do this, the last time).

I then go to the “More Fields” settings menu to create a custom box for the post editing interface.

I add the box title and change the “Use with post types” options (no use in having this in posts).

(Didn’t forget to click “save,” this time!)

I can now add the “Price” field. To do so, I need to click on the “Edit” link next to the “Product Options” box I just created and add click “Add New Field.”

I add the “Field title” and “Custom field key”:

I set the “Field type” to Number.

I also set the slug for this field.

I then go to the “More Taxonomies” settings menu to add a new product classification.

I click “Add New Taxonomy,” and fill in taxonomy names, allow permalinks, add slug, and show tag cloud.

I also specify that this taxonomy is only used for the “Product” type.

(Save!)

Now, the rest is more directly taken from the Blancer tutorial. But instead of copy-paste, I added the files directly to a Twenty Ten child theme. The files are available in this archive.

Here’s the style.css code:

/*
Theme Name: Product Directory
Theme URI: http://enkerli.com/
Description: A product directory child theme based on Kyle Jones, Blancer, and Twenty Ten
Author: Alexandre Enkerli
Version: 0.1
Template: twentyten
*/

@import url("../twentyten/style.css");

The code for functions.php:

<!--?php /**  * ProductDir functions and definitions  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Directory  * @since Product Directory 0.1  */ /*Custom Columns*/ add_filter("manage_edit-product_columns", "prod_edit_columns"); add_action("manage_posts_custom_column",  "prod_custom_columns"); function prod_edit_columns($columns){ 		$columns = array( 			"cb" =--> "<input type="\&quot;checkbox\&quot;" />",
			"title" => "Product Title",
			"description" => "Description",
			"price" => "Price",
			"catalog" => "Catalog",
		);

		return $columns;
}

function prod_custom_columns($column){
		global $post;
		switch ($column)
		{
			case "description":
				the_excerpt();
				break;
			case "price":
				$custom = get_post_custom();
				echo $custom["price"][0];
				break;
			case "catalog":
				echo get_the_term_list($post->ID, 'catalog', '', ', ','');
				break;
		}
}
?>

And the code in single-product.php:

<!--?php /**  * Template Name: Product - Single  * The Template for displaying all single products.  *  * @package WordPress  * @subpackage Product_Dir  * @since Product Directory 1.0  */ get_header(); ?-->
<div id="container">
<div id="content">
<!--?php the_post(); ?-->

<!--?php 	$custom = get_post_custom($post--->ID);
	$price = "$". $custom["price"][0];

?>
<div id="post-<?php the_ID(); ?><br />">>
<h1 class="entry-title"><!--?php the_title(); ?--> - <!--?=$price?--></h1>
<div class="entry-meta">
<div class="entry-content">
<div style="width: 30%; float: left;">
			<!--?php the_post_thumbnail( array(100,100) ); ?-->
			<!--?php the_content(); ?--></div>
<div style="width: 10%; float: right;">
			Price
<!--?=$price?--></div>
</div>
</div>
</div>
<!-- #content --></div>
<!-- #container -->

<!--?php get_footer(); ?-->

That’s it!

Well, almost..

One thing is that I have to activate my new child theme.

So, I go to the “Themes” Super Admin menu and enable the Product Directory theme (this step isn’t needed with single-site WordPress).

I then activate the theme in Appearance->Themes (in my case, on the second page).

One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that the permalink structure may not work if I don’t go and “nudge it.” So I go to the “Permalinks” Settings menu:

And I click on “Save Changes” without changing anything. (I know, it’s counterintuitive. And it’s even possible that it could work without this step. But I spent enough time scratching my head about this one that I find it important.)

Now, I’m done. I can create new product posts by clicking on the “Add New” Products menu.

I can then fill in the product details, using the main WYSIWYG box as a description, the “price” field as a price, the “featured image” as the product image, and a taxonomy as a classification (by clicking “Add new” for any tag I want to add, and choosing a parent for some of them).

Now, in the product management interface (available in Products->Products), I can see the proper columns.

Here’s what the product page looks like:

And I’ve accomplished my mission.

The whole process can be achieved rather quickly, once you know what you’re doing. As I’ve been told (by the ever-so-helpful Justin Tadlock of Theme Hybrid fame, among other things), it’s important to get the data down first. While I agree with the statement and its implications, I needed to understand how to build these things from start to finish.

In fact, getting the data right is made relatively easy by my background as an ethnographer with a strong interest in cognitive anthropology, ethnosemantics, folk taxonomies (aka “folksonomies“), ethnography of communication, and ethnoscience. In other words, “getting the data” is part of my expertise.

The more technical aspects, however, were a bit difficult. I understood most of the principles and I could trace several puzzle pieces, but there’s a fair deal I didn’t know or hadn’t done myself. Putting together bits and pieces from diverse tutorials and posts didn’t work so well because it wasn’t always clear what went where or what had to remain unchanged in the code. I struggled with many details such as the fact that Kyle Jones’s code for custom columns wasn’t working first because it was incorrectly copied, then because I was using it on a post type which was “officially” based on pages (instead of posts). Having forgotten the part about “touching” the Permalinks settings, I was unable to get a satisfying output using Jones’s explanations (the fact that he doesn’t use titles didn’t really help me, in this specific case). So it was much harder for me to figure out how to do this than it now is for me to build content directories.

I still have some technical issues to face. Some which are near essential, such as a way to create archive templates for custom post types. Other issues have to do with features I’d like my content directories to have, such as clearly defined roles (the “More Plugins” support roles, but I still need to find out how to define them in WordPress). Yet other issues are likely to come up as I start building content directories, install them in specific contexts, teach people how to use them, observe how they’re being used and, most importantly, get feedback about their use.

But I’m past a certain point in my self-learning journey. I’ve built my confidence (an important but often dismissed component of gaining expertise and experience). I found proper resources. I understood what components were minimally necessary or required. I succeeded in implementing the system and testing it. And I’ve written enough about the whole process that things are even clearer for me.

And, who knows, I may get feedback, questions, or advice..


Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It’s one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it’s completely fallacious, it’s still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”


Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.


War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.


Beer Eye for the Coffee Guy (or Gal)

Judged twelve (12) espresso drinks as part of the Eastern Regional Canadian Barista Championship (UStream).

[Never watched Queer Eye. Thought the title would make sense, given both the “taste” and even gender dimensions.]

Had quite a bit of fun.

The experience was quite similar to the one I had last year. There were fewer competitors, this year. But I also think that there were more people in the audience, at least in the morning. One possible reason is that ads about the competition were much more visible this year than last (based on my own experience and on several comments made during the day). Also, I noticed a stronger sense of collegiality among competitors, as several of them have been different things together in the past year.

More specifically, people from Ottawa’s Bridgehead and people from Montreal’s Café Myriade have developed something which, at least from the outside, look like comradery. At the Canadian National Barista Championship, last year, Myriade’s Anthony Benda won the “congeniality” prize. This year, Benda got first place in the ERCBC. Second place went to Bridgehead’s Cliff Hansen, and third place went to Myriade’s Alex Scott.

Bill Herne served as head judge for most of the event. He made it a very pleasant experience for me personally and, I hope, for other judges. His insight on the championship is especially valuable given the fact that he can maintain a certain distance from the specifics.

The event was organized in part by Vida Radovanovic, founder of the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Though she’s quick to point to differences between Toronto and Montreal, in terms of these regional competitions, she also seemed pleased with several aspects of this year’s ERCBC.

To me, the championship was mostly an opportunity for thinking and talking about the coffee world.

Met and interacted with diverse people during the day. Some of them were already part of my circle of coffee-loving friends and acquaintances. Some who came to me to talk about coffee after noticing some sign of my connection to the championship. The fact that I was introduced to the audience as a blogger and homeroaster seems to have been relatively significant. And there were several people who were second-degree contacts in my coffee-related social network, making for easy introductions.

A tiny part of the day’s interactions was captured in interviews for CBC Montreal’s Daybreak (unfortunately, the recording is in RealAudio format).

“Coffee as a social phenomenon” was at the centre of several of my own interactions with diverse people. Clearly, some of it has to do with my own interests, especially with “Montreal’s coffee renaissance.” But there were also a clear interest in such things as the marketshare of quality coffee, the expansion of some coffee scenes, and the notion of building a sense of community through coffee. That last part is what motivated me to write this post.

After the event, a member of my coffee-centric social network has started a discussion about community-building in the coffee world and I found myself dumping diverse ideas on him. Several of my ideas have to do with my experience with craft beer in North America. In a way, I’ve been doing informal ethnography of craft beer. Beer has become an area of expertise, for me, and I’d like to pursue more formal projects on it. So beer is on my mind when I think about coffee. And vice-versa. I was probably a coffee geek before I started homebrewing beer but I started brewing beer at home before I took my coffee-related activities to new levels.

So, in my reply on a coffee community, I was mostly thinking about beer-related communities.

Comparing coffee and beer is nothing new, for me. In fact, a colleague has blogged about some of my comments, both formal and informal, about some of those connections.

Differences between beer and coffee are significant. Some may appear trivial but they can all have some impact on the way we talk about cultural and social phenomena surrounding these beverages.

  • Coffee contains caffeine, beer contains alcohol. (Non-alcoholic beers, decaf coffee, and beer with coffee are interesting but they don’t dominate.) Yes: “duh.” But the difference is significant. Alcohol and caffeine not only have different effects but they fit in different parts of our lives.
  • Coffee is often part of a morning ritual,  frequently perceived as part of preparation for work. Beer is often perceived as a signal for leisure time, once you can “wind down.” Of course, there are people (including yours truly) who drink coffee at night and people (especially in Europe) who drink alcohol during a workday. But the differences in the “schedules” for beer and coffee have important consequences on the ways these drinks are integrated in social life.
  • Coffee tends to be much less expensive than beer. Someone’s coffee expenses may easily be much higher than her or his “beer budget,” but the cost of a single serving of coffee is usually significantly lower than a single serving of beer.
  • While it’s possible to drink a few coffees in a row, people usually don’t drink more than two coffees in a single sitting. With beer, it’s not rare that people would drink quite a few pints in the same night. The UK concept of a “session beer” goes well with this fact.
  • Brewing coffee takes a few minutes, brewing beer takes a while (hours for the brewing process, days or even weeks for fermentation).
  • At a “bar,” coffee is usually brewed in front of those who will drink it while beer has been prepared in advance.
  • Brewing coffee at home has been mainstream for quite a while. Beer homebrewing is considered a hobby.
  • Historically, coffee is a recent phenomenon. Beer is among the most ancient human-made beverages in the world.

Despite these significant differences, coffee and beer also have a lot in common. The fact that the term “brew” is used for beer and coffee (along with tea) may be a coincidence, but there are remarkable similarities between the extraction of diverse compounds from grain and from coffee beans. In terms of process, I would argue that beer and coffee are more similar than are, say, coffee and tea or beer and wine.

But the most important similarity, in my mind, is social: beer and coffee are, indeed, central to some communities. So are other drinks, but I’m more involved in groups having to do with coffee or beer than in those having to do with other beverages.

One way to put it, at least in my mind, is that coffee and beer are both connected to revolutions.

Coffee is community-oriented from the very start as coffee beans often come from farming communities and cooperatives. The notion, then, is that there are local communities which derive a significant portion of their income from the global and very unequal coffee trade. Community-oriented people often find coffee-growing to be a useful focus of attention and given the place of coffee in the global economy, it’s unsurprising to see a lot of interest in the concept (if not the detailed principles) of “fair trade” in relation to coffee. For several reasons (including the fact that they’re often produced in what Wallerstein would call “core” countries), the main ingredients in beer (malted barley and hops) don’t bring to mind the same conception of local communities. Still, coffee and beer are important to some local agricultural communities.

For several reasons, I’m much more directly involved with communities which have to do with the creation and consumption of beverages made with coffee beans or with grain.

In my private reply about building a community around coffee, I was mostly thinking about what can be done to bring attention to those who actually drink coffee. Thinking about the role of enthusiasts is an efficient way to think about the craft beer revolution and about geeks in general. After all, would the computer world be the same without the “homebrew computer club?”

My impression is that when coffee professionals think about community, they mostly think about creating better relationships within the coffee business. It may sound like a criticism, but it has more to do with the notion that the trade of coffee has been quite competitive. Building a community could be a very significant change. In a way, that might be a basis for the notion of a “Third Wave” in coffee.

So, using my beer homebrewer’s perspective: what about a community of coffee enthusiasts? Wouldn’t that help?

And I don’t mean “a website devoted to coffee enthusiasts.” There’s a lot of that, already. A lot of people on the Coffee Geek Forums are outsiders to the coffee industry and Home Barista is specifically geared toward the home enthusiasts’ market.

I’m really thinking about fostering a sense of community. In the beer world, this frequently happens in brewclubs or through the Beer Judge Certification Program, which is much stricter than barista championships. Could the same concepts apply to the coffee world? Probably not. But there may still be “lessons to be learnt” from the beer world.

In terms of craft beer in North America, there’s a consensus around the role of beer enthusiasts. A very significant number of craft brewers were homebrewers before “going pro.” One of the main reasons craft beer has become so important is because people wanted to drink it. Craft breweries often do rather well with very small advertising budgets because they attract something akin to cult followings. The practise of writing elaborate comments and reviews has had a significant impact on a good number of craft breweries. And some of the most creative things which happen in beer these days come from informal experiments carried out by homebrewers.

As funny as it may sound (or look), people get beer-related jobs because they really like beer.

The same happens with coffee. On occasion. An enthusiastic coffee lover will either start working at a café or, somewhat more likely, will “drop everything” and open her/his own café out of a passion for coffee. I know several people like this and I know the story is quite telling for many people. But it’s not the dominant narrative in the coffee world where “rags to riches” stories have less to do with a passion for coffee than with business acumen. Things may be changing, though, as coffee becomes more… passion-driven.

To be clear: I’m not saying that serious beer enthusiasts make the bulk of the market for craft beer or that coffee shop owners should cater to the most sophisticated coffee geeks out there. Beer and coffee are both too cheap to warrant this kind of a business strategy. But there’s a lot to be said about involving enthusiasts in the community.

For one thing, coffee and beer can both get viral rather quickly. Because most people in North America can afford beer or coffee, it’s often easy to convince a friend to grab a cup or pint. Coffee enthusiasts who bring friends to a café do more than sell a cup. They help build up a place. And because some people are into the habit of regularly going to the same bar or coffee shop, the effects can be lasting.

Beer enthusiasts often complain about the inadequate beer selection at bars and restaurants. To this day, there are places where I end up not drinking anything besides water after hearing what the beerlist contains. In the coffee world, it seems that the main target these days is the restaurant business. The current state of affairs with coffee at restaurants is often discussed with heavy sighs of disappointment. What I”ve heard from several people in the coffee business is that, too frequently,  restaurant owners give so little attention to coffee that they end up destroying the dining experience of anyone who orders coffee after a meal. Even in my own case, I’ve had enough bad experiences with restaurant coffee (including, or even especially, at higher-end places) that I’m usually reluctant to have coffee at a restaurant. It seems quite absurd, as a quality experience with coffee at the end of a meal can do a lot to a restaurant’s bottom line. But I can’t say that it’s my main concern because I end up having coffee elsewhere, anyway. While restaurants can be the object of a community’s attention and there’s a lot to be said about what restaurants do to a region or neighbourhood, the community dimensions of coffee have less to do with what is sold where than with what people do around coffee.

Which brings me to the issue of education. It’s clearly a focus in the coffee world. In fact, most coffee-related events have some “training” dimension. But this type of education isn’t community-oriented. It’s a service-based approach, such as the one which is increasingly common in academic institutions. While I dislike customer-based learning in universities, I do understand the need for training services in the coffee world. What I perceive insight from the beer world can do is complement these training services instead of replacing them.

An impressive set of learning experiences can be seen among homebrewers. From the most practical of “hands-on training” to some very conceptual/theoretical knowledge exchanges. And much of the learning which occurs is informal, seamless, “organic.” It’s possible to get very solid courses in beer and brewing, but the way most people learn is casual and free. Because homebrewers are organized in relatively tight groups and because the sense of community among homebrewers is also a matter of solidarity.  Or, more simply, because “it’s just a hobby anyway.”

The “education” theme also has to do with “educating the public” into getting more sophisticated about what to order. This does happen in the beer world, but can only be pulled off when people are already interested in knowing more about beer. In relation with the coffee industry, it sometimes seems that “coffee education” is imposed on people from the top-down. And it’s sometimes quite arbitrary. Again, room for the coffee business to read the Cluetrain Manifesto and to learn from communities.

And speaking of Starbucks… One draft blogpost which has been nagging me is about the perception that, somehow, Starbucks has had a positive impact in terms of coffee quality. One important point is that Starbucks took the place of an actual coffee community. Even if it can be proven that coffee quality wouldn’t have been improved in North America if it hadn’t been for Starbucks (a tall order, if you ask me), the issue remains that Starbucks has only paid attention to the real estate dimension of the concept of community. The mermaid corporation has also not doing so well, recently, so we may finally get beyond the financial success story and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes people connect through coffee. The world needs more from coffee than chains selling coffee-flavoured milk.

One notion I wanted to write about is the importance of “national” traditions in both coffee and beer in relation to what is happening in North America, these days. Part of the situation is enough to make me very enthusiastic to be in North America, since it’s increasingly possible to not only get quality beer and coffee but there are many opportunities for brewing coffee and beer in new ways. But that’ll have to wait for another post.

In Western Europe at least, coffee is often associated with the home. The smell of coffee has often been described in novels and it can run deep in social life. There’s no reason homemade coffee can’t be the basis for a sense of community in North America.

Now, if people in the coffee industry would wake up and… think about actual human beings, for a change…


Actively Reading: “Teach Naked” sans PowerPoint

Some Diigo comments on a Chronicle piece on moving lectures out of the classroom. (Or, if you ask the piece’s author and some commenters, on PowerPoint as a source of boredom.)

I’d like to transform some of my own comments in a standalone blog entry, especially given the discussions Pamthropologist and I have been having through comments on her blog and mine. (And I just noticed Pamthropologist had written her own blogpost about this piece…) As I’m preparing for the Fall semester, I tend to think a lot about learning and teaching but I also get a bit less time.

Semi-disclaimer: John Bentley, instructional developer and programme coordinator at Concordia’s CTLS pointed me to this piece. John used to work for the Open University and the BBC. Together, John and I are currently developing a series of workshops on the use of online tools in learning and teaching. We’ve been discussing numerous dimensions of the connection between learning, teaching, and online tools. Our current focus is on creating communities of learners. One thing that I find especially neat about this collaboration is that our perspectives and spheres of expertise are quite different. Makes for interesting and thoughtful discussions.

‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers From Classrooms – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education

  • Not to be too snarky but… I can’t help but feel this is typical journalism. Take a complex issue, get a diverse array of comments on it, boil it down to an overly simplistic point about some polarizing question (PPT: is it evil?). Tadaa! You got an article and you’ve discouraged critical thinking.Sorry. I’m bad. I really shouldn’t go there.But I guess I’m disappointed in myself. When I first watched the video interview, I was reacting fairly strongly against Bowen. After reading (very actively!) the whole piece, I now realize that Jeff Young is the one who set the whole thing up.The problem with this is that I should know better. Right?Well, ok, I wasn’t that adamantly opposed to Bowen. I didn’t shout at my computer screen or anything. But watching the video interview again, after reading the piece, I notice that I interpret as much more open a discussion than the setup made it sound like. In other words, I went from thinking that Bowen was imposing a radical view on members of his faculty to hearing Bowen proposing ideas about ways to cope with social changes surrounding university education.The statement about most on-campus lectures being bad is rather bold, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard and it’s a reasonable comment to make in such a context. The stronger statement against PPT is actually weakened by Bowen himself in two ways: he explicitly talks about using PPT online and he frames his comment in comparison with podcasts. It then sounds like his problem isn’t with PPT itself. It’s with the use of PPT in the classroom by comparison to both podcasts and PPTs online. He may be wrong about the relative merits of podcasts, online “presentations,” and classroom lectures using PPT. But his opinion is much less radical than what I originally thought.Still, there’s room for much broader discussion of what classroom lectures and PPT presentations imply in teaching. Young’s piece and several Diigo comments on it focus on the value of PPT either in the abstract or through appropriate use. But there’s a lot more ground to cover, including such apparently simple issues as the effort needed to create compelling “presentation content” or students’ (and future employers’) expectations about PPT presentations.
  • Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool.
    • damn you got there first! comment by dean groom
    • I think the more important point that’s being made by the article – is something that many of us in edtech world realised very quickly – that being able to teach well is a prerequisite to being able to effectively and creatively engage technology to help others learn…Powerpoint is probably the most obvious target because oif its ubiquity – but I suspect that there will also be a backlash when the masses start adopting other technologies… they’ll be misused just as effectively as PPT is.When we can assume that all university lecturers/tutors are effective teachers then the argument will be moot… until then we’ll continue to see death by powerpoint and powerpointlessness…I’m a drama teacher and love the idea of active rooms filled with proactive engaged learners… and if we have proactive engaged learners we can more effectively deploy technology in the mix…The world of teaching and learning is far from perfect and expectations seem to be geared towards a paradigm that says : “professors should tell me every last thing I need to know in order to get good grades and if students sat still and shut up long enough they might just learn something useful.”I even had one “lecturer” recently tell me “I’m a subject specialist, why do I need to know about pedagogy?” – sadly he was serious. comment by Kim FLINTOFF
    • On the subject specialist uninterested in pedagogy…It’s not an uncommon perspective, in university teaching. In fact, it might be more common among French-speakers, as most of those I’ve heard say something like this were French-speakers.I reacted quite negatively when I first heard some statement about university teachers not needing pedagogy. Don’t they care about learning?But… Isn’t there a point to be made about “non-pedagogy?”Not trying to be contrarian, here. Not playing devil’s advocate. Nor am I going on the kind of “anti-anti” PoMo mode which seems not to fit too well in English-speaking communities. I’m just thinking about teacher-less learning. And a relativist’s attitude to not judge before I know more. After all, can we safely assume that courses given by someone with such a reluctant attitude to learning pedagogy are inherently bad?There are even some people out there who take constructivism and constructionism to such an extreme that they’d say teachers aren’t needed. To an extent, the OLPC project has been going in that direction. “Students will teach themselves. We don’t need to train teachers or to engage with them in building this project.”There’s also a lot of discussion about learning outside of formal institutions. Including “on-the-job training” but also all sorts of learning strategies which don’t rely on the teacher/student (mentee, apprentice, pupil…) hierarchy. For instance, actual learning occurs in a large set of online activities. Enthusiastic people learn about things that passion them by reading about the subject, participating in online discussions, presenting their work for feedback, etc. Oftentimes, there is a hierarchy in terms of prestige, but it’s mostly negotiated through actions and not set in advance. More like “achieved status” than “ascribed status” (to use a convenient distinction from SOC101 courses). As this kind of training not infrequently leads to interesting careers, we’d be remiss to ignore the trend.Speaking of trends… It’s quite clear that many universities tend toward a more consumer-based approach. Students register and pay tuition to get “credentials” (good grades and impressive degrees). The notion that they might be there to do the actual learning is going by the wayside. In some professional contexts, people are quite explicit about how little they learnt in classrooms. It makes for difficult teaching contexts (especially at prestigious universities in the US), but it’s also something with which people learn to cope.My personal attitude is that “learning happens despite teachers.” I still think teachers make a difference, that we should learn about learners and learning, that pedagogy matters a whole lot. In fact, I’m passionate about pedagogy and I do what I can to improve my teaching.Yet the bottomline is: do people learn? If they do, does it matter what pedagogical training the teacher has? This isn’t a rhetorical question. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal
  • PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw.
    • Can somebody post links to especially good PowerPoint files? comment by Bill Chapman
    • I don’t think this is really about PPT, but more about blind use of technology. It’s not the software to blame but the user.Also if you’re looking for great PPT examples, check out slideshare.net comment by Dean Shareski
    • Looking forward to reading what their criteria are for boredom.And the exact justification they give for lectures needing not to be boring.Or if they discuss the broad implications of lecturing, as opposed to the many other teaching methods that we use.Now, to be honest, I do use PPT in class. In fact, my PPT slides are the very example of what many people would consider boring: text outlines transformed into bullet points. Usually black on white, without images.But, overall, students seem to find me engaging. In student evaluations, I do get the occasional comment about the course being boring, but that’s also about the book and the nature of what we discuss.I upload these PPT files to Slideshare before going to class. In seminars, I use the PPT file to outline some topics, themes, and questions brought up by students and I upload the updated file after class.The PPT files on Slideshare are embedded into Moodle and serve as “course notes,” in conjunction with the audio recordings from the class meetings. These slides may include material which wasn’t covered in class.During “lecture,” I often spend extend periods of time discussing things with the class as a whole, leaving a slide up as a reminder of the general topic. Going from a bullet point to an extended discussion has the benefit of providing context for the discussion. When I started teaching, several students were saying that I’m “disorganized.” I still get a few comments like that but they’re much less frequent. And I still go on tangents, based on interactions with the group.Once in a while, I refrain from using PPT altogether. Which can lead to interesting challenges, in part because of student expectations and the fact that the screen becomes an indicator that “teaching is going on.”Perhaps a more important point: I try to lecture as little as possible. My upper-level courses are rapidly transformed into seminars. Even in large classes, the last class meetings of the semester involve just a few minutes of lecturing.This may all sound like a justification for my teaching method. But it’s also a reaction to the frequent discussions about PPT as evil. I do hate PPT, but I still use it.If only Google Wave could be released soon, we could use it to replace PPT. Wikis and microblogging tools are good and well, but they’re not as efficient in terms of real-time collaboration on complex material. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions
  • In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.
    • Does it follow so directly? It’s quite easy to integrate technology with “seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • better than many older classroom technologies, like slate chalkboards or overhead transparencies
    • Which seems to support a form of technological determinism or, at least, a notion of a somewhat consistent improvement in the use of tools, if not in the tools themselves. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • But technology has hardly revolutionized the classroom experience for most college students, despite millions of dollars in investment and early predictions that going digital would force professors to rethink their lectures and would herald a pedagogical renaissance.
    • If so, then it’s only because profs aren’t bringing social technologies into their classrooms. Does the author of this article understand what’s current in ed tech? comment by Shelly Blake-Plock
    • the problem here is that in higher education, student satisfaction drives a service mentality – and students WANT summised PPTs and the want PODCASTS. Spoooon feeeeeed me – for I am paying. comment by dean groom
    • A rather broad statement which might be difficult to support with evidence.If we look at “classroom experience” in different contexts, we do notice large differences. Not necessarily in a positive sense. Technology is an integral part of all sorts of changes happening in, around, and away from the classroom.It would be quite different if that sentence said: “But institutional programs based on the adoption of specific tools in the classroom have hardly revolutionized…” It’s still early to assess the effectiveness of these programs, especially if we think about lifelong learning and about ongoing social changes related to technology use. But the statement would make more sense if it were more directly tied to specific programs instead of being a blanket critique of “technology” (left undefined). comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • dream of shaking up college instruction
    • One of the most interesting parts of the interview with Bowen has to do with the notion that this isn’t, in fact, about following a dream. It’s about remaining relevant in a changing world. There’s a lot about Bowen’s perspective which sounds quite strange, to me. But the notion that universities should “wake up and smell the coffee” is something I wish were the object of more discussion in academic circles. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Here’s the kicker, though: The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.
    • Great points, here. Let’s wish more students were involved in this conversation. It’s not just “about” them.One thing we should probably not forget about student populations is that they’re diverse. Chances are, some students in Meadows are delighted by the discussion focus. Others may be puzzled. It’s likely an adaptation for most of them. And it doesn’t sound like they were ever consulted about those changes. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • lecture model is pretty comfortable
    • And, though many of us are quick to criticize it, it’s difficult to avoid in the current systems of formal education in which we work. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • cool gadgets
    • The easiest way to dismiss the social role of technology is to call tools “gadgets.” But are these tools really just gadgets? In fact, some tools which are put to good use really aren’t that cool or even new. Are we discussing them enough? Are we aware of how they fit in the grand scheme of things?An obvious example would be cellphones. Some administrators and teachers perceive them as a nuisance. Rather few people talk about educational opportunities with cellphones, even though they already are used by people in different parts of the World to empower themselves and to learn. Negroponte has explicltly dimissed the educational potential of cellphones but the World isn’t waiting for approval from designers. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • seasoned performer,
    • There’s a larger point to be about performance in teaching. Including through a reference to Dick Bauman’s “Verbal Art as Performance” or other dimensions of Performance Theory.There’s also a more “mundane” point about a kind of conflict in universities between academic material and performance. In French-speaking universities, at least, it’s not uncommon to hear teachers talk about the necessity to be a “performer” as something of a distraction in teaching. Are teachers in front of the class to entertain students or is the classroom an environment in which to think and learn about difficult concepts? The consumer approach to universities, pushed in part by administrators who run universities like businesses, tends to emphasize the “entertainment paradigm,” hence the whole “boredom” issue.Having said all of this, Bowen’s own attitude goes beyond this simplistic “entertainment paradigm.” In fact, it sounds like he’s specifically not advocating for lectures to become a series of TEDtalks. Judging from the interview, it sounds like he might say that TEDtalk-style presentation should be put online and classroom-time should be devoted to analyzing those presentations.I do consider myself a performer, as I’ve been playing saxophone in a rather broad range of circumstances, from outdoor stages at festivals to concert halls. And my experience as a performer does influence the way I teach large classes. At the same time, it probably makes more salient the distinction between teaching and performing. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The goateed administrator sported a suit jacket over a dark T-shirt
    • Though I’d be the first one to say that context is key, I fail to see what Bowen’s clothes contribute to the discussion. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • philosophical argument about the best way to engage students, he grounded it
  • information delivery common in today’s classroom lectures should be recorded and delivered to students as podcasts or online videos before class sessions
    • Fully agreed. Especially if we throw other things in the mix such as journal articles and collaboratively-created learning material. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • short online multiple-choice tests.
    • I don’t think he’s using the mc tests with an essessment focus rather an engagement focus – noit necessarily the most sophisticated but done playfully and creatively it can be a good first step to getting reluctatnt students to engage in first instance… comment by Kim FLINTOFF
    • I would also “defend” the use of MCTs in this context. Especially if the stakes are relatively low, the questions are well-crafted, and students do end up engaging.Like PPT, MCTs have some advantages, including because of student expectations.But, of course, it’s rather funny to hear Bowen talk about shaking things up and find out that he uses such tools. Still, the fact that these tests are online (and, one would think, taken outside of class time) goes well with Bowen’s main point about class time vs. tech-enabled work outside of class. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Introduce issues of debate within the discipline and get the students to weigh in based on the knowledge they have from those lecture podcasts, Mr. Bowen says.
    • This wouldn’t be too difficult to do in social sciences and there are scenarios in which it would work wonderfully for lab sciences (if we think of “debate” as something similar to “discussion” sections in scientific articles).At the same time, some people do react negatively to such approaches based not on discipline but on “responsibilities of the university.” Some people even talk about responsibilities toward students’ parents! comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • But if the student believes they can contribute, they’re a whole lot more motivated to enter the discourse, and to enter the discipline.
    • Sounds a bit like some of the “higher” positions in William Perry’s scheme. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • don’t be boring
    • Is boredom induced exclusively by the teacher? Can a student bored during a class meeting still be motivated and engaged in the material at another point? Should we apply the same principle to the readings we assign? Is there a way to efficiently assess the “boredom factor” of an academic article? How can we convince academic publishers that fighting boredom isn’t necessarily done through the addition of pretty pictures? comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • you need a Ph.D. to figure it out
    • While I agree that these panels are difficult to use and could afford a redesign, the joke about needing a PhD sounds a bit strange in context. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • plug in their laptops
    • There’s something of a more general move toward getting people to use their own computers in the workplace. In fact, classroom computers are often so restricted as to be quite cumbersome to use in teaching. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • allow students to work in groups more easily
    • Not a bad idea. A good number of classrooms are structured in a way that makes it very hard to get students to do group work. Of course, it’s possible to do group work in any setting, but it’s remarkable how some of these seemingly trivial matters as the type of desk used can be enough to discourage some teachers from using certain teaching strategies. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The classroom computers were old and needed an upgrade when Mr. Bowen arrived, so ditching them instead saved money.
    • Getting into the core of the issue. The reason it’s so important to think about “new ways” to do things isn’t necessarily that “old ways” weren’t conducive to learning. It’s because there are increased pressures on the system and some seem to perceive that cost-cutting and competition from online learning, making the issue so pressing. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • eliminate one staff position for a technician
    • Sounds sad, especially since support staff is already undervalued. But, at the same time, it does sound like relatively rational cost-cutting. One would just wish that they replaced that position with, say, teaching support. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • gave every professor a laptop
    • Again, this is a rather common practise outside of universities. Knowing how several colleagues think, this may also function as a way to “keep them happy.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • support so they could create their own podcasts and videos.
    • This is where the tech support position which was cut could be useful. Recording and podcasting aren’t difficult to set up or do. But it’s an area where support can mean more than answering questions about which button to press. In fact, podcasting projects are an ideal context for collaboration between tech, teach, and research. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • lugging their laptops to class,
    • It can be an issue, especially if there wasn’t a choice in the type of laptop which could be used. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • She’s made podcasts for her course on “Critical Scholarship in Communication” that feature interviews she recorded with experts in the field.
    • One cool thing about these podcasting projects is that people can build upon them, one semester after the other. Interviews with practitioners do help provide a multiplicity of voices. And, yes, getting students to produce their own content is often a good way to go, especially if the topic is somehow related to the activity. Getting students in applied communication to create material does sound appropriate. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • they come in actually much more informed
    • Sounds effective. Especially since Bowen’s approach seems to be oriented toward pre-class preparation. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • if they had been assigned a reading.
    • There’s a lot to be said about this. One reason this method may be more efficient than reading assignments could have to do with the particularities of written language, especially the very formal style of those texts we often assign as readings. Not that students shouldn’t read, of course! But there’s a case to be made for some readings being replaced by oral sources, especially those which have to do with people’s experience in a field. Reading primary source material, integrating some reference texts, and using oral material can all be part of an appropriate set of learning strategies. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • created podcast lectures
    • An advantage of such “lecturecasts,” “profcasts,” and “slidecasts” is that they’re relatively easy to build and can be tightly structured. It’s not the end-all of learning material, but it’s a better substitute for classroom lectures than one might think.Still, there’s room for improvement in the technology itself. For instance, it’d be nice to have Revver-style comments in the timeline. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • shows movie clips from his laptop
    • This one is slightly surprising because one would expect that these clips could easily be shown, online, ahead of class. It might have to do with the chilling effect of copyright regulation or Heffernan’s strategy of getting “fresh” feedback. There would have been good questions to ask Heffernan in preparation for this piece. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • “Strangely enough, the people who are most resistant to this model are the students, who are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test,” says Mr. Heffernan. “Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we’re going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom in precisely the way José wants to do it.”
    • This interpretation sounds a tiny bit lopsided. After all, aren’t there students who were already quite active and engaged in the “old system” who have expressed some resistance to the “new system?” Sounds likely to me. But maybe my students are different.One fascinating thing is the level of agreement, among teachers, about the necessity to have students who aren’t passive. I certainly share this opinion but there are teachers in this World who actually do prefer students who are somewhat passive and… “obedient.” comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • The same sequence of events
    • That part is quite significant: Bowen was already a reformer and already had gone through the process. In this case, he sounds more like one of those CEOs who are hired to save a company from a difficult situation. He originally sounded more like someone who wanted to impose specific views about teaching. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • ‘I paid for a college education and you’re not going to lecture?'”
    • A fairly common reaction, in certain contexts. A combination of the infamous “sense of entitlement,” the “customer-based approach to universities,” and student expectations about the way university teaching is supposed to go.One version I’ve had in student evaluations is that the student felt like s/he was hearing too much from other students instead of from me. It did pain me, because of the disconnect between what I was trying to do and that student’s notion of what university courses are supposed to bring her/him. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • PowerPoint lecture
    • As a commenter to my blog was saying about lectures in general, some of us (myself included) have been building a straw man. We may have negative attitudes toward certain teaching strategies, including some lecturing techniques. But that shouldn’t prevent us from discussing a wide array of teaching and learning strategies.In this case, it’s remarkable that despite the radical nature of Bowen’s reform, we learn that there are teachers who record PPT-based presentations. It then sounds like the issue isn’t so much about using PPT as it is about what is done in the classroom as opposed to what is done during the rest of the week.Boring or not, PPT lectures, even some which aren’t directly meant to engage students, can still find their place in the “teaching toolbox.” A dogmatic anti-PPT stance (such as the one displayed by this journalist) is unlikely to foster conversations about tools and learning. Based on the fact that teachers are in fact doing PPT lectures to be used outside the classroom, one ends up seeing Bowen’s perspective as much more open than that of the Chronicle’s editorial staff. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • Sandi Mann, the British researcher who led the recent study on student attitudes toward teaching, argues that boredom has serious implications in an educational setting.
    • Unsurprising perspective. Wonder if it had any impact on Mann’s research results. Makes the research sound more oriented than one might hope. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • according to some studies
  • low-cost online alternatives to the traditional campus experience
    • This could have been the core issue discussed in an article about Bowen. Especially if we are to have a thoughtful conversation about the state of higher education in a changing context. Justification for high tuition fees, the latent functions of “college life,” the likely outcome of “competing with free,” the value of the complete learning experience as opposed to the value of information transmission… comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • give away videos
    • This is the “competing with free” part, to which record companies have been oblivious for so long but which makes OCW appear like quite a forward-looking proposition. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • colleges must make sure their in-person teaching really is superior to those alternatives
    • It’s both a free-market argument, which goes so well with the customer-based approach to learning, and a plea to consider learning in a broader way than the mere transmission of information from authoritative source to passive mass. An old saw, for sure, but one which surprisingly hasn’t been heard by everyone. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • add value
    • This might be appropriate language to convince trustees. At some institutions, this might be more important than getting students’ or teachers’ approval. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • not being online
    • Although, they do have an online presence. The arguments used have more to do with blended learning than with exclusively face-to-face methods. comment by Alexandre Enkerli
  • might need to stay a low-tech zone to survive.
    • Rubbish there is no reason to dumb down learning; and he obviously is not teaching 2500 students at one time. PPT is not the problem here, and this really is a collection of facile arguements that are not ironically substantiated. Lowering his overhead does not increase student learning – wheres the evidence? comment by dean groom
    • Come to think of it, it sounds like the argument was made more forcefully by Young than by Bowen himself. Bowen is certainly quite vocal but the “need… to survive” sounds a tad bit stronger than Bowen’s project.What’s funny is that the video made Bowen sound almost opinionated. The article makes Young sound like he has his own axe to grind comment by Alexandre Enkerli

Quest for Expertise

Will at Work Learning: People remember 10%, 20%…Oh Really?.

This post was mentioned on the mailing-list for the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE-L).

In that post, Will Thalheimer traces back a well-known claim about learning to shoddy citations. While it doesn’t invalidate the base claim (that people tend to retain more information through certain cognitive processes), Thalheimer does a good job of showing how a graph which has frequently been seen in educational fields was based on faulty interpretation of work by prominent scholars, mixed with some results from other sources.

Quite interesting. IMHO, demystification and critical thinking are among the most important things we can do in academia. In fact, through training in folkloristics, I have become quite accustomed to this specific type of debunking.

I have in mind a somewhat similar claim that I’m currently trying to trace. Preliminary searches seem to imply that citations of original statements have a similar hyperbolic effect on the status of this claim.

The claim is what a type of “rule of thumb” in cognitive science. A generic version could be stated in the following way:

It takes ten years or 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field.

The claim is a rather famous one from cognitive science. I’ve heard it uttered by colleagues with a background in cognitive science. In 2006, I first heard about such a claim from Philip E. Ross, on an episode of Scientific American‘s Science Talk podcast to discuss his article on expertise. I later read a similar claim in Daniel Levitin’s 2006 This Is Your Brain On Music. The clearest statement I could find back in Levitin’s book is the following (p. 193):

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything.

More recently, during a keynote speech he was giving as part of his latest book tour, I heard a similar claim from presenter extraordinaire Malcolm Gladwell. AFAICT, this claim runs at the centre of Gladwell’s recent book: Outliers: The Story of Success. In fact, it seems that Gladwell uses the same quote from Levitin, on page 40 of Outliers (I just found that out).

I would like to pinpoint the origin for the claim. Contrary to Thalheimer’s debunking, I don’t expect that my search will show that the claim is inaccurate. But I do suspect that the “rule of thumb” versions may be a bit misled. I already notice that most people who set up such claims are doing so without direct reference to the primary literature. This latter comment isn’t damning: in informal contexts, constant referal to primary sources can be extremely cumbersome. But it could still be useful to clear up the issue. Who made this original claim?

I’ve tried a few things already but it’s not working so well. I’m collecting a lot of references, to both online and printed material. Apart from Levitin’s book and a few online comments, I haven’t yet read the material. Eventually, I’d probably like to find a good reference on the cognitive basis for expertise which puts this “rule of thumb” in context and provides more elaborate data on different things which can be done during that extensive “time on task” (including possible skill transfer).

But I should proceed somewhat methodically. This blogpost is but a preliminary step in this process.

Since Philip E. Ross is the first person on record I heard talk about this claim, a logical first step for me is to look through this SciAm article. Doing some text searches on the printable version of his piece, I find a few interesting things including the following (on page 4 of the standard version):

Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Apart from the ten thousand (10,000) hours part of the claim, this is about as clear a statement as I’m looking for. The “Simon” in question is Herbert A. Simon, who did research on chess at the Department of Psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University with colleague William G. Chase.  So I dig for diverse combinations of “Herbert Simon,” “ten(10)-year rule,” “William Chase,” “expert(ise),” and/or “chess.” I eventually find two primary texts by those two authors, both from 1973: (Chase and Simon, 1973a) and (Chase and Simon, 1973b).

The first (1973a) is an article from Cognitive Psychology 4(1): 55-81, available for download on ScienceDirect (toll access). Through text searches for obvious words like “hour*,” “year*,” “time,” or even “ten,” it seems that this article doesn’t include any specific statement about the amount of time required to become an expert. The quote which appears to be the most relevant is the following:

Behind this perceptual analysis, as with all skills (cf., Fitts & Posner, 1967), lies an extensive cognitive apparatus amassed through years of constant practice.

While it does relate to the notion that there’s a cognitive basis to practise, the statement is generic enough to be far from the “rule of thumb.”

The second Chase and Simon reference (1973b) is a chapter entitled “The Mind’s Eye in Chess” (pp. 215-281) in the proceedings of the Eighth Carnegie Symposium on Cognition as edited by William Chase and published by Academic Press under the title Visual Information Processing. I borrowed a copy of those proceedings from Concordia and have been scanning that chapter visually for some statements about the “time on task.” Though that symposium occurred in 1972 (before the first Chase and Simon reference was published), the proceedings were apparently published after the issue of Cognitive Psychology since the authors mention that article for background information.

I do find some interesting quotes, but nothing that specific:

By a rough estimate, the amount of time each player has spent playing chess, studying chess, and otherwise staring at chess positions is perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours for the Master; 1,000 to 5,000 hours for the Class A player; and less than 100 horus for the beginner. (Chase and Simon 1973b: 219)

or:

The organization of the Master’s elaborate repertoire of information takes thousands of hours to build up, and the same is true of any skilled task (e.g., football, music). That is why practice is the major independent variable in the acquisition of skill. (Chase and Simon 1973b: 279, emphasis in the original, last sentences in the text)

Maybe I haven’t scanned these texts properly but those quotes I find seem to imply that Simon hadn’t really devised his “10-year rule” in a clear, numeric version.

I could probably dig for more Herbert Simon wisdom. Before looking (however cursorily) at those 1973 texts, I was using Herbert Simon as a key figure in the origin of that “rule of thumb.” To back up those statements, I should probably dig deeper in the Herbert Simon archives. But that might require more work than is necessary and it might be useful to dig through other sources.

In my personal case, the other main written source for this “rule of thumb” is Dan Levitin. So, using online versions of his book, I look for comments about expertise. (I do own a copy of the book and I’m assuming the Index contains page numbers for references on expertise. But online searches are more efficient and possibly more thorough on specific keywords.) That’s how I found the statement, quoted above. I’m sure it’s the one which was sticking in my head and, as I found out tonight, it’s the one Gladwell used in his first statement on expertise in Outliers.

So, where did Levitin get this? I could possibly ask him (we’ve been in touch and he happens to be local) but looking for those references might require work on his part. A preliminary step would be to look through Levitin’s published references for Your Brain On Music.

Though Levitin is a McGill professor, Your Brain On Music doesn’t follow the typical practise in English-speaking academia of ladling copious citations onto any claim, even the most truistic statements. Nothing strange in this difference in citation practise.  After all, as Levitin explains in his Bibliographic Notes:

This book was written for the non-specialist and not for my colleagues, and so I have tried to simplify topics without oversimplifying them.

In this context, academic-style citation-fests would make the book too heavy. Levitin does, however, provide those “Bibliographic Notes” at the end of his book and on the website for the same book. In the Bibliographic Notes of that site, Levitin adds a statement I find quite interesting in my quest for “sources of claims”:

Because I wrote this book for the general reader, I want to emphasize that there are no new ideas presented in this book, no ideas that have not already been presented in scientific and scholarly journals as listed below.

So, it sounds like going through those references is a good strategy to locate at least solid references on that specific “10,000 hour” claim. Among relevant references on the cognitive basis of expertise (in Chapter 7), I notice the following texts which might include specific statements about the “time on task” to become an expert. (An advantage of the Web version of these bibliographic notes is that Levitin provides some comments on most references; I put Levitin’s comments in parentheses.)

  • Chi, Michelene T.H., Robert Glaser, and Marshall J. Farr, eds. 1988. The Nature of Expertise. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (Psychological studies of expertise, including chess players)
  • Ericsson, K. A., and J. Smith, eds. 1991. Toward a General Theory of Expertise: prospects and limits. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Psychological studies of expertise, including chess players)
  • Hayes, J. R. 1985. Three problems in teaching general skills. In Thinking and Learning Skills: Research and Open Questions, edited by S. F. Chipman, J. W. Segal and R. Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. (Source for the study of Mozart’s early works not being highly regarded, and refutation that Mozart didn’t need 10,000 hours like everyone else to become an expert.)
  • Howe, M. J. A., J. W. Davidson, and J. A. Sloboda. 1998. Innate talents: Reality or myth? Behavioral & Brain Sciences 21 (3):399-442. (One of my favorite articles, although I don’t agree with everything in it; an overview of the “talent is a myth” viewpoint.)
  • Sloboda, J. A. 1991. Musical expertise. In Toward a general theory of expertise, edited by K. A. Ericcson (sic) and J. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press. (Overview of issues and findings in musical expertise literature)

I have yet to read any of those references. I did borrow Ericsson and Smith when I first heard about Levitin’s approach to talent and expertise (probably through a radio and/or podcast appearance). But I had put the issue of expertise on the back-burner. It was always at the back of my mind and I did blog about it, back then. But it took Gladwell’s talk to wake me up. What’s funny, though, is that the “time on task” statements in (Ericsson and Smith,  1991) seem to lead back to (Chase and Simon, 1973b).

At this point, I get the impression that the “it takes a decade and/or 10,000 hours to become an expert”:

  • was originally proposed as a vague hypothesis a while ago (the year 1899 comes up);
  • became an object of some consideration by cognitive psychologists at the end of the 1960s;
  • became more widely accepted in the 1970s;
  • was tested by Benjamin Bloom and others in the 1980s;
  • was precised by Ericsson and others in the late 1980s;
  • gained general popularity in the mid-2000s;
  • is being further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in late 2008.

Of course, I’ll have to do a fair bit of digging and reading to verify any of this, but it sounds like the broad timeline makes some sense. One thing, though, is that it doesn’t really seem that anybody had the intention of spelling it out as a “rule” or “law” in such a format as is being carried around. If I’m wrong, I’m especially surprised that a clear formulation isn’t easier to find.

As an aside, of sorts… Some people seem to associate the claim with Gladwell, at this point. Not very surprsing, given the popularity of his books, the effectiveness of his public presentations, the current context of his book tour, and the reluctance of the general public to dig any deeper than the latest source.

The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem that Gladwell himself has done anything to “set the record straight.” He does quote Levitin in Outliers, but I heard him reply to questions and comments as if the research behind the “ten years or ten thousand hours” claim had some association with him. From a popular author like Gladwell, it’s not that awkward. But these situations are perfect opportunities for popularizers like Gladwell to get a broader public interested in academia. As Gladwell allegedly cares about “educational success” (as measured on a linear scale), I would have expected more transparency.

Ah, well…

So, I have some work to do on all of this. It will have to wait but this placeholder might be helpful. In fact, I’ll use it to collect some links.

 

Some relevant blogposts of mine on talent, expertise, effort, and Levitin.

And a whole bunch of weblinks to help me in my future searches (I have yet to really delve in any of this).


Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading


Blogging Academe

LibriVox founder and Montreal geek Hugh McGuire recently posted a blog entry in which he gave a series of nine arguments for academics to blog:

Why Academics Should Blog

Hugh’s post reminded me of one of my favourite blogposts by an academic, a pointed defence of blogging by Mark Liberman, of Language Log fame.
Raising standards –by lowering them

While I do agree with Hugh’s points, I would like to reframe and rephrase them.

Clearly, I’m enthusiastic about blogging. Not that I think every academic should, needs to, ought to blog. But I do see clear benefits of blogging in academic contexts.

Academics do a number of different things, from search committees to academic advising. Here, I focus on three main dimensions of an academic’s life: research, teaching, and community outreach. Other items in a professor’s job description may benefit from blogging but these three main components tend to be rather prominent in terms of PTR (promotion, tenure, reappointment). What’s more, blogging can help integrate these dimensions of academic life in a single set of activities.

Impact

In relation to scholarship, the term “impact” often refers to the measurable effects of a scholar’s publication through a specific field. “Citation impact,” for instance, refers to the number of times a given journal article has been cited by other scholars. This kind of measurement is directly linked to Google’s PageRank algorithm which is used to assess the relevance of their search results. The very concept of “citation impact” relates very directly to the “publish or perish” system which, I would argue, does more to increase stress levels among full-time academic than to enhance scholarship. As such, it may need some rethinking. What does “citation impact” really measure? Is the most frequently cited text on a given subject necessarily the most relevant? Isn’t there a clustering effect, with some small groups of well-known scholars citing one another without paying attention to whatever else may happen in their field, especially in other languages?

An advantage of blogging is that this type of impact is easy to monitor. Most blogging platforms have specific features for “statistics,” which let bloggers see which of their posts have been visited (“hit”) most frequently. More sophisticated analysis is available on some blogging platforms, especially on paid ones. These are meant to help bloggers monetize their blogs through advertising. But the same features can be quite useful to an academic who wants to see which blog entries seem to attract the most traffic.

Closer to “citation impact” is the fact that links to a given post are visible within that post through the ping and trackback systems. If another blogger links to this very blogpost, a link to that second blogger’s post will appear under mine as a link. In other words, a blogpost can embed future references.

In terms of teaching, thinking about impact through blogging can also have interesting effects. If students are blogging, they can cite and link to diverse items and these connections can serve as a representation of the constructive character of learning. But even if students don’t blog, a teacher blogging course-related material can increase the visibility of that course. In some cases, this visibility may lead to inter-institutional collaboration or increased enrollment.

Transparency

While secrecy may be essential in some academic projects, most academics tend to adopt a favourable attitude toward transparency. Academia is about sharing information and spreading knowledge, not about protecting information or about limiting knowledge to a select few.

Bloggers typically value transparency.

There are several ethical issues which relate to transparency. Some ethical principles prevent transparency (for instance, most research projects involving “human subjects” require anonymity). But academic ethics typically go with increased transparency on the part of the researcher. For instance, informed consent by a “human subject” requires complete disclosure of how the data will be used and protected. There are usually requirements for the primary investigator to be reachable during the research project.

Transparency is also valuable in teaching. While some things should probably remain secret (say, answers to exam questions), easy access to a number of documents makes a lot of sense in learning contexts.

Public Intellectuals

It seems that the term “intellectual” gained currency as a label for individuals engaged in public debates. While public engagement has taken a different type of significance, over the years, but the responsibility for intellectuals to communicate publicly is still a matter of interest.

Through blogging, anyone can engage in public debate, discourse, or dialogue.

Reciprocity

Scholars working with “human subjects” often think about reciprocity. While remuneration may be the primary mode of retribution for participation in a research project, a broader concept of reciprocity is often at stake. Those who participated in the project usually have a “right to know” about the results of that study. Even when it isn’t the case and the results of the study remain secret, the asymmetry of human subjects revealing something about themselves to scholars who reveal nothing seems to clash with fundamental principles in contemporary academia.

Reciprocity in teaching can lead directly to some important constructivist principles. The roles of learners and teachers, while not completely interchangeable, are reciprocal. A teacher may learn and a learner may teach.

Playing with Concepts

Blogging makes it easy to try concepts out. More than “thinking out loud,” the type of blogging activity I’m thinking about can serve as a way to “put ideas on paper” (without actual paper) and eventually get feedback on those ideas.

In my experience, microblogging (Identi.ca, Twitter…) has been more efficient than extended blogging in terms of getting conceptual feedback. In fact, social networks (Facebook, more specifically) have been even more conducive to hashing out concepts.

Many academics do hash concepts out with students, especially with graduate students. The advantage is that students are likely to understand concepts quickly as they already share some of the same references as the academic who is playing with those concepts. There’s already a context for mutual understanding. The disadvantage is that a classroom context is fairly narrow to really try out the implications of a concept.

A method I like to use is to use fairly catchy phrases and leave concepts fairly raw, at first. I then try the same concept in diverse contexts, on my blogs or off.

The main example I have in mind is the “social butterfly effect.” It may sound silly at first but I find it can be a basis for discussion, especially if it spreads a bit.

A subpoint, here, is that this method allows for “gauging interest” in new concepts and it can often lead one in completely new directions. By blogging about concepts, an academic can tell if this concept has a chance to stick in a broad frame (outside the Ivory Tower) and may be given insight from outside disciplines.

Playing with Writing

This one probably applies more to “junior academics” (including students) but it can also work with established academics who enjoy diversifying their writing styles. Simply put: blogwriting is writing practise.

A common idea, in cognitive research on expertise, is that it takes about ten thousand hours to become an expert. For better or worse, academics are experts at writing. And we gain that expertise through practise. In this context, it’s easy to see blogging as a “writing exercise.” At least, that would be a perspective to which I can relate.

My impression is that writing skills are most efficiently acquired through practise. The type of practise I have in mind is “low-stakes,” in the sense that the outcomes of a writing exercise are relatively inconsequential. The basis for this perspective is that self-consciousness, inhibition, and self-censorship tend to get in the way of fluid writing. High-stakes writing (such as graded assignments) can make a lot of sense at several stages in the learning process, but overemphasis on evaluating someone’s writing skills will likely stress out the writer more than make her/him motivated to write.

This impression is to a large extent personal. I readily notice that when I get too self-conscious about my own writing (self-unconscious, even), my writing becomes much less fluid. In fact, because writing about writing tends to make one self-conscious, my writing this post is much less efficient than my usual writing sessions.

In my mind, there’s a cognitive basis to this form of low-stakes, casual writing. As with language acquisition, learning occurs whether or not we’re corrected. According to most research in language acquisition, children acquire their native languages through exposure, not through a formal learning process. My guess is that the same apply to writing.

In some ways, this is a defence of drafts. “Draft out your ideas without overthinking what might be wrong about your writing.” Useful advice, at least in my experience. The further point is to do something with those drafts, the basis for the RERO principle: “release your text in the wild, even if it may not correspond to your standards.” Every text is a work in progress. Especially in a context where you’re likely to get feedback (i.e., blogging). Trial and error, with a feedback mechanism. In my experience, feedback on writing tends to be given in a thoughtful and subtle fashion while feedback on ideas can be quite harsh.

The notion of writing styles is relevant, here. Some of Hugh’s arguments about the need for blogging in academia revolve around the notion that “academics are bad writers.” My position is that academics are expert writers but that academic writing is a very specific beast. Hugh’s writing standards might clash with typical writing habits among academics (which often include neologisms and convoluted metaphors). Are Hugh’s standards appropriate in terms of academic writing? Possibly, but why then are academic texts rating so low on writing standards after having been reviewed by peers and heavily edited? The relativist’s answer is, to me, much more convincing: academic texts are typically judged through standards which are context-specific. Judging academic writing with outside standards is like judging French writing with English standards (or judging prose through the standards of classic poetry).

Still, there’s something to be said about readability. Especially when these texts are to be used outside academia. Much academic writing is meant to remain within the walls of the Ivory Tower yet most academic disciplines benefit from some interaction with “the general public.” Though it may not be taught in universities and colleges, the skill of writing for a broader public is quite valuable. In fact, it may easily be transferable to teaching, especially if students come from other disciplines. Furthermore, writing outside one’s discipline is required in any type of interdisciplinary context, including project proposals for funding agencies.

No specific writing style is implied in blogging. A blogger can use whatever style she/he chooses for her/his posts. At the same time, blogging tends to encourage writing which is broadly readable and makes regular use of hyperlinks to connect to further information. In my opinion, this type of writing is a quite appropriate one in which academics can extend their skills.

“Public Review”

Much of the preceding connects with peer review, which was the basis of Mark Liberman’s post.

In academia’s recent history, “peer reviewed publications” have become the hallmark of scholarly writing. Yet, as Steve McIntyre claims, the current state of academic peer review may not be as efficient at ensuring scholarly quality as its proponents claim it to be. As opposed to financial auditing, for instance, peer review implies very limited assessment based on data. And I would add that the very notion of “peer” could be assessed more carefully in such a context.

Overall, peer review seems to be relatively inefficient as a “reality check.” This might sound like a bold claim and I should provide data to support it. But I mostly want to provoke some thought as to what the peer review process really implies. This is not about reinventing the wheel but it is about making sure we question assumptions about the process.

Blogging implies public scrutiny. This directly relates to transparency, discussed above. But there is also the notion of giving the public the chance to engage with the outcomes of academic research. Sure, the general public sounds like a dangerous place to propose some ideas (especially if they have to do with health or national security). But we may give some thought to Linus’s law and think about the value of “crowdsourcing” academic falsification.

Food for Thought

There’s a lot more I want to add but I should heed my call to RERO. Otherwise, this post will remain in my draft posts for an indefinite period of time, gathering dust and not allowing any timely discussion. Perhaps more than at any other point, I would be grateful for any thoughtful comment about academic blogging.

In fact, I will post this blog entry “as is,” without careful proofreading. Hopefully, it will be the start of a discussion.

I will “send you off” with a few links related to blogging in academic contexts, followed by Hugh’s list of arguments.

Links on Academic Blogging

(With an Anthropological emphasis)

Hugh’s List

  1. You need to improve your writing
  2. Some of your ideas are dumb
  3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
  4. Blogging expands your readership
  5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
  6. Blogging is Reputation
  7. Linking is better than footnotes
  8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
  9. What have journals done for you lately?

Planting Landmines

The ever-thoughtful Carl Dyke graciously provided me with this expression as a way to talk about edubloggers might call “lifelong learning.” Part of teaching is about exposing students to some notions which may have radical effects later on in their lives. This is especially true for us in social sciences as some of the things we discuss not only go against the grain of some well-ingrained notions but also connect with very intimate ideas people may hold.

I think the example we were using was the construction of ideas about Nation-States/Countries, Citizenship, and Democracy. Lots of people (and, clearly, most of our students) assume that the ideas we have about States and governance are continuous and even equivalent with those held by any group at any point of history. Simply put, national identity is taken as a “natural” idea. Which makes it hard for some people to discuss such issues in a historical perspective. This is one reason I enjoyed Appiah’s “Golden Nugget” idea so much (not to mention that his talk was quite entertaining). It’s a way to put the very notion of “Civilization” in perspective (without using an evolutionary model). Carl also provided me with references to Eugen Weber and to the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone. We could even use scene 3 of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (video). All of these things are, in my mind, landmines. Actually, “mind landmines” or, erm, “landminds.” (Should I get a trademark?)

Of course, literature on nationalism (Benedict Anderson, Terence Ranger, Eric Hobsbawm, etc.) can also be used. Personally, I tend to like work on similar subjects by ethnographers like Regina Bendix and Kelly Askew.

Those “landminds” are only triggered when people start really looking into issues lying underneath society and politics. But when they explode, these landminds can be quite transformative. As per the deadly effects of the explosives from which they’re inspired, these landminds destroy some apparently strong intellectual models.

So, although I see landmines as a major problem, I do see part of my work as “planting landminds.”

Much less positive than the usual “planting the seeds of knowledge” metaphors, but also much more powerful.


Visualizing Touch Devices in Education

Took me a while before I watched this concept video about iPhone use on campus.

Connected: The Movie – Abilene Christian University

Sure, it’s a bit campy. Sure, some features aren’t available on the iPhone yet. But the basic concepts are pretty much what I had in mind.

Among things I like in the video:

  • The very notion of student empowerment runs at the centre of it.
  • Many of the class-related applications presented show an interest in the constructivist dimensions of learning.
  • Material is made available before class. Face-to-face time is for engaging in the material, not rehashing it.
  • The technology is presented as a way to ease the bureaucratic aspects of university life, relieving a burden on students (and, presumably, on everyone else involved).
  • The “iPhone as ID” concept is simple yet powerful, in context.
  • Social networks (namely Facebook and MySpace, in the video) are embedded in the campus experience.
  • Blended learning (called “hybrid” in the video) is conceived as an option, not as an obligation.
  • Use of the technology is specifically perceived as going beyond geek culture.
  • The scenarios (use cases) are quite realistic in terms of typical campus life in the United States.
  • While “getting an iPhone” is mentioned as a perk, it’s perfectly possible to imagine technology as a levelling factor with educational institutions, lowering some costs while raising the bar for pedagogical standards.
  • The shift from “eLearning” to “mLearning” is rather obvious.
  • ACU already does iTunes U.
  • The video is released under a Creative Commons license.

Of course, there are many directions things can go, from here. Not all of them are in line with the ACU dream scenario. But I’m quite hope judging from some apparently random facts: that Apple may sell iPhones through universities, that Apple has plans for iPhone use on campuses,  that many of the “enterprise features” of iPhone 2.0 could work in institutions of higher education, that the Steve Jobs keynote made several mentions of education, that Apple bundles iPod touch with Macs, that the OLPC XOXO is now conceived more as a touch handheld than as a laptop, that (although delayed) Google’s Android platform can participate in the same usage scenarios, and that browser-based computing apparently has a bright future.


The Need for Social Science in Social Web/Marketing/Media (Draft)

[Been sitting on this one for a little while. Better RERO it, I guess.]

Sticking My Neck Out (Executive Summary)

I think that participants in many technology-enthusiastic movements which carry the term “social” would do well to learn some social science. Furthermore, my guess is that ethnographic disciplines are very well-suited to the task of teaching participants in these movements something about social groups.

Disclaimer

Despite the potentially provocative title and my explicitly stating a position, I mostly wish to think out loud about different things which have been on my mind for a while.

I’m not an “expert” in this field. I’m just a social scientist and an ethnographer who has been observing a lot of things online. I do know that there are many experts who have written many great books about similar issues. What I’m saying here might not seem new. But I’m using my blog as a way to at least write down some of the things I have in mind and, hopefully, discuss these issues thoughtfully with people who care.

Also, this will not be a guide on “what to do to be social-savvy.” Books, seminars, and workshops on this specific topic abound. But my attitude is that every situation needs to be treated in its own context, that cookie-cutter solutions often fail. So I would advise people interested in this set of issues to train themselves in at least a little bit of social science, even if much of the content of the training material seems irrelevant. Discuss things with a social scientist, hire a social scientist in your business, take a course in social science, and don’t focus on advice but on the broad picture. Really.

Clarification

Though they are all different, enthusiastic participants in “social web,” “social marketing,” “social media,” and other “social things online” do have some commonalities. At the risk of angering some of them, I’m lumping them all together as “social * enthusiasts.” One thing I like about the term “enthusiast” is that it can apply to both professional and amateurs, to geeks and dabblers, to full-timers and part-timers. My target isn’t a specific group of people. I just observed different things in different contexts.

Links

Shameless Self-Promotion

A few links from my own blog, for context (and for easier retrieval):

Shameless Cross-Promotion

A few links from other blogs, to hopefully expand context (and for easier retrieval):

Some raw notes

  • Insight
  • Cluefulness
  • Openness
  • Freedom
  • Transparency
  • Unintended uses
  • Constructivism
  • Empowerment
  • Disruptive technology
  • Innovation
  • Creative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Technology adoption
  • Early adopters
  • Late adopters
  • Forced adoption
  • OLPC XO
  • OLPC XOXO
  • Attitudes to change
  • Conservatism
  • Luddites
  • Activism
  • Impatience
  • Windmills and shelters
  • Niche thinking
  • Geek culture
  • Groupthink
  • Idea horizon
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Influence
  • Sphere of influence
  • Influence network
  • Social butterfly effect
  • Cog in a wheel
  • Social networks
  • Acephalous groups
  • Ego-based groups
  • Non-hierarchical groups
  • Mutual influences
  • Network effects
  • Risk-taking
  • Low-stakes
  • Trial-and-error
  • Transparency
  • Ethnography
  • Epidemiology of ideas
  • Neural networks
  • Cognition and communication
  • Wilson and Sperber
  • Relevance
  • Global
  • Glocal
  • Regional
  • City-State
  • Fluidity
  • Consensus culture
  • Organic relationships
  • Establishing rapport
  • Buzzwords
  • Viral
  • Social
  • Meme
  • Memetic marketplace
  • Meta
  • Target audience

Let’s Give This a Try

The Internet is, simply, a network. Sure, technically it’s a meta-network, a network of networks. But that is pretty much irrelevant, in social terms, as most networks may be analyzed at different levels as containing smaller networks or being parts of larger networks. The fact remains that the ‘Net is pretty easy to understand, sociologically. It’s nothing new, it’s just a textbook example of something social scientists have been looking at for a good long time.

Though the Internet mostly connects computers (in many shapes or forms, many of them being “devices” more than the typical “personal computer”), the impact of the Internet is through human actions, behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. Sure, we can talk ad nauseam about the technical aspects of the Internet, but these topics have been covered a lot in the last fifteen years of intense Internet growth and a lot of people seem to be ready to look at other dimensions.

The category of “people who are online” has expanded greatly, in different steps. Here, Martin Lessard’s description of the Internet’s Six Cultures (Les 6 cultures d’Internet) is really worth a read. Martin’s post is in French but we also had a blog discussion in English, about it. Not only are there more people online but those “people who are online” have become much more diverse in several respects. At the same time, there are clear patterns on who “online people” are and there are clear differences in uses of the Internet.

Groups of human beings are the very basic object of social science. Diversity in human groups is the very basis for ethnography. Ethnography is simply the description of (“writing about”) human groups conceived as diverse (“peoples”). As simple as ethnography can be, it leads to a very specific approach to society which is very compatible with all sorts of things relevant to “social * enthusiasts” on- and offline.

While there are many things online which may be described as “media,” comparing the Internet to “The Mass Media” is often the best way to miss “what the Internet is all about.” Sure, the Internet isn’t about anything (about from connecting computers which, in turn, connect human beings). But to get actual insight into the ‘Net, one probably needs to free herself/himself of notions relating to “The Mass Media.” Put bluntly, McLuhan was probably a very interesting person and some of his ideas remain intriguing but fallacies abound in his work and the best thing to do with his ideas is to go beyond them.

One of my favourite examples of the overuse of “media”-based concepts is the issue of influence. In blogging, podcasting, or selling, the notion often is that, on the Internet as in offline life, “some key individuals or outlets are influential and these are the people by whom or channels through which ideas are disseminated.” Hence all the Technorati rankings and other “viewer statistics.” Old techniques and ideas from the times of radio and television expansion are used because it’s easier to think through advertising models than through radically new models. This is, in fact, when I tend to bring back my explanation of the “social butterfly effect“: quite frequently, “influence” online isn’t through specific individuals or outlets but even when it is, those people are influential through virtue of connecting to diverse groups, not by the number of people they know. There are ways to analyze those connections but “measuring impact” is eventually missing the point.

Yes, there is an obvious “qual. vs. quant.” angle, here. A major distinction between non-ethnographic and ethnographic disciplines in social sciences is that non-ethnographic disciplines tend to be overly constrained by “quantitative analysis.” Ultimately, any analysis is “qualitative” but “quantitative methods” are a very small and often limiting subset of the possible research and analysis methods available. Hence the constriction and what some ethnographers may describe as “myopia” on the part of non-ethnographers.

Gone Viral

The term “viral” is used rather frequently by “social * enthusiasts” online. I happen to think that it’s a fairly fitting term, even though it’s used more by extension than by literal meaning. To me, it relates rather directly to Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” treatment of culture (see Explaining Culture) which may itself be perceived as resembling Dawkins’s well-known “selfish gene” ideas made popular by different online observers, but with something which I perceive to be (to use simple semiotic/semiological concepts) more “motivated” than the more “arbitrary” connections between genetics and ideas. While Sperber could hardly be described as an ethnographer, his anthropological connections still make some of his work compatible with ethnographic perspectives.

Analysis of the spread of ideas does correspond fairly closely with the spread of viruses, especially given the nature of contacts which make transmission possible. One needs not do much to spread a virus or an idea. This virus or idea may find “fertile soil” in a given social context, depending on a number of factors. Despite the disadvantages of extending analogies and core metaphors too far, the type of ecosystem/epidemiology analysis of social systems embedded in uses of the term “viral” do seem to help some specific people make sense of different things which happen online. In “viral marketing,” the type of informal, invisible, unexpected spread of recognition through word of mouth does relate somewhat to the spread of a virus. Moreover, the metaphor of “viral marketing” is useful in thinking about the lack of control the professional marketer may have on how her/his product is perceived. In this context, the term “viral” seems useful.

The Social

While “viral” seems appropriate, the even more simple “social” often seems inappropriately used. It’s not a ranty attitude which makes me comment negatively on the use of the term “social.” In fact, I don’t really care about the use of the term itself. But I do notice that use of the term often obfuscates what is the obvious social character of the Internet.

To a social scientist, anything which involves groups is by definition “social.” Of course, some groups and individuals are more gregarious than others, some people are taken to be very sociable, and some contexts are more conducive to heightened social interactions. But social interactions happen in any context.
As an example I used (in French) in reply to this blog post, something as common as standing in line at a grocery store is representative of social behaviour and can be analyzed in social terms. Any Web page which is accessed by anyone is “social” in the sense that it establishes some link, however tenuous and asymmetric, between at least two individuals (someone who created the page and the person who accessed that page). Sure, it sounds like the minimal definition of communication (sender, medium/message, receiver). But what most people who talk about communication seem to forget (unlike Jakobson), is that all communication is social.

Sure, putting a comment form on a Web page facilitates a basic social interaction, making the page “more social” in the sense of “making that page easier to use explicit social interaction.” And, of course, adding some features which facilitate the act of sharing data with one’s personal contacts is a step above the contact form in terms of making certain type of social interaction straightforward and easy. But, contrary to what Google Friend Connect implies, adding those features doesn’t suddenly make the site social. The site itself isn’t really social and, assuming some people visited it, there was already a social dimension to it. I’m not nitpicking on word use. I’m saying that using “social” in this way may blind some people to social dimensions of the Internet. And the consequences can be pretty harsh, in some cases, for overlooking how social the ‘Net is.

Something similar may be said about the “Social Web,” one of the many definitions of “Web 2.0” which is used in some contexts (mostly, the cynic would say, “to make some tool appear ‘new and improved'”). The Web as a whole was “social” by definition. Granted, it lacked the ease of social interaction afforded such venerable Internet classics as Usenet and email. But it was already making some modes of social interaction easier to perceive. No, this isn’t about “it’s all been done.” It’s about being oblivious to the social potential of tools which already existed. True, the period in Internet history known as “Web 2.0” (and the onset of the Internet’s sixth culture) may be associated with new social phenomena. But there is little evidence that the association is causal, that new online tools and services created a new reality which suddenly made it possible for people to become social online. This is one reason I like Martin Lessard’s post so much. Instead of postulating the existence of a brand new phenomenon, he talks about the conditions for some changes in both Internet use and the form the Web has taken.

Again, this isn’t about terminology per se. Substitute “friendly” for “social” and similar issues might come up (friendship and friendliness being disconnected from the social processes which underline them).

Adoptive Parents

Many “social * enthusiasts” are interested in “adoption.” They want their “things” to be adopted. This is especially visible among marketers but even in social media there’s an issue of “getting people on board.” And some people, especially those without social science training, seem to be looking for a recipe.

Problem is, there probably is no such thing as a recipe for technology adoption.

Sure, some marketing practises from the offline world may work online. Sometimes, adapting a strategy from the material world to the Internet is very simple and the Internet version may be more effective than the offline version. But it doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a recipe. It’s a matter of either having some people who “have a knack for this sort of things” (say, based on sensitivity to what goes on online) or based on pure luck. Or it’s a matter of measuring success in different ways. But it isn’t based on a recipe. Especially not in the Internet sphere which is changing so rapidly (despite some remarkably stable features).

Again, I’m partial to contextual approaches (“fully-customized solutions,” if you really must). Not just because I think there are people who can do this work very efficiently. But because I observe that “recipes” do little more than sell “best-selling books” and other items.

So, what can we, as social scientists, say about “adoption?” That technology is adopted based on the perceived fit between the tools and people’s needs/wants/goals/preferences. Not the simple “the tool will be adopted if there’s a need.” But a perception that there might be a fit between an amorphous set of social actors (people) and some well-defined tools (“technologies”). Recognizing this fit is extremely difficult and forcing it is extremely expensive (not to mention completely unsustainable). But social scientists do help in finding ways to adapt tools to different social situations.

Especially ethnographers. Because instead of surveys and focus groups, we challenge assumptions about what “must” fit. Our heads and books are full of examples which sound, in retrospect, as common sense but which had stumped major corporations with huge budgets. (Ask me about McDonald’s in Brazil or browse a cultural anthropology textbook, for more information.)

Recently, while reading about issues surrounding the OLPC’s original XO computer, I was glad to read the following:

John Heskett once said that the critical difference between invention and innovation was its mass adoption by users. (Niti Bhan The emperor has designer clothes)

Not that this is a new idea, for social scientists. But I was glad that the social dimension of technology adoption was recognized.

In marketing and design spheres especially, people often think of innovation as individualized. While some individuals are particularly adept at leading inventions to mass adoption (Steve Jobs being a textbook example), “adoption comes from the people.” Yes, groups of people may be manipulated to adopt something “despite themselves.” But that kind of forced adoption is still dependent on a broad acceptance, by “the people,” of even the basic forms of marketing. This is very similar to the simplified version of the concept of “hegemony,” so common in both social sciences and humanities. In a hegemony (as opposed to a totalitarian regime), no coercion is necessary because the logic of the system has been internalized by people who are affected by it. Simple, but effective.

In online culture, adept marketers are highly valued. But I’m quite convinced that pre-online marketers already knew that they had to “learn society first.” One thing with almost anything happening online is that “the society” is boundless. Country boundaries usually make very little sense and the social rules of every local group will leak into even the simplest occasion. Some people seem to assume that the end result is a cultural homogenization, thereby not necessitating any adaptation besides the move from “brick and mortar” to online. Others (or the same people, actually) want to protect their “business models” by restricting tools or services based on country boundaries. In my mind, both attitudes are ineffective and misleading.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I think the Cluetrain Manifesto can somehow be summarized through concepts of freedom, openness, and transparency. These are all very obvious (in French, the book title is something close to “the evident truths manifesto”). They’re also all very social.

Social scientists often become activists based on these concepts. And among social scientists, many of us are enthusiastic about the social changes which are happening in parallel with Internet growth. Not because of technology. But because of empowerment. People are using the Internet in their own ways, the one key feature of the Internet being its lack of centralization. While the lack of centralized control may be perceived as a “bad thing” by some (social scientists or not), there’s little argument that the ‘Net as a whole is out of the control of specific corporations or governments (despite the large degree of consolidation which has happened offline and online).

Especially in the United States, “freedom” is conceived as a basic right. But it’s also a basic concept in social analysis. As some put it: “somebody’s rights end where another’s begin.” But social scientists have a whole apparatus to deal with all the nuances and subtleties which are bound to come from any situation where people’s rights (freedom) may clash or even simply be interpreted differently. Again, not that social scientists have easy, ready-made answers on these issues. But we’re used to dealing with them. We don’t interpret freedom as a given.

Transparency is fairly simple and relates directly to how people manage information itself (instead of knowledge or insight). Radical transparency is giving as much information as possible to those who may need it. Everybody has a “right to learn” a lot of things about a given institution (instead of “right to know”), when that institution has a social impact. Canada’s Access to Information Act is quite representative of the move to transparency and use of this act has accompanied changes in the ways government officials need to behave to adapt to a relatively new reality.

Openness is an interesting topic, especially in the context of the so-called “Open Source” movement. Radical openness implies participation by outsiders, at least in the form of verbal feedback. The cluefulness of “opening yourself to your users” is made obvious in the context of successes by institutions which have at least portrayed themselves as open. What’s in my mind unfortunate is that many institutions now attempt to position themselves on the openness end of the “closed/proprietary to open/responsive” scale without much work done to really open themselves up.

Communitas

Mottoes, slogans, and maxims like “build it and they will come,” “there’s a sucker born every minute,” “let them have cake,” and “give them what they want” all fail to grasp the basic reality of social life: “they” and “we” are linked. We’re all different and we’re all connected. We all take parts in groups. These groups are all associated with one another. We can’t simply behave the same way with everyone. Identity has two parts: sense of belonging (to an “in-group”) and sense of distinction (from an “out-group”). “Us/Them.”

Within the “in-group,” if there isn’t any obvious hierarchy, the sense of belonging can take the form that Victor Turner called “communitas” and which happens in situations giving real meaning to the notion of “community.” “Community of experience,” “community of practise.” Eckert and Wittgenstein brought to online networks. In a community, contacts aren’t always harmonious. But people feel they fully belong. A network isn’t the same thing as a community.

The World Is My Oyster

Despite the so-called “Digital Divide” (or, more precisely, the maintenance online of global inequalities), the ‘Net is truly “Global.” So is the phone, now that cellphones are accomplishing the “leapfrog effect.” But this one Internet we have (i.e., not Internet2 or other such specialized meta-network) is reaching everywhere through a single set of compatible connections. The need for cultural awareness is increased, not alleviated by online activities.

Release Early, Release Often

Among friends, we call it RERO.

The RERO principle is a multiple-pass system. Instead of waiting for the right moment to release a “perfect product” (say, a blogpost!), the “work in progress” is provided widely, garnering feedback which will be integrated in future “product versions.” The RERO approach can be unnerving to “product developers,” but it has proved its value in online-savvy contexts.

I use “product” in a broad sense because the principle applies to diverse contexts. Furthermore, the RERO principle helps shift the focus from “product,” back into “process.”

The RERO principle may imply some “emotional” or “psychological” dimensions, such as humility and the acceptance of failure. At some level, differences between RERO and “trial-and-error” methods of development appear insignificant. Those who create something should not expect the first try to be successful and should recognize mistakes to improve on the creative process and product. This is similar to the difference between “rehearsal” (low-stakes experimentation with a process) and “performance” (with responsibility, by the performer, for evaluation by an audience).

Though applications of the early/often concept to social domains are mostly satirical, there is a social dimension to the RERO principle. Releasing a “product” implies a group, a social context.

The partial and frequent “release” of work to “the public” relates directly to openness and transparency. Frequent releases create a “relationship” with human beings. Sure, many of these are “Early Adopters” who are already overrepresented. But the rapport established between an institution and people (users/clients/customers/patrons…) can be transfered more broadly.

Releasing early seems to shift the limit between rehearsal and performance. Instead of being able to do mistakes on your own, your mistakes are shown publicly and your success is directly evaluated. Yet a somewhat reverse effect can occur: evaluation of the end-result becomes a lower-stake rating at different parts of the project because expectations have shifted to the “lower” end. This is probably the logic behind Google’s much discussed propensity to call all its products “beta.”

While the RERO principle does imply a certain openness, the expectation that each release might integrate all the feedback “users” have given is not fundamental to releasing early and frequently. The expectation is set by a specific social relationship between “developers” and “users.” In geek culture, especially when users are knowledgeable enough about technology to make elaborate wishlists, the expectation to respond to user demand can be quite strong, so much so that developers may perceive a sense of entitlement on the part of “users” and grow some resentment out of the situation. “If you don’t like it, make it yourself.” Such a situation is rather common in FLOSS development: since “users” have access to the source code, they may be expected to contribute to the development project. When “users” not only fail to fulfil expectations set by open development but even have the gumption to ask developers to respond to demands, conflicts may easily occur. And conflicts are among the things which social scientists study most frequently.

Putting the “Capital” Back into “Social Capital”

In the past several years, ”monetization” (transforming ideas into currency) has become one of the major foci of anything happening online. Anything which can be a source of profit generates an immediate (and temporary) “buzz.” The value of anything online is measured through typical currency-based economics. The relatively recent movement toward ”social” whatever is not only representative of this tendency, but might be seen as its climax: nowadays, even social ties can be sold directly, instead of being part of a secondary transaction. As some people say “The relationship is the currency” (or “the commodity,” or “the means to an end”). Fair enough, especially if these people understand what social relationships entail. But still strange, in context, to see people “selling their friends,” sometimes in a rather literal sense, when social relationships are conceived as valuable. After all, “selling the friend” transforms that relationship, diminishes its value. Ah, well, maybe everyone involved is just cynical. Still, even their cynicism contributes to the system. But I’m not judging. Really, I’m not. I’m just wondering
Anyhoo, the “What are you selling anyway” question makes as much sense online as it does with telemarketers and other greed-focused strangers (maybe “calls” are always “cold,” online). It’s just that the answer isn’t always so clear when the “business model” revolves around creating, then breaking a set of social expectations.
Me? I don’t sell anything. Really, not even my ideas or my sense of self. I’m just not good at selling. Oh, I do promote myself and I do accumulate social capital. As social butterflies are wont to do. The difference is, in the case of social butterflies such as myself, no money is exchanged and the social relationships are, hopefully, intact. This is not to say that friends never help me or never receive my help in a currency-friendly context. It mostly means that, in our cases, the relationships are conceived as their own rewards.
I’m consciously not taking the moral high ground, here, though some people may easily perceive this position as the morally superior one. I’m not even talking about a position. Just about an attitude to society and to social relationships. If you will, it’s a type of ethnographic observation from an insider’s perspective.

Makes sense?


Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.


One Laptop Per Child Was a Success

Repost of a comment to Bruce Nussbaum’s September, 2007 article about the OLPC project.

NussbaumOnDesign It’s Time To Call One Laptop Per Child A Failure, – BusinessWeek

While my comment is held for moderation, I thought I might post it here. I still have a lot more to say about these issues (and about the OLPC), and I should group everything I’ve written about that project and its outcomes. But it will have to wait for another time.

Isn’t it time to revisit this issue, now that the OLPC team and XO device are undergoing major changes?
Isn’t it time to call OLPC something?

I think the OLPC project was, indeed, a success. Negroponte was successful at giving exposure to the idea of low-cost laptops. The design team has succeeded in finding solutions to a number of technological issues, including Bitfrost security and Pixel Qi’s screen. Pilot projects have paved the way for projects by other teams. The G1G1 program brought fairly convenient subnotebooks to technology enthusiasts in the United States. And the multiple discussions we’re having about the OLPC contain a number of insightful comments about constructivist learning, constructionist teaching, the need for careful research in design projects, global inequalities, and the ways people empower themselves through the use of diverse tools.
As an education project, the OLPC worked.

But I also think the XO-1 should not, in fact, be purchased by education systems in different parts of the world.
No, I really don’t think I’m being stubborn or opinionated. I just think that this part of the OLPC project may distract us from the OLPC success.
After crash testing the XO-1 for a week and looking at a broad range of issues surrounding the machine, I would say that it’s a decent prototype to get people thinking about some interesting features (like ubiquitous mesh networking, journaling, and collaborative activities). But that laptop is too flawed to be the standard electronic device to make available to “children abroad,” let alone forced upon them through massive government purchases.
I could expand but I feel there is too much focus on the XO-1 already.

Cellphones have been mentioned several times in comments to this post and I sincerely think there’s something going on.
We need to keep an open mind, especially given the differences in how cellphones are used in diverse parts of the world.
Learners and teachers are, in fact, using cellphones in learning and teaching. For instance, cellphones are used for interactive quizzes (mobilestudy.org). Scholars at Sapporo Gakuin University and elsewhere have been using cellphones in connection with course management systems. A large part of what people throughout the world are doing with cellphones can easily be called “lifelong learning,” whether or not there is a formal structure with a teacher in front of a passive classroom.
Some people do write long-form texts (including novels) on cellphones. Some cellphones are, in fact, used to read textbooks and other (in my mind more appropriate) text formats. Making a digital drawing and putting together a music score are probably doable on several cellphones: they’re trivial tasks on a very basic smartphone. In fact, musicking with something like Bhajis Loops is as compatible with Papert-style constructionism as you can get. I dare say, even more so than Jean Piché’s TamTam on the OLPC XO (with all due respect to Jean and his team, of course).
It seems quite clear that a device design based on cellphones should at least be taken into consideration by people interested in “the rest of the world.”
Sure, some of the latest high-end smartphones can be quite costly, at retail. But even the difference between manufacturing costs for an OLPC XO-1 and an Apple iPhone is minimal. Clearly, there’s an economic logic behind the fact that global cellphone penetration already reached 3.3 billion.
I’m really not a cellphone fanboy. In fact, I’ve only been using cellphones for a few months and they have been very basic models lent by friends and relatives. But, as an ethnographer, I can’t help but notice that cellphones have a role to play, as “disruptive technology,” in helping people empower themselves. Especially in those parts of the world which were of interest to the old OLPC project.
Maybe cellphone-related devices aren’t the one solution to every child’s needs. But what evidence do we have that laptops were, indeed, the single device type to deploy to children in as diverse parts of the world as Nigeria, Peru, and Mongolia?
So, the naïve question is: if OLPC really was an education project, why did it focus so exclusively on a single electronic device? Why not plan a complete product line? Why not write a cross-platform application layer? Why not build appropriate factories in local communities? Why not build a consortium with local projects? Yes, all these things are being done now, including by former members of the OLPC team. But they weren’t part of the OLPC project. They can be potential outcomes of the OLPC project.

So, it’s time to call OLPC a success. And move on.
Let’s now look at other projects around the world which are helping kids learn, with or without some neat tools. Let’s not lose the momentum. Let’s not focus too much on the choice of an operating system or on the specific feature set the “educational technology version of the Ford T” may have. Sure, we can and probably should talk openly about these things.
But there are so many other important things to take into consideration…


Touch Thoughts: Apple’s Handheld Strategy

I’m still on the RDF.
Apple‘s March 6, 2008 event was about enterprise and development support for its iPhone and iPod touch lines of handheld devices. Lots to think about.

(For convenience’s sake, I’ll lump together the iPod touch and the iPhone under the name “Touch,” which seems consistent with Apple’s “Cocoa Touch.”)

Been reading a fair bit about this event. Interesting reactions across the board.

My own thoughts on the whole thing.
I appreciate the fact that Phil Schiller began the “enterprise” section of the event with comments about a university. Though universities need not be run like profit-hungry corporations, linking Apple’s long-standing educational focus with its newly invigorated enterprise focus makes sense. And I had a brief drift-off moment as I was thinking about Touch products in educational contexts.

I’m surprised at how enthusiastic I get about the enterprise features. Suddenly, I can see Microsoft’s Exchange make sense.

I get the clear impression that even more things will come into place at the end of June than has been said by Apple. Possibly new Touch models or lines. Probably the famous 3G iPhone. Apple-released apps. Renewed emphasis on server technology (XServe, Mac OS X Server, XSan…). New home WiFi products (AirPort, Time Capsule, Apple TV…). New partnerships. Cool VC-funded startups. New features on the less aptly named “iTunes” store.

Though it was obvious already, the accelerometer is an important feature. It seems especially well-adapted to games and casual gamers like myself are likely to enjoy games this feature makes possible. It can also lead to very interesting applications. In fact, the “Etch and Sketch” demo was rather convincing as a display of some core Touch features. These are exactly the features which help sell products.
Actually, I enjoyed the “wow factor” of the event’s demos. I’m convinced that it will energize developers and administrators, whether or not they plan on using Touch products. Some components of Apple’s Touch strategy are exciting enough that the more problematic aspects of this strategy may matter a bit less. Those of us dreaming about Android, OpenMoko, or even a revived NewtonOS can still find things to get inspired by in Apple’s roadmap.

What’s to come, apart from what was announced? No idea. But I do daydream about all of this.
I’m especially interested in the idea of Apple Touch as “mainstream, WiFi, mobile platform.” There’s a lot of potential for Apple-designed, WiFi-enabled handhelds. Whether or not they include a cellphone.
At this point, Apple only makes five models of Touch products: three iPod touches and two iPhones. Flash memory is the main differentiating factor within a line. It makes it relatively easy to decide which device to get but some product diversity could be interesting. While some people expect/hope that Apple will release radically new form factors for Touch devices (e.g., a tablet subnotebook), it’s quite likely that other features will help distinguish Apple’s Touch hardware.
Among features I’d like to get through software, add-ons, or included in a Touch product? Number of things, some alluded to in the “categories” for this post. Some of these I had already posted.

  • Quality audio recording (to make it the ideal fieldwork audio tool).
  • eBook support (to compete with Amazon’s Kindle).
  • Voice support (including continuous dictation, voice interface…).
  • Enhanced support for podcasting (interacting with podcasts, sending audio/video responses…)
  • Video conferencing (been thinking about this for a while).
  • GPS (location will be big).
  • Mesh networking (a neat feature of OLPC’s XO).
  • Mobile WiMAX (unlikely, but it could be neat).
  • Battery pack (especially for long trips in remote regions).
  • Add-on flash memory (unlikely, but it could be useful, especially for backup).
  • Offline storage of online content (likely, but worth noting).
  • Inexpensive model (especially for “emerging markets”).
  • Access to 3G data networks without cellular “voice plan” (unlikely, but worth a shot).
  • Alternative input methods (MessagEase, Graffiti, adaptive keyboard, speech recognition…).
  • Use as Mac OS X “host” (kind of like a user partition).
  • Bluetooth/WiFi data transfer (no need for cables and docks).
  • MacBook Touch (unlikely, especially with MacBook Air, but it could be fun).
  • Automatic cell to VoIP-over-WiFi switching (saving cell minutes).

Of course, there are many obvious ones which will likely be implemented in software. I’m already impressed by the Omni Group’s pledge to develop a Touch version of their flagship GTD app.


Learning Systems Wishlist

In a blogpost, Learning Systems ’08 host Elliott Masie lists 12 features learning management systems could/should have.
Elliott Masie’s Learning TRENDS – Learning TRENDS – 12 Wishes for Our LMS and LCMS

A summary:

  1. Focus on the Learner
  2. Content, Content and Content
  3. Ratings, Please
  4. More Context
  5. Performance Support Tools
  6. Social Knowledge
  7. Learning Systems as Components
  8. Focus on the Role
  9. UserContent Authoring
  10. Learning Systems as Service
  11. The Lifecycle of Learning Systems
  12. Learning Systems as Human Capital/Talent Systems

While Masie’s focus is on training and learning in corporate situations, many of these ideas are discussed in other types of learning contexts, including higher education. Some of the most cynical of university professors might say that the reason this list could apply to both corporate and university environments is that university are currently being managed like businesses. Yet, there are ways to adapt to some of the current “customer-based” approaches to learning while remain critical of their effects.

Personally, I think that the sixth point (about “social knowledge”) is particularly current. Not only are “social” dimensions of technology past the buzzword phase but discussing ways to make learning technology more compatible with social life is an efficient way to bring together many issues relating to technology and learning in general.

Masie’s description of his “social knowledge” wish does connect some of these issues:

Learning Systems will need to include and be integrated with Social Networking Systems. Some of the best and most important knowledge will be shared person-to-person in an organization. The learner wants to know, “Who in this organization has any experience that could help me as a learner/worker?” In addition to the LMS pointing to a module or course, we need to be able to link to a colleague who may have the perfect, relevant experience based on their work from 2 jobs ago. The social dimension of learning needs to be harvested and accelerated by a new vision of our Learning Systems.

Throughout the past year, I’ve been especially intrigued about the possibilities opened by making a “learning system” like Moodle more of a social networking platform. I’ve discussed this at the end of a longish wishlist for Moodle’s support of collaborative learning:

  • Another crazy idea: groups working a bit like social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). You get “friends” with whom you can share “stuff” (images, comments, chats, etc.). Those groups can go beyond the limits of a single course so that you would use it as a way to communicate with people at school. The group could even have a public persona beyond the school and publish some information about itself and its projects. Moodle could then serve as a website-creator for students. To make it wackier, students could even maintain some of these contacts after they leave the school.
  • Or Moodle could somehow have links to Facebook profiles.

My curiosity was later piqued by fellow anthropologist Michael Wesch’s comments about the use of Facebook in university learning and teaching. And the relevance of social networking systems for learning strategies has been acknowledged in diverse contexts through the rest of 2007.
One thing I like about Masie’s description is the explicit connection made between social networking and continuity. It’s easy to think of social networks as dynamic, fluid, and “in the now.” Yet, one of their useful dimensions is that they allow for a special type of direct transmission which is different from the typical “content”-based system popular in literacy-focused contexts. Not only do large social networking systems allow for old friends to find another but social networks (including the Internet itself) typically emphasize two-way communication as a basis for knowledge transmission. In other words, instead of simply reading a text about a specific item one wants to learn, one can discuss this item with someone who has more experience with that item. You don’t read an instruction manual, you “call up” the person who knows how to do it. Nothing new about this emphasis on two-way transmission (similar to “collaborative learning”). “Social” technology merely helps people realize the significance of this emphasis.

I’m somewhat ambivalent as to the importance of ratings (Masie’s third point). I like the Digg/Slashdot model as much as the next wannabe geek but I typically find ratings systems to be less conducive to critical thinking and “polyphony” (as multiplicity of viewpoints) than more “organic” ways to deal with content. Of course, I could see how it would make sense to have ratings systems in a corporate environment and ratings could obviously be used as peer-assessment for collaborative learning. I just feel that too much emphasis on ratings may detract us from the actual learning process, especially in environments which already make evaluation their central focus (including many university programs).

Overall, Masie’s wishlist makes for a fine conversation piece.


Banality of Heroism

Wow! I’m speechless!

Open Source » Blog Archive » The Banality of Evil, Part II

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Social Networking and eLearning

Oops! I did it again. Launched on one of my long-winded ramblings about the convergence between learning management systems (in this case, Moodle) and social networking sites (in this case, Facebook).

Executive summary:

Facebook’s power’s in fluid, organic networks. Moodle’s power’s in structured but flexible learning-based groups. I personally see a marriage made in heaven.

Lounge: Moodle as New Facebook