OpenFiction [ Blog ]

June 3, 2008


Filed under: , , , , , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:19 am

I’ve really been enjoying the Edupunk buzz, especially this recent post by Mike Caulfield (read past Iggy). Edupunk, though, is going to be quite limited if it allows itself to be defined as anti-anything, especially LMSs of all things. While Caulfield includes a lot of the negative, he does a good job of presenting the positive as well:

These Web 2.0 tools they adopted encouraged them to share their stuff with the world, instead of locking it away in a password protected course. And suddenly, they got a taste of open education. And it didn’t stop there. The tools they adopted had a true web DNA, and played well with other tools in a loosely coupled mode. So suddenly, they got a taste of what it was like to build your own custom learning environment.

And so on. They started to experience the creativity that the web can unleash, and experienced for the first time that connectivist thrill people had been going on about.

And it was then, with their courses out on the net for all to see, having developed Wordpress pages that mashed together video with slideshares with twitter updates and feeds, having witnessed students commenting on posts right next to people from across the world, having seen authors of books responding to their student’s reader response essays, directly —

It was then that it hit these people. Blackboard was never a learning tool.

And while I make no claims to the Edupunk mantle, the Edupunk vision is very consistent with my own views on and experiences with LMSs and Web 2.0 tools:

The whole idea that learning can be “managed” from a central system may even seem to be a strange notion in ten years. Instead of centrally creating a secure digital learning space for teachers and students, as we do now, the default may be that students and teachers come together in self-organizing digital spaces of their own design, where the various elements of the participants’ digital personas (blogs, vlogs, wikis, websites, facebooks, fileshares and linklists) come together via aggregation tools of their choosing. In as much as the physical classroom depends on the unique contributions of both the teacher and the students to produce the character of the learning experience, so too the digital learning experience may utlimately depend greatly on the ways in which the students project themselve into cyberspace, and the walls of an LMS may be a barrier to this.

The elements of current LMS that I found to be of most use were basically the administrative tools, and those might eventually atrophy to be the only elements that remain, if at all, as small parts of school’s student information systems. Even these are not that hard to replecate externally, with the exception of direct links to enrollment lists in administrative systems and the reporting back of grades–—though who knows, a secure RSS feed might allow even that to happen in multiple environments.

So how does this affect opencourseware publication? I’d suggest in two ways. Because it ultimately points to a situation in which learning becomes a less digitally stable undertaking—–something more fluid, with learning experiences created and dismantled rapidly and outside of any central control—–opencourseware publication can serve as an organizing principle around which learning experiences can be documented. The process of gathering materials and publishing a “snapshot” of the materials can provide a stable point of reference for future learning experiences.

Second (and this again is an idea that draws on Stephen Downes’ thinking), opencourseware may become less about providing reusable and repurposable materials that are then somehow “localized” by others, and more about providing a fertile soil for future learning experiences as old materials decompose. In trying to imagine how I might use opencourseware content in my future teaching, it seems to me if I know of a resource reasonably close to my own needs that exists at a stable URL, I would likely point to it in a blog post and provide any necessary annotation for my class in the post, rather than try to download it and edit it directly.

January 18, 2008

Industrial vs. artisanal approaches to education

Filed under: , , , — Stephen Carson @ 12:50 pm

I’m almost through reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which if you haven’t read, you should. It’s easily one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the last ten years and will really alter your perceptions of what and how you eat, and how you participate in a larger system of food production and consumption. Much of what he discusses I already knew, albeit in bits and pieces: Corn products, especially high-fructose corn syrup, make up a dangerously large portion of the “food” we consume. Industrial meat production is barbaric and biologically dangerous. “Health foods” aren’t all that healthy.

But like any great nonfiction book, it moves beyond fact to paint a really profound picture of the systems that generate those facts. It really has altered my perspective in important ways. One of the most dramatic distinctions he draws in the book is between industrial food production and artisanal food production. One could go one for a long time about the failings of industrial food production: its reliance on petrochemicals, the trend toward monoculture, the relentless logic of increased yield that leads to systemic mutilation and abuse of animals. He contrasts this with an example of a farm in Virginia that uses sustainable methods to generate a wide range of agricultural products in sync with the local ecology and seasons.

This isn’t a post about food, though, or even good non-fiction. It’s a post about the application of the industrial vs. artisanal distinction to education. I’ve realized in the course of reading the book that much of my thinking about education and open educational resources is colored by my sense that education done well is essentially and artisanal and deeply local undertaking, and that successful open educational resources generally honor this.

Why artisanal? I’ve said in the past that I think education is a highly localized undertaking because cultures, academic systems, and instructional technologies vary so widely, and this explains it in part. These differences have launched the thousand ships of the localization discussions in open educational resources circles, and suggest that most educational resources can be made appropriate for a wide range of contexts, if only they are sufficiently flexible to permit enough localization. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the concept of localization, not because I think its not true, but more because it doesn’t feel sufficient.

Education seems to me to be artisanal because the best courses I’ve taken–and the best courseware I’ve seen–are the result of a particular teacher’s personal engagement and experience with the concepts and practices of a particular field. This may be a by-product of largely studying humanities, but I don’t think so. I’ve listened to enough hacker discussions of “elegant” code to know there’s more going on in software development than just getting a program to produce the desired end result. My sense is that most expert knowledge is the accretion over time of an organic and individualistic understanding of both fact and practice, and that courseware is a way of communicating that understanding. Learning in some sense then is a process of apprenticeship. To paraphrase John Seely Brown, not learning physics, but learning how to be a phyisicist.

There are obviously better and worse ways of communicating this accrued experience. Participatory learning, ways to engaging students and helping them to internalize practice, but teaching and courseware seem to me to be intensely dependent on the personal as well as the cultural, academic and technological, which is where localization reaches its limit. There are only so many pieces of courseware out there that are congruent with my experiences as a writer and writing instructor. No amount of rejiggering of format or examples or academic level is going to make some resource appropriate for my uses. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, or low quality. Just that they don’t helpfully engage (sometimes by challenging) my understanding of the practice of fiction writing.

And some of the discussions I find less engaging about education–competencies, learning outcomes, standardized testing–seem to me the result of an industrial attempt to create a uniform end result from an inherently non-uniform process. Don’t get me wrong, there are some areas of education where a standardized end result is important, but it also tends to be reductionist. Sure, it’s desirable for everyone to share some basic competencies, but it’s also important to encourage the pursuit of individuals’ unique engagements with subjects they are passionate about, even at the primary and secondary levels. And this has always happened for me though contact with teachers and students so engaged.

How does this apply to OER? OER can definitely provide resources that can be picked up from one context and used in another, and the extent that this happens naturally it’s a good thing. But I think that OER are at their weakest when they try to be all things for all people. Educational resources are remarkably resistant to industrial models of mass replication and application, even with significant localization. OER at their best present very unique and very local engagements with academic fields, deeply rooted in culture and personal experience. They present ways of being academically engaged that are less about digital resources that can be used and more about sharing practices and unique understandings. I can learn new approaches to understanding the craft of fiction writing by studying the courseware of a photography class, even though there are no materials I can directly use in my own instruction. Rather the site provides new approaches to creating my own materials. My suspicion is that one of the reasons OpenCourseWare turns out to be an effective model is that it presents as a whole a professor’s unique engagement with his or her field, that it models what it means to be engaged in academic practice in a deeply personal and individual way. It presents an artisanal model that can be instructive when applied thoughtfully to other unique environments rather than an industrial product designed for use in all environments.

May 24, 2006

Whither shall go tOFP [ Wiki ]?

Filed under: , , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:41 am

So if I had to characterize one part of tOFP that has been a failure, it would be the Wiki-as-craftbook, mostly because it’s just not a good use for the wiki. For my needs, the categories function in WordPress will do the trick nicely, without the fuss of adding a hand-coded link each time. I was also imagining it might be used by a class, or by a general web audience, to build a collaborative craftbook, but at this point, I think RSS would work better if it ever came to pass.

The question then is how might the wiki be best used to support either my own writing or tOFP? I have to confess I’m not very interested in collaborative writing projects. I can see how they might be of interest to some, but for me, writing is an individual event. I do find peer critique to be helpful at points along the way, but really can’t imagine co-authoring a creative work such as my novel.

So I’m trying to decide now what to do with the wiki. I’ll likely be back-tagging all the old blog posts, and then creating a sidebar link category called “Craftbook” to call up all entries in craftbook categories, so the use as a craftbook will evaporate. The one use I can imagine at this point is to organize the concordance for my novel. Because I have been working on the novel in fits and starts, I know there are a lot of timeline inconsistencies and other logistical issues that need to be reconciled, and I need to have a rock-solid sense of period in some of the flashbacks.

I had started a notebook for concordance, but it was hard to keep in that format because I’m always adding dates to the timeline, and because it’s hard in notebook form to link backstory and notes to dates, etc. A wiki is well suited for this kind of thing, so I’m thinking I might build out the concordance in the wiki. There’s nothing in it that would compromise the market potential of the book (whatever that might be), and the concordance might ultimately make a nice teaching tool down the road. As I complete the latest lap through the first ten chapters, it would be nice to have all these issues straight before moving deeper into the book, provided it doesn’t suck momentum out of the drafting.

May 23, 2006

tOFP in the wild

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 9:04 am

Here’s a great example of tOFP out in the wild. Points back to the site, which is nice (and sufficient attribution). Not sure about the licensing though–no clear indication on the page. Would be nice to see a big ol’ CC logo there, but nice nonetheless to see the materials are of some help to someone.

February 26, 2006

Ownership and authorship in the digital age

Filed under: , , , , — Stephen Carson @ 5:45 pm

In thinking about the class I might teach with tOFP, I’m also considering what the meaningful ties are between these new tools and fiction writing, and I keep coming back to the issue of the changing role of the author. In Who Owns Academic Work?, Corrine McSherry does a really brilliant job of tying the rise of the genius-author to the development of intellectual property. The arrangement has held up for centuries, largely because of the high costs of production.

The new web tools just entering into wide use are beginning to fulfill the web’s promise to make it possible for anyone to publish. It will be some time before anyone really knows how this shift will affect the world of fiction writers, I can guess at some of it: More fiction will be available, published on the web. No doubt the great mass of it will be badly written, but the total amount of really good writing available out there will increase as well, as there are significantly more good writers out there than old modes of production could support.

Like everything else, the question will be how to locate the good stuff. And in a world where great fiction is available for free, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find economically viable models to to support yourself via fiction writing. At the same time, the opportunities for connecting to and finding meaningful support from communities of writers will increase tremendously. I was lucky enough as an undergraduate to be adopted by a group of graduate students who’d formed a writing group, and this provided me with my first sense of how writers might help one another improve their writing. While graduate school soured me on the writing workshops in general, I did make meaningful friendships with people who’ve greatly influenced my writing. I’m fascinated by how emerging web tools might support these kinds of connections.

How, then, to sort through all of this and fold it into a sensible class…?

July 27, 2005

Least effective technologies

Filed under: , , , , — Stephen Carson @ 5:16 am

With apologies to Edward Tufte, I’m going to return to the concept I mentioned before of “least effective technology.” Tufte, in discussing graphic presentations of data, suggests that elements of an illustration should be different only to the extent necessary to make the illustration effective, the “least effective difference.” He says not to use wildly clashing elements, as these distract from the presentation of the data. Likewise, I’ve previously explained one of my goals for tOFP coursework to use the least effective technology—or perhaps more properly, the least technology that would be effective in conducting the class. For this reason, I limited technologies used for the course to HTML and e-mail. I did use a school-mandated LMS when teaching the course (first BlackBoard, then WebCT), but without a doubt, these were the least effective (in the traditional sense) of the technological elements. This was in 2002, so I assume they’ve improved, but they did more to impede the class than to facilitate it.

I used the least effective technology rule because I was delivering the class to a group of adult distance learning students who could not be expected to have more than a dial-up internet connection, and could not be expected to be familiar with web technologies beyond e-mail and web browsing. Using the same logic, the least effective technology rule can be usefully applied to OER. I’ll suggest the goal of the OER movement is to make the largest possible body of educational materials available to the widest possible audience (setting aside for now the possible opposing view that it ought to be limited to a body of materials from leading institutions only). Using the simplest possible technologies makes publication of OER technologies scalable, and it also expands the audience that can make use of those materials by using only those technologies widely implemented and familiar to the general web population.

The good news is that the horizon for effective technologies has shifted considerably since I developed the class, a shift that was important to the transformation of the class into tOFP. In no particular order, tOFP was facilitated by cheap and reliable web hosting, free blogging services, PayPal (more about the thinking on this later), and (most recently and least tested), H2O Playlist. Beyond the technologies used for tOFP, there are emerging technologies that are rapidly making other formats practical. PDF has really arrived as a technology for cheaply and accurately delivering OER content; the format is much easier to extract content from than ever, with automated conversion to HTML and text available through the Adobe website, and options for copy and past in the free Adobe reader. I’d nominate wikis, too, as an emerging least effective technology. So while I’m a strong advocate of keeping things simple, simple is clearly becoming more sophisticated at a rapid pace.

June 21, 2005


Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 7:12 pm

TOFP blog site in part replaces the craftbook that is usually associated with my coursework. A craftbook is a notebook I keep, and ask my students to keep, in binder form, with sections devoted to different aspects of craft. I also created a digital version for each class, usually on the discussion board of the WebCT system. Here’s the description from the class material:

Craftbooks — Each student will create their own craftbook, a three-ring binder with sections matching each of the subsections of the course materials (Point of View, Plot, Charater, etc.), in which you will keep notes, writing exercises of your own and from your fellow students, and relevant quotes about each of these topics. This craftbook will become a resource for you as you begin and draft stories, both during the class and as you continue writing afterward. If you find yoursef stuck on a particular problem in a story, it will give you somewhere to go for help.”

Some entries for the blog will be craftbook entries. I’ll precede the title with the section (e.g. Plot - Gardner’s character-driven plot model). I’m sure this will be no end of confusion from both the coursework site and blog ends of things, but at least I can say I made a note of it here.