Monthly Archives: May 2013

Hydroponic Studio

We have understood content delivery in two ways—literally, as in conveying information aggregated, framed, interpreted, or otherwise packaged by an expert, or processually, as a process of inquiry modeled in a lecture that poses and answers a question, or as discussion (ranging in degree of control from socratic to freeform). In either case, you have Teacher at the head of a class, and that’s “class” as in “class system.” I don’t imagine that the respect due a working scholar is going to vaporize, but I do hope it will realign itself as one of the range of resources students have available to them, and I would hope faculty could realize what it is that we really want students able to do: to practice their own versions of research, our questioning of  the issues and the arguments offered our generation, and our efforts to rearticulate for our generation how to understand something carefully, insightfully, profoundly.

Needless to say, our methods have changed somewhat. We like our electronic databases, our citation software, our word processors, and our outsourced memory for factual data. It does beat card catalogs, 3x5s, the typewriter, and corrasible bond. But we still do the same analog-modeled research we did forty years ago, and we teach pretty much the way we were taught—though we like our laptop media players plugged into projectors, our powerpoints insuring a base level of adequacy in student note-taking, and the course management systems that relieve us from hand-carrying carbon-paper triplicate gradesheets, carrying books for short-term checkout to the reserve disk, and ferrying sheaves of precious articles to Kinko’s course packet desk. We’ve used digital to make the same old things easier and quicker and cheaper, but not different. Not much. And certainly not fundamentally.

Meanwhile, in analog land, people are enamored of “flipping,” so that  encountering “texts” and some version of professorial commentary (recorded? powerpointed? tourguided?) happens outside of class so that class time can be used for discussion or group work. But it’s still an isolated sliver of the day, it’s still a flow of curated contacts with material and curated responses to same, and classtime is still like the old ideal of a stone-built campus’s special, remote, and distinct place apart from the furor, craziness, and mongrelized attention that degrades, we like to think, ordinary daily life.

Wrong, wrong, wrong: these extraordinary young people are continuously immersed in multiple flows wherever they go, they navigate among them and mix them and learn from their “accidental” resonances as surely as John Cage was exhilarated by the inflow of all sounds in 4’33″ and his other (relatively) more familiar-sounding works, or as street thespians or cable channel surfers or participants in 60s “happenings” or attendees at massive public events all are thrilled and thoughtful about the intensity of multifarious experience set free from artificial constraints of genre or occasion or protocol or what have you. If we really believe in lifetime learning, as opposed to the occasional vacation at Club Mod (chic university without walls) or the Ted Talks’ random infusion method of feeling up to date, we should practice life-in-time learning right now in our classrooms.

Because: the digital world’s continuousness and ubiquitousness means student skills in surfing and tagging and posting and mashing-up are all available right now, trainable right now, amenable to becoming their scholarly peripatetic philosopher selves right now. So consider these examples of reconceiving “class” time as something more akin to Studio than Lecture Hall:

• my students read John Richardson’s explanation of a “system dynamics” model for understanding how Sri Lanka went from poster child for development’s infinite potential to 35 years of violent revolutions. And come to class, and hear me talk about it, finally understand it, then forget it. Next year, they will read about it, see my engagingly witty blog about its sexiness, and then come in and work it like a wood working shop full of tools: all the pieces identified in his detailed model become “heuristics” they must answer in terms of another of our case histories with which they’re more familiar, the U.S. By the time they’ve worked through the model’s application, stage by stage over several hours, they “get it” viscerally, not abstractly. It has become part of the “society media” for recognizing the implications of this distortion, that change, or simply the total absence of Richardson’s key factors, feedback loops, and interacting factors. That’s very 21st century, as is the public sharing of what they produce—and far less insipid than what we hear from empty talking heads and soundbite bloggers rehashing hashtags.

• my students read Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy to learn how the British and Indian psyches coped, one way or another, with colonialism and its aftermath. He gives them many good thinking machines we can cite and exemplify in class. But what if, instead, they’d already read my blog to “get the main point,” and then came to class and worked together culling the thinking machines and using them on other cases, other problems, other phenomena? And shared publicly, and…

• my students read the marvelously iconoclastic work of James C Scott, an anthropologist turned guerilla warrior against conventional formulaic received standard versions of all things. “That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.” I don’t mind that response, but how does that change the way students think, work, live? On the other hand, when Scott shows them why development officers, trained for “seeing like the state,” therefore make a mess out of their aid projects, what if in Studio (where you make things instead of being classic or classified) they used his model on other Experts (Dis)Solving Problems? Case histories of how some can do no other than get everything wrong? Antidotes to acquiescence in the culture of failure and cynicism? Prescriptions for how to change absolutely everything? Like the nomadic cultures he studies in The Art of Not Being Governed? How would non-statist living translate to 21st century Americans? How would NOT being interpellated as “the kind of subjectivity linked to the state,” in Foucault’s rousing phrase, change the kind of being you thought you had and the kind of life you therefore lived?

You get the idea. Studio repurposes f2f time the way email and Course FAQs save it for something better than mere information. If we’re to teach people how to find and weave and blend and critique information and rethink how to pose the questions around which data buzzes like clouds of airborne nanobots replaceing the analog world of moths around a candle—then it’s time to have students immerse themselves 24/7 with their everywhere device in Blacksburg, Rabat, Istanbul, and the barely cooled down battlefields of Sri Lanka, let the talents of their social computing cross-fertilize their talents in thinking and learning and forge from that conjunction a truly 21st century form of education.

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New thinking and the power of unanswered questions…

Well, I haven’t made time to write in the last week and a half.  Shame on me.  I felt especially slackish after seeing how Tony used his “just playing around” time this past week…  So awesome!!

My reflections over the past week or so have been reminiscent of the entire semester…  What is it about technology, media, teaching, learning – the human brain…?  How is this coming together for me?  With lots and lots of questions.  More questions.  Better questions?

neuroI opined to Gardner a few weeks ago about how I wish there was a neuroscientist in our group – so many of the readings, ponderings, and discussions seemed to repeatedly bring me back around to thinking about how we think and how our brains operate as human beings.  Why hasn’t “artificial intelligence” risen to the level of human performance?  How do you design opportunities for learning that meet the diverse needs of a group (whatever the size) of learners with unique brains, experiences, backgrounds, needs and thinking styles?  How can we best balance breadth with depth?  What role do “the rules” play?   How can we better understand the opportunities that exist in “filling in the blanks”?  How do we design opportunities for learning that preserve the “in between” space where learners can explore the blanks?  How do we inspire motivation to do so?  So many of these questions are inherently intertwined with the workings of the human brain and things like cognition and motivation.

Much of this re-inspires my curiosity about how the human brain works, and what patterns of cognition make us uniquely human – and beyond that, uniquely individual.  Why has AI failed?  (And I get that it hasn’t entirely – there are plenty of intelligent systems, but I’m not aware of any that can be described as seeming to replicate human thinking/intelligence and interactions or relationship-building.)

irrationalI imagine it’s largely because humans are not entirely rational beings.  We often employ reasoned irrationality.  Reasoned irrationality.  We make decisions and do things that do not appear to make rational sense, or fit “the rules,” or set up desired outcomes – yet it’s still not completely random.  There’s always a reason that on some level makes sense to us (barring mental illness or some other altered state condition… and maybe even then?) – otherwise, we would not choose that path.  And yet it’s still not predictable.  How could you program that?

There are so many questions I don’t have answers to…  Why does my three-year-old seem to loathe pants?  Why don’t people care to follow the directional arrows in the Kroger parking lot?  Why is changing a small piece of the world sometimes quite satisfying, and sometimes frustratingly not enough?  Just how, exactly, is bacon so awesome?  Noticing and considering the questions, playing on the fringes of them, brainstorming with others about them – leads to insight and discovery,  even if the initial question remains unanswered, or problem unsolved.  That’s what I’ve gained most from this semester’s seminar experience.  That, and the reminder to make time for these explorations, for diverse relationships, for fun, and for pushing some boundaries.

Thanks, all!

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The home stretch..

As finals come to a close, I’m thinking about the semester: the classes I teach, the cognitive psychology class that I’m taking, and of course, our seminar. I came across a few things this week that seemed to put things into place.

The first is a blog post that I’ve had on my “I will read this as soon as I have time” list, which finally happened this week! It’s a high school physics teacher’s post about his vision for a Physics iBook. Does it contain chapters of a textbook? No. Does it include videos of professors’ lectures? No. It provides students with tools for them to create their own labs and BE scientists not passively “learn” science. I started looking around at his blog posts and found another great one on $2 interactive white boards. Yep, it’s just one of those table sized white boards…and, it’s pretty interactive. Much more so than the ways most teachers use their SmartBoards.

This reoccurring theme of not doing the same old thing with new technology seems so obvious, yet so many resources are used to do just that. Maybe we need to get some department of education folks, school board members, curriculum developers, and state legislators to read Illich and Nelson.

There was also an explosion of new education-focused TED talks. While Ken Robinson always sparks my interest and I love his new talk, there was a new 6 min talk that some of you may have missed by a high school chemistry teacher discussing motivation, science, a kid’s innate curiosity, and what we can do to capitalize on (instead of killing) it.

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Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!

In honor of our recent reading, "Time Frames," by Scott McCloud, I proudly present:

Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!!!!

Well... that was fun!

If for some reason this isn't working, try downloading the file directly (pdf):
Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!

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Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!

In honor of our recent reading, "Time Frames," by Scott McCloud, I proudly present:

Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!!!!

Well... that was fun!

If for some reason this isn't working, try downloading the file directly (pdf):
Tony Brainstorms VS The Snark!

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McCloudy Day Thoughts

As I read Scott McCloud’s chapter, a welcome return to a book spirited away from me by a student who “forgot” to return it (alas), I found myself thinking of John Cayley’s work. He started public life as a dealer in antiquities, a translator of ancient Buddhist texts, and a participant in avant garde poetic practice with literal art, and, then became, whew!, a practitioner of “programmable” art. He has interesting essays about the difference between Code (addressed to a processor) and Text (addressed to a reader who’s implicitly asked to accept it as “natural language”), among many other topics.

Like McCloud, Cayley is interested in the experiential dimension of digital literature (not his term)—its presentation to a reader, and its responses to a reader’s actions, and its temporal dimension in presentation, all call for a more complex Rhetoric than classic pomes on the page. Here’s a sample of a bulleted point from one of his ruminations (you’ll need to remember that “signifier” is the physical pointer to the “signified” that is its culturally determined content):

The emergent materiality of the signifier – flickering, time-based – creates a new relationship between media and content. Programming the signifier itself, as it were, brings transactive mediation to the scene of writing at the very moment of meaning creation. Mediation can no longer be characterised as subsidiary or peripheral; it becomes text rather than paratext.

Early hypertext writers were drunk on the way that hyperlinks made visible the call and response between the manifest text and its latent allusions to all kinds of cultural content, not to mention the rest of the work in hand, all affected by the attention span and proactive quotient in the reader’s participation. In going beyond such early enthusiasms, Cayley thinks about how, in the digital environment, mediation both connects and conditions contacts that fan out in many dimensions, in many registers of meaning, in many experiential dynamics as someone encounters a carefully wrought Code/Text.

What McCloud shows you by widening the x-axis of a comix frame, and what he dramatizes by the variations in lettering style and motion lines and (in other chapters) permutations among frame shapes on a page—well, it rhymes in a way with what people like Cayley think about when they program the Cave at Brown (a 3D immersive virtual environment: we have one!).

We’ve classically contrasted the experiential dimension of print literature and performances (theatre and music) and visual art and film/video: the Programmable Arts seem to be on the verge of an exponentiation from mashing up all of these at once. Instead of contrasting, as if different arts appealed to different sectors of the neuroscience of the brain or to different sensibilities or to different faculties in an individeual, programmability equips an artist to deploy all of these in ways that exploit their materiality for designed effects. Harder to repress the materiality of the canvas when you’re in it; harder to repress the physicality of language when you have to face it and work it; harder to valorize the conceptual over the aural or the haptic if feedback mechanisms engage all five of your senses. It all has a lovely potential to dash to bits the less imaginative aesthetic theories still treading the halls like ghosts of Artworlds Past.

Musing on a rainy day.

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McCloud perspective

While looking online for a color version of the McCloud comic chapter, I came across this TED talk he did in 2005. The video was too large to embed, but I think  it is worth following the link.



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Seminarians, you are awesome

Wednesday’s seminar was a blast; I couldn’t have been happier to be a part of the Mind Squad! For all of you seminarians who are reading this, thanks so much for jumping right in feet first.

Joycelyn’s idea to have the groups tie Illich to the Hip Hop lyrics was so inspired and Kimberley’s suggestion to have all of you bring in your the artifacts was such a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about each of you.

And the students! Wow, Tony and Gardner, what a great idea to bring them in as your artifacts! Can I please steal all of those students away and have them take my course?

How do we proceed in deschooling society? It seems like apprenticeship programs are starting to become fashionable again; that’s at least a start. With meet up, I think people are forming their own peer networks and I do know of a couple adopt a physicist programs where students and teachers can be in contact with a content “expert.” I’m torn on how to balance letting students choose their interest and also engaging students with some sort of basic literacy in all content fields. Educators and practitioners can make their content appealing in order to motivate students, but without a centralized school, the students would have to already be interested enough to find us. Maybe each student would need to meet with at least one person from a variety of fields?

Perhaps we can adopt Google’s 80/20 but instead of the 80% being traditional school, the 80% is the content/problem solving that we want them to learn, but they can be creative and have choice in how they go about learning that content.

What I do know is that my little elementary-school aged nephew and niece love to learn (whenever I visit, they love doing science experiments, trying new origami, learning new skills in sports), but getting them to do their homework is already a battle for their parents and seeing letter grades and test scores on a 4th grader’s report card is just a little disconcerting.

Finally, Terry’s point about citizenship is one that I thought about a lot when I was teaching undocumented high school students. I think we should have a country of engaged, critical thinkers who know how their society functions and seek to make it better. I strongly feel like part of my job is to educate our youth to be informed citizens who have developed a scientific way of thinking. Even though many of them couldn’t participate as citizens in the legal sense, many of them displayed citizenship: they volunteered in the community, pushed for social justice, and hardly ever took a moment of their education for granted (especially when compared to our US-born students).

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While reading Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, I found myself puzzled, again. I have to read sections multiple times, and each time I altered my lens.
For example, I couldn’t help but think “libertatian utopia” when I first read this paragraph:

“A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known. Such a system would require the application of constitutional guarantees to education. Learners should not be forced to submit to an obligatory curriculum, or to discrimination based on whether they possess a certificate or a diploma. Nor should the public be forced to support, through a regressive taxation, a huge professional apparatus of educators and buildings which in fact restricts the public’s chances for learning to the services the profession is willing to put on the market. It should use modern technology to make free speech, free assembly, and a free press truly universal and, therefore, fully educational.”

Like with libertarianism in general, there are elements that I agree with (who doesn’t believe in the importance of personal freedom and personal responsibility?), but when I think of how it would be applied, it seems quite scary. There are three things that immediately scared me about that paragraph:

1. If education is not compulsory, then it is not accessible to all. Some students might be interested in how the natural world operates, or in the genealogy of ideas. If their parents believe that dogma is the only true knowledge there is nothing stopping those parents from barring that child from his or her desired curriculum.

2. Illich writes that “Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent.” States that have a nationalized education system governed by bureaucracy aren’t subject to arguments like “teach the controversy.” If students are not required to submit to a curriculum, then students are allowed to make up their own facts.

3. If you advocate a constitutional “right to all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known” then you are advocating for a reality in which cults are normal and viable alternatives.

But then I realized that I wasn’t reading it correctly. While I was not alone in seeing a libertarian utopia in that vision (libertarians apparently read it that way too), that’s apparently not what Illich had in mind, since he labeled advocates free-market education advocates “the most dangerous category of educational reformers.” Not having read his follow-up work, After Deschooling, What? I don’t know how what he is advocating is different.

He thought that the mechanical aspects of surgery could be taught outside of the traditional education system. He believes that professions (such as medicine, law, education) where a credentialed set of authorities gets to decide who else meets the requirements of certification is an essentially corrupt idea. He seems to believe in more of an Angie’s List model, where previous clients can rate the quality of service. In short, he rejects traditional medicine in general. Illich was consistent. He lived with a cancerous growth on his face for 20 years, and for therapy he employed a regimen of yoga, meditation, and opium.

There are elements where I agree with Illich. The means of instruction is traditionally structured in a one-size-fits-all or in more generous forms, a one-size-fits-most model, and, in the U.S., it is controlled by a school board, state legislature, state Boards of Education (appointed by a governor), U.S. Congress, and the Department of Education. It is not controlled by the two classes of people in the classroom: students and teachers. Illich seems to believe that students and teachers should control the means of instruction.


As Tony mentioned in class, toddlers are highly inclined to learn and extremely curious, and they remain so until the love of learning is squeezed out of them by a form of “education” where you sit in rows, your day is divided into subjects, and learning is assessed by multiple choice tests. I agree that that is a problem. But I disagree that De-schooling is the most viable solution. If education is not compulsory, there are other news ways of depriving young minds of the opportunity to learn. Parents, other authorities, and economic realities can discourage learning in a number of ways.
Quit asking so many questions. Not now, I’m busy. Harvest is when I need you the most. You’re too young. You’re too old to begin the training. Everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. Everything you need to know you is in The Bible. You can’t sing. You can’t dance. You can’t draw. That won’t help you get a job.
The list could be infinitely long and infinitely sad. The point being, as I wrote above, if education is not compulsory, then it is not accessible.
As was discussed in seminar, if political science is not required for engineering students, then they will lack the time, and perhaps, the interest to pursue study in that area, even if it is in their best interest. i.e. a civil engineer who studies the nexus of water quality and gas drilling probably understands the importance of political science to her profession. Even if it wasn’t in her required curriculum as a student, she has perhaps at some point wished that it was required.

I was filled with hope and awe towards the end of seminar when we shared our artifacts. Alma strutted around the room like a magician with stage props, and took a super hero stance whilst demonstrating a lesson on light. When she asked for a definition of refraction, a guest in the room gave a lucid and gripping definition that had me on the edge of my seat. Alma then proceeded to make a solid object disappear before our eyes. Her artifact was two beakers and a container of vegetable oil, but the hidden artifact that she brought in to the room was her pedagogy, which was hypnotizing and seductive…she started her insta-lesson by proclaiming that she was going to make us all fall in love with physics, which I did. The best environment for learning is one when you forget that you’re learning.

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A Story About a Bridge

This is a story about a bridge. It is a true story, but the facts and how they reside in my mind have morphed over the years and I choose not to check my memory. So to be more accurate, this is a true but also mythical story about a bridge.

There is a city, like many cities, that grew up beside a river. The early citizens lived on the north side, and a small bridge, at a narrow place in the river, was sufficient to carry them across to the south side and onwards to various destinations. As time went by, a road made its way from the outskirts of the north side down to the river, stopping there, in a vague way anticipating that one day it would be possible to hop over to the other side. The city grew and prospered, and the outer limits of the city expanded ever farther. At the same time, a community took form and grew on the south side of the river; life was good, and the relationship between the citizens on the north side and the community on the south side were generally, but not always, amicable.

The growth was not all good, however.  Traveling back and forth over the river across  the one bridge became difficult; the traffic began to be intolerable to those who lived on each side. Discussions about building a second bridge began, and after several years the funds were provided to do just that. Aha, said the north side; our road already goes down to the river so all we need to do is build a bridge straight across at that point. But no, said the south side, can’t you see that we have built our houses and our community there? Your bridge would put a road right through what we have built; you should go further down the river and cross at the point where you have no houses on the other side. Can’t you see, said the north side, there are no houses there because we built a park beside the river; it would not do to build a new road and bridge there because we would lose the park.

The engineers came, and they said, we can build a bridge, straight and strong. We will wait for you to tell use where to start and we will build a bridge that will take people to the other side. You are the ones, though, that must tell us where on the river to start the bridge. “At the road,” said the north side! “Further on,” said the south side! And the engineers said, we will wait until you decide. And they waited. And time went on.

At this point in the story let us stop and think about how this problem could be solved, for a problem it is, indeed.  Perhaps we could ask a few visionaries to offer their suggestions. This is how I imagine they might respond.

Vannevar Bush: “Don’t build a bridge, build the future, which might not be a bridge at all!”

Norbert Wiener: “Have you thought about how drivers will interact with the bridge?”

J.C.R. Licklider: “Is the location of the bridge the real question?”

Marshall McLuhan: “Feel the bridge; be the bridge.”

Brenda Laurel: “The citizens should pour the concrete and build the bridge together!”

Ivan Illich: “You do not need a bridge; find an instructor and learn how to swim.”

Perhaps you would like to know how the real story ended? I can show you a picture; if you look closely, you will see the first bridge on the right and the second bridge on the left side of the satellite image.

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 3.43.43 PM

You can see that the bridge is not straight; it is not your average bridge after all, because the people on each side of the river had a very clear vision of what they wanted and a strong sense of the value of their convictions. The engineers were frustrated, I imagine, and the project probably cost much more than anticipated. But if you ever drive on the bridge, you will have the most beautiful sensation of taking a turn out over the river, right as you would normally have made a straight line to the other side.

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