Monday, December 31, 2012

Simple vs Complex Definitions 2

In my last post, I started listing the problems I have with simple, reductionist, essentialist definitions and suggesting ways that complex definitions provide better, more workable results. The list of issues that I want to present is in no particular order, as my thinking is not yet ordered enough. I mentioned in that post that I have problems first with definitions as an end-point rather than a starting point and then with definitions that disregard the human point of view rather than incorporate it. My next problem with simple definitions is that they aim for the absolute.

In the extreme case, people want definitions that are true for everyone, everywhere, for all time. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, so I deeply understand the attraction of this desire. Once we have our sock drawer arranged (well defined), then we want it to stay put. Once we know the formula for either eternal salvation or the speed of light, then we want it to stay put, and we become very unsettled when anything threatens that order. More to the discussion: once we know the formula for tenure, then we want it to stay put. We post-structuralist academics may pride ourselves on being open and fluid, but just mess with one of our primary relationships, our favorite word processor, or our retirement strategies, and see how quickly the knot of fascism swells in our hearts. We all want definitions that persist in the face of Life's flux, and we will move heaven and earth to make Reality conform to our definitions.

This very human desire for the absolute is, of course, a part of Reality, but Reality doesn't appear to take it too seriously. Reality won't stay put, or as Robert Frost says it: something there is that doesn't love a wall. We have come to see that a stable Reality is the result of truncated vision. We think that the arrangement of continents is stable only because we cannot see over long enough periods of time. When we extend our vision through technology, then we see that the very ground of our being is constantly shifting beneath our feet. This is not good. We want St. Louis to stay where we put it, damn it.

Complex definitions, then, incorporate the heuristics for change and development. This is very much the way DNA works: we have a set starting point for any human being, but the way that DNA unfolds and blossoms within its environment is critical to that human being. The starting point is necessary for the definition of a human, but hardly sufficient. The process of emerging, which is an interaction of both internal and external processes, is just as important. The starting point limits an entity (it prevents a given zygote from becoming a rabbit or a chimpanzee rather than a human, for instance), but it does not define the entity. Complex definitions allow for infinite variations in snowflakes and humans. They allow for black swans.

Then, simple definitions mishandle boundaries. In reductionist thinking, a boundary is a line that separates one kind of entity from all other entities, rendering an entity discrete from its environment. In complex thinking, a boundary is a zone of engagement between the entity and its environment. This is a radical difference in visualizing Reality that cannot be overstated. A simple definition isolates an entity from Reality, while a complex definition integrates an entity within its environment. Complex definitions take into account the dynamic exchange of energy and information at the boundaries of an entity, recognizing that what a thing is depends a great deal on the kinds of energy and information it exchanges at its boundaries. This is obvious at the biological level, but it is just as true for rhetoric. This post, for example, acquires most of its meaning from the information it exchanges with other posts (both my own and other bloggers) and conversations. This post has no discrete meaning. Its meaning comes only from the interactions with its environment.

Finally, at least for today, I have trouble with simple definitions because they ignore networks. This is perhaps another way of saying what I just said about mishandling boundaries, but I think the concept is worth introducing into this discussion, and anyway, it's been inherent in much of what I've already said. Meaning is a function of complex, multi-scale networking. As near as I can tell, all Reality is a function of complex, multi-scale networking, so definitions are as well. The definitions we have in our minds are networks of neurons firing in a fractal pattern, and this may seem dynamic enough, but thoughts are more dynamic than that. The neuronal network that represents the concept of, say, Christmas is dynamic. If Olaf Sporns is correct, each brain recreates the Christmas neuronal network with whatever neuronal resources it has available to it at the moment. Thus, Christmas is not associated with a fixed set of neurons firing in a fixed pattern—certainly not across all our brains, but not even within a given brain; rather, Christmas is a somewhat fresh, self-similar firing of available neurons each time I think it. The physical substrate for the thought Christmas is a dynamic, multi-scale networking (I'm using the verbal form rather than the nominal form of network to try to capture the dynamic nature of the concept).

Simple definitions, on the other hand, try to reduce entities to discrete chunks, whole within themselves. I don't think such chunks exist except in the coarsest level of Reality. They exist in conversation only as a convenient shorthand, a manner of speaking, but we should never be surprised when our simple definitions have slipped their moorings and we have to map reality all over again.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Simple vs. Complex Definitions

Dave Cormier's post A review of rhizomatic learning in Mendeley led me to an engaging conversation about definitions, especially a definition of rhizomatic learning. This is a topic that keeps returning to me, and I have not sufficiently worked through it, but I keep trying because I think it is important to the discussions about connectivism and rhizomatic learning.

Definitions are important to any discussion, for without a working definition, conversation is almost impossible. In many ways, definitions are the bedrock of traditional education, especially to what Cormier calls "the basics." Much class time from kindergarten all the way through baccalaureate higher education is spent on defining colors, times tables, history dates, science terms, parts of speech, and literary genres. The problem, it seems to me, stems from our standard method of defining, which I believe is reductionist and essentialist in nature. What do I mean by that?

First, traditional definitions reduce a concept—let's pick the four major learning theories—to a few usually salient and so-called essential features. A recent infographic from Edudemic entitled A Simple Guide To 4 Complex Learning Theories lists and defines the theories this way:
  1. Behaviorism: Learning is a process of reacting to external stimuli.
  2. Constructionism: Learning is a process of acquiring and storing information.
  3. Cognitivism: Learning is a process of constructing subjective reality based ???
  4. Connectivism: Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
For the moment, let's ignore whether or not we think these definitions reliably capture the essential features of each theory. Let's note instead that they are standard definitions. They reduce complex theories to a couple of essential characteristics. A traditional education course might say: if you want to understand connectivism, at least well enough and long enough to pass the test, then learn an eleven-word formula that effectively reduces the life's work of Siemens, Downes, Cormier, and countless other scholars to a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. Well, if that's all it is, then why didn't George just say that to begin with and save us all this work and talk? Of course, this is not connectivism, and if you are like me, you find this kind of reductionism repugnant and inadequate. It takes us almost nowhere. It takes those poor students almost nowhere, at least, nowhere beyond a grade on a test.

So why do we do this? I think we are seeking clarity, stability, and control. The flux of life is troubling and troublesome to most of us, and we want to define it away. We want clarity, or clear boundaries between this and that. So we say that behaviorism is reacting to external stimuli, and connectivism is connecting nodes—as if behaviorists can't connect things and connectivists can't react to external stimuli. This is little more than arranging your sock drawer—not a bad thing to do, but hardly sufficient to build a life or an education around. And we want stability. Once we define light socks on this side and dark socks on that side, then we don't want anybody messing with those categories. We can be outraged at those who will re-arrange our drawers (I'm thinking of a certain spouse here) putting cotton socks here and synthetics there, or dress socks for dark shoes, dress socks for brown shoes, casual socks, and athletic socks all in different piles. Don't these other people understand the inviolable order of the Universe? And finally, we seek control. When I reach for a certain pair of socks, I want to know exactly where they are and just which pants they go with.

So am I ridiculing this drive toward clarity, stability, and control? Absolutely not. Life is much easier with clarity, stability, and control, and much of our time and energy is spent blocking out well-ordered social, economic, political, religious, and familial spaces for ourselves. In terms of Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework, which Dave Cormier uses in his post Seeing rhizomatic learning and MOOCs through the lens of the Cynefin framework, we are constantly trying to move as much of life as possible from the chaotic, complex, and complicated zones into the simple zone. If my socks are arranged as I want them in my sock drawer, then I don't have to think much about them anymore. The sock realm of my life is now simple, which reduces my expenditure of cognitive and physical energy for an issue that I don't really want to engage much anyway. As with our socks, we want to move connectivism into the simple zone. Once I've made connectivism simple by reducing it to couple of essential characteristics and creating distinct, stable boundaries between it and other theories, then I don't have to think about it much anymore. I've nailed it. This gives me a sense of clarity, stability, and control.

So what's wrong with clarity, stability, and control? Nothing, except the Universe doesn't seem to be arranged that way. Reality has a way of becoming un-nailed and slipping out of our comfortable categories, of fleeing down lines of deterritorialization in what Deleuze and Guattari call asignifying ruptures. Modern physics seems to suggest that very little of the Universe is simple and that all of that most interesting and salient part of the Universe that we call Life exists in the complex zone between the merely complicated and the radically chaotic. Certainly, connectivism and rhizomatic education exist in the complex zone. By the time they have moved securely into the simple zone, most of us will have lost interest in them. And look at what has happened to MOOCs. We early participants in cMOOCs thought we had them fairly well defined, and then Coursera and edX came along to re-arrange the sock drawer. Life does that, and we shouldn't have tried to reduce MOOCs to a single thing anyway.

So the big problem for me is that definitions based on reductionism and essentialism try to move complex things into the simple zone, obscuring a thing rather than clarifying it. How so? First, a reductionist definition treats the definition as an end point rather than a beginning point. It stops conversation rather than starts it. Most teachers know that the quickest way to end a classroom discussion is for the teacher to give the answer. After you have the right answer, what else needs to be said? That issue is closed. Unlike simple, reductionist definitions, complex definitions take a definition as a starting point, as DNA which is constantly unfolding into a new entity, like a snowflake: recognizable as a snowflake, and yet totally unique. If snowflakes are that complex an entity, then how much more complex are humans and societies? We need definitions of snowflakes and people and theories that start with a few elements and processes (DNA) and work outward to an infinity of forms, not definitions that work inward toward one form with a few distinguishing features. Of course, this approach to defining really messes with the whole regime of multiple-choice tests.

Then, simple definitions remove the person from the definition. One of the great lessons of modern physics is that no observation or calculation or definition can be made aside from an observer, calculator, or defining agent. We can't leave people out. Any definition of connectivism must account for the point of view of the person defining it. I value the Oxford English Dictionary for its inclusion of writers who have used a given word in a given way. That's a step in the right direction. Complex definitions recognize the issue of point of view and build it into the definition.

I'll write more tomorrow about definitions.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinking Like Grass

Like most everyone else for the past six months, I've been thinking about MOOCs (note that on Susan Bainbridge's current Connectivism Scoop page, easily half of the scooped articles are about MOOCs (2nd note: if you are at all interested in Connectivism and MOOCs, then you should follow Susan's Scoop. It's invaluable, and I deeply appreciate her work.)). I've introduced a good friend of mine to MOOCs and Connectivism, and he read the things I sent him. He was interested in the concept, but he had two immediate concerns about MOOCs:
  • Social sharing can legitimize any kind of knowledge, like racism, sexism, imperialism. Without an ethical standard, knowledge is free to kill as well as to cure. (Which is not to say that traditional education is ethical—I don’t think it is. But there are other options.)
  • And the second is the danger of elitism. I don’t see my students getting very far in their rhizomatic education. (Which is not to say that they will get very far in traditional education either.) I guess I would call this feature the “appearance of democratic education.”
He concluded by asking if I have read "Morris' News from Nowhere—a late 19th-century British utopian novel" in which the citizens "have no theory of education at all, and no specific practices either." I have not read the novel, but I will—after all, turnabout is fair play, but I want to respond to Dan's concerns.

First, I have not thought much about the ethical aspects of Connectivism and MOOCs, nor have I read much about ethics from anyone else in the connectivist discussion, but I think Connectivism and cMOOCs have an ethical perspective built into the first O in MOOC: Open. MOOCs are open in any number of ways, but especially in terms of network connectivity. Anyone is free to connect to and engage a MOOC, and they will do so IF they perceive value in the connection. No one has to connect, and in fact, most of the people who sign-up for a MOOC do not engage the MOOC in any degree that might be significant to an observer—say a college administrator looking for the ROI. This should not bee sting as a bad thing. Rather, it should be seen as bee efficiency. Apparently, when bees want to move their hive, the scout bees fan out in all directions. Most of them find nothing, but a few find something, and through their connections, they channel the other bees into these promising pathways until finally the way to a new hive emerges. What starts as chaos (MOOCers will be familiar with this sense of early chaos in a MOOC) turns out to be a highly efficient way to create new meaning for the hive. Still, it's highly wasteful, like most MOOCs. Fortunately, the cost of each connection to a MOOC is almost nil, so the waste is functionally irrelevant. But the waste identifies quite efficiently those students who are in some way ripe for learning whatever emerges from the MOOC. Those who are not ripe simply fade away with little to no damage to the MOOC. I like this bee efficiency.

This openness to connectivity is an aspect of network dynamics, I think, and it has to do with a shift in the way value is created in a network as opposed to a hierarchical structure. In a hierarchy, one's relative value is measured by the number of people under one and subject to one. In a network, one's relative value is measured by the number of people willing to connect to one. This is an obvious oversimplification, but it points to a seriously different dynamic in the relationships among people in a functional group. The relationships in hierarchical groups are based more on power, benevolent or otherwise, while the relationships in network groups are based more on mutual attraction. Engagement or not is up to the agent, and this is a powerful kind of agency.

This radical shift in agency demands an equally radical shift in ethics. It seems to me that ethics for the past few hundred years has been based on the need to manage exchanges across discrete boundaries. In other words, reductionist thought makes each of us a position within a hierarchy—a "cog in something turning" as Joni Mitchell put it—with quite distinct boundaries between positions, or agents, and agency has been defined in terms of who gets to tell whom what to do and how to think and how to reward and punish those exchanges. This kind of ethics, this Lockean social contract, does not work if, as a node in a network, you have no fixed position, if you are free to engage or disengage connections, and if the connections depend on mutual attraction, as they do in MOOCs. We need an ethics of complex, multi-scale networks, which is partly how I define a MOOC. Perhaps such an ethics exists, but I don't know about it (any philosopher out there willing to enlighten me. I'm a fairly quick read.)

So I revise what I said earlier about connectivism having a built-in ethics. It doesn't. Rather, it seems to me that the openness of connectivism and its MOOCs calls for a new ethics based on a rethinking of agents, their boundaries, and their exchange processes. The ethics that works for an agent occupying a position in a reductionist hierarchy will not work for an agent acting as a node in a dynamic, complex, multi-scale network. The networked, connectivist agent needs a new ethics that guides the dynamic choices that help identify useful connections and cultivate those connections and eventually close some of those connections. To put this in MOOC terms, MOOCers need a new ethics that guides their choices about which MOOCs to engage, which agents and content within the MOOC to engage, and how to engage: how to both give and take value within their networks. Actually, I think give and take are the wrong terms, too strongly tied to the reductionist, hierarchical ethics with its exchanges across discrete boundaries. We need an ethics that helps us become value within a network, increasing the value of the network to the benefit of the entire network. I suspect, then, that ecological movements may be working out the details of the kinds of ethics that I'm looking for. I'll have to check into that.

This leads me to Dan's comments about elitism and that he doesn't see his "students getting very far in their rhizomatic education." If he means that, unlike elite students, most college students lack the internal motivation and skills to engage an open network of inquiry and discussion, such as cMOOCs, then he's probably correct. Aside from the graduate courses at elite universities, too much of our education is an exercise in what Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1987) call tracing, a careful, meticulous repetition of patterns and truths already laid out for us in a curriculum and watched over by proctors keen on sameness and competence. Open cMOOCs call for mapping, or a process of "active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback" (Cheun-Ferng Koh, 1997). Thus, our students have learned to trace well, but they see no advantage in going outside the line, in mapping new territory for themselves or others. The last thing a successful student wants to do on a test is to tell the teacher something that she doesn't already know. That is largely and by default defined as failure. Tracing well does not prepare one for success in a MOOC. Actually, that skill frustrates both the MOOC and the student.

If, on the other hand, Dan means that in the open network of a MOOC a few students will attain more status and value than most others, then he is also correct. The power laws of scale-free networks express the strong probability that some nodes will be more well connected than most other nodes. This happens in every MOOC that I have engaged. Often, the teacher or weekly leader in a MOOC is a highly connected node, but I suspect that this is in some part residue from traditional education, in which the teacher is the ONLY well-connected node in the hierarchy (too often connections among students—talking—are censured and censored). In the best MOOCs, sub-networks develop as students connect to each other in their engagement of a mutually interesting and enriching discussion. MOOCs encourage this kind of networking within the network, and often enough, one or two nodes of those sub-networks gain more status, become elite, through more connections from other nodes. I do not see a problem with this, but I do think it is distracting to those students who are looking for the correct content to trace competently rather than for the new content to map usefully.

Finally, like Dan, I wonder if education can do without theory and practice. I think it can, but only if we are thinking of theory and practice as mechanisms for promoting tracing rather than mapping. When many first-time MOOCers move from tracing in the traditional classroom to mapping in a MOOC, then they feel a loss of theory and practice. They are disoriented. The lines drop out from under their feet, and this causes real stress and grief for many, which those students have expressed in blog posts, tweets, and feedback in many of the MOOCs I've engaged. And these are elite students, by the way.

So as with the call for a new ethics, I think MOOCs call for a new theory and practice in education especially, and I'm fairly certain that this new theory and practice will strike many of us as NO theory and practice. I think Deleuze can offer some suggestion here. I read an article by Xiao-Jiu Ling called Thinking like Grass, with Deleuze in Education? (Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, Vol 7, Num 2, 2009) in which Ling draws so tempting implications from Deleuzianal thought:
Then, what could Deleuze mean to the field of Education? My first temptation is to simply boldly borrow his phrase above and to propose thus: There is no need for education: it is necessarily produced where each activity gives rise to its line of deterritorialization. To get out of education, to do never mind what so as to be able to produce it from outside! [italics in the original] Perhaps, it is indeed a Deleuzian repetition that we can aim for in education, a kind of repetition that is a transgression, in which its possibility hinges on opposing as much to moral (nomos) law as to natural (physis) law (DR, p. 2-3). By working in opposition to the order of the always already-existing laws, in the spirit of parrhēsia prefigured by Diogenes the Cynic, Deleuze is proposing new possibilities of working in the direction of creating artistic realities; that is, to treat philosophy itself as an artistic endeavour in its essential nature. And if one is to realize the fundamental role that education plays in forming our frames of thinking, that is, providing existing and always the dominant images of thought of our society in general, the relevance of Deleuze’s analysis and his “anecdotes” of philosophizing is hard to deny. Or, at least we are tempted to make this parallel: that if philosophy can be made fecund with the open-mindedness of an artist, then the work of education can also be made fertile through the exigency of treating it as an artistic engagement, something that not only demands creativity but more importantly a critical consciousness of the ethical dimension that is inherent in education. (43,44)
Well, let's talk about this some more, later.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

WAC 4: ePortfolios

I have grounded my concept of a writing across the curriculum program (WAC) in connectivist theory: that knowledge and communication are network phenomena, a function of mapping and traversing complex, multi-scale networks. As Stephen Downes says in his post Types of Knowledge and Connective Knowledge, "connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections." To my mind, language is one of our primary tools for mapping and traversing these networks. Indeed, language is more than a tool—language is a fundamental part of the knowledge and communication networks themselves. Language is like DNA: it is the tool and instructions by which the organism/network emerges, it is part of the scaffolding of the emerging organism/network, and it is part of the maintenance system for the emerged organism/network. Language, like DNA, is woven into the very knowledge and communications that emerge from its play. It's a bit like making the blueprints and hammers and saws part of the house they are helping to build.

But this is still a very abstract concept that may not have an intuitively obvious application. A core, practical application in my WAC is the ePortfolio, an ideal application that fits nicely into a connectivist, network perspective. I'll say why, but first let me point out that I am not saying that ePortfolios are connectivist. A constructivist, cognitivist, or behaviorist can use ePortfolios as well as any connectivist, but I particularly like a connectivist take on ePortfolios. Here's why, and let me cite my source up front: Jonan Donaldson's article Digital Portfolios in the Age of the Read/Write Web in the current issue of Educause Review Online. Mr. Donaldson, an instructional designer at Oregon State University, says all of the things I want to say about ePortfolios and more, so I'm leaning on him heavily in this post.

The first key feature of ePortfolios is that they have emerged from the read/write web. I began using ePortfolios when the e(lectronic) in ePortfolios meant a PowerPoint burned to a CD. This was decidedly old-school and not very network aware. All that is changed, and now ePortfolios are best understood as a function of complex, multi-scale networks. This implies that all ePortfolios are on the open Web and not locked within some organizational silo and that they are owned and managed by the student.

Jonan Donaldson lists a number of affordances provided by ePortfolios:
  • ePortfolios help shift from teacher-centric education to student-centric education, as students become active producers of knowledge rather than passive consumers of knowledge. Rather than simply learning the eternal truth from their teachers, students use ePortfolios to create connections among their bits of personal knowledge and the people they encounter in school. This fits well with Downes' contention that "The very forms of reason and enquiry employed in the classroom must change. Instead of seeking facts and underlying principles, students need to be able to recognize patterns and use things in novel ways. Instead of systematic methodical enquiry,… students need to learn active and participative forms of enquiry. Instead of deference to authority, students need to embrace diversity and recognize (and live with) multiple perspectives and points of view." ePortfolios can provide the scaffolding for this approach to learning.
  • ePortfolios provide students with intrinsic motivation. As Donaldson points out, "Turning consumers of knowledge into producers of knowledge transforms learning into an active experience." Mapping networks is not a passive activity, and it requires some intrinsic motivation. Deleuze and Guattari make this clear in their distinction between mapping and tracing the rhizome. Traditional education is largely a matter of tracing which depends on extrinsic motivations such as rewards and punishments rather than mapping which relies on intrinsic motivations.
  • ePortfolios enhance student autonomy. Donaldson says, "Not only can students individualize the look and feel of their portfolios through templates and design options, they can also enjoy increased individualization of content and the delivery format of portfolio artifacts." ePortfolios let students "recognize patterns and use things in novel ways" and "learn active and participative forms of enquiry." In other words, it helps fit the knowledge to the student rather than fit the students to the knowledge. (Many may seem autonomy as inconsistent with networking, but this is a misunderstanding of networks. Each node in a network must maintain its own autonomy and integrity to perform its role in the network and to make the network what it is.)
  • ePortfolios enhance collaboration. Donaldson notes wryly that "it is often said that we learn best when we do, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that we learn best when we do together." A network demands collaboration and cooperation (in Downes' sense of the term) among its various nodes, and research shows that when students connect to (network with) a teacher, another student, or a community of practice, then they are more likely to stay in college and succeed.
  • ePortfolios enhance digital literacy, as Donaldson notes, "incidentally while tackling the learning objectives at hand." Students learn to recognize, validate, and use a wider range of patterns in different kinds of data and information (text, image, video, audio, number, and more), and they learn to orchestrate this data into coherent, appealing documents. These are incredibly valuable skills.
  • ePortfolios enhance students' digital image. Most of today's college students already have digital image that is unfortunately not under their control and not always positive. Building an ePortfolio helps the student to learn how to build a professional brand and why that brand is important. The online world is not going away, and our students must know how to navigate it and use its powers.
  • ePortfolios enhance students' 21st century writing skills. As Donaldson says, modern writing means "being able to create digital content that conveys information effectively for dissemination through websites, blogs, wikis, online presentations, illuminating graphics, audio content, and video content." This ain't your grandma's writing. Rather, this is the production of illuminated manuscripts: documents illuminated with image, video, sound, calculation, hyperlinks, and yes, text. ePortfolios help us learn this kind of writing, the kind of writing we will do in the 21st century.
I want to add to Donaldson's list that ePortfolios connect students to their communities of practice—first as students and then as fledgling professionals. Blogs, Twitter, RSS feeds, and more tools that can be aggregated on an ePortfolio help connect students to their personal learning networks and to their communities of practice. They connect to each other to get through school and then to practicing professionals to join a profession.

Finally, perfect WAC would include ePortfolios from the faculty and staff. I know of no better way to teach students how to build an ePortfolio than by building one myself.

Yes, ePortfolios.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

WAC 3: Writing to Connect

I said in an earlier post that the first objective of a writing across the curriculum program is "to enable students to learn more and better." In this mode, students are using writing as a tool for mapping knowledge networks both in their own minds and in the world about them. The second objective is to enable students to connect with others. In this mode, students are using writing as a tool for exchanging knowledge networks with others.

I think that even a casual reader will sense that these are not unrelated goals; rather, they are interconnected goals. Often, we writers learn best when we are connecting with others, and we connect best when we are learning. From a writer's point of view, the distinction is a matter of focus rather than a change of goals. When writing to learn, we are focused on ourselves; when writing to connect, we are focused on others. For the writer, however, this shift is a complex and dynamic boundary along which a skillful writer constantly checks and refines what she knows with what she wants to achieve with the reader and vice versa. This shift is dynamic because the skillful writer is constantly looking back and forth, and it is complex because what she finds in her own knowledge feeds into and affects what she wants to achieve with another just as her interaction with the other feeds back into her own knowledge.

By the way, I am using the phrase writing to connect rather than my earlier phrase writing to communicate. I want to emphasize the connectivity that writing enables, and of course, that connectivity includes communication, but I think it can include more. Connectivity also resonates with the concepts of networking and connectivism in a way that communication does not. Let's see.

So writing is a network phenomenon that connects us to other people. A writing across the curriculum program can first cultivate writing to connect through the development of personal learning networks (PLNs) for each student. This, of course, connects us back to writing to learn, but as should be obvious, I see no separation between the two modes of writing (the one hardly makes sense without the other, though over the years I have found it convenient and useful to talk about them and to teach them separately). A PLN, built mostly through writing and reading in both electronic and print modes, connects each student to other students, to teachers, and to a profession (I am not using profession merely in the sense of a future job, but more so in the sense of a community of practice). Ample research shows that successful college students form strong connections to one or more of three aspects of college: other students, favorite professors, or a discipline. Students who do not connect to at least one of the aspects of college tend to falter, fail, and leave.

The original purpose of college, of course, was to foster such personal learning networks through close, physical proximity on a campus. Such physical proximity is still important, but physical connectivity is now supported and extended through electronic networks that allow any person to connect usefully with so many more people. A useful writing across the curriculum program must rely heavily, then, on these electronic networks.

In addition to helping students build PLNs, a useful WAC program helps students connect to a community of practice (COP). In one sense, one can view a college education as an introduction to and indoctrination in the conversation germane to a particular community of practice. Colleges teach students to walk the walk and talk the talk of some scholarly or professional community of practice. WACs help students first become familiar with the conversation of a COP and gradually to participate in that conversation. It's useful to say that one becomes a professional member of a community of practice when one can engage in the dominant conversations of that community (to rip-off a phrase from George Siemens). WACs cultivate the abilities of students to engage those conversations.

Finally, useful WACs should help students to connect to the world through project-based learning relevant to the students' COPs. Project-based learning is an ideal vehicle for enabling the kind of real-world writing that engages the world (a customer or client, for instance) to effect some change or elicit some response.

Hmm. Does this wear well? I'll have to think on that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

WAC 2: The Rhizomatic Document

It occurs to me that some people may not agree with my characterization of writing, especially in the sense of an actual text or document, as a network phenomenon. After all, scholars have long emphasized the linear nature of printed documents, such as books, typed letters, and journal articles. Electronic documents such as this post have introduced hyperlinks, which so impressed scholars at the beginning of the Internet age, but for these scholars, the novelty of hyperlinks is that they in some way disrupt the inherent, natural linearity of documents. I think this linear view of documents is wrong. Documents have always been network phenomenon, but that fact has been obscured by the mechanical technology we used to produce them and by the lack of electronic technology to see them otherwise. While it's obvious that words in a document are arranged in a line, this line is better visualized as a curving line of genes in DNA: the starting point for an unfolding in complex network fashion into a very, non-linear organism. The words in this post are not individual bricks added one by one to build a wall between you and me for you to analyze or not. Rather, the words in this post are a set of instructions keenly sensitive to their interconnectivity to the other words and to the particular arrangement among all the words to create multi-scale, dynamic patterns that may or may not echo in you.

To my mind, the linear view of writing is part and parcel of the general linear view of reality that has been key to Western intellectual thought for the past few centuries. While the reductionist, linear methods of Western science have been wildly successful in many ways, the development of chaos and complexity theories has done much to expose the limitations of reductionist linearity as a worldview. The old linear views were based on well-established linear mathematics and linear arguments. It was very mechanical, as was much of the technology that supported such thinking. It is easy to see how someone who makes a living out of setting metal type would tend to see a document as a linear structure. But as Gleick shows in his book Chaos, the non-linear mathematics of chaos theory has revealed the limitations of linear mathematics and, by bold extension, the limitations of a linear, reductionist world view. Edgar Morin's book On Complexity shows how complexity theory—which to my mind is subsuming chaos theory, but that may be because I don't understand either well enough—how complexity theory is likewise exposing the limitations of the reductionist, linear worldview. As Albert-lázló Barabási notes: "we always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it," mostly because we didn't have the technology to see it. Now we have that technology and the concomitant patterns of mind to see that the Universe is so much more than a reductionist, linear mechanism. It's time to turn this complex networking lens on writing.

And we are turning the network lens on writing, even when we don't recognize it as such. I read just yesterday an article in The Atlantic by Peg Tyre entitled The Writing Revolution, in which Ms. Tyre describes how Principal Deirdre DeAngelis turned around her failing New York high school, New Dorp, by implementing a writing across the curriculum program that placed "an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class." The result was "an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform." Unfortunately, the article seems to cast this most fortunate development in a return to basics narrative, pitting old-fashioned instructional methods against misguided, New-age methods:
In a profoundly hopeful irony, New Dorp’s re­emergence as a viable institution has hinged not on a radical new innovation but on an old idea done better. The school’s success suggests that perhaps certain instructional fundamentals—fundamentals that schools have devalued or forgotten—need to be rediscovered, updated, and reintroduced. And if that can be done correctly, traditional instruction delivered by the teachers already in classrooms may turn out to be the most powerful lever we have for improving school performance after all.
This is certainly one way to view the New Dorp saga, but not the only way. I prefer to look at New Dorp's story as a success of network thinking. To my mind, New Dorp discovered that its students did not know how to use language to map a complex network of ideas. As one New Dorp teacher noted: "the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence," but the 14- and 15-year olds at New Dorp "were missing a crucial understanding of how language works." The students could not generate useful knowledge networks in their minds when they were reading, nor could they generate useful knowledge networks on paper when they were writing, because they did not understand the grammatical and syntactical connectors and connections which arrange words into meaningful patterns. As one student said of her own skills: "I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words … The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

Writing is not just a sea of words. It is not simply stringing along a sequence of words, brick by brick, even in grammatically correct ways, until one reaches 500 words, which is what most of my students seem to think writing is. Rather, writing is a mapping of words that interconnect and relate to each other  and to neural networks, social, and physical networks in significant ways. The sequence of words, the proximity of words to other words, the frequency of words, and the repetition of words unfolds the meanings of words, and naive readers and writers miss these dynamic and critical inter-relationships. Naive readers and writers see just a wall of bricks—one word following another in a line. They do not see the unfolding of a sequence of words in a meaningful orchestration of networked patterns. In other words, they do not see the unfolding of a sequence of genes in a strand of DNA that eventually blossoms into a kitten, which in my experience is a most non-linear, chaotic, complex structure, certainly as complex as any James Joyce novel.

Tyre actually captures this network thinking when she quotes Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany: “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding [italics added] … has become increasingly rare.” Applebee is correct, I think, and the solution is a rhizomatic program of writing across the curriculum which provides students numerous, persistent, and ubiquitous opportunities to use writing and reading documents as tools for learning. As with any beginners, these opportunities can begin small, just as Tyre describes happened at New Dorp:
In chemistry class in the winter of 2010, [student] Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although
Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.” 
Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.” 
If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
This is not the old drill-and-practice and diagramming sentences characteristic of back-to-basics grammar and writing. Rather, this is using writing to map the complex relationships among chemistry concepts. Yes, it begins small, at the sentence level with precise prompts. That's fine. This provides the scaffolding for Monica to begin to construct paragraphs with even more complex networks of ideas, and this helps Monica to become a better writer and a better chemistry student. That sounds like a win-win to me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

WAC: Writing to Learn across the Curriculum

I have the opportunity to design a new writing across the curriculum program for college, and I'm interested to see how I might translate theory into practice. I have been writing for three years now about networking, connectivism, and rhizomatic education, but it has all been rather abstract. So let's see what practice might look like.

Let's start with a statement about writing: writing is a network phenomenon. Writing's first job is to engage, develop, and render explicit internal, neural networks. As Olaf Sporns says, and as I have quoted often enough, "Cognition is a network phenomenon" (Networks of the Brain, 181). Writing is the networking tool that helps me to verbalize my cognition. It helps me to reinforce and reform my cognition. Writing is one of the best tools we have for cultivating thought and translating it into a text that helps the writer to clarify for herself what she means. This is the primary mode of writing that I am using in this blog. I am writing first for myself to explore my thoughts, mostly about networking, connectivism, and rhizomatic structures. I don't mean to insult any who might read this blog—indeed, many have made comments that have greatly helped me to clarify my thinking—but this blog is where I do my thinking and learning. I'm really my own first reader here, and I'm writing this blog first for my learning.

As a tool for learning, writing works in two different directions. First, writing works from the inside out. Writing helps me to engage, shape, and map my thoughts in a recursive probing that I can follow and remember. Writing helps me to make what I know explicit to myself, and that is of inestimable value to me. Once my thoughts are explicit, once they are mapped to a text, then I can interact with them more objectively and systematically than I can if they are just floating about in my head. I can keep my thoughts, remember them, much better and more reliably if they are mapped to words in a document than if I just keep them in my head. I do not mean to denigrate purely mental thought—often I think things through long before I put them in text, and I am aware that much cognition is not even available to the conscious, rational mind—but I want to speak for the added benefits of writing as a supplement to cognition. Writing affords me a conscious engagement with my thoughts that is difficult to get any other way. (This recursive dynamic between the external textual network and the internal neural network is worth much more investigation than I am giving it here, but that's for later.)

Thus as a learning tool, writing works first from the inside out, but it also works from the outside in. As I have experiences—most often through constant reading and conversation with others, but pretty sunsets are also included—I use writing to develop new knowledge networks and to engage my existing networks in different ways. This allows new knowledge to bloom in my mind, and writing about those experiences is a physical process that reinforces and cultivates those new mental blooms in ways that few other activities can do.

In short, writing is a very complex and wonderfully malleable boundary between the networks of knowledge in my mind and the networks of knowledge outside my mind. Writing is one of the key boundaries where knowledge leaks out of me and oozes into me. Writing is like a cell membrane, or the mechanism within the membrane that manages the exchange between the inside and the outside of the organism. It is a zone of engagement. As a tool for building and traversing knowledge networks, writing is one of the best technologies that humanity has invented. Writing makes me smarter and more knowledgeable than I am without writing. I think writing has this benefit for everyone, and I am convinced that the more students write about the things they are learning, the better they will learn those things.
ASIDE: The cell membrane analogy for knowledge exchange is problematic. It suggests too physical an activity. Actually, I don't think there is any physical exchange when I push knowledge into the world or the world pushes knowledge into me. There is no token, no chunk of knowledge, that is passed from you to me and back. Rather, there is an echo of patterns from you to me and back. This is much more like Deleuze and Guattari's concept of decalcomania, in which a pattern in one part of the rhizome (you) is echoed in another part (me) as we encounter each other either physically or via some media such as this blog post. Thus, this echo always happens at some boundary, or some pressing of one structure against another. A text is just such a boundary, or pressing, or zone of engagement. As James Gleick describes so well in his book Chaos: Making a New Science (2008), this boundary is where all the action takes place between or among structures. The boundary is where each structure (my mind and your mind, say) begins to vibrate under the presence of the other, and pattern in the one begins to echo in the other. This echoing of pattern has a definite physical ground, but the physical substrate is not sufficient to explain it.
Anyway, if I am thinking correctly, then the first goal for a writing across the curriculum program should be to enable students to learn more and better. Writing helps students to make better sense of the knowledge networks in their own minds, and it helps to feed those networks with new knowledge from outside.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Connectivism?

I've not blogged in over a month, and I have a serious case of disconnection. I'm irritable about it. Really. I'm not so pleasant just now, and I think a large part of it has to do with my loss of connection with my writing, my thoughts, my conversation. Of course, I have good reasons for being disconnected—mostly demands from other connections: family, vacation, a personal blog, work, an election, and more—but those reasons do not ameliorate the dissatisfaction. The only solution is to reconnect. Perhaps a better way to say it is: it's time for me to refire a dormant neuron.

And it occurs to me how differently I think about things now and how I owe much of that difference to this conversation about connectivism.This has been a most important conversation for me, and I'm uncomfortable when I don't exercise it regularly. So what is it that makes connectivism important? If I had to chose one word for you, then I would say networks, networks in both their formal sense as mathematical, scientific structures and their informal sense as rhizomatic, literary structures. I admire and respect the first way to think about networks, but I love the second. The first is a revered teacher, the second a passionate lover. Both aspects of networks have reshaped my thinking about most everything in life, but especially the way I view education and rhetoric. Networking is an archetypal meme that radically changes the way I see my world. For me, this has been big stuff.

I've been reminded from several sources just this past week about the revolution that is occurring all around us as the networking meme (virus might be a better term) spreads. The webzine Edge had a great conversation with Albert-lázló Barabási about thinking in network terms. Barabási notes first that "we always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it." We became aware of networks as technologies gave us a way of better viewing them. This is the same as our using telescopes to learn that the Earth is but a speck of dust on the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. We had always been a speck of dust on a speck of dust, but the telescope helped us to see that. Similarly, we have always been nodes in physical, chemical, biological, social, spiritual, intellectual, rhetorical networks, but it took computers and computer networks for us to appreciate that fact and to address it. Now, as Barabási notes, "We never perceived connectedness as being quantifiable, as being something that we can describe, that we can measure, that we have ways of quantifying the process. That has changed drastically in the last decade, at many, many different levels." New technology has given us the ability to approach rationally a phenomenon that has always been here and sensed on some (usually spiritual or artistic) level, but not quite graspable outside of poetry and prophecy. At last, science has the tools to systematically deal with networking, and it's going to change everything.

The network meme is in the DNA of connectivism. As far as I know, connectivism is the most coherent  and vibrant attempt in educational theory to deal with education as a network structure, and for me, that is connectivism's greatest value. Just as many scholars are doing in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, mathematics, and other disciplines, connectivism places networking at the core of its methodology and thinking. Networking guides its practice and preaching. Connectivism has converted me, and like the Apostle Paul, I hope to take this new thinking to my home town: Rhetoric. I believe that networking will revolutionize rhetoric and writing instruction.

I'd better start writing. Wow. I do feel better. I hope you do, too.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Agency and the Death of Steve Jobs

A Sunday School Lesson:

The common attitude about Steve Jobs reflects the old view of agency, especially in business: that one person causes things to happen. Most of us so hope that is true, but the reality is that Apple was much more than Steve Jobs and that Jobs could not have done iPads without Apple and Apple could not have done them without Jobs. Steve Jobs became for most people a handy reduction of the complexity of Apple.

The iPad is an emergence of all the parts working at Apple, much like this post, which is an emergence of the billions of underlying calculations and logical processes within my MacBook Pro. Whatever meaning you derive from the words in this post absolutely depends upon the regular mathematical and logical processes at work in the heart of my 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor. These processes are causal: one process leads logically, predictably, and necessarily to the next process.

One might be tempted, then, to extrapolate the causality at work on the processor scale to the social blog post scale. This is a big mistake. The processes at work in my CPU do not cause the meaning that you and I see in this post. Those underlying electronic processes are necessary for meaning to emerge at this scale – a post on our computer screens – but they are not sufficient to explain it. Try it: follow the flow of electrons, translate them into a stream of 1s and 0s, watch as those trillions of 1s and 0s combine, split, store, dump, and interact, and you will never see any evidence – not even a glimmer – of the meaning in this post. You would see a fantastic light show, but you would not see this post or its meaning. You can't get from there to here.

At least not without a gradual process of emergence from network scale to network scale through the rhizome of this blog. The 1s and 0s aggregate into bytes to form letters (and I'm doing a lot of glossing here), but even the letter you think you see on your screen is an emergent entity. You are really looking at millions of pixels interacting in certain ways so that what you accept as letters emerge on your screen. As you see these emergent letters, the vaguest wisps of what we commonly think of as meaning are starting to emerge, but even here at the scale of morpheme and grapheme, you would be hard pressed to actually see the meaning in this post. You cannot find causality even at this nearby scale: morphemes and graphemes are necessary for meaning, but they, too, do not cause meaning. As the morphemes and graphemes aggregate in certain ways into words, then we get closer to our common concept of meaning, but even at this scale – so close at hand – it's very difficult to find the cause of the meaning that we see in this post.

Common meaning does seem to emerge as words aggregate into sentences. Ahh, this is it, we say. Now we have meaning, now we can explain meaning. Perhaps. But just for fun, take any sentence out of this post to stand alone:

At least not without a gradual process of emergence from network scale to network scale through the rhizome of this blog.

I chose the first sentence (yes, I know it is not a complete sentence) of the previous paragraph. It was handy. By itself, it means almost nothing, or almost anything, which is the same thing as far as meaning goes. Of course, it's difficult for you and me to read that sentence outside of the context of this blog post because we've already read it within context, but if you want some small fun, share that sentence with someone who hasn't read this post and see what meaning they make of it. I'm willing to bet not much.

So we have to move up to the paragraph level, then, for meaning to emerge? That helps, but not as much as we might hope. So move up to the post level? That's better, perhaps. If I've written well, then this post might have some hope of standing alone as a meaning-bearing artifact, but really, if you don't also have some sense of this blog in general and of the conversations about emergence, rhizomes, and connectivism, then does this post make much sense? I don't think so. If any of my Composition I students read this, they will not likely understand much of it. And of course, we have not yet considered our own brains and the rhizome of meanings that we each bring to this post. Is that where the meaning is? In our several heads?

The answer – to my mind, at any rate – is quite clear: the meaning isn't in any one of those places. Rather, the meaning is distributed across all the rhizome from the neat march of 1s and 0s in my CPU to the cacophony of conversations across the ages about what it means to mean something. And here's the magic: the more meaning you perceive across the rhizome, then the more meaning you can perceive in any one location.

The meaning of the iPad isn't located in Steve Jobs, either. Rather, the meaning of the iPad is distributed across the rhizome: in the thousands of people across the globe who helped create it to the millions of people who use it and the billions who don't, to those who love it and those who hate it. Steve Jobs is necessary for understanding the iPad, but he is not sufficient. He is part of the DNA of the iPad, just as electronic processes are part of the DNA of this post, but he is not the meaning of the iPad. Rather, the iPad cannot be reduced to Steve Jobs, ultimately not even to Apple. The meaning is distributed throughout the rhizome, and if you want to map that meaning, then you must go know/mad.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

More Agency, Rhetoric, and Connectivism

If agency is the ability to recognize and respond to the surround, then does agency fit with connectivism? Yes. In fact, I can't think of an educational theory that agency does not complement. Education is hardly understandable without some notion of agency on either the teacher's part, the student's part, or usually both parts. But is agency in connectivism distinguishable from agency in behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism? I think so.

In her article Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted (CCC 62:3, 420-449), Marilyn M. Cooper locates her concept of rhetorical agency in the same theoretical framework as connectivism: complexity theory, and for her the acting agent is a complex system within a complex system. She is quite clear that the agent is not a classical subject, or a "centered, conscious, rational self", and she defines her task as rescuing the notion of agency from the "death of the subject" (420). She begins this rescue by denying the existence of the subject: "a workable theory of agency requires the death not only of the modernist subject but of the whole notion of the subject" because "the subject is inescapably defined by an agonistic relation to the object/other: the subject attempts to control the object/other in order to escape being controlled" (423).

As I understand her, Cooper is troubled by the inherent and unavoidable power struggle in a modern, reductionist view of the subject – a view I associate with behaviorism and cognitivism. As long as we view agents as discrete subjects distinct from and independent of the objects/others around them, then we cannot avoid sliding into issues of power. Indeed, the agency of a modernist subject can only be viewed in terms of power: the ability of the subject to effect change in an object through the exercise of power, however benign or well-intentioned. This idea of agency as power neatly captures the traditional notion of education: a teacher/school effecting change in students through the exercise of power, usually well-intentioned. We then measure the amount of change in the students to determine the efficacy of the teacher/school. It's a wonderfully simple model that seems as if it should work. One could almost wish it did.

Cooper replaces subject with actor/agent, which she borrows from Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory: "Unlike subjects, agents are defined neither by mastery, nor by determination, nor by fragmentation. They are unique, embodied, and autonomous individuals in that they are self-organizing, but by virtue of that fact, they, as well as the surround with which they interact, are always changing" (425). Agency is an emergent property of the interactions of agents with their surround, "the process through which organisms create meanings through acting into the world and changing their structure in response to the perceived consequences of their actions" (426). In other words, we perturb the world, Prufrock notwithstanding, and the world perturbs us in return. In the patterns of this interaction, we come to recognize and know our intentions and agency. Does this complex agency have a place in connectivism? I think so.

Both Cooper's concept of agency and connectivism, then, are grounded in complexity theory. In his blog post What is the unique idea in Connectivism?, George Siemens says that connectivists "find support for connectivism in the more nebulous theories of complexity and systems-based thinking." In his article Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge, Stephen Downes notes that knowledge itself is an emergent property of the interactions of neurons: "human thought amounts to patterns of interactions in neural networks." Knowledge does not lie in any neuron or any grouping of neurons but in the emergent patterns of neuronal interactions and networking.

While Siemens and Downes both ground their thinking in complexity theory, I find the most useful treatment for agency in David Cormier's concept of the community as curriculum. In his 2008 article Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum, Cormier describes how curriculum itself can be an emergent property of a community of learners: "In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions."

To my mind, Cooper's concept of agency fits quite nicely into Cormier's community as curriculum, particularly as expressed in connectivist MOOCs. Agency, curriculum, and knowledge all emerge as properties of the interactions of a community of learners, and all three are the trajectories of the patterns of interactions among the various nodes of the community. As learners join a community such as a MOOC, their very presence (even lurkers) perturbs the community, which in turn feeds back into the learner's own mind. The dynamic interplay and interaction of learners, artifacts, and network enables patterns of intention and mapping, in Deleuze's terms, to emerge, and our awareness of these patterns helps us to articulate, mentally and physically, the agencies, knowledges, and curricula that bubble up out of the brew.

I think I have more to say about agency and the rhizome, especially in light of Cormier's use of the term and Cooper's dismissal of Deleuze and Guattari, but not tonight.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Agency, Rhetoric, and Connectivism

In an earlier post, I discussed intentionality in the rhizome in response to some comments and questions from Frances Bell. Her questions revealed some significant gaps in my thinking which I'm still trying to fill, but the article Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted (CCC 62:3, Feb 2011) by Marilyn M. Cooper has brought me some clarity and direction, so I want to discuss the issue of agency a bit more.

First, I'm disappointed that I haven't thought more about agency. After all, the core idea behind rhetoric is that one can say or write things that have an effect on the beliefs and behaviors of others. As Cooper says in her article, our common conception of an agent is "one who through conscious intention or free will causes changes in the world" (421). Rhetoric makes little sense without the concomitant concept of agency. If our spoken and written words cannot cause change in the world, then why bother?

So, I have three questions to answer:
  1. What is agency for me?
  2. What does it have to do with Rhetoric?
  3. What does it have to do with Connectivism?
I'll try to start an answer to the first question in this post. Cooper defines agency as "an emergent property of embodied individuals … agency does not arise from conscious mental acts, though consciousness does play a role. Agency instead is based on individuals' lived knowledge that their actions are their own" (421). Her argument about agency rests on:
  1. complexity theory, which describes complex systems that self-organize through reiterative feedforward/feedback loops, reveal emergent characteristics not necessarily inherent in the individual parts of the system, and that change nonlinearly in a dance of perturbation and response as agents interact, and
  2. an enactive approach to the study of mind, "which combines neuroscience and phenomenology to develop understandings of cognitive processes and brain dynamics as embodied nonlinear self-organizing systems interacting with the surround" (421).
Agency for Cooper, then, seems to emerge as a property of the individual's complex interactions with its surround (Cooper's term, borrowed from Glen Mazis' Humans, Animals, Machines: Blurring Boundaries) and from the trajectory of the individual's struggle to create meaning, or self, out of these complex interactions. She quotes Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up Their Minds, 2000): "This dynamic system is the self in each of us. It is the agency in charge, not our awareness, which is constantly trying to catch up with what we do" (428).

Just now, I want to say this more simply: agency for me is the ability to recognize a situation and to respond to it. When an amoeba swimming in a petri dish perceives that it has swum into a drop of acid and it turns about to swim the other way, then that amoeba exhibits agency. When a lymphocyte detects an invading pathogen in the body and destroys it, then that lymphocyte exhibits agency. When a virus protection program detects a virus in a bit of code in something I download and quarantines that code, then that virus protection program exhibits agency. When I detect a bit of knowledge about agency and learn it, then I exhibit agency. Our habitual recognitions and responses (interactions with our surround) form the trajectory of our agency.

This definition differs from the common definition above in a key way: for me and for Cooper, too, agency is not dependent upon "conscious intention or free will". In other words, it doesn't matter whether or not the amoeba, the lymphocyte, the virus protection program, or I am aware of making a choice or can choose to do other than we do. As Cooper says, "neither conscious intention nor free will—at least as we commonly think of them—is involved in acting or bringing about change" (421). I like this definition as it allows me to stitch agency into the heart of most every physical and chemical reaction, and I really like that animation of the Universe. It sings for me, and I can dance with it. Cooper, too, seems willing to extend agency far beyond the human. In one of her notes, she says that her definition of agency "holds not only for all animals but also for machines, plants, and material objects" (444). Indeed, the enactive approach to the study of mind that Cooper gleans from Walter Freeman's work says that much of the process of forming our intentions is nonconscious. "Both nonconscious and conscious processes contribute to intentional action, and agents are aware of only some of the processes as they take place. The part of the loop involving intent, action , and the creation of the meaning of sensory input is largely nonconscious, as is the resultant formation of memories and dispositions. Through these processes, the agent is provided with meaning for free" (429).

This definition of agency also differs from the common use of the term in its sense of causality: our agency and intentions do not necessarily lead to specific results, as reality teaches us regularly. Complexity theorists Maturana and Varela note that the interactions between an agent and its surround do "not determine what its effects are going to be … the changes that result from the interaction between the living being and its environment are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed system" (426; emphasis in the original). Agency, then, is seldom causal in a linear way. Rather, an agent perturbs its environment, and the resultant perturbation is seldom exactly what the agent intended.

So agency is a property that emerges from the history of an individual's interactions within its complex systems. (Again, agency is not a product of the conscious mind. Rather, our awareness of intention is quite often after the fact of agency: a rationalization that credits us for some action that went well or excuses us for some action that went awry. Of course, our own stories about our intentions and our perceptions of the consequences of our intentions feedback into and modify our agency; thus, our conscious intentions contribute to agency–becoming ingredients in the agency soup–but they do not originate it.) Agency is our habitual ways of being and acting with our surround–trajectories of mind/body, trajectories both conscious and nonconscious, trajectories that perturb and in turn are perturbed by the trajectories of other agents with whom we interact. Agency is the pattern and trajectory that our presence, or absence, creates within a complex system.

This was fun and quite educational for me, so I'll write more about the relevance of this concept of agency with Connectivism and rhetoric. Cooper makes some very useful points about agency and rhetoric that I'd like to explore.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Nodes and Edges of Connectivism

I've just finished reading Scott Weingart's Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II, in which Mr. Weingart tries to correct the misuse of networks by humanities scholars. He provides a basic and quite clear explanation of what networks are and what they are not, how current technology can analyze networks, and what technology can say about networks, and most importantly, what it cannot say about networks.

Along the way, he provides the DNA for networks, and this reminds me of how fractal and complex networks are, with networks nested within networks and interacting across multiple scales. If networking is part of the DNA of connectivism, then what is the DNA of networking? Weingart gives me a few handles to work with.

He starts his discussion by defining networks in a typical fashion: networks "stand for any complex, interlocking system. Stuff and relationships [emphasis in the original]." He calls the stuff nodes and the relationships edges, in keeping with common terminology. A network, then, is a collection of nodes that are in some way related along recognizable edges. Stuff and relationships, or nodes and edges, are part of the DNA of networks. This is simple and intuitive enough, and Weingart makes this definition directly applicable to connectivism when he notes that
generally, network studies are made under the assumption that neither the stuff nor the relationships are the whole story on their own. If you’re studying something with networks, odds are you’re doing so because you think the objects of your study are interdependent rather than independent. Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.
Starting with these basic concepts, then, I immediately think that there isn't any information – or any other thing, for that matter – that cannot be represented as a network. Indeed, I agree with Weingart "not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever's going on." I think this is Downes' point when he says on his blog, "At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks."

Both the Universe and our knowledge of it are network phenomena. Actually, I already object to that statement as it seems to suggest that our knowledge is something apart from the Universe. It isn't. Our knowledge is somehow an active node in the universal network, connected along multiple edges, just as natural an emergent phenomenon as rocks are.

I don't know that either Weingart or Downes would completely agree with the statement that everything is a network phenomenon, but it makes sense to me. I can usefully model everything as a network – this very post, for instance.

This post is a multiscale network: nodes joined by edges to form the nodes joined by other edges at other scales. As nodes, letters network to form morphemes, which network to form words, which network to form sentences, which network to form paragraphs, which network to form posts, which network to form blogs, which network to form conversations, and so on. And this covers just the syntactical view of the network. We can then look at the semantic networks in which subject, verbs, objects, and other nodes network together to create concepts, which network together to create arguments and explanations, which network together to create a belief system, which network with other belief systems to create a conversation, and so on.

It is quite useful to me, then, to think of this post as a network structure, and whatever knowledge emerges herein "is distributed across a network of connections" that shifts in scale from letters and morphemes to conversations about networks, education, and knowledge. This knowledge emerges for me as I write – adding, rearranging, deleting, and shifting words and sentences about – and for you as you read – scanning for patterns of meaning using the syntactical cues I've left behind. I hope that the pattern of knowledge that emerges for you as you read this post is reasonably similar to the pattern of knowledge that is emerging for me as I write this post. If the two patterns are reasonably self-similar (and I'm not exactly sure how we can ever establish that for certain), then I will believe that I have communicated my message to you, that I have somehow transferred knowledge from me to you, even though we both know that nothing was transferred.

But there is no guarantee. Every speaker, writer, or actor is aware that an audience can perceive very different patterns in the same configuration of words, sentences, and paragraphs. My father – an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher – frequently remarked that most of his congregation heard sermons that he never preached. The message they heard depended more on their own sense of guilt and sinfulness than on his choice and arrangement of words.

Once this post is published, then, it becomes a node in a network of people (you and I) who each engage the overall network of writer, reader, and text from different vantages. It should be no surprise, therefore, that knowledge emerges in different ways for each of us, sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically.

If nothing else then, the complex, multi-scale, network nature of writing helps me understand and explain why even a simple piece of writing such as one of my brilliantly clear and concise writing assignments can receive such divergent interpretations, with almost every student doing something different. If knowledge was a discrete, transferrable thing, then I could give all my students the same thing, but because knowledge is an emergent pattern scattered across a network of words, I can hope only for a reasonably similar pattern blossoming in the minds of my students. Sometimes the magic happens. Sometimes it doesn't.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Time for a SmOOC?

Motivated by Bon Stewart's efforts to unpack the MOOC buzzword and now by Jenny Mackness' thoughts about the explosion of MOOCs in higher education, I want to say a bit more about the appropriation of MOOCs by universities and corporations.

One could be kind to the universities that are, in Mackness' words, "jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at an alarming rate," and say that at least they recognize a good new wine when they see it and that they are putting the new wine into old skins mostly because that's what they know how to do, but really, I don't know how kind such a comment would be, and anyway, I'm not sure the universities are that benign (used mostly in the medical sense of not being malignant). A more cynical train of thought might suggest that we are witnessing a movement by the forces of control to counter and appropriate, to quote the blog Learning Spaces, "smooth spaces where nomadic thinking can occur, and is indeed encouraged."

The writer of Learning Spaces (BTW, I don't know the name of this person. Can anyone tell me? Thanks) argues that corporatisation of education reflects a shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control, as described by Gilles Deleuze in his article Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992). Learning Spaces says, "In education this [control] is characterised through dataveillance and ever more strict frameworks for accountability, particularly through the work of Ofsted. However, whilst restrictions and creeping privatisation have led to a loss of professionalism and increasing homogenisation of the educative process, Deleuzean geophilosophy emphasises the potential for individuals and groups to create alternative spaces for professional creativity and debate." I believe that MOOCs began as explorations "for individuals and groups to create alternative spaces for professional creativity and debate." I think this more open space is core to the idea of MOOCs (part of the DNA), and that most of us are suspect of what we see as the compromise of this open space by recent versions of MOOCs rolled out by more corporate bodies. I think that Bon Stewart, Jenny Mackness, and others will agree. Stewart notes that MOOCs "grew, initially, as learning networks of emergent knowledge focused around educational technologies: in other words, around complexity and disruptive innovation in higher ed." Mackness says about the very first MOOC, CCK08, that it "was an experiment in getting people to think about learning differently." We don't see this same openness in some of the latest, most notorious versions of MOOCs.

The openness of MOOCs means that MOOCs can be hijacked for different purposes. This is intentional, I think. The idea is for people, or even institutions, to connect freely to a MOOC and to use it for their own educational purposes. I hijacked a couple of the MOOCs I engaged, using them as supplemental readings and discussion springboards for a faculty development program in writing across the curriculum. A few of the faculty at my local university actually liked the hijack enough that they enrolled themselves into the MOOCs and into subsequent MOOCs.

Others, particularly corporations and corporatized institutions, will hijack MOOCs and do things with them that we early MOOCers are not likely to appreciate. I find a possible explanation for this misappropriation in Deleuze's essay Postscript on the Societies of Control and in Learning Spaces educational riff on that essay. Deleuze says that society is shifting from what Foucault called disciplinary societies with its various enclosed environments (prisons, hospitals, families, factories, schools, etc.), each with its own rules and hierarchical structures to what Deleuze calls societies of control, in which individuals are turned into dividuals, separate data streams captured and manipulated by the corporations that own the data streams (Google, Facebook, Apple, international banks come immediately to mind). As Deleuze succinctly says, "Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt." Deleuze does not appear to see this as progress. For our argument, he sees some dire possibilities for education: "Indeed, just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination. Which is the surest way of delivering the school over to the corporation."

This line of thought seems to suggest that we should expect the educational corporations to hijack MOOCs for the purpose of establishing their controls over the data streams that MOOCs generate. We should also expect old-style schools to reject MOOCs as they try to preserve their enclosed and managed spaces. What Mackness calls cognitivist MOOCs, then, are likely to be threatened from two directions:
  1. The old-style schools (disciplinary societies) will seek to control MOOCs either by blocking MOOCs from their enclosed spaces (forbidding laptops and smartphones in the classroom), or by bringing MOOCs into their enclosed spaces where they can manage them as they've managed things for two hundred years.
  2. The new-style schools (societies of control) will seek to control MOOCs by extending the mechanisms of control (salary, marketing, and validation, for example) that ironically use the same technological substrate as MOOCs: modern computers and networks.
I don't think the old-style schools are any threat to MOOCs. As Deleuze says of all old-school, disciplinary societies: "We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure--prison, hospital, factory, school, family. … The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons. But everyone knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods. It's only a matter of administering their last rites and of keeping people employed until the installation of the new forces knocking at the door. These are the _societies of control_, which are in the process of replacing disciplinary societies." The old schools will not survive the steamroller that Deleuze calls the societies of control.

I think the new-style schools, however, are a great threat to connectivist MOOCs. They understand and use technology that enables MOOCs of any stripe, and they believe (unlike the old-schools) that their very life depends on establishing control over the data streams that open educational resources such as MOOCs create.

All is not bleak, however. Deleuze notes that this period of transition from disciplinary societies to societies of control holds real promise as well as peril. As new regimes of control emerge in home, school, factory, and hospital: 
There is no need to ask which is the toughest regime, for it's within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another. For example, in the crisis of the hospital as environment of enclosure, neighborhood clinics, hospices, and day care could at first express new freedom, but they could participate as well in mechanisms of control that are equal to the harshest of confinements. There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.
I think, then, that our best new weapons are more connectivist MOOCs that "express new freedom," knowing full well that others will offer near enemies: MOOCs that establish control over the various data streams that feed into and out of a MOOC. I especially like Jenny Mackness' idea of SmOOCs, or small open online courses. I think it's time to offer a SmOOC. It looks like a fine, new weapon to me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's the Matter with MOOCs?

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled What's the Matter with MOOCs?, Siva Vaidhyanathan dismisses the current obsession with MOOCs as "something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity." He adds insult to injury by adding that he, indeed, enjoys MOOCs: "Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference."

Those of us who have actually been in a MOOC will find Vaidhyanathan's argument silly at best and outrageously unfortunate at worst (kudos to John Mak for trying to correct Vaidhyanathan's errors). His failure to understand MOOCs is catastrophic and staggering. Vaidhyanathan has failed scholarship and done a great disservice to the Academy and its conversation about MOOCs, which have almost nothing to do with online video banks or rich, private universities, but with collaborative communities created more often than not from somewhat remote, public universities. Still, I suppose this sort of misunderstanding is bound to happen.

Eventually, any theory or practice worth its salt moves beyond its origins and begins to take on a life of its own. The same will happen to Connectivism. Others will begin to define and shape Connectivism, perhaps in ways that Downes and Siemens do not anticipate and will not support, but it will happen if Connectivism doesn't die first. It seems to be happening more quickly with MOOCs. Luck of the draw?

I'm not sure, but I do have a connectivist/rhizomatic explanation for it that turns me back to my own discipline of writing. A newly-minted theory (and Connectivism is still rather new in the history of educational theory) is like a newly-minted book (or a newly-minted baby, nation, or computer system): it has a generative point with a rather limited DNA, but once it is released into the eco-system, then the theory (or book, baby, nation, system) takes on its own life, direction, and development that the originators (or writer, parents, founders, inventors) seldom anticipate and never control. I'm reminded of a story about Robert Frost reading his poem The Road Not Taken, and afterward, responding to a young woman who asked him what the famous poem really meant. He asked her in turn what she thought it meant; whereupon, she spoke at length. When at last she concluded, he said that, from then on, that's what the poem would mean to him.

I don't know if the story is factual, but it is true, and Frost was wise to understand that the meaning of his poem no longer belonged to him, unless he wanted to rewrite the poem, and then it would just be another poem that he would eventually lose control of.

Of course, Cormier, Downes, and Siemens, along with others, are still writing Connectivism and MOOCs, and I'm certain that they still have points to add and clarify, but really, they can only supply the generative DNA. The growth and development of Connectivism and MOOCs will depend on so much more. Let's hope that they enjoy watching their baby grow.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Connectivism and Complexity

Well, I look around, and it's been a month since I've written. How does that happen? I could list the details, but they aren't that interesting – family, work, and medical appointments mostly. Fortunately, all is well with my world.

The sad part for my blog is that I've lost my train of thought. As I recall, I was thinking about networking as part of the DNA of connectivism, and the DNA comment elicited a comment from Stephen Downes about my confused attempt to reconcile connectivism and essentialism. My last post was an attempt to figure out why Downes thought I was trying to reconcile the two concepts when actually I was trying to establish that DNA did not imply an essentialist approach. Was it poor writing, poor reading, or a mix of both? And did connectivism have an explanation for that kind of communication failure?

Those are good questions, and I will attempt to come back to them and to the general issue of networking as one of the generative concepts of connectivism sometime in the future, but today (July 4th, as I start this post with a free morning. Happy Birthday, USA) I want to talk about a second bit of DNA in connectivism: complexity. I've just finished reading Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour, and the topic is on my mind.

To my mind, complexity is concomitant to networking. We can think of networks as static, fixed entities, much like the pictures in our books, as shown to the right (thanks to Scott Weingart's Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II in the Journal of Digital Humanities for this pic and lots of other ideas about networks that I intend to explore later):

This is a helpful abstraction of networking, but it misses much that is interesting about networking: the dynamism which results from the nodes of the network engaging each other and the larger eco-system. This dynamic engagement is complexity. Rather, this is what I mean by complexity, and I think that complexity is one of the amino acids in the DNA of connectivism. As with the concept of networking, complexity is not unique to connectivism. A scholar can follow a constructivist or behaviorist agenda, for instance, and incorporate both networking and complexity. However, I think a scholar can still be a constructivist or behaviorist without accounting for networking and complexity. I don't think that a connectivist can do so. These two concepts are part of the DNA.

If Mitchell is correct, then complexity is not a settled scientific term. As she says: "There is not yet a single science of complexity but rather several different sciences of complexity with different notions of what complexity means" (95). This provides me with some wiggle room to decide what I mean by complexity, but I do not stray far from Mitchell's own use of the term in her discussions of information, computation, analogies, and information processing in living systems. It seems to me that complexity is the amount and/or degree of engagement of an entity with its ecosystem – or to put it in terms of networking: the amount of engagement among the nodes of a network and between that network and other networks.

This definition lands me squarely in the issue of information and information processing, of which my own discipline, writing, is a subset. So I really like this definition, and for the moment it is the one I will use. For me, then, complexity is the degree to which any node in a network can recognize, process, and respond to information from the other nodes in its network and from other networks at different scales. This information processing appears to extend throughout reality from simple, almost mechanical physical and chemical reactions through the ideas and societies of humanity and beyond to God, Gaia, or whatever you may believe exists at some network scale beyond us. Information processing stitches the universe together and drives it through its unfolding expressions, including us humans and our societies and languages. It may be, as Mitchell suggests, that we humans may someday consider information as one of the fundamental aspects of the Universe along with mass and energy, but … I'm getting way beyond my level of competence. That is sheer fantasy for me; still, it's of vital interest to me that information processing seems to be such a core function of life.

Mitchell describes several ways that this information processing occurs in different systems from immune systems, neural networks, and ant colonies to genetic and metabolic networks. In all of these systems, if I understand her argument correctly, the individual nodes (neurons, ants, lymphocytes, etc.) are able to recognize patterns in their own network and in their ecosystems (some nodes work locally in their own networks and some globally beyond their local networks). These patterns are the information that each node can process, or understand, and can then respond to. This seems to me to match quite nicely with Stephen Downes' contention that human knowledge has much to do with pattern recognition and with negotiating our way through networks. While human thought may work at a different scale of complexity than, say, a lymphocyte binding to an antigen, the concept is similar, or fractal: the same pattern at a different scale.

To some degree, each network node (from bacteria, to slugs, to Senators in the US Congress – though those scales may not be that different) is able to process and to respond to the information it gleans from its environment. It then can realign itself with its network, which changes the network, which leads to further changes in the node, which leads to further changes in the network. This dynamism in the network, or organism, is complexity. While this dynamism is usually regular, it is probabilistic rather than deterministic, even at the most elementary physical and chemical scales, and it is this element of chance that probably lead to the emergence of COMPLEXITY as the term of choice for naming it. It is also self-organizing, so that the few possible actions of any one ant can lead to quite sophisticated  behaviors of the ant colony. Such dynamic information processing can also lead to a sonnet, or a blog post.

Okay, this is what I mean by complexity, and I insist that it is at the heart of connectivism along with networking. I'll explore both concepts more in future posts.