Thursday, January 29, 2009

An article that may be a victim of its own conclusions

This article stimulated a little discussion today. Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis?

Clay Burell took the time to address most of the issues in the article, debunk most of it.

I had to chuckle a bit at the authority they were breathlessly quoting, Patricia
Greenfield, UCLA distinguished professor psychology... and the assertion that ".... Greenfield has been using films in her class since the 70's." You can almost see the 16 mm projector, the yellowed notes and the cracked overhead transparencies.

I was reminded of the excellent book by Steven Johnson, "Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter".

This is an excerpt from this interesting and popular book about the changes our culture is experiencing as a result of the emergence of ICT. This story challenges the assumption that reading text is the best way to learn. The premise is that video games were popularized before books and now books are being introduced to support learning. This is how the teachers, parents and cultural authorities might react.

"Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of game-playing- which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sounds-capes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements-books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.

Books are also tragically isolating. While games for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new "libraries" that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles reading silently, oblivious to their peers.

Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia-a condition that didn't even exist until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control the narratives in any fashion- you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today's generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they are powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to "follow the plot" instead of learning to lead."
Johnson, S. (2006). Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. The Berkley Publishing Group., pp19-20

Some very interesting points that may provoke us to review the overwhelming dependence of the education system on printed text.

I suspect once again the book publishing and print media dinosaurs are feeling the heat and have a fear mongering campaign going to freak out all the moms and pops who don't understand the new era of technology enhanced living that their kids live and breathe.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Alternative Scholarly Publication models

Stephen Downes posted link to this major study.

Houghton, J., Rasmunssen, B., Sheehan, P., Oppenheim, C., Morris, A., Creaser, C., et al. (2009). Economic implications of alternative scholarly publication models: Exploring the costs and benefits (p. 286). JISC Report, Victoria, AU and : Victoria University and Loughborough University. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from

I've been reading with interest. The three models they discuss are traditional print, proprietary electronic formats, and open access self archiving repositories.

The conclusions of the authors is that there would be significant efficiencies using the open access self-archiving repositories. On the order of 1/2 - 1/3 of the cost. These savings could be directed towards greater research and discovery as opposed to sustaining and enriching a publishing industry that is more interested in making a buck that advancing knowledge. They speculate that the savings would be immediate and would be more than adequate to cover transitions costs even if the publishing industry was resistant and there were costs to figure out a work around in the short and medium term. The publishing industry will no doubt engage in more rent seeking behavior to maintain hegemony over academic publishing. One of the appeals will more than likely be to a claim to greater quality of traditional peer-review process. This argument is not justified give the evidence that it is just as easy to fiddle the peer-review process.

What I am looking for in the report is evidence that the analysts considered the enormous potential of the semantic web in their calculation of the benefits of open access, self archiving publications. If open access self archiving academic publications can incorporate semantic features even greater efficiencies will be realized. One of the major costs of traditional academic publication is the cost of finding researching and accessing source materials. As one who has spent hours navigating the complexities of various proprietary online data bases, setting up specialized document readers and generally jumping through arbitrary hoops to get access to documents and journal article, open access is a relief. The time that a researcher spends on research is much more productively spent reading reflecting rather than cursing the locked paygate or arcane registration process.

Also very persuasive are the arguments of the author who suggest that establish and emerging scholars, especially those from poor countries and third world economies. If big pharma won't develop the drugs necessary to combat third world diseases because they don't have a big enough payday, the world should make it possible for other scientists and researchers to use resources to solve some of their own problems. Never know when some resistant strain of a third world disease finds its way into our cornflakes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What part of education can be reclaimed from institutions

Excellent article in Educause Review by David Staley on the development of new forms of education that take on the task that Universities have traditionally performed in an industrial education setting.

"Why do universities exist? What function do they fulfill that cannot be fulfilled by some other organization or mechanism? Asking this question allows us to explore the larger implications raised by wikinomics: Will a new form of organization emerge that will perform the same or similar tasks as the university? Will a new form of organization emerge that will fulfill certain functions not currently being performed by universities? Will a new form of organization emerge that will be better and more efficient at providing the services traditionally offered by the university?"

Better question might be, What parts of the natural social function of teaching, learning and knowledge production have universities performed because we didn't have a better way to do it at the time? Now that we have mechanisms that make communication and dissemination of knowledge simple, easy and cheap, what functions can society reclaim from universities? How much of what universities stake claim to is necessary or rent-seeking?

Interesting analogy put forward in the article about MMRPG's.

“There is the theme-park approach and the sandbox approach. . . . Most games are like Disneyland . . . which is a carefully constructed experience where you stand in line to be entertained. We focus on the sandbox approach where people can decide what they want to do in that particular sandbox, and we very much emphasize and support that kind of emergent behavior.”

Article asks the question are universities, theme parks or sandboxes. I agree with the tone of the argument that they should be more like sandboxes. Second Life is a MMRPG that allows for user-generated content from the get go. You learn how to use the tools then you use them to create content. When the tools don't do what you want you learn how to make new tools. It has to be the same for higher ed.

Love this description of a wikiversity.

The wiki-ized university

* is a “platform,”
* is permeable (no formal admissions process),
* consists of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students,
* consists of a self-organizing and intellectually fluid curriculum,
* does not offer tenure to professors (professors’ longevity is determined by the community),
* is governed by protocols based on community values and mores rather than on administrative rules and fiats,
* does not grant diplomas or certificates, (reputation not certificate)
* encourages play (and even failure),
* is governed by “intellectual barter” and makes all knowledge created therein free to anyone,
* is managed by administrators who “bubble up” from among the members of the community,
* is managed by administrators who maintain the platform as “choice architects” and lead via cultivation and care, not command and control, and
* has a fluid temporal structure: there are no “semesters”; teaching and learning are ongoing activities.

How people will be rewarded for activity in this environment. They figure it might happen for love but this type of enterprise would take a lot of involvement and people gotta eat. Don't want to leave it to the dilettante elites who are basically in charge of the current systems and are labouring hard to protect their status quo through rent-seeking behavior.

It will be interesting to see how this rolls.
Staley, D. (2009). Managing the platform: Higher education and the logic of wikinomics. Educause Review, 44(1), 36-47. Retrieved January 16, 2009, from

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rent Seeking Behavior

Been reading a few things relating to this concept. Rent here is understood not as referring earnings from a lease arrangement but as in the Adam Smith economic theory where economic activity yielded income in the form of profit, wages or rents. Rents were profits that accrued as a result of economic or political manipulations that resulted in monopoly advantage but do not add productivity. Rent seeking behavior So lobbyists who use political clout to have a wildlife refuge opened up for oil exploration might be seen as engaging in rent seeking behavior.

A little bit of this is okay but if it is pervasive enough society looses out. A recent book (Boldrin and Levine, 2008) has a different take on issues of copyright and intellectual property and debunks the notion that society needs IP rights because otherwise innovation and creativity are stifled. They describe the historical scenario from the introduction of the steam engine where James Watt had the patent on the essential component. He didn't develop the technology at a very quick pace and spent more time fighting legal battles against those who had taken the steam engine idea and were trying to refine and develop it. The consequence was that it wasn't until his patents ran out that steam technology became a universal social good.

Rent seeking behavior persists in higher ed. A recent NYTimes article described new practices at MIT where the traditional lecture format of the industrial ed model is being replaced with interactive web-based practices. They report increased attendance and reduced failure rate. The new system tracks and assigns grades based on attendance so it if there is any value in the f2f educational encounter you would expect there to be a relationship between attendance and outcomes. It still is predicated on bums in seats mentality. Interesting comment in the article "Younger professors tend to be more enthusiastic about TEAL than veterans who have been perfecting their lectures for decades." I can visualize the yellowed notes and disintegrating, masking-tape-patched, overhead transparencies.

Educational institutions or teacher associations that resist more efficient and economical practices in education by lobbying for legislation or regulation of elearning are rent seeking. I think technological foot-dragging may constitute rent-seeking behavior.

I live in part of the world where education is highly subsidized from the public purse but most higher ed only occurs in the major urban centers. Part of the reason/excuse offered is that f2f is superior so there is justification in forcing everyone to migrate away from rural areas. It is becoming apparent that f2f may not be that superior after all and that, in fact, technology mediated education has significant advantages. If this is the case it means that institutional practices that follow the industrial education model are educational malpractice.

It certainly constitutes a form of rent-seeking behavior. There have been initiatives to provide access to to rural and remote areas in this province but these have been severely limited in scope and functionality.

Private education can do it. The Hutterian Broadband Network distributes education through their own videoconferencing network. You can get a degree from Athabasca University studying in a technology mediated learning environment (long way to avoid saying "online"). The University of Phoenix is being accredited for many professional programs in Canada.

Essentially the publicly funded urban institutions subtly sabotage any effort that would result in fewer bums in seats. So rural centers loose their best and brightest and the urban centers get more congested. Classic hegemonic scenario and certainly a worthy topic for a little applied critical pedagogy.

Boldrin, M., & Levine, D. (2008). Against Intellectual Monopoly. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved January 12, 2009, from

Rimer, S. (2009, January 12). At M.I.T., Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard . New York Times. Retrieved January 13, 2009, from

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Entrenching the Google=Stupid meme

Picked this up from a reTweet by Stony River. StonyRiver RT @mwesch "Is Stupid Making us Google?" James Bowman explores cultural (not just tech) trends impacting higher ed

Lots of people getting mileage out of the Google=stupid meme. Here is another but with some interesting applications of critical theory.

Bowman, J. (2008). Is Stupid Making Us Google? The New Atlantis, 21(Summer), 75-80. Retrieved January 4, 2009, from

This article is a review and discussion of Mark Bauerlein's his new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

Talking about the changes to intelligence as a consequence of technology. The Flynn effect that suggests that scores on intelligence tests have been increasing and that the notion of reading has changed. Also that the nature of intelligence has changed. Well Duh! The measures of intelligence that are being used have long been suspect for their support of cultural dominance and hegemony.

There is a challenge to the idea of "great literature" although it looks like the author of this article sees critical analysis as an abdication of the "guardians of Culture" ie professors and academics.

Snip from the article ".....Most of his fellow professors have no interest in the “great” works of the Western tradition—indeed, they reject the very idea of “greatness”—except to “deconstruct” it, along with the works to which it has been attributed, showing how their unexamined political assumptions have tended to reinforce the patriarchal, imperialist, racist, and homophobic foundation on which traditional societies have been built. Only now, in the work of our most advanced theorists, have these assumptions finally been brought to light and exposed for what they are."

The article also criticizes the over-emphasis of the socialization function over learning (through developed reading skills) of the industrial education model.

Bowman references Johnson, S. (2006). Everything Bad is Good for You. New York : T. and supports the sentiment expressed in this quote.

....No one has ever taught them that books can be read for pleasure or enlightenment—or for any other purpose than to be exposed as the coded rationalization for the illegitimate powers of the ruling classes that they really are. Why would you willingly read a single line of literature if that is all you supposed it to consist of?

Over all this article is furthering the Google=Stupid meme and may be trying to prop up some hegemonic values of old media and the control structures of knowledge production and dissemination.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Household chores in the Noosphere

Dishes and laundry must be done, toilets cleaned, garbage taken out. It is what it takes to make a contribution in a household. Same thing in communities, somebody has to let their name stand for president of the committee, has to do the fund raising and the phone out.

The world of information is the same. There are mundane chores to do.

Web 2.0 is a two way deal. It is not enough for me to go to the web for info but I have to be willing to think, reflect and respond in kind so that the energy keeps moving.

Doesn't have to be much, a social bookmark in Delicious, a Tweet on Twitter, an email note to a friend who may be interested, or a blog entry. Make a contribution how ever small and pass it on.

I think it is also pretty important that this work not be left to the academics and public intellectuals although their contribution is valuable. Regular folks have a voice and ideally ideas will be judged on merit rather than an arbitrary authority or a credential. It is likely that academics will be skilled at critical thinking, analysis and reflective argument but this should not be a limitation for non-academics. We all need to pull our weight in the noosphere to the best of our ability.