Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education

by Henry Jenkins, Professor at USC.

An important and timely discussion that explores the growing interdependence of learners with digital media and the need to examine how these media are working, what their influence is and how to teach in this new environment.

Jenkins interviews, Pillar Lacasa, a Spanish researcher. His first question is: "Children and young people like to spend their free time in front of the screen. Could you give us some good reasons to that could persuade educators to introduce new media and screens in schools." Read more……

21st Century Student

I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto the Web. He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Cell phones are expensive, but he finds the money. This sounds familiar; an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence. He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

I have been talking about a new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

Creativity, Research and Funding in Canada

I am puzzled. Highly skilled artisans, artists, creators and designers are perhaps among the most sophisticated researchers our society produces. In order to succeed, they have to not only understand the context of their creative work, but also the impact and possible market for their ideas and objects They have to develop sophisticated models and prototypes to test their ideas and they have to be able to translate their research and practice into something that can be understood by many different people often with quite differing interests. They have to have skills that might best be described as ethnographic so as to understand if not sense both the demands of their communities and also the resistances those communities have to change and new insights. They have to negotiate complex collaborative arrangements to produce outputs that will reflect great technical expertise as well as vision.

Yet, for the most part, their work is neither recognized for its research value, nor substantively funded as research in Canada. (Great Britain and Australia have overcome this problem.) My sense is that conventional research in this country has over time become defined in a rather narrow way to benefit those people, institutions and disciplines that have historically received money from governments, foundations and private benefactors. For example, what is the difference between a researcher in political science and one who studies and researches politics in order to produce a film? Does a list of publications and books mean more than a list of well-made documentaries? Today in Canada it is still unusual for a funding agency to accept the CV of someone who has devoted themselves to media and forms of expression that are not traditional. It would be even more unusual to accept a work of art like an installation as evidence of rigour, forethought, insight and inventive thinking. These are among the criteria that are expected by juries in assessing the value of applications for funding.

I cannot go into the history of funding for disciplinary research in Canada, nor examine within this context, the very particular mandates of the funding agencies that have over time developed specific areas of emphasis to the exclusion of many of the creative disciplines. The purpose of this short piece is to raise some issues about the future of research within the conventional boundaries that have been in place in Canada for decades. The secondary purpose is to argue that the models presently in place and in use by the main funding agencies are tired, reductive and repetitive and that the standards used to evaluate research have precipitously narrowed over the last fifteen years.

Qualitative and quantitative research are based on a set of standards and criteria that have evolved over time within the context of disciplines that are for the most part pursued within the university context. Those disciplines range from the hard sciences, medicine and engineering through to the “soft” social sciences and humanities. The fields involved are diverse and often contentious. Some the disciplines are newer than others with the more scientific health-related disciplines receiving the largest amount of money. This is because of their perceived utility to society, the assumption that medical research for example, will have the most immediate impact and the further assumption that innovation occurs in those areas because of their empirical nature.

The common and dominant popular metaphor for research is the science laboratory, an environment of experimentation within which purposes and goals are supposedly clearer than research that might be pursued in a library or through fieldwork. The other metaphor and it is one that also rules the popular imagination, is that research has to have concrete outcomes for it to be valid. In other words, “real” research will produce “cures” in medicine or a better understanding of physical reality or technological innovation. Of course, good research in any discipline will hopefully have productive outcomes. That is a given. But, good research is rarely linear and often (as is the case with AIDS, for example) takes decades to produce results.

In fact, laboratories are notoriously conservative places often using research paradigms that produce little value either for participants or for the public. (See the work of Bruno Latour, but also the work of Thomas Kuhn for analyses of the cultures and working practices of scientific research.) This does not mean that universities should close those labs or shut down those disciplines that show little for the sometimes-massive investment in them. It does mean, however, that policy makers have to look with great care at accepted and conventional assumptions about output, results and their translation into highly specialized journals. In saying this, I am not suggesting that the only model for research is an applied one. In fact, I am arguing the opposite.

Research in all its varieties is fundamental to all forms of learning and the development of new knowledge and is the foundation upon which new, useful and great ideas come into the public sphere. The assumption that there is one method or one way to arrive at results is something that most good researchers would argue against. And yet, that is the reality of the distinctive manner in which research is funded in Canada. It also underlies the assumption that the PhD is the only consistently valid tool of evaluation of researchers who wish to pursue innovative ideas, so that for example, an MFA is seen to be less significant even if it is a terminal degree for some professions.

Part of the challenge, part of the beauty of research is that it trains the minds of learners, researchers and teachers and provides everyone with the intellectual and practical tools they need to pursue their interests and their passions sometimes with important and positive results. Research builds on disciplinary histories and practices, mode of enquiry, crafts and the multi-faceted use of technology.

This potent combination is also at the heart of post-secondary education and learning and is the source of what makes universities and colleges so important to our society. However, value in research can be drawn from many sources and from many different practices. The isolation of research into particular institutions and specialized disciplines slowly leads to practices that are less innovative than they could or should be. This is largely because of the manner in which disciplines develop, their tendency to devolve into silos and most importantly, the departmental and faculty structure within universities, which tends to validate the history and shape of specific disciplines.

In Canada, funding agencies have bought into the argument that excellence can only be found and developed in large universities, which have infrastructures to support their ambitious research goals. Often and ironically, the faculties in those universities are no larger than their smaller sister institutions, but nevertheless garner the majority of the money in any disciplinary competition. Excellence has become a quantitative game. Fund enough research in one place and you will undoubtedly have some winners. Very little research has been done on faculty at the large universities who do not provide research that matches their ambitions, particularly in areas like the social sciences and the humanities.

Public policy in this area has to change. In particular, Canadian funding agencies have to realize that they are not recognizing value, innovation and creativity in most of the institutions across the country. Instead, they are perpetuating a vague notion of excellence based on the capacity of large universities to garner most of the money. All of that would be fine, if the claims about research being made by those large institutions were not based on exclusivity, to the detriment of the quite extraordinary richness of the work going on in many other institutions and as is often the case within the creative disciplines. The latter receive an infinitesimally small amount both compared to the number of people seeking funding and to the growing importance of the creative industries in Canada.

Reflections on Disciplines and Their Role in Universities

This short piece is adapted from a lecture I gave some years ago about the way disciplines, in particular film studies, develop into departments within universities. How do disciplines stay alive and remain current and connected to the social and historical context of which they are a part? How do they grow and how and why do they often stagnate?

Disciplines or areas of study and research are in large measure created and sustained by the institutions within which they are taught. To my mind when I say that, I am presuming that a discipline cannot be taught without also being researched, even if that research consists of no more than just keeping up with the production of others in the field.

Film Studies for example, has always been a hybrid of many different disciplines. This, as we shall see, has had both negative and positive results sometimes leading to an expansion of the discipline, other times leading to a severe contraction. Film is both an object of study and a creative discipline although there is a tendency to separate production from theory.

The construction of a discipline is dependent upon a set of processes which are located in the structure, politics and history of institutions. This may seem obvious, but over time the processes which have produced that history are often lost from view. The struggle through which that history has been forged recedes into the background. There have been many efforts over the last 35 years or so to build the study of film into a coherent and recognizable as well as acceptable discipline. Yet, because institutions drive towards discursive sameness (and this need not be a negative characteristic) as a means of giving disciplines credibility for teaching and research purposes, the often complex and bumpy road which has been followed doesn't appear to be a part of the discipline itself.

In concrete terms it would be unusual for a university film department to offer students a history of its own construction because that might entail rethinking the very purpose of the department itself. Furthermore, questions as to how one discourse, say in film theory, has become more privileged than another, go right to the heart of how a consensus has been built in the first place. Even, for example, the presumption that film history needs to be taught in film departments, suggests a particular theoretical schema, one that needs to be foregrounded and not simply assumed.

The internal cohesion of a discipline is driven by the demands of institutions, demands which are more often than not situated in the very language of the institutions themselves. How do the conditions of knowledge production affect the goals of disciplinary development?

The daily practice of film scholarship is provided with meaning by the community of researchers and teachers who together participate in constituting, creating and maintaining it. That community, however heterogeneous, will inevitably search for, and then fix upon a certain set of primary ideas which it feels 'represent' the discipline (a canon). The creation of a specific and sometimes very powerful discourse to re-enforce the strength of that approach is perhaps unavoidable. What needs to be discussed are the assumptions which have produced that discourse and the politics which have governed the choices that have shaped the discipline.

Sometimes, the environment of universities for example tends to militate against that happening. And so students are faced, as they are in many other disciplines, with an area called film studies which of necessity presents itself as already constituted. Again, this is perhaps unavoidable, but what interests me is what is lost in the process and how institutionalization has created pedagogical and research models to support certain discourses over others.

Cinema Studies has, in a short period of time, achieved what seemed very remote in the early 1970's. There are at present many teachers of cinema and an extraordinary proliferation of film departments at both the university and college level, particularly in North America. The discipline has been fragmented into a variety of specialties with each having an internal cohesion undreamed of during the early period of disciplinary 'construction'.

The heterogeneity of approaches which characterizes the study of film, has a great deal to do with what critical theorists like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno recognized in the 1930's. Film was then seen as the cutting edge of twentieth century culture, the practical manifestation of all that was wrong and right about the effects of new technologies upon art and audiences. If we were to reconstruct the arguments of that period we would find that the examination of film was heavily affected by debates in psychoanalysis and linguistics, as well as in literary criticism and the arts. Those debates were not seen as an infringement on the already defined territory of film studies, rather, it was if new technologies like film needed those debates and drifted inevitably towards the ideas which those debates initiated and developed.

Ironically, if film represented that sphere, that cross-section of interests which reflected its position as a new technology, it also pointed the way to a re-evaluation of the critical and theoretical enterprise in the arts. Its particular organization of meaning, its effective collapse of signifier and signified, its astonishing naturalization of the difference between the real and representation, all of these characteristics meant that the study of film could not proceed along conventional lines.

It is interesting to note that in each successive phase in the development of film studies, "other" disciplines have been used, as if the difficulty of finding a strategy to analyse film, meant that some kind of master code had to be found elsewhere. But as it turns out, this elsewhere suggests a division between disciplines and other areas which film studies has never been able to sustain. Film as poem, film as novel, film as text, images as sentences, as words, as frames. Film as painting, as music. Film and television, film in opposition to television and so on. I won't even begin to raise all of the comparisons with photography, the presumed interdependence, photographic metaphors, the fact that film as movement, images in movement, have always been seen in the light of images as still, photographic stills.

What we call film studies has never been able to bare its soul, to reveal, beneath of all of the comparisons, precisely that uniqueness which might distinguish it from the interlopers who camouflage it. I would suggest that film studies has been quite fortunate, because that essence just doesn't exist, and both the history of the 'discipline' and the manner in which films produce meaning, points towards the interdisciplinary as the context in which definitions of the field can best be worked out. Problems remain of course because every discipline has its own history, its own set of debates, often, its own language. But this doesn't in any way devalue the process of borrowing, albeit that more care needs to be taken with the use of other disciplines, including a more profound recognition of their boundaries and assumptions.

 

The Transformation of Culture (2)

In my previous post, I talked about the new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

The Poet's Challenge to Learning

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore's work on education and learning (He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.) is of great significance and is not as well known as it should be in the West. In keeping with the richness and diversity of Tagore's vision, I would like to comment on a superb paper (The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul) by Shilpa Jain and others that explores not only Tagore's philosophy but his impact on the essential spirit, if not the soul of what it means to learn and be taught.

I would like to recount an experience, which I had some years ago during a visit to an experimental school in California, and how it affected my own expectations about teaching and learning. I was invited to a Rudolf Steiner School to examine their approach as well as to learn more about how they hoped to change the experience of learners in a positive and constructive fashion. I have many doubts about the underlying religious foundations for Steiner education, but I saw something that really affected me that is closely linked to the spirit of Tagore's perspective on education.

My hosts took me to a small elementary school that had been built at the edge of an agricultural area. Once inside the school, I noticed that the ceilings were quite low and that the furniture was considerably smaller than I had anticipated. One classroom had a very small door built into a larger one and as I looked into the classroom, I noticed that the desks were also smaller than usual. I asked the Director of the school why this was so and she explained that they had decided to tailor the architecture to the size of the children in order to make them more comfortable with the scale of the space. This struck me as an extraordinary idea. Children see the world around them from a very different perspective. Adults can seem like giants even when they are gentle. Scale, perspective and space are crucial components of a child's world, but are often disregarded. In fact, the general architecture of schools is poor and rarely takes students and their experience as a central premise for the design process. These factors are not minor ones for learners. Why would the school system be so unaware of their importance? There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is a lack of synchronicity between the higher purpose of learning and the everyday needs of learners.

This goes to the heart of one of Tagore's concerns, which is the relationship between creativity and freedom. Schools are presently designed to teach students and are not centred on the principles of learning. The lack of a holistic viewpoint of the sort suggested by Tagore is missing. Keep in mind, that my own view of learning is that it is very ephemeral and that for the most part, schools have outlived their usefulness in their present form and need to be completely rethought. This point of view is summarized in the following quote from Jain's piece:

"…the very act of creation is freedom, for it allows human beings to discover their full potential. They have the opportunity to live what is theirs, to make the world of their own selection, and to move it through their own movement." (Page 11 of The Poet's Challenge to Schooling: Creative Freedom for the Human Soul)

In order for creativity to be released and for students to discover their real purpose in learning, they have to have the power to criticize and reflect upon the experiences that they are having. This is much more difficult than it appears. It is part of a double bind. If the students themselves have not learned enough to make their criticism rigourous and well-thought out, then their commentary will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if the environment does not facilitate the growth and the development of enough intellectual acuity, the quality of their discourse will be poor. This is not dissimilar to Tagore's commentary on the alienating experience that students have as they struggle with the banality of school and the lack of respect for nature and spirituality in the school system.

From my own perspective as the President of a University of Art and Design, I am most interested in the history of Santiniketan, the ashram that Tagore founded which turned into a school and now is a university. My own experience has taught me that institutions are very far away from understanding their own cultures with enough depth to engage in real change. This may seem like a dramatic statement, but the reality is that even the best of leaders tire out very quickly as they encounter increasingly complex levels of resistance to sometimes urgently needed shifts. The question is, what is it about an educational institution that breeds so much resistance? The answer is not a simple one because there are also numerous institutions in which radical thinking is taking place.

There is something fundamental about schooling that Tagore understood. In order to keep a school going the experience has to be systematized, that is, days have to be ordered and classes scheduled and marks given. Yet, it is precisely structures of this kind, which inhibit the development of open spaces and places for learning. What is unclear about Tagore’s perspective is how to ‘free’ up institutions — how to create enough of a sense of community to sustain open-ended inquiry and freshness of thinking. Tagore looked to nature as an example and in this he is quite close to the thinking of Thoreau and Rousseau. It is unclear how long that openness can be maintained without introducing some expectations both on the part of learners and teachers. In other words, there is a profound romanticism at the core of Tagore’s thinking and practice. It is a romanticism that I support, but for which there is no social, political or cultural consensus.

Even Tagore’s use of art and music mirrors many other experiments from Steiner through to Montessori. Jain’s paper explores all the facets of Tagore’s wonderful effort to build a new way of thinking about the world and about learning, but it fails to address the fundamental issues of institutional culture and institutional change. Given the large number of people are seeking to learn and the incredible investment of time and money into institutions ostensibly devoted to learning, strategies of institutional transformation seem to me to hold the key to future change in education as a whole.

Generation T

I was privileged to attend and present at an amazing conference in Ottawa recently. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which was established by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and supports hundreds of students at post-secondary institutions in Canada hosts an annual meeting entitled, "Think Again." Approximately, 250 laureates attend. Most are in university or college and often nearing completion of their degrees.

The Program for the meeting has the following quote from Frank Palmer, who is the founder and CEO of DDB advertising agency. "Love experiments, learn to collaborate, ask different questions, try not to criticize, sweat the small stuff, never stop learning/moving, seek better ways, bury your ego, celebrate successes, love your job or leave it and be fearless."

I presented in a workshop entitled, "Your actions, your communities."

Here are some of the questions that I asked:

Communities are defined by boundaries and by similarities and differences among its members.

How are these differences/similarities articulated?

How do symbols work to sustain communities?

Communities are repositories of symbols from memorials to political structures to icons, sports teams and cultural markers.

How do we find out what a community means to its members?

Are the feelings of commonality strong enough to overcome difference and what are the boundaries of commonality?

As boundaries become less viable, symbols become more and more important.

As the definition of community changes, its symbolic elements take on greater meaning.

As the nation-state shifts from a broad-based coalition to a multiplicity of tribes, each tribe looks to icons and images for clarity and meaning.

The world, as Thomas Friedman has suggested may be flat, but the fissures and cracks have created fault lines that have led to more and more difference, real and imaginary.

Between January 2000 and the completion of its mandate in 2009, the foundation will have distributed approximately one million awards to students across Canada

The Importance of Colleges

I began my career as a teacher in a two year college in Montreal. Vanier College was the second English language institution created as part of the CEGEP system in Quebec after Dawson College. (CEGEP means, College of General & Vocational Education or Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel) I consider those early years to have been among the best, at least at the level of learning both for myself and for my students. Recent tragic events at Dawson College have reminded me of the richness of my experiences and the need to understand the importance of the colleges to the educational system in Canada.

Colleges (particularly two-year institutions) are generally looked down upon by universities for reasons that have little to do with their importance, indeed the centrality of colleges to a variety of communities. Here in British Columbia, colleges are crucial to so many communities that I often wonder (perhaps I am being naïve) why they are not celebrated not only for their histories, but for their achievements. College teachers have larger workloads and are not expected to do research, although it is impossible to teach without staying current within your field. Most post-secondary educational systems are characterized by tremendous diversity, in large measure because colleges respond in a more direct way to the needs of their constituents. It is a difficult balancing act — be responsive and yet provide contexts for learning that enhance and enrich not only the lives of learners, but allow them to develop the skills to go to university or into a profession.

I mention all of this because of a wonderful column by T. F. RIGELHOF entitled How we'll heal in the Saturday, September 16, 2006 edition of the Globe and Mail newspaper about the Dawson shootings. Unfortunately, the article is not available on the web. In the piece, Rigelhof celebrates the love that he has for the college and for its students. And for me, this is about the wonder that he feels at the engagement that is required to teach and learn.

In an earlier piece of mine, I wrote the following: "Ignorance is about resistance. It is about the desire to think and act in certain ways, most of which are rooted in a conscious refusal to engage with processes of inner reflection. The problem is that some pedagogical strategies try to anticipate what students need to know, as if teachers have already solved their own contradictory relationship with learning. The result is that teachers create (if not imagine) an ideal student and then make judgements about the students who are unable to attain the standards set by their instructional methods. If there is to be some equality of exchange here, then the teacher has to be learning nearly all of the time. This can then set the stage for some linkage and visibility between the foundational assumptions of the instructor and her own past, as well as her own history of learning. This may then return the teacher to a closer understanding of what it means to be a student."

I still stand by what I said and Rigelhof exemplifies why a strong emphasis on students changes not only their lives, but the lives of those who teach.

 

Dawson College Shootings

Today, the violence of our times hit home quite personally with a terrible shooting at Dawson College. The link in the previous sentence summarizes a personal view of this tragedy.

I know the college very well having started my teaching career at another similar college in Montreal. Many things will be written about this event. Nothing can explain the sense of loss that many of us feel, not only for the lives of those who were victimized, but also for the problems that the shooting reveals about our society. This is not a time for generalizations, but for contemplation and thoughtfulness.

Those of us who have dedicated our lives to teaching, learning and building the educational system in Canada can only strive to do our jobs even better in the hope that rationality and optimism will overcome the pain of moments like this.

Community

“Community suggests a place and a space of commonality — sharing. Community also suggests difference — characteristics which distinguish one group from another, one individual from another. As Anthony Cohen has put it, community expresses a “relational idea that allows social groups to define and create boundaries between themselves and others.

Community, the profound sense of attachment that we have to place and to people, is as much about geography as it is about imagination. The maps we draw produce borders that we cross with our minds even as we defend the more closed and shadowy concepts of nation, province or locality.

 

Jaron Lanier and The Hazards of Online Collectivism

Jaron Lanier, who is famous for having coined the term virtual reality and the concepts that go with it, wrote an essay in late May that has provoked discussion all over the internet. Here is a quote from the piece. The complete article can be found at the EDGE website. The essay is entitled, "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism."

The problem I am concerned with here is not the Wikipedia in itself. It's been criticized quite a lot, especially in the last year, but the Wikipedia is just one experiment that still has room to change and grow. At the very least it's a success at revealing what the online people with the most determination and time on their hands are thinking, and that's actually interesting information.

No, the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

The EDGE also has 28 pages of responses to what Lanier says.

The essence of his argument is that collaborative work on the net has become increasingly hive-like. This leads to a "group mentality" approach to ideas and the notion that the "collective is all-wise." The result is a tyranny of the majority with a simultaneous loss of value both to intellectual depth and the way democracies operate. He is particularly critical of wikipedia— the online encyclopedia which is being built by individuals from all over the world in much the same manner as open source software. I have commented on wikipedia before. Some of Lanier's fears are well-founded, but for the most part, his comments don't explain or clarify why networked forms of knowledge contruction are any more hive-based than most intellectual projects. Generally, irrespective of the type of knowledge or information produced, there are communities of interest that define and reinforce the concepts, categories and arguments that they support. This has been discussed in great depth by people like Bruno Latour and Elias Canetti wrote an important "Crowds and Power," in 1962 on the phenomenon of mass hysteria and the tendency to a kind of viral effect when large groups of people operate in tandem.

Lanier's points need discussion, not the least because networked forms of interaction on the scale that we are seeing at the moment are still very new. That said, there is not much to his analysis of conventional media. He is too skeptical of Popular Culture and gives too much weight to the role of sites like Wikipedia. His concern, that the aggregative role played by the many sites that are about sites is overstated. He is worried that these meta-sites will play an overly powerful role as arbiters of taste and choice. I think in this, he underestimates the intelligence of Internet users. Nonetheless, an important article to read.

The context for learning, education and the arts (5)

(Please refer to the previous four entries for this article. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

My point here is that although computers are designed by humans, programmed by humans and then used by humans, this tells us only part of the story. The various dimensions of the experience are not reducible to one of the above instances nor to the sum total of what they suggest about computer-human interaction. Instead, most of what makes up the interaction is not predictable, is full of potential errors of translation and action and is not governed by simple rules of behaviour.

Smith puts it well: “…what was required was a sense of identity that would support dynamic, on-the-fly problem-specific or task-specific differentiation — including differentiation according to distinctions that had not even been imagined at a prior, safe, detached, “design time. (Smith: 41)

“Computational structures cannot be designed in anticipation of everything that will be done with them. This crucial point can be used to explain if not illustrate the rather supple nature of machine-human relations. As well, it can be used to explain the extraordinary number of variables which simultaneously make it possible to design a program and not know what will be done with it.

Another example of this richness at work comes from the gaming community (which is different from the video game community). There are tens of thousands of people playing a variety of games over the internet. Briefly, the games are designed with very specific parameters in mind. But what gamers are discovering is that people are grouping themselves together in clans to play the games in order to win. These clans are finding new ways of controlling the games and rewriting the rules to their own specifications thereby alienating many of the players. In one instance, in response to one such sequence of events, a counter-group got together and tried to create some semblance of governance to control the direction in which the game was headed. After some months the governing council that had been formed grew more and fascistic and set inordinately strict rules for everyone. The designer of the game quit in despair.

This example illustrates the gap, the necessary gap between the “representational data structure (Smith: 43) that initially set up the parameters of the game and the variables that were introduced by the participants. But it also points out the limitations of the design process, limitations that cannot be overcome by increasingly complex levels of design. This is in other words a problem of representation. How can code be written at a level that will be able to anticipate use? The answer is, that for the most part, with great difficulty. It is our cultural investment in the power of the computer that both enhances and changes the coding and the use. We have thus not become extensions of the machine but have acted in concert with it, much as we might with another human being. This is hybridity and it suggests that technology and the practical use to which we put technology always exceeds the intentional structures that we build into it.

It is within and through this excess that we learn. It is because of this excess that we are able to negotiate a relationship with the technologies that make up our environment. And it is the wonder, the freshness, the unpredicability of the negotiation process that leads us to unanticipated results, such as, for example, Deep Blue actually beating Kasparov!

The context for learning, education and the arts (4)

(This entry is in five parts) One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

So why explore the intersections of human thought and computer programming? My tentative answer would be that we have not understood the breadth and depth of the relationships that we develop with machines. Human culture is defined by its on-going struggle with tools and implements, continuously finding ways of improving both the functionality of technology and its potential integration into everyday life. Computer programming may well be one of the most sophisticated artificial languages which our culture has ever constructed, but this does not mean that we have lost control of the process.

The problem is that we don’t recognize the symbiosis, the synergistic entanglement of subjectivity and machine, or if we do, it is through the lens of otherness as if our culture is neither the progenitor nor really in control of its own inventions. These questions have been explored in great detail by Bruno Latour and I would reference his articles in “Common Knowledge as well as his most recent book entitled, Aramis or The Love of Technology. There are further and even more complex entanglements here related to our views of science and invention, creativity and nature. Suffice to say, that there could be no greater simplification than the one which claims that we have become the machine or that machines are extensions of our bodies and our identities. The struggle to understand identity involves all aspects of experience and it is precisely the complexity of that struggle, its very unpredictability, which keeps our culture producing ever more complex technologies and which keeps the questions about technology so much in the forefront of everyday life.

It is useful to know that the within the field of artificial intelligence (AI) there are divisions between researchers who are trying to build large databases of “common sense in an effort to create programming that will anticipate human action, behaviour and responses to a variety of complex situations and researchers who are known as computational phenomenologists . “Pivotal to the computational phenomenologists position has been their understanding of common sense as a negotiated process as opposed to a huge database of facts, rules or schemata."(Warren Sack)

So even within the field of AI itself there is little agreement as to how the mind works, or how body and mind are parts of a more complex, holistic process which may not have a finite systemic character. The desire however to create the technology for artificial intelligence is rooted in generalized views of human intelligence, generalizations which don’t pivot on culturally specific questions of ethnicity, class or gender. The assumption that the creation of technology is not constrained by the boundaries of cultural difference is a major problem since it proposes a neutral register for the user as well. I must stress that these problems are endemic to discussions of the history of technology. Part of the reason for this is that machines are viewed not so much as mediators, but as tools — not as integral parts of human experience, but as artifacts whose status as objects enframes their potential use.

Computers, though, play a role in their use. They are not simply instruments because so much has in fact been done to them in order to provide them with the power to act their role. What we more likely have here are hybrids, a term coined by Bruno Latour to describe the complexity of interaction and use that is generated by machine-human relationships.

Another way of understanding this debate is to dig even more deeply into our assumptions about computer programming. I will briefly deal with this area before moving on to an explanation of why these arguments are crucial for educators as well as artists and for the creators and users of technology.

Generally, we think of computer programs as codes with rules that produce certain results and practices. Thus, the word processing program I am presently using has been built to ensure that I can use it to create sentences and paragraphs, to in other words write. The program has a wide array of functions that can recognize errors of spelling and grammar, create lists and draw objects. But, we do have to ask ourselves whether the program was designed to have an impact on my writing style. Programmers would claim that they have simply coded in as many of the characteristics of grammar as they could without overwhelming the functioning of the program itself. They would also claim that the program does not set limits to the infinite number of sentences that can be created by writers.

However, the situation is more complex than this and is also subject to many more constraints than initially seems to be the case. For example, we have to draw distinctions between programs and what Brian Cantwell Smith describes as “process or computation to which that program gives rise upon being executed and [the] often external domain or subject matter that the computation is about. (Smith, On the Origin of Objects, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998: 33) The key point here is that program and process are not static, but are dynamic, if not contingent. Thus we can describe the word processor as part of a continuum leading from computation to language to expression to communication to interpretation. Even this does not address the complexity of relations among all of these processes and the various levels of meaning within each.

To be continued........

 

The context for learning, education and the arts (2)

This Entry is in Five Parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

Let me begin by quoting the head of IBM, Lou Gerstner in reference to Deep Blue, the computer developed to play chess at the grandmaster level:

“Deep Blue is emblematic of a whole class of emerging computer systems that combine ultrafast processing with analytical software. Today we’re applying these systems to challenges far more vital than chess. They are used for example in simulation — replacing physical things with digital things, re-creating reality inside powerful computer systems? (“Think Leadership? Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998: 2)

Now, what is important here is not only the references to Deep Blue and very fast computer systems, but the assumption that the replacement of physical things with digital things re-creates reality inside computer systems and by extension in reality itself. This may well be true and may well be happening, but we need to examine the implications of the claim and locate this claim within a cultural, social and economic analysis. And we need to become quite clear about the meaning of the term simulation which is used most often to refer to an artificial environment that either replaces the real or in Jean Baudrillard’s words become the real. Simulation as I will use it refers to the creation of artifacts, their use and their integration as well as co-optation into an increasingly digital culture.

“And soon we’ll see this hyper-extended networked world made up of a trillion interconnected, intelligent devices — intersecting with data-mining capability. Pervasive Computing meets Deep Computing? (Gerstner: 3)

I will return to the implications of this quote through a variety of different routes. Historically, the advent of new technologies in the 20th century has generally been paralleled by claims of social effect and cultural transformation and these are synoptically represented by the continued influence of Marshall McLuhan on present thinking about technology and its effects. I will not examine McLuhan’s ideas in great detail, suffice to say that many of the assumptions guiding his cultural appropriation by a variety of writers, commentators and politicians do not stand up to scrutiny of a rigorous kind. For example, McLuhan’s famous statement that “The Medium is the Message? grew out of a report that he wrote in 1959-60 for the Office of Education, United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was entitled, “Report on Project in Understanding New Media? In it McLuhan analyses media such as television using the tools of cognitive psychology, management theory and economics. For McLuhan, media include speech, writing, photography, radio, etc.. And he is puzzled by why the effects of these media have been overlooked for as he puts it, “…3500 years of the Western world? (McLuhan, 1960: 1)

McLuhan searches for an explanation and much of the research for the project is prescient and fascinating as well as a precursor to the publication of “Understanding Media? in 1964. When it comes to the famous aphorism about the medium and the message, McLuhan reveals a rather interesting foundation for much of his later research.

“Nothing could be more unrealistic than to suppose that the programming for such media could affect their power to re-pattern the sense-ratios of our beings. It is the ratio among our senses which is violently disturbed by media technology. And any upset in our sense-ratios alters the matrix of thought and concept and value. In what follows, I hope to show how this ratio is altered by various media and why, therefore, the medium is the message or the sum-total of effects. The so-called content of any medium is another medium? (McLuhan, 1960: 9)

It is clear from this statement that the medium is actually the subject, that it is human beings whose sense-ratios are altered by participating in the experiences made possible through the media. It is not the content of the communication, but the encounter between the medium and subjectivity that alters or disturbs how we then reflexively analyse our experience. Although the medium is the message is generally interpreted in formal terms and although it has been appropriated as a generalization used to explain the presence of media in every aspect of our lives, McLuhan is here playing with cognitive and psychological research as it was developed in the 1950’s. More importantly, at this stage, he is avoiding a binary approach to form/content relations. He is effectively introducing a third element into the discussion, namely, the human body.

The context for learning, education and the arts (1)

This entry has five parts. (One, Two, Three, Four, Five)

The context for learning, education and the arts has altered dramatically over the last few years as has the cultural environment for educators and artists/creators. Part of what I would like to do here is examine the intersection of a number of crucial developments that I think have transformed the terrain of technology, education, art and culture.

This is a grand claim and I would be the first to admit that we are being incessantly told that change has become the major characteristic of the late 20th century. But, I do think that we are witnessing shifts which will have a profound effect not only on the social and political structure of Western countries but on the ways in which In which we see ourselves, act upon and within the communities of which we are a part and how we create meanings, messages and information for the proliferating networks that now surround us.

The one important caveat here is that although I am concerned with the transformations we are experiencing, I will in no way claim that we are undergoing a revolutionary change. I tend to see history as evolutionary, which in no way precludes dramatic shifts from occurring. As intellectuals, artists, technology developers and educators, I believe it is our responsibility to become active within this environment and to develop the critical and creative tools to respond to the ongoing evolution of an emerging aesthetic of interactivity in which aesthetic goals are linked with ethical goals and are based on a perspective of caring for both the individual and the larger economic, political, ecological, social and spiritual circumstances that create contexts for the individual. (Carol Gigliotti;Bridge to, Bridge From: The Arts, Technology and Education? Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 2, April-May, 1998 p.91)

Our cultural claims about the various factors that produce change tend to be linear, the line being one that moves along a fairly straight, if not narrow trajectory from the less complex to the more complex. The approach that I will take looks at the displacements that are created by the movement from one phase to another, movement in this instance being more like transportation framed by what Bruno Latour has described as connections, short circuits, translations, associations, and mediations that we encounter, daily. (Bruno Latour, Trains of Thought, Common Knowledge, Vol. 6, # 3, Winter, 1997, p. 183.)

So, I will begin by exploring the various conjunctures and disjunctures created by the presence of digital technologies in nearly every aspect of the cultural context of the early 21st century. My goal, however, is not an overview, but rather, to raise as many questions as I can in order to introduce increasing levels of mediation both to our understanding of the digital and to our creative transformation of the digital into various media of communication.

To be continued.....

 

Geographies of Dissent (2)

There is another term that I would like to introduce into this discussion and that is, counter-publics. Daniel Brouwer in a recent issue of Critical Studies in Media Communications uses the term to describe the impact of two “zines"? on public discussion of HIV-AIDS. The term resonates for me because it has the potential to bring micro and macro into a relationship that could best be defined as a continuum and suggests that one needs to identify how various publics can contain within themselves a continuing and often conflicted and sometimes very varied set of analysis and discourses about central issues of concern to everyone. It was the availability of copy machines beginning in 1974 that really made ‘zines’ possible. There had been earlier versions, most of which were copied by hand or by using typewriters, but copy machines made it easy to produce 200 or 300 copies of a zine at very low cost. In the process, a mico-community of readers was established for an infinite number of zines. In fact, the first zine convention in Chicago in the 1970’s attracted thousands of participants. The zines that Brouwer discusses that were small to begin with grew over time to five and ten thousand subscribers. This is viral publishing at its best, but it also suggests something about how various common sets of interests manifest themselves and how communities form in response.

“One estimate reckons that these "Xeroxed, hand-written, desktop-published, sometimes printed, and even electronic" documents (as the 1995 zine convention in Hawaii puts it) have produced some 20,000 titles in the past couple of decades. And this "cottage" industry is thought to be still growing at twenty percent per year. Consequently, as never before, scattered groups of people unknown to one another, rarely living in contiguous areas, and sometimes never seeing another member, have nonetheless been able to form robust social worlds? John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Documents. Clearly, zines represent counter-publics that are political and are inheritors of 19th century forms of poster communications and the use of public speakers to bring countervailing ideas to large groups. Another way of thinking about this area is to look at the language used by many zines. Generally, their mode of address is direct. The language tends to be both declarative and personal. The result is that the zines feel like they are part of the community they are talking to and become an open ‘place’ of exchange with unpredictable results. I will return to this part of the discussion in a moment, but it should be obvious that zines were the precursors to Blogs.

As I said, the overall aggregation of various forms of protest using a variety of different media in a large number of varied contexts generates outcomes that are not necessarily the product of any centralized planning. This means that it is also difficult to gage the results. Did the active use of cell phones during the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO contribute to greater levels of organization and preparedness on the part of the protestors and therefore on the message they were communicating? Mobile technologies were also used to “broadcast? back to a central source that then sent out news releases to counter the mainstream media and their depiction of the protests and protestors. This proved to be minimally effective in the broader social sense, but very effective when it came to maintaining and sustaining the communities that had developed in opposition to the WTO and globalization. Inadvertently, the mainstream media allowed the images of protest to appear in any form because they were hungry for information and needed to make sense of what was going on. As with many other protests in public spaces, it is not always possible for the mainstream media to control what they depict. Ultimately, the most important outcome of the demonstrations was symbolic, which in our society added real value to the message of the protestors.

To be continued...

 

Breakfast Speech on Learning, May 6, 2006 (Emily Carr Institute Graduation)

“Most people believe that it is education that will save us. But this bland, sweeping, and unexamined assertion reduces us into continuing to uncritically support and tinker with the current story of schooling. It is education that will save us, but not any kind of education—only education of a certain kind: only education that is generative and life-affirming, that invites, engages, and integrates the fullness of our children’s capacities and ways of knowing, and that nurtures the creation of integral minds committed to the creation of a truly just and wise global civilization. Only education that develops our capacity to become more fully human is truly worthy of the human spirit. Only education that invites deep learning and reconnects us to life will light and sustain the fire within?

(Stephanie Pace Marshall)

Learning is a complex and challenging subject. The learning experience both within schools and outside of them has been an area of debate and contention for centuries and we still do not know that much about the optimum conditions for learning or even how humans internalize information and process knowledge. In this context, post-secondary and K-12 institutions are struggling to respond to sometimes-excessive expectations on the part of students and their communities, trying at one and the same time to create value and be valuable.

Stephanie Marshall quotes Mary Catherine Bateson: “You can’t prepare the child for the job market that will exist 20 years from now. So how can you build a curriculum that will shape an individual to be a pioneer in an unknown land — because that’s what the future is? (Stephanie Pace Marshall, “[The Learning Story of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy? ](http://www.learndev.org) The future cannot be known and we do our children a great disservice when we suggest to them that getting a degree, for example, should be connected in a linear way to their future employment. This means that a creative student exploring their often profound and sometimes confusing desire to craft or produce a work of art is has to struggle to explain both the value of their creative process and the outcomes of their creative engagement in the context of an employment picture that may not produce a simple fit. A philosophy student or even a learner with a philosophical outlook will judge speculative thought to be less than useful, largely because it cannot be connected to a clear and discernable outcome. To me, learning is as much about the practice of engaging with materials and ideas as it is about speculative thinking that cannot and should not be translated into a concrete form.

It is interesting to note that the present model for most universities is and has been a contested one. Notions of original research and inquiry only took hold in the late 19th century. Public education as we know it is relatively young with some of the biggest growth coming in the 1960’s. The idea of teaching the liberal arts in a university only reached some critical mass in the late 19th century, while in the 1930’s, research and graduate teaching were prioritized over undergraduate teaching and public service. It was only in the 1960’s that Clark Kerr proposed that a single institution “could perform multiple missions to benefit society.��? (John C. Scott, “The Mission of the University: Medieval to Postmodern Transformation,��? Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 77, No1 (Jan-Feb 2006) p. 3.) These different positions span the history of post-secondary education and learning and remain in place today with institutions bearing the weight of trying to distinguish among strategies and choices that are not well understood either by the public or by government.

Have you ever wondered why educators continue to rely so heavily on lecture formats within classrooms? In medieval times, before the printing press was invented, before it was possible to disseminate ideas to a broader populace, teachers, who were generally clerics, spoke to students, read from the bible and from other available material. They read and spoke very slowly so that the students could take notes, which was the only way for learners to reproduce the ideas and information for their own personal use. The teachers of the 12th century gained great authority from this teaching strategy. It was the beginning of a process of institutionalization, which to this day remains central to the practice of teaching. But does it remain central to the practice to learning? How do we bring new insights into our understanding of learning? Have we reached the point where our institutions, their rules, regulations, policies and practices are not able to optimize the conditions within which learning can take place?

It is within the context of this discussion that I am so very pleased to introduce Chris Kelly to you. Chris’s biography is rich and varied having been the Superintendent of Schools and Chief Executive Officer for the Richmond School Board for nine years and completing his third year as Superintendent of the Vancouver School Board. As an educator and administrator, Chris’s experience includes elementary and secondary teaching, Aboriginal education, special education, curriculum development, and professional and organizational development. He is presently the President of Canadian Education Association, is on the Advisory committee to the Deans of Education and Science at UBC and a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Global Ethics.

What I have described here only reflects a small portion of what Chris does, how he interweaves his passion for learning and education with the tremendous responsibilities of managing a large k-12 system, how he manages at the same time to play a public role as an advocate for our educational system, how beautifully and clearly he articulates his concerns for the quality of learning and the needs of students. Chris and I have known each other for some years now and every time we have met, our discussions have been rich and varied. So, it pleases me tremendously to announce to you today that we have agreed in principle to explore the possible creation of a specialized high school in Art and Design in Vancouver that would be supported by and developed with Emily Carr Institute. Chris will talk a little more about this, but you can be rest assured that we intend to follow through on this visionary project that we feel will ensure a place, a strong place for the creative arts in the curriculum of young learners.