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DJ Alchemi

An individual brew of learning, culture and technology

Published: 2013-11-14T15:48:42+00:00


Round-up of recent and current work


In the four-minute video below, I describe how a small charity created a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for over 1,000 people. This was the open course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL) which I managed from inception to completion of its first run. This is one of a set of films about projects that the Association for Learning Technology has recently published.

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ocTEL is one of the major projects I've been working on over the past year. Here are some others.

  • For Myscience, which runs the national Science Learning Centres and National STEM Centre, I co-wrote an Online Strategy for the continuing professional development which they provide to teachers. My company was the lead contractor for a team including Seb Schmoller, David Read, Dominic Tinley and Jonathan Drori. Having got approval to proceed the strategy from Myscience's stakeholders, we are now exploring how we might help with implementation.
  • The work that I mentioned last year to provide support to support to learned societies considering the transition to Gold Open Access publishing is now available. The publishing businesses of learned societies operate in a complex ecosystems with a rich variety of disciplinary traditions and institutional histories. Being helpful is not always as easy as it might seem.
  • Following last year's work for the Higher Education Academy — to reorient their online resources to make them more useful to teaching communities of practice — Knowledge Integration won a contract to implement a new repository and take forward some of the recommendations. I am helping them ensure that the implications of this for the user experience are borne in mind.
  • My main current project involves the creation of another large-scale online course for adult learners. The Citizens' Maths project aims to develop free and open online maths course that could support hundreds of thousands of learners. The first run of the first part of the course is scheduled to be next summer. The project page has more details. I am the project manager.

Meanwhile, I had hoped to revamp this website this year, but it is now likely to be some time into 2014 before this happens. It still runs on the same Movable Type platform as it did ten years ago. If you know anyone who understands the details of making the transition to Wordpress (including maintaining old URLs so that inbound links here are not broken), please ask them to get in touch. I will pay well for the right kind of help. And once that transition is complete, more frequent blogging will follow.

What I did last summer


To state the obvious, I have blogging block — a fairly chronic case of it. The reasons for this, and my abortive attempts to overcome it, are fascinating from one perspective; self-indulgent from another. Therein lies part of the riddle that has undone me. Suffice to say, for now, that I still believe in the value of reflective writing about experience, and of sharing half-formed thoughts as part of a conversation with people who share my interests. I plan to get back to it.

Lest you imagine that I have just been convolving with my navel these past months, here's a quick resumé of recent and current projects:

  • Working with University of Derby Online to explore the feasibility of developing online Access to HE provision. This was a small project and in one sense it focused on a very specific question within quite a restricted canvas. In another sense it raised big issues about how to make Higher Education more accessible, less rigid and better suited to the lives of people who weren't 'bred' to be full-time students. More agile, in my terminology.
  • Working with the Higher Education Academy to advise how to reorient their online resources to make them more useful to the diverse communities of practice — across HE teaching — that the Academy supports.There are subtle, but profound, changes afoot as national agencies navigate the transition from publisher-cum-gatekeeper role to being more facilitative in the era when open online resources are distributed and abundant.
  • Managing a project to identify the support that scholarly socities need to make the transition to Gold Open Access publishing, which has been given a shot in the arm in the UK by the Finch Report. Our project then aims to commission or produce resources to help meet those needs for support. I'm project manager on behalf of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), who have been commissioned by the Open Access Implementation Group.
  • Also for ALT, I'm managing the Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning project (the website hasn't been formally launched yet, so no link, but you can find it if you dig). This is also aimed at teachers in higher education, encouraging them to explore the ways they could use technology in their teaching. The course is a MOOC — Massive Open Online Course. The soul of MOOCs, whether saintly or demonic, is hotly contested at the moment, especially among learning technologists, so it's an interesting time to be designing such a course. It's due to run next year.

For all but one of these projects, I've been working with my regular collaborator Seb Schmoller. While I've been working on them — and I was also fortunate enough to be invited on two holidays this summer — my work on Agile Learning has moved on to the back burner. Most recently I got the Agile Learning wiki to the point where almost stands by itself as an introduction to the principles and practice. I also wrote a series of articles for New Media Knowledge — here's the round-up that points to the three main articles. I expect to stay with the agile theme for as long as I continue to do anything that could pass as work, but for now the Agile Learning blog, twitter, Facebook and Google+ (!) are lying mostly fallow until the season changes.

Tom Phillips and A Humument: Essays, notes


A year ago, almost to the day, I got an email out of the blue from Lucy Shortis, who runs the office of my favourite artist, Tom Phillips. She said some nice things about a very old blog post of mine, and asked if I would consider writing a "short biography of Tom" for a new website for him. I drummed my fingers on my desk for half an hour before replying, thinking it might seem creepily over-keen to accept the challenge within five minutes. Still, I was round at the studio to discuss the work with Lucy the next morning, a Saturday. I already had several books of Tom Phillips' work, none of which I'd given as much attention as I would have wished. (I used to think of these enormously rich works as resources to keep me alert in my retirement. Via this commission, I enjoyed the luxury of bringing forward a few weeks of that retirement.) One of the first things I did was track down and buy some more of his books. To a dabbling hobbyist like me, Aspects of Art was particularly useful in providing a concise, straightforward account of both Tom's perspective and the grammar of art history that he draws on. It took me weeks of research before I felt ready to start writing, and, thus when I did I was so marinated in the rich play of ideas in Tom's work, that I couldn't quite bring myself to write a 'straight' biography. My first attempt was well over the word limit and so wide of the mark that I had to put it to one side. No matter. Try again. With a little guidance from Lucy, I came up with this attempt which went live with the new website a couple of weeks ago. Moreover, Lucy was kind enough to indulge me by finding a home for my original essay. The new website is one of a series of happenings this month that mark Tom Phillips' 75th birthday. (There's a neat symmetry about this number for me, since I first encountered Tom's work at his 1987 exhibition in Sheffield, "50 Years of Tom Phillips, 100 Years of the Mappin Art Gallery".) Other birthday events include two exhibitions in London and the publication of the fifth edition of Tom's book A Humument, which he's been working on for 46 years and counting. Regarding the last of these, I pitched to The Spectator to write an article about A Humument and you can read it in the current edition of the magazine or online. Once again, my first draft of this went way over the word limit and included playful embellishments that had to be cut for publication. Now I've gone back to that draft to create a "Director's Cut" version. Like most Director's Cuts, it's by no means better than the version where I had my wings clipped: it rambles along down several diversions; it has pretentious flourishes; its editing is baggy. If you want a decent overview of A Humument, read the Spectator piece. If you're part of the niche audience that's interested in a few of the many different directions in which A Humument leads, this is for you. The artist Tom Phillips will be 75 on 24th May. Alongside two new exhibitions and the launch of a new website to mark this milestone, he is publishing the Fifth Edition1 of his "treated Victorian novel", A Humument. When he began work on it, over 45 years ago, Phillips was himself unsure about this unusual work, which inhabits a limbo between coffee table art book and Finnegans Wake. Apparently he initially only worked on it in the evenings, having "resolved not to squander precious daylight hours of work time on what he suspected may be a wild all consuming folly." It could have been a dated Sixties curio, but it has endured, and somehow seems to have anticipated successive generations of thought about image, text and meaning, right up to the iPad era. Revision is the essence of A Humument, or, as the book itself says, "the changes are the method." From the beginning the text was reworked by being drawn over, cut up, highlighted and re-sequenced, repurposed and generally subjected to every adulteration you could imagine. Each edition since 1980 has between 40 and 100 pages revised from the previous one. [...]

Deskilling Learning? On "strong" and "weak" agile learning


Having saddled myself with the agile learning term, one of the hazards I can't complain about is having to explain it: What does it really mean? What's different about it? What's agile about it. There's a working definition of the key elements on the agile learning wiki, which I continue to develop slowly and sporadically. Recently I've been reflecting on some more nuanced, but still half-formed, ideas, which feel more like blog-conversations than wiki-definitions. These are partly prompted by reading Douglas Rushkoff's excellent Program or Be Programmed (which deserves a blog post of its own), and also by the Learning Analytics course, devised by George Siemens and colleagues, which I'm currently participating in (and blogging about in detail over here). What I'm toying with at the moment is a distinction between "weak" agile learning and "strong" agile learning. This is after John Searle's distinction between "weak" and "strong" artificial intelligence, but I suspect this kinship may be tenuous and, certainly, vainglorious. They might equally well be called, say, pragmatic agile learning and principled agile learning — or something else. Weak agile learning is based on whatever works, as long as it's within the definition. Analytics, automated processes, traditional tutor-led power relationships are all fine if they're open (as in open educational resources), collective and flexible. Strong agile learning is committed to the values of making everything — process, resources, algorithms and the context in which the learning is framed — visible, transparent and manipulable to the learner. So it's taking a more radical definition of openness. The weak version allows for things like intelligent curriculums, gamification and personalisation by the provider. The strong version wants to trust in learners' intelligence and give them the information and the data to personalise their own experiences. Pragmatically, I'm drawn to the weak version. I distrust purism, believing every oyster needs some grit (for most of my three decades as a vegetarian, I've eaten meat a few times a year). But ethically and aesthetically I feel the strong version needs shouting about, because gung-ho enthusiasm for the Big Data/Scientific Management seems to be leading down a dangerous path. Let me explain.Why do people insist on using big data and AI techniques to add more intelligence and power to the provision of learning? Why not focus more on the receiving and acting-on end? Well, we know why, don't we? It's because the receiving and acting end is unruly and unpredictable. But what's the end game of trying to build all the intelligence into the provision? If it were successful, then the education system would have succeeded in deskilling the act of learning. Yes, deskilling learning so that anyone can do it without thinking or stressing too much* — what kind of oxymoron is that? It's not sustainable, in that it doesn't lead to robust, resilient learners who can deal with genuinely messy, unpredictable circumstances. I suspect it's not achievable, either, because learners too are messy and unpredictable. What they take in is affected by all sorts of environmental contingencies — the state of their blood sugar, hormones, preoccupations with tonight's football match, or what they learned in another subject yesterday — and a million other factors that are beyond the modelling capabilities of any Intelligent Tutoring System. Sometimes they learn against the grain, wilfully or tacitly detecting that the tutorial agenda is at variance with their own, and thus taking away the opposite lesson to the one intended. The strong version of agile learning doesn't fight this, but celebrates it, encouraging learners to adapt and own their own learning paths — by all means in dialogue with, or under the guidance of, a tutor. Of course, they will make mistakes. Sometimes they freewheel down the path of least resistance; other[...]

Notes on Emergent Learning


As part of updating the wiki on agile learning, I've been reading up on Emergent Learning. As long ago as 2004, Michael Feldstein was arguing that "Emergent Learning" is an oxymoron. In brief, his argument was that the term was being used very loosely to describe any circumstance where learning emerges as a by-product of collective activity. Certainly that looseness still exists in some accounts. However, I'm interested in digging into a couple of examples where the term may be applicable in the strict sense to which Feldstein is committed. It turns out that this leads to some counter-intuitive conclusions. Here is the nub of Feldstein's argument: [S]ome philosophers of mind suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of brains. Each individual neuron is simply a mechanical switch responding to triggers in its immediate environment. But when you string a bunch of these switches together in the right way, you suddenly have an aware being. The neurons aren’t individually conscious; it’s the brain as a collective entity that posesses the emergent property of consciousness. When people talk about "emergent learning" these days, this is not generally what they mean. What they generally mean is some form of rapid consensus-building in which a group of people can share observations and make coordinated decisions without any one person filling the role of executive command and control. This is, no doubt, an important phenomenon to understand and try to cultivate. However, it is not emergence. A democratic decision-making process is not sufficient for an action to be called "emergent." Almost by definition, if you have the kind of self- and group-awareness that is usually entailed when we use the word "learning", you can’t have emergence. You can say that a colony of ants "learns" what the best foraging strategy is, but it is the colony as a whole that "learns," not the individuals. If the individual ants were able to learn the best foraging strategy, communicate it throughout the hive, and consciously arrive at a consensus, then their adaptive foraging would not be an emergent behavior. So "emergent learning" as the term is currently being used is actually an oxymoron. Remember this: none of the ants has learnt, or knows, the strategy, but collectively they can put it into action. If you look at the case studies in this recent Special Issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning on "Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning," it's clear that the learning and knowledge of individuals remains the primary focus. "Emergent" in this context seems to be another way of describing the knowledge and skills — some of them tacit — that individuals accrue from taking part in self-organised and/or very fluid learning experiences. By contrast, look at this from A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It doesn't use the term "emergent learning" but nevertheless describes the kind of collective (not individual) mastery that Feldstein insists is the mark of true emergence. So here emergent learning would not be an oxymoron?In World of Warcraft, one of the most successful multiplayer games ever, groups of players battle fictional monsters (not one another) in extremely complex group actions called raids. A group [or guild] of 25 players, for example, will need six to eight hours, on average, to complete most raids. Raids require intense coordination, concentration, and participation from each and every member of the team. To advance, players experiment within the game and draw from external information sources to construct a very sophisticated learning environment. They create standards and tools for measurement that rely on advanced mathematics, build statistical models and intricate programs for data processing, and conduct after-action reviews and teamwide performance evaluations. And they do it for fun in a social context. … Guil[...]

School it Yourself: Review of The Edupunks' Guide and How to Set Up a Free School


We're in one of those periods when real change in education might be possible. This doesn't happen very often. Here's why. Education is probably the single most powerful means by which our societies and our cultures reproduce themselves — institutions, values, character and differentials… the works. Hence the number of interest groups with a stake in education is enormous. Of all the culture-breeding channels available to those in power, education is in principle the one that lends itself most readily to engineering and design. However, in practice, everyone sticks the oar in and change is piecemeal, compromised and fragile. So it's rare for sufficient powerful forces to align and overcome the drag of inertia. Now is such a time, and I think we're just seeing the beginnings of changes that may take a decade or two to work through. Donald Clark writes of technology enabling "more pedagogic change in 10 years than in the last 1,000 years". Then there's the impact of economic retrenchment and austerity on learning, which I've been writing about on and off for over two years, arguing that cases where people have to "make do" in their learning may have something to teach us about how to improve more "advanced" techniques. On top of factors like these (the full set would be a whole essay in itself), there's a cultural mood that has arisen from year-upon-year of different kinds of disruption — from hurricanes and ash clouds, through financial punch-drunkenness to the effects of technology reaching the professional middle classes for the first time. We don't believe in the return of business-as-usual any more; we don't trust the age-old educational conveyor belts to drop us off at the right spot in the factory. In different ways we're questioning the educational provision that's been handed down, and wondering if we couldn't do better ourselves. Let's explore what I mean by that by looking at two "How To" e-books about education, published in recent months. In many ways they're chalk and cheese. One's American, the other British. One is a student's-eye view, the other a parent and school-builder. One is very "2.0" in its sensibility, arguing that students can remix their learning experiences from multiple sources. The other is, well, the mischief in me would like to call it Web 0.0, but really it's from a place as yet uncolonised by either software or version numbers, so let's christen it "RLP" (Received Learning Practice or Revised Latin Primer). In one of the very few passages where Young articulates what he thinks should actually go on inside a school, he describes a visit to an independently run Swedish school, [The Children] were assembled in rows behind wooden desks and… the teacher was standing at the front of the class clutching a piece of chalk. It was as if we'd stepped through a portal in space and time and found ourselves in a typical English grammar school in the 1950s… it was exactly what we wanted the West London Free School to be. But these texts — The Edupunks Guide to a DIY Credential by Anya Kamenetz and How to Set Up a Free School by Toby Young — also share many things in common. Both are digital-only, which is just as well since their (virtual) shelf life could be measured in weeks rather than years. That both are tied so specifically to their national contexts in late 2011 — respectively, the structure of college education and nascent alternatives in the USA, and current policy and personnel at the UK Department for Education — may be testament to how tightly education is bound into society when you want to tinker with it. It also makes it a challenge to articulate where the two books might intersect. But let me try. The Edupunks' Guide to a DIY Credential Anya Kamenetz arrives at DIY alternatives to traditional education via her study of student loan debt. Two thirds of college graduates in the US, 36 millio[...]

What's holding Open Access publishing back?


As a small business working in knowledge-intensive, research-driven areas, I've got first-hand experience of the frustrations caused by mainstream research publishing: you find a research paper that looks useful, but it costs $30 to read the 15 pages if you haven't got some kind of institutional subscription. These costs keep going up, and even institutions are having to look critically at what they can afford, in what is known as the serials crisis. Recently George Monbiot stirred up a small storm by drawing attention to this — see one angry reaction, for example. The Open Access movement in academia has been working for decades to overcome the kinds of problems I experience. As the name suggests, Open Access is committed to all research publications (and sometimes data too) being freely available to anyone for the public good. Momentum has grown in recent years as online tools have made the editorial and distribution functions of publishing much more agile. Nevertheless, there's still a sense among many Open Access advocates that progress is stalling, or at least not nearly as rapid as it might be. At the start of the summer I was commissioned, along with Seb Schmoller and Nicky Ferguson, to do a quick piece of work to understand why Open Access was not sweeping all before it. Given the short deadlines, the brief we were given was tightly focused: after a brief literature review, we spoke only to researchers in chemistry and economics. This constraint was frustrating in one or two senses. Palpably, of course, our literature search was less comprehensive than it would have been had Open Access been the rule rather than the exception. But at least that didn't prevent me finding Gale Moore's survey of faculty awareness and attitudes towards Open Access at the University of Toronto. I was struck there by her observations: While scholars are central, they are only one part of a scholarly communication ecosystem that includes publishers, librarians, university administrators as well as scholarly societies, associations, funding agencies and others. Today, as the economic, social and cultural landscape is being transformed by the turn to the digital that is evident in phrases such as the networked information society or the digital economy, it is timely to ask how does this turn affect scholars and other members of the scholarly communication ecosystem on which so much depends. How aware are scholars of the opportunities and challenges posed by the digital, networked environment in which they are situated, and the implications for their activities and those of others in the system? Are they aware of how the activities of others in the ecosystem affect them? [my emphasis] "Scholarly communication ecosystem" — there's that word again. Now here's the real frustration. Despite this acknowledgement of the wider context of research publication, almost all the research on how to spread Open Access — including Moore's and our own — seems to focus on researchers and not on the other players in the ecosystem. To be fair, Nottingham's Centre for Research Communications, who commissioned our work, have included Pro Vice Chancellors of research and Head Librarians in their own work. They report very little awareness of Open Access and its benefits among these groups. They quote one enlightened Vice Chancellor, who backs up case that the issue has been bottled up as specialist technical concern: "The issue of open access is being narrowly contained as a research issue around publications… We have been a victim of compartmentalisation." Can you point me to research on the awareness and attitudes towards Open Access among publishers, librarians, university administrators, scholarly societies, associations and funding agencies? As we wrote in our report, there seems to be a skew in the research on Open Access diffusion towards studying the atti[...]

On ecosystems, Adam Curtis and positions of power


I have a chronic habit of reaching more for biological metaphors for to help describe how we inhabit a world of abundant technology and media. Two decades ago, when I was working on large IT systems in the civil service, Ian Franklin and I suggested a shift from thinking about these systems as engineering interventions to a more organic, gardening-style approach. We got short shrift. Kevin Kelly took this thinking much further, and more rigorously, than I ever have in Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines… (large public sector IT systems, "out of control" — hmmm…). But I've come back to it in writing about foraging and discovery, a central metaphor in my book. And the read-across from the natural world is very clear in my work on Ken Thompson's SwarmTribes platform. I don't claim anything unique or especially prescient about about this interest in eco/bio ways of talking about things. You could tell it was becoming commonplace, if not mainstream, when Becta announced plans for a "content ecosystem" for learning (pdf). The plans themselves were old school, top-down and centralised with negligible scope for organic evolution based on selection and feedback. Practice and terminology rarely develop in sync. With a much grander scope than technology platforms for learning, Adam Curtis, the documentary film maker and blogger, did a demolition job on the ecosystem idea during his recent BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. It's a good thing to have your cherished notions challenged and put under the microscope, particularly by someone who you might expect to be sympathetic, like Curtis. I don't think Curtis's critique is watertight, but — as Alan Kay famously said of the Macintosh user interface — it's good enough to be worth criticising. I was on holiday when the ecosystems film (episode 2 of 3 in the series) was broadcast. I had to follow the cat-and-mouse game between YouTubers and copyright owners to see it. At the time of writing, the full episode is available here: The film is titled "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts". Curtis wrote his own text precis of its argument and Wikipedians offer another. There are blog posts here, here and (most interesting but mainly because it takes off in a different direction) here. I'm going to pick out two strands of Curtis's argument and one question it seems to beg. There's more to it than this, but these are the points that most interest me in my appropriation of eco/bio terminology and concepts.1. Are ecosystems unstable? In Curtis's version, many of us like to think in terms of ecosystems because ecosystems offer a model that is self-organising, free of centralised control — there is no one entity "in charge" — and yet they seem directed to return towards stability, balance and equilibrium. Via the kind intellectual archaeology that he has made his trademark, Curtis traces this model back to a botanist called Arthur Tansley early in the 20th century, who, in turn, took the ideas of self-regulation from Freud's self correcting psychodynamic processes, all working in service of "great universal law of equilibrium". Curtis boldly states that this "law" is wrong: nature is not stable (watch from 41 minutes in). The evidence from studies of wolf and moose populations in the 1970s showed that these populations fluctuated without ever settling to equilibrium. And other research also showed more flux than stability. Well. According to Wikipedia, Curtis studied evolutionary biology at university. I didn't, but surely even a cursory familiarity with the field suggests that whether you see stability or chaotic fluctuation depends on the frame you choose for your data collection. Equilibrium clearly does occur at some levels. For hundreds of thousands of years, the Earth keeps its temperature more stable than changes [...]

The Whys and Wherefores of Creativity and Sharing: Review of Making is Connecting


One of the beauties of David Gauntlett's Making is Connecting is the way it develops a fundamentally simple idea with successive layers of richness and power. The cover captures the kernel of the book: the core thesis that making (with hands and brain, resourcefully) is connecting (in terms of relationships, meaning, learning); the context that extends from scissors and thread to YouTube; and the ethos of the personal, handmade artefact captured in the stylish smudge that subverts the sleek sans-serif typeface. One of the perils of writing anything related to Web 2.0 over the last four years is being painted into a corner opposite Andrew Keen and his Cult of the Amateur broadside against the threats to the hieratic hierarchy of professional power. In this case I think the comparison is justified, because Making is Connecting is everything that The Cult of the Amateur was not. Where Keen reductively polarises and thins out the issues he addresses, Gauntlett's treatment is embodied, his points rounded out with substance and complexity. Where Keen uses "amateur" as term of haughty derision, Gauntlett gives us back a fleshed out sense of the word, capturing the care and dedication that come when people make things for love, not money. Regular readers of this blog with good memories may remember that David Gauntlett is a friend of mine. I interviewed him a year ago when he was writing Making is Connecting. (On the same morning, as well as interviewing me for this blog, David also interviewed me about my blogging on another site for his book — you may be thinking I only review books I've been interviewed for, but I promise that's not true.) In that 2010 interview, I complimented David on his plain speaking style and how he makes his ideas accessible. That holds true throughout Making is Connecting: it's rare for a book to cite Adorno and Horkheimer while still remaining readable, but this one does. Of Ivan Illich — one of David Gauntlett's guiding lights, along with the likes of William Morris, John Ruskin and Richard Sennett — he says "his writing feels earthy, and engaged with real things." The same could be said of David himself, and I confess I envy him in this.Making is Connecting is about how to engage creatively with the world, using accessible tools to make things. What Gauntlett takes from Illich, he says, is that making changes everything — including, I think, people's sense of themselves, their relationships, and their capacity to effect change independent of any "external authority". The shift from sit-back to lean-forward media has been widely covered in the last decade and a half, but David Gauntlett situates it in a wider social and cultural history. Where writers like Clay Shirky and David Weinberger articulate the areas where the Net brings about a step change in public life, Gauntlett draws attention to the continuities. Over the course of a generation everything has changed; over centuries, some ideas and themes persist or recur. This is where the knitting and the lefty artisans from the 19th century come in. Knitting, along with other craft and DIY skills, are "popularly seen as a bit boring" but are actually enablers and carriers of key attributes of society: resilience, self-expression and identity, creativity and social capital. Gauntlett is not afraid to call things as 'good' or 'bad'. He does this without becoming preachy or hectoring: the tone is mostly fraternal, occasionally avuncular. It's Web 2.0 and the home made media like podcasts and YouTube video that give Making is Connecting its topicality. While Gauntlett clearly champions the fit-for-amateurs qualities of these media, and explains their value in depth through examples and analysis, he is not so much of an evangelist that he is blind their limitations. Where Gauntlett is critical of Web 2.0 he[...]

Round-up of recent writing in other places


(image) Agile learning: How 'making do' can evolve into 'making good' is my latest attempt at developing and honing what I mean by agile learning and why it's important. Written for the newsletter of the Association for Learning Technology, it's aimed at the ALT constituency which is mostly people in Higher and Further Education along with a scattering of commercial learning tech companies — and, at just over 2,000 words, it's reasonably long. One of the ideas I use as props is the learning ecosystem. Since I wrote this, Adam Curtis's TV essay picking apart the ecosystem metaphor has been broadcast in the UK. I like having my premises challenged, sometimes, and hope to explore this in a forthcoming post.

Also for ALT I contributed a short presentation to the Making the Most of Informal Learning webinar. You can watch and listen to the full recording: best experienced from the beginning (which, oddly, starts at 1 hour 9 mins on the clock) with Jane Hart and Charles Jennings presenting before me, then I come on when the clock says 1 hour 40 mins. You can also download my slides, though they make little sense without the accompanying ramblings.

I'm one of the friends of New Public Thinking, another of Dougald Hine's many interventions into learning and intellectual culture. My contribution so far is called When Should We Eat Our Brains? It's a sceptical look at the idea that getting a bunch of clever people to "co-create" is the answer to any and every problem.

The open source movement has got us into the habit of believing that "with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow". But lots of the problems we face are very different from debugging software. Solving them is more like unpicking knots. The more hands and eyes you devote to unpicking a knot, all at once, the tighter the knot gets.

This piece is a kind of companion to another I wrote last year for The Future We Deserve book, which, frustratingly, has yet to be published. You can see what I submitted, which pulls the lens even further back to ask whether we have what it takes to husband the planet, comparing the prognoses of Stuart Brand and James Lovelock.

On a completely different note, here's my review of a Trembling Bells gig in Lewisham.

Finally, I'm blogging more frequently (though erratically as ever) on the Agile Learning amplify site, plus occasionally on the Everything Unplugged group site.

Bumble bee photo by tassie.sim, licensed under Creative Commons.

Purpos/ed: What's the purpose of education


This post is my contribution to an ongoing project organised by purpos/ed, "a non-partisan, location-independent organization aiming to kickstart a debate around the question: What’s the purpose of education?" This was initiated by Doug Belshaw and Andy Stewart. When I signed up to make the 38th contribution at the fag end of an already-extended process, I knew that it would be almost impossible to say anything original (well done, Simon, for trying), so I planned to focus on framing and connecting what had already been said. The process of doing that led me in a challenging direction. This week, I read all the contributions that preceded this one. Two dimensions emerged fairly early on in this reading, shown in my figure below. Admittedly this is crude; not everything fits, and some occupy more than one place within it. But the differences are worth drawing out. Probably the most common phrase in this debate is some variation on "fulfilling individual potential" (e.g. Jan, Lou, Mark, Zoe). I guess this reflects a focus on increasing people's self-determination, and who can argue with the desirability of that? Yet it misses the idea that individuals should strive to be part of something bigger than themselves.That was introduced in Keri's initial reference to the good society, touched on by Mark's exhortation to root out injustice, and elaborated by James' call for "a system of education that can begin to undo the harm that we have done to the world" (also referencing Fred). On the other dimension, we've seen education described as the means to help people perform roles better, be happier and better people, create a better life. Again, it's hard to disagree with making things better — but how useful is this description of purpose? We need to go to the next level to explain how education can help. The opposite pole on this dimension would be to specify target measures whose achievement would be a proxy for the societal returns from education. Unsurprisingly, given the prevailing reaction to targets-and-assessment culture in educational circles, no purpos/ed piece has leant strongly towards this end of the spectrum. Yet surely we need to articulate some of the intermediate steps of how education makes things better, rather than just claiming that it does? Another recurring theme is about developing the appetite and the skills to keep learning. As Tom and Lisa have pointed out, we're born with appetite; in practice it seems that education sometimes does more to diminish than to sustain that desire. The West may soon need the resilience and adaptability that comes from keeping learning "muscles" in shape. We, the generation writing purpos/ed, are fortunate to have lived our lives in peace and relative affluence. We've had the luxury of framing our goals in terms of personal fulfilment. We have never been tested by times of mass crisis. This is not the case for other societies and other times. Every year 20 million people die before their time because of poverty: their potential is unfulfilled. That's about a third of all deaths, and education is making slow progress in bringing that number down. The sad truth is our children are unlikely to be as lucky as we have been, and may face urgent, chronic problems. They may find fulfilment by solving those problems, but their prime concerns could be lower down Maslow's infamous hierarchy. Before the first Purpos/ed post was written, I jotted down my own off-the-cuff answer: "the purpose of education is to aid our meditation on purposes — what should we do, why and how?". I know that's a bit glib, but it adds a reflexive twist to this debate: how sophisticated and sensitive to changing context are our education systems and discourse? I worry we may be in for a rude awakening when the edu[...]

Open, trusting, generous: review of Monkeys With Typewriters, a book on leadership


As I made my way through the first third of Monkeys with Typewriters, I was vaguely aware of a tut-tutting from my inner voice, an occasional rolling of my inner eye. "Sheesh, this social media stuff wants to be seen as shiny, new and transformative," they seemed to be saying, "but really it's just another episode in the gradual chipping away at the old Fordist, Taylorist, command-and-control model of the enterprise." Then I reached page 64, where one of Jemima Gibbons' interviewees argues that, in social media, technology has caught up with ideas that have been around for a generation. Aha! My inner head (?) nods in approval. Who is this shrewd commentator that Jemima has consulted? It's me. Yep, that's me all over: conjuring thoughts that seem original to me, only to find that I've been singing the same old song for years (Jemima interviewed me in 2008). So that's the disclosure out of the way, and, for helping out as an interviewee, I got a free copy of the book. Jemima and I have moved in similar circles in London since around 2003, when we were both part of Ecademy's now-defunct Media Playground group and when Jemima led Cass Creatives at City Business School. She lists an impressive total of 48 interviews as part of the research for Monkeys with Typewriters, and round about a quarter of them are from what could be loosely called the London social media scene. But (forgive the pun) Jemima also casts her net wide enough to take in key web entrepreneurs from the US (Ross Mayfield, Craig Newmark, Jason Fried, Tim O'Reilly), academics and writers (James Boyle, David Weinberger) and some corporate managers (BT's J.P. Rangaswami, IBM's Gina Poole and Luis Suarez, BBC's Richard Sambrook). There's even one old management visionary from a previous generation, in the shape of Shell's Arie de Geus. What emerges from this journalistic approach is a very people-centred approach to the topic of leadership and management. You could even say that — in the style of a social network — the story of the book is based around profiles. Certainly Monkeys with Typewriters is very much concerned with the character of leaders in the Web 2.0 world, as its chapter headings — Passion, Openness, Listening, Generosity — suggest. In this way, Jemima really succeeds in giving a humane sense of what's involved in dealing with this new world: she's concerned as much with feelings as with ideas. But what is the message that common or garden managers will take away from Monkeys with Typewriters? This is where, at the risk of flogging the same point I started with, the song remains pretty much the same. To be a good leader, the story goes, you have to give up control, abandon management by metrics, and learn to trust the people you lead. Business writers have been saying this for almost as long as artists have been trying to shake up the bourgeoisie. Brian Eno once responded to the latter, saying "those poor bourgeoisie: everyone's always trying to shake them up; why don't they give them a little space…" Managers, it seems to me, face a similar dilemma, caught between these repeated exhortations to loosen up and let their people develop their own fully-rounded solutions, on the one hand, and, on the other, ever-present pressures to demonstrate that their commands are as lean and effective as they could possibly be. We need to recognise that we will never live in a world of completely frictionless communication and totally flat organisations. A big part of the challenge is having the vision to lead people through the many knotty tensions where openness, trust and generosity are most under threat. At it's best, Monkeys with Typewriters has an ethical inner voice that reminds me of Charles Handy's guides to the future of wor[...]

Do we need an agile learning community of practice?


Here's are the slides for the presentation I gave last Friday at the Be Bettr conference.

Click through to the slideshare page to read the speaker notes for each slide. From my position on the stage, I didn't feel that the delivery was my finest hour, so you're not missing much by not having been there… But the question in the title slide is a genuine, open one for me, so I'd be very grateful for any thoughts and comments, either here, privately or via twitter.

See also Patrick Hadfield's reflections on his involvement in putting together the Unplugged newspaper. [Update, 20 January: and Paul Miller's record of his presentation, which preceded mine.]

Unplugged! The Agile Learning newspaper


Here are the copies of the Agile Learning newspaper, of which I took delivery this afternoon. You can read the full text at the foot of this post, after the links which augment the physical version of the newsletter, including the unabridged versions of the interviews. If you'd like to keep in touch and find out more about the ideas in the newspaper, there are several things you can do. Tell us what you'd like to see next via the Agile Learning survey. Follow Agile Learning on Twitter, Amplify or Facebook. And if you're near London, please join our meet-up group on Facebook or GroupSpaces. Editorial My background to the interviews — earlier blog posts on this topic: 1, 2, 3, 4 Fred Garnett's overview Here are the full versions of the interviews (they're 3-5 times as long as the versions in the newspaper, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your orientation): Dougald Hine, Part 1 and Part 2 David Jennings Annie Weekes Tony Hall David Gauntlett Dick Moore Ollie Nørsterud Gardener Fred Garnett Tools for agile learning Towards lightweight learning (Lucy Johnson) — Blogger Commonplace books 2.0 (David Jennings) — TiddlyWiki, TiddlySpot hosted service, Steven Johnson on commonplace books DIY social networks for schools (Lucy Johnson) — Ning Join us at the Unplugged Meet-ups Patrick Hadfield's personal account — Join the group & attend the meet-ups Credits: Editorial: Fred Garnett, Ian McCleave, Lucy Johnson, Patrick Hadfield, Tony Hall, and me Google Goggles image Constipated face Limited copies of the newsletter will be available at these events in the next few days: Tuttle Club tomorrow, the TEDxOrenda event next Wednesday, the Be Bettr conference next Friday, a few spots at the Learning Without Frontiers conference — and, of course, the next few Unplugged meet-ups. If you're not in London and desperately want a physical copy of the newspaper, just send me a stamped, self-addressed A4 envelope at this address. Please be quick, as there aren't many copies. Agile Learning Newspaper: Unplugged! View fullscreen.[...]

Can we make a newspaper about self-organised learning?


(image) I'm still digesting the eight interviews I've done on these pages in recent months under the Agile Learning banner. (I know, I know: if I haven't digested them yet, how must you feel?) A few kind souls say there's some valuable stuff in them, and a handful have even taken on the challenge of producing a newspaper that uses the interviews as a starting point.

This is an experiment — which means it may fail to achieve the goals we have in mind now, but equally it may lead to other outcomes we haven't anticipated. The immediate goal we have in mind is to have the newspaper ready by the second week in January, for distribution to attendees at the Learning without Frontiers and Be Bettr conferences. (I'm also speaking at the latter, but don't let that put you off registering — only £10 with the discount code "b3b3ttr" on the registration page.)

We will be editing the interviews to be much shorter and aiming to present them in a more fun, irreverent style, a little more lively than their dry presentation here.

We had an initial meeting to kick this off yesterday (pictured). Fancy joining in? This is an open project with no money changing hands, aside from the physical production costs of the newspaper which I'm underwriting from DJ Alchemi. We may have one or two face-to-face meetings in London, but most activities will be coordinated via a wiki along with email, twitter and suchlike. Help with creative layout design would be especially welcome, so if you know anyone…