Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Google Wave in Education

Collaboration@Work  - 2020 OrganisationsImage by Monica A. via Flickr

Google Wave is opening to the public soon. Even before it is out of the gate, there are pronouncements on what it is and is not good for. And since this is an education blog, I want to look a little at the teaching and learning side to this. One of the the great things about education technology is that the best educational technology never starts out as "educational;" the technology is always designed for some other use and a couple of educators figure things out like how to turn a spreadsheet into a writing rubric that inserts comments into student papers at the click of a button. Or that the AI routine in someone's R2-D2 in a virtual Star Wars world can be re-purposed in a medical simulation. That is why I think pronoucements about how Google Wave will be used are a little premature. There are a lot of tools in Google Wave and extensions and mash-ups yet to be created. Two things that are important to me as an instructional designer in all of his are the collaboration and play back feature. Collaboration is an essential to online learning. The level of interactivity in collaborative learning is unmatched by the typical "online textbook" model of online classes. We are already using Google Apps in classes. The collaborative functionality built into those, combined with email, and chat tools will make Google Wave a very powerful tool. The play back feature - the ability to play back the history of the the collaboration, will be useful for students for reviewing course content. Instructional designers can leverage this feature by scaffolding how a wave is constructed (or how information is brought into a wave) with this in mind. This is a new way of thinking about design. The play back feature will also give us new ways to research online interaction and collaboration. We will be able to measure in real time where things work and where they don't; when students run into trouble and when they "get it."

Collaborative tools are a great opportunity for giving back to control and responsibility for education back to the students. The collective intelligence of an entire class is pretty good at finding and sharing the information they need to be successful; especially if that class is facilitated by someone modeling critical networking skills. The combination of tools in Google Wave seems to enable that.

I will be more excited by the translation tools after seeing them in action. The rest of the tools have all been tested by us in other places, on other platforms - the brilliant thing is bringing them all together. The real genius comes in seeing how a network of teachers, students, and designers will use it in the end.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Flies with Bad Memories

DrosophilaImage via Wikipedia

Victoria Gill, science reporter for BBC News, wrote in her article "Bad memories written with lasers" last Friday about researchers who "have devised a way to write memories onto the brains of flies, revealing which brain cells are involved in making bad memories." This reveals memory to be much more mechanistic than I have written about here in the past. Just last night I was in a conversation with someone that went something like "if memories and thoughts are chemical, why can't I make you drink something and see or hear a specific memory?" Miesonbock at Oxford has found 12 cells in the fly's brain that are responsible for "associative learning." The really important part of the story for me is where Miesenbock says "I have every expectation that the fundamental mechanisms that produce these error signals are the same in the brain of the fly as they are in the brain of the human." I think it is a huge leap from the fly to the complexity of the human brain but it is not so huge a leap as it was from the Friday before last. Twelve neurons that can be tricked into associated a smell with a predator is still quite a ways away from understanding the role communication and social interaction play in learning, but this is certainly an important step in understanding how neurons connect and create learning.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Past is My Co-Pilot

McLuhan says that we travel blindly into the future looking at the past through the rear view mirror. There should be little tiny letters though that say "Objects in mirror are

The rear-view mirror of a Mazda 626. It shows ...

closer than they appear." Today I talked to a dear friend from the past. I am sure she doesn't really know how dear of a friend she was, but if you recall Junior High and your freshman year in high school - anyone who treated you decently, talked to you, regarded you as a human being, shared a smoke, and didn't hit you more than was necessary was pretty damned decent. She had/has a genuinely delightful smile. I don't really remember a lot of people from those years but the few people I do remember were or are remarkable (for good or ill). You have to remember that I was just a little bit denser back then. I didn't enjoy much about those years, and I have no real way of being objective about them. Anyway, someone I have known since the 3rd grade friended me on Facebook sometime ago. I have added a few of his friends and low and behold, there was that smile; that refuge in a sea of Junior High horror. And I was really stunned because I knew that 20 years ago, I would probably never see that person again in my entire life. I grew up as ungracefully as possible and got the hell out of Dodge. I left a geographic location with the thought of never returning and all of those years would fade away. I was wrong, of course, on so many levels. I thought I would walk out creating more memories of greater or lesser value and I would just keep moving. Westward, ho! in a metaphorical sense. That is how it has been for my family since at least the Potato Famine. But that is not how it is going to work out.

We have a different relationship to the past now. We talk about how fast the future is coming, but the past is catching up. As more and more social networks go up and intermingle, as more and more records go online, the internet is the new small town you never moved away from. The person who stayed behind and lived for the glory days of soccer at El Camino Junior High thinks about life differently than the person who has followed job after job promotion across the continent. I am not making a value judgment both have their plusses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages. Someone who has remained in one place for a long time is more settled, more connected to their family, friends, and community and because of that they are more invested in what happens locally; they might vote more, buy locally, invest in local business, attend local colleges - these are all good things and values that are just being discovered in places like Silicon Valley. Someone who leaves might have a broader perspective on life and have a greater awareness of national and world issues. They might be exposed to a wider variety of viewpoints and a diverse population. These are just generalities. George Bush was from somewhere else, and despite everything managed to hold on to his simple beliefs.

If those lines are erased, if the networks carry our past with us where ever we go, what kind of person does that create? If I remember madelines and mint tea with my aunt through the lens of all my experiences, it is a different record than a picture or an online document. Memories are shaped and reshaped over time. And technology can change that. A high resolution photograph of Amadinejhad waving his passport revealed that one of the most vitriolic anti-Semites actually came from a Jewish family - a single moment captured by technology changed the past as it was presented forever and hopefully will help change his future.

We talk, as educators, about how the connected world is changing the way we think because of our increased connections with one another and with information. I will be interested to see how networks change the way we think as we connect to our past. Are our world views based on events as we knew them or from events as they were? Are the connections to the past in the online world somehow "more valid" than the events that I think I experienced? Is the memory of the network any more accurate than mine? Who will judge that? I think we are all about to find out.

"Every man's memory is his own literature." - Aldus Huxley
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Networks in the Rear View Mirror

"The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future." - Marshall McLuhan

The real issue is not that networked thinking is new but the the networks have gotten significantly faster. But not faster than we think. The same technology that we use to build the networks is the same technology that we use to mediate the information. The information over networks is moving at such a pace that we have to adapt ourselves to keep up.

I loved the image that Jane Knight posted this month from Sean Carton. I linked it to the left. It is interesting to me because this is one of the few that acknowledges the inherent networked capacities in humans. The whole idea of writing arises from the desire to connect memory and ideas with other people, places, and the future. In a way, cuneiform libraries are networks because the information in them was meant to be copied, preserved, and sent to others. Carton's time line jumps from the 550 BC postal service in Persian straight to the telegraph in 1792. A nod should also be given to the East and the Silk Road as a network, especially since the Chinese found a 2000 year old letter in a post office adjoining the Silk Road. Again, I really appreciate the fact that he is giving us some idea of networks before the 1960s but I think an important addition to this timeline would be the monastic system of the Middle Ages. Not just for the "look-at-me-I-was-a-humanities-major" bit, but because those monasteries were so successful at transmitting, preserving, and passing on information that we are still struggling in the shadows of those institutions today. They were really good at finding, copying, and preserving books. That is where a lot of the traditions in colleges come from. Students are taking notes in classes today because in the 12th century university, the only way to get a copy of the book that the instructor was reading from was to copy it yourself. McLuhan calls schools the "custodians of print culture."

Some of the great epics of the West open with guards waiting to see the fire from the next tower over or with runners and messengers delivering news. A great deal of exposition is given in letters in Shakespeare and later we also have epistolary novels where the movement of information can sometimes shape the plot. What I am trying to point out is that there has always been this awareness of connectedness and information. What is happening now is that we are learning how to mediate that seemingly overwhelming speed of that change and that mediation is changing the way we think.