An end to the beginning: Open Learning ’17

Oh You Moon by Alan Levine

Photo by Alan Levine

Open Learning ’17‘s last official event was yesterday, as Susan Albertine, Beverly Covington, Steve Greenlaw, Amy Nelson, and I reflected on the experience from multiple perspectives. Today’s the last day of the Open Learning ’17 “week,” however, and I offer one more thought while class is still (barely) in session.

I always imagined the Open Learning ’17 experience as a course of study. To me it was an opportunity for a community to form around a series of readings, videoconferences, blog posts, tweets, and the like. Each week would take up a new topic, but all along the way there would be a crescendo, a building, learnings that would be more than a mere accumulation. We would get to something like “all the opens, connected,” or at least a first approximation thereof.

This goal could have been built into the design more conspicuously and much more effectively. My bad. Looking back, I think we should have used each Friday’s Twitter chat to connect the current week with the preceding weeks. It’s entirely possible that not enough people were plugged in to every week, consistently, to make such a chat work, On the other hand, it’s possible that such a Twitter chat would have sent a strong signal that the course of study should connect, and not simply be an occasion for a la carte involvement when one’s favorite topic was scheduled.

All of that said, each week was full of individual excellences, and I am grateful to all the directors-of-the-week (and sometimes weekS) for their imagination and dedication: Bryan Alexander, Stephanie Blackmon, Sue Erickson and Maha Bali, Amy Nelson and Shelli Fowler, Steve Greenlaw, and Laura Gogia . I deeply appreciate the time and energy contributed by everyone who took part in the videoconferences, especially Bret Eynon and Randy Bass. I’m grateful to the steering committee for their support and their wise counsel throughout the experience. And while it is no doubt a little dangerous to single anyone out, I feel I must in this instance give the MVP Award to Amy Nelson, who was all-in throughout the experience, and who represented most fully the kind of learning and participation I had imagined at the outset.

Thanks as well to AAC&U’s Susan Albertine for trusting us and cheering us on, despite or perhaps because of our persistently idiosyncratic approach. Thanks also to Beverly Covington for her patient and enthusiastic support on the state level as SCHEV’s liaison to the Faculty Collaboratives project.

And of course, a huge thank you to all the participants in Open Learning ’17, who blogged, tweeted, and gave of their time, expertise, and hearts. Your contributions convinced me the idea could work, and did work, and might work again. I’m grateful.

I don’t know where we’ll go from here. I know we plan to curate the resources generated during the semester so folks can consult specific elements very readily. We have a number of extraordinary videoconferences and interviews recorded. We have some truly inspiring and occasionally even jaw-dropping blog posts that stand as beautiful essays in our anthology of learning. We have some great Twitter chats Storified. We have several connected learning infographics and other coaching materials from our connected learning coach, Laura Gogia. These resources will live on, connected to the hub site, as long as the hub site exists.

I hope the site will continue to buzz and whir over the summer. And I hope that one day this course of study, or something akin to it, will bring us together again.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I continue to reflect on the experience. I should probably write a post to explain, if only from my perspective, the design of the learning experience. I should also write more about what I think was most successful and what I found most disappointing, and why.

For now, though, I’ll leave the week with another quotation from Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. My previous blog post featured a quotation from this astonishing work, a quotation that I think is one of the most urgent and important things I’ve ever posted to Gardner Writes. Maybe it’ll take a while to sink in. Be that as it may, this quotation is no less urgent and important. The words speak powerfully, if perhaps a little obliquely, to the journey of Open Learning ’17, and to at least some of what I hope this first voyage will carry into the future.

The peasant who believes the moon is no bigger than a plough wheel never reflects that at a distance of a few miles a whole church appears only as a white speck but the moon on the contrary seems always to be the same size: what prevents him from connecting these ideas, which are all presented to him distinctly? In his ordinary life he does in fact connect ideas and perhaps does so by more artificial connections than these. This reflection should make the philosopher pay heed: perhaps in some of the connections he makes he is still a peasant. We think early in life but we do not know we are thinking, any more than we know we are growing or digesting; many ordinary people never do discover it. Close observations of external things easily leads back to the point of observations, ourselves, and conversely he who is for once wholly aware of himself easily proceeds from that to observing the things around him. Be attentive, feel nothing in vain, measure and compare: this is the whole law of philosophy.

Notebook A, entry 35, in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, ed. R. J. Hollingdale. Penguin Books, 1990, rpt. New York Review Books, 2000, p. 12.

The Waste Books, Teaching, and Learning

Lichtenberg, The Waste Books
Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s extraordinary and heartbreaking Heavenly Questions, in particular the section called “Sublimaze,” has led me to a new author–new to me, anyway: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Much more to say about Lichtenberg, and the associative trail I followed when he appeared (not rhizomatic, and not predictable either), but no time to say it just now. Yet I do want to copy, and share, a Lichtenberg observation I read just last night in that lovely space just before sleep. It has made quite an impression on me. Perhaps you will find it illuminating, too.

From Notebook C, entry 26, in The Waste Books, translated and with an Introduction by R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin, 1990, rpt. New York Review Books, 2000), pp. 36-37:

Herrr Capitaine-Lieutenant von Hammerstein was much in favor of instruction with apparatus. The principal argument he always put forward was that it could only be a good thing to achieve one’s objective as quickly as possible. That was virtually the only argument he had. But since the investigation of a subject, the effort involved in understanding it, is calculated to teach us to know it better from several sides and to attach it most readily to our system of thought, for people who have the ability a drawing is certainly to be preferred to a model. An increase in knowledge acquired too quickly and with too little participation on one’s own part is not very fruitful: erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit. There are a great many shallow heads who are astonishingly knowledgeable. What we have to discover for ourselves leaves behind in our mind a pathway that can also be used on another occasion.

Faculty and New Media Literacies

Lindellhallen, Humlab, Umea University, Sweden, Second Life

Photo by Gardner Campbell

Last week in Open Learning ’17 we began our work with Randy Bass and Bret Eynon’s book Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, published in 2016 by the AAC&U. As with other things we’ve read in our openly networked course of study, we’ve been busy annotating the book with And as I was reading along and making my annotations, I found that my colleague Amy Nelson (also on the Open Learning ’17 Steering Committee) had very succinctly annotated a passage that had given me pause as well.

First, the passage from Open and Integrative:

Connected learning previews the new ecosystem where learners move easily between formal and informal contexts, connect knowledge and lived experience, and deepen learning through engagement with others. (19)

Then, Amy’s note:

Would like to see faculty incorporated into this ecosystem more explicitly. They also need to be more nimble and able to negotiate across these domains.

Exactly. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that Week 10 (topic: participatory cultures) and Weeks 11-13 (topic: liberal learning and the new digital ecosystem) of Open Learning ’17 needed to be introduced to one other, so to speak. Perhaps the juxtaposition already suggested this idea to me, but it really was Amy’s comment that helped me connect the dots.

When Bass and Eynon write about digital ecosystems, they sometimes mean the open Web and various affordances on the Web. Most of the time, however, they lean more toward “learning technologies” like eportfolios, analytics, simulations, etc. that schools build for learners, a very different kind of ecosystem that the one made possible by the Web itself. (One could also argue that ecosystems our students live in when not in school are not about the open Web either, an argument that deserves its own post, and one I will address obliquely below.) Why does this difference matter? Obviously, the word “ecosystem” implies something more than the dominance of one or two species. The word suggests something holistic, comprehensive, a system that includes of many interdependent parts in a larger network.

I’d argue that the turning point for civilization was not so much digital computing as networked digital computing. I had a small habitrail on my individual computer back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t an ecosystem. It was more along the lines of a “productivity suite.” Suites on the Mac were more interesting and truly interconnected than they were on the PC, but we’re still talking about the walled garden of an individual computer. Exciting, you bet, but not an ecosystem.

An ecosystem is complexly connected. An ecosystem supports emergent phenomena. An ecosystem is “deeply intertwingled,” to borrow Ted Nelson’s plangent phrase.

An ecosystem gives and gathers life
To and from all its members.

An ecosystem is genuinely and thoroughly participatory.

No one is only a creator.
No one is only a consumer.

So as I thought some more about Amy’s comment, I began to understand that one of my ongoing nodes of discontent with the status quo has to do with how, all too often, faculty do not themselves have the knowledge, skills, or dispositions to be members of the participatory cultures supported by the open Web. (They may also lack the knowledge, skills, or dispositions to be members of the participatory cultures supported by the contemporary university, given that the contemporary university is more likely a “multiversity,” as Clark Kerr observed half a century ago–but that’s also another post.) During a very stimulating and lovely conversation with Randy and Bret about their book, I could nevetheless hear the conversation drifting toward the opportunities and skills we would help students to enjoy and acquire. At one point toward the end of the conversation, I asked Randy Bass about the relationship between the digital ecosystems inside and outside the university. While stressing the need for “porous boundaries” between those two ecosystems, Randy articulated a laudable goal for schools trying to think about such boundaries. Randy asked schools

to think about how you’re empowering people inside a university by helping them learn how to connect outside the university, how to build networks, how to negotiate networks, how to protect themselves, how to leverage resources that they don’t yet control, how to make use of intellectual tools in combination with what might their own … facility in these digital environments for the kind of, what we could call in the Jesuit tradition, the kind of “interior freedom” that we’re trying to help students achieve…..

And as I listened to Randy and agreed with him, I couldn’t help wondering whether faculty might be a bit complacent about their own abilities in this regard. Do our faculty know how to connect outside the university, especially in the kinds of participatory cultures Jenkins describes? Do faculty know how to build and negotiate effective, mind-expanding online networks that cross institutional boundaries–or that aren’t defined by institutional boundaries at all? Do faculty know how to leverage resources they don’t control? Do faculty know how to use intellectual tools in digital environments that have little or nothing to do with school? For that matter, do faculty have the kind of  “interior freedom” Randy advocates, within these new digital ecosystems?

And a little voice in my head spoke again: why do we assume we can maintain our professional lives free of these new literacies and at the same time convey wisdom to students about their lives and literacies?

In his 2006 white paper “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” Henry Jenkins sounds an urgent call to action:

The social production of meaning is more than individual interpretation multiplied; it represents a qualitative difference in the ways we make sense of cultural experience, and in that sense, it represents a profound change in how we understand literacy. In such a world, youth need skills for working within social networks, for pooling knowledge within a collective intelligence, for negotiating across cultural differences that shape the governing assumptions in different communities, and for reconciling conflicting bits of data to form a coherent picture of the world around them.

We must integrate these new knowledge cultures into our schools, not only through group work but also through long-distance collaborations across different learning communities.Students should discover what it is like to contribute their own expertise to a process that involves many intelligences, a process they encounter readily in their participation in fan discussion lists or blogging. Indeed, this disparate collaboration may be the most radical element of new literacies: they enable collaboration and knowledge-sharing with large-scale communities that may never personally interact. Schools are currently still training autonomous problem-solvers, whereas as students enter the workplace, they are increasingly being asked to work in teams, drawing on different sets of expertise, and collaborating to solve problems.

Youth need those skills, now more than ever. The question then becomes whether faculty themselves have these skills in ways that can be modeled and thus meaningfully incorporated in their own pedagogies (and in their own scholarly networks as well–why not?).

These skills are not just ‘information” skills, narrowly considered. They are new media literacies.

I’ve copied Jenkins’ 2006 skill taxonomy below, with some comments. With the caveat that I do not think knowledge, skills, and dispositions can be divided, my question remains: to what extent do you have and model these skills for your students? To what extent do your colleagues have and model these skills for their students? As we consider Jenkins’ list, we may well agree that there’s a profound gap between what we say students should know and what we ourselves can, or are willing, to do as we participate in this new digital ecosystem.

As I argued in “My Computer Romance“:

We live in 2007. Faculty complaints are real and serious. In lives full of teaching, advising, reading, marking papers, writing, presenting at conferences, publishing—more demands each year—faculty do not have the time to learn these new literacies. Based on their past experience, faculty fear that whatever they do learn will likely be obsolete within a few years. If faculty are successful in learning these new forms of reading and writing and in working within them, their achievements are often not valued in the tenure and promotion process. And if faculty incorporate these new literacies into their teaching, they still may not understand how to evaluate student work within these literacies. I hear these complaints from my faculty colleagues, faculty at other U.S. colleges and universities (from liberal arts to research institutions), and faculty around the world. These are valid complaints. They must be addressed, especially by administrators who can align institutional resources to bring relief and opportunities to those faculty ready to engage with these tools. All faculty who are ready deserve a place where they too can enjoy a computer romance.

Yet faculty must move forward before the professional infrastructure is completely hospitable. Faculty can no longer afford to wait. We faculty live in 2007, and we all must be ready. These technologies are not going away. Their promise is enormous and only beginning to be realized. They are essential components of every aspect of our lives, and we owe it to ourselves and our students not only to understand them but to delight in them, to learn within them, and to share those delighted experiences of learning with our students. Only when our students see our own learning blossoming within a computer romance will they listen to us when we tell them to use these tools more wisely themselves.

Lives of curiosity, creativity, and discovery within this new digital realm await us all if we are prepared to calm our fears, share our ideas (whether or not they’re “half-baked”), and remember the excitement that called us to this place, this vocation. The computers are us. The world is our wiki.

Yes, it’s now a full decade after I wrote those words. There may have been some incremental progress in some areas, but I fear there have been many more steps back than forward. Perhaps it is not too late to turn that around. I hope not.

And with that, here’s Jenkins’ list, with my comments in italics.

— the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
This specific form of new-media play is likely foreign to many faculty, even in their private lives. Will a generational transition address this gap, or will faculty culture continue to penalize play in favor of other, more aggressively career-focused kinds of professional activity?

— the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
I suspect many faculty would be baffled as to why this skill might be desirable or important.

— the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
Perhaps less of a skill gap here, though these models are usually contained within specific course or institutional boundaries.

— the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
The word “appropriation” probably isn’t the best word for this skill anymore, but the ability is still relevant and important. To take one very small example: how many faculty do you know who’ve created an animated gif, or experimented with an image macro?

— the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
I’d say this ability badly needs another name, as much research suggests human beings are fooling themselves if they imagine they’re good multitaskers. That said, there is what I’d call a “gestalt” or “gist” or “sizing-up” ability–that ‘scanning one’s environment’ Jenkins describes–that is important, especially in networked cultures.

Distributed Cognition
— the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
This ability is perhaps the most vital of all, especially in new-media online participatory cultures. Any mind-expanding or intellect-augmenting technology vastly broadens one’s intellectual and personal horizons. School itself should be such a tool. Books certainly have been, for centuries. To what extent do faculty experience online participatory cultures and new-media literacies as mind-expanding?

Collective Intelligence
— the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
This is certainly the goal of a scholarly community, though it’s not always clear what goals are truly held in common, and I wonder to what extent academia is a genuinely participatory culture in the contemporary “multiversity.”

— the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
This ability is probably the most familiar and putatively widespread among faculty in the contemporary university, though the Sokal Hoax does give one pause in this regard.

Transmedia Navigation
— the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
I think most faculty wouldn’t know where to start with this ability, though they might plead that they’re not film scholars, art history scholars, writing teachers, musicians, etc. Yet not being able to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities does seem to be missing a considerable opportunity in the new digital ecosystem.

— the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Faculty can do this in older ways, but it’s not clear to me to what extent the new media landscape has altered more conventional practices or abilities. In particulate, I wonder if faculty routinely disseminate scholarly information outside peer circles.

— the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
Faculty are often skeptical about faculty in other disciplines, a very short hop across communities with fairly limited intellectual diversity. Are faculty willing to take on the diverse communities and alternative norms of Twitter? of Wikipedia? of Reddit? 

EDIT: I fixed the math error above. 2017 is a decade after 2007. That’s easy math, of course, so I can only guess that I was trying to resist the full weight of the true span of time. A decade later, and we’re worse off in many respects. That of course includes another decade of my own work in these areas. I continue to wonder why higher ed fights off new learning in a classic kind of host-vs.-graft disease. I’m currently reading a very sobering account of the Open Access movement that speaks to this very question. But yes, a decade. Thanks to Mark Corbett Wilson for pointing out my math error.

Openly Dedicated

Poetry course dedication

When I got to college, I discovered there was a thing called intellectual history. Part of intellectual history, I also learned, was intellectual lineage: not just idea leading to idea, but thinker leading to thinker. Groups of writers interacting synchronously and asynchronously. Influences, meetings, letters, fallings-out, all of it.

This semester, it occurred to me that I might at least signal to my students that I come from someplace too, intellectually speaking. More precisely, I come from someones. I feel a great cloud of witnesses around me as I teach and as I learn. Those witnesses are intellectual parents, intellectual siblings, and in some cases, even intellectual heirs. These are the people whose work has shaped me, and who have shaped my work. In the most intimate cases, these are people with whom I’ve broken bread. People with whom I’ve fought, and cried. People who’ve believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, people who’ve encouraged me, people who’ve intervened at key moments. People who are with me as I think and write and teach and learn.

I have always felt that the courses I design and lead, at their best, do not deliver content so much as they mingle souls, as John Donne said letters do. My students sometimes hear a few of my stories, but somehow I wanted to communicate something in a more ceremonial way. So I came up with the idea of putting a dedication on my syllabi. My wish is that students will see how precious our time together may be, and how one day we may find we have changed each other’s lives. I want them to see that courses of study are books, but not just books; assignments, but not just assignments; credit hours, but not just credit hours. I want them to understand that a course of study is more relational than transactional. I want them to understand some of the gratitude I feel.

And I’ll confess it: I want to send a letter of sorts, a communication, perhaps even an eldritch communication in some cases, to the teachers and mentors and colleagues who have sustained me and honored me with their faith and hope and love.

So this semester, my poetry course and my film course both have dedications. The words are small and may well be overlooked, even though I did explain them on the first day of class. In the end, the words may mean little to anyone but me. But I have written them, even as those I honor have helped to write and teach and love me into being. And I am content.

Reading Film course dedication

Connected Learning: a personal epiphany


It happened just last Tuesday, and I’ve been reeling ever since.

I was talking with a student during an office visit. The topic of blogging came up. I’m not sure exactly how we got there, but I brought out one of my touchstones, the great “Dackolupatoni” experiment undertaken by a student at Virginia Tech just after a visit to the class by our Distinguished Innovator in Residence, Jon Udell. I could explain all that to you, but I’d really rather you just go read the student’s post (miraculously, several years later, it’s still there–thank you, VT). In a marvelously recursive description of her learning, the student blogged about, and thus enacted, her new understanding of the web’s peculiar, thrilling potential to be both noun and verb. The blog post was about the web, and because it was a blog post to the web, it also became webby itself. It webbed itself. “Dackolpatoni” thus became a small, potent, magically self-enacting instance of the very thing the student had just learned. It became, in Jon Udell’s wonderful metaphor, an “awakened grain of sand.”

The memory thrills me now now less than the experience did then. To have a student, all on her own, craft such an elegant proof of concept! There were several other electric moments in that class, but this one immediately defined a moment that continues to resonate, ever more plangently, throughout the sounding connections of this resonant web. The student’s post is as powerful a demonstration I can imagine of Jerome Bruner’s definition of understanding: “going beyond the information given.” And the going-beyond has now transcended its local context. It has gone beyond its own going beyond! The bright moment continues to expand its sphere of illumination. And the bright moment continues to light my path. So fragile and exquisite a moment, to have proven so remarkably enduring. But of course that was the reason for the student’s experiment to begin with. And the spark that became incandescent was the student’s realization that there were grounds for making that experiment. She became aware of a question to ask.

It was indeed a thrill for me, and remains so, to have been present in the moments leading up to, and away from, that particular moment. I wasn’t there for the moment of the writing, of course. I read that post after the class, after it had been written, after it had already begun to do its work. But reading it, afterwards, as it began to web, I saw something like the red shift that indicates the universe is expanding. I did not see the leap, but I saw the leaping. Spooky action at a distance. The web was the instrumentation that revealed that action, even as it inspired it and made it possible.

Thrilling as that “Dackolupatoni” experience was, it was not a new thrill for me. My experience with the Web has always been one of uncanny connections and near-mystical properties. I know they’re not really mystical properties, really I do, but I continue to marvel at, and seek to emulate and propagate, the conditions and protocols and dreams underlying the technical architecture that makes these properties possible. When I became an administrator at the University of Mary Washington, right about the time there was enormous energy around the idea of “Web 2.0,” I was fortunate to be able to gather a team that was ready and able to help faculty, staff, and students to find and make those uncanny, web-energized connections in their own work. Marvels tumbled out, and the sense of uncanny energies and possibilities seemed to increase with near-exponential intensity and frequency. Those webs kept growing, too–not that everyone understood or welcomed or even acknowledged these miracles in plain sight.

All of which brings me back to last Tuesday, and the student in my office. I had just told her the “Dackolupatoni” story as a way of describing the energy and linking I hoped students could discover (and craft, and experience) in the blogging we were doing for class. I told her about awakening grains of sand. She looked at me, paused, and thought. Then she said something like, “That’s a really interesting metaphor. I’d never thought about the Web that way. Posting something to the Web always seemed to me like sending a message into vast, dark, and empty interstellar space.” And all at once I could see, with newfound clarity, what I’ve been trying to share for years, even when I felt discouraged and baffled by aggressive and sometimes hostile resistance to the very idea of connected learning.

I see with renewed clarity that a core element of what I would call digital literacy, perhaps the core element, is understanding the possibilities the Web holds out to us for awakening grains of sand, of “Dackolupatoni” experiments that have the weird and transformative properties of demonstrating how giving airy nothings a local habitation and a name can make us more at home, and much less alone, within the apparent infinities of our own consciousness. How human agency can scale, not by dwarfing and even consuming those around us, but by equipping us to recognize, and on this platform to demonstrate, the possibility of becoming what Donne describes as “books lying open to each other,” in an environment in which it is possible, in Parker Palmer’s beautiful phrase, “to know as we are known.” Like language. Like love.

A story of two students, then, each of whom taught me crucial things. A story to help explain why “connected learning” is for me not only an aspiration, but pretty close to a redundancy. A story of how permissionless linking generates both spam and the music of the spheres. I hardly know what to say.

Conceptual Frameworks: some thoughts

Photo of framework by Markus Stöber

Photo by Markus Stöber

At the end of the #OpenLearning17 week of digital literacy, hosted and herded and directed with aplomb, panache, alacrity, and insight by Bryan Alexander, I have a few thoughts on conceptual frameworks: their necessity, and why they are all too often neglected or waved away as “conceptual, not practical.”

I’ll start with a story from my experience as a teacher, a story that I think many teachers could tell. Because I believe that sustained, focused engagement with a text builds powers of attention, observation, and analysis that will generalize to other spheres of intellectual, social, and civic engagement, I ask my English students to write at length on a particular text, topic, etc. Because I have to give them some idea of the scope of investigation and extent of focused engagement I imagine, I will assign a page length or a word-count equivalent. That’s how a “ten page term paper” ends up being required for a class, though I don’t use those words so much anymore, as the writing is usually to the web, not to paper, and likely to be multimodal, and should NOT resemble the book-report-with-affected-authoritatively-stilted voice that students typically use in “term papers.”

I put a great deal of thought into how I describe the assignment, how I scaffold the learning experience preceding the due date, and how I explain the purpose of the assignment. I don’t assume that any single aspect of the assignment is magic, but I also don’t assume that an assignment without some specifications will automatically liberate learning. I try to balance formal requirements with a strong encouragement toward creativity, exploration, and an essayistic disposition. (I remind students that “essay” comes from the French word for “attempt.”)

You can, perhaps, sense where this is going.

The first questions, and often the most persistent questions, are about length or word count. What if it’s nine pages (or equivalent word count)? Even more heartbreaking are the questions about whether it’s okay to do eleven pages when the syllabus says ten. And so forth. Why these questions? Why the even more frequently heartbreaking questions about how many times one must blog, or post to a discussion forum, and whether one can “make up” two weeks of missed blogging by posting four times as frequently for a week or two?

My idea today is that the problem is the lack of a conceptual framework–or worse, the lack of expecting or inquiring about a conceptual framework. That is, I have one, but many of my students don’t, and they’ve learned not to expect one, inquire about one, or to build one for themselves, at least with regard to their education. Many of them find it difficult to recognize a conceptual framework when they see one, or when I try to explain one to them. School has scarred their insight.

But as heartbreaking as it is when my students focus on word count instead of why words matter, it’s even more heartbreaking–and damaging–when it happens within the university itself.

Conceptual frameworks are not things to do. Conceptual frameworks are tools for understanding, tools to think with. But it appears that we have represented education to our students and ourselves as merely, or largely, things to do. Practical things. Competencies, lists of courses, one bolus after another of “content” to be delivered–and if the content can be pushed in faster, you’ll graduate all the sooner.

Certainly one must do things. But unless the conceptual frameworks are always in view, unless they inform every thing one does, one inevitably ends up with “on time trains” that go nowhere. Or as Will Richardson put it in a recent essay, one ends up trying “to do the wrong thing right”:

One of the things I’ve come to realize in my many discussions with educators from around the globe is that there are a number of practices in our current systems of schooling that “unsettle” us, primarily because they don’t comport with what Seymour Papert calls our “stock of intuitive, empathic, common sense knowledge about learning.” But what’s also notable about those practices is that we rarely want to discuss them aloud, content instead to let them hover silently in the background of our work. We know, as I suggested a few weeks ago, that in many cases, these practices are attempting to do “the wrong thing right” rather than “do the right thing” in the first place. But we carry on regardless.

The new ACRL Information Literacy Framework strives to do the right thing, and it puts the case for its conceptual emphases very cogently:

The Framework offered here is called a framework intentionally because it is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards or learning outcomes, or any prescriptive enumeration of skills. At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole.

I know many who try to present a similar “cluster of interconnected core concepts” in our conversations about digital literacy, or education generally, but again and again I find that these efforts are obscured or smothered by a rush to “a set of standards, or learning outcomes … or prescriptive enumeration of skills” that fill our discourse, our meetings, our curricula, and worst of all, the way we present “student success” to our students and ourselves.

One big reason Open Learning ’17’s syllabus began with readings from 1945, 1962, and 1974 is that these readings are rich in conceptual frameworks, rich in ideas, rich in clusters of interconnected core concepts. If at time the readings become oblique, or indirect, or even difficult to follow, it’s not because the writers–these dreamers who imagine human ingenuity might end up being beneficial–are confused. It’s because every conceptual framework must resist the weird entropy that reduces interconnected core concepts–one might even say networked core concepts–into mere methodologies, prescriptions, to-do lists. Ten-page papers, with padding and repetition so we can all stop thinking and go home. Or so we can editorialize, argue about current hot topics, and make free, widely available versions of bad things.

Without robust conceptual frameworks, we can’t even recognize wicked problems, much less begin to work on them. And if we call rationales for easily scaled, easily managed, cheap approaches to complexity and human capacity “conceptual frameworks” or even “ideas,” then we have sold our birthrights for a mess of pottage.

I know we can do better, but I don’t know if we will.



Ted Nelson: Artist, Philosopher, Filmmaker, New Media Pioneer

For Week Four, Open Learning ’17 features Dr. Ted Nelson, author of Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Click on the image below to watch excerpts from the interview I (Gardner Campbell) did with Ted in 2014.

Ted Nelson interview - click on image to play interview

Ted spoke with me as part of the Thought Vectors in Concept Space connectivist MOOC VCU ran in that summer long ago (feels that way, anyhow). That interview ran nearly two hours and is still up on YouTube. For Open Learning ’17, I’ve created this abridged version that runs a more manageable 30 minutes.

Ted’s call for learners to aspire to an “oceanic mind” that draws on multicontextual knowledge aligns well with the goals of liberal learning generally, as well as with the Essential Learning Outcomes of the AAC&U’s LEAP initiative and the Faculty Collaboratives project that Open Learning ’17 is proud to participate in. For best results, I encourage everyone to read the following bits from Computer Lib/Dream Machines as a rich context for understanding Ted’s ideas in the interview.

Counting pages in the downloadable pdf excerpt available at the New Media Reader site, including the introduction:

1-10, 17-19, 26 (explains “fantics”), 30 (“Thinkertoys”)

Throughout his life, Ted Nelson has been provocative, even irascible, but he also burns with the hard, gem-like flame Walter Pater aspired to. Enjoy the tempo presto of his words and ideas as they tumble forth. Remember that Heraclitus is his philosophical guide. Ted’s care for the arts of expression, juxtaposed with Doug Engelbart’s care for the arts of collaboration, continues to inspire readers, writers, and educators worldwide.


Accelerating Augmentation

For what one might call “Engelbart Week” at Open Learning ’17, I abridged Engelbart’s epic, and epochal, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” My thought was to make the reading more manageable, and to bring together resonant passages in a way that revealed some of the more subtle and nuanced textures of the 1962 framework. As often happens, my efforts to help present the material helped me attend to it more thoroughly as well. That, and a Twitter chat in which for the first time, courtesy of the mighty Mo Pelzel, I saw the lovely “whing-ding” part. (Thanks, Mo!)

I always have a lot to say about “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” I’ve blogged about it many times. I’ve mulled it over since 2004, when I first learned of it, and first encountered the name of Doug Engelbart. Rather than rehearse every bit of that, however, I want to share just a few thoughts. I hope they’re relevant to the larger goals of Open Learning ’17 and the Faculty Collaboratives initiative from which our cMOOC springs.

First: It’s interesting that Engelbart is not asking us to consider augmenting human intellect. Instead, he’s asking us to think about the way we as a species have always sought to augment our intellects–with language, with math, with engineering, with symbols generally–and consider his conceptual framework as a research opportunity for studying how we might accelerate the augmentation of our intellects. In this way he’s very aligned with Vannevar Bush. Rather than focusing on the means of augmentation–associative trails. shareable archives, and multiple modalities, etc.–Engelbart focuses on the nature of augmentation itself, what he calls Humans using Language, Artifacts, and Methodologies in which they are Trained (H-LAM/T). He also recognizes that language, artifacts, methodologies, and training will change the humans, who in turn will find ways to change language, artifacts, methodologies, and the process of training itself.

I’m not a big fan of the word “training,” but I take Engelbart’s point. There is an interesting process at work in this suite of human-tool interactions. Engelbart refers to that process as co-evolution. The research project he proposes is to study whether, and in what ways, that co-evolution might be accelerated. Without that research, he argues, we risk being at the mercy of our own ingenuity, forever inventing problems faster than we can solve them. Augmenting human intellect is what our intellects strive to do. The question is whether we will do that intellectual augmentation well, to good purposes, and create solutions faster than we create problems.

Second: purposeful, beneficial co-evolution will require much improved LAM/T affordances for communication and collaboration. Vannevar Bush’s magic desk, the Memex, becomes a visual display, backed up by computers available to individual knowledge workers, that permits and encourages complex symbol exchange as well as flexible storage, retrieval, and sharing capabilities.

Third, and this is something that became newly vivid for me this time, a system that permits and encourages complex symbol exchange as well as flexible storage, retrieval, and sharing capabilities will almost inevitably lead to newly complex symbols and symbol manipulation processes. Mo has blogged very insightfully about this facet of Engelbart’s imagination. What I’d add is two more points. One, that these co-evolutionary processes need to be considered within Engelbart’s conceptual framework in an ongoing manner–as John Seely Brown puts it, the interactions of increasingly complex systems become hyperexponential. (“No top to the ‘S-curve’.”) The other is that even as modes of comprehension increase for some, modes of incomprehension increase for others. The person who sits with “Joe” as Joe demonstrates his new symbol-manipulating capacities reacts in ways that many of us may recognize, either in ourselves or, when we have some inkling of Engelbart’s vision, in those who watch us do the work in open learning that we believe will accelerate the augmentation of human intellect in formal schooling:

[Joe] suggests that you sit and watch him for a while as he pursues some typical work, after which he will do some explaining. You are not particularly flattered by this, since you know that he is just going to be exercising new language and methodology developments on his new artifacts–and after all, the artifacts don’t look a bit different from what you expected–so why should he keep you sitting there as if you were a complete stranger to this stuff? It will just be a matter of “having the computer do some of his symbol-manipulating processes for him so that he can use more powerful concepts and concept-manipulation techniques,” as you have so often been told….3b3b

Lacking some essential humility, Joe’s colleague decides Joe is “just” going to do a little something more with regard to work and contexts Joe’s colleague is already quite familiar with. That word “just” comes up twice. It signals the way in which learning can be exceptionally difficult for many highly trained knowledge workers–not as a result of learning, necessarily, but as a result of the culture within which that learning has occurred. Namely, school.

Then you realized that you couldn’t make any sense at all out of the specific things he was doing, nor of the major part of what you saw on the displays. You could recognize many words, but there were a good number that were obviously special abbreviations of some sort. During the times when a given image or portion of an image remained unchanged long enough for you to study it a bit, you rarely saw anything that looked like a sentence as you were used to seeing one. You were beginning to gather that there were other symbols mixed with the words that might be part of a sentence, and that the different parts of what made a full-thought statement (your feeling about what a sentence is) were not just laid out end to end as you expected. But Joe suddenly cleared the displays and turned to you with a grin that signalled the end of the passive observation period, and also that somehow told you that he knew very well that you now knew that you had needed such a period to shake out some of your limited images and to really realize that a “capability hierarchy” was a rich and vital thing.3b3f

Given the exuberance and even the playfulness with which Engelbart shares his vision, I am confident Joe’s grin was friendly, even empathetic. But it probably didn’t feel that way to Joe’s colleague, whose sense of self-worth was bound up in a strong sense of self-sufficiency that doubtless made it even harder to follow Joe than it might otherwise have been.

“I guess you noticed that I was using unfamiliar notions, symbols, and processes to go about doing things that were even more unfamiliar to you?” You made a non-committal nod–you saw no reason to admit to him that you hadn’t even been able to tell which of the things he had been doing were to cooperate with which other things–and he continued. “To give you a feel for what goes on, I’m going to start discussing and demonstrating some of the very basic operations and notions I’ve been using. You’ve read the stuff about process and process-capability hierarchies, I’m sure. I know from past experience in explaining radical augmentation systems to people that the new and powerful higher-level capabilities that they are interested in–because basically those are what we are all anxious to improve–can’t really be explained to them without first giving them some understanding of the new and powerful capabilities upon which they are built.

This is a crucial moment in Joe’s explanation, underscoring Engelbart’s fundamental insistence on establishing a robust conceptual framework available for considering every single part of the “capability hierarchies.” As Joe will go on to argue, it’s no good tinkering with improvements at a higher level if one cannot understand and conceptualize every other level as well. (Which of course can make it difficult to distinguish “higher” and “lower” levels–as it should, confusing as that may seem.)

This holds true right on down the line to the type of low-level capability that is new and different to them all right, but that they just wouldn’t ordinarily see as being ‘powerful.’ And yet our systems wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful without them, and a person’s comprehension of the system would be rather shallow if he didn’t have some understanding of these basic capabilities and of the hierarchical structure built up from them to provide the highest-level capabilities.”

I take it that Joe’s point, and Engelbart’s, is that we should be humble enough to recognize that a reconceptualization of much that we take for granted as a “low-level capability” will probably be necessary before we can have the depth of comprehension we need to pursue co-evolution and collective IQ (of all types!) in beneficial ways.

It takes humility, and hospitality, to spend time with new ideas, to try them on our pulses, to go deep and go long with concepts that ask us to re-examine many things we take for granted. There’s work to be done. No one has time for this kind of engagement. And what’s the incentive?

For Engelbart, the incentive was the chance to work toward the betterment of humankind by thinking about human ingenuity in a new framework, and with a new mind-like technology, the digital computer, that could accelerate both a) the research that discovered new knowledge and b) improvements in the knowledge-working environment that could c) devise ways to implement that knowledge and keep the process going in a beneficial direction.

It’s always seemed to me that this incentive is the very mission of education, particularly of higher education. Yet as many Open Learning ’17 participants pointed out in our Twitter chat last Friday, intellectual humility and hospitality can be hard to come by.

Engelbart said he never got over being naive. I take him at his word. But I also see that even in 1962, he knew all too well the cultural, intellectual, and professional barriers he would be likely to face. Certainly post-1962, Engelbart experienced several setbacks that would have stopped a lesser person. Yet in 2006, over forty years after he wrote “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” he was humble and hospitable enough to telephone an English professor at a small public liberal arts college in Virginia, just to return his call, and to talk, if only for a little while, about the long-distance thinking Doug Engelbart never abandoned.

Trails of wonder, rigorously explored.

On our way to Solsbury Hill, 2003

This week, Open Learning ’17 turns to Doug Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”–but I want to write a few words about “As We May Think,” first.

One of the great things about a learning experience undertaken with others is the way familiar texts reveal new layers of meaning and implication. This time around with “As We May Think,” an essay I’ve read maybe twenty times or more, I was particularly struck the multiple meanings of Vannevar Bush’s idea of “associative trails.” Some of these trails we make deliberately, the way we construct an argument, but also the way we build a curriculum, organize a course of study, or even write a story. Bush envisions a time when such trails, with all the context (or “scaffolding”) that’s part of the story of the trail-blazing, will help good ideas come into being more frequently:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

This process, amplified considerably across the Web, is very much what Jon Udell describes during our conversation last week, in a powerful demonstration of as both an individual and a crowdsourced Memex.

I think it’s fair to say that we believe expertise will result in more interesting and fruitful trails, some of them so interesting and fruitful that the trails themselves become objects of study. The Memex also gives us a better opportunity to study both results and process, and to study in particular those associative trail-makers who are particularly ingenious and conceptually powerful in their ability to build new ideas and implementations out of new combinations. This power of juxtaposition and connection drives the primary modes of discovery Steven Johnson analyzes in Where Good Ideas Come From, and it also underlies Jon Udell’s idea of “manufactured serendipity” that’s taken up as “designed serendipity” by Michael Nielsen in Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science

Of course, environments that increase the likelihood of interesting and revelatory juxtapositions only work if the learner in those environments has a combinatorial disposition, one that adds to innate curiosity the disciplined education that yields the conceptual frameworks one can build with and upon, the divergent-convergent meta-education that helps one recognize when to arrange the cards and when to shuffle them (and thus try to elude confirmation bias and path dependency), and the cognitive energy to present novelty to a blinking audience and share that novelty widely whether or not the occasion provides immediate affirmation–or any affirmation at all.

Bush writes:

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

This new profession is in one respect an old one: that of the teacher. (A quick aside: I recognize and regret that Vannevar Bush is sexist throughout the essay, even allowing for the old and regrettable practice of using “he” and “him” as so-called “general pronouns.” At the same time, I want to be hospitable to his ideas, and humble about matters about which the future will likely judge us harshly because of our own blindnesses.) The talk of “master” and “disciple” may cause our Foucault to fall off the shelf, narrowly missing our heads, or not. For me, the language is deeply resonant and liberating, as the idea of mastery conveys what Bruner defines as “understanding,” that is, “going beyond the information given.” That power of going-beyond can, I believe, be taught, not so much through direct instruction but by the teacher’s energy and commitment in modeling that process. For me, that’s what it meant to be a disciple of Dr. Elizabeth Phillips, my beloved English professor. She found delight in her making, in her going-beyond, not as a means of humiliating her disciple Gardner, putting me in my place, but as a way of encouraging me, putting me in her place, if only by helping me to imagine her and her place more deeply.

In the poet Walt Whitman’s words:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (Song of Myself, section 52, 14-16)

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

Though her death has put our lives so far apart we can no longer hear each other speak, I continue to find my beloved professor, indeed to find her by following her, emulating her as I practice my own mastery, such as it is. For among many other things, Elizabeth’s mastery revealed itself in her delighted sharing of the scaffolding of her additions to the world’s record. She instructed me, but she did so by inviting me into the workshop where she crafted those additions. That invitation is precious indeed, because the associative trails of master trail blazers can become mere “content” to be “delivered,” and thus lose what the poet Robert Frost calls the “most precious quality” of a poem, “its having run itself and carried away the poet with it … its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” My intellectual discipleship (a word related to discipline, as in the object of study we pursue and the focused energy of that pursuit) follows not only the trails she blazed, but the light of that blazing, the surprise and delight shared generously and openly by my beloved English professor, shared that I might follow.

That opening does not come within “the information given,” but in the masters’ willingness to share their experience of being carried away. The disciples learn they may be carried away too, not by the cult of personality (always a danger, to be sure) but by the energy of insight as experienced in the context of lived experience. Michael Nielsen describes something like this in Reinventing Discovery, when he recounts a transformative moment in his own learning, one that the Internet at its best can amplify and extend:

What’s important then is that blogs make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to get an informal, rapid-fire glimpse into the minds of many of the world’s scientists. You can go to the blog of Terence Tao and follow along as he struggles to extend our understanding of some of the deepest ideas of mathematics. It’s not just the scientific content that matters, it’s the culture that is revealed, a particular way of viewing the world. This view of the world can take many forms. On the blog of experimental physicist Chad Orzel you can read his whimsical explanations fo physics to his dog, or his discussions of explosions in the laboratory. The content ranges widely,but as you read, a pattern starts to take shape: you start to understand at least a little about how an experimental physicist views the world:L what he thinks is funny, what he thinks is important, what he finds irritating. You may not necessarily agree with this view of the world, or completely understand it, but it’s interesting and transformative nonetheless. Exposure to this view of the world has always been possible if you live in one of the world’s intellectual capitals, places such as Boston, Cambridge, and Paris,. Many blog readers no doubt live in such intellectual centers. But you also routinely see comments on the blog from people who live outside the intellectual centers. I grew up in a big city (Brisbane) in Australia. Compared to most of the world’s population, I had a youth of intellectual privilege. And yet the first time in my life that I heard a scientist speaking informally was when I was 16. It changed my life. Now anyone with an internet connection can go online, and get a glimpse into how scientists think and how they view the world, and perhaps even participate in the conversation. How many people’s lives will that change? (168-169)

I suppose the answer to Nielsen’s question depends on the willingness of professional trail blazers to keep an open Memex, and the willingness of other trail blazers to make their own Memexes available to help even more trail blazers to discover the work of those professionals … and the scaffolding of their delights and serendipities, the records of insight in the context of their lived experience, the context we provide to each other, to keep each other encouraged to keep looking.

Nielsen writes:

Science blogs show in nascent form what can happen when you remove the barriers separating scientists from the rest of the community, and enable a genuine two-way flow of information. A friend of mine who was fortunate enough to attend Princeton University once told me that the best thing about attending Princeton wasn’t the classes, or even the classmates he met. Rather, it was meeting some of the extraordinarily accomplished professors, and realizing that they were just people–people who sometimes got upset over trivial things, or who made silly jokes, or who made boneheaded mistakes, or who had faced great challenges in their life, and who somehow, despite their faults and challenges, very occasionally managed to do something extraordinary. “If they can do it, I can do it too” was the most important lesson my friend learned. (167-168)

Vannevar Bush’s idea of “associative trails” extends that insight in yet another direction, one that links the professional trail blazer sharing connections and scaffolding with the amateur trail blazer, the disciple, who realizes, as Nielsen’s friend realizes, that associative trail blazing is a human birthright, one to be exercised within freely chosen following as well as idiosyncratic non-following. The idea is that we should attend to our own thinking, and learn from it, and respect the humanity of it, and let that respect free us into agency: “If they can do it, I can do it too.” To which the best mastery will reply, “Yes! Go discover and create your mastery!”

Solsbury Hill

Vannevar Bush writes:

The human mind … operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

There are holes in the argument, things to critique, and (regrettably, as one sees from the Hypothesis annotations online) occasions for smuggery and snark. First, however, hospitality: the “speed of action” in our minds that creates an “intricate web of trails” and “detail[ed] mental pictures” is “awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.” The human mind: as we say to our toddlers when we walk them to the mirror, “Look, that’s you!” The associative trails within each of our minds, linkages that include others’ associative trails as well as the results and modes of professional trail blazers whom we follow, constitute the poem of the self that we draft each day, writing ourselves into being yet once more. How can one not feel interest, surprise, wonder, awe, or even liberating confusion, all of the feelings Paul Silvia calls “knowledge emotions,” at these daily rites, profoundly individual, profoundly shared? Perhaps more open and opening Memexes will bring us more occasions for wonder, at ourselves and at others. Perhaps wonder will open the way to equity, reverence, love. Perhaps we have something to say about that.

Overlooking Bath on Solsbury Hill

So what does all of this have to do with mind-liberating education? Dear reader, fellow traveler, you have some of my scaffolding and some of the trails they support. If you’re part of my network, as very many of you are, I have some of your scaffolding and the trails they support as well.

Thank you.

There is no easy way to be free.

Let us keep encouraged.

Overlooking Bath, Solsbury Hill

2017: Quarks, Love, and Insight

Quark structure proton

Two ups, a down, and some gluons.  A hadron; later, perhaps, an atom.

I used to do a little warm-up exercise in faculty development workshops. I called it “Quarks of Learning.” The question was simple: what are the elementary particles and fundamental constituents of learning? The responses were always interesting, and revealed a surprising amount of agreement among faculty from different disciplines. The adventure, then, was to discuss how one might build learning experiences out of those fundamental constituents.

I liked the warm-up for a lot of reasons. There were not any obviously wrong answers. The agreement was surprising. We weren’t getting waylaid by typical categories of “skills” and “content,” a false and pernicious and very damaging dichotomy. And the exercise seemed to be self-dramatizing, in a way, as the pleasure of listing these fundamental constituents, and the engagement that pleasure empowered, seemed itself to be a fundamental constituent. We found ourselves in productive community, aligned yet varied, thoughtful and creative, having a good time building something together out of ideas that didn’t usually emerge in “faculty development”–and certainly not in “training.”

Over time, and in varying roles within institutions of higher education, I’ve thought a lot about these quarks of learning. I’ve tried to support curricula within the English major that would keep those quarks embedded in the design of the major. I’ve tried to do similar work with faculty development in pedagogy, in teaching and learning technologies involving networked personal computing, and in the large and comprehensive structures involving colleges, faculty, and academic programs (including a degree program) across an entire university. All along, I’ve wanted those quarks to be more powerfully present, in all the discussions and planning, than talk about “operationalizing” and “branding” and so forth, as I have many times seen how the fundamental constituents vanish–or are erased–in favor of talk about process that serves the institution much more than the learner.

For a long while, I advocated for “interest” as the fundamental constituent of learning, the quark of all quarks. I still believe that interest, and the psychology of interest, are fundamentally empowering elements of all learning. As time has gone on, however, I can see that interest doesn’t quite resonate with my audiences the way it does with me. As the psychology of interest and curiosity becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, that may change. As I become better at explaining myself, ditto. To this point, however, it has been difficult to make the case that the kind of interest and curiosity I care about is fundamentally different from the “look, a squirrel!” varieties of endless superficial distractions.

The two quarks I’m working on now, therefore, are love and insight.

I’ve had something to say about love elsewhere, and I’ll have more to say about that in future posts. Tonight, at the start of a new calendar year, I will write a few things about insight.

I presented my first talk on an insight-oriented education in November, when I was honored to be the opening keynote for OpenEd 2016. I wanted the talk to be about insight, to be itself insightful, and to help to stimulate insight in others (in this case, the audience for the talk). You can see the opening video montage I created here. And you can see a Periscope recording of the talk made by the redoubtable Robin DeRosa here. I’ll have more to say about that OpenEd keynote in subsequent posts. At this point, I’ll simply say that I was working from Jonah Lehrer’s account (in “The Eureka Hunt”) of the neuropsychology of insight, as well as from ideas regarding sustainable psychotherapeutic improvements stemming not from medication but from what we used to call the “talking cure,” and which now seems to be about the power of language and story in particular to re-wire the brain by means of patients’ insights into their own circumstances, histories, and personalities.

Those areas alone merit and require a great deal of work. Little did I know that another enormous journey of discovery in this area was about to begin as well.

One of the more remarkable things that emerged from my talk was a tweet I received from an indispensable member of my personal learning network, Morris (Mo) Pelzel. Mo’s first tweet to me about Bernard Lonergan, the one that alerted me to Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, is just out of Twitter-reach tonight. I’ll need to download a new version of my Twitter archive soon so I don’t lose that tweet! It was a vital moment. But at least I have the follow-up for you below.

Mo opened to me an exhilarating, difficult, yet utterly direct and moving text that took everything I had said about insight to the next level, and helped me understand that I was right: insight was indeed one of the quarks I sought. The word, the idea, the core reality of insight bridged the affective and cognitive realms more effectively than interest had. It connected with deep self-awareness. It was strongly aligned with ideas of creativity and imagination, but resisted being limited to only the arts, or only the humanities.

Most of all, it was a quark that met one of the prime requirements for quarkdom: it would be difficult for anyone in higher education to say, out loud, that insight was dispensable and played no necessary role in education. Or so I hope. And: once insight is in there, I reason, it becomes very difficult to retreat to reductive views of anything regarding learning, assessment of learning, expertise, pedagogy, etc. Like love, but with a more powerfully cognitive presence in most conversations about learning (alas, but I’ll take what I can get), insight would be the quark that was not only a fundamental constituent of learning and thus of school, but also a quark whose presence would liberate discussions about learning and schooling from the deadening technocracies that surround them.

So here and now, at the close of the first day of 2017, I offer a bit of Lonergan for you. His writing is extraordinarily ambitious, dense with meaning and implication. At the same time, his subject is so important, and the need for the thoughtful engagement he advocates and demonstrates is so urgent, that the book reads to me like a special edition of a newspaper written just before a crisis, not simply in response to it. I can’t pretend to grasp it all, yet. Parts of it may be beyond my reach. But the parts I do get thrill me. They help me think. They help me understand. And as I go along, Lonergan teaches me how to understand him better.

Here, then, now:

First, then, it is insight that makes the difference between the tantalizing problem and the evident solution…. Secondly, inasmuch as it is the act of organizing intelligence, insight is an apprehension of relations…. Thirdly, in a sense somewhat different from Kant’s, every insight is both a priori and synthetic. It is a priori, for it goes beyond what is merely given to sense or to empirical consciousness. It is synthetic, for it adds to the merely given an explanatory unification or organization…. Fourthly, a unification and organization of other departments of knowledge is a philosophy. But every insight unifies and organizes. Insight into insight [the project of the book, Lonergan tells us], then, will … yield a philosophy…. (4-5)

[I’m skipping items five and six because a) they’re too difficult for this already lengthy post, and b) seven and eight are crucially important.]

Seventhly, besides insights there are oversights. Besides the dynamic context of detached and disinterested [i.e.: not self-interested] inquiry in which insights emerge with a notable frequency, there are the contrary dynamic contexts of the flight from understanding in which oversights occur regularly and one might almost say systematically. [Yes, indeed–one of the reasons I have been reading books about the 2008 financial meltdown as well as the tragedies of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia–not to mention watching Titanic over and over.] Hence, if insight into insight is not to be an oversight of oversights [what can I say? the man has a sense of humor], it must include an insight into the principal devices of the flight from understanding. Eighthly, the flight from understanding will be seen to be anything but a peculiar aberration that afflicts only the unfortunate or the perverse. In its philosophic form, which is not to be confused with its psychiatric, moral, social, and cultural manifestations [rather large exceptions here, but let’s keep going], it appears to result simply from an incomplete development in the intelligent and reasonable use of one’s own intelligence and reasonableness…. [I’d say that such incomplete development is partly a failure of education, and that much contemporary schooling, especially at scale, not only neglects but indeed tends to block or thwart such development.] (5-6)

[Again, skipping two elements, for reasons as above.]

The present work, then, may be said to operate on three levels: it is a study of human understanding; it unfolds the philosophic implications of understanding; it is a campaign against the flight from understanding. The three levels are solidary. Without the first there would be no basis for the second and no precise meaning for the third. Without the second the first could not get beyond elementary statements, and there could be no punch to the third. Without the third the second would be regarded as incredible, and the first would be neglected. (6-7)

[And now Lonergan writes with even greater urgency.]

Probably I shall be told that I have tried to operate on too broad a front. But I was led to do so for two reasons. In constructing a ship or a philosophy one has to go the whole way: an effort that is in principle incomplete is equivalent to a failure. [A beautiful analogy and for me a home truth–as well as one of the principal failings of higher education’s approaches to “educational technology.”] Moreover, against the flight from understanding half measures are of no avail. Only a comprehensive strategy can be successful. To disregard any stronghold of the flight from understanding is to leave intact a base from which a counteroffensive promptly will be launched. (7)

I have used a more gruesome analogy for my own version of Lonergan’s last point when I say one cannot have a “pet cancer.” Very often it seems to me that bureaucracies and especially technocracies are pocked with strongholds of the flight from understanding, so much so that it becomes quite an adventure merely to identify the valiant and embattled strongholds of insight among them. And even when those strongholds of insight are acknowledged, there is usually a sense that they are rare and special, and thus not essential or fundamental. Therefore everything else can be defined as business as usual, “operational” in a very narrow definition of “operations.” When those “operational” elements become in fact more strongholds of the flight from understanding, they become malignant–and it is in the nature of malignancy that it strives to overtake and feed on, thus ultimately destroy, the good. And the shuttle explodes, or burns up on re-entry, metaphorically and historically speaking.

Lonergan’s final argument for my post tonight circles back to why his endeavor matters. He insists it’s practical to work through a complex and difficult philosophy of insight. It’s operationally relevant! Vitally so. “But to be practical is to do the intelligent thing, and to be unpractical is to keep blundering about. It follows that insight into both insight and oversight is the very key to practicality” (8).

I’ll come back to some of these points as I continue to work though Lonergan’s book. But now, here, then: we must build and offer our learners an insight-oriented education. Do you hear talk about an insight-oriented education when you hear “student success” discussed? If not, pull the emergency stop. Help to avoid a civilization-sized train wreck.

What I am discovering about my “quarks of learning” is not simply what must be included in all learning design, but the very ground I must stand on myself, those aspects of real school that are non-negotiable. In this way, I begin to have insight into insight, myself.

Much to explore. Thanks, Mo.

Happy New Year.

Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. 5th edition. Ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran. Volume 3 of the Collected works of Bernard Lonergan. University of Toronto Press, 1992.