From Open To Connected

cc-header1It’s been gnawing on me over the last couple of years that in our haste to open up schooling, we may well have missed the greater and more important aims that “open” strives toward. And while there’s no way to protect words from being twisted or co-opted, the phenomena of “openwashing” and the long long O in MOOC are troubling indicators that what initially seemed to be the language of openness may have fought shy of the question of what the openness was for. How otherwise to explain a world in which broadcast lectures are touted as innovations or disruptions?

Not that higher ed itself has not had its own complicity in the process, given that our practices of scaling and isolation have modeled much of what we see in the “content delivery” model of online learning.

I tried to explore some of these concerns at Open Ed 2012 in Vancouver in a talk I called “Ecologies of Yearning and the Future of Open Education.”

The yearning I tried to evoke is part of the higher aims I keep trying to articulate. Although I understand the ironies within and around E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph, I cannot help subscribing to the imperative:

“Only connect.”

So I’m honored to be part of a Connected Learning Alliance initiative called “Connected Courses,” and to be one of the facilitators of the “metacourse” that debuts in September. The course is completely open–but it is also about opening. The course is free in that participants do not pay tuition–but it asks for commitment, for participation, so that the free course can be truly freeing. Together we will explore the idea of connected courses, the ways in which connected courses can be built, and most importantly, why connected courses matter.

In fact, we start with the why, as you can see on the Connected Courses syllabus.

Just a few days ago, VCU’s first cMOOC, “Living The Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” concluded its formal work as a course of study for the summer of 2014. The connections, however, persist within the larger and more important paradigm of connected learning. That’s the goal, now and always: “Only connect.” This moment may be one of our best opportunities to reclaim what is best about higher education, and to recall higher education to its core mission and values. The task is fraught with many risks, and I’m not saying that connected learning is the only or even the ultimate answer–but this paradigm resonates so strongly with the reasons I became a professor in the first place, and the feelings of liberation and unbounded possibility that I felt when I began using the Web with my students twenty years ago, that I am invigorated and newly hopeful for the next part of the journey.

Check out Switch on your electric blog. Turn up your radio and let us hear the song.

Caravanistas, I salute you. Turn it up!

A research assignment for a radical course

A long time ago, but just up the road, a Shakespeare professor named Bill Kemp and I devised a freshman composition course like no other. Our reader was Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island. Our syllabus had four assignments, the last of which was a final paper students published to the web. This course began in the fall of 1997. Early days, radical design, extraordinary results. I can’t remember now why we stopped. I guess after six or seven iterations the freshness had turned to slog, and neither of us could bear doing the course unless it was truly magical. I had to teach it by myself at least once, and it was much less fun without Bill. He was my alter ego in many ways, Barfield to my Lewis, Lennon to my McCartney (or perhaps, sometimes, it was the other way ’round). I’ve been meaning for a long time to blog about this course, my first truly open course in the way I’d mean it today. It’s the great-great-grandmother of this summer’s cMOOC, “Living The Dreams.” I learned a great deal by teaching this course with Bill. I learned just as much from my students as well. It really was something very special.

Now we’re closing in on the final weeks of “Living The Dreams,” and I thought I’d reprint the research assignment from the Stranded course. Some of it still seems very fresh to me, and wholly applicable to the kind of research I continue to urge students to do. It’s written Campbell/Kemp because I wrote the lion’s share of it. (Yes, we also had a Lennon-McCartney thing in our heads, or at least I did.) Strangely, the Wikipedia article on research is also quite good, and very well aligned with what Bill and I were trying to do. I’d not looked it up before tonight. Wikipedia continues to instruct and delight.

But back to Stranded. Here’s the assignment. Perhaps it will be useful. To Bill Kemp, my deepest gratitude. I remember our work together with deep satisfaction, even joy. You’re one of a kind.

ENGL 101 Assignment Three: The Research Paper–Campbell/Kemp

Assignment two was about personal engagement in the context of experience. Assignment three is about personal engagement in the context of information and the ideas it contains and inspires. That is, the “research paper” is not a simple “research report”–“What I Learned About Nine Inch Nails.” Instead, like Ellen Willis and Jim Miller and (with reservations) John Rockwell and in fact most of the authors in Stranded, you should incorporate background information and other people’s commentary into your own exploration of the music you’ve chosen to write about.

Research isn’t merely finding a few facts and quotations to back up ideas you’ve already developed. Research is listening to other people, learning from them, and using their ideas to sharpen your own. Think of your sources not as dictionaries or encyclopedias but as places where you can hear a conversation and prepare yourself to join in. Each of your sources, if it’s any good at all, represents a human being who’s done something very like the work you’re now doing. They offer you the results of their work: information, ideas, conclusions. You take what they’ve done and use it to shape, support, and interact with your own ideas and conclusions. Thus the conversation carries on, and we’re all the richer for it.

What is an idea? An idea is a “take” on something. An idea is a frame you generate out of your knowledge and experience (a distinction without a difference) that you use to make a new picture out of something you’ve seen before. Where do ideas come from? They can appear out of the aether, popping into your head–but we can’t always afford to wait for such happy moments. Remember that “chance favors the prepared mind.” Everything is potentially a frame, a source for frames, an idea waiting for YOU to frame it so. Stranded is full of ideas and therefore full of frames. So is every other book worth reading. And if you don’t find a particular frame within someone else’s work, you can certainly learn framing strategies (that is, idea-generating strategies) from other writers. That’s the big reason we read: to find ideas and the story of how our writers discovered them.

Your paper should use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style of documentation, which you may find in The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. Note that MLA now has guidelines for citing online and Internet sources. Also note that Simpson Library has very informative links on their pages, including the essential sections on how to evaluate online sources. Point your browsers to and take a look at what our wonderful librarians have assembled for you.

Remember: when in doubt about how or where to find sources, ask the reference librarian. When in doubt about how or whether to cite a source, ask your professor. Other guidelines:

  • You should have at least six separate sources on your Works Cited page.

  • At least one of these sources should be a book: either a monograph or a collection of essays. At least four of these sources MUST be print sources or online versions of print sources.

  • You must use at least two Stranded essays in some way. They do not count toward the “six source” total, though they should be cited on the Works Cited page.


Instructions: When you hand in your final draft, hand in this assignment sheet as well. On it, indicate which two of the “bits of wisdom” below you found most helpful, and rank them. Below this section, add at least one bit of wisdom you’d like to pass on to next term’s students.


1. You have a right to be in this conversation. You are a scholar.

2. Tell us what you think, not just what you found.

3. Research is a way to explore your own emotions intelligently, and perhaps to find a friend.

4. It isn’t true just because it’s in print.

5. When in doubt, cite.

6. A thing is psychedelic if it changes when you look at it closely”–Robyn Hitchcock.


Letter to a learner

Right Stuff Thumbs Up

Our VCU summer cMOOC, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds,” has finished its first week. 12.5% of the experience is behind us in time (though not in memory and certainly not on the Web). I’ve already learned a great deal from all aspects of the experience and, more importantly, from all the people who have worked and are working to make this experience go. Chief among these people are those students who have committed time and thoughtful energy to the work they’re doing already. I’ve seen some extraordinary work, much of it splendidly blurring the line between creativity and analysis in ways that should remind us that any such lines are provisional at best and damaging at worst. The work these students have contributed fascinates me and encourages me. I am grateful.

At the same time, there are the inevitable frustrations that come with learning experiences that differ from the norm, as this one most certainly does. it’s understandable (if regrettable) that there will always be some frustration when one wants a learning experience that’s clear, tightly scripted, and doesn’t require consistent participation. Many college courses are like this. Such experiences, even when the work is difficult, are easily managed and can be compartmentalized, even walled off, from the rest of one’s life. There are at least three principal problems with such transactional designs:

1. The learning typically doesn’t persist beyond the final exam, which itself is often little more than cramming and regurgitating.

2. The learning typically doesn’t transfer well into other domains, As a result, there are few connections and fewer insights generated in other learning situations. The learning isn’t made “strong,” to quote Richard Feynman, who used to be very puzzled when his fellow students at MIT couldn’t see that, say, a particular chemistry problem and a particular biology problem were really two versions of the same set of concepts and questions.

3. Related to both of the above, the compartmentalized learning design (as opposed to a connected learning design) typically does not rely on, or encourage, meaning-making, Without meaning-making, the human significance of an activity dwindles to nearly zero, or perhaps to zero (I try not to speak in dogmatic absolutes, but in my heart I believe “zero” is correct).

The idea of “connected” learning as opposed to “compartmentalized” learning has been on my mind a great deal lately, prompted in particular by a special issue of The International Journal of Learning and Media. I’ve written about this issue before, but the abstract from one article in particular keeps coming back like a haunting melody, or perhaps a trumpet call to action:

What Is Connected Learning and How to Research It?

Kristiina Kumpulainen
University of Helsinki 
Julian Sefton-Green
London School of Economics and Political Science 

Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now, are presently challenging traditional definitions of learning and education. How can we conceptualize learning in a way that is able to respond to and explain the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our times? We elaborate on the notion of “connected learning” as a conceptual heuristic that has recently received recognition as a potential lens and a model through which to research and promote learning as a holistic experience that stretches beyond formal and informal communities. We reflect on the methodological challenges of describing, defining, and analyzing connected learning across young peoples’ everyday “learning lives” from the sociocultural and dialogic perspectives. We discuss such key notions for connected learning as understanding, tracking, and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality; and learning lives.

(I’ll put a marker here to say that I’ve gone back to my Bakhtin to investigate the connection with chronotopes, “time-space” as Bakhtin calls it, and the matter merits much further investigation.)

The rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular have given us an unprecedented opportunity to experience, and to study and learn from, the “dynamic processes of learning.” At this stage of my career, I find myself pursuing these goals with greater energy and focus in all my work. I even find that my specialization as a scholar of verbal art, especially that of poetry, relates strongly to efforts to understand these dynamic processes. While these connections and the very idea of connected learning itself are exhilarating, they’re exhausting too, because they require a lot of work to make them intelligible, and a lot of persuasion to encourage people to dive into the experience and make something of it themselves. There’s a lot of apparently successful compartmentalized schooling going on, and while I find it deeply frustrating and more of a tragic failure of the human imagination than anything at all successful, it is easily managed and it is familiar. It can also narcotize both teacher and student in ways I find very troubling, though I do not doubt that in most instances everyone is trying to do the right thing.

Which brings me back to “Living the Dreams” and the cMOOC learning experience this summer. After one week, it’s becoming clear to everyone that this is a very unusual course. It’s taking a great deal of time and energy to attend to the network that’s sprung into being, to learn from and within that network, and to reassure ourselves that something extraordinary is possible here (indeed, is already happening) that could transform the way we think about research, research writing, and the power of an Engelbartian intellect augmentations, a true dynamic knowledge ecosystem (DKE), a networked improvement community (NIC). One student–to judge by the writing, a very fine student indeed–communicated her frustrations in an honest, searching, and self-aware fashion that I found rather inspiring, especially as she continued to interact with me and her section’s professor over the course of a comment string. I won’t link to that post directly, as I don’t want to try to single her out; I’m sure she speaks for many students. But I did want to share the comment I just left as I tried to respond to her honest and thoughtful struggles with a course built on “social media” (are there other kinds of media?) that’s a pilot course (meaning that it’s a work in progress itself) and that looks and feels so very different from any course she’s taken before. I salute her because she’s truly trying to make something out of what she’s experiencing. And I dedicate this post to her.

Here is the comment I just left. It’s a follow-up to an earlier comment from me, so I’l start with a bit of her reply for context. You should know that she’s a science student, and that in an earlier comment she was wondering about what this learning experience had to do with preparing her for scientific research. The words in italics are hers.

Thank you, Dr. C…. I think I just need some time to adjust to this unusual course structure. However, as this is a pilot class, I really do feel that it may be useful to some students if there were some consolidation on the UNIV website. Perhaps that will also just take some getting used to though.

You’re very welcome! Coordinating the information is always a challenge when there’s an emphasis on variety and yet also on connection. Most face-to-face courses de-emphasize both because of limitations that exist in the physical world (though there are great things in the physical world too, certainly!). Online kinds of interaction present new possibilities. Some thinkers (including many scientists) believe online communication represents a new stage in human biocultural evolution, one comparable to the invention of writing itself. The Web itself was invented to improve research by enabling scientists to be in better communication, which also means to be able to build and work together better. It’s all about communication in the end. Once human beings got language, everything changed.

I’m just now watching a talk Martin Hawksey recommended to us on the Twitter stream: (each new tweet is a web page–you can get the URL as I did above by clicking on the date or the “hours ago” numeral–I find this v interesting). I immediately thought of you and your interest in science. I also thought you might enjoy a book by a physicist named Michael Nielsen called “Reinventing Discovery: The Rise of Networked Science.” Science is all about networks. And social media are about much more than Facebook “like”s (though these too can be interesting).

Anyway, sorry to ramble on–but obviously your thoughtful engagement with some core issues has continued to elicit thought in me, so thanks for that. I’m also glad to see you’ve been in touch with [your section professor]. I think you’ll find [the professor] quite an engaging and provocative thinker.

Sincerely, and with best wishes,
Dr. C.

 Perhaps these thoughts will be helpful to others as well.

Oh, and here’s the splendid video Martin recommended. Many thanks to him for the recommendation as well as for all the crucial work he’s doing to contribute to the study and design of connected learning. Salute!

A conceptacular experience

ultima retweets my post on as we may think

I’ve dedicated this post to one of my very most favoritest former students, Ultima Castro, whose conceptacular work has continued to inspire me for–can it be?–four years. When I thought of the title “concept experience” for this assignment, I was thinking of many things, but one of them was conceptacular Ultima.

But I digress–which means I’ve started down another associative trail. You’d think that this meta level–write a post about the associative trails concept experience!–would be enough to keep me occupied. But starting down the trail-about-the-trail creates other trails … but again I digress.

So here’s the history. Two screenshots, in reverse chronological order:

associative trails history one


associative trails history list begins

Rather than be like Tristram Shandy endlessly narrating his own life, I will just go down the trail with a little reflective commentary on some key stops.

I started by putting on my headphones–Sony MDR-7506–to put myself in a thought-cocoon. I can’t usually write and listen to music at the same time. But I knew the music would start me on associative trails with just enough distraction–or immersion–to ensure I wouldn’t be too self-conscious about what I was doing. So now, where to find the music.

Associative trail mile marker one:

associative trails start with time

Pandora, and my High Llamas channel. I used my Windows Snipping Tool to get the screenshot, and the little “pen” in the tool to make a crude, trackball-generated time check. I knew this channel would be just right to get me in the zone: melodic, a little melancholy, a little puckish, a little curious. So on I went.

The Pandora site had a link to the High Llamas website. I hadn’t been there in quite awhile, so I decided to pop over there to see how the band (really one guy, mostly) was doing. To my delight, they seem to be active again. I saw a link to sign up for a newsletter, so I clicked on it and signed up. Then of course I had to go to gmail to click on the link that would confirm my subscription. I doubt the High Llamas will be coming to RVA anytime soon, but by signing up for the newsletter I felt I had signaled to someone, if only to myself, that I was a deep fan of the band and its music; as if I had signed a petition supporting the band. I also realized that when I follow associative trails on the web, I’m often looking for more stuff to read, even the long things that many people believe are tl;dr material. But then, my oldest intellectual addictions are music and words, so there you go.

After doing some more reading and confirming my subscription to the newsletter, I remembered that I’d been meaning to follow up some suggestions regarding music that’s apparently like the kind of music the High Llamas make. Well, close enough: I went in search of “dreamcore.” Eventually I discovered a huge list of dreamcore bands–on a page–and was fascinated by the images associated with a band I’d never heard of, Tears Run Rings:

I clicked on the thumbnail and found myself on a profile of the band and its second album. I’m now about six minutes into the experience.tearsrunrings


I click on the link to the band page and spend a little time there, finally selecting two images I wanted to keep and share as part of this experience–which is something I do pretty often, and which reminds me that when I follow associative trails on the web I often look for things to download or otherwise capture. In other words, when I’m learning, I’m also on the lookout for stuff to share. It’s a teacher’s habit, I guess, but it’s also something I’ve found very helpful in my own learning. When I find the thing and at the same time think about sharing it, I’ve kind of found it twice–that’s not quite right, but perhaps you get the gist:



By now I am getting a wee bit self-conscious. I hadn’t intended to make this concept experience into music only. But obviously, tonight, this was something I needed or wanted. Nevertheless, time to check my email. (It’s always time to check my email. Sad, I know.)

(Well, perhaps not always sad.) When I got to my email, I discovered that one of our Thought Vectors participants had replied to one of my tweets. Which one, I wondered? Ah, it was the tweet about my own recent inquiry project (this one took a couple of years, or maybe twenty, depending on how you count):

bill smith tweets re cambridge companion

I hadn’t anticipated that anyone would find my tweet ironic, but it was actually pleasant to be tickled in this way. I wanted to counter with some irony of my own, so I thought I’d head to the Kindle store and find an image of the Kindle edition of the book in which my essay had appeared. But of course, it’s back to music, as today Amazon launched a new service called Prime Music:

amazon prime music

And I’m still only ten minutes into the concept experience. I stop here for a bit to speculate about whether Amazon had made these particular images pop up because they knew my demographic or my buying/listening preferences, or whether this was an ad based on the music they actually had the rights to. I’m guessing the former. But onward, onward; I must find my response to those who were giving me the needle, in a very friendly way, about tweeting about an analog book. Me being such a digital person, and all. (Yes, but a Miltonist, let us not forget. An amphibian, as Sir Thomas Browne would put it.)

Ah, here’s the Kindle edition.

kindle edition ccpl

And here’s the TOC that includes my name. Just another drop in the lit-crit ocean, but it represents a lot of work alone and in conversation with both fellow professors and (even more crucially) with students asking great questions to which I did not have the answers.

ccpl table of contents

This post is growing exponentially, it seems, and I’m still only about 15 minutes into the experience. So I’ll pick up the reflective pace here and avoid the reverie.

After spending some time looking at other Milton books on Amazon, I quickly realized that I could spend the entire time on Amazon, clicking around to window-shop as well as to learn things about the various books, movies, records, and other items that drew my interest. Over the years I’ve watched Amazon grow not only in the variety of goods and services it offers, but in the range and volume of information they have on the site. Fascinating, and instructive to compare with other retailers’ sites. But enough of Amazon. Amazon is not the Internet. Everyone knows that Reddit is the Internet.

So to Reddit I went, where I immediately found this image of Bill Nye the Science Guy in his ninth-grade science class:

billy nye 9th grade


It’s always fun, and a little unnerving, to see childhood photos of people who look almost exactly like their adult selves. This image is a perfect example. By now, however, I felt a growing realization that I was going to spin back to music and I should just surrender and do it. On my way, though, I thought I’d preserve for posterity my strategy for keeping every possible option open for further orienteering and trail-blazing:

multivector tab menagerieI sometimes wonder why my computer is slowing down–and then I take a look at how many tabs I have open.

Where was I? Oh yes, music. No better place on the Internet to feed my music habit than the Steve Hoffman Forum, the place that back in 2002 opened my eyes to one powerful way an Internet community could become a learning community.

hoffman music forums

There were a couple of Who threads tonight, including one in which the forum’s host, mastering engineer Steve Hoffman, posted his favorite picture of Pete Townshend. I’d never seen it before, but based on what I know of Steve from the forum, I can guess what he likes about it. It really is a terrific photo of the main creative engine behind my favorite band:

pete and records

I clicked into one more thread, this one about the newly released Blu-Ray “Pure Audio” 5.1 remix of The Who’s Quadrophenia, and found an hilarious YouTube video by a UK critic/musician/YouTube webcaster named Darren Lock. His video review of the new edition of Quadrophenia made me laugh out loud, especially when he comments on the acoustics in the room and how they make the crackle of the cellophane especially vivid. Talk about digressing… (But I digress.)

Pulling myself away from a possible 15-minute YouTube excursion, I decide to close the loop and see if I can find more information about the kind of music I was looking for earlier. It seems that “dreamcore” may be too specific a genre label. I really was looking for something more like the new Real Estate album, I think.

real estate

Going to the Wikipedia article on Real Estate, I found the genre “dream pop” (I almost went for “jangle pop,” another genre label for Real Estate, but I was intriguing more by “dream” than by “jangle”). And here I found some very extensive resources indeed. I think I’ve found my starting place:

dream pop

list of dream pop artistsClearly this page will give me more new bands to discover than I could possibly get to in my remaining life, unless of course I win the lottery tomorrow.

“Time is my tedious song here hath ending.” for those who persisted with my trails until the end, the final stop on my journey. The Kings of Convenience, a band Pandora (with its own “music genome” trailblazing) originally led me to.
kings of convenience--end

Wait, still not quite the end: as I tidied up my savings and prepared to write the post, Pandora was still playing, and a song came on by a band I’d never heard of but instantly liked.

pernice brothers all music

Note to self: follow up on Pernice Brothers. And so another associative trail is born.

And so to bed.

Reviewing our shady past: Nugget #1

Satan Overlooking Paradise

Above is a many-layered photograph of Gustav Dore’s illustration of an episode from Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I say “many-layered” because it’s a photograph of a blacklight poster that uses the Dore image as a starting-point for a psychedelic vision of a psychedelic poem published by a blind genius in 1667.

The poster is in fact illuminated by a blacklight in this photograph, which is why the colors give off a strange and compelling glow. I took the photo during an all-night Paradise Lost readathon at the University of Mary Washington March 23-24, 2007. The photo has been viewed on Flickr 537 times since then. I did fourteen of those readathons from 1980, when I did my own first reading of Paradise Lost all the way through, overnight, in one sitting, to the summer of 2008, when I taught the last Milton seminar of my tenure at Mary Washington. One of the students who came to that final readathon had done the readathon ten times over the years.

The second readathon I did, and the first as a professor, was at the University of San Diego. During the later books, the sky began to rain. Because rain was an unusual occurrence in San Diego, the students got very excited. They ran outside during the break so they could play in the rain. I found this strange and weirdly engaging, too. Rain is to SoCal as snow is to Virginia, or so it seemed to me at the time.

I bought this poster from a head shop in Bristol, Tennessee in the fall of 1970, ten years before I would read the poem it came from. I had no idea what it was a picture of. The caption said “Overlooking Paradise,” and the picture looked to me like an angel overlooking a landscape of such extraordinary beauty that I hoped one day I might be able to climb inside the picture and explore that country. I didn’t know that the angel was really a fallen angel, and that the figure was that of Satan as he overlooked the Paradise that would break his heart and harden it, too, as he resolved to bring ruin and destruction, war and hatred and death, to a country in which, to quote Milton, “spring and fall danced hand in hand.” A country with a garden at the center, one that was “wild above rule or art,” a country of “enormous bliss.” That’s what this angel wrecked.

In 1970 I was building an associative trail without any knowledge that I was doing so. Maybe I was continuing it. I had no idea at all that the blacklight poster I bought in one of the coolest stores I’ve ever seen (the house was painted purple, and it was called “The Spirit House”) was a picture from my future commitment to a poem from centuries past. I did not know that I was at that moment making good on Milton’s words that “books are not absolutely dead things.” All I knew was that the poster was shopworn and a little tattered, so the shop had it on sale for a dollar. And I had a dollar to spend, so I bought it.

In “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush writes,

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

Reviewing our shady past better, analyzing our present problems more completely and objectively: is this a way forward, or a moment in which we will overlook the Paradise from which we are now excluded, the Paradise to which we can bring only destruction. We have indeed built a complex civilization. The building we have done together makes the words I type at this very moment able to appear and move on a screen as I push tiny switches on a keyboard. The complexity allows me to turn every bit of nearly everything into a bit, thus to send it at the speed of light around the world, discoverable by that world, reviewed perhaps by some part of it. What do we see as we look over this complexity in this civilization we have built? What do we overlook and what do we overlook? Vannevar Bush writes of pushing our experiment–presumably, the experiment of “civilization”–to its logical conclusion. Will the machines we have invented, these personal interactive networked Memexes, bring us a happy conclusion for our experiment? How will we know the experiment has ended?

These are important questions. At this moment however I write not of them, but of a moment from my own past, shaded by years but lighted by memory, that proved important on a scale I could not then imagine, but which now I can share, with a whole heart, and with you.

Thinking about “As We May Think”

The Memex.

1945, and Vannevar Bush writes a history of our future. No, he wasn’t the first to imagine a world-wide storage and retrieval knowledge engine. Paul Olet often gets that credit. Yes, he uses “man” for “humankind” and “a man” when he may mean “a human being” or he may simply mean “a male” as he defaulted to his culture’s blinkered views in that regard. And yes, he has dirty hands (philosopher Wilhelm Luijpen says this is true for all of us) because of his involvement with the development of the atomic bomb.

At the same time, for all his faults and limitations, he did extraordinary work in bringing scientific research into the center of university life via government funding. He founded the National Science Foundation, for one thing, thereby making the center of scientific inquiry the non-profit educational institutions of the nation, not the corporate interests. And he took the time to write up his vision in “As We May Think” for a general audience. It appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly, and then later in Life magazine with the famous illustrations of the Memex and, of course, the camera-eye in the center of the man’s forehead. GoPro cameras, you owe Vannevar Bush a debt of thanks.

As do we all, in fact. The Wikipedia article notes that “As We May Think” was both “visionary and influential.” Indeed it was. This article led directly to Douglas Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” and it influenced many others besides. For additional evidence of its power over the years, take a look at this set of videos from a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication.

I’ve embedded here a little video ramble I made to illustrate the idea of “associative trails” Bush explores in the essay. Note that I make a mistake late in the video–but that YouTube’s annotation feature allowed me to express my second thoughts. I hope Vannevar Bush would be pleased to see how I’ve tried to use the great Memex-like Web we’ve built for ourselves–a Web that he could conceptualize long before anyone could actually build it.

How does it feel when I think?

I’ve always associated thinking with feeling. I’ve always known that thinking makes me feel a certain way. I used to wonder if other people thought that way, felt that way. One of the great pleasures of getting to know the world and my fellow human beings a little better over the years has been learning that however idiosyncratic I may feel (or be) at any given time about my thinking and the emotions it brings, I am never really alone.

Those times I feel that the way I feel when I think is not unique … those are good times. Sometimes those times last a while. Sometimes they come in flashes. Either way, those times are truly meetings. Each of those moments is what Richard Linklater’s characters in Waking Life call a “holy moment.”

I remember those moments. I remember the moment Dr. Roman read us T. S. Eliot’s words describing the way the Renaissance poet John Donne felt when he thought (or what Eliot believed was true, given Donne’s poetry and other writings): “For Donne, a thought was an experience; it modified his sensibility.” Those words are just as thrilling (ah, there’s one feeling I’ll come back to at the end) today as they were when I first heard them, age 19. They suggest that thinking is not just detached, ethereal, or impractical. Thinking is an experience. It changes you. Thinking changes your mind, which means that thinking changes the way you think. As one neurologist put it in the title of his recent book, we human beings have a Brain That Changes Itself. It’s like that great Escher drawing of the two hands drawing themselves. It’s recursive, and gloriously so.

And then it turns out that interest, which is the brain reaching in and out to experience the glorious trails of wonder and puzzlement within and without its hard-boned boundaries, is an emotion.knowledge emotionlike confusion and awe. Just thinking about that idea fills me with joy. I’m listening to Pandora (The Buckinghams channel, if you’re curious) as I type these words, just to keep my brain in the happy state that allows the joy of these ideas to permeate every axon, jump every synapse.

Thinking doesn’t always feel great, of course, even for someone like me who’s frankly besotted with it. Sometimes thinking is unpleasant, hard, regretful. When I worry, for example, I’m thinking about things that either a) make me anxious or b) consume me with an urgent set of problems, the way we say a dog “worries” a bone. Actually, now that I think about it (heh), “b” can feel unpleasantly focused sometimes, but other times it feels like good exercise. By contrast, I try to avoid the “a” variety of worry, sometimes with more success than others.

But leaving aside that unpleasantness, I believe there are other varieties of thinking that are pretty much unalloyed pleasure, though of different kinds. (Anyone who tells you that all pleasures are really the same needs to get out more.) Here’s a partial listing of my thinking pleasures.

Musing is a great relaxed pleasure as long as “a” worries don’t intrude. Musing is that state when the mind floats free, playing with associative trails the way a child plays with soap bubbles, balloons, or sticks in a brook. When musing gets very intense, it gets even dreamier, at least for me; it becomes a reverie, which to my ears is one of the loveliest words in the language, though obviously we borrowed it from the French. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Mulling is a somewhat more arduous pleasure. “Mulling” means thinking hard but without any single goal in mind. Mulling is like a great conversation that grows more intense by the moment, but without any agenda or “takeaway” that has to be agreed upon or accomplished. I once did a talk on mulling (the thinking kind, not the vintner variety), and because I had to do the talk, I ended up learning what it was I wanted to say. It came to me in the course of my research (see, there’s inquiry for you). I learned that the words “mull,” “meal,” and “muddle” were all related. Irresistible words. Alliterative, and nicely balanced between two monosyllables and one disyllable. Best of all, they gave me the grand finale that I hoped would also give the audience something to mull over as they thought about my talk on thinking: I concluded that “mulling” was what we did to make a “muddle” into a “meal.” Ok, two disyllables there, but I’m an amateur poet only.

Worrying (“b” type), musing, mulling: all are pleasures, though all feel different. But for the tip-top pleasure, the one that keeps me moving through uncertainty and courting more (heaven knows–for a fact–that there’s no lack of uncertainty in life and in this weary world), is the feeling I get when an idea comes to me. When that idea arrives, it sometimes feels like moving through a door to see a splendid sunlit landscape on the other side. Sometimes it feels like I’ve spotted a long-lost friend while music plays in the most exquisite foreign land I’ve ever visited (the choice of which, music and land and friend, would depend on the day). Sometimes it feels the way I felt when I saw my newborn children and the exhausted joy in their mother’s eyes. Sometimes I get the feeling and I don’t know why, because some part of my brain has registered the insight, has felt the charge of the connection, before my prefrontal cortex has had a chance to say to itself, “Whoa! I see!”

Roger Penrose describes this last sensation so perfectly that I leave the last word in this post to him, as given to us by the superb immortal filmmaker Errol Morris:

Living the Dreams begins Tuesday–and now

Engines on!

My very first animated gif.

Colleagues, section 9, enrolled VCU students, open participants all over the world: this is our digital engagement pilot of UNIV 200, which we’re calling “Living The Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds.” Think of this title as our statement of commitment, the prize we’ll keep our eyes on for the next eight weeks–and perhaps far beyond as well.

I’m Dr. Gardner Campbell. Call me Dr. C. Along with five other professors and a crew of bright and creative folks working on everything from videos to cascading style sheets and more, I’ve been helping to put our course of study together. We all hope the next eight weeks will turn out to be one of your most memorable and valuable learning experiences. If you’re a VCU student, your work will be evaluated and graded, and you’ll receive college credit (three in total, count ’em). You’ll also have access to extra resources to help you succeed in the course. If you’re not a VCU student, you’ll have access to the learning community and all its public interactions, and we hope you’ll participate as often and as intensively as you can.

Our course catchphrase is “Thought Vectors In Concept Space.” This is Dr. Douglas Engelbart’s description of thinking, separately and together, within the space our species has created out of our symbol-making abilities. Don’t miss our course librarian Jenny Stout’s great video explaining this catchphrase in greater detail.

We get started this Tuesday, June 10. At the bottom of our section site, where much of our section’s participation will be aggregated and displayed, you’ll see periodic announcements from me to you. I’ll try to help you stay on track by alerting you to upcoming events and assignments. For the most part, though, get in the habit of consulting the syllabus regularly, and watch the #thoughtvectors hashtag on Twitter for a stream of interesting things, some of which may be timely reminders or announcements. The bottom line is that you’ll need to stay alert and check in often: email,, this site, etc. It’s a lot to stay on top of, but we believe that in the end it’ll be a much more immersive and interesting experience if we have richer and more various kinds of communication. (Like life that way–at least, certainly like life in this century.)

I’ll be making videos from time to time either to introduce a reading or just to muse aloud about something. You’re welcome to do this too, of course. Just upload your video to YouTube and embed it in your blog post on your individual blog site.

Oh yes, and do remember that you post to your blog, just as I’m doing now (, not to the “clubhouse” aggregation site for our team. Strange, yes, but all very webby.

Soon, I’ll write a bit about why I chose “team revolution” for our clubhouse. For now, here’s my welcome video–and here we go. Exciting times ahead!

Permission to wonder

From the film by Errol Morris.

Stephen Hawking at work. From the film by Errol Morris.

Doug Engelbart Well, strangely enough, I feel the same. It’s part of the thing of the easy to learn and natural to use thing that became sort of a god to follow and the marketplace is driving it and it’s successful and you could market on that basis, but some of the diagrams pictures that I didn’t quite get to the other day was how do you ever migrate from a tricycle to a bicycle because a bicycle is very unnatural and very hard to learn compared to a tricycle, and yet in society it has superseded all the tricycles for people over five years old. So the whole idea of high-performance knowledge work is yet to come up and be in the domain. It’s still the orientation of automating what you used to do instead of moving to a whole new domain in which you are going to obviously going to learn quite a few new skills. And so you make analogies of suppose you wanted to move up to the ski slopes and be mobile on skis. Well, just visiting them for an afternoon is not going to do it. So, I’d love to have photographs of skateboards and skis and windsurfing and all of that to show you what people can really [do] if they have a new way supplied by technology to be mobile in a different environment. None of that could be done if people insisted that it was an easy-to-learn thing. So, moving your way around those thought vectors in concept space – I’d forgotten about that.

Alan Kay You said that, right? 

Doug Engelbart I must have, it’s so good. [laughter] It’s to externalize your thoughts in the concept structures that are meaningful outside and moving around flexibly and manipulating them and viewing them. It’s a new way to operate on a new kind of externalized medium. So, to keep doing it in a model of the old media is just a hangup that someplace we’re going to break that perspective and shift and then the idea of high performance and the idea of high performance teams who’ve learned to coordinate, to get that ball down the field together in all kinds of operations. I feel like the real breakthrough for us getting someplace is going to be when we say ‘All right, let’s put together high-performance, knowledge-work teams and let’s pick the roles they’re going to play within our organizations in some way in such even though they operate very differently from their peers out in the rest of the organization they can interact with them and support them very effectively. So there are roles like that that would be very effective and everyone else can sort of see because they’re interacting with these guys what they can do.And suppose it does take 200 hours of specialized training – that’s less than boot camp. [My emphases.]

From the Vannevar Bush Symposium at MIT on the 50th anniversary of “As We May Think.” The official conference title was “50 Years After ‘As We May Think’: The Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium,” and transcripts of the panel discussions are at this ACM website. The excerpt above is from a blog post by Greg Lloyd on the Traction Software website. The post celebrates Doug’s 85th birthday.

On the ACM event site devoted to the symposium, the phrase “thought vectors in concept space” comes up in another spot, a journalistic bit juxtaposing Engelbart’s phrase and explication with Kay’s admiration, annotation, mild uncertainty, and explication:

In Engelbart’s view, augmentation of human powers makes possible better handling of complexity, greater ability to shift paradigms, and enhanced capacity to see farther and deeper into any issue. Engelbart’s theories on the nature of the human mind are a logical extension and expansion of Bush’s dual vision of cognitive and associative processing. Kay describes one aspect of Engelbartian thought:

One of the phrases that he [Engelbart] used that I particularly
liked was ‘thought vectors in concept space’. I’m not sure I
understand what he meant, but what I think is that you are
creating an extension of the kinds of spaces that you think in
terms of inside of your head. So, you are creating an
augmentation of the ways of thinking, the ways of representing,
the ways of associating that was now going to be extended
in a way somewhat analogous to the way writing has extended
us but somewhat more like the way we actually think.

Engelbart describes it as a method:

…to externalize your thoughts in the concept structures that
are meaningful outside; moving around flexibly, manipulating
them and viewing them. It’s a new way to operate on a new
kind of externalized medium.

My own interpretation of “thought vectors” also brings in something implicit in both Engelbart’s and Kay’s vision but, in my view, at some risk of being lost unless it is stated explicitly (this is something I’ve always worried about with regard to connectiVISM, though not so much with connected). For me, the “thought vectors” are largely about each learner’s agency as a thinker, with “vectors” describing the aiming or directing of those thoughts. This implies that “concept space” may be inside one’s own head, which I think is true, though as Vygotsky, Francis Jacques, Bruner, and many others have demonstrated to my own satisfaction, at least for now), “inner speech” (Vygotsky’s term) is empowered and directed by the world of speech into which one is born, the concept space shaped by what Bakhtin calls (to my joy) Great Time. Empowered and directed, but not wholly constituted or constrained, though freedom can feel very much like a kind of dissociation, as Bateson dwells on both beautifully and chillingly.

So we must not lose Ted Nelson’s compass either:

Ted Nelson described his approach to collaboration (or its absence) and its relationship to Doug Engelbart’s approach in this way:

The fundamental difference between my wonderful and very
great stepfather Douglas Engelbart and myself is that he
wanted to empower working groups and I just wanted to be
left alone and given the equipment and basically to empower
smart individuals and keep them from being dragged down by
group stupidity. The amazing thing is that our designs have
converged to some degree, showing, I think, the fundamental
validity of this whole approach.

See “Collaboration” on the ACM website. I think Nelson’s words may have influenced what I understand was Engelbart’s shift away from the language of “collaboration” to the language of “co-working.” The latter preserves the idea of personal agency within the collective work space, the concept space into which thought vectors may most powerfully flow, and in which their most powerful lives are realized. Publishing is one model of gathering one’s own thought vectors, themselves emerging alongside, from, and within other thought vectors (and concept spaces–yes, a bit of a Babushka doll here), and launching them into yet another concept space. As the concept space of “publishing” grows–if we will allow it–the boundaries and the very nature of what we recognize as a “thought vector” will also change. I believe this is something Engelbart envisioned when he spoke of the very complex symbol structures that could emerge from the concept space opened up by increasingly sophisticated and powerful modes of computer-mediated communication.

The happily challenging Roving Librarian has shared with me a book called Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art To Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, by Philip Yenawine. Chapter One is called “Permission To Wonder.” Building on the work of a neuroscientist of learning named Abigail Housen, Yenawine (formerly director of education at the Museum of Modern Art) has developed a VTS methodology that seems to me a very powerful way of thinking about thinking, especially about pursuing modes and paths of inquiry in a computer-mediated, networked environment imagined as “thought vectors in concept space.” Yenawine rings the Big Bell several times in this chapter. Here are examples:

Reflecting on this [VTS project] at some distance, it’s easy to see something we didn’t recognize at the time: we weren’t teaching viewing skills. Both adults and children already have them. They simply need to be activated (or reactivated), honed, and directed. (p. 12)

Given the combination of accessible information and elements of mystery, finding meaning in art is a form of problem solving: as we develop skills at viewing, we simultaneously learn how to find and solve problems…. What we need to start are eyes, memories, openness, time, and encouragement to engage in mind-stretching exploration–in other words, permission to wonder. (p. 13)

The second chapter continues the theme:

Art is the hook that engages students…. The subjects are familiar so that students have much to recognize but they also contain elements of mystery so students have observations, ideas, and emotions to puzzle over [my emphasis]. (p. 24)

It’s this combination of aspects–clearly readable information alongside ambiguity and diverse subjects and techniques–that makes art so useful in starting a deep and rigorous discovery process…. (p. 24)

[T]his engagement initiates an array of habits ranging from skill at observing to comfort in extracting meaning from complex problems. Once learned with art, the ability to learn from discussions carries over to other inquiries: VTS as a method is easily redeployed by teachers in other lessons. (p. 24)

This much is plenty exciting. In fact, I’d substitute “a sense of exuberant discovery” for the word “comfort” above. But the next section becomes even more exciting, especially for someone who cares deeply about the textures and vectors of words. (The remark “it’s only semantics” has always puzzled me, even when I’ve said it; what else is there besides semantics? I mean, it’s like saying “it’s only intelligible life as lived by symbol-making creatures.” Only?) It turns out that the questions that “set the students … into an active discovery mode” must be “carefully crafted.” Yenawine writes,

The VTS questions in fact provide a beginning strategy–a structure–for examining and reasoning about any unfamiliar object. The specific questions as well as the phrasing of each are based on Housen’s research:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

The first question–What’s going on in this picture?–initiates the inquiry into the meanings contained in the image: not just what’s depicted but also what it conveys. The question’s phrasing is familiar. We ask ourselves this question frequently. It is open-ended enough to suggest that all sorts of responses are acceptable. Still, it challenges students to move beyond observations to figuring out what they add up to. (p. 25)

Yenawine goes on briefly to discuss the neuroscience of narrative-making, another crucial part of the VTS methodology.

But here’s the real kicker–the moment when “it’s just semantics” is replaced by the good ship Thought Vectors as it rises from the launch pad:

At first Housen and I thought that “What do you see in this picture?” was an equivalent question, but in fact we saw that it produces a less complicated way of thinking…. (p. 25)

The activity of meaning-making must start with what’s going on in this picture?–or “what’s going on in this class, or in this major, or in this education you are pursuing–or that’s pursuing you?” Such a slight difference, looked at one way; looked at another way, the difference is enormous. Don’t just make a list. Knit together a context that will bootstrap inquiry.


The second question–What do you see that makes you say that?–is a nonthreatening way to introduce reasoning…. Even four-and five-year-olds can, after a short amount of time, demonstrate this remarkable thinking skill when the task is phrased this way. (p. 26)

The author goes on to write about how “paraphrasing each [student’s] comment and linking one comment to others,” along with “using conditional language, no matter how certain students were of the fat of their statements,” teachers can facilitate discussions that are not simply exercises in guessing what the teacher wants you to say, or simply empty debates that polarize and eventually stop the process of inquiry (pp. 27, 29).

The wording of the third question, “What more can we find,” is also vital. Yenawine writes,

The third question–What more can we find?–is asked often during VTS discussions and deepens the meaning-making process. Observing how long babies can stare at a single thing might remind us that the capacity to stay focused is operative in infancy and early childhood, and with this question we simply reawaken a behavior that is innate. While people bemoan the short attention spans of children (and perhaps the occasional grownup), what VTS teachers see is that, given something worthwhile to examine and pertinent prompts to follow, students will examine a subject for longer than most teachers have time….

Originally we had additional questions or variations but, again, the field research indicated which to use. Debra Vigna … gives insight into the kind of data we accumulated in class after class, reporting that “When I tried asking my class ‘What else can you find?’ they shut down. They thought I was asking them to find something specific that they weren’t mentioning. When I went back to ‘What more can you find? they opened back up. (pp. 26-27)

What’s going on in this blog post?

I keep trying to articulate my discovery, my belief, that there’s an extraordinary opportunity to grant, exercise, and strengthen “permission to wonder” as we contemplate and launch thought vectors in concept space, the uniquely, weirdly powerful prospect of thinking within and by means of personal, interactive, networked computing.

What do I see that makes me think that?

I keep writing versions of the same blog post again and again, typically by bringing in new writing, evidence, and observations from other people who appear to me to share this belief or to share a set of beliefs about learning that could lead (and I think do lead) to similar conclusions, once the promise of personal, interactive, networked computing becomes more clearly understood.

(Yes, and the perils, too, though I wish we could expend more hopeful, optimistic effort on realizing the promises.)

What more can we find?

That’s not entirely up to me to answer, of course, but I believe the connections have intriguing and perhaps mysterious potential. Vectors for thought, now launched into concept space, with both Chuck Berry and Glenn Gould on board.

Intimate, connected, open

scooby dooOver the last few weeks, our cMOOC team has continued to articulate and explore the dreams we’ll start living with our students on June 10. Some of the living’s already started in fact–the #thoughtvectors hashtag continues to light up the Twitter stream, and we’ve already got one playlist going, courtesy of our Creative Paradox. Shortly our course porch will be ready at Tom Woodward and Alan Levine are our prime porch wranglers. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

A couple of weeks ago, the team discussed the idea of intimacy in learning. The discussion was set in motion by one of my favorite quotations from my favorite learning scientist and philosopher, Jerome Bruner.

Man’s working image of himself is anchored in his sense of intimacy–in the events and relations that are the fabric of his immediate experience and make up his way of life. Change in the individual is a function of how much and in what manner an intimate way of life is altered.
“Fate and the Possible,” in On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, 160 (1979), emphasis mine.

Several fascinating and wondrous responses emerged from our discussion, responses I am belatedly but gratefully recognizing here: Laura‘s, Bonnie’s, Jason’s, Patty’s. I am humbled by their commitment and thoughtfulness. And I do not believe I am alone in feeling that in the meetings that have followed, we have found a greater ease and playfulness, as well as a deeper sense of adventure, in our work together. Bruner’s words struck a chord. I would hazard a guess that they did so because we are all vitally interested in the transformative potential of education–of school at its best, what I have long called “real school.” I would further speculate that each of us has had some experience of that transformative potential in our own lives as learners. (I don’t have to speculate with Bonnie, as she’s already blogged about it–and my associative Bonnie trails are now even more richly complex–thanks, Bonnie).

I will speak for myself, without speculation, and swear on a stack of Bruner’s collected writings that the primary reason I keep slogging on, trying to make something out of my own stumblings and hallucinations, and trying to navigate the shoals and shoot the rapids of contemporary higher education, is that my college education altered me forever, and I believe for the better, and I am sure because of the devoted ingenious efforts of professors who also roamed the halls of wonder and “exuberant discovery” in the real school that Bruner so magnificently limns.

Can this intimacy be risked? Much of contemporary education at all levels resists the question itself, let alone the risk. My answer is that it must be risked. Can this intimacy be found online? My answer is that my own personal learning network, linked to again and again on these virtual pages, demonstrates my yes.

Can there be rigor in the learning in real school, or is this a cheap fairground Scooby-Doo, the kind where the neck wobbles and the fake velour wears off by the end of a sweaty superficial amusement-filled day?

A 2012 article in the International Journal of Learning and Media helps me keep my eyes on the prize of real school, the self-generated, self-rewarding goal of connected learning. Here’s the abstract:

Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now, are presently challenging traditional definitions of learning and education. How can we conceptualize learning in a way that is able to respond to and explain the increasing complexity, connectivity, and velocity of our times? We elaborate on the notion of “connected learning” as a conceptual heuristic that has recently received recognition as a potential lens and a model through which to research and promote learning as a holistic experience that stretches beyond formal and informal communities. We reflect on the methodological challenges of describing, defining, and analyzing connected learning across young peoples’ everyday “learning lives” from the sociocultural and dialogic perspectives. We discuss such key notions for connected learning as understanding, tracking, and tracing learners; chronotopes; boundary crossing; intertextuality; and learning lives.

“Learning lives”: this phrase stirs me very deeply. At the micro level, it was what college helped me discover that a life could be: a learning life. I had always hoped to find such a thing. The very word “college” had always sounded to me, a first-generation college student and the son of working-class Appalachian parents, as if something like a “learning life” might just be possible. At the macro level, college also taught me that “learning lives” was the story, hopeful at times and desperate at others, of the species homo sapiens and what we have both built and destroyed, together, on this lucky little life-filled planet called Earth.

“Connected,” then, becomes for me an even more powerful word than “open,” for it speaks of relationship, the exuberant discovery that personhood is both irreducibly unique and inevitably interwoven. We are open so that we may become more powerfully and profoundly connected. Our learning lives are ours, a manner of speaking  that can be read in both ways: they belong to us, as well as to each of us. Each of us writes our selves into being, and thus each of us writes our selves into being.

“Efforts to understand the dynamic processes of learning situated across space and time, beyond the here and now” (my emphasis)–efforts to conceptualize: good enough for a peer-reviewed research-focused article published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but too “mushy and subjective” to guide learning outcomes? My fragment-question echoes like old Fred Neil once sang, sadly and a little angrily and most of all plaintively.

Connected, intimate, and open, through this course of study we call our works and days.