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 Hypothes.is 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

“As We May Think,” Annotation, and Liberal Learning: a conversation with Hypothesi.is’ Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean

Our Faculty Collaboratives Open Learning ’17 cMOOC is in its second week! Today I had the great pleasure of speaking with two leaders at Hypothes.is: Jeremy Dean (Director of Education) and Jon Udell (Director, Integrations). Our topic was Vannevar Bush’s epochal “As We May Think,” especially as seen through the lenses of online annotation and liberal learning.

As you’ll hear, Bush’s phrase “associative trails” appropriately wound its way throughout the conversation. I encouraged Jon and Jeremy to reflect on robust resource linking across collaborating minds as well as the more idiosyncratic and sometimes apparently “random” associative trails that are forged within our individual brains. I had probably registered this distinction myself in one of my many earlier passes through this endlessly fascinating essay, but today the distinction became newly vivid for me, and helped me understand areas of connection and disjunction within the essay itself.

Since a classic blog-based distributed conversation brought us together many years ago, I have interacted with Jon on numerous occasions. Some of his own associative trails have grown familiar (and dear, I must say) to me, but he’s always full of surprises, too, and I remain consistently challenged and stimulated by his ongoing work with the Web as a platform for co-constructed knowledge. I have been fortunate to spend more time with Jeremy lately, learning of his literary and musical background, and learning much more about his work with educators who are adopting Hypothes.is in their teaching as a way of helping students learn to scaffold and extend their own learning. It’s fascinating to see two people who are quite distinctive in background and personality who are nevertheless strongly united in their commitment to building a better world out of deeper, more thoughtful, more educated, and more robust human interaction.

I’m confident you’ll detect my own enduring concerns and commitments here as well. As I reflect on today’s conversation, I can see how my own work, and perhaps my personality as well, are situated almost at the meeting point between Jeremy and Jon. I hope that middle-ness helped to elicit the uniqueness, and the tremendous connections, these two thinkers brought to bear today. My thanks to both of them. I hope we can do this again, and soon.

Week One Done, Week Two Underway

Photo by Dean Shareski https://flic.kr/p/f3MPjW

One week in, and we’re aloft! The first week of Open Learning ’17 featured two Twitter events, lots of fine blogging, and some face-to-face conversations that I hope will bring more people into the network soon.

And before I forget, let me add that it’s not too late to join up! You can easily get up to speed by reading some blogs and the main text for each week. If you’ve been thinking about joining, now’s a great time to get involved. Head to openlearninghub.net and click on “join up” for all the details.

Amy Nelson has already posted a thoughtful piece on week one’s activities. So, what she said. 🙂

I’ll add that the Twitter mixer on Wednesday was very inspiring for me, as the question of “what’s open in your teaching and learning?” began to resonate through contexts ranging from professors, to students, to administrators, and back again. The Storify record of the chat will suggest much of this resonance. I encourage you to take a look. These Storify pages will preserve much of our Twitter activity during the course. I think they’re great resources for conveying the flavor, and the many directions, of near-real-time online conversation. I should also note that folks who accuse me of operating at the 30,000-foot level would have a very strong case to make in this instance, as I held up my end of the mixer from somewhere near that altitude over Nebraska, on my way to the AAC&U conference in San Francisco.

And speaking of the AAC&U conference, Steve Greenlaw and I held our Virginia Faculty Collaboratives flag high in several sessions, as did the Faculty Collaboratives leader and chief egger-on, AAC&U’s Susan Albertine. Susan was very generous in her shout-outs to our work, and joyfully connected us with other Faculty Collaboratives leaders to help us continue to get the word out and grow the network. Steve and I had many conversations with other state leaders along these lines, most notably Faculty Collaboratives folks from Wisconsin, California, Utah, and Texas. Some great ideas emerged, so as we say in the biz, “watch this space.”

I can’t add much to Laura Gogia’s intense and detailed analysis of our Twitter Journal Club event on Friday, except to say that I found the event exceptionally stimulating and exhilarating. I can’t imagine a better end to our first week, or a better first reading than “Fifty Shades of Open,”, or a better networked encounter with that first reading. I am deeply grateful to Laura for jumping in to make this event possible, even though she had only about four days to prepare. If we do indeed make the road by walking, it’s important to have what Christina Engelbart calls “expedition quality” people to walk alongside who’ll help to make that road. Laura’s expedition quality, through and through. Special thanks and a big shout-out to Jeffrey Pomerantz, one of the essay’s authors, whose presence lent special excitement to the event. Jeffrey’s insights in the article were extended into the Twittersphere in our conversation. He was most generous and thoughtful, and we are grateful for his participation. (And Jeffrey, you know you’re welcome to stick around as long as you want–we’re always open.)

Now it’s week two. What’s on the schedule? Glad you asked. This week we’re reading the immortal essay “As We May Think,” written by Vannevar Bush and published just as World War II was ending. Here are four ways to engage with this essay in our networked community:

Synchronous events:

Wednesday, February 1, at noon ET: “Associative Trails, Online Annotation, and ‘As We May Think‘”: a webcast with Jeremy Dean, Director of Education, and Jon Udell, Director, Integrations, both of whom work for Hypothes.is, an online annotation platform whose mission is “to enable a conversation around the world’s knowledge.”
In addition to reading “As We May Think” prior to the webcast, consider setting up a Hypothes.is account for yourself and glancing over the annotations that already exist for the Vannevar Bush essay. You might want to make a few annotations yourself, or perhaps reply to some of the ones you find.
For the webcast, we’ll be using the Twitter hashtag #openlearning17 for our backchannel, and for asking questions of Jeremy and Jon. Don’t miss this extraordinary opportunity to engage with two leading representatives of what Vannevar Bush foresaw as networked learning “trailblazers.”

Friday, February 3, noon ET: Twitter Chat on “As We May Think” and Open Learning. 
This Twitter chat will continue our consideration of Bush’s essay, with a particular emphasis on open learning, the goals of our course, and the Faculty Collaboratives project generally. Here we’ll do the “crosswalks” Susan Albertine has encouraged us to do between open learning, mind-liberating education, and the AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative. Once again, we’ll use our course’s Twitter hashtag, #openlearning17.

And asynchronously:

**Keep those blogs and tweets coming! This week we encourage special attention to our main reading, “As We May Think,” but as always, we’re interested to know what’s on your mind and heart about anything connected to open learning. Don’t forget that linking to a colleague’s blog post is a great way to strengthen the network! For a beautiful explanation of the power of hyperlinking, look no farther than our own Connected Learning Coach’s infographic on hyperlinking.

**Consider also annotating “As We May Think.” There’s a rich conversation there already, but it’s great to add our voices and extend the range of topics to include open learning in particular. Tag your annotations any way you want, but remember to include openlearning17 or #openlearning17 as one of the tags so we can tally and collect the annotations more easily. It’s all about building the resources together! To get started with online annotation, go to Hypothes.is and sign up for an account. Hypothes.is also has lots of short, effective video tutorials to help get you up and running. And as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Open Learning ’17 community for help, too.

Week Two is underway Can you find one or two colleagues who’d add to the conversation? Let ’em in!

Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives Steering Committee Welcomes You To Open Learning ’17

For many weeks, Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives Steering Committee has planned our connectivist MOOC, “Open Learning ’17,” and worked to get ready for launch week. To find out a little more about who we are and why we’re excited to be part of this expedition, please click on the image below.

It’s a cliche to say this is all a work in progress, but it’s also true–and we look forward to what we will all build together. Welcome!

Laura Gogia on the strategies – and welcome surprises – of open, connected learning

In part two of our conversation, Dr. Laura Gogia talks about strategies for getting to meaningfully connected learning–and for dealing with the feeling of information overload. (You might call it FOIO, not to be confused with FOMO.) Laura also discusses how effective strategies for openly networked learning can also lead to moments of surprising and rewarding serendipity. There are paradoxes at work here, and Laura explores them with her characteristic insight and zest.

For more of Laura’s thoughts and plans regarding her role as “connected learning coach” for Open Learning ’17, don’t miss her blog post over at “Messy Thinking.” It’s a tour de force.

Laura Gogia, Connected Learner and Connected Learning Coach

Dr. Laura Gogia practices leadership in “connected learning,” a paradigm that shaped the work of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Academic Learning Transformation Laboratory (ALT Lab), and one that continues to inform vital research and practice around the world. This “way of life,” as Laura describes it, also helps to describe the many powerful links between AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives project and Open Learning ’17.

Laura sat down with me recently to describe her background and how her work first as a physician, and then a Ph.D. student in educational research, led her to the practice of openly networked learning. In part one of our conversation, Laura tells the story of her search for community, and how as Open Learning ’17’s “connected learning coach” she will help our community of learners find their own paths to more effective networked learning.

Please click on the image below to see and hear our conversation.

In part two of the interview, coming soon, Laura discusses strategies for the most effective kinds of connected learning. She also points out important connections–or “crosswalks,” as Susan Albertine calls them, between connected learning and the “mind-liberating education” Dr. Albertine and the AAC&U advocate as an essential part of all higher learning.

You can read more of Laura’s impressive and soulful work on her website, Lauragogia.com, where you will also find a link to her blog, “Messy Thinking.”

A conversation with Susan Albertine about Faculty Collaboratives

Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives “Innovation Hub,” the site of an upcoming connectivist MOOC called “Open Learning,” is now open! (Makes sense, yes?) Please visit our Faculty Collaboratives/Open Learning hub to join up and explore the journey that awaits.

You may wonder, “what’s Faculty Collaboratives?” I put that very question to the AAC&U’s Dr. Susan Albertine, designer and leader of this initiative. In part one of our conversation, Dr. Albertine explains the history, mission, and aspirations of the project.

In part two of our conversation, coming soon, Dr. Albertine expands on the idea of “mind-liberating” education at the heart of Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).

Virginia is proud to be one of those thirteen LEAP states Dr. Albertine describes. We’re also a Phase 2 Faculty Collaboratives participant. And because Virginia!, we’re doing something unique with this cMOOC learning opportunity.

Join us!

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.