It happened just last Tuesday, and I’ve been reeling ever since.
I was talking with a student during an office visit. The topic of blogging came up. I’m not sure exactly how we got there, but I brought out one of my touchstones, the great “Dackolupatoni” experiment undertaken by a student at Virginia Tech just after a visit to the class by our Distinguished Innovator in Residence, Jon Udell. I could explain all that to you, but I’d really rather you just go read the student’s post (miraculously, several years later, it’s still there–thank you, VT). In a marvelously recursive description of her learning, the student blogged about, and thus enacted, her new understanding of the web’s peculiar, thrilling potential to be both noun and verb. The blog post was about the web, and because it was a blog post to the web, it also became webby itself. It webbed itself. “Dackolpatoni” thus became a small, potent, magically self-enacting instance of the very thing the student had just learned. It became, in Jon Udell’s wonderful metaphor, an “awakened grain of sand.”
The memory thrills me now now less than the experience did then. To have a student, all on her own, craft such an elegant proof of concept! There were several other electric moments in that class, but this one immediately defined a moment that continues to resonate, ever more plangently, throughout the sounding connections of this resonant web. The student’s post is as powerful a demonstration I can imagine of Jerome Bruner’s definition of understanding: “going beyond the information given.” And the going-beyond has now transcended its local context. It has gone beyond its own going beyond! The bright moment continues to expand its sphere of illumination. And the bright moment continues to light my path. So fragile and exquisite a moment, to have proven so remarkably enduring. But of course that was the reason for the student’s experiment to begin with. And the spark that became incandescent was the student’s realization that there were grounds for making that experiment. She became aware of a question to ask.
It was indeed a thrill for me, and remains so, to have been present in the moments leading up to, and away from, that particular moment. I wasn’t there for the moment of the writing, of course. I read that post after the class, after it had been written, after it had already begun to do its work. But reading it, afterwards, as it began to web, I saw something like the red shift that indicates the universe is expanding. I did not see the leap, but I saw the leaping. Spooky action at a distance. The web was the instrumentation that revealed that action, even as it inspired it and made it possible.
Thrilling as that “Dackolupatoni” experience was, it was not a new thrill for me. My experience with the Web has always been one of uncanny connections and near-mystical properties. I know they’re not really mystical properties, really I do, but I continue to marvel at, and seek to emulate and propagate, the conditions and protocols and dreams underlying the technical architecture that makes these properties possible. When I became an administrator at the University of Mary Washington, right about the time there was enormous energy around the idea of “Web 2.0,” I was fortunate to be able to gather a team that was ready and able to help faculty, staff, and students to find and make those uncanny, web-energized connections in their own work. Marvels tumbled out, and the sense of uncanny energies and possibilities seemed to increase with near-exponential intensity and frequency. Those webs kept growing, too–not that everyone understood or welcomed or even acknowledged these miracles in plain sight.
All of which brings me back to last Tuesday, and the student in my office. I had just told her the “Dackolupatoni” story as a way of describing the energy and linking I hoped students could discover (and craft, and experience) in the blogging we were doing for class. I told her about awakening grains of sand. She looked at me, paused, and thought. Then she said something like, “That’s a really interesting metaphor. I’d never thought about the Web that way. Posting something to the Web always seemed to me like sending a message into vast, dark, and empty interstellar space.” And all at once I could see, with newfound clarity, what I’ve been trying to share for years, even when I felt discouraged and baffled by aggressive and sometimes hostile resistance to the very idea of connected learning.
I see with renewed clarity that a core element of what I would call digital literacy, perhaps the core element, is understanding the possibilities the Web holds out to us for awakening grains of sand, of “Dackolupatoni” experiments that have the weird and transformative properties of demonstrating how giving airy nothings a local habitation and a name can make us more at home, and much less alone, within the apparent infinities of our own consciousness. How human agency can scale, not by dwarfing and even consuming those around us, but by equipping us to recognize, and on this platform to demonstrate, the possibility of becoming what Donne describes as “books lying open to each other,” in an environment in which it is possible, in Parker Palmer’s beautiful phrase, “to know as we are known.” Like language. Like love.
A story of two students, then, each of whom taught me crucial things. A story to help explain why “connected learning” is for me not only an aspiration, but pretty close to a redundancy. A story of how permissionless linking generates both spam and the music of the spheres. I hardly know what to say.