Fear of the ‘Stopping Point’

Head in water by Rose Borchovski
Head in water by Rose Borchovski

There is an awful lot to know. According to my old copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary the word ‘know’ made its first appearance in the English language in 1592: “The act of knowing; knowledge”. The very earliest reference to ‘knowledge’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary dates back to 1477 when it was used to describe “The fact or condition of being instructed; information acquired by study; learning.” I wonder, when ‘know’ initially appeared was it viewed as a bit of slang used by trendy young Elizabethans?

Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski
Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski

My father inherited a small library and his study was lined with books organized in tall dark bookcases that scraped the ceiling with their pointed gothic trim. Most of these books caused me to feel quite faint with the stunning dullness of their long winded (picture-less) yet at one time (at least) solidly knowledgeable texts. Hidden amongst these musty books there were some gems; one was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary which contained words that have long since fallen out of use. Interesting to consider that the eventual standardization of the English language actually caused words to vanish. The classifications of Johnson’s Dictionary trumped earlier dictionaries and 173 years later the Oxford English Dictionary trumped Johnson’s. It is a funny thought that we lost words as we tried to organize and standardize their spelling and meaning.

These dictionary knowledge-games sprang to mind recently when I heard a NY Tech Council talk given by David Weinberger author of the book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the RoomWeinberger observes that we have conjured up some successful strategies for managing the infinitely unknown amount of things we may one day need to know. We have developed these strategies because, as he says, the world is way bigger than our skulls and our skulls simply don’t scale; in truth, as we learn more and more, we do indeed find our skulls don’t get bigger. (In fact, they have got smaller when compared to Cro Magnon‘s skull.)

As Weinberger says, we manage the infinite amount of things that there are ‘to know’ by breaking off brain sized chunks of the world, we get to know this chunk, master it, and in due course become expert. If we need to find answers to certain questions (beyond our ken) we can go off and find someone who knows the answers (because of their particular chunk of expertise) and see if they can resolve our questions.

The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski
The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski

Now (suggests Weinberger) this is a very effective system, it gives us a mechanism where ‘experts’ know what we don’t know so we can stop asking the questions! This is what Weinberger calls a ‘stopping point’. He also suggests that this idea of containing knowledge is not natural; knowledge finds itself stored in libraries, folded within dictionaries and other learned tomes where it might end up laced through 8pt font footnotes. The result is that knowledge is rationed out, compartmentalized, freeze dried and re-packaged. Knowledge is manipulated through good intentions and attempts are made, by generally well meaning people, to carefully control it. (I am not including overt manifestations of political censorship here just actions done with the kindest of intentions.) The result is that experts, libraries, dictionaries, books and footnotes turn into stopping points for ideas and imagination. Education itself, the honorable dispensary of knowledge is a stopping point. Schools and universities and libraries are stopping points, good ideas themselves can be stopping points! All quite alarming when you stop to think about it…

Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski
Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski

Knowledge found at a stopping point is:

  • Settled
  • Scarce
  • Orderly
  • Clean
  • Perfect in its organization.

On those occasions when we avoid, or fail to contain knowledge i.e. when knowledge has not been forced into a stopping point it is characteristically :

  • Unbounded
  • Overwhelming
  • Unsettled
  • Messy to its core
  • Disorganized
Why by Rose Borchovski

Weinberger observes that knowledge ‘unbounded’ shares the same characteristics as the Internet and (perhaps more profoundly) also shares the same characteristics of what it means to be human. He rounds out his talk by identifying some new methods of knowledge management and education via our messy Internet. He gives an example of how education in the future might avoid stopping points when he describes how software developers act as if education is a public act. I think he is referring to the open source community where software developers ask their questions in online forums, and help each other out by posting code for all to use. Through this process they communicate the very act of learning across their networks and reap rich results by developing rapid learning environments tailor made to meet their needs.

Perhaps online educational experiments such as CCK MOOCs demonstrate another avenue for the open sourcing of knowledge? I am also wondering whether online dictionaries of slang might allow knowledge (and the words we use to describe it) to expand into infinity and beyond?

Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski
Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski

Images of the work of virtual world artist Rose Borchovski taken in Second Life at her exhibition The Susa Bubble Story located at http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Cariacou/97/113/22

Article about Rose Borchovski (aka) Saskia Boddeke.

Son of a MOOC! (Or, what happens when you swallow the red pill.)

I located the MOOC Guide with an introduction written by Stephen Downes today. It is a very helpful potted history of MOOCs.

Screen shot of MOOC 2011 introduction
Screen shot of MOOC 2011 introduction
Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig's AI Course run from Stanford University
Section 13 of the MOOC Guide introduces the successful AI-Class run by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford University.

Below you can see a video of Sebastian Thrun describing his experience of co-teaching the AI class with Peter Norvig, over 100,000 people pre-registered for the course. Sebastian Thrun has received a lot of press for resigning his position at Stanford University following this spectacularly powerful teaching experience. He has turned away from the traditional teaching methods of academia so that he can concentrate on his new educational venture at Udacity.com where he states:

“We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low-cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.”

The talk in the YouTube video is about 24 minutes long but it is well worth listening to (especially if you are an educator). The talk gives a quick glimpse of the future of education and it makes you realize that education is going the way of the music and newspaper industries (to name just two fields irrevocably altered by the web). Here is a quote (somewhat paraphrased) from near the end of the talk by Sebastian:

“I feel like there is a red pill and a blue pill and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom of 20 students. But I have taken the red pill and I have seen Wonderland where we can change the world with education, if we can make education free for the world, accessible everywhere, we can help the developing world to become much better, much stronger… Along with using the digital medium I really want to stop empowering the professors, I want to empower the students.”

Joining up the dots with Connectivism…

I have signed up to participate in the MOOC titled “Connectivism, Networked Learning, and Connective Knowledge, 2012”  with George Siemens and Stephen Downes acting in the roles of instructors.

I have been a fan of Connectivism for quite a while without even knowing it. It is intriguing to be given a name for something that previously had no name. A name is rather like a diagnosis i.e. we often hear how someone who is unwell experiences a sense of relief when they discover that the thing that is making them ill has a name. A name gives power, it propels us into the world with intention. A name can also cause problems, perhaps it is not the name so much as the qualities we attach to the name; the traits and characteristics that we pour upon a name. That is, a name can quickly turn into something dangerously vulnerable to judgmental and limiting thought. The most damaging outcome of such examination is dismissal, reaching a quick conclusion before running off saying it is all quite worthless and there are better things to do with our time,

Oberon Onmura Wave Fields
Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields. Art installation in Second Life

As we in the MOOC address the thorny issue of “What is Connectivism” we have been pointed towards a range of reading materials and taped interviews that address “Connectivism”. I get the sense that if it was at all humanly possible Connectivism would avoid being named at all. For once it was named it was pigeon holed and then pecked to pieces by a thousand questions. However, (rather nicely) Connectivism survives being cut into a million pieces. In fact, it invites such activities and even thrives upon the process. (It is called Connectivism after-all!)

As a blogger (however erratic I might be in this art) I was fascinated when George Siemens stated in an interview with Rick Schier that he (George) had been an active blogger since 2000 and had established his blog elearnspace in 2002. George explained that he recognized that blogging presented a completely different type of learning, a learning that was fundamentally connected in nature. Blogging provided him with the ability to share resources with others, to find one individual and use that individual as the node to find more individuals who were addressing particular subjects. The individual’s blog became the starting point of George’s learning, a connection, the golden thread that lead him into the maze of the web and guided him to the treasure of new knowledge. The process of blogging formed the connections that in turn opened doors to his new learning.

Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields (View 2)
Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields. A rare moment of stillness amongst the moving cubes.

Anyone who has blogged for a while recognizes this process of joining up the dots to create a picture. The connections we make in blogging act on two levels. One is on the internal level, where we write and discover through writing that writing itself is a form of thinking. By writing and thinking we discover connections in our thoughts that we did not know were there lurking (un-named) in our heads. We then move to the external level where we are out in the space beyond ourselves, in the space we share with everything in existence (it is a conveniently vast and limitless space that accommodates all that we know and all that we don’t know).

Blogging allows us as bloggers to literally embed connections (web links) in our writing and these links draw us out of the introspective space of writing and pull us into the external space shared with other writers. We can then in turn communicate with each other and build up layers of understanding through the connections we either simply find or that we consciously create. The act of embedding links gives us the power to connect to targeted locations out in cyberspace. Links allow our writing to take on a new dimension, embedded urls plumb our thoughts and take our readers directly to thought touch points.

Oberon Onmura Wave Fields 3
Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields. The sea of cubes is in perpetual motion. Creating then breaking patterns.

By recognizing the multi-dimensional space of the web and seeing how we can creatively connect with nodes across the web we are drawing in space. (Connecting the dots.) These drawings render new understandings and the process of recognizing these new understandings show us the amazing commonalities underlying human thought, action and creation. At this point I see Connectivism standing up to be counted as a theory that can help us to see and then (once seen) navigate the new galaxy of knowledge brought to our awareness via today’s technology.

Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields 4
Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields. A passage through the cubes is starting to shift and change.

Images in this post: Second Life Art installation created by Oberon Onmura: Wave Fields (This exhibit closes on January 31st, 2012)

Oberon Onmura’s “Wave Fields” – an ever-changing landscape of cubes that create undulating waves of visual movement as they form, activate, and disintegrate.