Beyond the echo chamber

June 22, 2009 | Leave a comment

It’s exciting to see some of the big names in the Silicon Valley web scene shift gears from evangelizing about the power of the social web to explaining how it can be used to the outside world. For example, Robert Scoble, sometime Microsoft videoblogger and latter day net celeb has started Building 43:

A few people here and there are trying. I watch what Chris Messina, David Recordon, Marc Canter, Joseph Smarr, Kaliya Hamlin, and a group of others are trying to do by pushing a more open web. Those are the kinds of efforts that inspire me and are inspiring Building43. Can we build on what they are trying to do and take it to main street?

Marc Canter is taking it a step further and moving to Cleveland, Ohio, in order to start a new company that helps create Digital Cities:

Where workforce development, content production and local foods meet in the valley of health care, medical digitizing and the history polymers.  Add to that some Seniors interviews, green jobs knowledge bases and authorized venues, community services and common constructs – and you have our project!  Oh yah – and a business directory of……

In both cases, they’re taking the ideas that the web community has created – open, democratic platforms for content agnostic collaboration – and bringing them to communities and people who might not have been exposed to them but could benefit in real, tangible ways. The message I’m getting is that the theory has gained momentum and is rolling into something great; now it’s time to bring it to the world.

And me? I’m in Washington DC this morning, talking with the AAC&U about how these ideas can be used in education.

Learning on the social web

June 18, 2009 | Leave a comment

ScienceBlog reports that on Saturday, Carl Whithaus will announce the preliminary results from a California Department of Education study into increasing academic achievement using computers in 4th grade classrooms (emphasis mine):

During the first year of the two-year study, student achievement increased 27.5 percent, according to Whithaus, who is principal investigator of a study to evaluate the project’s effectiveness.

Computer use – and particularly, online community engagement – increases engagement with formal learning, which is great news for the e-learning software market. But I’m particularly interested in the effect of networks on informal learning – specifically, learning from our activities on the web.

Learning happens when two sets of experiences and assumptions are exposed with each other – in other words, when we communicate. The web is the most globally efficient communications method the world has ever seen, and as a result, I believe, may rapidly transform our world culture for the better.

Last month, I met with J. Nathan Matias from the World University Project, a project that aims to evolve higher education by shedding light on how people learn and teach around the world. His intent is to highlight experiences that people in the west have largely not been exposed to, and in so doing advance mutual understanding between our academic systems. It’s a brilliant idea, which takes advantage of the potential of a universally accessible global communications network.

Recently, the Iranian election swamped Twitter, to the point where they rescheduled maintenance in order to minimize the effect on dissidents in the country. Suddenly, because Iranian dissidents were online and conversing with people from the west, Iran seemed less like a scary, far-off country filled with terrorists and more like – gasp – a country filled with actual human beings. Clay Shirky had this to say:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted “the whole world is watching.” Really, that wasn’t true then. But this time it’s true … and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They’re engaging with individual participants, they’re passing on their messages to their friends, and they’re even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can’t immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.

On a smaller scale, we’re now interacting with people from other walks of life, with markedly different sets of skills and interests, on a daily basis. The opportunity available to us is not just to get our message out on an unprecedented scale – but to get other peoples’ messages in, and in the process make ourselves more educated and informed than we’ve ever been. On a personal level, it can help us with our fourth grade homework; on a societal level, it’s a revolution.

Internet addiction and online learning environments

December 30, 2005 | Leave a comment

Small town AmericaIt’s nice to get away for a while; a difference of perspective does a world of good for your clarity of thought, and often even your basic happiness. You don’t get a much bigger difference of perspective as between Oxford and the San Joaquin Valley (pictured right), or between sitting in front of a screen all day and spending time in the outside world.

The danger with creating a community online is that people will spend too much time in that community. It seems like a funny thing to be worried about when we’re largely involved with promoting engagement and creating systems that people will want to use. But it seems to me that if someone is too involved in a learning environment, they’re liable to not spend enough time actually learning.

Of course, this is true of all educational facilities – the danger of creating a really cool student bar is that students will spend all their time in it drinking beer. It’s important to promote a balanced learner lifestyle containing all kinds of helpful elements, rather than the use of one tool or other. I don’t buy the idea that we should just let people get on with it, and students don’t want any kind of involvement from the institutions in their lives – they come to an institution, and often pay tens of thousands of dollars, so that they will come out at the other side with a good degree and a great deal more knowledge and skills than they came in with. Sure, these things perhaps shouldn’t be mandatory, but this kind of lifestyle help should be out there and very visible. I would hate to think that someone might be spending twelve hours a day on Elgg when they could be out there taking advantage of everything on offer to them.

You might scoff – nobody would spend hours in front of a website! – but this is, I’m afraid, naïve. Hang around community sites like Myspace if you don’t believe me, or check out the frequency of posts in some LiveJournal communities. A growing number of people are beginning to recognise the seriousness of Internet addiction. Of course, as the programmer and vendor of an online learning system, I’m not about to say that learners should avoid such systems – the bottom line is that an institution’s role includes both gentle guidance towards the knowedge and skills that a learner seeks, as well as how to use them in a rich and balanced way.