A computerised monastery school

Himanen (2001, 75-76) on the ‘Net Academy’:

It is a continuously evolving learning environment created by the learners themselves. The learning model adopted by hackers has many advantages. In the hacker world, the teachers or assemblers of information sources are often those who have just learned something.

… this hacker model resembles Plato’s Academy, where students were not regarded as targets for knowledge transmission but were referred to as companions in learning (synetheis). In the Academy’s view, the central task of teaching was to strengthen the learners’ ability to pose problems, develop lines of thought, and present criticism. As a result, the teacher was metaphorically referred to as a midwife, a matchmaker, and a master of ceremonies at banquets. It was not the teacher’s task to inculcate the students with pre-established knowledge but to help them give birth to things from their own starting points.

It is ironic that

the current academy tends to model its learning structure on the monastic sender-receiver model. The irony is usually only amplified when the academy starts to build a ‘virtual university’: the result is a computerised monastery school.

Reading ‘The Edgeless University’ and ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ reports

I have been asked to present the recent Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report to the University’s next Teaching and Learning Committee. The report came out shortly before, and is referenced by, The Edgeless University. Why Higher Education Must Embrace Technology, which was launched by David Lammy MP at the end of June. I’ve been going through both reports, pulling out significant quotes and annotating them. Here are my notes. It is not a comprehensive nor formal review of the reports, nor a statement from the University of Lincoln. Just personal reflections which I will take to my colleagues for discussion. I don’t whole-heartedly agree with every statement made in both reports or even those quoted here, but I do take government promoted reports, and the funding that accompanies them, seriously.

I include quotes from David Lammy’s speech, as it can be read as a formal statement from government on the recommendations of the ‘Edgeless’ report and a commentary on future funding priorities.

If you’ve not yet read the reports, my notes might provide a useful summary, albeit from the bias of someone charged with supporting the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning.  I am also an advocate of Open Access and Open Education on which the Edgeless report has a lot to say. Methodologically, the writing of both reports combined both current literature reviews and interviews across the sector and as I write, they are the most current documents of their kind that I am aware of.

If you have commented on either of these reports on your own blog or have something to say about the excerpts I include here, please do leave a comment and let me (and others) know.  Thanks.

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Using Google Reader as an OPML editor and feed blender

Last week, Google announced a new feature for Google Reader that is worth noting here, if only because it will make my work a little easier. They’ve introduced the idea of ‘bundles’ of feeds that anyone can create and share via Google Reader, email, OPML or as an Atom feed. There was a bit of confusion at first about what happened after you create a bundle and shared it. Dave Winer, based on an exchange with Kevin Marks, thought that the bundles were dynamic ‘reading lists’ based on a proprietary format. This isn’t the case but it’s worth reading Dave Winer’s original post with comments, and his follow up post which clarifies what reading lists are (technically, they’re ‘subscription lists‘ – part of the OPML 2.0 specification).

Anyway, what Google has introduced in this update to their feed reader is still very useful and functionally quite similar to the reading list concept. It allows me to group multiple feeds into a set/reading list/bundle and then share that set of feeds with my Google Reader ‘friends’, email a link to a web page of that bundle or download an OPML file of the bundle. This last feature is particularly cool because it means your bundle is portable via the OPML open standard and can be shared beyond Google Reader.

Build your bundle
Ways to share it
Email a link
Read it, subscribe to the feed or download the OPML

Effectively, Google Reader has become a simple OPML editor, allowing anyone to gather feeds together and export them as an OPML file. Even better, your bundle is also available as a ‘blended’ Atom feed, achieving something similar to Dave Winer’s notion of a dynamic ‘reading list’ where the creator of the bundle can add or remove feeds and the Atom feed is dynamically updated to reflect those changes. Until now it was a bit of a hassle to create a blended feed from multiple sources. Yahoo! Pipes is a powerful way of doing it but Pipes isn’t for everyone and I’ve found the feeds it produces are not always available and compatible with other feed reading applications. Recently, I’ve been creating ‘digests’ in feed.informer, but I’m more inclined to use Google Reader now as it’s where I do all my feed reading and I know the application well. Note that you don’t have to remain subscribed to the feed in Google Reader in order for a bundle to remain persistent either. You can create a bundle from feeds you later unsubscribe from in your reader and the feeds are not deleted from the bundle.

There are two obvious uses for all of this. First, a teacher could bundle a reading list of feeds and share them with students via Google Reader, as a simple web page, an OPML file or dynamic Atom feed. Second, using the Atom output, it’s now easy for anyone to create a lifestream feed of all their activity on the web and embed it on their web page or just archive it in Google Reader or elsewhere.

Academic Commons: Learning from FLOSS

While preparing my ‘Thinking Aloud’ seminar on Academic Commons, I was pleased to see that the Wikipedia entry for Open Educational Resources notes:

What has still not become clear by now to most actors in the OER domain is that there are further links between the OER and the Free / Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) movements, beyond the principles of “FREE” and “OPEN”. The FLOSS model stands for more than this and, like e.g. Wikipedia, shows how users can become active “resource” creators and how those resources can be re-used and freely maintained. In OER on the other hand a focus is still on the traditional way of resource creation and role distributions. [my emphasis]

As it happens, this is a significant interest of mine and one I touch upon in a forthcoming book chapter I contributed to.  We conclude:

The idea of student as producer encourages the development of collaborative relations between student and academic for the production of knowledge. However, if this idea is to connect to the project of refashioning in fundamental ways the nature of the university, then further attention needs to be paid to the framework by which the student as producer contributes towards mass intellectuality. This requires academics and students to do more than simply redesign their curricula, but go further and redesign the organizing principle, (i.e. private property and wage labour), through which academic knowledge is currently being produced. An exemplar alternative organizing principle is already proliferating in universities in the form of open, networked collaborative initiatives which are not intrinsically anti-capital but, fundamentally, ensure the free and creative use of research materials. Initiatives such as Science Commons, Open Knowledge and Open Access, are attempts by academics and others to lever the Internet to ensure that research output is free to use, re-use and distribute without legal, social or technological restriction (www.opendefinition.org). Through these efforts, the organizing principle is being redressed creating a teaching, learning and research environment which promotes the values of openness and creativity, engenders equity among academics and students and thereby offers an opportunity to reconstruct the student as producer and academic as collaborator. In an environment where knowledge is free, the roles of the educator and the institution necessarily change. The educator is no longer a delivery vehicle and the institution becomes a landscape for the production and construction of a mass intellect in commons. ((Neary, M. with Winn, J. (2009) ‘Student as Producer: Reinventing the Undergraduate Curriculum‘ in M. Neary, H. Stevenson, and L. Bell, (eds) (2009) The Future of Higher Education: Policy, Pedagogy and the Student Experience, Continuum, London))

I’d be interested in discussing these ideas with anyone who has similar interests. I don’t doubt I have a lot to learn from others.

Having been part of the open source community for the last eight years, I am utterly convinced there’s a lot to learn from the collaborative and highly productive social and creative processes that allow software developers, documentation writers and application end-users to work together so effectively. Over decades, they have developed tools to aid this process (mailing lists, IRC, revision control, the GPL and other licenses, etc.). Isn’t it time that more of us worked and learned in this way? Creative Commons is our license to do so; the Internet is our means of connecting with others. The tools are mostly available to us and where they are inappropriate for our discpilines, we should modify them. In the FLOSS community, knowledge is free and the community is thriving.

As the Wikipedia OER article states, the transmission of knowledge from teacher to learner is slowly being freed, but the social processes of knowledge production remain largely the same. Students are still largely positioned as consumers of knowledge and the hierarchical relationship between teacher and learner is increasingly contractual rather than personal. There are exceptions, I know, but there are few genuine opportunities for teacher and learner to work together productively, especially on a group scale. Institutions, like my own, are making some efforts to change the ‘Learning Landscape’ but I don’t think it is necessarily an institutional responsiblility. It’s the responsiblity of individuals (especially in an environment so relatively loosely controlled as a university) to work out the social relations and processes of peer production for themselves, looking for support from others when they need it.

How can the model by which the FLOSS community works so productively and openly be translated to every academic discipline and change the way that knowledge is both produced and transmitted? Technology is at this core of this enterprise and I suspect many teachers and learners feel alientated and divided by it.

By the way, here’s my Thinking Aloud presentation.