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Connectivism Blog

Connectivism is a learning theory for the digital age.

Thinking Archives

February 10, 2005

Intuition in learning

The linear - "there is a right answer" - approach to learning is challenging in a rapidly changing digital ecology. To be effective as a learner (and participant) in this environment, we acquire different skills and attitudes. One of the most critical is tolerance for ambiguity. It's important to be able to hold two apparently contrasting viewpoints in suspense while waiting more information. Accepting the "fuzziness" of the moment can be frustrating.

There is often a "right answer", but that answer is right only to the degree that it adequately represents the underlying information foundation. Once this foundation changes, the answer itself loses some relevance. Being able to recognize that "it's right for today", but not necessarily for tomorrow, is important.

In constructing (by constructing I'm referring to a combination of personal meaning making and connecting various fields of information (i.e. nodes in our personal network)) meaning, we often have a vague sense of "something is missing". When we encounter a network node that illuminates existing understanding, we intuitively recognize its place and value within our existing knowledge structure.

February 23, 2005

Right idea in the right context

We seem to like "one answer" solutions. This is evidenced by how we attach labels to concepts and ideas, and then from that perspective, attempt to refute or ignore attributes of potentially conflicting notions. Within educational theory, we often assume that constructivism, behaviourism, and cognitivism are competing learning theories trying to solve the same problem. They are not. Each one is a different theory attempting to solve a different problem.

In some circumstances, a cognitivist approach to learning design is valuable. In others, constructivism might be more appropriate. Each theory is valid in certain implementations. The weakness of a theory is noticed when it is applied to a task that the theory was never intended to solve. Similarly, when proponents of a theory use it inappropriately, its effectiveness is diluted.

February 24, 2005

Principles vs. Prescriptions

I'm terrible with setting goals (or more accurately, at staying focused on goals I've set). While I used to view this weakness with great frustration, I've since developed a different view. Most of us have been taught the value of clearly charted paths and goals. We've heard stories of a bankrupt business person who sets lofty goals, refuses to waver, and finally realizes his/her dreams.

Yet this isn't reality. Life and learning do not flow along clearly defined paths. Our needs change, circumstances change, and or skills change. Various common phrases catch the spirit of this learning/life in transition: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears", "Luck is what happens when prepardness meets opportunity". Behind each statement is the notion of personal preparedness in response to the environment in which we exist. Learning, unlike the notion of goal setting, is an intermingling (a dance) with the dynamics of our personal and work environments. Goal setting says, this is what I will achieve. In essence, it says redefine your environment to meet your desires. Life may work that way sometimes. Usually, our learning is in response to the alterartions in our environment.

If goal setting is too restrictive, what is the option? I don't have an ideal metaphor, but the concepts of principles/guidelines/frameworks have some merit. Rather than trying to force our way goals, the focus is on creating a structure that is aware of and responsive to the environment around. When I used to spend time training staff in the hospitality field, I found it very challenging to teach "principle thinking". Staff preferred more rigid barriers. Yet the more specific the training, the less useful it is in other situations. If I teach a staff member steps to handling a guest who is upset with a misplaced reservation, I've provided a prescription to a problem, not a framework transferable to other situations. Similarly, goal setting is a personal learning task that functions best according to principles (instead of prescriptions). Some one who sets a goal and achieves it by sheer focus may overlook many other more valuable opportunities.

March 28, 2005

The role of exclusion in learning and reasoning

When we focus on learning, we usually focus on what we are including in our reasoning (learning and knowledge acquisition are often seen as similar concepts). Most often, we associate learning with gaining. Lately, I'm finding increased value in determining the role of exclusion in learning. What we choose to exclude in order to learn may provide as much information as what we actually include.

It's commonly accepted that our learning filters through some type of framework. This framework is an aggregation of personal beliefs, experiences, existing knowledge, and emotional intelligence. As an example, (if we can briefly utilize stereotypes for illustration purposes) conservatives are usually perceived as business focused, whereas liberals are perceived as people (or social issue) focused. These political worldviews shape and influence the type of information that penetrates into our active region of thinking and deliberation.

Often, we exclude from thought those concepts which are strongly antagonistic to views we already hold. Back to the stereotypes of conservatives/liberals - when these two groups engage in dialogue, they are largely speaking past each other. Instead of embracing each other in an attempt to understand what is really being said, the debate centers on what each party has included in their thinking...while focusing on what the other party has excluded in their thinking. The conservative promotes the value of business, the liberal the value of social structures. The conservative criticizes the liberal's lack of business focus; the liberal criticizes the conservative's lack of social focus. We argue our points of inclusion and criticize the points of exclusion in the reasoning of others.

Similarly, we are uniquely susceptible to logical fallacies in domains in which we have strong beliefs. The stronger our beliefs, the more susceptible we are to fallacies. Moving back to politics - we are often very forgiving of errors within our personal party. We are not very compassionate to errors in "the other party". This is particularly the case when we are espousing personal theories. When I'm discussing connectivism with colleagues, I'm aware of my willingness to forgive cognitive conflicts in my own theory. I'm much more critical of the shortcomings of behaviourism, cognitivism, or constructivism. Why is that? Why do our cognitive processes function in a domino fashion (see Ideas as Corridors)? Why is it so hard for liberals to see value in conservative views (and vice versa)?

The process of exclusion is a vital learning process. We cannot possibly consider every facet of a new idea. We exclude in order to be able to move to the point of active cognitive interaction with an idea. Exclusion occurs during the filtering process. What we choose to ignore speaks to our larger worldview (beliefs and values). When we are trying to influence the values of others (for example, in helping students learn about other cultures), we spend our time trying to get the learner to acquire new mindsets. We need to take a step back and focus on what is happening during the filtering process.

By analyzing what we exclude in our own reasoning, we are able to gain a better understand of our own learning process. It's unrealistic to regularly evaluate our core beliefs and values, but a periodic evaluation may provide the ability for more effective learning in general. What we ignore in learning can be a valuable tool to ensure that our perspectives are properly balanced (and at minimum acknowledge the existence of other viewpoints contrary to our own). Sometimes, the ability to step out of our thought corridor, and into the corridor of an "opponent", can lead to deep insight and understanding. Not all learning (or cognitive activity) is logical. The choice to include/exclude information may be the point were emotional intelligence exerts its greatest influence. Thoughts?

April 19, 2005

Relevance of Formal Education

Relevance is the key requirement for adoption or use of virtually anything. If something is not relevant, it's not used. Relevance can best be defined as the degree to which a resource or activity matches an end user's needs. The closer the match, the greater the potential value.

Within education (particularly higher education), relevance is a subjective concept. I recall taking many courses where I couldn't understand practical use. Concepts seemed too obscure to be applied to real life. Later, I often discovered that I did find value in the material - the use and application trailed behind the learning. Learning obviously has various uses and functions - some types are for direct application, others for building knowledge (which subsequently will also lead to direct application), still others for shaping frameworks that will guide and filter subsequent learning.

What then does it mean for learning to be relevant? Does it mean that the learner has to immediately see use for new information? Does it mean that the course/program designers need to include content that the learner will only find useful at some future date (but may currently be seen as irrelevant)? I imagine it's both. A learner must be able to see relevance, but it is important for designers to communicate the components of a field in a broad manner - thereby permitting learners to see future value from the experience.

Relevance, however, is not only about the nature of content. In education, I see the challenge of relevance to rest in two areas: 1) process of instruction and learning (i.e. what does it mean to learn today) and 2) the process of ensuring currency of content/information (i.e. how to manage knowledge growth and function effectively in a diminishing half-life of knowledge environment - the time from when knowledge is gained until it is obsolete).

Higher education is largely ignoring the shift in relevance based on the two criteria mention above (process and currency). Some institutions are beginning to explore alternative models of content delivery. Elearning initially focused on simply duplicating classroom activities, so content was generally created in linear, course-sized chunks. In order to learn, a learner needed to be able to devote a large amount of time to exploring content. Learning, elearning, and blended learning are all simply models through which content of any size can be distributed. When I state "alternative models" of delivery, I'm referring to an alteration in size, manner, and point of content delivery (i.e. rather than a course, learning can be delivered in smaller, individual a variety of formats - computer, paper-based, cell phone. The content needs to be "findable" at the learner’s point of need (as compared to learning being provided "just-in-case")). The more closely the content is positioned to the point of doing/need, the more effective the learning process. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that learning is much more than exposure to content. Social, community, and collaborative approaches to learning are important. The very nature of what it means to learn is also worth evaluating. How does learning occur? Is learning largely a connection-forming process? Do we have to possess knowledge in order to “know” something? Or is it more important that we know where to find knowledge?

The second criteria for relevance in today's environment is for institutions to ensure that content is current. This is a significant challenge. By nature, a "course" is prepared months in advance of delivery, and is then modified as needed based on new information. Compare the model of a course with the activity within the social tools of blogs and wikis. Courses are fairly static. Blogs are dynamic - changing hourly, daily. This is not to say that I favour blogs over courses. Rather, content designers need to understand the nature of the half-life of knowledge in their field and ensure that they select the right tools to keep content current for the learners (and that may well be a combination of course-based content and directing learners to prominent bloggers in their field). Admittedly, currency of content requires far more thinking and planning than I've described here. Content management systems, aggregators, intelligent search, and other tools are part of the overall structure of ensuring content is up to date. The main point I'm communicating is that the course format is at odds with the evolving nature of information in society. We need to augment our view of what is it means to be current in our fields...and how we propose to tap learners into a larger structure that continues to provide value well beyond the close of a course.

May 26, 2005

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking gets much lip service, but is typically not actively reflected in instructional and learning processes. Part of the challenge is acknowledging that for many of us, we are more adept at rationalizing than being rational. Cold, hard logic is almost unattainable. Emotional intelligence steps in and distorts or balances our thinking.

Reasoning and Real-Life Decision Making provides a valuable perspective on the importance of critical thinking (and links to resources of interest to educators): "If we don't examine how we arrive at decisions, then we will make more mistakes and be more we susceptible to being misled by others. Reason is not infallible, nor is it the only guide to decision making, but it is a tool to use in every job we do."

June 9, 2005

Informal Learning

Informal Learning: "Still think learning means school? Expand your definition of learning to include conversations with your peers and your children, from books, articles, informal networks, Internet searching, television, and what you learn through trial and error."

Most people involved in education (corporate, higher ed, K-12) recognize that we need to expand our view of the learning process. Most learners still equate courses with learning, and often dismiss the informal learning elements they experience each day. If, as I've previously describe it, learning is actionable knowledge, then the informal pieces of information/knowledge that we acquire (and put to immediate use) is often of greater value than a course. For example, as we are struggling with a particular work-related problem, we may have lunch with a colleague and share our frustration. During the discussion she makes a point that completely shifts our thinking and opens a door that leads to a solution. Course-centric views of learning would fail to account for the value of this conversation, even though it may have been more effective than taking a multi-week course.

We know that learning "happens" as we live life in our current knowledge economy. In fact, knowledge comes at us constantly - TV program, newspaper article, a workshop, or a problem we solve on our own. We incorporate many of these knowledge points in how we see the world and how we do our work (most educators, as an example, haven't taken a formal course on constructivism...even though they practice many of the concepts in their course development and instruction. How did they learn these skills? I imagine much of it comes through the network in which they reside - i.e. the network (their information sources) holds elements of knowledge relating to constructivism, and they adopt elements simply because they make sense and work).

This concept of network learning answers many questions about how we acquire much of our knowledge (even elements that contradict each other). When we exist in a knowledge climate (or network), we constantly scan, evaluate, and select for use, elements that answer questions with which we are struggling. Some elements of learning will relate to our values, attitudes, and beliefs, others will relate more concretely to how we perform our work. In an election season, politicians rely heavily on "teaching" the electorate through a network imbued with their message. If the electorate is unwilling to accept the message directly, perhaps it will accept the message when embedded in our existing learning network (i.e. an unpalatable concept is more attractive when it links (even if inaccurately) to our existing values and lines of reasoning). Perhaps as educators, we need to become more aware of how people learn from their network. Often, I imagine, our formal instruction competes with information sources in their existing learning network (particularly relating to soft skills).

August 23, 2005

Centering Agents

Aggregation of knowledge/information sources has really changed over the last few years. Until about three years ago, most of our information was delivered through a centering agent - a television, newspaper, magazine, or radio. In this model, our primary task was to absorb or consume the structure of information created by a third party. The level of trust attached to this third party largely determined how much we valued the information (for example, Forbes suggesting investment in Apple carried more weight than hearing it from a stranger at a bus stop).

Recently, the centering agents have come undone. I no longer read newspapers or watch the evening news. I used to go to one source of information to get a thousand points of information. Now, I go to a thousand sources of information to get one point of information. I have become the filter and mediator.

While this process is effective on many levels, it has its challenges. Going to one source of information is much simpler than attempting to consume many different elements. It's less stressful. And requires less thought (or foraging for needed knowledge). Questions of validity and trust are answered with each information source (at least until a relationship has been developed).

Centering agents provide significant value in creating come focal points for members of society. These agents serve a diverse base and are structured to provide appeal to many different individuals (race, religion, politics, etc.). People of different political stripes, for example, are able to dialogue (in some cases at least :)) because of the common language and understanding created by centering agents.

What happens when we no longer share centering agents? What happens when all of my information comes only from sources that promote view points I already hold? I am concerned that this process is creating a serious divide in the ability of people to dialogue and share common understandings. Now, if I'm so inclined, I can listen only to perspectives of my own political party. If I follow Rush Limbaugh or Daily Kos, I can receive a constant message that assures me that I am right, and the other side is wrong. I think this is dangerous. The breakdown of common understanding and dialogue poses a real risk to the civility of society.

Educators have a role to play in encouraging learners to consume information from differing spectrums of thought. We are starting to see the emergence of some centering agents for individuals (bloglines) and rudimentary centering tools for groups ( Whatever our view or perspective, as learners in a global stage, we need to move (at minimum) to dialogue with those around us. The closing of public information spaces into private, like-minded thought communities is discouraging.

October 26, 2005

The Joys of Shallow Thinking...

I subscribe to several hundred blogs with Bloglines. Most days, this results in several hundred feeds to read. I also subscribe to a series of listservs - some generating a large amount of daily posts, others only periodic posts. To further convolute my information sources, I also subscribe to many newsletters. I imagine my information consumption habits are not that unique. In the end, I encounter hundreds (if not thousands) of different sources of information each day.

I'm fascinated by how we have changed our relationship with information (and still kept the sense of expectation we apply to how we used to handle information). When I first started with this whole "online thing", getting 5 emails a day was considered busy. Now, it's several hundred. In order to function with the increased volume, I (like everyone else) have had to reduce the amount of time I spend with each email, so that I'm able to process all of the information. This reality is exacerbated by webfeeds and aggregators.

What happens when we change how we interact with information? We "ramp up" our processing habits. Instead of reading, we skim. Instead of exploring and responding to each item, we try and link it to existing understanding. We move (in regards to most information we encounter) from specific to general thinking…from deep to shallow thinking. Shallow thinking, in this sense, isn’t as negative as its connotations. Shallow thinking (perhaps I need a better phrase) involves exploring many different sources of information without focusing too heavily on one source. Aggregating at this level helps us to stay informed across broad disciplines. So much of education intends to provide “deep learning”. Often, however, “shallow learning is desired” (i.e. we want to know of a concept, but we don’t have time or interest to explore it deeply). All we need at this stage is simply the understanding (awareness?) that it exists. Often, learning is simply about opening a door…

As an example, today while skimming my Bloglines feeds, I formed a general awareness of lawsuits against Apple, developments with Google Base, blood tests for determining anxiety, etc. I’ve grown in my skills at rapid reading and aggregating information. I’ve also learned to quickly recognize information that is important for deeper exploration. The bulk of this work still happens in my head, but I’m encountering more software tools that assist the process. I don’t think it’s too ambitious to say that we are still very much at the beginning of a new era of learning – one defined by confusion in the abundance of information…and the accelerated need fro determining which information is valuable, and how the pieces fit together.

January 4, 2006


Power is an underlying thread that extends through all of life. We've all heard statements that "money is power" or "sex is power". I don't have a strong opinion on the accuracy of those two statements, but I do believe that the real power issues of our era center around ideologies. Our ideologies are then expressed in how we create our institutions and organizations. What we believe, and the accompanying meaning of that belief, are central to the educational process.

The following are the key ideology-driven power constructs that will shape our world over the next several decades:

  • Corporations. Corporations have one ulterior motive: generate value for shareholders. Country lines and patriotism are secondary to achievement of corporate vision. In our developing global environments, corporations hold tremendous power.
  • Belief-based organizations (religious, atheistic). Religious structures have long held an important role in society. The attainment of "higher ideals" has shaped and driven society for centuries. The loss of public power (i.e. governing people, law and punishment) has resulted in spiritual groups developing a quiet, often behind-the-scenes, power in the lives of their adherents. This quiet power is then reflected in how members of a group function within corporations, institutions, and government.
  • Countries/governments. I'm not sure how this power structure will fair in a global era. Already we are seeing countries sacrifice some autonomy to be a part of larger multi-country trade and currency groups (EU, NAFTA are examples...and UN is a more global example, though countries don't necessarily sacrifice autonomy to be a part of UN).
  • "The people". This power structure has gained substantial capacity to influence corporations and governments (China and Iran may not be the best examples) with the advent of internet and communication technologies. Smart mobs and the "new superpower", are examples of informal, often rapid, organization of people around promoting/preserving an ideal, or righting an injustice. While a far cry from Marxist "power to the people" approach, this power structure works within to influence other structures (instead of trying to replace or duplicate them). “The people” wield their influence based on the nature of the power structure they are trying to influence (corporations with dollars, countries with votes, churches with reputation).
  • Education. Education is the odd element in this power list. Education influences each structure listed above, as it is the process by which other power systems achieve and propagate their aims. In an ideological sense, I believe education, when coupled with appropriate power structure, is the only way we are able to truly change the world (for the better). In a sense, education is the balancing, accountability, critical thinking element of power.

    I'm not trying to present any of these power structures as negative - just simply acknowledging that they exist and each carries a certain approach, element, or implication for society.
  • June 5, 2006

    The emperor has no clothes, but the air temperature is still good...

    I’m constructing this post from memory based on recent museums I’ve attended in Austria (I’m here for a panel at Microlearning 2006). I tried searching wikipedia, but was not able to find significant information beyond standard biography.

    Kaiser Maximilian was a king/emperor in the late 1400’s/early 1500’s (Innsbruck was his home base). He has been referred to as “the last knight” – an indication of the substantial change occurring during his rule. The armies of previous centuries (armed knights, hand to hand combat) were giving way to the development of a cannons and explosives. Maximilian was able to overtake enemies due to his early recognition of fundamental change. Nations unable to sense and adapt to the core changes in how war was conducted were quickly conquered. The capacity for war of these defeated nations was as significant as ever (at least as I understand it). The key change was in the technology and method through which war was conducted. The environment had changed. Some nations didn’t adapt. Failure was the outcome.

    What does this have to do with learning? I believe we are at a similar cross-road. We are moving to the age of the “last teachers” (classically viewed as dispensers of information and knowledge). We are at a point where the entire space of education has been changed. The previous “hand-to-hand combat” of learning has transitioned to group-based, collaborative (wisdom of the crowds), self-organizing, end-user in control, adaptive, sometimes chaotic, and systems views of learning.

    I’m tired of writing this (perhaps not as tired as some are of reading it), but our educational structures don’t seem to understand what’s going on. I take some comfort from Will’s recent post: "If nothing else, the last two days here speaking to and with the superintendents from about 50 districts and the staff developers… made it clear that these people either get it or want to get it and will do whatever it takes to move the schools in a new direction." Overall, I’m not convinced that this is the norm (though I can hope that it is the start).

    Most frustrating for me, is that all indications (statistics in particular) support world-wide growth in formal education. A degree is a must in most fields. China, India, and other developing countries are investing significantly in their education systems. In US and Canada, trends indicate that enrolment is on the increase (as are costs). So, why am I (and people like Will Richardson and Stephen Downes) standing up and saying “the emperor has no clothes”? It appears that the system is very healthy, if gauged by enrolment.

    The risk centers on the relevance of education. I’m sure the countries surrounding Austria in early 1500’s felt quite good about their knights – they were competent, protective armor was increasing in quality, and better swords were being made. It’s all good. Then Maximilian’s army arrives with a canon. Things changed fast. The problem is not that the existing system wasn’t healthy. The problem is the lack of recognition and reaction to foundational changes in the environment.

    In terms of education, or existing system is healthy from an enrolment stand point. But it’s very unhealthy from a relevance standpoint. We have created our structures for stability and for one-way flow. We need to create our structures for adaptability and for maximum flexibility (i.e. responsiveness to core environment changes). This transition requires a reworking of how we organize our instructions, the types of tools we use, how we foster dialogue, how we engage each other etc. It changes everything. Instead of planning, we experiment (see Meyer and Davis’ “It’s Alive). Instead of hierarchy, we create networks. Instead of static spaces of information exchange, we foster ecologies.

    As stated in the title of this post, the emperor has no clothes, but the air temperature is still good…

    June 27, 2006

    Knowing before doing?

    I've been involved in conversations with numerous organizations (corporate and public) over the last year. The central topic of discussion: what's changing and what does it mean (this them is not always expressed this explicitly, but when the concerns are reduced, the message is clear).

    A consistent challenge I encounter is the abundant use of terms like "blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS, webcasts" etc. Organizations are awakening to a changed world - and they sense it. But the language is still ensconced in the mindset of hierarchy and control. New technology is still applied in traditional means – with the intent to manage, control, and direct activities or outcomes.

    The last decade has fundamentally re-written how we:

    • consume media (music, TV, news – all moving to web-based models)
    • collaborate (wikis, groupware, skype)
    • find information (Google)
    • authenticate (trusted networks instead of established sources)
    • express ourselves and our ideas (blogs, podcasts, vlogs)
    • relate to information/knowledge (the relationship time is much shorter - compare 1/2 hour reading the morning newspaper vs. reading 50 news sources online in 10 minutes...or the deluge of information, requiring that we become much more selective and that we start using external resources (tags, OneNote, Furl, to cope)

    These changes are still being interpreted through existing beliefs of how we should structure our organizations, and what it means know and learn. When people first encounter distributed tools, the first attempt at implementation involves “forcing” decentralized processes into centralized models. We then end up with LMS for learning, learning object repositories to manage our content, corporate lock-downs on instant message, and district-wide bans on social networking tools.

    In recent discussions with museums and education providers, the desire for centralization is strong. These organizations want learners to access their sites for content/interaction/knowledge. Learners, on the other hand, already have their personal spaces (myspace, facebook, aggregators). They don’t want to go to someone else’s program to experience content. They want YOUR content in THEIR space (it’s called decentralization :)).

    Yesterday, I was involved in a meeting about communities of practice. The desire to control and manage communities (the notion that control equates to better prospect of achieving intended outcomes was, as usual, evident) struck me as being a bit at odds with how things need to happen for online spaces to prosper. I made the statement that CoPs have traditionally been conceptualized to function in hierarchical structures; they were to be pockets of innovation (with horizontal industry/intra-industry connections) in structured environments. When we try and create CoPs online, we take the same approach – come to our community. I think that’s the wrong approach. The community should come to the user. Whether the conversation occurs through blogs, wikis, or podcasts, the true value in the conversations is the connections formed between individuals. Essentially, a CoP is a structured connection-forming space.

    Most individuals, however, have started to create a scattered identity and presence. I have pieces of my thoughts scattered across numerous articles, website, podcasts, and presentations. I don’t really want to join a CoP. I want the connection values of communities to be available to me in my own online space and presence. I imagine there will be disagreement here, but I think edubloggers have formed a community of practice. We dialogue (sometimes directly, but mostly with an awareness of others). We share resources, presentations. We offer opinions, reactions, and (for new bloggers) informal mentorship. The nice aspect of this community is the end-user control. I don’t have to go to anyone who owns my identity and my content. We still achieve centralized aims (dialogue about learning and technology), but we do so through decentralized means.

    “Clear aims through decentralized means” is door waiting to be unlocked. This is one of the most significant limiting factors to adoption of various open tools and processes. I recall an extended conversation with a corporate client where the values of decentralization were understood, but the familiarity of centralized/controlled processes and outcomes were too prominent. In the end, the appeal of control exceeded the prospect of value from decentralization. The question the client put my way that I was, at the time, unable to successfully answer: “how can I make sure that things are happening the way I want them to?”. In my eyes, that was the wrong question (it presupposes control as a requirement for effective functioning).

    We have a mindset of “knowing before application”. We feel that new problems must be tamed by our previous experience. When we encounter a challenge, we visit our database of known solutions with the objective of applying a template solution on the problem. I find many organizations are not comfortable suspending judgment. The moment a problem takes an initial known shape, the solutions begin to flow. I notice it as well in my conversations. Once a person has acquired a sufficient understanding of my views/ideas, labeling begins. “Oh, so you’re a conservative/liberal…you believe knowledge is objective/subjective…you…blah, blah, blah”.

    The act of labeling is an attempt to provide order where order does not exist (at least in the mind of the listener). Applying solutions to problems is also an order-creating attempt. This is, I think, a very natural process. We all engage in it (labeling is a cognitive off-loading process – once we can put someone or a concept into a box, we don’t have to be as active in making meaning. Instead, we can rely on our memory bank to provide meaning and understanding. While natural, it is the root of much harm – racism, prejudice, and misunderstanding).

    Perhaps, in a learning sense, part of the concern here is our views that order doesn’t exist unless we enforce it. We feel that we must sufficiently grapple with an idea or situation until we have “extracted” value or meaning. It’s difficult to accept that order and meaning can emerge on its own (think chaos theory). Randomness may conceal order, and acting too quickly may result in missing the true meaning.

    What does this have to do with CoPs, blogs, and wikis? Instead of trying to force these tools into organizational structures, let them exist for a while. See what happens. Don’t decide the entire solution in advance. See the process as more of a dance than a structured enactment of a solution. React as the environment adjusts. Allow feedback to shape the final product. Let the process bring its own lessons before applying structured approaches. Perhaps a learning experience exists in the knowledge/information that emerges. Centralizing decentralized processes results in killing the value inherent in decentralization. Relaxing on control is vital for sustained knowledge growth, sharing, and dissemination. Centralization works well for organized knowledge or established structures. Decentralization is effective when things change rapidly, diverse viewpoints are required, and knowledge hasn’t settled into a “knowable, defined” state.

    The views that we must know before we can do, and that problems require solutions, can be limiting in certain instances (especially instances of high complexity or uncertainty – see Snowden’s knowledge ontology). Knowing often arises in the process of doing. Solutions are often contained within the problems themselves (not external, templated responses). And problems always morph as we begin to work on them.

    April 18, 2007

    Grunt Cognition

    "Functional visualizations are more than innovative statistical analyses and computational algorithms. They must make sense to the user and require a visual language system that uses colour, shape, line, hierarchy and composition to communicate clearly and appropriately, much like the alphabetic and character-based languages used worldwide between humans." Matt Woolman

    (I will be presenting on visualization at an upcoming (free) elluminate online conference: Patterns and Sensemaking: Information Visualization…this post is a starting point of presentation...if you're interested, feel free to register).

    Lately, I've been somewhat absorbed by the value of data visualization. In recent presentations, I've described technology as performing a "grunt cognition" role in our efforts to make sense of complex and changing information landscapes. Consider a flickr tag cloud. The tag cloud is a visualization of the aggregated activities of many flickr users. Visualization, performed by technology, does the grunt work of creating patterns which we are then able to analyze, allowing us to move more quickly to meaning making. Visualization will play an increasingly central role in helping us to cope with information growth. A picture is worth more than a thousand words - it's worth a thousand data sets and tags.

    Visualization makes data and the attendant conceptual entities accessible to a larger population than pure data. Spend a few minutes perusing visual complexity. The non-text expression of ideas and concepts opens many doors that are closed to how we cognitively process language. Images - pictures and movies - can provide a moving and emotional message in a manner entirely different from text.

    Companies like CNET have been using a "big picture" visual approach to demonstrating connections and relationships between stories. A simple image of the story or concept proximity assists in creating context and revealing relating factors. Kartoo uses visual representation of a search term to display related sites or concepts.

    I've been playing around with IBM's ManyEyes, a tool that allows people to upload data sets (including documents, which are then displayed as tag clouds, revealing key concepts), and then perform comparisons with data sets others have uploaded. Basically, it's a participatory approach to data comparison.

    Last week, I spoke with Martin Wattenberg of ManyEyes. Below is a rough summary of our discussion:

    What is visualization?
    It’s a sense making tool. It’s not about total amount of information. It’s much more interesting to reflect on accessibility. I now have access to much more. We now have access to a bunch of data bases – we don’t have time to read all the data points, visualization becomes a sense making tool.

    The new feature is that data visualization is a communication tool. We are trying to give people the tools to do the complicated things.

    What is your goal with Many Eyes?
    ManyEyes is a research project, and a platform for future research projects. People treat visualization currently as an analytical tool. We are starting to get the sense that a lot of the value comes from people collaborating. Discovery happens when people work collectively. Sometimes, with visualization – it’s about communication, not discovery. This technology has existed since the ‘80s…but the web has made it much more popular.

    What are people doing?
    People are moving away from analysis to making sense. They want to know “what’s going on”, or use it for political reasons to make a point (i.e. salary comparisons), activism, visualizing illness, disease. They are trying to understand what it [the data source] means.
    Some people use it for creative and artistic purposes. And more generally it's being used for communication. The more people can play with data, the more they will understand and discover.

    What does this say about how our culture views and approaches information?
    It comes back to the availability of data basis…before the web, we had electronic databases, but you had to pay a huge amount to access them. Today, everyone has access. Newspapers, government are all making data available. Data is now part of the cultural discourse, as much as image and text.

    A raw table of numbers is excellent. But if you’re looking at it for 5 hours it’s difficult. Visualization helps understand data.

    Does the average person need a new set of "data" skills?
    The most important thing is a good skeptical attitude: data is wrongly interpreted in two ways: 1) look at stats and believe it’s true 2) reflectively assume that because they’ve found a confound, they assume meaningless. All data sets are problematic. Even though there’s a lot of noise there are patterns that can assist in making sense.

    Compare it to wikipedia. We seem to think text is to be perfect (Britannica) or poor (a simple blog post). Be skeptical and see that it is a mix. Problems arise from trusted data that is poor. Dealing with data is a very active process, not like watching TV. Visualization is inherently interactive. The viewer is part of the system.

    What about future features on the site?
    We have a few new features: 1) let the community organize itself into subgroups – it will let the site grow. 2) Data quality – our general approach is to let the community police itself. No point in trying to certify something as perfect or error-free. Sometimes data is systemically unreliable – i.e. political views – they distort data that serves their agenda. It’s important that people can explain what the source

    What are your future goals for the site?
    There is a pure commercial side: as you can imagine, in a big company people are looking at and trying to understand spread sheets. Right now it doesn’t work well. It's very annoying - emailing, sharing, commenting, . If you had a system for a centralized place with access control, we can talk about the data and make decisions. Take the painful process (spreadsheets), and make people smarter through visualization.

    Let’s imagine a year from now, budget uploaded in visual form, people can explore problems, run scenarios and see clear visualizations – communicate with data in a manner that makes sense. People have “fact checked” in previous elections, but it doesn’t register due complexity. If something is too complex, people won't understand it. Simple visualizations of complex concepts changes discourse.

    It's also about the rhetoric of data. I'm not sure how well persuasion happens through audio or text. Persuasion by data-graphics can make an impact. We are giving people a tool to bring computational power of bringing visualization to the people.

    We want to get to connective analysis – be smarter about these things, persuade. A discovery that doesn’t get known is one that doesn’t get communicated or understood. Rhetoric, persuasion, and communication are so important.


    Teemu lists some useful resources on visualization as well, though I personally don't believe that it is data, not knowledge, that is visualized with the tools in the post.

    August 2, 2007

    Wikipedia and Google: Control vs Emergence

    While the debate surrounding Wikipedia often centres on authority, questioning whether a group of amateurs can create a trustworthy resource, the real issue is about access. We use Wikipedia not because it is authoritative, though that argument can be made. We use it instead because we can access it for "quick and dirty" knowledge. How is beer made? What's elearning? Wikipedia provides "gap filling" information, not necessarily foundation information on which we base world views. For foundational world view information, we don't rely on a singular resource. We blend many - experts, our own experiences, our own thinking, influences of colleagues, articles, books, and so on. People sometimes are mislead in this discussion when they fail to acknowledge that we require different types of information for different purposes. And, for most of my daily quick and dirty information needs, Wikipedia suffices. I am therefore drawn to it because it is at my fingertips. The information source is in line with my information needs. I use the web for the same reason. Do complete books exist on the history of Greek philosophy? Of course. But if they are not in my home library, then I must trudge to the library. I need to be highly motivated for this trek. Instead, I can access an online resource within seconds. Access barrier: Library: 30 minutes. Internet: 1 minute. Repeat as required for Britannica and Wikipedia.

    But all is not well. Wikipedia has a fatal flaw, evidenced by frequent criticism about deletions of articles or persons not deemed to be of note (Peter set up a wikipedia page for me and connectivism - an experiment to see how long until I'm classified as not notable :)). Wikipedia, at its core, is an extension of how we do things in the physical world: a group of people, for whatever reason (position, reputation, authority), make decisions for the vast majority about what should be permitted to be viewed. This is necessary for Wikipedia, or any centralized resource aspiring to authority/impact status, to work. Wikipedia filters for readers. News programs do the same. So do academic journals. And newspapers. The underlying assumption is that some can make decisions for others. The vast majority of people prefer this. But not all. If you're on the fringe, Wikipedia serves a silencing gate-keeping role. By its very nature, it is intended to do this. In order to be more effective, it applies democratic processes such as voting and discussion. In the end, however, someone still makes a choice on behalf of others.

    This flaw of making decisions for others is handled in an entirely different way by Google. Wikipedia assumes a target, sets metrics, and holds discussions against those standards. When someone is deemed "not notable", their biography is eliminated...and for subsequent searchers, ceases to exist. The flaw arises from its structure - centralized and controlled. Google, on the other hand, adopts a more decentralized model. Instead of centralizing information and determining what can exist (let's briefly lay aside Google's activities in relation to China), Google makes its decision after something exists, not before.

    Yes, a search engine's algorithm expresses and ideology and determines what is weighted. Universities, established media outlets, and government sites carry greater authority. But search engines (especially blog search sites like icerocket and technorati) seek to reflect what is occurring online. They attempt to reflect the patterns produced by many interactions. Are search sites like Google neutral? No, not entirely. But they impose less bias onto the information space than Wikipedia does. Search engines express the emergent structure of information, instead of applying mechanics of inclusion up front.

    Why is this important? I think Wikipedia harbors a structured content mindset that is reflective of its physical (and now online) competitors (Britannica). Most people find value in the centralized nature of this information. It's easier to search, the coherence of content requires less cognitive effort to make sense of a subject, and it has a growing degree of name recognition (and thereby, trust). But it is a model that I don't think is sustainable in the long run.

    We will need to outgrow our digital manifestations of physical assumptions. We have the same struggle with online learning content: "Hey, let's move this content online". We transfer instead of transform. It works in the short term because we are familiar with the approach and process. In the long run, it impairs innovation. Once access is not a barrier, the model of "a few selecting for many" produces information with inherent bias.

    To this end, Google is a better foundation for information's future. The less bias our initial source of information, the more options we have for repurposing it. If we apply intelligence at the level of need (search) instead of the level of entry into a system (the evaluation/editor model of Wikipedia and other centralized services), we have greater options for future use. Keep the initial source pure. I can't see why an effective search engine, in the near future, can't create an "on the fly" representation of a wikipedia article. We type in a term; it generates an article complete with references and differing viewpoints. Not sure we'll need Wikipedia in the future. I think it's a transition tool, a temporary crutch, as we align ourselves to the new context and characteristics of information.

    May 2008

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