Category: JSE

Blackboard and the closing of the educational mind

If you can’t see the video, you can access it through this link.

My first blog post in a while. I hope to post more soon. Here goes….

I’m pretty convinced that the iPad (or something like it) can be effectively utilized for education. In particular I think it will be a great media literacy device since it offers a good mix of interactivity and multimedia. However, the vision offered by Blackboard in this ad is hardly the kind of innovation that I imagine. For one, Blackboard is a proprietary system. It is a closed system. Though it offers additional interactivity than a traditional classroom Web platform, you are stuck with their service and would be dependent on their pedagogy and architecture (check out Douglas Rushkoff’s great rant about it here: “Blackboard is brilliant… it is written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a particular way”).

As a grad student I really hated Blackboard. It has been a few years since, so it may have improved, but the video depicts a technological bandaid for the traditional educational approach–it is very mechanical. The interactivity shown in the ad is very limited and repeats the top-down cliches of the one-to-many educational model. If multimedia is to be incorporated into education, it should be more interactive, hackable and open to the outside world. The medium is the message.

I used to use Ning for my courses, but they switched to a paid service, so I could no longer use its platform in my classes. It was modestly good– I didn’t like the fact that it had only few plug-ins (the plug-ins that did exist were pretty bad and lacked any community or tech support). The free version required displaying google ads. The paid version is ad-free, and though not priced too exorbitantly ($19 a year per site), if you are running a site for each class, the bill can add up (I had seven sites). I didn’t qualify for the sponsore-free service for educators because I’m not based in the US.

In the end, Ning pissed me off because I learned that my students like to access course Websites after they finish the class, and now they can’t access the sites. I have some students who continue to use the sites for several years in order to access videos, notes, links and articles. In one case a student needed coursework evidence to justify a transfer credit. Unfortunately, even as the site creator I have to pay to access the site. Imagine the situation with Blackboard. What if the company were sold or went out of business? What is the access for adjuncts and students once they leave the university and no longer have registered accounts? What about the symbiotic relationship between Blackboard and expensive textbooks? Would students be locked into both?

The solution is open systems. I have always been a big fan of the open source blogging platform, WordPress, and have been relatively pleased with the BuddyPress plug-in that turns WordPress into a social network. I host my education site myself, so that means I pay for it. But I don’t pay extra because it is covered by the fees I pay for my other Websites (such as this blog), and every time I create a new course blog it doesn’t cost me anything. The only additional cost is the domain name registration. My hosting service, BlueHost, uses SimpleScripts, which makes installing sites really easy.

Using BuddyPress for my main site (Open Media Education–note I’m still building it out, so it is not that sexy–I can launch Websites for each additional class I create. I can manage all my sites through the parent network, which is a great advance made by WordPress. I can upgrade and install plugins across the network for all my course sites with the click of a mouse. The other reason I love WordPress is that there are so many fantastic plug-ins and an amazing community of support. BuddyPress also has a great community of users and developers. I have usually gotten my tech questions answered within six hours.

One strategy is to combine the power of Wikis with BuddPress. The folks at University of British Columbia have built their entire system around this formula.

I’ve been using WordPress since the early days, so for me I find it quite intuitive and easy to use. The current version (3.1.1) is very simple to use and much more powerful and flexible than previous versions. It’s also mobile and has multilingual support. I hope more educators will discover the power of WordPress. It will empower them and their students. And you don’t need to depend on the whims and business strategy of Blackboard to develop your online classroom.

Now teachers are blamed for the financial crisis

File under this shit has gone too far. As a severely underpaid teacher, I find it laughable that we are now the evil force behind the economic crisis. In a way, I hope Wall St. keeps pushing on this. I don’t think people will bend much further.

Incidentally, I read somewhere that folks in the UK are holding teach-ins at banks by entering and holding classes inside their lobbies.

Media literacy as ecological homeopathy

Media literacy and ecoliteracy people are worlds apart. Media educators don’t prioritize sustainability because ecology is perceived to be the realm of the natural sciences. For example, education programs are often outdoors or garden oriented. Nothing wrong with those kinds of workshops, but if we continue to ignore the cultural and technological dimension of ecology, frankly we’re screwed, because the ecological crisis is a cultural crisis. We can add to that, of course, that it is also a spiritual problem. But a culture without a holistic spirituality is a dying culture, anways. So the issues are related.

Then there are the environmental educators who refuse to engage technology because of its perceived corrosiveness. At the Bioneers conference, for example, I met with anti-TV crusader Jerry Mander to discuss the possibility for incorporating media literacy into environmental education. He told me that it was a good idea but that he was against it because it would make media more interesting. But that is exactly the point: we want people to get more interested in media, not as passive consumers but as a means for understanding the “system” (however broadly we want to define it) and for learning how to be empowered practitioners.

I’m a fan of the idea that media are “institutions-to-think-with.” Play with and use them to understand human communications, technology, economy and perception. In this sense, media literacy can be a kind of homeopathy. By engaging it holistically, mindfully and holistically we stand to gain amazing insights. We can learn how the system thinks.

For those unfamiliar with homeopathy, it is a kind of healing practice in which people take small doses of the very thing that ails them in order for the immune system to learn how to adjust to the ailment. Granted, I am nervous about using medical metaphors for the “problem” of media. In many ways the kind of media literacy I’m opposed to is the kind that takes the medical approach by viewing “bad” media as a disease that needs to be excised like a cancer tumor. This is an industrial kind of medicine that views the body as a machine needing to get fixed. It lacks a holistic dimension that looks at illness from multiple perspectives, such as the mental and spiritual state of the patient. Nor does it take into account the person’s environment, including diet, pollutants and stress.

Media literacy as homeopathy has the same unintended consequence of a college degree. We forget that an education is not just about learning the liberal arts, but its also learning how the system wants us to think and what is appropriate intellectual practice. In my Peace and Conflict Studies program at Cal, the best undergrad course I ever took was on epistemology. In it we read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and studied how the university mirrored the global economic infrastructure.

It is so meta. You can walk around UC Berkeley’s campus and see the embodiment of the world system (by this I mean the economic, political and military design mechanisms of neoliberalism). There’s the law school that trains the lawyers who draw up the biz contracts; the engineering school (named after Bechtel) that trains the dam builders; the physics department that works on weapons systems; the ROTC that prepares military officers; and so on. You can also see how the UC regents have deep ties to the military industrial complex and global petroleum oligopoly. All of a sudden the university’s image as a bastion of “free speech” becomes a misleading ruse. Sure, in a university with over 40,000 students there is a niche for peace studies, but when I graduated, there were only 12 of us in my class. There’s always a space to keep the dissidents happy.

The point is, I learned more than I bargained for when I got my degree. I learned not just the content and grammar of the liberal arts paradigm, but its form as well. This is not to say that most well-meaning university professors and administrators don’t believe in the enlightening benefits of the liberal arts. Indeed, there are many good aspects to the democratic and humanistic traditions of education, but can this structure as it exists today adequately confront the challenges of a structure encountering its material limits, poisoning its living system and gutting its social fabric? Is the university up to the task of challenging the prevailing “wisdom” that education should be reduced to a business paradigm that views itself as a factory that manufactures students to reproduce the same destructive logic that has brought us to the brink of ecological catastrophe?

Going back to the discussion of media literacy as homeopathy, what I’m getting at is that there is tremendous benefit to learning media’s “cultural form” (to barrow from media educator David Buckingham). Being a literate media practitioner enables us to be “bridgers.” After all, “media” really mean something “in-between”: they mediate. To bridge a sustainable world, we will need to mediate the past with the future. Media education, in my view, is one technique for doing so for it enables us to map paradigms in order to change them.

Changing educational paradigms on YouTube

This is the latest salvo from Michael Wesche, who has done extraordinary work with his Digital Ethnography program at Kansas State University. I find this to be his least interesting video because it mostly hypes feel-good jargon about the digital environment without offering as much insight as his earlier work, which prompted so much attention (see his YouTube channel for more— in particular check out The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version) and An anthropological introduction to YouTube).

Wesche’s video does make the important, if not redundant, point that the digital environment is changing knowledge dissemination and education. For how this impacts academics, I’m a big fan of the Hitler Down Fall mash-up by Digital Humanities. I also highly recommend Ken Robinson’s RSA* animated talk about the disconnection between old knowledge hierarchies and the reality of contemporary students.

These are more concept-oriented videos, and barely touch upon the abundance of how-to videos that proliferate YouTube, leading some to argue that it’s possible to get a free education on the Web in the way that Ivan Illich imagined DIY education in his book Deschooling Society. I think it is a little of a stretch to presume that one can be educated in complete isolation from a learning community– there is great value in having a community of learners interact with each other. So it may work well to learn how to play guitar with Web tutorials, but it can’t teach you how to play in a band or how to jam. One Web experiment that is building learning communities of practice is Howard Rheingold’s new project, Rheingold U. (I’ll be participating to see how it goes.)

How this plays out for sustainability education remains to be seen. I think these videos make powerful arguments for how the traditional system is failing our students. You can also read into them the problems with the environment and how the old systems and its industrial models of education are closely related to the ecology crisis. There needs to be a way to reconcile the new media environment with the need for promoting sustainable behavior. This video of Lawrence Lessig’s Green Culture talk is a good start.

* Many of the RSA animations are truly amazing, in particular Jeremy Rifkin’s talk on the empathic civilization. My only complaint is that they really need to diversify their offerings– too many white guys. Why not invite Vandana Shiva? She would be perfect.

The ecopyschology of cell phones

Cingular uses a “family tree” metaphor to describe its service

For my digital media class I gave my students a non-digital assignment. I asked them to walk into Rome and get lost. No phones, no maps, no iPods, no books, no pens, no media. The idea was to defamiliarize their digital environment by removing them from it. The other point was to have them observe different aspects of urban design and to pay attention to how specific spaces “afforded” particular interactions.

In a city 3,000 years old, it is a good place to study those spaces that were designed for human scale. For example, the ideal spatial configuration for a piazza is that it should be no larger than the distance that people can recognize each other from. For background material, I assigned the first two chapters of Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing, which explores interactivity, embodiment, spatial literacy and pervasive computing.

Students were then required to blog about their experiences. As predicted the responses were mixed. Some were elated and felt they had experienced the city for the first time. Others noticed new details that had alluded them. One even said she smelled the city for the first time. For others the experience made them angry and anxious. What was common for most of them was a sense of loss, loneliness and disconnection.

Most interesting was the belief that they needed to be available for others– that their friends and family would worry about them if they were not tethered to their networks. I found this to be a most curious kind of anxiety, something “new” to our digital environment. As a kid I remember my friends and I taking off for the day with our bicycles and skateboards without worrying about checking in or needing to avail ourselves to those who were not with us.

This pervasive need to be available to others, I’m guessing, is really about affirmation. The idea that someone might need them is necessary to validates their worthiness. In other words, they need the net to mirror back to them a purpose for existing. Sherry Turkle‘s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, argues something along these lines. In her Fast Company interview, she says,

“If you get into these email, Facebook thumbs-up/thumbs-down settings, a paradoxical thing happens: even though you’re alone, you get into this situation where you’re continually looking for your next message, and to have a sense of approval and validation. You’re alone but looking for approval as though you were together–the little red light going off on the BlackBerry to see if you have somebody’s validation. I make a statement in the book, that if you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll always be lonely, that loneliness is failed solitude. We’re raising a generation that has grown up with constant connection, and only knows how to be lonely when not connected. This capacity for generative solitude is very important for the creative process, but if you grow up thinking it’s your right and due to be tweeted and retweeted, to have thumbs up on Facebook…we’re losing a capacity for autonomy both intellectual and emotional.”

So what does this have to do with ecopsychology? David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World uses phenomenology to explain how the environment makes available to us our consciousness; it affords us possible interactions and thereby co-creates our thoughts. This concurs with the work of Maturana and Varela (see Tree of Knowledge) who argue that awareness is always an emergent aspect of our mind/body coupling with the environment.

The issue is that the electronic net affords a different phenomenology than the one our brains are wired for: 3-D physiological space. Digital Ground argues this is why the project of virtual reality keeps failing: our inner ears cannot reconcile the flying dream imagined by the early depictions of cyberspace in sci-fi film’s and books. Rather than projecting ourselves through the computer screen’s window, computers come to us via their ubiquitous presence in our environment.

Robert Romanyshyn argues in his amazing book, Technology as Symptom and Dream, that when we banished spirits from nature, they became angels. And through technologies like linear perspective we seek to become gods, pushing forward an ongoing project of disembodiment from natural systems. The ecopsychology argument is that disembodiment is how we react to trauma. Unconsciously we mourn the loss of connection with “nature” and to avoid the pain we extend our consciousness into ever “higher” realms, with space flight being the epitome of this desire. de Chardin‘s vision of the noosphere— or what contemporary net Utopians call the global brain– has a similar yearning to transcend the body for some kind of Christ-like uber-consciousness.

Now, I don’t want to over simplify what is really going on with cell phones. It is surely more complicated. For example, the idea that a person is not an isolated, autonomous self, but exists within an embedded network is surely a step toward sustainable awareness. One of our biggest challenges is to disrupt the Enlightenment self so as to promote a greater sense of interconnectivity with the materiality of the physical environment. Additionally, this idea of what is natural and what is not furthers the problem. I don’t think it is productive to say that the extended net of our electronic experience is “unnatural,” but it is certainly different than the ideal of the neolithic tribe living harmoniously with its landscape. Whether we like it or not, we are cyborgs, and it is best that we find some kind of coping mechanism because the digital genie is out of the bottle.

The important thing is for people to learn how to moderate their interaction so as to not amputate those senses that eagerly wish to engage the sights, smells, sound and tastes of the immediate environment. I suspect from tracking the comments of my students that they indeed long for these things, but cannot moderate their usage. They are, to use their own words, addicted. How to solve this problem will certainly be a task of educators. I for one do not have the answers, but ironically enough, through “crowd sourcing” on the net, perhaps we can collectively figure it out together.

Institutionalized: you’re the one who’s crazy (and other thoughts about education)

Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies (sorry about the stupid ad at the beginning)

Like the word “community,” when we hear the term “education” we feel warm and fuzzy. It can always be good, right? This attitude might not be too productive as demonstrated in a recent New York Times piece railing against social media (check out this nice rebuttal from the Nieman Journalism Lab). In the NYTimes article school came across like a hapless victim of smart phones and Facebook. It compared recent brain research showing how our gadgets and social software hurts school performance, yet the article never challenges this very idea of “performance.” In particular the story featured a young man who’d rather edit a video on his Mac than study Latin. Think about it: making media versus learning a dead language, who’s gonna win that battle? The problem with the article is that it gave school the default position of all that is “good” about schooling and made youth media practice the foil. Sound familiar? I don’t want to equate Facebook with rock and roll, but this is a 50 year-old polemic, with roots going as far back as Plato.

With that said, I don’t want to give social media and wireless gadgetry a free pass. But it also shouldn’t be an either or discussion. By contrast, it needs to be argued that literacy of media gadgets and network usage is ever more necessary. But will it be taught in school? Most likely not. Rather than be confronted in a meaningful way it will just be banned, made forbidden and a non-topic. This is a shame, because if there ever was a place for young people to become literate of the tools that are shaping cognition and impacting culture and economics, school would be a logical site for it.

Unfortunately, “school” is broken. Which puts me in an awkward place, because I am sympathetic to the protests against ed reform policies, but in other ways I’m against school. In light of the financial restructuring taking place in Europe and North American, these policies are part of a general re-feudalization of the world. These reforms are actually a logical progression of education policy going back for decades which has sought to reduce learning to a technocratic and mechanistic activity designed for the information economy. Reforms are designed to break the public gains of the Enlightenment, while preserving the more nefarious benefits of the past 500 years for the “elites” (banking, finance, captains of industrial-scientific “progress,” etc.). There are lots of problems with Enlightenment thinking, especially in regards to ecology, its idealogical co-dependence with capitalism, and the belief in an isolated, autonomous self. Yet cosmopolitanism should be considered a good side-effect, and at one point this was one of the goals of liberal education.

Three books I’ve been reading lately confront this problem. Deschooling Society (Open Forum), written in 1970 by Ivan Ilich, is a remarkably prescient book. Hard to believe it is 40 years-old, because almost every word is a prophesy for the present moment. He argues that schools are an expensive means for conditioning people to accept the institutionalization of learning, and to learn how to be institutionalized (see video pasted above). Learning can only be decided by experts and paid professionals, reinforcing a dependence on the irrational inner-logic of bureaucracy (a la Kafka)* without regard to that which is required or practical for daily life, as is the case with the disconnect between standardized testing and the skills necessary for being global citizens. Though I should have read this book years ago, in a way it is the right book for the moment because many of the solutions he envisioned–DIY education using networks and open source tools–have become reality. Several of the ideas he has for deschooling can be facilitated by the likes of YouTube, Craigslist and alternative educations projects sprouting up all over the net (it would take a much longer post to list them all– you can start by typing “open education” into your search engine and see where it takes you).

Illich differentiates between open (“learning Webs”) and closed networks (“manipulative institutions”), which sounds a bit like the struggle between open education and the privatization of learning. To apply an ecological metaphor, maybe education can be more like a rhizomatic network of mushrooms instead of a monocultural crop of soy beans. I could exhaust my fingers covering the array of ideas in Deschooling Society, but suffice to say it is a tight little polemic at 116 pages and can be read in a day.

Unfortunately, open education has the danger of being a trojan horse for the neo-feudalization of education. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, a recent book about self-education, features an assortment of advocates for open education that range from artisons, monks to entrepreneurs. Many of the ideas are inspirational and well intended, but their motives don’t all agree. Anya Kamenetz has a valid argument that most students should not have to go deeply in debt for an education which is increasingly suspect. I, for one, am guilty, and will end up at least 50 K in debt by the time I get my PhD. And that is a light load compared to many whose post-graduate debt tops 100 K. For my credential I’ve indentured myself to the banks with little chance that it will pay back my investment. And this is the kind of thinking that Ilich rails against: education should not be about turning students into customers. But the reforms being proposed in the UK use that kind of language, and as a college professor it is well known that we are being asked to deliver a product to the students. But I digress. Going back to DIY U, creating our own education via an assortment of open access resources (including those driven by corporate driven incentives) sounds kinda cool, but the implications for society are complicated. Are we saying that credentialing should be done away with, or even privitized? Are we saying that education is not a public good or right and should be left to the scavenging of the marketplace? This is where anarchism and libertarianism can sometimes feed off each other, which makes for strange bedfellows, for sure.

The last book I want to mention is EduFactory Collective‘s Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, The Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory. The book is a little of a cross between Deschooling Society and DIY U. It is a savage critique of the economics of university, and also proposes alternatives of the punk rock variety. This is certainly more critical of the system than DIY U, and is written in a much different format (and tone) because it is presented from the perspective of a collective enterprise rather than as a journalistic foray in the magazinespeak of FastCompany (as is the case with DIY U). In this sense, the book models the kind of approach it advocates.

I wish I had time to write a more in-depth analysis of these books and their implications, but unfortunately I’m out of time and must get back to work. Consider this some outloud thinking as I work through these ideas. I apologize for their incompleteness.

* A good example is getting a drivers license in Italy. The Italian bureaucracy is so complicated that you are forced to pay a driving school to handle the paper work for the license. Meanwhile, the horrendous and godawful test takes months to prepare for through rote memorization with a net result that no one follows the laws. In my case it took five months and 500 euros to do what normally takes half a day in the United States for a fraction of the cost.

Guantlett’s “Making is Connecting”: a bridge to sustainable media education?

David Gauntlett, who coined media studies 2.0, has moved far beyond old school thinking about media. His forthcoming book, Making is Connecting, looks like it has great potential for bridging media education with sustainability. Why? The primary axiom of sustainability is “everything is connected to everything else,” with the caveat that not all things are connected equally. I recently enjoyed reading Gauntlett’s book, Creative Explorations: New Approaches to Identities and Audiences, which explores the use of Lego building for understanding identity creation.

Based on the snippets from his Website and this video, my impression is that he’s on track to combine three essential skills I see necessary for a sustainable world: putting things together (material and immaterial) in a socially context that engages the world. I don’t know if Gauntlett is an old punk, but this sure reminds my of what DIY was/is all about. Though he’s active in Web 2.0 tools, Gauntlett also is interested in guerrilla gardening, knitting, crafting and home electronics. He gets bonus points for drawing on the work of Ivan Illych.

Stuff’s e-wasting away

More reasons to feel crappy about being plugged in, but knowledge is power. Right? In particular designers need to rethink built-in obsolescence (anyone from Apple reading this?) and to design better products that don’t just satisfy our fetishes but actually factor in the environment.

I like the suggestion to pass take-back laws which will force electronics makers to do something with all their old crap. However, getting the laws passed will be an interesting exercise in democracy. Imagine the Tea Party/Republican outrage against forcing American companies to recycle their toxic goods. How dare we violate the right of free enterprise to toxify the planet as they please and to prevent families from forced bankruptcy when they need treatment for illnesses caused by electronic waste. Yep, nothing like the free spirit of capitalism.

Here is an excellent resource page from the Center for Environmental Health on how to do something about our e-waste.

The Unidentified vs. Share This!


I just jammed through two fast reads that simplify big debates about the the world of media and where we’re going. The Unidentified is a Young Adult novel that depicts a dystopic vision of education and Share This!: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking is a pragmatic but optimistic manifesto for the power of social media to further progressive activism. Both offer strikingly different Web 2.0 scenarios.

Like its YA counterpart Feed, The Unidentified is not a hifalutin text about digital media’s impact on youth culture. Rather, Feed and The Unidentified are novels written for young readers that offer literate, critical takes on the downside of corporatized social media. Feed, in case you haven’t read it, is about a future world with a dead ocean and kids who are wired from birth into an augmented reality that is always trying to sell them something (via the “feed”). Their speech and vocabulary have been reduced to a kind of text-messaging slang. It’s pretty depressing and not too far from some of the ideas in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (a must see). I only mention Feed in passing because it bookends well with The Unidentified, which is more up to date with current media fads.

In The Unidentified, school has been entirely privatized and branded by a hybrid of technology, gaming, fashion and security companies. School is now The Game, and takes place in a repurposed shopping mall. Kids graze experiences, all branded of course. The administrators have cleverly appropriated many of the cool cultural practices many of us libertines celebrate, such as crafting, remixing, gaming and so on. Surveillance is everywhere and welcomed by the students because it enables them to be seen and observed by cool hunters. The goal of The Game is to get branded. Yes, a sickening reality, but also a logical consequence of our current neoliberal push to privatize education. This is a cautionary tale not only for adolescents but for us adults who are designing future education strategies that are potentially complicit with the corporate agenda. In particular, as we move into models of open education we have to be vigilant and ethical in how these tools and environments are shaped and informed.

The Unidentified grapples with rebellion, identity, anti-marketing and co-optation. Given that many young people today don’t think critically about these issues (I’m basing this on my observation of lots of the undergrad students I work with), I think the book is provocative, albeit a bit cliched in terms of rehashing the typical Hollywood high school narrative of geeks and freaks versus the snob clicks. The characters are also stereotypically suburban American (i.e. not too culturally diverse), but they are cartoony in order for younger readers to think more critically about their media habits. It’s a call for an ethical response to the consumptive habits we take for granted.

Share This! is a different kind of book. It is a feel-good, optimistically toned manifesto for sharing and utilizing social network tools. Deanna Zandt, who writes and edits for Alternet, is also cautious and critical of the utopian assumptions we have about the Net. Through a careful application of stats, we get an interesting picture of Net usage and demographics that will likely surprise you. This is not an academic book, so for those steeped in theory it might seem a little pedantic. However, sometimes it takes simplification to ground and remind us of the central ideas behind Net activism and social Web tools. It draws on a best-of list of contemporary Net theory (i.e. Shirky, boyd, Rheingold and the like) and also business thinking about new media (which also can be useful).

As an old school netizin, I can’t say that I learned anything particularly new, however the book does distill strategies for using the Web that are obvious once you see them laid out, but are somewhat hidden in the muck of day-to-day practice. I would recommend this book to a newbie because it will provide a coherent and contemporary framework that is practical for promoting any worthy cause. As Zandt reminds us, authenticity rules the net and our authentic presence is required. Likewise, the central characters of The Unidentified are searching for authenticity as well, but get caught up in faux-interactivity that gives the illusion of democracy and choice. I suppose I have a position somewhere between the two books, my pendulum shifting day to day from celebration to despair.

I read both books with my students in mind. I’ve been throwing a lot of theory their way the past few years and was looking for some alternative resources that they will actually read. If time permits, I would assign The Unidentified because it offers an entertaining entry into some very critical territory. I would also use Share This! in a situation in which I was assigning students an activist project. I don’t consider either book particularly rigorous in terms of academic norms, but on the other hand, what is normal doesn’t seem to work anymore, so I’m open to trying something different. We’ll see what happens.

Mapping education paradigms

Yet another luminous RSA Animation, this one accompanying a Ken Robinson talk mapping education paradigms. In it he brilliantly deconstructs the failures of the current education system (and a prophesy for why current reforms will fail) and characterizes the properties of an emergent paradigm that reflects current human cultural practice, and not those predicated on the Industrial system of command and control.

Question is, how will this way of conceiving education pass through the walls of the brick and mortar system that locks out such creative insights? First, get the kids off the meds and then let a “youthquake” tear it down!

PS Be sure to see Robinson’s TED talk on why education kills creativity.

Transmedia as environment

Collapsus Introduction from SubmarineChannel on Vimeo.

As a follow-up to my previous post, “book as environment”, this little video demonstrates another platform that expands the ecology of a given text. This is the kind of true hybridity that postmodernists theorized about but is now materialized through a blend of networks, access to cheaper animation tools and a growing aesthetic practice that embraces transmedia storytelling (among other things).

You can visit for an immersive experience.

Dangerous children, dangerous minds: getting schooled by the Kogi

Avatar’s global meme about an irresponsible/greedy/childish culture slashing and burning a planetary intelligence has its analog on Earth. So if James Cameron kicked open the pop culture door for this idea to spread through the mediasphere, now it’s time for our world’s indigenous to speak for themselves. Enter the Kogi from Colombia, who ask us to listen with our hearts and minds to their urgent call for human sanity. By using film as their bridging tool, our “elder brothers” are co-authoring Aluna, There is No Life Without Thought, a documentary manifesto designed to wake us up, asking us to think differently about our idiotic and suicidal treatment of the world/selves/others.

As a good background article in the Guardian states,

“Footage of the Kogi conducting rituals beneath a spectacular tree is straight out of Avatar. ‘Avatar has done great work for this,’ (filmmaker Alan) Ereira says. ‘Twenty years ago, the Kogi were pushing on a wheel that had just started to turn. Now that wheel is really rolling and they are part of the zeitgeist.'”

Indeed, but the scene is not out of Avatar; the film scene is from Earth (let’s not mistake the map for the territory!). However, the point is well taken: the wheel is turning. But the Kogi and Avatar can only do so much. You have to help push the wheel, too, internally and in the world at large. The task is vast, but there is one small tidbit from the Guardian story that you might find useful. When asked why it is that the current world system has such strong destructive momentum, Kogi spokesperson Jacinto Zabareta replied,

“Habit… That ambition to have more doesn’t have a framework. It’s just a drive to accumulate. The habit is a competitive one. ‘What everyone else has I must have too, otherwise everyone else has power over me.’ The consequences are evident, but it doesn’t seem obvious to you… You can go and live in space, that’s fine, but you don’t seem to be able to go back to the understanding of how to live harmoniously with the earth. That’s something you’ve forgotten.'”

This insight concurs with the essence of Buddhist teachings about habits of mind that lead to unskilled and confused action in the world. Jacinto, I believe, is asking for a kind of mindfulness that relates to cognitive scientist Francesco J. Varela‘s call for Ethical Know-How: “the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of self.” What he means by this is the age-old problem of duality in which we fail to be mindful of how our thoughts are not embedded within a fictional self, but are the result of an interaction of the world which brings us into existence. Our minds are not isolated, but co-evolve with the world around us. The few statements of the Kogi I’ve read and heard in the trailer seem to imply the same: our thoughts are what bring forth the world. For evidence, look no further than the ecological nightmare our civilization has produced. All is made possible by our ideas, and is a projection of a destructive thought process that simply needs to be reigned in.

Want to change the world? Change your mind. Or at least how you conceive it.

Book as environment

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

I hate to borrow books. To my detriment I have to own them. It’s a weird psychosis, but there you have it. Even for one reference I buy the book. Too bad they don’t pay rent for the space they take up, but I guess it’s better to have books as squatters than relative or friends!

Are e-readers the answer?

I have yet to be sold on e-readers–I’m still old school enough to like holding books in my hands. I can see using an e-reader for page-turning novels, but not for deep-reading and cross-referencing (my thumb still remains the best reading technology available). I constantly check footnotes and the bibliography, and also write notes and underline all my books.

Nonetheless, the concepts presented in the above video by IDEO–a very innovative design studio– has gotten my attention. One of the “battles” of ecologically designed media literacy is to convey the intertextuality of any media–the relationships that help shape the text, such as genre codes, “paratexts” (related texts that contribute to our understanding, such as reviews, interviews, Wikipedia, past interpretations, etc.). (For a more in-depth expanation, Jonathan Gray’s Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, And Intertextuality has one of the best discussion of intertextuality in print.) If there were an app that helped people discover a text’s ecology–that is, its vast relations with other contexts (readers, writers, commentators, other texts, etc.), we can start to view media more systemically and not just as a series of self-contained, atomized things.

Which brings me to its application for sustainability education. As Mary Catherine Bateson argues,

“The tools that will be needed to communicate about the process of climate change have the potential for further broad changes in habits of thought, leading the individual child or adult into a sense of being a part of the biosphere. Such tools include systems metaphors, narratives of connection, cross-overs between disciplines, and cross-overs with ways of knowing such as participant observation. The ultimate goal is an education for global responsibility that unfolds in a pattern of lifelong learning.” (p. 282*)

Such techniques, she suggests, entail incorporating the following approaches:

1) working with environmental metaphors and systems analogies;
2) using narrative;
3) making connections across contexts; and
4) participant observation.

Based on what I’ve seen in the video, the EIDO prototypes could incorporate the above functions and bridge media literacy with systems/ecological understandings of texts. The prospect is quite exciting.

Bateson, M. C. (2007). Education for global responsibility. In S. C. Moser, & L. Dilling (Eds.), Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change (pp. 281-91). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.