Connect Project: How Do You Connect?

11 11 2009

D’Arcy Norman posted a request on his site for people to help out with a grad school research project looking at how people connect online.  Here’s the assignment:

To start the project, I have a single simple question:

How do you connect to people online?

I’m guessing people will interpret the question in radically different ways, so I’m intentionally leaving it vague and open. Define “connect” however you like. Same for “people” and “online.”

Please take a moment to think about the question, and if you’re willing, submit a contribution to the project. Contributions can be in any format – video, audio, text, photographs, interpretive dance, poetry, or whatever way you can express a response. I will take the contributions and assemble them into a narrative based on the themes and ideas provided by contributors. The end result will be published online on this website to serve as a starting point for conversations about the nature of connections between people online.

All contributions may be made anonymously, or with your name to be used for attribution in the assembled narrative.

Contributions will be accepted until midnight on Friday, November 13, 2009, and the assembled narrative will be published on this website on Monday, November 30, 2009.

Like probably everyone else online, most of my online journeys start with either a Google search or something popping up in my Google News Clips, Twines or Diigo groups (or, in some cases, a totally random skimming of a general news site or magazine.)  Since this is pretty typical, I won’t go on about this.

With regard to “connecting” (to actual people), though, I would summarize my method as “one degree at a time.”

A few examples:

  • I’m a fairly introverted person by nature, so half or more of the people with whom I am “friends” on social networking sites (e.g. Facebook) are people that I am actually friends with from having worked together, gone to school together, shared a neighborhood, etc.  However, I have made new connections online through these connections when paths have crossed on a mutual friend’s blog comments or Facebook page.  Let’s call these FOAF connections.
  • Twitter.  I’m an infrequent tweeter.  I’m not a Twitter snob, but if I’m not doing anything interesting, I don’t see a point in broadcasting it.  If I am doing something interesting, I usually get so wrapped up in it that I don’t think to document it in the moment.  (This is a problem with photos, too.  If I’m traveling and see something awesomely spectacular or bizarre, I stare at it but usually forget to snap a picture or take a video.  Therefore, my personal photo and video collection is mainly of places and events that I found moderately, but not astoundingly, amazing/beautiful/weird.  If I wrote a series of pictorial travel guides, they would have to be titled “Things to See and Do in ________ If You’re Stuck There a Day Longer Than You Had Originally Planned.”) So, I don’t contribute much to the Twittersphere, but I do use it to find a lot of interesting people and stuff.  For example, if I stumble across a really interesting article or blog post online, I’ll often see if I can find the author on Twitter and then browse some of their posts.  If it’s interesting, I’ll follow them.  Further, continuing the one degree at a time strategy, I’ll see who they are following and browse a few of those people’s posts as well.  Often, this helps me find other writers and researchers that produce stuff I love but would never have thought to Google.  It is also fun to sit in on informal, sometimes messy, sometimes impolite conversations among people I follow in books and journals (where you get clean, well organized thought but little hint that the author is actually a living breathing person who gets the swine flu, pissed off at airports, loves or hates a movie, celebrates or mourns birthdays and election results, and spells badly on their BlackBerry or iPhone.)  I adapted this strategy from a strategy that Donna Enersen taught me for conducting literature reviews at Purdue University.  She suggested starting with an article that’s related to what you want to study, then finding all of the articles referenced in that article and reading them, then finding all of the articles those articles reference, and so forth until you reach a point where you’re either reading works that are irrelevant to you or you’re just turning up the same set of authors over and over.  It’s much faster and more fun on Twitter, though.
  • Blogs.  I have just recently started being more active in conversations initiated on blog posts and comments, but really think this might be one of my favorite media for conversations with strangers.  First, there is always mutual interest (even if there isn’t agreement), which is a necessary ingredient for good discussion.  Second (unless I or the other person acts like a jerk), you can usually count on a “warm” interaction, since most of us appreciate people who take the time to read what we write and give us feedback.  The format also lends itself to longer, more thoughtful conversations than you typically have via Twitter, Facebook, or a discussion board, although public discussions via blogs do sometimes shift to more private, personal media like e-mail, Skype, or online chat.  However, often, conversations will continue in public forums where third persons will join in, bring fresh perspective, and form a new connection.

So, nothing earth-shattering or terribly strategic, but there it is.  It’s interesting to read and view the other submissions, though.  There are some fun, informal video submissions over at D’Arcy’s site, so to read them or add to his data pool with your own submission, click here.


Networked Diversity and “Standards” in Education

25 09 2009

After reading the resources on networks following session 2 of CCK09, I am thinking today about the implications of a networked view of learning and knowledge for systems of education.

If knowledge lies in the connections within and among people, then it seems to me that part of the strategy for making smart people has to involve a couple of things we don’t focus much on in our education systems.  (I am in the U.S., but if you’re not, I’d be curious to hear thoughts about whether the following two points are true for your system as well.)

Network Building

First, the education system has to encourage the development of valuable connections between people.  Students should be encouraged to explore ways of working and learning collaboratively.

Unfortunately, despite paying occasional lip service to the value of sharing in kindergarten, our schools seem to look at learning as something that happens within an individual and structures itself accordingly.  (For example, when we want to assess learning, the very first thing we do is isolate students.  We tell them to “clear their desks,” turn off their phones, and get as far away from their “neighbors” as the classroom will allow.  We remind them to put away their own books and notes.  Finally, we tell them not to speak to anyone until the assessment is over.  The message they get is mixed: share your toys, share your cupcakes, but don’t you dare try to  share knowledge.)

We also know that having access to mentors and supportive peers are critical to student success.  Probably everyone reading this who is successful in a profession can think of a few teachers, professors, and mentors who, at critical points, took a moment to provide a key piece of advice on how to enter a new community. (e.g. “These are the kinds of courses admissions officers look for.” “Here is a group who can help you with a scholarship.” “These are some good models to look at on how to write and speak for people in this field.” “Here is an organization that has been helpful to me.  Let me introduce you to a couple of people.” etc.)  We know that this is especially critical for students coming from families in poverty or students who would be first-generation college goers.  Very often, very bright young people slip through the cracks not because they’re lacking in cognitive ability, motivation, or values, but because they don’t have access to sources of knowledgeable support when they need it.  However, we do very little to help students cultivate the networks they will need in the future, and do much to inhibit them.  For example, most schools block access to websites with social elements.  We put in place policies that make it very difficult for students to earn credit outside of traditional classrooms.  In the interests of safety, we do everything possible to limit contact between students and adults and create airtight seals between schools and the communities in which they are situated.

Knowledge Network Diversity

The second issue that we would need to address in our education system under a connectivist construct would be the diversity of the network to which an individual student connects.  Being able to draw on the insights and experiences of others in a network is an essential piece of the puzzle, but it doesn’t get us very far if we can only connect to people only know what we already know and who have had experiences that are almost exactly the same as our own.  We are smarter together if each new person we connect with brings something new to our network.

However, in our education system, we are working toward homogeneity rather than diversity by focusing enormous effort on standardizing learning goals, curriculum, and assessment so as to ensure that all students learn the same things at the same time and are assessed in the same way as everybody else.  This approach would make sense if, at the end of formal schooling, we were sending students off to live and work in isolation.  If, though, our goal is to help students find satisfying places in a society where they will form institutions (colleges, businesses, military service) where they will have to add unique value to a community or organization trying to accomplish things through collective effort, this approach is counterproductive — both for the students as individuals and for the progress of the society as a whole.

Rethinking “Standards” in Education

If we start from the assumption that students are entering a society/community, and that, with globalization and the proliferation of communications technology, that they will be involved in more, larger, and more diverse groups than ever before in history, it would make much more sense to focus educational efforts on (A) making sure that each student can bring unique expertise into the economy and culture, (B) making sure that students knew how to access and derive optimal benefit from networks (this would involve both technological fluency and cultural awareness) and, (C) cultivating values and policies that encourage people to share knowledge, provide mentorship, and extend access to learning networks to the disenfranchised and isolated.

Maybe it is time to reframe the notion of “standards” in education, and move away from the definition of standards as, “discrete things kids should know and be able to do,” to a definition more akin to the one used when we talk about “standards” for the Internet, where “standards” refer to frameworks for facilitating interoperability and sharing across a decentralized, non-hierarchical network.  In other words, rather than focusing on making sure everybody knows the same set of stuff, focus on making sure everybody is able to participate and contribute so that the network itself grows in value and so every individual can benefit from membership while at the same time pursuing personal interests and talents to a degree not possible under the current view of “standards based” reform.

If “none of us is as smart as all of us,” maybe it is time to start thinking about developing the “network” as well as the “nodes” in K-12 education and start actively cultivating diversity in the ecosystem of knowledge.

Thoughts on “New Literacy” and Motivation

16 09 2009

I stumbled across an article from “Wired” this morning talking about the influence of social media on student literacy skills. (Yes, Wired tends to hype every new gadget as a revolution that will shortly transform the whole of human civilization, but if you’re a technophile and read it primarily as infotainment, it’s often pretty interesting.)

I’ve created a digest version below using the Diigo highlighter and “send to blog” tool just below.  My thoughts on how this might related to CCK09 are at the end of the post.

  • From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.
  • The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it.
  • But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
  • The fact that students today almost always write for an audience gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see.
  • The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.
  • As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.
  • We think of writing as either good or bad. What today’s young people know is that knowing who you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.

So, one of the topics I hope we will be able to explore in CCK09 is “what motivates people to put stuff “out there” and try to embody in a shareable medium connections that they have made?

I might suggest, based partially on Lunsford’s findings, that humans have an innate motivation to participate in shared knowlege and that it is this motivation that makes writing for “real” audiences more rewarding for students than writing for an individual “teacher.”  There is something inherently rewarding to us about being “in conversation.”  (Notice how social isolation is used worldwide as a punishment, or how good teachers in traditional classrooms know they can use “wait time” to get students talking.  Knowing that someone is listening virtually compels us to speak.)  Another way of looking at this is, as social creatures, we are driven to seek environments rich with connective potential. (It may be that some of this works at an instinctual or subconcious level driven by evolution.  We don’t have exceptional strength, speed, or sensory acuity as a species, so we’ve had to survive and prosper by working together.  Another possibility is that our tendency to organize ourselves into communities, organizations, and institutions is an extension of a smaller, simpler “pattern” we come to recognize as “family.” Memo to self: think more about family-as-first-social-network later when we talk about progression of involvement in social networks.)

Going a step further, when we perceive an opportunity to modify our environments (or even create new ones) so as to increase our opportunities for connection, we usually do so.  We invent wheels and airplanes, build roads and schools (and pubs!), string cable to our homes and encircle our planet with satellites.  And, we do these things in anticipation of the formation of new or strengthened connections.  In other words, in the present, we project patterns from the past into the future and then act accordingly.  (I know I signed up for CCK mainly because I had read a lot of the material from last year, was intrigued, and thought I could go deeper by getting involved in actual conversations with the people that generated that material.)

So, maybe the kids in this study are simply making choices about when, where and how they write because they are projecting patterns learned in the past (e.g. when I write for the teacher, I get one “page view.” When I write for the Web, I am often drawn into community and conversation about things that actually matter to me, and that those communities and conversations help me expand on and refine my own understanding.  The fact that the majority of participants in cck09 aren’t getting credit is itself good evidence that grades are not an essential motivator for engaging in “academic” work.)

So, is connective learning naturally self-reinforcing? Is the building of community a means to an end (learning), an end in and of itself, or both?  Put another way, would you keep writing your blog of you knew nobody was reading it?

First Class

15 09 2009

I “attended” the first live course session via Elluminate this evening and am looking forward to finally getting to learn about connectivism in a collaborative way after doing a lot of reading in isolation over the last few months.

It was an interesting challenge to multitask through the session, listening to George Siemens and Stephen Downes while reading the text chat scroll and opening up tab after tab in Firefox as people posted info about their blogs, virtual environments, research, and third party resources.  I can see already that one of the challenges of this experience will be coming up with an efficient strategy for staying on top of the information flow and integrating the key pieces into my PLE

I noticed in the introductory messages on the Moodle site that quite a few of the participants also participated in the 2008 version of this course.  If you are reading this and you’re one of those people, I would greatly appreciate you leaving “if I knew then what I know now” tips for first-timers on how to make the most of CCK09 in my “comments” or sharing some insights on this in your own posts.

Happy learning.