October 18, 2006 at 2:46 pm (Uncategorized)

Yaodong Visits the Webheads Hut at EduNation

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And then it hit me …

October 18, 2006 at 4:58 am (Uncategorized)

For an avatar who was almost born just yesterday, it’s no mean feat to catch the attention of the venerable Stephen Downes in just your 5th posting.  My First Life counterpart heard Stephen mention on a podcast once that he has scripts that search the blogosphere for what people are writing about him, and I think that’s how he came on the posting below, which he mentioned at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?topic=186 .  He didn’t say much about it but he did say “Yes!” twice, which I take to be some measure of agreement.  Stephen’s work obviously has helped me to find a framework for my ideas.  In any event, Webhead Link is off for a short break for a week or ten days and is going to try and avoid computers for much of that time (would that be Third Life??).  Meanwhile, enjoy the posting that caught Stephen’s attention …

The weather is cooling off in Abu Dhabi and midsemester is winding down, and on my way to work this morning I was driving with my Japanese ear-rings playing Alex and Arvind off my iRiver, my second listen to 21st Century Learning #17 where the boys discuss ways of connecting real-live and remote conference participants, and then it hit me …

I think it was Woody Allen who once said, “There are two kinds of people in the world … ” and then something to the effect that there are people who classify the world’s population into two categories, and those who don’t. I guess that’s true, but the truism that hit me this mornng is that there are those who gravitate to client-server networkers and those who thrive in peer-to-peer networkers, which I’ll abbreviate as CS and P2P in this posting.

And it occurred to me that throughout my career I’ve been a P2P networker working in CS management environments, and when I’ve had the opportunity to carve out a management domain myself and run it as P2P this has brought me in conflict with CS people who have been uncomfortable with my management style.

However, my management style has produced some salient successes. In my last management position it resulted in the creation of a content management system before that collocation of words came into use. In an environment where the military liked to run a tight ship, one of my jobs there as CALL Coordinator was to constantly struggle against the tendency to lock it down so that teachers working with the network could productively network P2P. Some of these teachers learned Java programming and developed enough experience with scripting and database management that when the military eventually caught on that this was the way to go and then tried to direct the developers, they killed the initiative and drove the developers away. Shortly afterwards, I and my management colleagues left as well, and the institute imploded on itself and became no more.

The second great vindication of my management style is self-evidently: Webheads. (I once gave that as an example of my greatest management success at a job interview, and around the table I could see from the impassive, uncomprehending faces that I’d blown it – I think they were expecting something more CS).

Which brings me to the point of this post, the culmination of my recent third rendition of my multiliteracies course, a sudden idea for an abstract I need to get in soon for the METSMaC conference in Abu Dhabi, and the topic of a dissertation I’ve got percolating when I finally retire into academia and prepare for the final phase of my life while I still have strength and enthusiasm but at long last no kids to support.

And that is a departure on a mantra that Stephen Downes chants over and over in presentation after presentation: the power of the Internet is that it makes possible an aggregation of knowledge distributed over P2P networks whereas in a CS system knowledge resides in and is the property and responsibility of a single omnipotent yet not omniscent entity. Stephen gives the famous example of an airplane; no one person knows how to build and fly one, yet planes take off and reach destinations all the time, somehow. In the corporate world, or in any management system, you have administrations that try to dictate and control how things will go, and those that encourage decision-making and development through a communities of practice framework. Webheads have made compelling arguments, we think, for the latter approach.

The problem with the former approach is that the one entity cannot know, cannot have a broad enough knowledge base, to manage effectively through a CS system. A good, or very bad example if you will, would be the Bush administration and its approach to dealing with world problems, sending the ‘best and the brightest’ to manage Iraq, as was done previously in Vietnam, and then adopting a father-knows-best we’ll-do-it-our-way stance rather than tapping into the knowledge base, sort of like having your finger on the pulse and pressing too hard then ignoring the convulsions of the victim rather than attending to the information associated with that pulse beat.

The same conflict in management style, or let’s call it network configuration, is at the root of basic dysfunctions in education. In the UAE for example, the communications authorities have moved to cut off many Web 2.0 evironments such as Skype, Flickr, and YouTube. The motivation for blocking Skype seems to be simply that the communications monopoly in the UAE feels that its revenues are threatened, and is able to do something about it in a CS configuration where all Internet traffic into the country filters through proxy servers. Thus a central manager with limited view of the situation over-rides what is clearly the wishes of the people the system is supposed to serve, who see their interests as residing with freedom to choose a P2P system. What the manager can’t know is how this impacts education.

The impact is on two levels. One is that a generation of digital natives is being nipped in the bud, its digital passports are being revoked, the youth of a nation and its elders are being relegated to a few more years of immigrant status in an ever-more-wired and connected world, and last but not least, the central manager has no idea what I just said, what this notion of digital natives vs. digital immigrants is about, and how important that is. (p.s. here’s a clue).

The second impact is that it nips in the bud the opportunity to carry on conversations between educators who will use these opportunities to learn from interaction with others in the distributed learning P2P network.

The manager works from a CS business model. The phone company essentially taxes businesses who use communications to earn profits. When businesses try to evade the tax, the manager uses its position in the CS network to track them into handing over a fraction of the proceeds. But education doesn’t work that way. Educational use of Skype is not in competition with the manager’s business model. Educators are not going to say, oh darn, guess I’ll have to use the phone now. Educators will say, oh darn, there’s one of a hundred conversations with other intelligence-bases in the community I can no longer have. I guess I’ll go back to my chalk board now.

At a level closest to the workplace, a common problem is that in CS networks teachers are thwarted by their own IT departments,  for seemingly good reasons of managing bandwidth or curtailing non-educational use of limited resources.  Teachers may regard certain internet sites as being essential to their work but the IT dept, being unaware of that work, blocks cites needed by that faculty, with obvious disruptions to that faculty’s teaching, research, or professional development, which will result in faculty doing creative work with an open and accessible Internet feeling suddenly constrained to be working under censorship.  In the words of Stephen Downes, a once functioning network is now broken.

In order that everyone can work in an atmosphere of innovation and creativity so necessary to the most successful teaching, network adminstrators must attend to the transparency with which network adjustments are done.  Teachers might prepare work using a site one day only to come to class and find that site is blocked, and then a lesson is ruined.  Or a site that was working one day in the teacher’s office is not working the next and the teacher wastes valuable time trying to troubleshoot the problem, and realizes only later that the problem must be at the firewall.

In the short run the CS manager is in control and can impose order on the system.  But in the long run, as people become more sophisticated and aware of appropriate uses of technology in education, this will be seen as detrimental to the big-picture goals of the educational community.  It would be nice if the goals of that community could be achieved sooner rather than later.  For that to happen, CS and P2P systems and people must find ways of having dialog with one another, learning from one another, and capitalizing on each other’s strengths. For that kind of knowledge transfer to occur, CS managers must accommodate more fully P2P network frameworks in their management systems.

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Why research is necessary into the educational value of Second Life

October 17, 2006 at 4:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Webheads have been writing in the list recenly about the importance of research on the educational benefits of second life; for example,

Sophie Hugo: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/evonline2002_webheads/message/13554

which prompted responses suggesting that research was not going to get  at issues such as intuitive introspection and motivation, prompting me in turn to write:

Quantitative reasearch is only a part of the picture. There is qualitative research,  which in research terms would be measuring motivation through some qualitative protocol (i.e. the anecdotal evidence mentioned).   Research is clearly needed when people are forced to say things like, I don’t know what was happening exactly but I know it was powerful and potentially educational. How do you then articulate your position, as Carla needs to do in Brazilia, to collegues who have no clue? If you can’t speak from some sort of factual base, describe through someone having researched it what its processes and benefits are in terms that others can understand, how do we proceed (since we can’t get everyone there to see for themselves).

Failing to do that in fact has its downsides, as with the pending DOPA legislation, where the US govt has stepped in to legislate constraints on use of social networking sites (you want to use SL? sorry, against the law) in a sector, education, where is has no expertise relative to us educators who know better. Yet WHAT we know is difficult to communicate without there being some kind of research base. Anecdotal as it may be, it at least has to be formalized enough to where our advocates can articulate it.

Selber (2004) presents a framework in which he argues in favor of an awareness of multiliteracies on three distinct fronts: functional, critical, and rhetorical. In his book he suggests ways that these awarenesses can and should be incorporated in what educators teach their students, and each other.

For example, children these days are becoming so functionally literate that even elementary students can easily navigate social networking sites such as MySpace. This has challenged schools to take steps to regulate the use of MySpace, raising many issues of critical literacy such as how to appropriately consider ownership and privacy on the Internet (i.e. use of photos, exposure to pedophiles). Many schools avoid the issue by blocking MySpace, and the U.S. congress is on the verge of passing DOPA, the Deleting Online Predator’s Act [Wikipedia is a consistently reliable source for encapsulations of up-to-the-minute current events and terms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deleting_Online_Predators_Act_of_2006]. 

This brings up a rhetorical literacy issue: how to counter knee-jerk stances (which tend to prevail where litigation is a threat)? How can educators articulate the reasons why children should be taught to use MySpace appropriately, or why we should consider more than just the salient aspects of regulating student use of such sites via draconian measures like DOPA? The task of arguing cogently enough to counter conservative political expediencies by reaching policy-makers who don’t truly understand these issues in the first place requires vocabulary and expressions of concepts that must first be grasped and then explained.

For those not already familiar with the DOPA legislation, some excellent discussions of it have been held on the Worldbridges Network, in EdTechTalk, at:

http://edtechtalk.com/EdTechTalk58 and http://edtechtalk.com/EdTechTalk58_part2

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Second Life, ESL, Webheads, and Professional Development

October 14, 2006 at 5:55 pm (Uncategorized)

I’m writing now about the relationship between Second Life and Active Worlds. I remember Dave Winet and I using Active Worlds as far back as 1997. The reason I remember it was 1997 is that I had just moved to Abu Dhabi and I usd to be baffled by the environment because it appeared on my computer as a set of triangle coordinates. That was because the graphics load was not possible on my computer at my slow bandwidth at the time.

Eventually AW started to work for me and I remember the lady from Coterie who created the Scholastic schoolhouse in the Palace for the EFI taking us through a house she had constructed in Active Worlds replete with artwork, seeming not unlike in look and feel some of the buildings at Edunation. There has been at least one attempt at creating an ESL environment in Active Worlds by someone in Japan (the URLs no longer work, but there’s more information here:
http://www.geocities.com/vance_stevens/findbuds.htm#active_worlds) and Dongping Zheng, Robert Brewer, and Michael Young gave a presentation at ttp://wiaoc.org (on Sunday 16:00 if you want to zero in on it) on Quest Atlantis, which is an early version of Active Worlds licensed for education
http://atlantis.crlt.indiana.edu/ .

Dave Winet was heavily involved in the Palace back in the mid to late 90’s. He was signing students up for “3 D Classes” and those who expressed interest in that option he passed off to me or to Michael Coghlan and Maggi Doty who were conducting classes there just a couple of hours apart. It often happened that I would still be there when they appeared and that’s how we met and eventually formed a single class which we called Webheads. At some point in that era, after we had installed the HearMe plugin at our websites, Michael Coghlan and I met at AW and talked each other through flying lessons and soared about exploring the terrain from the air.

The Palace meanwhile was a compelling environment for those who SELF SELECTED to be there. We never conducted any serious research on why it was so compelling but we’ve given numerous presentations alluding to the fact,
http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/efi/reports.htm
and we’ve left extensive chat logs illustrated with screen shots from the Palace.
http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/efi/chatlogs.htm

The reason the Palace was so successful for those who were drawn to it is that it was possible for people who met only online, and knew little more about each other than they had in common an interest in online social and educational environments, to communicate so many nuances of personality through interaction in that environment. It was possible to be creative. Even the kind of dialog webheads are engaging in now (I’m frustrated, HOW do I do this, ok I’m here, what now, what’s this for, this is cool, I just had an idea, here, try this …) … these are marvelous opportunities for truly communicative and authentic language interaction. That just doesn’t happen in many other environments you can conceive of, and often not even in face to face ones.

Second life carries over much of the idiosynchratic serendipity of the Palace and is an improvement over Active Worlds simply because it works better. Many of the limitations of Active Worlds have been addressed in Second Life. For example, in AW, unless you paid the fees, you could not make your avatar ‘cool’ – yours looked like everyone else’s and suggested a pecking order in that environment. I don’t know how much time I want to spend on it, but on my first visit there I gave my avatar a moustache, and Dudeney Ge’s looks very much like the man himself. Again, in working out that I could do that in the first place (right click on your avatar and select the appropriate option) there was language and interpersonal interaction between me and my scaffolder.

Now I can scaffold the next person. That person could be a teacher seeking professional development or a student hoping to learn my native language without my explicitly teaching it. This is very empowering for students, when what they learn today quickly positions them to scaffold tomorrow’s newbies. I’ve always liked John Higgins’s characterization of authentic language being anything linguistic not expressly created by a teacher for the purpose of teaching language. In my plenary in Cairo a few years back I debunked the notion of ‘teaching’ a language at all. I suggested that it was not possible to ‘teach’ a langauge
http://cwp60.berkeley.edu:16080/TESL-EJ/ej28/int.html . If I’m right, then for a language to be learned, there needs to be an environment that will nurture that learning.

I think that Second Life is one of those environments, or could be (it’s not automatic; Gavin and Nicky and Graham have done phenomenal work in putting some tools in place that might create that environment). AND in order for teachers to learn about these environments, they have to go to them and interact with one another. That’s what webheads has always been about.

For more information, there’s an intersting Wikipedia article here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer-Assisted_EFL_Writing_Development

yours truly,
Webhead Link

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Second Life, ESL, and Webheads

October 14, 2006 at 5:33 pm (Uncategorized)

Second Life, ESL, and teacher professional development

Some suggestions for using SL in the above context:

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