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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