Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ My Personal Passion Trajectory

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 21, 2010

John Hagel hits on an interesting thing, a way of describing how his interests have changed through time, merging to create his unique perspective on the world. Mine, too...


Perhaps because we lived in a subdivision when I was young, and watched the houses on the next street, then the next block, and so on, being built from scratch, construction was an early interest of mine. Perhaps all young boys want to build forts, but we had an entire subdivision's worth of scrap lumber and nails to play with. We built a fort in the back yard, one down the road, several tree-houses -- and then, when we moved to Metcalfe, the process started anew, using the wood from a woodpile that was all that was left of a demolished barn.


Moving the Metcalfe put us in the country, and greatly increased my scope of activities. I had always explored to some extent, but living in Metcalfe meant following the creek one way to its source, and the other way down to the river, and the river down as far as we could go. It meant visiting one village after another by bicycle - Vernon, Kenmore, Russell, Embrun, Edwards, Osgoode, and in one challengingly long trip, Cassleman. It meant exploring the north woods two fields deep from the house, tracking through the swamp to highway 31. It meant creating local maps, and then buying World Almanacs and creating maps of the world. I cannot count the hours I have spent creating maps and diagrams of everything from fictional cities to plots to relations between people and more. It meant being in the outdoors, camping and canoeing, and above all, exploring.


I'm not sure what first got me on to writing but I do remember writing children's books as a child (which seems appropriate) - "Voyage Under Water" was my first, followed by several others. By grade 5 I was producing my own newspaper, "The Eagle Report", which went hand-in-glove with my after-school job delivering newspapers. In Grade 10 this interest took off when my English Teacher, Jamie Bell, had everyone keep a journal - this could be anything, he said, so long as it was something. So I wrote a series of stories - "The Adventures of Homer Higgens" - created crosswords, drew pictures, wrote poetry, and more. I would write hundreds of (bad) poems over the next five years.


My father worked for Bell Canada and always encouraged my interest in information and communications technology, which, by the time I was old enough for college, meant computers. My first foray into post secondary education was a three-year certificate program at Algonquin College, majoring in computer science. I ran out of money and employment, though, and moved to Calgary, where I found a job with a computer company. I was right at home in the machine room filled with desk-sized Texas Instruments 'TIMAP' processors crunching geophysical data. I mapped out the sequence of programs we would run, got pretty good at debugging the card decks submitted by 'users', learned 'Multiple Virtual Systems' (MVS) and 'Job Entry Subsystems' (JES) and how to program some of the first TI computers - including one summer spent filling a cassette tape with 'the ultimate Star Trek program' running on Rex Hayes's TI-99. I also took more computer courses at SAIT, learning Fortran and - yes - doing more work on the card-punch machine.


Passed over for promotion, I quit my job (and it would be 15 years before I would earn the same salary - $1300 a month - again) and went to university. On my first day on campus I sought out the student newspaper and signed up. I started on news, covering education issues - my first story was a front page headline '$1.5 billion program cut' on reductions to Established Programs Financing transfers for education and health care. I spent more time at the Gauntlet than I did in classes, writing regularly, learning layout and graphic design, taking news photos, and arguing politics with the other 'Gauntleteers' in the office. I was sports editor for a year, the first year our football team won a national championship, and was editor for two terms. I took my journalism seriously; I learned how to write well and quickly, I learned about propaganda and fallacious reasoning (the film 'Not a Love Story' and Eleanor Mclean's book 'Between the Lines' were major influences), and, well, much more. In the end, I wrote hundreds of articles, editorials and features.


I enrolled in university as a physics major, even though I needed to take remedial math, because I wanted to be a scientist. I aced the remedial math but bogged down on integral calculus and was overall a struggling B student. Except in philosophy - a subject I had taken only because English was full. It turned out that I was very good at philosophy (I rarely got less than an A) and, moreover, found it interesting as well. My interests and inclinations leaned toward the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology) and philosophy of science. I learned logic and analysis from some unrepentant logical positivists and got a very good gounding in scientific method, paradigm shift, models and representation. My interest in the philosophy of mind would follow. meanwhile, I came within a course or so of minoring in religious studies, examining things like religious experience, redactive criticism and Biblical analysis, world religions, and more. I found no contradiction in the different areas of study (or perhaps, more accurately, learned to live happily with contradiction). More and more I looked into the nature of mind and knowledge, cumulating with a connectionist theory of mind and similarity-based theory of knowledge, summarized in 'The Network Phenomenon'.


No journalist is far from politics, but after an unsuccessful run at student office in my second year I left it alone until graduate school. In my Master's program I became our department representative on the Graduate Representative Council (GRC) and was thence drawn (willingly) into the debates and demonstrations over tuition fees. When I went to Edmonton to study for a PhD I went on my very first day to the Graduate Students' Association and within a few days found myself the Communications Officer, a low-grade VP position. Before the end of the year we had overturned the president and embarked on a more radical agenda; I was VP Communications my second year and President for the two years following. I also ended up sitting on the university Board of Directors for a couple of years, as well as the Faculty council, some very eye-opening experiences. We were a very activist and very successful Council; I reformed the organization of the GSA based on democratic principles, made student support and lobbying our primary function (the GSA had been basically a well-funded social club before that), launched a (successful) lawsuit against the university, and for more than two years was in the newspaper at least once a week. I ran unsuccessfully for a nomination as a federal candidate in Edmonton Strathcona, worked on campaigns when I lived up north, and when I moved to Brandon, ran for mayor. The suicide of my close friend (and campaign manager) pretty much ended my interest in a political career, but I still have an (angry) interest in politics.

Distance Education

While studying for my Masters I earned money as a teaching assistant; this, combined with summer jobs as a programs coordinator for a local development education centre (the Arusha Centre) led to my being interviewed for a job with Athabasca University (I had wanted to focus on development education much more, having been very influenced by Francis Moore Lappe, but was told I would need to travel internationally before I would be considered, something that put it financially out of reach for me).  There was nothing open in Calgary, but when I moved to Edmonton an opening was available almost right away, and so I spent the next seven years as a tutor for Athabasca University. I learned a lot about education and education theory and got a lot of practical experience teaching by telephone, in person (in remote northern communities) and even over the computer. I did some course development and a pilot program in computer audiographics. I also got involved with the Tutor's Association (a branch of the Canadian Union of Educational Workers) and ended up sitting on Athabasca University's governing council. In retrospect, my focus on distance education was pretty narrow, but it was very deep, and I learned a lot.

The Internet

While studying at the University of Alberta, Jeff and Istevan told me about this thing called a 'MUD' I could access using my University computer account. I had been using computers for years by this point, as they were invaluable for writing articles and philosophy papers (as well as for creating games, which I had never stopped doing). The modem thing wasn't too difficult; I had set up a Bulletin Board Service (BBS) to support my distance education work. 2000 and I was in to Muddog Mud. Jeff, Ishy and I would keep build MUDs for the next few years; I figured out how to compile and run my own MudLib (most notably the Nightmare Mudlib) while all three of us were proficient in 'LPC', the standard code library. I spent half the time I live in the north connected to the internet, spending every cent I had on long distance and connect charges.

The Web

My interest in the internet - and in distance education - got me a job with Assiniboine Community College and I finally started making the same kind of money I was making with Texas Instruments. At the same time the World Wide Web arrived on the scene, so when I joined Assiniboine the first day of 1995 I almost immediately began working on a web site. The web was still a hard sell in the early days, so I had to do everything myself, installing my own server,m creating my own pages, then a College web site, then demonstration courses, then our own learning management system. It was relatively straightforward to learn Perl, the web programming language, and web servers and CGI programs installed and compiled pretty much like Mudlibs. I was also drawn into the whole ethos of the web, partially influenced by the first few years of Wired and partially influenced by those first garish gushing web sites. I created course sites, Start trek sites, a City of Brandon sites, some association sites, and more. I went to a bunch of NAWeb conferences and won a few NAWeb awards. The first, good, simple days of the web.

Online Learning

As I worked at Assiniboine I found myself connected through mailing lists like WWW_DEV and DEOS to distance and online learning practitioners worldwide. It was not a large community, and mostly an offshoot of the already large and well-established distance education community (so I knew the jargon and was familiar with the concepts). This brought me into the realm of learning theory, which was mostly new to me, but which fairly consistently was derived from the philosophical concepts I had studied. I did a few papers describing how we were building online courses and such, but basically things came together when I was asked by our own management to explain exactly what I was trying to do. This lead me to write 'The Future of Online Learning', which almost overnight made me into a futurist and internet theorist. Another paper, written while I was working a year later at the University of Alberta, Learning Objects, established my tech credentials. I've spent rather longer on online learning than I ever intended. I certainly didn't expect to make it a career.

Blogging and Social Networks

I come into the field of social networks as an outsider. Blogging was a natural for me, and from the day I created my first website in 1995 I started posting my writing online. To this day, I don't follow the 'standard form' of blogging because blogging didn't have a form when I started, and by the time it was reified by services like LiveJournal and Blogger I was too set in my own way of doing things (with my own software) to change. As my term at the University was ending I had a chance to go to Australia to do some web development for a philosophy course (which gave me that magical and elusive international experience) and it was while there I decided to start my newsletters. I had been, since 1998, involved with a group of friends on a news and politics website called NewsTrolls, which was a big part of my life, and I transferred that experience over to create OLDaily, a newsletter I have been running to this day. I wrote 'Educational Blogging' and then 'E-Learning 2.0' and began to be asked to attend some education technology conferences. I won a few blogging awards and began to think more seriously about the link between connectionism, networks and pedagogy.


Ever since my days bicycling to neighbouring communities I have had an interest in photography. As a child I had an enlarger and developed some of my own film. I still have some prized aerial photos taken from the day as a 14-year old, determined to at least experience my first flight, I cycled 10 kilometers to Embrun and hired a small plane for the 15 minutes I could afford with my 25 dollars. The 15 minutes became an hour looping back around Metcalfe and I emptied the roll. Working with the Gauntlet gave me the opportunity to work with free film and developing, but only in black and white. The arrival of digital photography - and the opportunity to travel, which finally came with my first international experience - created a renaissance in my photographic career, an interest I pursue to this day. While I've done some videos, I think, honestly, that I'll stay with photography; there's a beauty of a still image that can't be matched with a video.I surround myself these days with my own photos, and I have to admit, I had never known the world could be filled with such stunning beauty.

So that's the summation of my passions to this point in my life. the major ones; I haven't touched on some of the less major ones, like science fiction, darts, hiking, camping, cycling, old time radio, birds, gardening, flying, architecture, and more. I'm overdue for a new passion, though honestly, there's still a lot there in those other passions to occupy me for a lifetime. These passions have always driven me to distraction, the need for things like a stable income or home life taking very much a back seat. And I have some unfinished business - the novels I want to write, the philosophy I want to complete, the art and media I want to create, the places I want to see, and the house I want to build out there somewhere in my forest.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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