Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Reusable Media, Social Software and Openness in Education

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 07, 2004

Reusable Media, Social Software and Openness in Education


Well thank you, it's a pleasure to be here, and I'd just like to say before I begin my talk that I've found this to be an absolutely fabulous conference. The talks have been uniformly interesting and I've managed to get a lot of material to draw from, I've been able to draw from quite a bit of that material even for this presentation today, so I think all credit to David and the rest of the organizing committee for putting on just a wonderful conference. I've really enjoyed it.

I'm going to talk in broad strokes today. I'm going to make some sweeping generalizations, which I'm sure David would say is nothing unusual for me. I'm going to draw some issues in black and white and of course the issues aren't in black and white; there are much more nuances. I'm going to give you, if you will, an overview, and for those of you who read my newsletter or look at my website you might think of this as a field guide to my newsletter, a field guide to my website.

I was forced to provide an abstract for my talk some time ago and so that's the talk that I'm stuck with now. But the topic is 'reusable media, social software and openness in education' and the way I introduced this in my abstract was by talking about a dichotomy between the consumers and the producers of information or content and I'm going to draw from that a bit, because of course that's one of these black-white yin-yang things that aren't absolutes, because of course were't producers and we aren't consumers, we're a little bit of both. So when I draw lines like that, I don't mean it just that way, I don't mean to divide the world into producers and consumers, I'm not saying that's the way the world is divided. But I'm going to pull a bunch of these things out.

I style myself, the career that I've chosen for myself if you will, is that of what William Gibson calls Idoru, and in the book of the same name Idoru is defined as 'intuitive perceiver of patterns of information'. And that's what this talk is about. This talk is about patterns. And broad strokes. Patterns in events, patterns in technology and software, patterns in cognition and the way we think and the way we create knowledge and the way we transfer knowledge.


In May of 1995, and I still remember it well, which in a way is kind of sad because it dates me, but in a way is kind of nice because it gives me a context, the most amazing thing happened on the internet, and the amazing thing was that people who used to use information services like CompuServ? and Prodigy and especially America Online joined the internet. Now from the point of view of those of us who were already on the internet it was like this flood of AOL Newbies and it was like, you take this room, and imagine the same number of people, only children, all came flooding into the room and all sat at the front and started asking questions. It felt like that. It was the most wonderful thing.

Now the question is, what prompted that? Why did AOL decide in 95 to join the internet? Tim O'Reilly, who was with a company called Global Network Navigator that sold to AOL at the time, says, "Gradually people are becoming to realize that free means access, not price." AOL could not provide access; it was a closed, proprietary system and for AOL and the others to survive they had to become open.

But the story doesn't end there. (Just as an aside - I'm experimenting with timing on my slides - the first time I've ever done this. The slides will keep going relentlessly no matter what I say.) The story didn't end there because of course AOL went into this sort of only half-heartedly. Sort of, as O'Reilly said, "wishing the internet would go away and allow it to get back to its traditional business of providing a closed space," vertical media market, proprietary technology, control over the message, everybody goes to AOL, AOL is where the community is, AOL is where the content is. (No sometimes the slides are going to go too slowly.)

This difference between AOL and the internet can be characterized along a number of dimensions, and it's these dimensions that I want to use to highlight the distinction between what I believe is the coming picture of learning and the going-away picture of learning. The coming picture of learning, the one that we want to work toward, is open, where there is access for everybody, open in the sense of the internet, open in the sense that, if you can type in the URL, you can go to a web site. As compared to the closed spaces, such as AOL, or Prodigy, where you have to go, use their service, use their conditions and terms of service.

There's not just open and closed. Another dimension is the distinction between broadcast and conversation. In traditional media what we see is broadcast. They speak, you listen. If you go to your home, your hotel room, today, you turn on the television, in all probability, you will not be talking back to your television, or even if you are, because I do frequently, it turns out they do not listen. As contrasted with the model of communication on the internet where communication is two-way. As anyone who has published a blog understands, as soon as you put something out on the internet people start sending you stuff back. "This is great. This is awful. You should move to wherever."

A third dimension of this dichotomy is the distinction between institution and individual, and this is where a lot of my clashes with David lie. My perception - and I might be wrong, the way I sort of caricature it in my mind, which is what I do, little pictures, big noses - the old way is centered around the institution - government, corporation, Microsoft, broadcasting agency, AOL-Time Network - the new way is centered around the individual - the personal website, the blog, the email address.

The fourth dimension is the organization of this system, the organization not only of communication, the organization of business, the organization of learning. Now we contrast here between the hierarchy, where there is a directory or a president or a CEO at the top, and instruction and information diffuse from the top, and is sent to the peons, as compared to a network, where there is no one person in control.

A further dimension is between the concept of centralized and decentralized. And again we can go back to AOL and the internet. AOL is centralized. Everybody went to AOL. The internet is decentralized. You may go to a website here, you may go to a website from my home in Moncton, you may go to a website from Africa, or Iran, or wherever. The organization and the location of the material and where the decisions are made occurs in many places rather than in a central place.

What Lawrence Lessig talked about in the opening keynote to this conference, he talked a lot about remix. He didn't draw out the way I would have liked the contrast between remix, with remix, but the contrast with remix is what I might call 'product'. Remix is when you mess around with song files for yourself and create something. Product is when you go to HMV or something like that and buy a shrink-wrapped jewel case with a prepackaged CD-ROM with all the music already laid out in order for you and you do not change that. Remix is when you put your own photos and videos on the net; product is when you watch television and they plan the shows and you watch the shows as they were planned and delivered.

Which leads us to our next dimension, planned versus chaotic. Now I'll come back to chaotic quite a bit during the course of this talk - some people may say the talk itself is an instance of chaotic - but it's the idea that you can plan and organize everything up front versus the idea that things develop on their own in a natural way. The idea of putting things into a precise sequence versus the idea of each step being self-determining, each step following from the last but not necessarily depending on the last.

Static versus dynamic. Television shows are static. Once an episode of Cheers is made, it's made. It never changes. The web is dynamic. Once somebody creates a wiki page, who knows what it will be tomorrow? In the field of learning we have trouble with this because we have this vocabulary of learning objects, and 'learning objects' gives us a picture of something that is static, and we want to talk about it according to its properties. But learning objects are something that should be thought of as something dynamic. People ask me for the analogy that I like to use for learning and what e-learning is, and I say, e-learning is like electricity, not like legos. It's something that flows, it's like the water system. It's something that should be available, in the wall, where it comes out, it changes, it's not concrete, it's not the same thing you got yesterday - that's what we're really happy about with water, we wouldn't want yesterday's water.

The distinction between push and pull. Broadcast media pushes. It tells you what you're going to see. As opposed to pull, which is the model of RSS, which I'll talk a little bit about, where you, the consumer, go out and get what you want, you pick what web page you're going to see, you pick what blog you're going to read.


Now we have this set of dichotomies, and what made this happen - because we didn't have this set of dichotomies when I was growing up, at least, not really - what happened - and Lessig talked about this and many other people talked about this - is that when the internet arrived on the desktop it gave people a whole new set of capacities.

A lot of people have talked about the same sort of thing that happened when the printing press came out. I like to think about what happened when writing came out because when writing came out people had this capacity to express information in a way that they never did before. Imagine when writing was invented the possibility that writing would be everywhere. On this desk: "Evacuation procedure statement." On the walls when you need it. People can create writing by themselves. This is a fantastic development.

And the same thing has happened with the internet. We can create a new kind of content for ourselves. Wonderful tools. We have simple text editors. I use one called NoteTab?. Love it. Email clients, a way we can send, for ourselves, a message around the world. HTML to design things.

Also, the technology (this is, this is the slides pacing me, you know, otherwise this would be a four hour talk) the technology also gives us access to new markets. Before the internet, and I remember these days, my power of communication extended to the room that I was in, maybe a bit further if I shouted, and I did shout from time to time because I wanted to be heard, and that's it. But today, with the various technologies, I have a global reach. I have a global reach not just in terms of distance, I have a global reach in terms of audience. I can reach out beyond my own community, my own group. This is a capacity I never had.

Now the point I made in my abstract, and it's in this slide here because it's in my abstract and I'm stuck with it, because it's a bit of an overgeneralization, is that traditional media and traditional services view this new development, quite rightly, as a threat.

Think about the fax machine. Some of you may recall the introduction of the fax machine. I'm still wrapping my mind around the idea that there are people possibly in this room who have grown up and there's always been a fax machine, but before the fax machine what people did is that they would actually send physical messages from one place to another, and it sounds like an odd idea, but that's what we had at the time. When the fax machine was introduced the courier companies said, "This is great. We will offer an electronic messaging transfer service. You come to us, you give us this message, we'll make a digital copy of this message, and send it over the wires." Instead, the business was basically destroyed.

Or the television. Everybody still has a television, it's one of these things that's just beginning to pass its peak, but we're seeing in news articles and that these days, "The internet is past the television." And more importantly, the role of the television in our lives is changing. It is moving from becoming an up-front medium to a background medium. The way radio is now. A major change in the status of television.

Some of you will have heard of something called Skype. Skype, or something like that, will basically destroy long distance telephone service. Because Skype, basically, is internet long distance telephone. It's free. Now you need your internet connection, you load your program on, you call up your friend, if your friend has Skype tyou have a free high quality voice connection with them. So the call that used to cost you, I don't know, 90 dollars or whatever, to talk to Australia for an hour or so, that costs you nothing. Now, of course, you know, we're still in the early stages so there are cases where we have to interface between Skype and the traditional telephone system, and that costs money, and of course there's talk about regulating it, and that costs money, but Skype replaces long distance telephony.

Blogging. I participate in online news mailing lists and the online journalists are, you know, in the one sense fascinated and in the other sense scared to death of blogging. Newspaper circulations have begun to drop and they've begun to drop most dramatically in the youngest demographic. As many people now get their news off the internet as they do reading the newspaper. Circulations are dropping. And what's happening, it's not simply that people are using a new medium, but people are getting their news from new sources. You find out about events in Russia or Georgia, not from the New York Times, but from Yosuf, who lives down the block from where it happened.

Now, in general, these new technologies evolve in two stages. The first stage, and this is pretty much where we're at in the world of digital media, it duplicates existing processes and services. Just like, when we got the internal combustion engine, the first thing we got was the horseless carriage. Just like when we got refrigeration we got ice boxes. In the second step, it obliterates them.

But - and part of the point of this talk - is, this is not a Hegelian sort of determinism here. This is a set of choices that we made. And this talk is about the choices that we make.

Traditional media understand this and they know that if they put in the right kind of systems and structures they can resist this change. And they look at the new technology and the new affordances - I was looking for a place to use 'affordances' - and new affordances that it offers and it sees itself being threatened in three areas.

One area is in the area of production. This is a business model change, this is not so much a technological change, although it's an effect of technology. In the old model, production was enabled by demand. "Work for us, produce what we want you to produce, or, through the mechanisms of finances and governmental structure, we will cause you to starve." That was the mechanism. The new mechanism is volunteer. You choose what you will contribute into society. The contrast is between Encyclopedia Britannica, where they hired a bunch of people to produce this massive 24-volume set which sells for two thousand, three thousand dollars, and wikipedia, which was produced with a labour cost of, well, I guess, nothing.

Another tension is in business models. You may have read, heard, about this a great deal, the distinction between proprietary and commercial software, or products, because it's not just software, and free and open source. And the old way is the proprietary and commercial software - this is the model, this is the commercial business model that is under siege, because of new technology. New technology allows not just for the distribution of open software, as some of the people in this conference have talked about so far, it also allows for the creation of it in the first place, because we can organize ourselves into a programming entity that has as much capacity as a centralized system such as Microsoft.

And then finally, business models in traditional media are threatened in terms of distribution models. The music industry, which I'm sure you're all familiar with, the debate surrounding the music industry, is on the verge of being destroyed by perr-to-peer content. I know they're fighting back and this fight will continue I'm sure. Until I retire. But if you look at sales and profits, they've peaked, they're declining.

The Empire Strikes Back

But again, and I want to emphasize, this is not historical determinism. Rory McGreal? likes to talk about, in the context of standards, how the Romans decided that roads would be one chariot-width wide, and this width has carried down over the years to determine the size of our rail tracks, and therefore the size of the boosters on the shuttlecraft, and so the size of the boosters on the shuttlecraft is determined by a decision made more than 2,000 years ago. So this is not inevitable.

So even as we are bringing our local forms of communication - conversation, sharing, community - the global forms - the broadcast, the centralized, the proprietary, the commercial - are bringing themselves into our home, into our lives. Things like copyright. Things like Air Miles and purchase points. When somebody complains to you, and this has happened to me, I use the word 'coke' or 'xerox' or something like that in a message, and somebody always writes, well, "You can't write that word without using a little (c) after it." Or "you shouldn't use that word to refer to a generic." This is the centralized model intruding itself right into my speech.

Lessig drew this out beautifully. "If technology means everything is a copy, and if copyright law covers copying, then copyright law covers everything." It's a major intrusion and a major change.

As I said, it has infiltrated not just our homes - people are putting controls, they want to put controls into our computers under the rubric of 'trusted computing' whereby, and this was actually raised in a case in, I believe it was Finland, where they said the person has trespassed, where had the person trespassed? because he cracked a CSS... a DVD scrambling system, he had trespassed on his own computer because he had broken into a piece of software on his own computer - so it's coming right into our homes. And right into our language, as I mentioned before.

So the message here is: the internet does make us more free, it gives us more capacity, but even as we are becoming more free the calls - and by calls I mean not just oration and agitation, I mean a wide variety of tactics and strategies that I'll talk about a wee bit - for a closed network are becoming more insistent and more pervasive. And for those of you who read my newsletter, this is why I get so strident, because they are persistent and they are pervasive, and in many cases, many cases, they're winning.

Now what sort of things? Well, look at bundles. Bundling. Read people like Shapiro and Varian, in their book Information Rules they talk about bundles and all of that, and bundles is the new marketing strategy. Bundles have been with us for a long time but we're seeing this more and more. Music albums. That's a bundle, all you wanted was one song but you bought fourteen. Preformatted radio is a bundle, right? You listen to that rap song because that other song that's on after it is the one you like. Journal bundles, things like that.

Closed spaces and markets. One of the big things to sweep the internet over the last year was social networks, but if you go to these social networks, go to Friendster or Orkut, they're closed. I don't mean that they're closed in the sense that nobody can get in, well, Orkut is kind of that way, but they're closed in the sense of, the community exists only in the context of Friendster, or only in the context of Orkut. You can't communicate between Friendster or Orkut. You have these closed systems that you have to go into. Newspapers are becoming like that with registration; you have to register and go into this closed newspaper website, from which there are no links out.

Learning design. This is another place where I talk with David. The idea that learning is something that's prepackaged, structured, where you as a student are like an actor in a play, and the instructor or the designer will be like the director, and they will tell you how to play a role, what to say, what to do, versus the approach promoted by people like Seymour Papert and James Paul Gee of learning, or structure and design, as a game, open ended, where you can decide for yourself what you're going to do.

Media formats. Now you'd think: learning design, media formats, completely different issues, but it's the same issue. PDF, which pervades our lives and tells us how we are going to read something. Versus HTML, which is open and free-form. Real Media, or even worse, Windows Media Format, which sometimes doesn't even work on Windows, versus MP3, which is something that can be played by anyone anywhere.

Digital rights. I've been up to my ears in digital rights expression languages over the last couple of years because of my involvement with the eduSource project as the package manager for the DRM part of the project, and the presumption of digital rights expression going in is that anything that is not explicitly permitted is prohibited. Now imagine if you governed yourself in society that way. Unless there's a law that says you can walk on the sidewalk, you can't. There was a fascinating talk by Dan Rehak abour CORDRA, and he says, behaviours, services, identification, authorization, authentication, digital rights, all these have to be built into the system ahead of time in order for it to work. Do they? Did we do digital rights before we came up with blogs? Did we do digital rights and authentication before we came up with the web and home pages? Was I not able to send an email before I could attach an XML description of it detailing exactly how the receiver could use it?

Perceiver of patterns of perception, of information.

When we know what we're looking for we can see it everywhere. Now sometimes that's called paranoia. But it's like mathematics, once you understand, you can count things, you can count things all over the place.


So I'll draw that out a bit and look at the types of barriers and impediments that characterize the centralized proprietary closed type of system that I've been talking about as opposed to the open type of system that I argue that we want to move toward.

One of these is obvious and I'm sure every one of you is familiar with it, and it's called 'lock-out'. It's like the lock on your front door. Only it's digital. It's a subscription fee to access certain stories at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which seems to me to be ironic in the highest degree. It's registration forms to view the news. Again, ironic. It's network authentication. Now, again, it's not all black and white - sometimes we need this. I want a lock-out system to govern the management of the ATM system. But when you're talking about systems of knowledge, news, learning and information, that kind of lock-out is inappropriate.

Even more subversive, even more insidious, is the idea of 'lock-in', and again, if you read all this new economic stuff you read a lot about lock-in. It's proprietary content. Proprietary software. Everyone has to use Word because Word is the only software that undersatnds a Word file. It's closed markets. Go to a grocery store and notice the trend that more and more of the products on the shelves of the grocery store are being replaced with generic store brands, because they know, when you go to a grocery store, they can determine the set of options available to you, and the more they can narrow that, the more they can determine what your purchasing patterns will be.

High-bar. That's talked a lot about by people who have to deal with things like educational technology standards. I remember when IMS first landed on my desk, and IMS landed on my desk as about a two-inch stanck of paper, and actually made a thud when it hit. And I said, this is great, this is exactly what we want, and we need to implement this, because I was young and naive, and when I started showing it to the instructors they actually turned pale.

Flooding. That's something I talked to David a little bit about because... because we have this idea, and Lawrence Lessig talks about this idea, that you know if we just make Creative Commons and free and open content one of the options then people will be able to naturally go toward it, but that's not how it works in the marketplace, and if you look at the marketing strategies of companies like Starbucks, even if people offered free coffee on the corner people would still go to Starbucks because everywhere you turn there's a Starbucks. On the internet, that tactic is known as spam.

And then finally, the legal barriers that are thrown up against openness and sharing. It's fascinating that we live in a society where openness and sharing can actually be considered crimes. We have the attack on fair use, as Lessig mentioned, publishers don't even bother with fair use any more, it's like that right no longer exists because the threat of being sued outweighs any benefit they could gain fromexercising their right.

Now, the reason why I get strident, and the reason why I come and do broad stroke genralization talks like this is because, as a community, in my perception, we are complying with the erection of these barriers and hurdles blocking open access. Look at IMS metadata. Again, we were young and naive. We welcomed IMS metadata. And it seemed like a good idea at the time. But if you look at it there's 87 or whatever fields to fill out. Metadata in fact creates a barrier, it's a high-bar barrier. Isn't it? If you wanted to produce free content, and you wanted it to be available through the SCORM network, you'd have to hire teams of librarians in order to complete this requirement.

And I wonder, and I ask now, and I have the benefit of hindsight, why didn't we use something like Dublion Core or even RSS, which has like three fields, in order to create our sharing networks?

SCORM. SCORM just is the old model. Centralization. Command and control. Broadcast. Why did we pick a model like that? Why did we adopt it so wholeheartedly, follow that lead, and I know that the U.S. government, ADL, threw a lot of money at this, and I know that money attracts people like lemmings, but if we saw the direction that we were headed we could have, could we not have, asked, is SCORM the way we want to go? Now we're doing it again with learning design. IMS has come up with learning design and of course it's being adopted and extended and so on, where we tell people what roles they will play, what things that they will do, the analogy of a directed play, versus the kind of learning that really works, which I characterize as improv. Now I actually asked that when Learning Design was presented, at a conference somewhere in Vancouver, "What about improv?" You can't do improv with learning design. It rules out self-directed independent action. Think about that.

Digital Repositories. I've spent the last two years of my life involved in a thing called the eduSource project and a good part fo that has been arguing vehemently with people in small rooms about the nature and structure of our repository network, because the model that they wanted to go in with was a federated system, and with single sign-on user authentication such that a library such as CORBIS could be attached to the network, and you would not be able to find out, would not be able to find out what resources CORBIS had to offer unless you had already authenticated, already paid CORBIS, were already admitted into the system. That's the nature of a federated system, it's like a gated community of the internet.

And now we have CORDRA. Some of you were either the happy recipients or tye hapless victims of the discussion that Dan Rehak and I had. The jury's still out on CORDRA because CORDRA's not done, although I will observe and I did observe in my newsletter yesterday that it was being presented to us as a package from On High, they'll actually tell us about it some time later this year, it'll actually be launched a month or two later. CORDRA is what you get from a centralized, top-down, hierarchal organization and I question - and I emphasize that it's still a question - how much of this authentication, command and control, is going to be built right into the backbone of the network. And again, open question still. And I hope, because I am that kind of agitator, that some of the wild-eyed conspiracy theories that I was launching from the floor of that conference room work their way back into the design of CORDRA because people understand that it has to be an open system. It can't control how the network works.

What Works?

And we ask ourselves, "What worked?" In the history of the internet? There's a lot of things that worked. The internet's a fantastic success. FTP - file transfer. Email - killer application. Usenet, which is now kind of by the wayside, but was huge in its time. The web iteself. Worked. Billions of pages. Blogs. RSS.

Well what were their properties. What nature did these successes have? And you can see the list (because the list advanced on me before I was ready for it). They were simple, and this is Dave Winer's genius. I disagree with lots of things about Dave Winer, but Dave Winer always emphasized the simplicity of RSS. Anyone can get it. They were decentralized. There was not a single place where you got files on the internet, you got them where they were. It was open. You could go anywhere. Anyone could send an email, you didn't have to sign away your blood type and your mother's maiden name. And it was open. We could all play.

Now as I said, IMS quite literally landed on my desk in 1997. Give or take a year, I forget exactly when. You'd think I'd remember, but I don't. And that's seven years ago. And I have to ask and I do ask and I want to know, where is the 'Blogger' of e-learning? We've got Microsoft, Sun, Intel, Cisco - all of these companies - Department of Defense, government - everybody's been working on this for seven years and we have not been able to produce a nice application that everybody can use to create learning for themselves. Why not?

There's the view that the market will do it. Right? You get the standards out there, the standards are free and open, it doesn't matter if they're a little complicated, and then the market will provide the tools that we need in order to become producers and not just consumers of information. I do not share that faith. Because it's been seven years in our field.

And it's worth noting, you look at the list that I read earlier, FTP, email, so on and so forth, none of these, not one, was a commercial product. FTP? Not a commercial product. That only came later. Email? Not a commercial product. The web? Tim Berners-Lee gave it away. Blogs? Blogs existed for three or four years before Blogger came along. Photoblogs, which we're finally getting now - the commercialization comes later. People haven't created some kind of online internet marketplace where you pay per view for photoblogs. It hasn't happened. They're not commercial implementations.

David Wiley said, and Brent Weinburg said some smart things in the discussion of their conferencing system they're attaching to the Open Courseware product, Open Courseware project, and he says, and I think it was Brent said this, and it's a paraphrase, if you put too many features up front it's going to be feature-heavy. And he talked about Dave using Slash Code. Slash Code is very good code. But when he used Slash Code, which is the software used to run the Slashdot website, it has moderation and all kinds of features like that, the moderation features killed the community. And I contend that exactly the same thing is happening with learning. Where all the features and the complexity, not just of the standards and the production and the design, but even the use of learning - you know I mean, learning management systems, LCMSs, they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make these work, and you go in, and they're incredibly complex, and it's killing learning.

Think about the mode of production of this. Luc Chu, great talk, talked about translating Open Courseware into Chinese. If we used a commercial model in order to get this done the simple answer is that it wouldn't be done. Because the people who you would hire to do this, who are qualified to do this, simply would not take the job, because they are doctors and lawyers and that's what they do, they're not translators. The only way to get OCW translated into Chinese is a non-commercial model.


Now the question is why. Why favour the open model? Because of course, you know, the closed demand-driven model, you know, it may take away some of our freedoms but at least it gets things done. (You can only make a one-word slide last so long.)

(I see I'm exercising some creative spelling there. It's limited minds that can only think of one way to spell a word.)

We want to think of - and I mean this very literally - think of new media, and I include in this learning content, learning objects, multimedia, audio, video, this talk, your cat pictures, as a new vocabulary, a new language. Now I mean that not as a metaphor. I mean this as being quite literally the case. This new media is now how we talk. Or at least, how we will talk.

Well right now the control, the mechanisms of the production of this new media, especially in the case of learning, is in the hands of the traditional content publishers. It's the broadcast model. And the reason why we need to move to the conversation model is because: nobody can learn only by listening, nobody can teach only by talking.

Jacques Duplessis captured this, he captured the parallel between language and learning objects beautifully and he draw the obvious next conclusion, he captured the idea that there are two ways, the one way where you wrap everything up in a bundle - it wasn't in my list earlier but I would have included Content Packaging as among those things that we don't like - Content Packaging, you put it all in a file, it's not a nice HTML file so you have to kind of interpret it, and then you zip it, which makes it completely inaccessible for any browser on Earth, and that's our model - Duplessis said, "Programs are to digital media what syntax is to language." With one, the package, it's signed sealed delivered, with the other, it's open. In language it's open. We have access to our syntax. We know how to speak in English. We do not have the capacity, we do not have the acces yet to the syntax in order to speak digital. In the prepackaged mode, the decision has been made. There's only one speaker. But in the open model, we all get to speak.

And this is a phrase that comes not just from me, it's the opening of the Cluetrain Manifesto, we look at various theories of learning which I won't refer to, we need to have conversations. And Erin Brewer captured this, I'll give a nice picture later. Need negotiation, somebody goes on to Yahoo, they say, "I need to know how to, I don't know, raise a bee." And what happens is, the person at the other end who knows all about raising bees, doesn't come out and say, "well, here's how you raise a bee," what they come back with is, they say, "Well why do you need to know how to raise a bee?" And the person explains and that allows the person who knows all about bees to say, "Well you don't really need to know how to raise a bee, you just need to know how to convince a bee to get to a flower." Whatever. You can only push these metaphors so far.

We need to have diversity. And - and I've got thirty seconds on the slide to talk about this, but if there's only one way of thinking, that leads to bad results, it leads to bad results for more reasons than I can talk about, from the stagnation of knowledge, of learning to even things like Rwanda, where people only had one channel of communication and this one channel was horribly abused.

We need to have symbiosis. Synbiosis. That allows us to share resources, and importantly - and this is what I believe I do with my newsletter - to take resources that are in one form and transform them into a resource of a new form so that people can use that resource. A lot of people, myself included, have difficulty with academic journal articles but they're pretty good with nice little summaries, so that process of transformation takes a reosurce that's hard to obtain and makes it a resource that's easy to obtain.

You have to have feedback. Or in the U.S., checks and balances (you can't say that in Canada). In the world of network theory, in neural networks, the concept is called 'back propagation'. It's how networks learn. The information in a network is not one-directional. You try something out. You burn your hand. That sends information back, "Don't do this again."

And we need to have emergence. This is the concept of the wisdom of crowds, and if you Google that phrase you'll find a book of the same name that explains this in detail. The idea that all of us, acting independently, but ensemble, en masse, can come up with something better than any individual in the group could by themselves. This is not a case of marching toward mediocrity, this is a case of the group simple being able to take into account more factors, more variables, than any given individual. The group being able to absorb more information than any individual. But for this to work, we have to have the open communication and access. We have to have the distributed non-centralized non-hierarchical model.

And here we have Erin Brewer talking about how learning, self organized learning, occurs in Yahoo groups, and she studied Yahoo groups. That's a good thing to study. And we have the process of renegotiation, and we have the need for diversity. And the idea that diversity creates more stable, more productive communities.

Filter, repurpose, remix, feed forward

Now again, I'm a great abstractor and I'm a great generalizer and I look at this model as described in Yahoo and elsewhere, and I pull out of this the mechanism, this basically the same mechanism that networks in the natural world use, it's the same mechanism that the neurons in our brains use. Filter - pick what you want. Repurpose - change it. Remix, and then most importantly, feed forward. The brain works, not as information channels - we don't have, you know, the 'eye channel' and the 'ear channel'. We do to a certain extent. But what happens is the information is processed through layers of filtering, repurposing, remixing, feed forward. This happens in a historical process - "I have stood on the shoulders of giants." Filter, repurpose, remix, feed forward. And it happens in the transmission of information through the internet.

And those of you who are looking at small worlds networks and things might observe that in the internet there is a directionality of links and that is something that people have been studying but there is also a directionality of content and information, that runs in the opposite direction - if the link goes one way, the flow of information goes the other way. Instead of trying to organize e-learning, learning objects, metadata, we should be thinking about how this network can organize itself through the mechanism of filter, repurpose, remix, feed forward.

Now, we are at the point now, it is a turning point, and I actually wrote a little paper called 'The Turning Point', where we've pretty much replicated the non-digital environment, we have classrooms online, we have courses that have modules that have lessons online, and people are looking at this and scratching their head and they're saying, "Well what was the fuss?"

But the potential of the internet as a communications tool, as a learning tool, occurs only when we move to the second phase of this transition. When we begin to speak, and not just listen, and in the new language, not just the old language. When we gain access and control of the syntax, the semantics and the vocabulary of the new media. And this happens if, and only if, we have an open communications network.

Can you imagine how we could possibly have learned to read and write if only a certain class of people were allowed to use language to begin with?

We have to gain our voice. We have to speak for ourselves. To reclaim our language, reclaim our media, reclaim our culture. And as Brian Lamb would say, just a few minutes from now in the all-Canadian thread, "Go fast, go cheap, and let it go" - and this is hard for educators. "Let it go out of control." And people ask, what's the one sentence piece of advice you can give for people who want to be instructors in new media, and well I say it's a very short one, a two-word sentence: "Let go."

Just this morning Marie Jasinski, great little piece, I'll run it in my newsletter, on eduChaos. Marie gets it; Marie's an educator from Australia.

So we come to the three themes of my talk. At last. Hope it was worth the wait. Reusable media - we need a 'Blogger' of learning content. And we need it yesterday. Social software - we need a way to support conversations and not just content, and indeed I would take that even further, we need a way to support conversations with content. This ties into the 'Blogger' of e-media; we need a way to create our words, we need a way to send our words. And learning, again as Erin Brewer suggested, we need to first of all understand, and then leverage, the principles of self-organizing networks.

If you want slogans, we need to transform learning, like the fax machine, from something that we do for people, to something that they do for themselves. It is our job as educators in the field of e-learning to not only allow, not only give, but encourage people to have a voice.

And I thank you for your time and you can find more information on my website. Thank you very much.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jul 14, 2024 12:59 a.m.

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