By Stephen Downes
July 10, 2003

The Autism of Knowledge Management
Today's longish issue has a theme of sorts, though I don't know exactly what it is - something to do with the nature of objects, games and the new learner. And the futility of trying to move from the physical world of artifacts to the virtual world of ideas while keeping all your concepts, parasigms and practices intact. Anyhow, this item - dug up by Scott Leslie following up a reference in the Macromedia white paper - is a nice lead-in to today's non-theme. Like Leslie, I am uncomfortable with the autism analogy (people who are not psychologists should stay well away from the field). The point (completely ignored by today's learning object evangelists): "That there is a qualitative difference between the process of steelmaking and learning as a human experience laden as it is with emotive colouring, and nested in an intricate, ever-changing web of relationships, is not noticed, or it is ignored." Like I said, just the right note... By Patrick Lambe, December 31, 200-31 8:33 p.m. [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Final Version of Weblog Definition
Jill Walker has polished off her final version of a definition of weblogging for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. And I think she basically has it right: "A weblog, also known as a *blog, is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so that the reader sees the most recent post first. The style is typically personal and informal..." By Jill Walker, jill/txt, June 28, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

The Manhattan Virtual Classroom
Steven wrote in to say that "your newsletter has mentioned several free, open source course management systems. Here's another." From the clipping: "The Manhattan Virtual Classroom has been available under the GPL since October, 2000. In use at Western New England College since 1997, Manhattan includes a variety of discussion groups, live chat, areas to post the syllabus, lectures, and other handouts/notices, a module for organizing online assignments and exams, and a self-contained module for private email. Developed entirely in 'C', Manhattan is 100% database-free and is easy to install on a Linux/FreeBSD server, is very fast, and has very modest hardware requirements. A complete teacher's reference manual is available." By Various Authors, July, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Open Source Takes on Exchange
Microsoft's grip on the corporate and academic market has always been anchored by the Exchange Server, that bloated and generally useless piece of software that combines email, calendar and file sharing services. This dominance may now be challenged with the launch today of OpenGroupWare, an open source tool that performs the same enterprise functions. "OGo is important because it's the missing link in the open source software stack. It's the end of a decade-long effort to map all the key infrastructure and standard desktop applications to free software. OGo offers users a free solution for collaboration and document management that, despite being free of charge, will far surpass the quality and level of collaboration found on Windows through integration of MS Office, Exchange Server and Sharepoint. Today marks the completion of the 'Open Stack.'" By Thor Olavsrud, InternetNews.Com, July 10, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials: Understanding the New Students
Readers of OLDaily will have read much of this article before as the author quotes at length from several key sources, including the National Center for Educational Statistics, 'The Digital Disconnect,' and others. Still, it's nice to see this research assembled in one place, especially when we begin to see what a consistent and compelling picture it paints of today's connected learner. The implication, writes the author, is a "disconnect" between what students expect when they attend university, and what universities actually, a disconnect that will have to be addressed with a rethinking of what universities are and what they offer. By Diana Oblinger, EDUCAUSE Review, July, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Building a Leadership Vision: Eleven Strategic Challenges for Higher Education
Much of this article is a rehash of 1990s CorpSpeak - "Supporting Entrepreneurial Efforts and Technology", "Building Strategic Alliances With Others" - stuff we've heard over and over. The good bit is at the end, a nice chart that compares the old approach to academia with the new. Good call-out: "The modern system of education will move to a post-modern perspective in which taking advantage of context, collaborating, and constructing knowledge will be valuable skills." By Donald E. Hanna, EDUCAUSE Review, July, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Next-Generation Educational Technology versus the Lecture
Despite the fact that we should know better, the lecture continues to dominate university learning. With the potential offered by information technology, though, we can think of alternative means of deliveing learning. This author suggests that rising trend exemplified by online games provides the answer. I don't really like the examples provided - can't anyone stay away from the military theme when talking about learning any more? And the numbers are wrong - it would be very difficult to sell a game for $100 a pop when the going market is less than half that. But the idea is right. Massive PDF file (when oh when will EDUCAUSE learn to use HTML?). By Joel Foreman, EDUCAUSE Review, July, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Stephen's Web - 1997
Speaking of games, I had the happiest discovery the other day - archive.org has captured my personal site from six years ago, including a great deal of material I thought was long lost. Included in this material is the full set of background and discussion transcripts for a CADE seminar Jeff McLaughlin, Terry Anderson and I hosted on a MUD in 1996. If you follow some of the other links you can see the genesis of what is Stephen's Web today - following the Brandon link, for example, takes you to an early (1997) version of what would now be called blog software. The Certificate in Adult Education course from 1996 is present in its entirety. Clicking on Old Home takes you to my archives from 1997, displaying even earlier versions of my web page. None of the backgrounds display through archive.org but they can be retrieved, so I'm now in the process of reconstructing this lost material.

Now when I talk about learning objects today, you should always keep in mind my background. McLaughlin and I, along with István Berkeley (who also shared with me a passion for neural nets) and Wes Cooper, did a lot of work on MUDs in the early 90s - 1992, 93 and 94. I ran a MUD called Atahabsca MUD, which was removed from that university's servers in 1995, and Jeff and I collaborated on the Painted Porch MAUD, site of the CADE conference. When I think of an object, it is always with this in the back of my mind. On a MUD, everything is an object - the rooms are objects, the people are objects, the goblets are objects. They are things that are located in an environment which can be explored, examined, read, displayed, or whatever. This is still the mental image I have of objects, and the MUD gaming environment is still the model I keep in my mind for learning of the future.

I wish I could take everybody back ten years, back to the days when we were all virtual beings in a virtual world, with what we know today, and then talk about the potential. A lot has happened since then - people didn't want 'games' they wanted courses (like the CAE course), then they wanted course portals, then the concept of an 'object' was twisted and bent out of shape so that it came more to represent a chapter in a textbook than it did a next-generation learning tool. I wish I could show you my I Ching guru, the quests that I built, my simulation of Plato's Cave. Even today, the projects I work on are quite literally pulled back into the horse-and-buggy era of educational design. I can't stop people from thinking that learning is about universities, and that online is about the LMS or LCMS, but I can cling to the vision and wait for a more enlightened age. By Stephen's Web, Stephen's Web, May, 1997 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Have Your Say On Your Rights
I've mentioned this here before, but today's CETIS coverage underscores the importance of this item. The IEEE-LTSC Digital Rights Expression Language subcommittee is collecting requirements. As the author correctly notes, the IEEE effort may itself be encumbered by rights - you can be sure people are submitting needs docuemnts that would effectively require that IEEE adopt a protected or encumbered expression language. various people on the DREL committee have been asked point blank to state their company's patents and encumberances with respect to digital rights expression languages, but so far, have refused to do so. This is not a good omen. And, in my view, the IEEE project is in serious danger of being compromised as a result. By Wilbert Kraan, CETIS, July 10, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

File Swappers Buy More Music
In an article today called The Internet and other False Messiahs author Alex Malik argues that, because of today's demographic, file sharing cannot lead to increased music sales. "Consumers over the age of 30 grew up with a 'collecting' mentality. We purchased music on the prevailing medium of the day, and in many cases chose to retain the medium for posterity. This is because they put a value on music.... [but today] most popular music is not being created for posterity or for the longevity of the artists concerned - it is disposable, it is there for the temporary "high", and it is being created for the "here and now". This is reflected in the purchasing habits (where there are any!) of music consumers under the age of 30."

Now Malik argues that "songs are available for download or peer to peer transfer well in advance of being available for sale at a local retailer, so by the time the track is commercially released - again the listener has tired of the track and lost interest in the product. As a result, another sale is lost." Well, yeah, maybe. But maybe not.

If you believe that music publishers sell music, then you will not believe the survey results cited in this BBC article. You will think people want free music. "That's just human nature." But if you believe, as I do, that the music industry actually sells storage media - the CDs on which music is prerecorded - then the pattern of listening online and buying offline makes sense. People are buying storage for the music they like. The recording of the music on the CD isn't the product, it's the inducement for people to buy the product, the CD itself. It's not simply that, as Powel observes, "The music industry has failed to change with the times." No, it runs deeper than that. The music industry forget what it is that they were selling. Or maybe, they deliberately changed it.

Like many people, I have LPs (vinyl analog recordings) and CDs purchased in my youth. I remember rushing home from the record store (the place that sold LPs), unwrapping the cellophane, reading the liner notes, following the lyrics as it played on the turntable (a device for playing back vinyl LPs). These albums (another name for LPs) were artifacts: I would listen to this one when Luc and I filled the room with smoke, I listened to that one in the basement in Calgary, I saw that band three times in 1973. The music I could get anywhere - it was, after all, free for the taping from the radio. But the album is what carried the memory.

Somewhere along the line, the music industry tired of selling artifacts - they cost too much to produce, I suppose - and decided to start selling ideas. Ideas are not durable - at least, not these ideas - they churn, so you pump them out, you make them disposable. Sell something without lasting value, and so sell more. In so doing, the industry gutted music, removing from the sale anything that I would actually want to buy. It is the music itself that turned music from something concrete to something aetherial, and idea. And now they want to sell the idea, not the artifact. But to do that, you have to control the ideas. And that's what the copyright debate is about. Dictatorships through history have tried to control ideas, and from the Roman repression of Christianity (everybody should read Gibbon at least once in their lives) to the Ayatollah's repression of rock music they have failed, every one of them. An idea is stored as a pattern of neural activity in a brain, and encoded and transmitted as a series of sound waves or digital transmissions. It slips across borders, it eludes radar, it flits from mind to mind. It cannot be controlled, except through control of the mind.

Oh, they have tried. But as their failure becomes more apparent, the remedies sought become harsher and harsher - jail for decoding DVDs, billion dollar fines for indexing a file system - and the appearance of repression becomes more evident (with tens, maybe hundreds of millions of file sharers - 48 percent of all music, according to Malik - this is surely no outgrowth of a democratic movement).

When you devalue what you sell, when you take away from it anything that would actually induce someone to buy it, when you substitute something of no value in place of something of intrinsic value and expect to charge the same money, you have sown the seeds of your own demise as an industry. This is as true for publishing, for learning, as it is for music. Lambe (remember? from four hours ago) suggests that what we need is the disposable learning object. That would be, I guess, the Brittany Spears of learning. Bubblegum. Disposable. Valueless.

Learning should endure. It should endure, not by trying to capture and sell ideas, not by transforming the artifacts of learning into a wisp of nothingness, but by creating artifacts toward which the learner will be attracted by the ideas. Let the ideas, as they always have, flow free! Let them stir a child's mind the way Abbey Road (LP by a musical group called the Beatles) once stirred mine. You want to sell, you want to make money? Sell something real.

A learning object is an abstract. It is not a thing. It is virtual, not concrete. When you think of it as though it were a document, a page in a book, an artifact, you are not only headed down the wrong road economically (and even politically), you are misrepresenting just what it is that a learning object is. And you get, not just the economics, but the system as a whole, wrong. You start to think you can define learning objects, when they are undefinable. You start to think you can line learning objects into leat courses, when they are unorderable. You start to think that you can contextualize learning objects, when learning objects are things that fit into contexts.

The university, historically, sold time, sold place, and service. It cannot remove all of these from what it sells, and expect the business to remain the same. Education, as we know it, now flows into the aether, where it has - really - always belonged. The university, the school, after an airy ride, must now look back and ask, what, really, do people value? And sell that. Or die. By Unknown, BBC, July 9, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

E-learning Coming of Age
E-learning gets an endorsement from the mainstream press as the author quotes staff from Mr. Lube regarding that company's training program. "And we're pretty darn sure it's working," report executives, citing observable improvements in performance after e-learning was introduced. By Kevin Marron, Globe and Mail, July 10, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Let's Get Small
The author advocates the development of small learning modules - not learning objects, just shorter lessons. Longer courses are "great for grandma who just began developing her computer skills, but what I really need to know is how to create an Excel pivot table. I don't want to waste my time searching through the table of contents of e-learning modules to find the topic. I certainly do not want to pay for an entire Excel module when I only need a specific topic. What I want is a short module on pivot tables." This is right, obviously, and if what the author describes are not learning objects, then so much for learning objects. By John Talanca, e-Learning Guru, Juky, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect]

Know a friend who might enjoy this newsletter?

Feel free to forward OLDaily to your colleagues. If you received this issue from a friend and would like a free subscription of your own, you can join our mailing list at http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/website/subscribe.cgi

[ About This NewsLetter] [ OLDaily Archives] [ Send me your comments]

Copyright © 2003 Stephen Downes
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.