Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Technologies

Ira Socol wrote about technologies today. I had written the post below after school today (I'd been thinking about it for a day or two) and submitted it to the StarTribune in response to this piece in Sunday's StarTribune by William Souder. Both Ira and I, unlike Mr. Souder, like the idea that 'books' are available in multiple formats.

William Souder offered the opportunity to judge the essay he wrote that was printed in last Sunday's Star Tribune and which was also made available in the online version of the Star Tribune. His essay fails to prove his point. He proposes that formal writing is dying; that it is being replaced by digital writing. I'm not quite sure what Souder means by formal writing, but he implies that it is writing that does not appear in electronic form, which is a ridiculous proposition since most of what has been written by humans in any language and on any surface with any tool is now available on line. For Souder, digital writing is writing that is not published and printed on paper by publishing houses that published books by Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Souder asserts that those publishing housed used to subsidize a number of less-famous writers whose work was worth reading but who couldn't make money for the publisher or, presumably, themselves. I will acknowledge that that how people get paid for writing is changing. Souder says that this inferior digital writing is somehow lessening the value that existed for the kind of writing that came before it. He makes fun of the what he calls digital writing but fails to show how that harms the other kind of writing. Good writing endures, no matter the form.

I still value what Plato wrote about what Socrates said about writing. Socrates, or at least, Plato using a character called Socrates, didn't think much of writing; he considered writing to be much inferior to oral discourse. http://english.ttu.edu/Kairos/2.1/features/brent/platowri.htm

Anyone now reading these words electronically can with one click be able to the words of Socrates, via Plato, written in fairly modern English. There are probably scholars of both Greek and Latin who could offer alternative translations and thus maybe put another twist on the meaning of the words as they appear to us, today. Was Plato's writing on a kodex in classical Greek formal writing? Are his words dead?

Chaucer significantly messed with the formal writing of his day. He eschewed the old formal Latin in favor the indelicate vernacular English. Now we call him the father of English literature. Chaucer would've been all over Facebook if he were here today. And the rhythms and rhyme he so informally wrote six hundred years ago - “Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”- still delight even though the spellings and pronunciations have changed a bit.

With this 'inferior' digital writing, I'm also able to connect readers of these words to the words of Wordsworth – now there's a guy whose words are worth reading. What I especially like about using an electronic tool is that I can go right to the part of Wordsworth's words that I want readers to notice. I have a hard time remembering the exact paragraph where the line I want to share shows up, but I remember that the word 'torpor' appears in the sentence so all I need to do is type 'torpor' into the little 'find' box at the bottom of my laptop screen and, presto, I'm at the passage which expresses notions which readers familiar with Mr. Souder's essay will recognize. Wordsworth, too, was turning traditional, formal writing on its head in favor of the language of the common man.

It was almost two hundred years ago that Wordsworth said, speaking of the capability to excite the beauty and dignity of the mind, “It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.” I suppose Mr. Souder would put blogs and Twitter threads, no matter who wrote them, in with all those sickly and stupid German Tragedies and the deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.

The number of English speakers globally continues increase rapidly so the market for things written in English, digital or formal, is also growing. Mr. Souder's main objection to digital writing seems to be that it is endangering the profits of the owner's of the means of distributing writing on paper. Books are not going away; writing is just showing up in new places in addition to books, newspapers and magazines. If there's enough demand for words printed on paper, somebody will figure out how to make money making books. I think the Book of Kells is gorgeous, but I'm not going to suggest that everything written should be written in a book using the same skills required to produce the Book of Kells. Mr. Souder laments the fact that Moby Dick is available for free. I think it's a good thing that a child in the Philippines, or China, or wherever, can download a copy and read it, or almost any other book, with the aid of a translating tool and even online explanatory notes. Lots of people without the ability to hold or read a book can also have the text read to them by this 'inferior' digital tool. Electronically produced writing opens lots of doors for lots of people. Our ability to tell our stories whether we're bards or scribes is not hampered by electronic communication- electronics make both the stage and the seating area a whole lot bigger and more inclusive.

Friday, February 12, 2010

More on iMoot 2010 and the networked creator

Tomaz Lasic is promising to write about the panel discussion in iMoot 2010 that he moderated and I listened to last Saturday morning; I participated via the chat board. As I mentioned in my last post here, it was a wonderful experience in which to participate. I'm eager to hear/read his report. Tomaz is starting his new job at Moodle HQ soon and he posted to Twitter a comment that a friend of his made to him "So, you're going from environment that doesn't encourage community creation (EdDept) to where comm. is valued & key (Moodle.)" I clumsily tried to expand on that comment by expressing my envy of Tomaz in his new job, but I think the point of the comment that Tomaz's friend made is crucial to what's happening and needs to continue to happen in education. Moodle is by definition a tool that encourages community creation, and Tomaz is a perfect example of John Hagel's poignant observation in his recent post - "Rather than simply pursuing our passion as a hobby, we felt a growing need to make our passion our profession." Tomaz is truly a "networked creator."

I also listened to Martin Dougiamas's keynote talk that kicked off iMoot. Martin, too, demonstrated what a networked creator looks like. In fact, Martin is the gold standard for doing conscious networked creation. His early writing makes his intentions clear. The millions of Moodle users around the planet are the beneficiaries of that conscious networked creativity.

And that contrasts sharply with what is all too common in k-12 school districts- A superintendent holds a meeting that is attended by a group of people. Everybody at the meeting takes notes on paper but nobody records communally what's said. Then, the people at the meeting call another meeting where even more people attend and take separate notes on paper and nothing again gets recorded in common. Each of the people at that meeting then go off to their buildings and call meetings where they mimic the behavior they've just witnessed - they report what they've heard. Sometimes this pattern gets a little 'innovative.' Instead of just having meetings the information is passed via paper, and then, sometimes, even greater 'innovation' occurs and the information gets passed via a chain of emails. That's not creativity - it's passing information. The passing of the information dilutes creativity and accountability.

Instead of welcoming the feedback and criticism that Martin describes as crucial to the quality of the ongoing creative process, the hierarchical information passing system is paranoid about making sure the information is passed 'with fidelity.' Because there's no common record, the information tends to get confused or misunderstood or twisted somehow. And yet, the paranoid system seems to take weeks to get even the a single convoluted idea on paper or into print.

I understand that it takes time to formulate ideas. I've yet to get my thoughts on the page about why Moodle is a model for the kind of 'accountability that is being yearned for by the 'reformers' even though I don't think they would recognize the truth of real accountability if it was staring them in the face. But I won't be surprised if that thought process isn't taken up by someone else via Twitter, or a blog, or even the new and somewhat still puzzling Buzz. I'm not suggesting that this convergence of ideas is the same thing as the recent scandal of the teenage novelist in Germany (I'm not even going to bother to link to that; google it if you haven't yet read about it.) It's just that the speed of ideas that go zipping from Australia to Minnesota to Germany and back to Australia (I was tipped off via Twitter to Hagel's blog by John Mak) is becoming something I'm beginning to trust. I've never met John but I think we've thought about the same things at about the same time and mentioned it to the world via our 'network.' It's work is progress.

Monday, February 8, 2010


iMoot2010 was the answer I gave to a query this evening asking for the best staff development. iMoot2010 was a gathering this last weekend of people who use, create and promote Moodle. People from all over the world were chiming in online about a wide range of aspects of an education tool that has the potential to significantly alter teaching and learning; actually, it's already changing it. Colleagues of mine have paid hundreds of dollars to travel to a hotel conference room to listen to a presentation that may not even be recorded. I attended iMoot 2010 in my slippers and I can review the recordings for at least 90 days. I suspect that the discussions will move over to the forums on the always reliable Moodle Community sites.
Moodle provides the kind of accountability that Arne Duncan et al are asking for in the RTTT. Moodle goes much farther than the clumsy observation and test score methods being touted as ways to make teachers and schools 'accountable.' I was reminded of the transparency that is and always has been essential to Moodle. Martin Dougiamous reminded us that the strength of Moodle is the fact that it's open source and only gets better as more people use, test, question, critique, modify, and expand the tool. The refreshing openess of the conference reminded me why I like teaching and learning.