The Conversation

A throwaway line in one of yesterday’s posts (“There’s an unmistakable energy out in the community right now, and I feel sorry for the people in our field who have yet to jack into it”), prompted a couple of comments which, as is common on this page, were more provocative than the putative original content.

D’Arcy shares his recent experience orienting new faculty (presumably relatively young and not-so-set in their ways): “out of 32 of them, 1 put up their hand to say they read blogs. Nobody knew wtf a wiki was.”

Being scheduled myself to give a talk to new faculty next week, I found his report a little chilling.

And Gardner added (among other pointed remarks) that “This is indeed the new digital divide: between faculty and students. If we wait for a generational change, we’ll be waiting until today’s 19-year-olds get their Ph.D.’s and join the academy–if there is an academy by then.”

Gardner references Udell’s justly renowned Heavy Metal Umlaut screencast as compelling proof of concept, or as he puts it: “Maybe Mr. and Ms. Jones will wake up and see that something is happening here and we’d better be wondering what it is.” (BTW, if you want to see a tour de force full-length riff about another rock legend on this, the 28th anniversary of his death, I urge you to check out Dr. Campbell’s lecture on Elvis here.) For what it’s worth, I’ve been using the Wikipedia Animate Greasemonkey script in demos with faculty, and though I can’t make any solid claims for persuasive effectiveness, it always prompts a reaction.

D’Arcy and Gardner are pointing to what is in my opinion the essential problem facing emergence-oriented ed tech practitioners and enthusiasts — communicating the benefits of a set of fairly extensive philosophical and behavioral changes to a population whose self-identity and professional status is defined by its intellectual prowess. It strikes me as something that’s simply impossible to do in four minutes or less (as D’Arcy was expected to do), especially since those of us among the converted have ourselves been learning in small increments over a significant period of time.

Among the things I find challenging to communicate to people is how weblogs can function as more than a simple publishing platform (which is what most new users, myself included, are attracted by), and instead become a means to engage an ongoing distributed conversation. The key, at least technically, is RSS. Even now, when I deliver workshops on weblogging, I often find it difficult to convince learners that a sense of how RSS works is every bit as important as understanding the basics of the Movable Type interface. Of course, people can only take so much information in a single sitting, which is why I increasingly find one-off workshops to be an unsatisfying experience, as my scope of ‘essential topics’ just keeps on expanding…

All this a very roundabout way of writing that I have found the distributed-conversation-on-distributed-conversations between David Warlick, Alan Levine (“blogging, in my humble mind, is also a verb, and the act of participating in others’ blog spaces…”), and Will Richardson (and undoubtedly others) satisfying and enlightening to eavesdrop on (and with publication of this post to participate in)… Here’s Will on the essential role of RSS:

Blogs capture the content, but RSS is where the conversation, the connection of the information is really made. I turn as much to other places (Technorati, Feedster) to find what people are saying back to me than the comments people leave here, precisely because of the distributed nature of the Read/Write Web. I could post this at David’s blog or Alan’s blog, but I post it here because a) I want to capture these thoughts in my own learning, experimenting space, and b) because I know they’ll find this piece of the conversation in their aggregator the next time they flip through it.

… Without a fundamental understanding of RSS glue, distributed conversations are fundamentally illogical. How can we call Alan and David’s separate posts on this topic a conversation? Conversations connect, and their ideas are in disparate spaces. To the un-rss-initiated, their ideas may potentially only come together on a hot-or-miss Google search a few hours after they’re posted.

(Did Will mean to type “hit or miss Google search”? I hope not.)

Update — Stephen observes: “Will Richardson makes an important point: ‘Without a fundamental understanding of RSS glue, distributed conversations are fundamentally illogical. How can we call Alan and David’s separate posts on this topic a conversation?’ But the results generated by RSS readers are not yet sufficiently robust to make this connection clear; we need RSS Referencing to do that.” I missed Stephen’s piece on referencing when it came out last month (must have been running through the cornfields shrieking high holy hell at the full prairie moon), so I’m glad he points to it here.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
This entry was posted in Abject Learning, Emergence, Higher Ed, tech/tools/standards, Textuality, Webloggia, XML/RSS. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Conversation

  1. Jeff McClurken says:

    Not to minimize the seriousness of Gardner’s version of the “digital divide” and our need to convey the level of benefits of these new forms of communication and discussion to our colleagues, but I’d like to complicate a common assumption.

    Many of our students certainly are using this technology, but I’ve found in informal surveys that the number of my students (mostly history majors) involved in blogging or even reading blogs is actually fairly low (~50% in one class, but typically much less). I agree that we need to be thinking more broadly about these issues, but I think we need to remember that not all students are embracing these technologies as thoroughly as their peers (or some of us) are. In other words, “the people in our field who have yet to jack into it” should include those students too.

  2. Brian says:

    Jeff — I can’t disagree… there is a huge range of skills and comfort levels amongst students as well. I meant to add an aside to that effect, but figured there were enough digressions in that crazy post already.

  3. In response to Jeff’s always salutary skepticism, let me propose more indicators besides just blogging, indicators that do in my experience mean that the jump to understanding or participating in wikis or blogs (or other read/write Web activities) is not too far:

    1. Do you instant message or otherwise chat online with your friends?

    2. Do you participate in any online discussion forums?

    3. Do you talk to your friends, either face to face or online, about cool/funny/strange things you’ve found online?

    4. Do you know what fan fiction is? Have you ever read any? Have you ever written any?

    5. Do you know what the Wikipedia is? Have you ever used it for a school assignment? Have you ever browsed it just for fun? Have you ever used it to learn more about how to do something? Have you ever contributed to an article?

    6. Do you know what an avatar is? Have you ever used one for yourself? If so, how many have you used?

    7. How many screen names (or usernames) do you have in your daily life?

    8. Have you ever played a multiplayer game online, either on the Web or with a gaming platform such as Gamecube, Xbox, or PS2?

    9. Do you have a Neopets account? What about Photo Bucket?

    I wish I could come up with an even 10, but I have another meeting to go to. Still, you get the idea. My larger point is that the divide is between those who use the Web as a more-or-less transparent multiuser social space, and those who use the Web the way they’d use, say, a traditional library, or network television back in the days when that’s all there was.

  4. Jeff McClurken says:

    I’m afraid I’m on the verge of taking on the rather awkward, conflicted, and unwanted role of the tech-loving Luddite. Still, in response to Gardner’s comments, I would just note the following:

    A) I asked only about blogging and reading blogs at that point, and thus was commenting specifically on that in my post.

    B) When (in separate conversations) I asked them about IM use, 80-95% of each class responded in the affirmative. Based on other anecdotal comments, at least some (though not all) have used Wikipedia (at times too much and inappropriately for an academic setting), played multiplayer games online, used avatars, have multiple screen names, etc.

    C) However, my original point stands, namely that at least some of our students are not embracing (all) of this technology as clearly as we are.

    [Now, if Gardner’s characterization of their view of the Web as “transparent multiuser social space” is right, then maybe the fact that many of them don’t use blogs–which are just one aspect of that social space–isn’t the problem that my original post suggested. In which case, we need to get back to convincing our colleagues of the utility of engaging students in that space.]

  5. I like having a conversation at Brian’s place.

    If my characterization of their view of the Web is right, then perhaps (oh, bad academic weasel word that I don’t need here, ok), then we need to encourage and inspire them to try out the harder, more interesting, more reflective multiuser social spaces: wikis, blogs (especially), podcasts, and other longer-form or cognitively-stretching experiences. And not to privilege text, we need to know how to take their Flash animation jones and use it to explain to them what a history jones or lit jones or music jones is like, from our inside perspective of expertise and lifelong commitment. Then they won’t all become professors, but they will all have a long, strong dose of committed habits of mind.

    Except I just read some of Hugh Blackmer’s disgruntlement and realized that the problem may be a more fundamental incuriosity … one that our institutions, alas, encourage. See http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/meta/disgruntle.html.

    Hugh is one smart guy. I’m meeting him in Charlottesville for pizza tomorrow. My first blogger meet-up!

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