Associative Trails, Connectivity, Networks, Rhizomes, Learning

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As is my wont, I’m throwing together a bunch of semantically charged bits, following an only partially conscious, mostly intuitive process, a kind of ADHD fluttermind effect that arises from neural activity in my brain. To nail down some of these flighty connections and intuitions, I will explore it further here and, as much as possible, make the gist of my “associative trail” meaningful for others. This post follows my having watched Gardner Campbell’s conversation with Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean about [Vannaver Bush’s] “As You May Think,” Annotation and Liberal Learning, along with other texts and videos on cognition, on neuroplasticity, on technology, on memory and on learning. I have not marked the various intellectual rabbit trails that I’m pulling together here, but will seek to do so, over time, probably using

Part of the way that I’m thinking about this is straightforward “old-school” analogy (which is a kind of connection across difference). Here’s the way I’m thinking: I know that brains work through a complex mechanism of dynamic networks. We still don’t know exactly how consciousness and thinking arise from large numbers of interconnected neurons stimulating each other in certain ways, but that seems to be how our brains — our mind-generators — work. It amounts to connections that are dynamically self-managed and networks that produce certain cognitive functions. Those neural networks collaborate and connect with other networks to produce increasingly complex cognitive functions, and those dynamic structures are iterated and reiterated dynamically, scaling up until they generate those effects or results or entities that we identify as “thought,” “learning” and “mind.”

Learning takes place by making new connections, by building networks of meaning, by noting and reiterating the way in which certain stimuli produce a kind of “pow!” that is impactful and meaningful. If, in my analogy, individual human beings function as if they were neurons, what they do, then, is respond to stimuli. Once a stimulus reaches a certain level, the person/neuron unit acts in a way that stimulates one or more others in a network, which can then produce cascades neurons and networks firing, reacting, interacting with other neural nodes or concepts or cognitive bits and pieces. Over time, connections are forged, then strengthened or pruned, leading to a dynamic yet stable pattern of learning.

What I’m trying to suggest is that there may be ways in which learning is both individual, but also collective. There may be ways in which this whole process of associative trails builds significant patterns over time. And from those patterns emerge the dynamic yet stable results of collaborative learning. Individual learning, intuitions and associative trails count. But perhaps, they are all the more impactful when they connect to others. After all, if we think about scholarship, or even about intellectual culture more generally, it is about individual cognitive processing, but also about connection. It’s about communities of learning, of research, of thought. And now, with emerging open technologies and new tools that facilitate collaborative learning over time — from traditional scholarship, for example, to online learning communities and web-based annotation tools like — we have have better modalities of learning, new ways of making connections and associations of deep and resonant value that shape communal thinking. Such tools help construct layers that may ultimately result in more complex, more meaningful, more impactful learning.

(I guess the question to ask is how one goes about pruning those associative trails or those connections that are not helpful or productive. How does one choose or discern? A difficult question.)

Another way to think of it is as a kind of learning ecosystem. Each part of that system can function individually, but the true beauty of the ecosystem is the way in which everything is interconnected in a kind of dynamic but generally stable system of interchange, mutual benefit, exchange, stimulus and reaction. I think of the vast mycorrhizal networks, loosely connected with tree root systems that help regulate forests, for example. (One suggestive video to watch on this topic is Susan Simard’s TED Talk on “How Trees Talk to Each Other.”) This way of thinking about it — seeing analogies and correspondences between neural networks, mycorrhizal networks, communication networks, networks of learners — resonates in significant ways with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s  Mille Plateaux (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1980) [A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987)].

If the modality that I am talking about amounts to facilitating the growth of complex, multilayered, interconnecting and interpenetrating ecosystems of thought, of learning, of mind, my earlier difficult question can be rephrased to wonder what the analog for biochemical mechanisms that regulate or shape the overarching system might be. What complex dynamic process will “select” the strong and meaningful nodes and connections for building resiliency? What processes will target those connections that are destined to be pruned because they contribute too little to the long-term survival of the complex system?

Is there, in fact, a way in which learning, technology and connection are weaving themselves together for the construction of some greater learning/thinking entity? (Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere?) Is this thread simply delusional? Those questions merit further thought. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on these random musings.

Openness, Connection, Scholarship, Knowledge Development, Learning

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I’m still pondering the relationship between openness and connection. There are significant ways in which the two concepts align well with each other in the domain of learning, even if they do not overlap semantically. That is, open learning is generally going to be characterized by a relative ease of connection in many forms. Connecting new information or concepts to previous learning. Facility of connecting reflective insights to hard data, or old writing to new writing through easy access to stores of data or to the archive. Connections between learners in different regions or different time zones. Connection and collaboration over great distances.

There are also significant ways in which one can also see some tension or opposition. One location of conflict is in the disciplinary rules for knowledge development and in the parameters that teaching / learning / publishing institutions have developed for verification and control of that intellectual work. Let me offer a brief historical sketch. As humanist intellectual traditions emerged from the Renaissance and evolved through the Enlightenment, the development of ideas and the formulation and verification of mental models and bodies of knowledge took place in a relatively open process. Anyone who felt qualified and able to do so could contribute to the enterprise, which was constructed around sharing information, theories and arguments through print media, mostly books. Those media were “accessible” more widely than manuscripts and personal letters and notes had been. However, that “openness” was quite relative. Very few persons, almost exclusively men, could afford to make the steep climb to that free exchange of ideas. One had to be literate and one had to have the resources to buy or borrow books, assemble a personal library or be in a position to access someone else’s personal library; additionally, one needed leisure time to read, reflect and write; finally, one needed a modicum of social-intellectual reputation to publish– or the support and endorsement of an influential patron or a printer. Generally speaking, there was no such profession as “scholar” or “researcher.” One could, however, be an erudite writer, like Voltaire or Samuel Johnson and live by one’s pen and by one’s reputation. In the eighteenth century, writers often survived thanks to patronage, but increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, writers were able to earn a living directly from their writing. That said, even with growing access in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to literacy, coupled with the power of publishing one’s thoughts, theories or research, only those with a certain education and a certain socio-economic standing had access to both learning and the “connected” conversation of the erudite. What is more, that conversation was largely separate from formal systems of education.

Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, knowledge production, teaching and learning “opened” significantly. The influence of religion in education (and as a moral authority) waned somewhat.  Secular education, with its somewhat greater freedom of thought and expression, gained influence through the impact and the scale of new knowledge and perspectives. The secular university also began systematically applying scholarly knowledge and theories to education. It is mostly in the nineteenth century that the scholarly conversation connected with the processes of schooling. At the same time, thinkers increasingly aligned critical inquiry and publishing with disciplinary channels. Areas of knowledge that that had previously been pursued and developed by amateurs and by men of leisure came to be formalized as new secular disciplines, like history, “modern letters,” evolutionary biology, physics. Openness and connection continued to exist in multiple forms. Indeed, they expanded through relatively accessible channels of publication and knowledge distribution, schools and public libraries, increasingly rapid interpersonal communications. To assure the validity and reliability of information and conclusions that scholar-teachers developed within increasingly well-defined areas of knowledge, those persons (mostly men) certified and authorized each other as experts in particular knowledge domains. The same persons assumed the authority to apply disciplinary rules and criteria to the still generally open discussion of hypotheses, methods, experiments, reflections and conclusions. Over time, scholars and arbiters of publication further clarified and formalized disciplinary rules and criteria. The authority and prestige of postsecondary institutions increased further. The production of knowledge under their aegis came to be highly regularized. Disciplines and disciplinary academic publications (journals and presses) structured , validated and assured the quality of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination. By the late twentieth century, that that pendulum had swung a bit far in the direction of verification and control (especially control). Disciplinary structure organized most learning, discouraged connection across boundaries and exerted significant influence on the relative prestige and the power of the various discipline-based sectors within universities. (And, as Sir Ken Robinson notes in this TED Talk, around 8:30, the arts fairly systematically find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy.)

By the 1960s, discipline-focused publication had become an industry unto itself. The very profitability of that enterprise spurred the rise of aggressively for-profit enterprises (publishers, presses, disseminators), who took advantage of the publish-or-perish incentives of academia to harness both relatively inexpensive peer-review labor and large streams of unpaid-for content. Institutional dependence on peer-reviewed publication to evaluate scholars, combined with academics’ need to appear in print (to bolster their h-index or other “scholarly impact” metrics) as a proof of their “productivity” undergird that economic model. [In this phenomenon, I note, the production-oriented capitalist model reshaped the scholarly conversation within the larger evolution of political and economic culture  — empire and capital –from the Enlightenment through the mid-twentieth century. In the last two decades of the 20th century, global capitalism outstripped nation-states and the dominant globalized “knowledge industry” grew to what it is today.] To assure its intellectual production, organizations like Elsevier (“Empowering Knowledge / Knowledge Uncovered“) count on essentially free or very-low-cost academic labor and content. On the flip side of the transaction, those enterprises benefit from lucrative sales because of scholars’ need to consult new research, new writing, new scholarly articles, new books, in short, knowledge products that those firms make available for a somewhat-more-than-modest (or, in some cases, an exorbitant) price, subscription or per-use fee.

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, intellectual work and the production of knowledge are far more democratic and more widely shared in the early twenty-first century than they were in the 1750s. Additionally, modalities of communication now exist that make scholarly communication and the sharing of ideas almost universal and almost instantaneous. The internet has greatly facilitated connection and increased the potential for shared understandings among learners. There is greater openness and greater ease of communication. On the other hand, academic and scholarly controls, increasing “selectivity” and “focus”of some traditional publication channels and extremely expensive conferences tend to push knowledge production and knowledge dissemination in the direction of closure and restriction. In a very real sense, the rise of disciplines and the enforcement of disciplinary standards in academic publishing has, in significant measure, discouraged cognitive exchange between disciplines and erected barriers to interdisciplinary communication. There are countertrends, of course, that move in the direction of openness and sharing, but the principal thrust in the evolution of scholarship (which influences the organization of learning) has been toward ostensible “rigor” in genre and style among peer-reviewed journals, a “rigor” that is discounts expression or formatting that do not align with disciplinary norms, and a restrictive, often unidisciplinary focus among journals. Additionally, the economic model that makes access to publications extremely costly also restricts functional openness and ease of connection.

Reaction to what some considered excessive copyright and DRM restrictions, along with rejection of publishing constraints and high fees, led to various openness or open access movements, initiatives, statements or trends, like the BOAICreative Commons and SPARC and various open science initiatives. If there is a liberation in these efforts, it is not exclusively in the form of relief from high-cost access to scholarly work, but also in the way in which open online scholarship has rekindled connection across disciplinary lines. Digital humanities, for example, often blends literary or philosophical perspectives or information with statistical analysis, techniques and models from information science or data visualization. The work of sociologists and literary theorists may appear together, inviting comparison and dialogue. Biologists, geologists and anthropologists may offer converging perspectives on issues like climate change in a single scholarly piece. There are ways in which venues that are “open” through ease of access and relatively low cost, also invite “connection,” reviving some of the vigor of the scholarly conversation among erudite polymaths of the Enlightenment, for example, that had been lost.

In the end, I suspect that there will always be a tension between the mindset of some scholars (and, following them, teachers and learners) who insist on disciplinary rigor or on quasi-doctrinal disciplinary views and the more open mindset, which may include a frank refusal of “restrictive disciplinarity,” of others who do not see the value of allowing their curiosity and intellectual work to be contained within a single well-defined channel or box. It is this latter thought, the refusal of historically emergent but non-essential and somewhat arbitrary constraints and the re-joining of openness and connection in digitally mediated learning and knowledge construction, that gives me hope and that stimulates my passion as a thinker and as a learner.




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Plunging into the content and the spirit of the cMOOC #openlearning17, I’m thinking at length about “openness” and its many resonances. And, to be quite honest, I’m posing some hard questions during my interior conversation, as I think about the future in general, the future of education, and my own life years from now. (N.B. To some degree, there will be some overlap between this MOOC and another that I’m working on, “What Future for Education?” — taught by Clare Brooks and created by the University of London, UCL Institute of Education.) Another “life thread” that interjects itself into whatever I’m weaving here is deep distress about the Zeitgeist (triumphant extremist populism, nationalism, racism, disregard for truthfulness and ethics, factionalism).

Let me start with the last element (concern), then move on from there. For obvious reasons, I’m worried. My country is entering into what promises to be a phase of extreme conflict, dissension, instability, strife and extreme disregard on the part of many political leaders (and their followers) for fellow human beings. While I’m concerned for the well-being of the vulnerable and marginalized in the U.S., while I’m taken aback by gag orders and by blatant lying, and while I despise the way in which leaders in power seem to want to jettison environmental protections, reject climate-change treaties and ignore scientific evidence and muzzle conscientious scientists and public servants, I’m also very selfishly wondering about my own prosperity, my life savings and my retirement portfolio. Will I be able to retire early? Will I be able to retire at all? Or will the economy melt down and diminish my retirement savings and force me to continue working for many more years to come? More importantly, will this horror lead to armed conflict or destruction of the social ecosystem that I know how to navigate?

In this context (one that I recognize is far harsher for folks in other countries or regions), I find it a bit harder to commit to “openness” in the sense of devoting time and talent to the creation of resources for unfettered distribution, with little or no proprietary control or benefit. My fear and anxiety make it harder for me to feel generous. The dire threat of this social-political moment makes me wonder if I need to hold back and preserve the resources of my work and talent, to invest them in my own future good. Should I not seek maximum benefit, eventually, by selling my creations for top dollar? Of course, it is possible that I’m deluding myself about the value of my cognitive powers and my efforts in knowledge-creation, learning management, or the crafting of educational products. Still, I suspect that I may have a few good ideas, strategies and frameworks to offer. I may be able to help improve the quality of learning, both now and for the future.

So, influenced by angst and concern for the social, economic and political future of my country and the world, I ask myself whether or not I should try to shape these potential contributions to a more commercial and self-serving purpose. Should I craft appealing products, market them, sell the heck out of them? (And to heck with openness!) Except that, in the end, that’s not really who I am. Despite it all, I am determined to continue to create high-quality frameworks, concepts and materials in collaboration and in dialogue with colleagues and fellow-travelers.  In some cases, I may make my stuff broadly available as OERs. Still, with my sympathetic nervous system constantly stimulated by what I see and hear daily, it’s hard to remain dilated, relaxed, generous, vulnerable and open — in the best senses of that last word — connecting freely and meshing with a process that draws me out of my self-centeredness. (Hmmm… I can’t help but wonder: Is “openness” functionally opposed to “self-centeredness”?)

Sorry for the excessive length of this post.

Opening the page for #openlearning17…

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This blog’s initial reasons for existing are contingent and instrumental. Its purpose will evolve over time, undoubtedly, but for the moment, it is primarily intended as a tool for participating in the Open Learning 17 cMOOC.

Currently on sabbatical, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about teaching, learning, education. I am hopeful that these reflections will help me better support my students’ learning and allow me to empower and equip them — and myself — for living and working in the twenty-first century. Despite cultural and political forces to the contrary, I am hopeful than openness — open exchange, open access, clarity about power relationships, verifiable accuracy in the public record, freedom of connection, freedom of speech, open-mindedness — will provide humanity with the tools it needs to better understand our universe, to help us build more effective, more helpful, more constructive and more sustainable societies across the planet that allow all human beings, indeed, the biosphere as a whole, to survive in diversity and to thrive.

Open learning, connected learning, collaborative learning, critical learning are all part of what I hope will be an emergent paradigm that points toward increasingly collaborative, satisfying, peaceful and sustainable human cultures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I believe that the long-term survival of Homo sapiens sapiens and of all sentient species depends on a radical shift that must include changes in dominant notions of education and learning.