Seeing through the looking glass – The most important skill of the 21st century.

I’ve had a bit of a bad week folks… I’ve had several people tell me that I need to be more politic if I wish to succeed. In response, I’m going to write a little something about what I think is the one cure for the society that actually makes that true. Truth is… I’m not saying those folks are wrong. “Stay on message” is a tried and tested way of getting ahead. Being nice to people in positions of power is a far better way of getting them to, say, appear on your show. But. but. I look at Oscar and I ask myself, do I really want you to have to keep giving a little of that honesty “i want that banana damnit” to get ahead. I know he’ll have to do some of it. I understand we have a social contract that doesn’t allow us to simply do whatever the hell we want… but I do think that there is something that education can do to make it so that “stay on message” ends up being a little less productive, and, therefore, less used. Man would I like to see honesty popular. Even a path to success.

Stay on message
Just to make sure that everyone knows what I’m referring to “stay on message” refers to the idea that if someone says the same thing often enough, regardless of how groundless, ridiculous or terrible that thing may be, it becomes true for the person hearing it. Traditionally, this is something that has played itself out more in military situations, in torture, in places where someone has enough power to force you to listen to something over and over again. Now, as the downside of ubiquity of communication, a french fry company can say “ha, i used to think that french fries were bad for me, i was so stupid” in earshot of me thousands of times, through the radio, through TV, through the internet… anywhere. Consciously, I don’t have to believe it… but those advertisers aren’t working on me specifically, they’re working on percentages. If 75% of the people are 2% more likely to eat french fries every fifty times they hear the ad, the company makes a fortune. If, to maybe bring up a touchier subject, someone says that “we went to Iraq to get rid of a dictator, and the world is better off without him” often enough… my conscious mind doesn’t have to believe it… but it’s just close enough to the truth to cut the edge off my anger. (Well… not mine, but apply the 75% – 2% thing I said earlier) So… stay on message, things become true-er.

Media
A quick word about this word. Media, in the sense that I’m using it here, is a particular kind of sign. It’s a representation of a product, an emotion… anything really, anything that was created with the express intent to communicating something to you the viewer, with the intent of making some kind of gain…. so

  • A movie made to get you to pay to go see it
  • An image of a poor child trying to get you to ‘help
  • A t-shirt with a logo meant to make you buy the product
  • Music

One of the reasons media works
There’s a sense in which media reflects itself back upon the viewer. While I’m writing this post (second time… had to save it and come back to it… and I’m still not happy with the way the words are coming out) I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s Desire. As soon as I say that a few things probably happen in your brain… if you’re familiar with the album, maybe a bunch of things. But I have built a little bit of my character in your mind. And we all identify ourselves to other people in the things that we do, wear and say. What I’m trying to talk about here is one step further. What happens to ME when i listen to the song. Or, even better, when i sing along. Let’s take Isis

I was thinkin’ about turquoise, I was thinkin’ about gold,
I was thinkin’ about diamonds and the world’s biggest necklace.
As we rode through the canyons, through the devilish cold,
I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless.

For me, at least, there’s a certain identification that happens… a ‘getting into the story’ that i particularly like about this kind of Dylan song. I can, for a few moments, identify with the man who thinks about how reckless his journey appears to his ‘wife.’

There is a sense in which all media works this way. If I’m looking at a commercial for sporting equipment, or beer, the advertisers are creating a scenario to create the context to which they hope i wish to belong. “clean, easy drinking taste.” A woman in a cowboy hat. A bar with sports playing in the background. This what i represent when I hold some watery alcohol infused concoction with a label on it.

These things, however, are pretty easily identified. I know a commercial is a commercial… it comes between the shows I wish to watch. The internet, however, throws a whole ball of wacko into the works. Any given place, every given piece of text, all the media that comes out of it might be selling something. It’s selling ideas, it’s selling books, it’s selling ideas that might sell books. Now… brand placement in movies has been happening for years, funny how that bottle of COAK always seems to have its label pointing toward the camera. But at least when we’re watching a movie we’re suspecting it. If I see Joe Cool holding a coak, and have that sudden sense that I would be cool if I was holding a coak I can say “wait one gosh darned minute” and figure that I’ve been imprinted somehow. Or, more likely, when looking for something to drink in a store, gravitate to the coak for some reason i’m not entirely conscious of.

Oh but the internet. Is this thingy that I’m reading really someone’s opinion? Are they being told not to say something? Who pays their salary? What job are they trying to get? What is their business model? How are they trying to make me identify with them? How does what they say make me feel and why would they want me to feel this way? Why are they doing all this anyway?

How, in effect, is the particular piece of media trying to make me do something and why did the creators of it want me to do it?

Some tools…

Hypermediation
The neologism, as you might imagine, is one that many people have adopted. The one I’m referring to is Nicholas Carr’s idea. That is referring to all the intermediaries that come between you and something you are buying online. Here is his article from 2000 and his follow up article on web 2.0. Take a quick read over them. He does a great job in the first one tracking his way towards buying a Harry Potter novel online.

Web 2.0
Oh my… what a tangled web we weave when we use a marketing idea (web2.0) to describe marketing ideas… but here we go. Take a look at what I think is the single best educational tool on the internet right now… Amazon book reviews. At time of writing there are 51 comments on the Stephen Colbert “I am America (and so can you)”. Flipping through them you can see a bunch of folks who are part of the ‘Colbert Nation’ (CN) who have written things… “I picked up this book too fast and broke my wrist. There should be a warning label.” This, of course, written a month before the book was released, with assorted ‘CN’ signs all around it. The location of the author, for instance, is Unfiction HQ, USA. There are other folks who’ve written in saying they hated the book. But do they? Why are they writing it? Are they joking? What does the CN have to do with affecting the way that the book gets connected to other books? The comments are fascinating to me… and, I figure of the 51 reviews, there are only about 5 that are actual attempts at reviewing the book. The rest are simply performance of community membership.

What am I babbling about?
The description by Carr of shopping for the harry potter book and the Amazon book review are two examples of everyday life on the internet. We are constantly bombarded by subtle media signs that are trying to use our desire for belonging to get us to buy things, to get us to do things… If we aren’t careful, we do things to belong. I buy that MacBookPro so I can represent myself as the cool counter culture dude… not like Mr. Big Proprietary mainstream Microsoft. (Oh wait, Mac’s are the most proprietary system possible and have a fantastic grasp of marketing) That, and, of course, some people really like the product. The latter is perfectly fine, the former… not so good. The former involves us looking in the mirror that the Marketers are created for us. What we need to be able to do is see through that looking glass… see through the image that is being conjured up for us, that vision of ourselves that is being created for us to wear, to a practical evaluation of the thing that we are looking at.

Then… we need to teach it to our kids.

My challenge
This post started for me as a response to the flack I’ve received about my OLPC post from a few weeks ago. I’ve been awed… simply awed by the marketing genius that is the One Laptop Per Child project. I mean… they originally targeted $100 dollars (once the $100 dollars laptop project) because it was the price of a textbook (the youtube video describes this). Now… not so much… current price almost $200 bucks. So a new name, and brilliantly woven into the marketing. The webpage is lovely, all ‘we’re gonna save the world’ and ‘this is going to rock.’ The marketing has made me suspicious from the beginning… Do they really have a plan for teachers to teach with these? Why are they doing this anyway? Why does the 2 for 1 laptop thingy appeal to people so much? Is it just because they can then rationalize buying the cool new thing by saying they’re ‘donating a computer to the needy?’ I’ve been trying to see through this looking glass to try and find the ‘real product’ underneath. I have not found it yet.

So what now?
Well… hypermediation is something that can be practised. It’s just a question of getting accustomed to the ways that companies go about putting their marketing into things. The amazon study is a great way to get a sense of how communities work, how people’s backgrounds and ‘other work’ relate to the work they’re doing now. Nothing like finding an amazon reviewer, checking the other stuff they’ve written, and figuring out who they are and contextualizing their opinion. It’s a simple lesson plan, but i think an important one. We need our kids to be able to penetrate the pall of marketing that surrounds the internet and their daily lives so that their choices don’t get made for them too subconsciously. There’s a looking glass out there, staring back at us from most things we do… seeing through it is almost always more work… it can lead to a fair chunk of cynicism as well.

I just think that, media being what it is, being able to see through is going to be the most important skill Oscar is going to need to live in the world he’s going to find in 20 years. whatever that will be 🙂
oscar

Opensim (and soon Edugrids) – a month later… I still love it.

Well… I’ve been in and out of Opensim now for over a month. I’ve presented on it and had some pretty serious discussions with different folks about running projects with it. I’ve installed the server on XP and Ubuntu and Debian, I’ve connected to the server from XP, Linux and Mac. Truth is… I’ve installed it (if you count the upgrades) about 40 times.

I like it very much.

But it’s time for a little more serious evaluation. The project is still in alpha, the folks who are devoting their free time to developing it are saying time and time again “I wouldn’t really depend on your stuff being there from day to day.” There is no formal organization currently backing the community, nor is it super clear to the newcomer how they might get involved or what they might do to get started if they don’t know what svn is or what it means to “just run it on mono.” The current instructions on the website are not particularly designed for the newcomer… nor are they really intended to help the technologically transient. They are specific notes for those who are fairly familiar with a server or know how to create a .bat file in a folder (a surprisingly small number of people know that last one right off… i didn’t). I had to learn a bunch of things before i was comfortable working with it… and i’ve had my nose pretty seriously stuffed into servers for the last year or two… (I eventually decided that I needed to be able to control the means of production surrounding all this social software in order to evaluate it for people’s needs. I’m glad that learning part is over 😛 )

Opensim – What is it?

It is the BSD licensed server part of a Multi User Virtual Environment (MUVE) that works using the recently ‘open-sourced’ version of the Second Life client. I heard something in the IRC chat recently that they have a little over 100 of the 300+ functionalities that currently run in Linden Lab’s secondlife. There are two kinds of opensim… the ‘stand alone’ version and the ‘grid’ version. The standalone version allows you to control your own folks in your own ‘island’ or combination of islands. The grid version allows you to take it a step further… it allows you to connect your own ‘sims’ to other sims that other folks have made somewhere else.

Why should I care?

A few reasons. One of John Schinker’s students, on being asked about whether he was interested in working in an MUVE responded by saying that “he had some concerns about it if it was a public environment.” bless him. Opensim allows you to completely control the environment by limiting access to the people that you choose. On the other hand, to respond to some of the critique levelled against this kind of pedagogy it does no ‘FORCE’ you to restrict access. You could put a registration page on your website and let anyone into your grid. What it does, is offer you the choice.

The most interesting option
is the opportunity to do both. You could (soon, the technology is not quite there yet), create some of your world off your desktop in your own classroom and, when you felt like it, connect to edugrids, and meet with other students. You could then turn that off and return to the security of your own classroom. Best of both worlds, nice private place to work, nice public place to go and meet folks and show them your island.

What’s Edugrids?

Right now, Edugrids is a concept. I’ve currently been approached by two teachers who are interested in working alongside the project that we have going on here in PEI. They want to be able to bring their kids in to our opensim world and have them play along with other students. Nice safe environment, nice controlled access, but enough kids participating to have some community type stuff happen. Not a difficult concept really, but potentially very interesting… and very powerful.

How do I get involved

Give us a month or two. We’re still trying to figure out how this is going to work. We’ll get some kind of website up so that people can get a sense of what our goals are… and what they can and can’t do. To give people updates on where the software is and stuff. I’m just kinda fishing around right now trying to get the sense if this is the next personallearningspace or not. we’ll see.

OLPC (one laptop per child) advert-ical in the NY Times.

Well… I’d meant to make my next blog post about the really fun conference and the really cool stuff I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks but I just couldn’t do it. I saw the article from the New York Times via Bob Sprankle via OL Daily and had to say something about it. As the few of you who’ve been kind enough to read this blog and listen to edtechtalk probably realize… I’m not a big fan of the OLPC program. I have many basic reasons for feeling that way, some environmental (I’d like to see the computers that are being thrown away have linux thrown on them and reused see this fantastic program running in Macedonia on $40 computers) some of them are more fussy (I don’t personally think a computer is ‘an educational tool’ however much Negroponte argues that “Nobody I know would say, ‘By the way, let’s hold off on education.’) Education can happen on a laptop like it can happen anywhere. I’m a geek… i like computers as an educational tool… but simply having one doesn’t make someone educated.

Some disclaimers and baselines of understanding… This is where I’m coming from. Education is good. Bridging the digital divide is good. Computers that conserve power and are bullet proof are good. I don’t particularly have a problem with the theory of constructionism. I don’t particularly think that it can solve the worlds educational problems without outside help. ‘Helping the third world’ can be good, but is not unproblematic. If helping the third world was easy, or about giving people ‘stuff’ or ‘money’ the cagillion dollars donated would have managed more success. Wars cause alot of the suffering in the world. Wars are definitely not stopped by computers and may or may not be mitigated by education. Reporters mindlessly repeating the press releases coming frohttp://m a very large, very risky, high stakes projects is not necessarily good.

enough.

Let’s start with this line from the article

Clearly, the XO’s mission has sailed over these people’s heads like a 747.”

The author’s argument as far as I can read through the sunshine that backlights my monitor when i read it. Think about the quote in the context of the explanation for it.

  1. some kids love the XO (this is silly talk, we wont know if kids love it until they try doing something useful with it, anyone who’s spent a few hours in a lab with kids realize that the cool factor fades VERY quickly)
  2. low power (this is very good)
  3. good resolution (this is also good)
  4. regular, wireless and mesh connections (fine, fine and woohoo)
  5. mesh connection shows where people are (very cool… for someone who lives in a safe country where they never worry about someone coming to find them to take their stuff… but mesh is very cool)
  6. “power users will snort at the specs on this machine” (this should refer to ‘normal users’… the $40 dollar computers i linked to in my first paragraph would blow away these computers. The disgust of ‘power users’ has been used by many a folk over the years to make apologies about their system. It’s a cheap argumentation device.)
  7. programs work fine once they load after 2 minutes (not a big deal either way… it’s the kind of thing kids will accept)
  8. it has software (really, an operating system that supports basic software. i tire you needlessly by mentioning linux again)
  9. it created a new programming language that you can see (well… linux would have done that without creating the language… the lifetime of clever new languages has never been great)
  10. emphasis on understanding programming languages is helpful (mmm…)
  11. programs are shareable on the mesh network (K12 Linux Terminal Server Project anyone?)
    the software doesn’t entirely work yet… but it will (faith… i like it. Might be true)

and then this Gem

No, the biggest obstacle to the XO’s success is not technology — it’s already a wonder — but fear. Overseas ministers of education fear that changing the status quo might risk their jobs. Big-name computer makers fear that the XO will steal away an overlooked two-billion-person market. Critics fear that the poorest countries need food, malaria protection and clean water far more than computers.

(The founder, Nicholas Negroponte’s, response: “Nobody I know would say, ‘By the way, let’s hold off on education.’ Education happens to be a solution to all of those same problems.”)

Wrapping up the critics of the OLPC project with ‘Overseas ministers of education that fear changing the status quo’. Weirdly cheap tactic again…

The line we started with was “Clearly, the XO’s mission has sailed over these people’s heads like a 747“. The rest of the article was not a description of the mission, but a description of the specs of a computer designed and built at enormous expense. A computer built for what exactly. To solve problems. To bridge the digital divide. These are not plans. This is a sales pitch… and a sales pitch written down word for word in the NY Times.

Here is the mission statement of OLPC
The wiki FAQ page (take a look at the titles for FAQ pages)
The ‘Learning Vision’ page At time of blog posting the ‘Claudia Urrea’s wiki page for the CREATE project for more details.” link contained the following content.

“Create Project
From MLPedia
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basorougetb

There is also a link to Papert describing his work on constructionism and three learning parables.

Their ‘Education Portal‘ has 20 some odd entries from ‘Lauren’ from a 3 hour period on July 10th, 2007.

I clicked a dozen other links and saw the start… the shell of an educational plan. Nothing concrete, no clear plan for bridging the gap of literacies between people who are in an educational system completely dependent on the knowledge and intelligence of an teacher because there is no money to do anything else and a classroom full of computers. A couple of stories of how ‘uber teachers’ fully supported by OLPC staff can use the computers. Of course they can. There is some talk about “even if 1% of the people learn to computer program that’ll mean that 10,000 people will being to program computers.” 😐 Sounds like quite the pedagogical success rate.

Real teachers like you and me are going to get this stuff foisted on them. And results are going to be expected.

I want someone, anyone, to tell me how this is going to work. Point to an article. Show me the content. Show me the plan for this to work on the ground. According to the ‘progress page’ on OLPC this project was conceived AS AN EDUCATIONAL PROJECT in January 2005.

And there still doesn’t seem to be a plan. Call me a ‘blogger who doesn’t understand if you will.’ I’m VERY willing to understand. I would love to think that someone, somewhere, isn’t going to hand a million kids a bunch of computers and expect their teachers to ‘get results’ from them armed with contructionism and some empty wiki pages. I would like to think it.