Rhizomatic Knowledge Communities –> Edtechtalk, Webcast Academy

bishop's weedThe idea of a rhizomatic knowledge community draws on a strong current tradition of random ideas and solid scholarship. There is a sense in which we all understand the way that these types of things come together… certainly every time i hear George Siemens talk about network theory and connectivism, I see people nodding their heads… “yes I’m a node in my community,” “yes I decide that things are good because other people that I trust say that they’re good”. These things are, in a sense, the common sense that I heard someone at my workplace today claim was not so common.

Part of my attraction to the concept of the rhizome has to do with the hours I’ve spent in the side garden fighting with Bishop’s weed(not my post… but my feelings exactly). It’s a nasty little garden weed that grows frighteningly fast wherever it’s dropped, it seems to grow and expand to fill whatever space is available, and is frighteningly difficult to control. It’s actually quite a cool ‘plant’ if it makes sense to talk about it in the singular… goutweed roots from BBCit’s a connection of intertwined roots underground, with big leafy stalks that pop up wherever it might be convenient to grab the sunlight. There’s no precise centre, no ‘central’ plant that you can kill to get rid of it all… just a network of leaves and roots that suck up nutrients where available and deliver them to the rest through whichever root/stalk is nearby. It’s an incredible survivor and very much has a mind of it’s own. Those weeds that you see there are what you’d pull out of about a cubic foot of soil… maybe less.

That, in my mind, is what were looking at with knowledge right now. We have this incredibly dense, complicated underlayer of connections too complicated to really sort out or root out. These communities are created by the introduction of the tiniest bit of root into the right kind of habitat and then are only bounded and understood by the limits of that habitat. They adapt and adjust to the habitat that they are in, popping up in the most convenient places and connecting wherever possible. Together, they make ‘a plant’ but no piece of them is essential or permanent. The loss of any given root, stalk, leaf or flower is not relevant to the whole. Love the rhizome. Lets look at a couple of examples.

Edtechtalk is alot of things… in a sense it is a website created by jeff lebow and I a little less than three years ago. It’s also a community of eleven interactive webcasts that run every week out in the ether of the internet. It’s also a running conversation in a community skype chat, it’s also a collection of over 500 podcasts on every subject related to educational technology I can imagine. Each of those shows has a slightly different take on the industry and yet everyone of those shows is bounded by a concept we call ‘worldbridgyness’… There is an openness a willingness to have everyone engaged in an open discussion on any given topic that infects each and everyone of those shows. There is a sense in which in working together and helping each other we make connections between each others ideas and the ideas on the site contain a certain similarity of flavour that would allow someone to recognize them as kin.

A person could, if they wished and were willing to follow through the various connections of tags and headlines, find out a great deal about what’s going on in educational technology. I feel pretty comfortable saying that a large part of what’s going on in the industry is available from at least one of those shows, and, in the majority of cases has been has been covered by a variety of shows. The trick is that what is considered cool or new or interesting might change by the week/month/year as people try it out, as new ideas come on board as new technologies are released out into the wild. At any given time, there is a sense that what the range of ‘should’ choices are are covered somewhere in that network of ideas that is edtechtalk… it’s amorphous and tangled and no one central idea is holding all the pieces together… but as a whole the rhizome does a pretty good job of offering me the knowledge that I need.

Webcast Academy
Webcasting, like Educational Technology, is another field that is changing at a wild pace. The truth is, the field is not a particular large one and before products like Ustream popped their head into our event horizon, we were one of the few pods of live internet streaming out there outside of the HUGE companies. The kind of webcasting that is ‘taught’ at the academy is a ‘homegrown’ webcasting. We are not so much interested in creating picture perfect NPR quality audio, but listenable interesting audio that is controlled by the people who put the show on.

The fun part about this community is that, different from edtechtalk, it was created to fit a particular purpose. Through the starting of EdTechTalk we realized that other people were going to want to webcast and we needed some place for them to go to learn. The academy is now on it’s ninth or tenth session, much of it currently guided by people who were taught in the earlier sessions. When we started, we were using some products that aren’t even on the market anymore… the best practices continue to evolve as the community expands and the ‘knowledge’ really does live in the communication between the membership on that site.

As opposed to what?

There is one critical difference now that makes this possible. The long tail. We can throw hundreds of fanatical people at any given topic given the access provided by the web. Hundreds of people from around the world can work on a given topic and, by force of work done, research combined, instincts matched and connections made, be equivalent or better than those who may have tried to acquire knowledge in a more traditional way… clearly some fields are better served by this… fields that are changing quickly, that depend on uptodate current information from which to draw the conclusions that morph into rhizomatic knowledge.

Opensim in education (with alpha software)- lessons learned

just some quick notes… so i don’t forget them. More will get posted at openhabitat.

Well… for those of you following, the second run at it went MUCH better than the first one. We rejigged our plan, forwarded our initial goals to the front end, used a little more scaffolding, and the whole process skimmed along quite nicely.

So, when your working with alpha software, it helps if you’ve got two things going on in the computer lab. What we did this time is that we took four students and used them to develop our workflow live and in cooperation with the students. What we did this time is that we had the students roughly cut into two, and one group worked on editing their blog posts and the other was working in opensim using the workflow developed by the students. Groups of three, two coaches and one ‘driver’ who was actually trying to get the initial ‘quest’ accomplished. So important, i think, to have a nicely strucutured activity to complement more freeform fun in the MUVE… and to forward the structure. Play seems to be automatic and, so far in my experience, isn’t encumbered by more early structure as it seems to in a standard website.

The degree to which every student i saw on Monday had a full set of computer literacies was astonishing. Every one of them seemed to be able to move forward and backwards, navigate up stairs etc… I may have missed one or two students, but the ones i saw were quite proficient. They also seemed to be able to recognize flaws in the system quite easily, which was also useful. Several students expressed a desire to be part of the debugging process.

As always, don’t panic. We had several issues that cropped up, much much fewer than last time, but the fact that the team was willing to work together kept things pretty steady. Our decision to make the MUVE part of a larger project was gold for this part of the exercise.

1. because of the potential for vast literacy differences from class to class, establish workflow and goals at the beginning of the project with the students who will be using the software.
2. have two things going on so that you have a fallback lesson already running if the cutting edge tech starts to fall apart. You don’t really want to be sitting there with a bunch of worksheets (boring) to fill the time. A class planned with two concurrent activities one technologically dependable, one more risky, makes the transition to the ‘other activity’ seemless and much less painful.
3. forward the structure to the front end of the lesson. Unlike other social networking sites, students don’t seem to feel ‘restricted’ in their play by having a heavily structured exercise as their introduction.
4. ask for volunteers for gathering debugging information. Some students seem very keen, and valuable information can be lost in the drama of the moment.
5. Make your MUVE part of a larger project. whether your muve is proprietary or on an unstable platform, it’s nice to have the canonical information in another venue… and it diversifies the project. Many people will never see the muve… and if they can visit the website, with video of the MUVE, it helps spread out the reach a bit

Our first run at getting the students in Opensim

Well… well well well.

What we wanted to do was get a bunch of students to come into our computer lab, sit at a computer in pairs, wander around opensim, take their photo from their blog post and post it into a picture frame. That was the bottom line. Simple quest based goal – find the house, find the picture frame with your number on it, put your picture in the frame. If this is easily accomplished, then we can go back and get the blog posts into the ‘notecards’ (which aren’t really notecards yet) so that when people walk around the house, they can see a picture, click on it, and see the blog post that the student wrote.

<--Background - if you've no idea what i'm talking about, read this-->
The Living archives is a project that takes 3 junior high school classes and helps them research 19th century history. Their journey started with some themes found in the Anne of Green Gables novel and chosen by an assessment of artifacts from the period available for digitization at local heritage sites… The students then went to the locations, chose images, documents and objects to be digitized. They then did enough research to contextualize that content in a blog post to be associated with the picture. They are also going to take those images and text and bring them into Opensim, an ALPHA open source MUVE (secondlife but on your server with more control) where they will put their images into context by putting them into picture frames in a period house.
<--End of Background-->

We preinstalled the clients, got them connected to the right server, and logged in 13 users. The students arrived. I gave my 5-10 minute song and dance intro… and then the students grabbed hold and started flying around. 5 minutes of pure success… and then, our first server crash. You could see all 13 computer monitors and see their avatars diving towards the ground… with the first one i just assumed they were playing around, with the second a small part of my brain was hoping on a coincidence, with the third, that little voice silenced, I looked to my buddy (designer and opensim dude) nodded and started a new song and dance. I explained to the students that the work that they’d done was very valuable, showed them that their blogs were now ‘authorities’ on google on the obscure arcane subjects of ‘herb juice’ and ‘ice boats’ while chris desperately worked to get the server up.

We never really got everyone up again. One of the other inconveniences we discovered with the current release of opensim is that it doesn’t particularly like concurrent logons. So you’d really like to give several seconds between people logging in. This, as you might imagine, makes getting 13 students to log back in at the same time a little difficult. We tried, and got a few more in, and then lost them, and then got them back in again. Eventually we ended up cycling them to one computer connected to the overhead projector one at a time and got them to get their pictures in.

Not exactly what we had in mind, but many lessons learned.

1. We (and by extension the development community) has realized that it’s probably time to swing the development back from making the software ‘more awesome’ and swing back to making it ‘more stable’. It’s an inevitable balance, and one that we sped past in our own development… we probably didn’t actually need the ‘smoke script’ for instance. Cool to see the chimney working, but extra work for the system.

2. Include another concurrent project that you can divert more time into in the case of a technical failure. Now, we all know this, but i had about a half hour of material, not the 2 hours that was required for yesterday.

3. Start slow and build on simple successes. Tomorrow, when we try this again, we are going to start out with a simple tutorial and are going to run 4 student groups through at a time. Images first, blog posts second. If that works out, we’ll start adding more people. But just moving around inworld ‘is a success’ and accomplishing that needs to be focused on and regarded by both instructor and students as success.

4. Don’t panic. We easily could have had more students go back in… but when, after a second restart, we didn’t see images loading, we thought we’d lost the server. Turns out, it was just the jp2 converter taking its time. Had we given it more time, it would have worked fine. no need to panic. breaking new ground is never going to be painless

5. Never forget that forging new roads is going to be difficult and that selling that is key to success. The students need to buy into the fact that they are breaking ground.

6. It may be worthwhile, as Ian Truelove says, to start the students in a standalone server. We’re not doing that monday, but might in the future.

wish us luck tomorrow.

Living Archives and Opensim – Virtual PEI curriculum beta.

Well folks, tomorrow morning is a big day. I started writing the grant on this in the summer of 2006, have had piles and piles of help along the way and have now come down to it. We’ve got a website, we’ve got some great content researched and written by the kids. I’ll save the thanks to all individuals for when I’ve got a half day to order them all up and thanks them all properly. For now, I have work to do –> Crystallize the lesson plan for tomorrow morning. The kids are coming to the university… and we’re going to get them to do some simple tasks…

It’s a big project… you can see it at http://livingarchives.ca. The ‘kensington’ link reflects the work that is the most complete right now… A class of grade seven students from KISH who just happen to be coming to the university tomorrow. They’ve gone to the provincial archives and records office, to various museums, taken video, pictures and done research to create an online textbook. An online textbook they are now going to round off with a trip into opensim where our crazy good team of developers has (with some fantastic help from the excellent opensim community) built three replicas of period houses in an opensource virtual 3D environment. In each house you’ll find about 25 picture frames. Each frame is to hold one of the pictures used by the students, with an attached notecard that will be the first paragraph of their blog post (see website above) and a link that will send people back to the website. From which, of course, a person could go in the other direction… from the blog to the opensim world.note:Stephen Downes was a great help in working out the elegance of this part.

For tomorrow – background prep
1. Get really cool people to build cool stuff. take video of cool stuff to show to students to give them a sense of what they will see when they get there.

2. Visit students. Encourage them in the belief that they are pioneers… that there are things that ‘are more likely to be easy’ and other things that ‘might make your computer blow up’. Encourage them to try the first ones first, then blow up their computer later.

3. Made the students choose which picture frame they wanted to have their picture/blog associated with. If two students wanted to use the same frame, quick debate ensued, best argument wins. I then attached the numbers associated with each picture frame to the title of the blog post of each student in a comment during the class.

4. I came home and made ‘node relationships’ (linked them together) between the videos and the blog posts.

5. installed the software in the computer labs and tested it. I will not bore with the disaster which was the first step on this road. Installed SL client on each of the computers that were necessary. The final tally… 20 computers for the first classroom (about 50 min) and 10 computers for the second classroom (about 1 1/2 hours). We have twenty-five students… but at least we’ve got computers that will connect to the Grid. That’s key, and they’re tested and ready.

6. The low end goal was to get the kids to go in and tour around and post their picture from their blog posts http://livingarchives.ca/etext_kensington . Step two, if possible, was to get the text from the text from the blog post in some kind of notecard and link back to the actual blog

more on this in the next “what happened” post.

Rhizomes and Blogging – public/private groupwork and the establishment of trusted nodes.

This is some draft thinking that is behind the post from yesterday. I’ve tried to think of any number of ways to turn this into something… but, in the hopes of getting somewhere with it… i figured i would just post it for uz to look at.

Blogging, or the combination of a bit of regular content with some form of automated syndication, has become something of a common part of everyday conversation. Whether people dislike the idea, live in their blogs or have casual interactions with them, I now rarely run into people who’ve never actually heard of them. They have been, for many, the heart of their professional work, and the key repository for the work that they are doing in their given profession. We are, however, approaching a critical point (indeed if we haven’t reached it already) where the number of self-selected, personally empowered bloggers are going to start becoming overwhelmed by those who are being ‘told to blog’ for whatever reason. We are now seeing more and more blog posts that are full of members of the same class who’ve been instructed by their professor to ‘go and comment’ on a given post by a well known member of a field.

This transition from fringe community tool, to mainstream working/marketing apparatus is going to have a critical effect on the work that can and will be done with blogging. Already communities are being ‘formed’ out of whole cloth by people are trying to create a ‘community of practice’ through blogging. They are, in effect, trying to replicate the success of existing loosely tied communities in order to turn it’s power toward specific ends. There are several impediments along that road, including the unwillingness of many professionals to release their work online, the difficulties involved in scaling a tool beyond it’s original market and the nature of the tool itself. A new plan for integrating traditional blogs with walled gardens is needed, a plan that will allow a given community of practice to have a private and public face, and will, most importantly, allow a community to work towards a given goal with content that can be both rhizomatic and can last over time. There are a plethora of tools out there right now that are trying to do this… and some communities that are managing, but there are a couple of issues around it that I keep running into over and over again.

Placing myself in the discussion

I came late to blogging, admitedly, I tried a few times and have been blogging consistently from this spot (with one remarkable blip) since mid 2005. I started blogging because i had an idea (the feedbook) that I wanted to record. I had a great discussion with David White at the jiscemerge conference last week about what blogging has done for the both of us. I told a story about a colleague of mine who’d thanked me for the Feedbook post almost 2 1/2 years after it was written while i listened to others talk about how their work got crystalized inside of their blogs, how the professional things they cared about became part of the flow of their personal histories, untainted by the needs and necessities of traditional publishing.

There is something compelling about the idea of history and histories and it’s one of the things that can make blogging so interesting. There is also something compelling about the way that the information can travel. There is a kind of knowledge what’s been called ‘the wisdom of crowds’ that burgeons out of the morass of content that gets put up on the internet. The way that conversations can spread, by comments and by related blog posts from around the net creates what I’ve called elsewhere a rhizomatic web of knowledge… knowledge that can ebb, flow mutate and grow from a variety of nodes as they crop up and as the contents of those nodes grow.

What makes a blogger
There are, however, some implicit assumptions that are holding that system, or, some may argue ‘were’ holding that system together. There was a time when blogging was ‘pure’ self-selection. People began to blog because they had things to say, because they wanted other folks to hear what they had to say, because they wanted to be popular, or for any combination of a variety of reasons… but almost entirely because ‘they wanted to’. We had been told that blogging could jeopardize a career, early last year in a meeting I heard the bloggosphere described as ‘the lunatic fringe’. No longer. The blogging community, while it is still exclusive of those who don’t have the textual literacies, the computer literacies, the free time, is beginning to cross over a wider spectrum of the internet using public.

There is another critical component to the ‘democratization of blogging’ that is more difficult to speak about in North America, and that is about authoritative voice. There is a significant ‘class literacy’ involved in believing that other people are going to be willing or interested in listening to what you have to say. Class here, should be understood not as something related to ‘money’ but to an idea of the hierarchy of a culture. It is, for instance, considered part of the ‘american dream’ that any member of the united states could become the president. How many of us, in the realm of a lifetime could acquire the knowledge necessary to raise that kind of money? How does one act in public in order to have people vote for you year after year? If you disagree with this, by all means, look at the families of the 42 presidents and tell me how many came from a lower socio-economic class. Look to the Members of Parliament in Canada, to our Prime Ministers. It is no accident.

The thing that always worries me, however, is scaling. While blogging, then, has been fantastic for me, and has worked great for many of my peers, what happens when the people who are blogging are no longer self-selecting… where they feel that they ‘must’ in order to compete… when they are encouraged or forced by their bosses or their instructor to share their work/feelings online. This is happening everywhere. At that same meeting in York one of the first comments I heard was ‘we need a private place to do this work’. I don’t want my comments to be permanent, or be part of the larger flow of the internet.

These are not, I would argue, things we can or even should be teaching people. There is something painfully difficult about trying to move someone away from the way they wish to work. I would argue (without foundation at the moment) that this sense of being extroverted and wanting everyone to read your thoughts does not represent the majority of society. Nor do i think we should be trying to move them in that direction.

I do, however, really like the work that is done in a COP and would like to make the internet COPs more available to other people.

Thinking of the content as more ‘permanent’
The other issue I have is with the time dependence of a ‘blog’. I’ve read hundreds of posts over the last few years that have comments from people near the end who are apologizing for coming to the conversation ‘late’. While I do think that much of what we now call ‘knowledge’ is inherently time dependent, I’d like to think that we could make that dependence something that was decided upon by the author and by the author’s community and not by some arbitrary passage of time.

I’d like to see a ‘type’ of blogging that would wrap these ideas into a larger whole. That would allow for ‘posts’ to persist over time, that would allow for the extrovert and overt to interact freely with the private and more conservative. It is a community of practice, in effect, which both allows the bloggers to continue their work public and also allows non-bloggers to work with them.

There’s more… but it gets even more wandery from here…

Creating a Rhizomatic knowledge node on a website

This is another attempt at showing what a rhizomatic build would look like. It fits in with an article I’m currently writing and a discussion paper that is dying in the draft section of this blog. I’m looking for feedback on this, so I do hope some of you will take the five minutes to listen to it and then comment. If your comment is “I have no idea what you’re talking about” that’s fine too. I’m just trying to find a more dynamic way of talking about something that is always changing. This will also appear as a ‘resource’ on the article that should be published in June…

Link to the excellent folks at screencast.com

One more thing… There are two websites I’m trying to do this on right now… http://davecormier.com/ukan http://openhabitat.org/

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