Monthly Archives: March 2011

Community vs. network

What’s a community and what’s a network? These terms are quite closely connected and almost synonyms of one another. We talk about the developer community and learning networks often, but it is actually quite tricky to distinguish between them. So I’ve come up with a contrastive definition, which works for me:

A community is a group of people that share a common attribute (or more than one). My home town, for example, is a geographically and politically determined community, we therefore have a shared locality attribute if you like. However, and this is different to a network: communities need not be connective. Living in the same town, belonging to the same community, does not require that everyone connects. Similarly developer communities are typically distributed, but share a common interest for e.g. a particular software product. Still, there is no requirement to connect other than shared passion. Uploading code artefacts I do not consider a connection, as in this context it’s like sharing the same bottle bank with your neighbourhood.

Contrary to this, connections are critical for a network. In fact it is all about connections, to the extent that it would not exist without them, whether we talk about personal networks, learning networks or file-sharing networks. Another distinguishing factor is that networks can include artificial agents, whereas communities can’t.

Of course, as so often, actual linguistic use blurs the boundaries, partly because of sloppy confusion, partly with deliberate emphasis to one or the other. So, we can talk about the same group of people in both ways, depending whether we want to stress connectedness or shared attributes, e.g. file-sharing community.


Ebooks and the licencing conundrum

ebooks app on iPadYou may still think that a book is like any other book, but there is a growing shift from product-based competition to usage-based competition. Ebooks are a perfect example of this and demonstrate how market economies can lead to confusion.

Take this situation: previously, you bought a washing machine. It was yours. You could do with it whatever you liked, you could wash socks in it or even shoes, carpets, curtains if you wanted to. When buying the machine, there was a range of products that you compared in terms of their functionality, electricity consumption, size, and other criteria that you set. The consumer merely compared product with product.

This has changed: imagine that now you pay for a washing machine, but it is not yours, and instead of checking its suitability for your purpose, you have to read the conditions of use. How many people’s socks you are allowed to wash in it. Sorry, no carpets or trainers. You pay per wash, or per wash load. You cannot wash your friends’ clothes without an extra licence. You get the point…!

This is exactly what’s happening with ebooks, online music, apps, movies, etc. (see post on UltraViolet). We are led away from comparing products to comparing services. And, just in case, I’d like to mention that the services are dictated by the companies, not by the consumer: “give me a washing machine where I can wash my grand-children’s socks?!” – “sorry, but no.” or: “Ah, we have a premium licence that includes family members not living in the same household, do you want to upgrade?”

Sounds too absurd to be realistic? – let’s hope it stays that way.

Here is an interesting news item on a recent Europe-wide crack down on ebook publishers, showing how far this can go. JISC has recently funded an ebook observatory project, and one of the outcomes of the user survey was a clear demand for a common set of licencing terms and conditions that are easy to understand. Among other things, this is deemed to reduce time and effort, and enables archival access.

While users want more text ebooks for their learning, they want the ability to put course text ebooks content on portable devices, the ability to print out sections, unlimited concurrent access. And they demand aggressive digital rights management (DRM) restrictions to be lifted. Libraries too feel that wider use of ebooks is compromised by access limitations.

Information overload and attention deficit

It’s a known paradox that information overload and information deficit can occur simultaneously. Bombarding someone with too much information can lead to missing the essential parts or even shut-down, like a DOS (denial of service) attack where data is sent to the extent that it overwhelms the recipient infrastructure, which can no longer process the incoming messages. The human reaction has appropriately been called “information fatigue syndrome” or “analysis paralysis” where according to Wurman, the “overload leads, paradoxically, to information anxiety, the reaction to the gap between all the information we understand and what we think we ought to understand”.

But, does information overload really exist? Stowe Boyd argues there was never a golden age of information normality and we are no worse off than ever before. Indeed, if we look into pre-internet media handling in ordinary families, I see that usage patterns emerged which included the acceptance that one cannot read all the newspapers that appear daily or weekly, or follow all radio and tv programmes however interesting they may be.

I see the problem not so much in the amount of information and noise produced by technical and (social) communication systems, but rather in the ways in which notification and alert systems carry the signals to us and condition users to react immediately: an incoming text message bleeping loudly cannot be ignored, or when the mobile phone runs out of battery in the middle of the night, it calls for attention by beeping until we dutifully rise out of bed and plug it in (or stamp on it for waking us up). It’s this alert overload that causes disorientation and attention deficit. Messages constantly competing for attention in sophisticated subliminal ways distract us from any longer-term activity.

Human and social amplifiers also play their part – an e-mail from the boss or your closest ones must at no time be ignored.

'puppet' CC licence by jean luc carpentierThese alerts turn us into puppets, and whenever a string is pulled, we jump. But every time we follow this pattern, we lose the thread of the thing we have been engaged in. Different strategies to cope exist, for example, the tendency towards smaller size information bites, where interruptions and jump-switching can be better handled than with longer messages. However, the worst strategy, I believe, is the hunt for more time-efficiency. New technical solutions, e.g. recommender or summarisation systems, are continuously being developed with this in mind, most often leading to a technology overload rather than solving the information overload. Technology it seems has limited powers to alleviate this problem.

The answer lies in ourselves: at any moment, we should be able to say what we do; and what we are currently *not* doing, thus blocking these information streams until later. As such, ‘rejection’ becomes the most important managing tool for information and time management.

Is UltraViolet leading to enlightenment or darkness?

Some key players in the media business have recently agreed on an Internet media locker standard, called UltraViolet. Rumour has it that this is aimed at replacing DVDs and is planned to be rolled out already later this year.

It is true, that the variety of media formats and the undecided battles going on about AAC, mp3, wma, and the rest of them left users puzzled, frustrated and undecided in terms of product choice. The idea of UltraViolet is that a user can purchase rights to digital media from content providers and that it would play on various devices. The format comes with simple web storage and streaming, without having to worry about misplacing or damaging your discs. What is more, if things change, the provider would convert and upgrade the content, so users won’t have to concern themselves with this either.

So far so good, but we would not be talking about the media industry if there wasn’t a downside too. Media companies still fail to understand music and movie lovers. DVDs, vinyls, or CDs are collectors’ items! They are physical things to touch, to show off to your friends, to boast with by exhibiting it in your living room. Having them stored as a Cloud-based service, possibly distributed across umpteen subscriptions is *no fun*!

To date, not all big players are on board. Apple and Disney have so far not made any commitments, and we certainly know how hard Apple always push their own formats. Furthermore, users may not feel liberated but rather suffocated by DRM rules and restrictions, as their content is being locked in with providers. It is certainly not too far-fetched to believe that even though there may only be one single delivery format, the commercial conflict may merely move to higher grounds such as usage policies and playing limitations, like how many friends you can share with, or on how many and which devices you can play your stuff. On this level, users can compete even less than on the physical format.

Organising the web into new online textbooks offers an interesting new way of bookmarking and organising content. It lets you create collections of resources, online and uploaded. So you can couple together web content, Word documents, PowerPoint, pics, videos, and more in a tabbed interface resembling binders.

This is handy to create topical collections for the classroom. It looks extremely useful in a learning context where relevant resources can be grouped, organised and shared, just like traditional textbooks. Here is an example:

livebinder example

I see also good use in sharing bookmarks on a specific topic. In this way, web (and other) content can be organised and assembled in your own personal manner.

The tool doesn’t really do much more than provide tabs and web wrappers for the stuff you want to compile. There seems to be no pdf-compiler or print option. Still, the creators obviously perceived a demand for an organiser that provides an alternative to shared bookmarks. What worries me, though, is the tracking that’s going on in the background:

adblocker notification

My ad blocker did somersaults while looking at the binders, and that is enough to alert me that there might be a sinister business agenda running in the background.

Crystal gazing into the future of higher education

The higher education sector has come increasingly under fire from different angles. Many people within the sector are calling for change and some extreme voices aim for abandoning formal HE altogether and leaving the learning to the learners. Then there are private companies swiftly encroaching on the education sector from outside and challenging its competitiveness and service structure.

Let’s look a little bit into a futuristic scenario where these emergent trends could lead our society. Let’s assume it is 2025 and things have happened.

(1) To reduce national debt, governments have welcomed the financial relief that comes with not paying for a multi-billion €$£ industry. It allows the powers that be to avoid raising taxes, which still is unpopular in the 2020’s.

(2) The private sector has managed to take over from public education. They are now able to offer courses to students that are in line with their employment strategy. No longer are universities giving degrees that don’t fit the employment market. Of course, private industry courses are seldom free of charge, and, as we know from professional training offers, often come with an extortionate price tag. To uphold mass education, the government may decide to grant-support some students taking their courses at McDonald’s or Google’s university. They would have saved that money from releasing most of the teaching and admin personnel of the previous universities into the job market. Some of them would have been taken on by industry.

(3) Not only courses would have been taken away from universities, but also the previously precious assessment and awarding powers (which to some extent justified the university fees). Although no industry standard on educational qualifications could be negotiated between private providers, the fact that companies would educate their own future work force would perhaps give it sufficient employability also among other enterprises.

(4) The expectation that students could self-direct their studies and feed their knowledge from open educational resources to the extent that they can compete with industry educated graduates, has probably turned out an illusion, because, with teachers and researchers no longer in the business, who is going to produce give-away learning materials? All resources in use by industry are now protected.

(5) Commercial universities may offer lifestyle courses. Why should everyone just drive a Fiat Panda? If you can afford it you can do better in terms of content or services.

(6) Where did all the teachers go? And what’s left of the HE system we know? The best and most flexible teachers may find jobs in the 2025 HE industry. The remainder of viable research would perhaps congregate in a few Academies of Science, libraries would have been franchised or merged. Maybe some government funding could be found to maintain some less viable subjects, like Theatre Studies, or Gaelic. Most of the teaching and research force would earn their bread in company offices somewhere.

(7) Company institutions lure students with the freedom that knows no campus life, no canteen, no halls of residence, no student fellowship or bonds that last a lifetime. Instead, efficiency is the guiding principle.

(8) It is possible that several mergers and take-overs lead to a small number of “super-unis”, where it would not matter much whether they are run privately or publicly or as a public private partnership.

Why is such a scenario thinkable, and what role does technology play in it? Maybe technology has no importance in whether or not this could become reality. But technology has become the competitive edge with which the commercialisation battle is fought. With universities strapped for cash, the public sector may soon have to make more serious choices than what VLE they are going to buy. The most serious thing maybe that its own stakeholders turn away from the HE system as we know it – with students aiming for away-from-class education, and foresighted lecturers announcing an education revolution. This is prey for company predators and they know it.

The question is, what commercial higher education offers not to those who can afford it, or to those who are willing to sign away their privacy and identity so their education can be advertisement funded. Whatever future will bring, we need education that is socially equal in access and in content. It has to support a national culture of knowledge not simply a money making dogma.

Accountability for shared knowledge

Can we allocate accountability in a connected knowledge space? – I think not.

Under Actor Network Theory (ANT) all entities are connected and, therefore, influence each other. With this as a starting point, Ailsa Haxell and Frances Bell, in last night’s Connectivism discussion, put forward the proposition that we (people) should perhaps be held accountable for knowledge and information we create and the consequences it has. An example was our acts on the environment affecting future generations.

Like Stephen Downes, I am of the opinion that accountability demands punishment or other consequences, else it is not accountability. Needless to say that this is dangerous territory and immediately invoked pictures of staged tribunals and inquisition in my head.

There are also other substantial weaknesses in this proposition: Accountability is based on moral values of what’s “right” or “wrong”. But such value judgments change quickly, often, and continuously, and they differ from society to society. Can you hold a previous generation responsible for what they knew or did not know? Not really, and anyway without consequences other than perhaps saying “now we know differently”. What’s more, knowledge itself does not contain goodness or badness – it’s the interpretation and application of it. How often have we seen well-intended approaches turn sour?

In a strict connectivist sense, we are co-responsible for shared knowledge and its connectedness. This then begs the question on who’s the judge and who’s the jury in a case of accountability. Who are we accountable to? And, who’s the “we”?

Knowledge networks almost always reflect power networks. Power in this context is often used as a control valve to knowledge – releasing only the bits one wants others to get. Accountability can act as such a control in that it stems and blocks certain knowledge aspects in favour of an “accepted” opinion. Connectedness can under positive circumstances undermine and counterbalance such restrictions, as it potentially circumvents controlled information channels.

Trust and passion drives the Internet

I do believe it to be true that trust and passion drive the web. Often, though, we are unable to explain why we trust or have a passion for something. Both are mainly determined by our innate social instincts. They, therefore, share the same attributes as connected knowledge.

It is worth bearing in mind that this comes with a critical investment by participants: investment in personal time, electricity bills and equipment, and, not least, investment in risk-taking. Passion for something often results in trust (sometimes even to the extent of being naive): the trust of others sharing that same passion, but also the trust that others won’t abuse this passion.

I divide knowledge search on the internet in two main categories: purpose and interest. Purposeful knowledge retrieval is intentionally searching for an answer to a problem, while interest is learning motivated by a personal passion for a topic (e.g. bonsai trees). The first category (purpose) is typically short lived and mostly ceases with the answer being found (or not). It is the second category that results in return visits, engagement, contributions and connections.

Unfortunately, trust and passion have a dark side to them. The big data giants of the Web (G, Y!, FB, et al.) thrive on other people’s trust and passion. By stealth they managed to infiltrate the most private relationships we call our own (e.g. the passion for sharing photos with family and friends) and exploit it for their own commercial and other goals. Only recently, I read that 10% of divorces in Austria are now due to Facebook incidents! Of course, the company can’t be blamed for guys and gals openly flirting and dating, with their spouses or friends of spouses watching on the sidelines.

And, still, it is nice to connect to strangers all over the world to share the same passion. It is an enriching feeling that sometimes veils the dangers from our consciousness. If you asked me why I put trust in people I’ve never met and engage with them deeply in connections like the CCK11, I’d answer: because they share the same passion and their views enhance my understanding of myself as a person.

Plagiarism vs. connected knowledge – a looming battle?

The recent affair around Germany’s Minister of Defence Gutenberg once again highlighted a looming issue in academia: plagiarism. Gutenberg was stripped of his PhD title (and had to resign from his ministerial post), because it was found out that parts of his thesis were copied from other sources without proper referencing.

This made me reflect on the paradox of plagiarism versus connected shared knowledge. In Connectivism, knowledge is a collective shared property, thus, there is no room for plagiarism. It simply becomes an outdated concept. But are we ready for this yet?

The idea of plagiarism is strongly linked to two principles:

ownership: the idea here is that knowledge “belongs” to someone. It is enforced by copyright and intellectual property regulations.

originality: this carries the notion that knowledge is a unique and original invention (personally identifiable with individuals).

Both visions don’t fit into the connectivist view of knowledge being readily available and interlinked, residing outside and above individuals, who only contribute and share. In this we can’t have personal ownership, but originality may still have its place.

An extreme position would be to even negate the idea of any knowledge being original, because it always is context-bound and dependent on the surrounding knowledge spheres and connected nodes. This then would lead one to the conclusion that knowledge is not created, just re-compositioned or aggregated. However one may see this, especially in academia, higher qualifications are based on the idea that originality can be evidenced as independent individual thinking.

Online connected spaces like MOOCs or Facebook demonstrate what inherent dynamic exists in the sharing, reuse, de- and recomposition and aggregation of information, leading to new insights, and thus new knowledge. In this brave new connectivist world it would be hypocritical to even start trying to identify plagiarism.