Friday, June 30, 2006


Re Scott Karp's comment that: "Blogging has now been irrevocably tainted. No one can say anything even remotely positive about a company — or negative for that matter — without being accused of being on the PayPerPost payroll."

I don’t know. I don’t think anybody will accuse me of being a shill for some company. The people who continue to promote open source, open content, and a non-commercial basis for an online environment will continue to be credible. You can generally tell, I think, when somebody has capitulated to the commercial side of the house.

It’s like when you say “We promoted the hell out of blogging as a revolutionary form of marketing - and now we see the dark side.” A lot of people out there weren’t really concerned about whether blogging was a new form of marketing. That’s something the commercial side of the house thinks is important. A lot of people thought about the conversations being created, the increased understanding being generated, the good that a free and unfettered flow of ideas and opinions could generate.

Sure, if you are blogging from the commercial side of the house - if you are a professional blogger, say, or you are promoting the use of blogging for commercial purposes, then the emergence of a company that pays people to blog favorably about companies will dent your credibility. But let’s not fool ourselves. If you’re on the commercial side of the house, you already have a money-making agenda. It’s not like you were lily-white to begin with.

Now I don’t know enough about this blog to say whether or not its reputation will be damaged. I haven’t followed it long enough to say whether it pursues an overtly commercial agenda. But the comment above isn’t reassuring, the fact that it jumped on the ‘2.0′ meme in the blog title, the ads in the right hand column - all of these suggests that the purpose of this blog is to make money. And if so, then anything said would be tainted by that fact, and not the actions of any external agency.

But we’ll see.

Identity Networks Are Here

You may not have noticed it, but identity networks arrived last week, and the great land rush for identity consumers has begun.

As of right now, there are three major entities who have entered the identity network space.

Probably the first is SixApart. This is a company that offers a hosted blogging service called TypePad (a lot like Blogger, only smaller) and the very popular LiveJournal site. It also sess the Moveable Type blogging software. The people at Typepad made some very encouraging moves recently with the development of OpenID. This in turn, with the addition of two other companies, LID and iNames, became the Yadis initiative.

While commenting on a Typepad blog the other day I noticed that the login had been replaced by something called Typekey. This is "a free authentication service that lets you sign-in to your favorite websites." This was surprising enough, given the existence of Yadis, to follow, and so I took a look at the Typekey information page, which in turn said, "If you'd like to use TypeKey as authentication in your own application, you can join our Professional Network to find out how."

Filling in the forms (which essentially amounts to giving them my life story) makes me a member of the Professional Network. This is pretty interesting in itself, but what caught my eye here was an advertisement for Yahoo small business hosting using Moveable Type. Now I know, it's not anything like a business alliance. But it does raise the question of what would happen is Yahoo and SixApart got together to offer logins.

Some consolidation is going to happen here. Typepad and the Professional Network use Typekey. LiveJournal uses OpenID.

There things would stay except for the launch of PeopleAggregator this week. At first glance, PA looks just like any other social network. But when you go to login you discover that you can use you OpenID identity, your Sxip identity, or your Flickr identity.

We've already seen OpenID. Sxip (pronounced 'skip') is based on a similar principle. To create a Sxip identity you create an account at a Sxip homesite. "Homesites are websites or applications that facilitate the exchange of identity data between users and sites that request user data. By adding Homesite functionality, a website can provide the following services: authenticate and identify users, assign identitifiers to a user's persona, provide a repository for identity data, and release that data, upon user consent, to other sites via the user's browser." (FAQ)

Flickr, of course, is a website that allows people to upload and store photos. Flickr was recently acquired by Yahoo and a process of merging Flickr identities with Yahoo identities has been underway. Which means that the mechanism employed by PeopleAggregator may also eventually involve allowing you to sign up with your Yahoo identity.

The systems described above are distributed. That means individual entities - such as schools or universities - could set up they own identity system, either by installing something OpenID or by installing a Sxip homesite server (this is not a simple process yet, though).

Not so with our third entry. As Tony Hirst notes, Google has set up an account authentication for web-based applications. What that means is that the system enables the application to get an authentication token without ever handling the user's account login information. The Google system, as you can see from their diagram, uses a mechanism that is almost exactly the same as my own mIDm system - the major difference being that people are redirected to the Google website rather than one identified in their browser header.

To quote the O'Reilly Radar post, "This service lets you build a web app that uses Google's user accounts for user authentication. All the build-to-flip optimists will immediately adopt it, but the rest of us probably aren't willing to cede our users to Google just yet. The word I had from inside Google is that this is not an identity play, it's something they were developing for internal use..." What distinguishes these systems from other identity systems is that they are networks rather than federations. The difference is crucil. In a network, there does not need to exist a trust relation between one member and another - they operate at arm's length. This means there's no real process required to 'join' the network - you install the right code, get people to use it, and you're in.

Compare that with passport. While designers could secure their website with Passport, only Microsoft created and held Passport accounts. You couldn't set up your own service and let people create identities that you would register. Such a system was therefore centralized. Other systems work in a similar manner, except that only a small number of trusted parties is able to create identities. Such networks are federated. In both cases, the result is the same: you must depend on the identity providers to allow you an identity - which means you must play by the identity provider's rules.

The end-game has yet to be written with respect to online identity. I still believe that the browser needs some mechanism to report to a site the user's selection of an identity provider - after all, we won't all use Google. And I think companies like Microsoft and AOL won't sit silently.

And I think that educational providers, who have focused almost exclusively on centralized or federated approachs thus far, will have to take note. People today get their own names, addresses and phone numbers. In the future, they will get their own net identities, and the universities won't provide it for them. This then raises the wisdom of heavy investment in an alternative schools-only system.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Adults and MySpace (2)

Ritchie Boyd covers a lot of ground, but at the risk of oversimplifying, I'll sum up the argument as follows:

Adults won't behave, and therefore are harmful to kids. Thus, we should either keep the kids out of the adult space, or keep the adults out of the kid space.

I agree that adults won't behave. There will always be adults who behave inappropriately toward kids, no matter how we define 'inappropriately'. There will always be some adults who pose a danger to kids, whether it is in the form of dangerous ideas, dangerous influences, or even physical danger.

My disagreement is with the proposed solution.

Now first of all I should be clear that I have no real problem with the idea of setting up a kids-only space (though I am a bit cynical about how opportunistically some such spaces are being set up). But I certainly do not think such spaces are anything like the solution people make them out to be. Because:
- you can't force the kids to stay there, especially if the parents don't want to force them to stay there
- it's really hard to keep the adults out - even if you can prevent adults from pretending they're kids, adults will still be running these sites
- kids behave badly too, and the issues involved in policing kids are even more complex than those involved in policing adults

That's why the comparison between a site like MySpace and a cocktail bar or adult party is more compelling. Such a space is very clearly an adult space, and by and large, we have had more success keeping kids out of adult spaces. Moreover, there is more agreement that kids should be kept out of such spaces. By no means universal agreement, but enough that one can see the force of the analogy.

But what constitutes an 'adult' space? The presupposition here is that 'MySpace' is - or should be thought of as - an 'adult' space. But if this is the case, then by the same reasoning, any site in which people are able to post their own content is an 'adult' space. This would include message boards, Yahoo and Google groups, Usenet, web hosting sites (such as Geocities), blogging sites (such as Blogger and LiveJournal), and other social networks.

If we ban children from these spaces - and additionally, from the commercial sites, such as news and entertainment sites, to name a couple - then there is nothing left of the internet for them to view except government, commercial and educational sites oriented specifically toward children, sites that have very strict guidelines on what can be posted. In effect, by declaring everything else as 'adult space', we are creating a 'kid space' out of what's left.

Though this is the gist of legislation currently proposed in the U.S. government, few people, I think, would agree that this is a satisfactory solution. It would be like treating the entire city as though it were like a cocktail bar and restricting kids to schools and homes, on the grounds that they might see an offensive poster or even be at risk of being abducted. And nobody would accept such a restriction, even though we all agree that kids are at a certain level of risk in the city. We're happy to keep them out of the bars and the clubs, but the idea of keeping them off Main Street and away from the neighbourhood park is abhorrent.

And even if we were to accept such a solution, we are still faced with the problems facing the kids-only space. How do we police these spaces? How do we keep the adults out, and how do me make the kids behave? And even more: how do we define what areas are adults-only and kids-only? It may be true that some parents do not want their kids to see any adult material, but others are more permissive. In my case, I would not want my kids to be exposed to excessive violence and to commercial advertising. Could we ever design a kid-safe area that would satisfy all parents? That would keep kids safe?

I doubt it. And I think most parents doubt it, which is why they turn to the use of content filters. The internet as a whole cannot be made kid-safe, they reason, but the kid's own computer can be. And a lot of the objections of kid-only areas can be overcome. There's no need to try to satisfy everybody; you can set your own filter to your preferences, and let other parents decide on how they want to set their preferences. And you don't need to worry about unknown adults managing the kid-safe area; anything likely to come up will be caught by the filters.

I can see many benefits to the use of content and software filters, and despite my misgivings about the motives behind some of them, agree that the address the needs of many parents. They suffer, however, from one major flaw: they only work where they are installed. Which means that if the kid accesses the internet from outside the home, then the filters are no longer effective, because they are no longer present. For the filter to protect the kid, it must be installed at all points of access.

There are two major places kids can access the internet outside the home: schools and libraries. Thus, in order for filters to work, they must also me installed in schools and libraries. But now, the major advantages of filters have disappeared. Kids learn to get around the filters. Unscrupulous adults learn how to send content through the filters. But even worse, there's no real agreement on how the filters should be set. Should they ban all sites that include the word 'breast'? 'Bra?' 'Terror?'

The problem is that the parental act - protecting the kid - very quickly becomes a political act - programming the kid. How will school boards respond to demands by Muslims that the schools filter all sites with references to eating pork? Or to demands that all photos of women with their ankles showing be blocked? You may think these restrictions are frivolous, but other people think that restricting the showing of breasts or discussions of Satanism are equally frivolous. I would lobby hard to stop fast food restaurants from marketing to kids - I think it's exploitive. Would you think my concerns are frivolous?

But even more: what about other types of internet access? The governments of China and Iran have found the major flash points to be internet cafes and internet service providers. Adults use these services, so they can't simply be filtered to protect kids. Moreover, they are operated beyond the watchful eyes of parents and administrators. While it is true that money is needed to access the service, nothing stops kids from hanging around and just watching. And nothing stops kids with money at all.

The problem with protecting kids by regulating what kids can see boils down, therefore, to this: as soon as you attempt to extend that protection outside the home, your own ideas about what is safe and proper come into conflict with others' ideas, and this problem becomes more and more intractable the more diverse society becomes and the wider the area you seek to govern.

And my own concern is this: when such matters become a matter for decision-making by governmental authorities, then the voices of those who profit most by exploiting and in some way injuring your kids become the loudest and the most influential. While it is always the hope of parents that governmental controls will eventually reflect their own values, this rarely ever happens.

Consider how the government conducts itself in other areas: with respect to the environment, for example. Or crime. Or regulation of movies, the arts, television. Is the government adhering to your values here? Almost certainly not! It certainly does not adhere to mine. And therefore, a standard for internet access appropriate for kids will most likely also not adhere to your values. What would you get? You'd get sites where the next Britney Spears flaunts her prepubescent sexuality while sipping Diet Pepsi and munching on a Big Mac, sites where Captain Copyright tells kids that sharing is wrong, sites where protesters and activists are dismissed as trouble-makers or worse, sites where willing kids submit their personal info to a benevolent corporate mascot. How do we know? Because that's what's considered appropriate today an sites like Channel One.

You can't keep your kids off the street, just as you can't keep them off the internet. And you can't make everybody in the streets respect what you think is safe and proper conduct, just as you can't make everybody on the internet behave. So what are you going to do?

In my view, there is really one effective course of action:

First, you have to become more tolerant. You will see, and your kids will see, some things you think are disgusting. There's no way around that. Just as I cannot escape Ronald McDonald and the KFC Bucket, neither can you escape Britney Spears or worse. Our diverse society means that people feel free to express and exhibit their valied lives and lifestyles. This also applies online, even more so, because people are much more able to express themselves online. Sites like goatse will always exist, and worse, there will always be someone out there that think such sites are appropriate. You have to learn to simply roll your eyes and move along. It's a big world.

Second, you have to teach your kids to play safe. You can't keep all the cars off the road, so you teach your kid not to play in the road, and to at least look if he or she must cross. The same with online behaviour. Kids can and should be taught simple things, like maintaining their privacy and being cautious about strangers. Kids need to learn scepticism, critical thinking, logical self-defense. Media literacy becomes as important as mathematics in this new environment. Yes, you can protect your kids, but only for a time. And protection will never be sufficient in the long run; eventually the kids will be exposed to the wider world, and they will need the values and skills that allow them to thrive in it.

And third, you can allocate the responsibility for bad behaviour where it lies: with the adults who behave badly. People who exploit, molest, or otherwise abuse kids, whether online or offline, should be dealt with by society as predators, because they are a social danger. People who act like boors online should be publicly shunned. Our own actions online (and remember, the kids will see that Usenet post from 1995) should reflect the values we seek to inspire in our kids, whatever those values may be. We need to be upfront in behaving properly, and promoting proper behaviour.

This is the hard road. It's hard, because it means we have to adapt to a wider world, because we have to take the time to teach our kids, and because we have to take care of our own conduct. But it's the only effective course of action. Yes, there's always somebody selling the one-button solution. But people trying to convince you that this piece of software or that piece of legislation will do the job for you are con artists. They are, indeed, the very predators from whom you need to protect your kids. And yourselves.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Networks - Revisiting Objective/Subjective...

People who read my writings on subjects as diverse as education and politics can see without too much effort that relativism - or something like relativism - is central to my position. When I argue in learning that students should be free to choose their own curriculum, and when I argue in political economy that people ought to be free to pursue their own good in their own way, I am appealing to the same essential principle in each case.

It is important to articulate this principle clearly, because there is a large difference between saying that there is no objective fact of the matter and saying we cannot know what the fact of the matter is. The first is an ontological point. We are asserting something about the nature of the world. The second is an epistimological point. We are asserting something about what we can know. These are very different.

To turn, then, to George Siemens's recent discussion on the objective-subjective distinction: he writes, "Words and concepts (knowledge and knowing, meaning and wisdom) are not static in their conception in the minds of individuals. The does not directly lead to notions of an abstract (or worse, subjective) nature of the entities or concepts considered." Quite so. This does not follow. Because the former is a statement about what we know; it is an assertion that we do not know, and therefore, we should not draw an inference about that which we do not know. This includes both the inference that there is and objective reality, along with the inference that there is not.

Why is this important? I mean, who cares whether a pebble is real or not? After all, our experiences with a pebble are pretty unambiguous - we kick it, we toss it into the pond, we make a pile of pebbles out of it. Philosophers can sit there and argue all they want about whether a pebble is real, or about whether we can have objective knowledge of a pebble, but who cares?

George Siemens helpfully gives us a very clear example of why. He writes, "we have an intended target to which we desire our learners to aspire or achieve. In a similar sense, we generally have certain values to which we would assign 'objective status': tolerance, value and dignity of all people, honesty, etc." This is all the more an issue for me because, as the astute reader will note, I appeal frequently to such principles in my own writing. "Live honestly," I write, while out of the other side of my blog saying "there are no objective values."

The idea that there is a single underlying set of ideal values has a wide appeal. Plato, for example, held that values such as 'justice' and 'beauty' consist in ideal forms, no less so than, say, the concept of a 'triangle' or a principle of mathematics. The American Declaration of Independence states, in part, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." And certainly there are bodies of thought in comparative religion that holds a single set of values underlie all the major faiths.

If there is, however, an objective morality or underlying set of values, we are hard pressed to find it. Certainly, such a set of values does not manifest itself empirically. Take "tolerance", for example; nobody would claim that the world's people, or even a substantial majority of them, have embraced tolerance as a value. In the case of "honesty" we see an even clear trend in the other direction; if we were to rely on empirical data, we would have to say that dishonesty is our core value! And some of the even more fundamental values - the prohibition against killing, for example - is violated by the same state that passes laws to ensure that its citizens do not also violate it. Some objective value!

It is just as likely as not that the world is silent about such values. Or, as Nietzsche suggests through the argument of transvaluation of value, it may be just as likely that the oppositie to what we believe is actually the objective value. We celebrate respect for the law and society, but at the same time, adore a Superman who writes his own rules. We believe in democracy and the will of the people, but yearn for a strong leader to take charge. We believe in honesty, but celebrate and reward the poker face.

It is not automatic, it is not a given, that the values we celebrate in today's modern industrial society are in any sense 'objective' standards to which all teaching and morality must conform. The great debates - and wars - of the twentieth century were fought along fractures in our understandings of those values: are all people indeed born equal, are civil liberties indeed self evident? The political debates of today reflect other disagreements: does the ends justify the means, is freedom more important than security? To name a few.

To return to our pebble - it turns out that there are reasons to be sceptical about the pebble. Certainly, as Descartes argues, we should not trust the senses to inform us about the pebble. Never mind that we see it differently in water or out, or that we see it differently in differently coloured light. It's a miracle that we see it at all, considering that the pebble is mostly space! And even in that space, there is no place that an electron actually is! Our common pebble turns out to be much, much more complex than it appears to the naked eye.

Does it follow then that there is no fact of the matter about the pebble? Of course not. But consider how Siemens argues. "Calling something subjective says 'okay, thinking about this hurts…I’ll abandon thought and appeal to the objective ideal of subjectivity…in this manner, I don’t have to see the broad rich array of the painting, and instead can focus on simply the element I choose to perceive as valuable.'"

But let's ask now: do we see a pebble the way we do because it's too hard to see and think about a pebble the way it really is? This seems unlikely. It's not as though we had some sort of objective way to get at the underlying structure and make-up of a pebble. It's not like, for example, we could pinpoint the location of an electron - or even say that it has a location! The fact of the matter, if there is one, is unknowable to us.

One way to think of this is via the Heisenberg Principle. In a nutshell, the principle asserts that the process of observing an object changes the nature of the object. We observe very small things by bouncing other small things things - like photons or electrons - off them. But every time we do this, it changes the location of the thing being observed. It's kind of like locating a motorcycle by boucing cars off it and seeing where they end up. The method works - but it's very hard on the motorcycle.

But at least a pebble is a pebble, right? Even if we cannot get at its essential nature, at least we can identify a pebble, right? Well - it's not so clear. Every pebble was at one time part of a larger rock; it becomes a pebble when it breaks off and erodes into a roundish shape. So, was it a pebble before it broke off? When it was only partially broken off? Does the piece have to have been eroded and rounded to become a pebble? How much so? Should the pebble later become part of another rock, is it still a pebble?

We could say, without exaggeration, that for any given small piece of rock, some people might call it a pebble, and some people might not. And, in fact, this is a sufficiently strong principle (about as strong as any principle gets, at least) so say, "For any entity P and any property a there is at least one person that says P is an a and one person says P is not an a." And even if we went out and checked every one and found that they all did say P is an a this would be merely accidental; it is always the case that someone could say P is not an a.

And if someone always could say a piece of stone is or is not a pebble, then there is no objective means by which we can determine whether it is a pebble, even if there is some objective fact of the matter as to whether it is or is not a pebble (we could ask, though, what would such an objective fact look like? And the emptiness of our answer illustrates more clearly than anything that it's something that simply eludes us).

We need to be clear that this is more than simply having points of view (although our having points of view is certainly illustrative). It's not like we can get all the descriptions of the pebble together and, somehow, come up with an objective determination of the essential properties of a pebble.

Consider Siemens's argument: "If I’m part of a group that witnesses an accident, I will describe it in a certain manner... Each individual who views the accident has a different version of what happened... [but] The accident happened; it was someone’s fault (or the weather perhaps)." Well, let's consider this case of the accident; what was the cause of the accident. Who's fault was it?

The answer to such a question may be genuinely ambiguous. Norwood Russell Hanson argues that it depends on the theory of cause you bring to the investigation, which in turn depends on the context of the investigation. If the driver failed to check the brakes, does that mean that the politician is off the hook for failing to ensure the road was well maintained? Of course not - nor either is it the case that the cause of the accident is composed of these two factors; from one point of view - your car insurance, for example - the other 'cause' is irrelevant.

It's like the image of the duck-rabbit. When we see the image, we either see it as a duck or as a rabbit. It isn't somehow a combination of duck parts and rabbit parts. And even if there is some fact of the matter - even if it is actually a duck or a rabbit - this no longer matters. We see it as one, or we see it as the other, and there is nothing that would mediate the dispute.

You see, something like the Heisenberg Principle operates when we perceive things. When we look at an object - a pebble, say - we cannot say what it is without having some theory about names and naming. Without having some concept about pebbles, we could never say that something is a pebble. But there are many ways to see the world (as Lakoff evocatively shows in his Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). So there are many concepts of pebbles we could bring into the observation. And there's the rub - whatever concept we bring to the table is what actually determines whether or not the thing is a pebble.

So how do we determine that somethings is a pebble? It's not the pebble - it is, as Wittgenstein would say, the language game that surrounds the use of the word pebble. One person says to another, Bring me a pebble. You bring a pebble. No, no, that's too large. You keep trying - different rocks, different people, until you get some sort of idea in your mind. What are the essential features of a pebble? There are no essential features - it's like the word game, it's a set of related concepts, concepts that look alike, as though they shared family resemblances, but don't share all and only the same traits in common.

But surely that's not strong enough for a science, is it? After all - what I am saying essentially is that whether something is or is not a pebble has more to do with the conversation we have than with the pebble itself!

Read George Siemens on this: "In order to move to a networked view of learning, we need to see learning nodes (people, software, concepts, or ideas) as possessing some consistent state... If something can’t possess 'what is' attributes, then it cannot be of value in the process of connection forming. A node can form connections based mainly on its intrinsic (objective) attributes." Siemens may as well be saying, "If there can't be some fact of the matter about pebbles, then we can't have a theory of pebbles."

And it seems like common sense, right? In order for a network theory of learning - or anything else - to work, there must be a network. And not, say, something that we merely interpret as a network.

But, in opposition, I would say that seeing something as a network is a way of seeing something. That something may be seen as a network in the same way that it may be seen as a pebble.

How can this be? Consider the following question: when you look at War and Peace, are you looking at one thing, or 1256 things? There is, of course, no correct answer to the question. If you are counting books, you are looking at one thing. If you are counting pages, you are looking at 1256 things. Viewed from the perspective of being a set of related pages (or words, or readings) War and Peace may viewed as a network. Viewed merely as a book, it is merely an object, and not a network at all.

The discussion of networks isn't one of whether something is a network, or not. Everything is a network, from a certain perspective, just as everything is a quantity, and just as everything is a set of properties. And, in the same way, there is no absolute objective truth here. When you look at a pebble - do you see one thing or a hundred billion things? Depends on whether you see it as a pebble or a bunch of atoms. Is it solid or mostly space? Same answer. What it is depends on the theoretical framework you bring to bear on the question.

What a network theory does for us is to inform us about ways of looking at phenomenon. As I have written elsewhere, the knowledge we obtain from a network is an emergent property of that network. What that means is that when we look at a network, we see it as an instantiation of some higher level entity, just as we see the patterns of pixels on the television screen as an image of Richard Nixon. Network theory, therefore, informs about successful and unsuccessful strategies of doing this.

In this way, it is no different from science. Because, after all, we do come to understandings about pebbles. If we toss one into the water, we know we will create a set of ripples. And we know why that will happen, and under what grounds we would predict such an event.

We can do this because science isn't ontology. Science, strictly speaking, is silent on what things exist. No, instead, science is the discipline of deriving explanations for things. It is a system of practices and interactions humans use in order to construct a (mostly mathematical) model that is useful for making predictions. Science, in other words, does not answer the question what. It answers the question why.

Consider, for example, Newton's three laws, which underlie classical physics. What was important about these laws was not that they described an objective state of affairs (in fact, they did not) but that they expressed the state of affairs mathematically and in such a way that we could, with some facility, use them to make predictions. Newton's laws offered an explanation of observable phenomena by adducing a property, mass, that allowed for a single set of equations to describe multiple phenomena.

What makes one scientific explanation better than another? It is tempting to respond, off the cuff, that one is true while the other isn't, but what happens when the two appear to describe the phenomena equally well? If I let go of a rock, for example, and it strikes the table, is it because gravity pulled it down, or because the rock wanted to go down, or because God willed it to go down? Any of these theories explains the phenomenon equally well! So what is the fact of the matter?

When we look at what scientists actually do, we find that they are doing pretty much the same sort of things as happens in Wittgenstein's language game. Is that a pebble? No, I wouldn't call it a pebble. Well, a pebble is a thing that's eroded. Well, this is eroded. But not enough. Science is a set of conversations around sets of processes and activities. The outcome or product of these conversations is a set of theories.

Why one set, and not another? There is no single answer, but today scientists employ a set of what might be called methodological criteria for theory selection. That is not to say that these are hard and fast rules - a successful theory might violate any or all of these. But in general, scientists favour:
  • theories that are simple - this is the principle of Ockham's Razor
  • theories that have explanatory breadth - that is, it should explain more things rather than fewer things
  • theories that are testable, or falsifiable
None of these is a guarantee that the theory will be true. Certainly, the ontological status of the theory itself is dubious - is there some thing out there, some entity, that is Newton's Laws, or the Theory of Relativity? Who can know?

In the same way, the theories of networks I have described elsewhere are not objective properties of networks (nor am I committed to the view that the networks so described have some sort of objective existence). Rather, they are best viewed as methodological principles for setting up networks and using networks to generate empirical phenomena.

The principles, recall, are that reliable networks should be:
  • open, so that any node an receive or send signals
  • diverse, so that different types of nodes are included
  • autonomous, so that each node functions independently of the others
  • interactive, so that nodes communicate with each other
Now we can see that, strictly speaking, these principles can be seen (and should be seen) not merely as principles for building networks, but also, as a way of looking at things as though they were networks.

How does this work? Look at a forest. When you look at a forest, any number of ways of looking at it present themselves. You can look at it as a single entity, a 'forest'. Not very useful. Or you can look at it as a set of trees. Useful, but not so useful. Or you can look at it as an ecosystem. Most useful. When looking at forests, as a methodological principle, it is better to think of it as an ecosystem. This won't always apply - someone taking a tree census won't be usefully aided by this principle. But by and large, it is the best point of view to take, such as scientists prefer simple and powerful theories.

Is there an entity that is the 'network' in (or of) the forest? Who knows? Whether or not there is such an entity plays no part in our discussions.

Finally, from this, we can see how I approach the apprently intractable problem posed at the beginning of this post. It may be that there is no objective value of 'honesty' but there is a principle that I appeal to, 'honesty', when I discuss moral and political philosophy. This principle is derived from a way of seeing society - a way of seeing that is akin to looking at human society from the point of view of being a (successful) network rather than, say, a certain number of trees.

There is no objective virtue that is honesty, or any of the others - that's why these virtues are so easy to break. But, as a methodological principle, one's own conduct will in general be more successful if one understands the nature of the world around him, and one way of understanding it, and interacting successfully, is to be honest.

The Hockey Stick Shortened?

Responding to more silliness from TCS:

The authors of the NAS report cited in the first paragraph, and used as the basis of this article, write:

"...the committee finds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decased of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceeding millennium.

"Surface temperature reconstructions for periods prior to the industrial era are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climactic warming is occuring in response to human activities..." (pp. 3-4)

For some reason, the author of this article doesn't mention this part of the report. It could be, I suppose, that this part - which is the report's overall conclusion - directly contradicts his point.

The sad and yet oh-so-revealing thing about this sort of dissemblance is that it is utterly shameless.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Argument and Evidence, not Credential

My response to a piece of silliness on TCS.

Having actually read Chomsky on both linguistics and politics, unlike (apparently) the author, I can assert that Chomsky bases his criticisms of the U.S. government on meticulous research and bidingly valid reasoning.

This is how it is supposed to work. You don't take somebody's opinion as fact just because he or she has some title in the field, and you don't discount someone's argument merely because they're not recognized as an expert. Each argument stands or falls on its own, on the merits of the *argument* and not the merits of the person putting it forward.

Articles like this - which attack Chomsky without taking into account any of his evidence or reasoning - suggest to me that there are in fact *not* good grounds for disbelieving his arguments. Not good grounds because, when somebody has nothing to say in response to a good argument, they often chance the subject, and start talking about the person.

What doesn't surprise me is that TCS would publish this bit of 'reasoning' that would fail a first year logic class. What would surprise me would be to see it convince any reasonable person.

Blogging Help

A reader writes,
I teach 6th grade in an inner city school and started using technology towards the end of the school year. I am taking graduate classes at the University of Indianapolis and started getting hooked on Technology. All of this is new to me, but I want to give my kids an experience this year they will never forget. I want to get away from pencil and paper and start using the computers more and I want a way to keep in better contact with parents. Can you give me some ideas and help me?
I guess the first thing I would say is to not to try to do everything all at once, and to try things for yourself before trying them with a class. You probably want to start by following some education technology blogs, both to get a feel for reading blogs and to inform yourself about some of the different options out there. At a certain point, you should begin commenting on blog posts and to start your own blog, to become more used to working with these tools in a practical way for yourself (as opposed to looking at them from the point of view of trying them in class).

Most likely as time goes by you will be exposed to a variety on web-based services, the first one being Blogger for blogs, and others being web-based wikis, word processors, notepads, photo albums and more. What you want to do is explore these, asking yourself whether they help you in your own life and work - that is, do they help you take notes, do they help you organize your knowledge, do they make things easier. Don't even think about using them in a class, really, before you are comfortable that they are helping you in some way. This is important, because it seems to me that you'll need to be able to answer the 'why' of these tools as well as the 'what' and the 'how'.

A good place to start following these blogs is through a service I offer called Edu_RSS. It collects the writings of 300 or so sources in educational technology and displays them in a single feed. There's a lot to read in this feed (I'll be cutting it down a bit soon) so don't worry about reading everything. If something catches your interest, click on the link, and if it doesn't, simply move on to the next item. Here's the link to that feed:

When you introduce a technology to a class, in my view, you should introduce it as an option. Again, the point of this technology is to make things easier or to give you more capacities. I would begin, again, by using it yourself and making your use an option to your students. For example, tell your students that you have a blog, and that they can read it if they want. Or that you've posted additional thoughts on the class material which they may read if they're interested. Or that you will be listing interesting links and resources. In other words, model the behaviour you want to encourage.

At least part of your online content should reflect your own discovery and exploration of these online tools. The idea here is to share with your students your own learning and exploration. This will encourage the same practice in them, and as well will help you teach and demonstrate how these tools can be used. This will encourage the students to want to use these tools themselves. Their approach will likely vary depending on their interests - some may want to use a blog to do a journalling exercise, others may want to use Writely to collaborate on an essay, and still others may want to use instant messaging to organize an activity. Ensure that you review their technology plans before they get started, so you can monitor what they're doing and prepare for the inevitable disaster ("Mr. Hooper, Blogger wiped my post!").

In my view, the real advantage of these tools is that they transfer ownership of the process from the teacher to the student. This happens by the students choosing their own manner and approach to using these tools, and often customizing them to their own preferences. But it also happens because you are no longer the only person they are writing for - when they write online, they are writing for you, their classmates, their parents, and the larger internet population. This creates a change in their attitude toward their work. It involves them in it and motivates them to do their best work.

With Grade 5 students, you want to exercise more care and prudence than you might with older students. The experience at Institut St. Joseph that I describe in my article Educational Blogging is helpful. Students there have essentially three blogs - a private blog, shared only between teacher and student, an in-house blog, shared only within the school, and a public blog. Setting up something like this take a bit more work, since you need to provide (or access) education-specific blogging services. You will want to contact your computer support and you will want to send email to people who have set up such systems in their schools - you'll find them in the Edu_RSS feed. In the meantime, you may opt to use a site like Blogger, but use it with caution, and make it clear that you will be monitoring the posts.

That's my best advice as a start, I guess. Really, the main thing is, use the tools yourself. This will ease a lot of the mystery, and uses in the classroom will be suggested by your own use. And the second thing is, let the students take ownership of their own tools. This is the only way the real benefits of online learning are realized.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Asymetric Competition

Responding to Mark Oehlert.

The 'asymetric competition' metaphor is of course drawn from the term 'asymetric warfare'. So once again we see a military metaphor - and all that entails - being used to describe things.

This should be done cautiously, if at all, especially at a time when these metaphors are loaded with meaning pumped up by wartime propaganda. If the metaphor holds, for example, then open source advocates play the same role as al-qaeda -- and isn't ad-qaeda evil or something?

My own preference is to stay away from military metaphors, and my observation is that their almost automatic use is an indication of a pervasive - and unnoticed - militarization of a society.


p.s. Why am I writing so much here recently? I don't know. Though, my normal state is to be writing almost constantly, so take this as a good sign (I do). Will it last? Who knows. But it feels nice to be writing again, especially in this my 'secret blog', the one without readers.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Ms. Hoover

Responding to another post by Miguel Guhlin.

My perspective on this particular case is simply that posting naked photos of yourself on the internet is not wrong.

Yes, there are some moral perspectives that hold that it is wrong - though interestingly these same voices have no particular problem with nudity on film, in magazines, at fashion shows, and so on.

But it does not follow that teachers should have to follow a particular moral code, much less that particular moral code. Morality is a personal choice, and a society that values freedom should respect the personal choices of all of its citizens, yes, including teachers.

Indeed, from my own perspective, I am much more concerned about children being exposed to McDonalds commercials, being exposed to the brutality of shows like CSI, and seeing cities firebombed on the evening news (to name but a few things).

But I also recognize that I cannot protect children by removing all of these from the air - and I would point out that probably the only protection of children from nudity in today's media environment is a blindfold.

Singling out the teacher as the carrier of a special brand of morality (one often not even respected by her accusers) is in my view a disturbing form of hypocrisy. I have much more respect for people who say, "These are my values, this is what I live by" than by people who seek to impose their particular morality (as they understand it) on others.

You may think that the lesson the teacher is teaching her student is to "live naked." But it is not, and the current opposition and sanctions makes that perfectly clear.

No, the lesson she is teaching her students is, "live honestly."

That's why they fear her, and that's why they want to see her fired.

Blogs as Junk Food?

Responding to Miguel Guhlin

Hm. I'm not sure any magazine or newspaper writer would be on safe ground referring to blogs as junk food. There was more content, for example, in this post just read than in almost any magazine or newspaper article. It was probably written at a higher level of literacy, as well. And it was almost certainly more intellectually honest.

And don't even get me started comparing television news and newsmagazines with blog content.

Really, the only comparisons in which a blog comes out more poorly is with the academic journal (at least some of them, not necessarily all of them) and books (ditto). These formats allow for longer and more intensive treatment of a subject than a blog post.

Though I would say that if you took a set of blogs in totality that the depth and nuance matches that of even these more traditional media. Though we are tempted to compare individual blog posts with individual articles, or individual blogs with individual books, blogs are not structured in that way and should not be viewed in isolation.

A *blogosphere* - and not a single blog - provides coverage of a field or topic. A collection of posts from a number of writers, linked and intertwined (like a conversation) constitute the reportage. Each post is like a single sentence, a single word, even, in a larger story, told from one point of view, illustrating one thing. And just as we would not evaluate Moby Dick based only on the sentence "Call me Ismael" so also we should evaluate blog coverage of a topic by looking at only one post.

So - blogs as junk food? Hardly. Each blog post is more like a single grape, a cracker, a bite of meat, a carrot. Individually they may look like nothing more than light snackables. But together they make a meal.

The traditional press, by contrast, is like more and more of the same thing. And while it may look like a meal, it's more like trying to live on only one type of food - and no matter how good that food, there's always something missing. More of the same doesn't equal more.

Communities of Practice and Wrap-Up

Discussion sessions from the second day of the Canadian Council on Learning conference on Adult Learning.

Full Reports

Literacy by Allan Quigley

Culture by Darlene Clover

E-learning by Hélène Fournier

Gender by Leona English

Social Movements by Budd Hall

Learning Communities by Donovan Plumb

Barriers and Access by Dorothy MacKeracher

Communities of Practice Discussion

They have set up four lenses through which we can look at the actions we can recommend. I am reluctant to try to define 'communities of practice' and leave it broadly defined. We've heard in a numver of reports the term used, a whole range of communities of practice.

What we've been asked to do is come up with a list of specific actions. They want us to boil this down to three. Look at:
- what are the issues related to communities of practice?
- what should ALKC (Adult Learning Knowledge Community) do?

For example: making a stringer connection with adult educators and communities of practice in Quebec.

Comment: what is a community of pratice?

Response (from the note-taker): Wenger - a context within which people join together around a shared enterprise or a shared practice and they negotiate a common understanding or a common sense of things around that.

Comment: so it's very deliberate...

Response: He says communities of practice spring up all the time. Eg. a group of people talking about the hockey game. Because we have that shared understanding, other people outside out community don't have that understanding; the communities have an edge around them.

For example: adult learners working in community-based literacy work. Or the rural women's institute. There's a community of practice around that. I'd like to focus on practitioners as much as I can.

Response: Maybe the hockey example was a bad idea, they can last 25 years.

Question (same person): How are they different from coalitions.

Response: the learning is the key thing, they are joined together by the learning. Communities are implicated by things like forming identity. Because, for example, because we're all in here, we're a community of practice, and it forms part of our identity.

Another comment: I think of people needing to form a community of practice, a way of thinking about it, which is very different from a coalition, which is a group of organizations forming a common cause, where a community of practice, we may be out there individually, the more we can connect, we form a community of pratice.

[Small Group Sessions]



Overview: Issues

Town vs Gown - tension between academic and practitioner discourses and priorities. There are power relationships and governance implications for ALKC. Who makes the decision on definitions of terms, priorities for research? How does structure promote genuine collaboration? How do we ensure policy and practice is relevant?

The Quebec and Francophone dimensions were not covered adequately. There is a preference for integrated reports rather than a silo approach.

Don't forget prior learning and achievement recognition.

Definitions: there is a need for common language and terminology. CCL/ALKC should take the lead here.

Finally, a number of the reports referred to how difficult it is to fins consolidated sources of research on adult learning. CCL should develop centralized reference and resource resources. Could be done by CCL for all learning or ALKC for adult learning.

Communities of Practice:

Provision of tools - means to support communities of practice. This is not a question of ALKC doing things for CoPs, but rather, enabling CoPs for themselves. Identifying emerging CoPs, bilingual tools, fostering collaboration, making next year's meeting a colloquium.

Structure ALKC to include the Francophone reality in Canada in terms of CoPs. That should include talking to non-practitioners as well. Not just about language and translation, but about structure.

Taking and enabling - should be understood that communities take a community-based approach rather than a corporate or government approach. (This was heavily edited from the original formulation)

Here is the original formulation:

The communities actually engaged in learning are working primarily from a social, cultural and often community-based perspective, rather than a corporate or governmental perspective, and this should be reflected in the actions and priorities of the CCL.

Diversity of Adult Learning:

Started looking at the diversity in the group - different areas of interest and their scope - we had the diversity in that room (note: there is exactly one visible minority in this room)

Create a portal, be the adult learning clearing house, meets international standards for interoperability, bilingual, user-centered, and participatory (like Wikipedia).

Create a national celebration of adult learning. 'Growing Canada: Adults Learning Together'. Promote to media, connect to media. Include informal as well as the formal.

Work around building a common language. Create a Canadian Adult Learning Thesarus.

Community-Based Research:

The ALKC is faced with a dilemma - the problem is it is not clear to what extent we recognize there is a different logic in developing knowledge and action from logic and developing knowledge and action from community. It is not town versus gown - town has a logic, and gown has a logic. Clearing houses play a part, but it creates a problem, because there are things that are specific to the community, so in the clearing house it becomes important that the voices are heard.

Question of resources: there is a need to somehow have access to knowing the chances of getting money, knowing what fails and what is available. 80 percent of the time is actually spent writing the proposal.

Also - we heard about skills and toolsets - it is not possible for community-based people to go away and stay in nice places like the Crowne Plaza - the idea of maybe using the internet to do some courses on how to do some of this work. One of the challenges is to write about it and write it up. Like the Danes did it - they had people being sent out to assist.

University-Community Research Alliances:

Relationship building. This starts with listening to the community, and the community listening to the academics.

We have to identify the researchers who are active in the area, the community groups, the whole variety. Once you identify, then bring them together - we did that here, but we can have local symposia. Because you have to have the building of trust before electronic communication works. And then see, are we working for the same thing, the same way.

Information technology - use to share information. One idea, a dating service - profile academics, profile the community groups. Something that's dynamic, has some real humanity in it. Technology that empowers groups. Wikipedia was open, you go back and its changed. Case stududies, but dynamic case studies. To know what didn't work. Websites, connection websites. Try to show real lived community there.

Maybe start with protocols, principles of university-community collaboration. Build on what's out there. Not just 'you do this' - it has to have a reflective element.


Comment: I'm having a culture-shock problem. I have always lived in urban Canada. My world is compoised of a huge diverity of cultural groups. I am mystified. I am pleased that the absence of French is addressed. But I'm not seeing the kinds of learning priorities I've seen in those urban centres.

Reply: That point came out in the review of the groups. Apologies that it didn't get highlighted.

Comment: Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre - we have a mandate to look at lifelong learning. Colleague looks at adult learning. Looking at how we build a larger aspect of aboriginal learning here. Maybe put it all one one portal, the CCL portal.

Comment: response to first comment. Our group is addressing diversity in adult learning, and we addressed that, by things like common terminology.

Comment: appropriateness of adult learning in this room. This is the J. Harper Kent Theatre. He got an honorary high school graduate certificate and an honorary doctorate in the same week.

Comment: everything we are talking about is learning, but we're not talking about the actual learners being involved, except as subjects. We need to put them pack in the mix. If our goal is to help them they should be in the centre somehow.

Comment: how much say does the knowledge centre have in determining its own course of action, how much autonomy?

Response: we have multiple players here, and CCL is the significant player, they provide us with the funding, and they are actively involved in defining our vision and our business plan. There has been a great deal of flexibility in how they've responded. The five centres were set up in a kind of emergent sort of way. It was a question of getting a group of stakeholders together. Also latitude in how the governance was set up. I saw quite a lot in the language about principles and values that are key to adult learning. I sometimes wondered, is this necessary to say, that we treat each other respectfully, and are inclusive, and of course it's necessary to say. I have addressed how it was set up, the question is probably directed to the reality, and we're in a wait and see mode. It was set up with public money, and of course there's accountability.

Follow-up: will the knowledge centre be able to take on more responsibility, eg., mobilization?

Response: the mandate includes knowledge mobilization and knowledge exchange. Knowledge mobilization meaning speading information around. We set up mechanisms and processes. And we advise CCL on research priorities, learning indicators and benchmarks.

Comment: how would you measure the success? When the learners have taken control and are demanding its continuation. It is vital that we remember our focus.

Comment: we seem to have been talking about adults as though they are people wo are partaking in a formal leaning process, and we shouldn't forget there are people who are undertaking learning only to get something done, that they are learning as citizens, they are learners only temporarily, and foremost citizens.

Picassa Try-Out

This photo upload is from the new Picassa for web service, which I'm testing out right now. This is the 'blog this' option.

The photo itself is from Bratislava, Slovakia. I'm quite pleased with it. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Culture (Darlene Clover and Laurie McGauley)

From the Canadian Council on Learning conference on Adult Education in Fredericton.

See also the formal report

Darlene Clover

Let start out with the framework that culture matters. It matters to the federal government, because some nations won a landmark agreement to prevent culture from being subsumed under trade agreements. You on't have the right to air and water - these are commodities.

Vulture is everything - beliefs, rituals, language, art. Countries without culture are more easily dominated. Language and culture are power. Culture plays a role around economics, social health, and in particular hope.

We needed to narrow it down, and we narrowed it down to the arts. It was more manageable, our strength, and as a natural link. Educators are incrasingly seeing the arts as essentiual to intellectual, social and cultural life.

The purpose of the study was to highlight practices, deepen understanding of theoretical discussions, identify gaps.

We set Canada as a parameter, looked at journals, other studies and reports, government and non-government, convened a focus group (on the lower mainland (BC)), some email and telephone interviews, and developed a series of case studies.

Nothing is every one way or the other - we don't think it's just this or just that. That said, there are two major concepts of arts in adult ed:
- adult arts education and training - the learn about and are exposed to the arts, eg., opera and threatre, or learn to pain to draw, understanding and awareness, and aims to maintain the strength of cultural institutions, training artists in their craft (or industry, depending on who you are), help people see themseleves as the artist
- and then there's the rag-tag group that sees art as a tool for sociao-cultural change in a community, the arts become a catalyst that brings communities together, use to build community, celebrate cultural identity, address social issues, and promote learning. Etc.; there is an emphasis on the social responsibility of the artit as educator.

The first of these receives much more government interest and support. The first type of arts education is the main one; there are organizations all across the country. We want to say that we are not advocating that artists not be trained. But the focus of our study was not that.

The second group receives far less, with some noticable exceptions (BC Council for the arts). Interestingly, most of the studies on adult education focused on the latter group, and the majority of community organizations are working in this framework.

Mission statements of many cultural organizations state that no funding is given to community-political work. But it will take a while to change the world reproducing a Monet.

Quebec: the emphasis is on formal arts training. That includes the academic studies. We did find community educators, but they feel even less supported than in other parts of the country. If culture is power, we wondered, is this the way to address Francophone identity? We would guess that this has something to do with it.

Speaking of imperialism, First Nations art learning focuses on the art. A lot of the artists and educators argue that that;s very limited, and it again is not making change, it's more a commodification of the idea of selling art (yet recognizing that that as well is very important). It's a very complex issue as well.

There was little emphasis on the adult artist, with a focus on kids. What is happening si that arts eduction is being abandoned in schools, forcing these organizations to pick up the slack. But this should be done by the state.

Most of the academic programs are fine arts, with a few on arts-based adult education. In the colleges, not so much.

A growing number of community organizations are turning to the arts - Rock Solid Foundation, for example. Also, in the National Gallery, there is a program linking the arts and human rights - they have made some incredibly powerful pieces.

There is adifference between a community-based artist, and an artist in community. One speaks to the community and creates a piece of art, while the other works with the community to collectively create some art.

Community based programs are pressured to focus on children and to seek funding - good way to keep it non-political.

Recommendations: study the impact of arts funding cuts in schools. Also, study community arts organizations to see what they mean by education. Also, look at aboriginal-based arts in the academy. Give greater support for knowledge mobilization studies. Organize a conference for the arts adult education community. Study the role of the arts in developing a pluralistic society. Explore the role of community-based artists as adult educator. And develop a study in Quebec on community arts based learning and the issue of professionalism.

Laurie McGauley

When I first read this review I felt it was speaking to my experience and the work I have been doing. So in that sense, it's a success if it's supposed to represent the state of the arts.

My background: started as an activist, and soon got into popular education, and noticed a lot of similarities in popular education and art. The whole idea of coding your experience, to analyze it and understand it, with the objective of changing it. I got into popular theatre. Took Frierian theory (pedagogy of the oppressed) and created 'theatre of the oppressed'. Why theatre? Theatre is cheap, all you need is your body. And oppression reaches right into the body. So it was a natural. In the 80s there was a lot of popular theatre, but of course the neo-liberal cuts hit and all of that is gone.

Darlene and her team are trying to make the point that they are not opposed to the art institutions and the art academies. But the thing about art is, since 1789, since Schiller, he said beauty is the path to freedom, it is through the aesthetics that we understand what freedom is. Throughout the review there are references to Habermas, 3 ways of understanding the world: scientific, practical, and aesthetics. Aesthetics is a completely different way of knowing the world, it's not just a rational way of knowing the world. So this knowledge is sometimes much deeper and much more transformative.

Some people say all art is subversive. Because it awakens longings in us, longings for beauty, perfection, utopia. We look at also the affirmative status of culture, affirmation of the status quo. That is what has happened to institutional art, it has been claimed by the establishment and held up to create ideas we can never achieve. We are bringing art to use art, to give us a voice, to get our voice our there, to get our experiences out there.

What's happening though in the work that we doo is that because we approached it as activity, to create social change, there was counter-culture movement going on, and we were providing the voice for that movement. We didn't need to go there are justify and explain. But that's changed, there are no strong social movements going on any more. So what's happened is we've gone to community-based. It's smaller, it's safer for the funders. The work is starting to shift. But now we are beginning to find a basis of support in the art institutions - but not without resistance. For example - 'art as a tool' drives them crazy, it should be 'art for arts sake'. These need to be negotiated. I find that wht I end up doing is justifying what I am doing as art - but that's not why I got into this.

But I want to emphasize - the funding is shaping the actual work. There is the pressure because funding has been cut in schools. But it's also safer to work with children. Children expressing themselves ith art - that's ok. But adults?

There's a lot of good work going on but it's in the process of being institutionalized, which is good, but we have to be careful.

The focus on funding is very clear, there's very little of it. But I ant to highlight the Bronfman fund - three years of funding, $30K per year, and you were expected to engage the community. It has been chopped, though, and there is very little funding for this kind of work; it's going into the 'arts field'.

Still - we've managed to carve out this little bit of space, but we're not going to let it go.

Example: project we did on water quality in Sudbury with teens. They decided what they wanted to know, who to bring in (aboriginal elder, activists, scientist). They decided, what do we want this mural to represent, what do we want it to say. Then we're drawing and painting like crazy, always discussing, always consensus. That's the kind of work that we do.

Maybe addto this some examples of municipal cultural policies - it's being driven by this idea of creative cities. But it depends on economic indicators proving the economic benefit of the art. It's expected to perform economically, and that's the only language that we're using right now.

Also I want to refer to the study on the effects of study on well-being - the study shows that if you sing by yourself for a couple of hours a week, it's bad for your health. This shows why it's so difficult to quantify. We do have to find a way to gt to that - an idea for further study is the whole idea of aesthetics itself, the aesthetic way of knowing. We don't need to prove the effects in that way, but it is a way of looking at adult education.

Q & A

Comment: the institutionalization of arts-based eduation - that's what you said?

Laurie: the institutionalization of the grass roots based arts, yes.

Comment: what will that look like.

Laurie: organizations that don't typically use art are beginning to. Eg., health institutions integrating art. Integrating art into more mainstream institutions. And institutionalizing the organizations that exist - that's what I meant by relying on funding, and funding shaping the way you work. I don't focus on youth, but there's pots of funding there. Endangered youth. Life skills.

Comment: it's more of piecemeal.

Darlene: there's also a curving, a curving of intent. The ministry, eg., said 'could you just not do that part of it because it might upset somebody'. So you start to shape your work so it doesn't upset anyone, say, around the issue of sexul exploitation.

Comment: did you find there was a distinction between between performing arts and 'creative' arts - because in the performing arts, if you do something offensive it goes away, but in visual arts it's more permanent.

Darlene: I didn't see it - but you can get around that permancn by whitewashing it. But it's more - performance is easier, you don't need pops. Vs. quilting, where you need material, which makes it more costly. But in the study itself there wasn't a distinction, but adult education preferred theatre.

Lauire: you learn how to negotiate this stuff. When we did our first mural the city was horrified - the kids picked that wall, a city wall. We brought in a contingen of youth to meet with the bureaucrats. And I respect public art - it's there, people have to see it. I'm not afraid to offend, but I don't want something ugly. Once we get the design up, we bring the community in. It's part of that negotiation that has to happen.

Darlene: it's like, if you look at the adult ed literature that says, if you like art, then use it. But if it's public - there was this play, for example - it really does matter that the art be art. It is too easily dismissed if it is not. Eg. quilts. We took subversive quilts in this traditional quilt show. Amongst this very pretty stuff. They would look at i, they would touh it, they'd feel it. Once they recognized it as quality quilting, they would start to look at the mesage of it. I didn't understand how important it was that the quality be there before I saw them move up toward it.

Comment: Quebec distinct in culture - their chool system has incorporated different art issues in classes.

Darlene: they are complaining there is no arts in schools. We are saying in B.C., are you crazy?

Comment: can you distinguish between art as a subject, and using art in a cross-curricular fashion to teach other subject areas. Because while funding for art as a subject is reduced, there is increased emphasis on using art to teach other subjects. Does this reflect in adult education?

Darlene: it's a good point - I think there's the will to want to do that, but I teach masters and doctoral students, but they're not interested. They say it's not there. I'm surprised you're saying it is there.

Comment (continued): it is. Arts across the curriculum, in part because they're not allowed to teach art.

Darlene: that's goof to hear.

Comment: quilting. They're very curious about other kinds of quilting. They don't necessarily like it; they consider it other-minded.

Darlene: we had more people at our show than anyone else.

Social Movement Learning (Winnie Chow, Thomas Mark Turay and Bev Burke)

From the Canadian Council on Learning conference on adult education, Fredericton.

See also the formal report.

Winnie Chow, Thomas Mark Turay

What is Social Movement Learning (SML)? This report has never been done, so far as we know. We found only three things in Google. How would we write a report on only three authors - that's not really state of the field. So what is it? Social movemnt learning is learning by people who are part of the social movement, or by people outside of the movement as a result of actions taken by the movement.

Social movements are powerful instruments of change in Canada. You can see the photo of people protesting the war. You can see a lot of learning going on. But it didn't stop that day.

Eg. the slide from Housekeeping Monthly - the Good Wife's Guide. The people in the women's movement can relate. The guide says, "When the husband comes home, be happy to see him... if you have something important to say, set it aside... a good wife always knows her place." 1955. That's what our society thought about women and their place. But now in 2006 we don't necessarily believe that. Even though mostly women identify with the women's movement, even men learned. So social movement had power to transform society, the way we act, and policies.

This is the kind of learning that we're talking about. Much of it is informal, but much of it is intentional, though (for example) campaigns. Look at these pictures about the war - but there's learning beyond the war. Like, "how many lives per gallon" teaches us about consumerism. More "make love not war" makes us question attitudes.

In Canada, a lot of adult education came out of the social movements. Education and social movements have always been linked, but there's been nothing that links them together in the studies that take place. "The learning that takes place as a result of social movement has a larger impact than the learning that takes place in school." Matthias Finger.

So why is so little attention paid to it?

Our methods: cast broad net to focus on social movement theory. Limited by language, location. Most of the research not in academia. We found few contemporary Canadian researchers doing quantitative studies - mostly case studies, etc. Some movements have not been addressed by SML literature, eg., aboriginal, gay/lesbian.

Gaps: there is a limited flow of information from the universities back to the communities. There is little adult education focus in how social movements operate. Also, lack of in-depth empirical studies in SML.

Recommendations: create an SML knowledge mobilization group to promote knowledge exchange. Build an agenda for SML. We need follow-up studies about the effects of SML. Eg., how was recycling promoted? Also, put out RFP for knowledge exchange. Also, get social policy groups to meet regarding how to exchange information. Study SML in Quebec.

See the report for the list of community based organizations in the field.

Bev Burke

Normally I'm delivering courses and workshops to working people. So I spread the paper around, and collected comments.

We all felt we wanted to congratulate the team and to thank everyone for this research. The learning for me and everyone else that read this was that there was so little writing on learning in social movements. We also appreciated the tone of the report, which invited critical comments.

My contribution will be by way of underlining things.

The broad definition of social movements was helpful. The whole idea of focusing on this is an important area of study in adult education, because it starts with the collective rather than the individual, and puts it in a political context where the objective is for change. The bibliography and list of academics interested in this work was very helpful.

For those of us who are committed to working toward broad-based change, anything that cuts across the silos is a welcome project.


First, the issue of cultural appropriation. There's a lot of valuable work being done in these organizations on learning. But the bias is to action, you don't have time to write it down. It's all volunteer time, and you;re fighting for money to get it down on paper. And your organizations don;t give you support, they'd rather you were out there mobilization.

Second, it is the most powerful social identities that get the light shone on them. Typically white and male. Very little diversity among the people who appear to have the access to the networks, etc. But there is all kinds of good work being done by people who don't have the networks.

Third, there are degrees of separation among the people out there. The 'clipboard people' who drop in to do their research to do their degree, then they fly out and we never see them again. The best work is done by people who are engaged.

The paper feels like a draft, which is great, so we can contribute.

We need to expand the study. First, the work in Quebec. Also, some of the missing social movements - anti-racism, anti-colonial, immigration issues, civil rights - there's a whole bunch there. This would also add diversity in the bibliography.

Also, there is the whole question around the aboriginal area and learning. We feel we could learn from how the aboriginal community looks at learning.

Finally, the youth movement. There must be other ways of pulling out what they are doing - power camps, and hip hop movement. There's a lot of possibilities at looking more carefully here.

Also, looking at learining that would be of most benefit to the movements themselves. Especially the learning by persons other than those in the movements, because the movements all have goals, but we don't understand what gets out there and how it gets misrepresented by the media.

Also, look at work in other countries. Eg. group in Costa Rica. Social movements and organizations looking at hopw you can systematize your work, building in reflection and collection of information, so you collect what you've learned and apply it to the next thing.

And finally (heh), we want to build feedback to the social movements about what has been learned. Turn the research findings into tools and language. Eg., teaming up somebody from the labour movement and somebody from academia.

Q & A

Comment: will you include the Acadian community in northern New Brunswick in research on SML in Quebec?

Thomas: Good point.

Comment: In my experiece, there has been a power inbalance with teams led by academics. You can b a very powerful person in a movement and just be disconnected because you're not an academic.

Winnie: one of the recommendations is to have a community-university alliance. There have been discussions around that. It's a power dynamic, how do you establish respectful partnerships. A lot of researchers, when they design the project, they've already set the agenda. So we look at who sets the agenda.

Thomas: I come from a practitional base, so I lived that for many years. I got to the point where I reflected and said, I want to go back to school to look at the theories. So now I'm in an academic context. Having lived that reality - how do I make sure I celebrate both? I take that as a moral responsibility on my. So a lot of my writing is to critique mainstream thinking, to speak with multiple voices, from two worlds.

Comment: people can do that, but there's still a power imbalance.

Moderator: that's a very serious point, part of the reason we're here is that it has not worked. We need to make sure the process isn't co-opted.

Comment: I'm coming out of a 5-year research alliance. This is a structural question. You have to build this and attend to it, negotiate every single budget line item. All those power relations will be brought to us. If you don't do that, what you say is going to happen. But the collaboration requires a huge amount of care and feeding. Even as we close, the negotiations is still continuing. But it's good, negotiation in good faith,

Bev: we have labour people built into the governing body - heh, but it's the labour people who are really used to negotiating.

Comment: Did you struggle with how it is that we're talking about knowledge, which feels like a product these days, and how you feel about the learning in social organizations, that may never become a product.

Winnie: that's where our debate started. How do you evaluate the learning that comes out of a social movement, which is not a product. We learned that it was more about the process. That's the piece that's missing in the reserach now. This is the piece that we can all learn from. We can look at the product, but we can ask, how did we get to this point.

Thomas: we need to investigate what happens at the non-formal or the informal sector of learning. Learning there is not looked at as a product. It is a means to organizing, to mobilizing, to exist. If it becomes more organized, it could bcome a product. I hope the social movement doesn't get to that level, where it's all about product. I speak from an African perspective, it becomes a fix - let's fix it there. That's how the World Bank got there, they get to the fix, the problems being fixed by the very people who created them.

Bev: I don't see leaning as product, but it's in the process, but picking apart leart learning would be helpful to make it more intentional in social contexts - in cases, for example, where you fail, you can still learn from the experience, and as Maude said, keep your hope alive, keep your work alive. And I think there are movements who have worked more on product, in media, if you get your 20 seconds of media time, that's a success.

The story:

Looking by the big fire. Why are you looking here? Because there's light.

Learning Communities Session (Donovan Plumb, Robert McGray and Elaine Harris)

Learning Communities

From the Canadian Council on Learning conference on adult learning in Fredericton.

See also the formal report.

Donovan Plumb, Robert McGray

If you look through the beginnings of the report you see us trying to come to grips with the term 'learning communities'. It's not a term where if you do a search in a database you'll get a lot of hits. But we see it as important for any organization involved in adult learning, because there has always been this relation between community and adult learning. So we wanted to see what the people in the field were actually saying. So our task was to review the acaemic and professional literature, to investigate indicators (though the notion doesn't really apply) and address gaps between theory and practice.

The whole premise of a state of the field review is to see what people are saying, but as researchers we don't do this without a bias, so we are always moving in with a different kind of interest, and ours was probably articulated by Maude Barlow, this crazy change taking place and intensifying in the last ten years, the thrust of globalization ramping up and negating the community context. We were concerned about the impact of globalization in impacts. So our report was framed around that, how communities were being negatively impacted by globalization.

When people talk about learning or community, they are usually thought of uncritically, two very warm fuzzy words. We want to resist the temptation to say this is just a good thing, let's look at that. When we worked in Jamaica, there's a crime problem, and when people get into crime organizations, there's a learning path,m and we didn't want to endorse that.

One definition we found is from Ron Faris: 'learning explicitly used as an organizing principle and social goal - learning resourcs are mobilized to foster communities.' We don't want to say what a learning community should look like, but it should have an organizing role.

Intrinsic connection between community and adult learning. Eg. Frontier College, Antigonish Movement, Farm Radio Forum, Women's Institutes. You can't have health community unless it critically engages learning, you can't have learning unless it transpires community (yes, he said that).

We wanted to check out the extent to which our field has developed its explicit undertanding of this connection. We began to see that there are different lvls of this sense of that. We have this sense that what we really need now is a theoretical and practical understanding of the critical importance of this connection. The reason is that our communities are really at risk. While they were healthy and not under attack by globalization, we could draw on their resources and take them for granted. But as they are under attack, these resources are being depleted. We can't just reply on the inherent learning processes in a community any more. We have to become increasingly clear about the linkage between community and learning. So we nbeeded to find out how people were talking about this linkage.

Levels of connectivity:
- learning and community not explicitly linked
- linked but with limited connections
- linked but not explicitly theorized
- linked and explicitly theorized

The way in which the research is tending to go is that the connection is being theorized, and this is a positive thing, and a goal for the learning centre is to mobilize this understanding, so, eg., where community development is taking place without any discussion of learning, this can be shifted upward. To promote this kind of deeper understanding.

Four key findings:

1. Current trends in research in adult learning focus on individual learning, thus misses community learning, cultural cognition. Learning isn't something that happens jut in our heads.

2. Learning communities are difficult to research because they are emergent and complex, not pre-planned and complicated, and as a result they are difficult to investigate using static social science methods

3. The connection between community and adult learning runs against more mainstream themes - it does not fit well into the picture of a consumer culture.

4. The systems of indicators, measures and benchmarks are ill-suited fr assessing adult learning. Often people have teleological based assessment, with an end in mind, and a number used to measure it. But this is misleading. Does not take into account context, circumstances.

Possible research questions:

- what is the nature of the relationship?
- what does the development of the community context help or hinder learning
- and how does development of a leaning context help build community?
- and how does research in this field help the quality of life in Canada?

Elaine Harris

Part of what I will talk about are gap that I perceive.

What I want to say about what you heard is that it was exciting that some discussion about this is taking place, because it doesn't generlly fit, it's not neat and tidy. Part of 'learning community' is a normative ideal, and we are still trying to make it an analytic concept. And because it is an idea, there is this sense maybe we shouldn't be talking about it. So I'm happy we were able to keep it. Although recognizing the difficulty of trying to put a frame around it.

Although we use the Faris definition, part of the problem still is, 'What is a learning community'? We know some things are essential, but it's still vague. A lot of the context of that is not particularly defined. So perhaps we need to say more about the types of learning communities we've been part of. We have some essences, but not a good idea of what they are. Eg. communities of geography? communities of affinity?

I'm not sure how you're talking about theory and metatheory and empirical research. At the metatheory level we're all on board for them. They're really important because they're about relational learning, and they're about learning in a particular context. There's not just cognitive learning, there's also an affective dimension, and there's also power involved. But I think if we talked about them we'd find a lot more practice, a lot more empirical data, in various disciplines. One of the reasons we haven't been able to entirely theorize it is that it runs into these other domains (great observation - SD). We need to step outside adult education and look at those other practices that are looking at the same kind of thing, where leaning might not be central.

A reason there has been a lack of development, perhaps, of terminology, etc., is that it has not fitted into the academic world so easily. Compare to impact of globalizations. I want to talk about how hard it is o bring themes of community into the research themes. Have to fight really hard to maintain that level of anaysis. There is a fightback from the academy because the academy is more comfortable with things that can be easily reuced or related, etc. So we don't get so much encouragement to pursue it as we much.

Also, anything to do with geography or local isn't sexy any more - if you're not doing global, you're not with it. I wanted to inject more regional vocabulary into it, eg. 'Northern Alberta', naming particular places, as search terms.

Although we didn't find much under 'learning community' there are other terms. Eg., 'communities of practice'. 'Social movement'. 'Situated learning' is starting to be popular and helpful. 'Social cognition' and 'social capital'. There is a question of whether we ho are alting about leaning are talking about the same thing as 'networking'. The way that learning communities take up knowledge is essentially in communication - the flow of information is not just a flow - it is communicated horizontally, there is a practice of meaning-making happening. Why aren't we paying more attention to communication dynamics that have to do with meaning and not just information and knowledge.

Finally, one of the mot important aspects of the leaning community possibilities - communities of hope - is communities where citizens are involved, issues that arise from the community that are driving thelearning. We talk about how hard it is to get at analytics when we are carrying so much in the term - but it is the space of civic engagement that is so important - learners as citizens, and not working out of their professional roles (a big difference here, a public sphere tht is created - that kind of learning community is the one I want to explore).

And the last thing I want to say is that we have so few slive accounts of learning communities. I have the suspicion that the people who could write the most compelling narratives about learning communities are practitioners. Maybe we can think of collaboration and cooperation with an academic.

Q & A

Comment: issue facing communities: incredibly accelerated resource extraction - and the response maks people think and act like learning communities - but they don't call it that. Also, is there a role for institution-building in this?

Donovan: how can this knowledge centre deepen our support for the development of the capacity to do this kind of work? The important role that adult learning plays in community. It's not just happenstance that they're going to learn about this, of course they're going to have to learn about this. And so - what kind of things need to be there? What kind of conversations do we need to have. How do we manage the inclusive-exclusive balance (you need exclusivity for continuity, and yet you want to be inclusive)?

Comment: my bias is that I think that learning communities as being presented is a part of a new liberal agenda. It doesn't interest you, but there is an equilibrium. To achieve or to reach social justice, let's forget about learning communities, and let's think about groups that need to learn in order to act. Look at them, they won't talk about learning communities. It's this notion of nice, friendly no-conflict that is built into this way of thinking.

Robert: This neo-liberal agenda - I think we can rescue the term.

Donovan: I think we should rescue the term, there's no reason why we should let them take it away from us. It's sort of this doublespeak, trying to capture something away so that we don't have it.

Robert: I so totally agree, though, that writing a report about learning communities is almost anti learning communities.

Donovan: It was sort of an anti community exercise, a state of the field revoiew where you get experts.

Comment: We heard some of the issues - resourcs, defining community, etc. - it seems to me that what I have been doing mostly is adult learning, but in planning we don't talk about that - I have been explicit, but I use the term 'planning' - planners facilitate a lot of learning, often in conflict situations. Perhaps the challenge is you've grabbed onto a definition rather than looking at what's happening. Eg. here, the protected areas, where the movement began with the protests (while the politicians say, it didn't exist until we created a law). They don't call it learning, they call it policy-making.

Donovan: learning si a problem, this knowledge-transmisson view of learning is a real problem, but we can look into the interdisciplinary aspects of it. They're connecting up. They're challenging this industrialized notion of learning. They are creating notions of learning that are very important to mobilize in this kind of context.

Robert: this interdisciplinarity is part of the emergent properties of this theme. We didn't say, fund a study to do this, fund a study to do that. We are thinking te learning centre could say, maybe it's important for communities.

Elaine: the language question insterests me - the decay of public language. Words now don't have the same kind of meaning they used to, they have been co-opted. Part of the struggle is to at least find some common pieces.