McLuhan, the Medium, the Containers, and Libraries

Before diving in, a bit on where I’m coming from: One of my majors was Communication, and McLuhan was a major topic in several of my classes. Though I don’t find his writing as readable as some others, his ideas resonate with me. A personal area of interest for me is the field of Science, Technology, and Society, which studies how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific and technology innovation and are affected by it. Finally, I became a librarian for a number of reasons, one of which was an activist mindset of preserving this type of cultural institution. Okay, with that squared away:

I, like Claire, often find myself in the position of saying something to the effect of technology is value neutral, it’s how you use it that matters, so I questioned my “True North” described above when I was reminded that’s not a particularly McLuhanist approach to technology. Upon reflection, though, I think I have mostly used that phrase to open the door to conversations about how the technology might be useful in order to backtrack to how to ensure good general practice (in teaching, in productivity, in research, etc) with or without the technology in question. I plan to reflect more on after our seminar this evening.

This reading came at a particularly good point in time for me. Earlier this week I attended Tony’s session on giving effective powerpoint presentations. It was a fun session, as I really like making slide decks and learning tricks and tips to do it even more effectively. In that session we briefly touched on McLuhan, and Tony pointed out that PowerPoint, itself, encourages you to behave in a certain way.
As does an iPhone, access to a tablet computer, a laptop, an offline desktop. And knowledge that your screen at the office is huge compared to the phone sized one in your pocket.

I, of course, think of this in the context of libraries shifting. (And oh, the library readers of this blog know the many ways that the field is shifting and changing, but for the VT Seminar crowd, I could go on for days.) I am excited by that work, and the redefining, and the challenge of not just ensuring libraries remain relevant but are critical to the success of the enterprise. But I digress…

One of those shifts is the move from a focus on container (i.e. The Book) to the content (i.e. The Information). But I have long thought, perhaps due to my other major in Philosophy–which is particularly paper bound, that the container does change how one thinks about and uses the information. That we as a field should think about what that means and be very intentional about our work. And you see evidence of that in most academic libraries. Largely, when books are moved off site and online collections are purchased to replace them, that (in the most general view) is generally focused on STEM fields, leaving humanities and some social sciences with much of their physical collections in the building. I suspect the container at that point changes the work to some degree for STEM research, but perhaps in a more positive direction. In those, the more flexible online, hyperlinked, fast container might be more useful.

In parallel, I think a lot about how new forms of scholarship like those enabled by big data or digital humanities practices might change what can be known. How they in fact change the questions that can be asked.

All of which is very exciting to me. The biggest worry, from my perspective, is what happens if this overshadows the types of questions that could be asked previously, or does it imply a value hierarchy that isn’t necessarily intentional.

Looking forward to this afternoon’s seminar….

Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, and the Potential of Computers

When reading Kay and Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media I found myself, again, surprised by how much they got right. This time it was less of a surprise, as it was written nearer today’s time and they helped create the technology we know, but I was still struck with a sense of “wow, they got it!”

Alan Kay and the prototype of Dynabook, pt. 5Most of the piece was focused on things the Dynabook could do, which was certainly cool to read, but I found I had less of a response. Instead of “let me point out how this is like today’s tools” I kept thinking “yes, that’s obviously there.”

And then I came to the passage that struck a conversational chord:

“For educators, the Dynabook could be a new world limited only by their imagination and ingenuity. They could use it to show complex historical inter-relationships in ways not possible with static linear books. Mathematics could become a living language in which children could cause exciting things to happen. Laboratory experiments and simulations too expensive or difficult to prepare could easily be demonstrated. The production of stylish pose and poetry could be greatly aided by being able to easily edit and file one’s own compositions.” -p403

And there it is. Throughout the article Kay and Goldberg point out that learning could be made to feel more real, that instead of doing arbitrary assignments and making things for fabricated audiences, a “Dynabook” could enable learning situated in real life contexts. That text didn’t necessarily need to be linear in an electronic format. That tools for learning didn’t need to feel like toys.

And when I think of the technology influenced classes I’ve worked with, I see the manifestation of Kay and Goldberg’s work. Here are some examples:

Public Writing

More often than not, when I’ve taught, I’ve had a blogging component. Sometimes it’s to create opportunities for reflection. Sometimes it’s for metacognitive purposes. Sometimes it’s to give students a “hook” to real world situations to make the in class content more meaningful. In all of these cases the students have an audience way bigger than me, and sometimes bigger than their classmates. The quality of writing and thought was, in many cases, measurably improved.

Building an encyclopedia

I’ve done this in my own class, but also worked with a sociology professor on a similar project. In these cases, using Mediawiki (the same software that runs Wikipedia), the students created encyclopedia entries on the topic of the class. In the simplest implementations students make a new one each semester. In more complex (but more interesting and more scaffolded) examples, one class has a wiki on the topic, but each section and each semester builds on the previous students’ work.

Making a magazine

Working with a foreign language teacher, students created a magazine in WordPress, with a magazine like theme and a few language customizations, for the public to read. The target audience was high school students interested in the language, as a tool to help them learn, and opportunity to leave comments in the language, and a recruiting tool to the college program. The faculty member also had colleagues who natively spoke the language leave comments as well, raising the bar on the quality of work students posted.

Making a (physical!) book

These technology enhanced pedagogical techniques aren’t always about the web, though. One class I worked with was doing a project on the history of the university. In this case they used university archives to find content, conducted oral histories, then put all the content together to make physical books. This project couldn’t have been done without the technology available at the time, but it wasn’t a technology project. My favorite part of the work is that the book is now in university archives for people to reference in the future.

Recording Podcasts

A number of faculty I worked with were interested in student created podcasts. Some of this was, in no doubt, due to iTunesU. Some of this was due to a knowledge that students worked with text in a lot of classes, images/powerpoint in a fair number, and even video in some rarer cases. Audio seemed like a useful auxiliary skill to offer, and in terms of the content included, has a lot in common with the “gold standard” of a term paper. Interestingly, in recording the podcasts, many students noted that they thought about the content differently when explaining it verses writing about it, and spent more time on the final product as they didn’t have a template in mind when they started as they often did with papers.

Making Movies

As alluded to before, movies were popping up at the point in which I was doing this work. In some cases students would be asked to make videos in lieu of writing a paper. In my own class I spent a few semesters offering a video as an alternative to a paper (with modified expectations) and in one I required it. Uniformly students said it was more work, but several students said they were thankful for the opportunity to learn a new skill. Several also indicated they had to think more about how to display the information in a video, which caused them to remember it better than they might have otherwise.

Interacting on a Collaborative Platform

The culmination of all this work, for me, was teaching Wake’s first online undergraduate course. I used Google Sites in lieu of the course management system, Google Docs for course documents and assignments, I made extensive use of YouTube to introduce content and to have students report their progress back to me, used Google Forms for formative assessment throughout the course, and generally plugged in any type of media I could from images to slide decks to screencasts. I constructed this course in the way that I did to meet the learning objectives of the course as well as the instructional culture of the institution. Students reported it felt like more work, but that they (largely) really liked the format. I felt like I got to know the students better as people as well as had a better grasp of how well they knew the content. Win win.

In all of these cases, when I worked with other faculty on these projects, the idea came from the individual faculty member. I just helped them find the right tools to meet their goals, worked with them on what it would look like in the class and for the students, and remained engaged in case they needed support as the semester went on. In all of these the class engagement was high and the outputs were interesting and sometimes surpassed our expectations. And none of this could have been done without the tools Kay and Goldberg envisioned over thirty years ago.

As an aside, if you’re at Virginia Tech and want to work on a project like one of the above, or even something that makes use of newer tools and technologies (like twitter, infographics, location based services, etc) I’d love to talk with you!

2013: Are we there yet?

This week, for the New Media Seminar, we read Ted Nelson‘s 1965 Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate (sorry the latter link is behind a paywall). I don’t have much time to write on it, but the main thing that struck me is how far we’ve come. In this piece, Nelson outlined how to think about structuring files to be useful to people in creative and other pursuits. He built on Bush’s idea and in some was was more specific about how to accomplish the feat.

We’re certainly not there yet. I still battle a lot of the organizational issues in my own files that Nelson described. And to some extent, having both paper and digital makes it much messier than just one or the other. But we’re closer. Here are some tools I couldn’t help but thinking about in his piece, with associated quotes:

“As long as people think that [computers are useful only for scientific and corporate tasks], machines will be brutes and not friends, bureaucrats and not helpmates. But since (as I will indicate) computers could do the dirty work of personal file and text handling, and do it with richness and subtlety beyond anything we know, there ought to be a sense of need.”

Downright Jobsian, no?

“If a writer is really to be helped by an automated system, it ought to do more than retype and transpose: it shouold stand by him during the early periods of muddled confusion, when his ideas are all scraps, fragments, phrases, and contradictory overall designs. And it must help him through to the final draft with every feasible mechanical aid–making the fragments easy to find, and making easier the tentative sequencing and juxtaposing and comparing.”

Which, to me, is clearly Scrivener. I love Scrivener, and have used it every time I have to write a book-length manuscript. It’s not great for collaboration, but it’s exactly what Nelson describes for one’s own work.

“Consequently the system must be able to hold several–in fact, many–different versions of the same sets of materials.”

Both DropBox and Google Drive offers this functionality. Thank goodness.

“Remember there is no correct way to use this system.”

Throughout the whole article I kept thinking of Evernote. I am a heavy user of Evernote and it’s exactly this collecting of snippets and connections. It holds images, audio, text. I keep hoping for video. But the main challenge for most people with Evernote is the lack of clarity of how to use it. It’s so big and open ended it’s hard to know how you can best make use of it. The ELF system in this article is similar.

“Note that in such uses it is the man’s job to draw the connections, not the machine’s.”

And this is where it all changed for me. In our systems, the machine does a lot of the work. Just consider Google Now for example. It’s amazing: presenting just the right information at just the right time. But also creepy.

The article was full of statements that resonated with today’s experience: the need to be able to undo deletions, the lack of importance for seeing file structure in some cases, etc. I’m looking forward to the seminar discussion today!