EduTech and the Hipster

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6) The demand for new methods of teaching, such as flipped classrooms and blended learning, is coming from the students. Untrue.

Students are, for the most part, perfectly happy with traditional lecture courses. They know what to expect from and how to navigate courses that put no more demands on them but to reflect back the knowledge transmitted from the front of the room. -Joshua Kim, 10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning.

In this defense of educational technology, it appears that student demand isn’t driving classroom change. While being protective of educational technologists broadly, it tries to point out that educators are also driving the uptake of educational technology.  Given the precarious lives of educators, the additional need to innovate, both pedagogically and technologically is important. Taken individually, pedagogical innovation is difficult, and requires a lot of work and support. What it does not necessarily include is an expanded budget for hardware, software, and associated staff. While Joshua Kim makes the argument that:

What is so important about this transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain. Technology folks are moving from server rooms to the classrooms, from provisioning and monitoring server applications to collaborating with faculty and librarians on flipped classrooms and blended learning. -Joshua Kim, 10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning.

The line of reasoning inextricably ties consumerism to technology and pedagogical innovation, which might free people up, but still ties up more money than if the connection between them was severed. The final and most curious point is this: if consumerism is the model, and students aren’t viewed as consumers, then why does this feel like marketing? While it is proposed that businesses are “consumer driven” and schools are “student driven” then why is demand for innovation not coming from students? Marketing, the art of tell others that they need something they didn’t know existed, is at the center of the pedagogy/technology coupling’s consumerist model. Even for the pedagogically well-intentioned, the inclusion of further goods and services on behalf of the students or the school means that we as educators are selling those products to students.

Such an outgrowth of the broader cultural imperative to sell is very much the Liberal Man’s Burden taken up by technology providers: everything is fixable by technology, which you are free to purchase, but it is not your right to that solution. Government, the cash-thirsty guarantor of hypothetical equality stands directly in the way:

Eric Schnuerer writes of a world where government literally is a product you can buy, an eventuality he sees foretold in the increase in private security forces and flight from public schools. In other words, “‘Government’ is, everywhere, an industry in serious trouble,” and his remedy is to “resize,” “redesign” the “products,” and “compete effectively against new competitors and in whole new markets.”

This misconception is at the heart of Silicon Valley’s approach to politics, both at home and abroad. In Packer’s words, technology “has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.” -Kate Redburn, Google and The Liberal Man’s Burden.

The technologist approach is also marketing driven: it creates more needs than it solves in order to be financially profitable. Solving problems with existing tools, specifically through the application of pedagogy rather than pedagogy and technology, is less focused on consumption and more on hard-to-capitalize creation. The Liberal Man’s burden that technology has brought to bear in education is to make it profitable and condition the educational system to seek out profitable solutions to the human problem of educational values in the 21st century. Popular culture has a word for those who push back against the technological thrust in education based on such grounds: they are the hipsters of education:

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Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.” -Anthony Galluzzo, The ‘Fucking Hipster’ Show.

Hipsters are the fixie-mounted, left-leaning, do-your-own-canning types who accept technology with reservations, but without Luddism. This is the analogy for those who question the efficacy of the technology/pedagogy pairing, and libraries, as places where older technologies sit comfortably beside newer ones, is hipsterism par excellence. Questioning the imperative to maximize one’s own economic advantage at one’s own expense runs counter to the “self-made” maximalist culture represented by the span of men from Carnegie to Zuckerberg. When a product is made, it bears the personality and values of its maker through and through. In education, we teach people to fit in or resist culture, so it has always been the site of contests for power. Defining educational institutions as site of “transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain” will teach students not to provide, but to consume.

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NA: not an art movement, a fashion trend.

Originally published here: http://www.hellionmag.com/trends-gone-wild-the-new-aesthetic-takes-over-everything:

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Day-glo and cat videos, scantily clad girls and 8-bit, surveillance video and artificial intelligence. When piled into a blender, the result is something called The New Aesthetic (NA). The tumblr of the same name describes it as a “research project” by the indefatigable and lovably nerdy James Bridle. At its heart is the idea that machines and the “network” have personalities, beings trying to reach us as the digital spills into the physical world. Infatuated with the way computers say “hi,” it is clear that Bridle really, really loves these new beings. As a result, his twitter feed is made up of spambots. Beyond this earnest feeling that made us feel good while watching “Flight of the Navigator” are the same feelings that gave the pre-digital world the heebie-jeebies when they witnessed the bloodless brutality of “Tron.”

In  both cases, NA has armed many artists with a new vocabulary of images to draw on and use to comment on the world. Azealia Banks brought a lot of those elements together in her “Atlantis” video, drawing on backgrounds that look stolen from a ‘94 pirate videogame and a handful of “Jaws” references, set over stuttering beats. Brought to this level, NA seems like a rehashing stuff from the 80’s and 90’s in interesting ways.

Carla Gannis, a digital artist in her own right, wrote that “A movement cannot merely catalogue what currently exists, it is defined by the future(s) it envisions,” and maybe that is where she and many others start to miss the point. Just as those practitioners of the New Aesthetic understand the melding of life on- and off-line, they also don’t feel the need to respect the proper way to run an artistic movement. Ryan Trecartin’s artworks (video) and Code/Space (Academic Book) can sit comfortably beside Rihanna’s last SNL performance (music) and James Bridle’s “A Ship Adrift” (website) and all speak the same language. NA isn’t an art movement. More than anything, NA feels like a fashion trend that has taken over all parts of culture at the same time. The idea that the digital world is spilling over into the physical world is as old as computers, and it is now finding it’s way into everything.

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What does this ad up to? We all have no idea. Gannis wants a coherent statement of purpose, and she’ll never get one. Here’s why: the thing is everywhere, and there is no reigning it in. Of the New Aesthetic, as Bruce Sterling points out in his watershed essay on NA, “We’re surrounded by systems, devices and machineries generating heaps of raw graphic novelty. We built them, we programmed them, we set them loose for a variety of motives, but they do some unexpected and provocative things.” NA speaks to a lot of people because it is the reaction to a world intimately connected to the network. The whole thing can and never will be a “movement,” because it’s really a trend showing us how some people see the world we live in today.

For a generation of people raised on “Flight of the Navigator” all the way to those who grew up with “The Matrix,” the New Aesthetic Speaks their language. At it’s bit-driven heart, NA just wants to be liked, and it’ll keep popping up all over the place until it is.

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Mooc,deux: and the Feral

Many hackles are rightly raised by the ubiquity of this word “disruption”, and its implications for the business of higher education; but the best MOOCs do not deal in the bourgeois concept of disruption, they deal in a very real rupture that is confusing to us all. Something convulsive. A monstrous birth.If the best MOOCs show us that learning is networked, and that it has always been, then learning is more rampant than we’ve accounted for.

-Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, A MOOC is not a Thing: Emergence, Disruption, and Higher Education

Morris and Sommel rightly point out that learning has always been more ubiquitous than many in our industry have supposed, and admirably aim to break down the distinction between formal and informal learning. But I’m concerned that nothing so radical has been born, rather, the MOOC-as-technology is a bourgeois, technologically-enabled system designed to “capture” learning, and to try and contain it. Roger Whitson wrote that “There is no-outside MOOC, or there is nothing outside the MOOC,” which illuminates the point that, if not for the enclosure of learning by institutions of education (in most cases, higher education), then there’s no sense in going to such great lengths to define and theorize the MOOC. Instead, by supporting the idea that there is nothing outside of the thing, it grants domain of all learning to the MOOC, and more importantly, to the institution in control of it. The MOOC, both as a concept and as a technological product,seems to be a very big enclosure designed to broaden the perceived role of education in learning. Fundamentally, education is a discursive regime, and the MOOC will continue to contribute to it, rather than disrupt it. Still, harnessing the interest that many people have in learning new things is a very broad-minded ideal, and the people who have built these systems are equally high-minded and considerate of that social good:

The question we should ask ourselves isn’t whether we’re going to achieve equality between students at the University of Pennsylvania and students in the general public. Instead we should ask if, through the use of technology, we have improved the quality of the experience for each of these students separately. We want all students to be better off than they were before. -Daphne Koller, MOOCs on the Move: How Coursera Is Disrupting the Traditional Classroom

But the more concrete issue is that the MOOC-as-technology and the MOOC-as-concept are not easily separated, because one enables the other. The thinking here follows from thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu, from whom already existing relationships will continue to define the structure of cultural (and therefore institutional) codes. MOOCs will continue to be designed to trace and map out previously “informal” modes of learning that will become a template to be enforced in the future, to capture the feral in the hope of making it more useful for educators, for better or worse.

I’m hoping it is for the better, although my chief reservation as a champion of the feral is this: the MOOC-as-concept still acts as an enclosure which educators can use for the “invention, metamorphosis, deformation, and reinvention” of learning, and the relationship between student and educator won’t be dialectically resolved. The power is still in the hands of the educator while the student is still acted upon, no mediated through the form of an ever-expanding enclosure. Many people take on a feral state in their interactions with formal education, as it constantly shifts its boundaries, its cities and deserts. MOOCS are only useful to the domesticated to promote their efficient and purposeful use of the educational system, which is the expectation placed on individuals as they enter into educational space as students. Already, it has been noted that the MOOC-as-technology is already in danger of failing to meet even the defined role of “student,” not even because it provides too much structure, but because through a lack of communication, it doesn’t provide enough:

The primary issue is the almost complete lack of personal interaction.  This dearth of connectivity applies to both troubleshooting and to the actually class experience. -Andrew Smyser, A Student’s Perspective on MOOCs

The truth is that most people do not experience the our institutions as a city, but rather as a wilderness on the edge of civilization. Complex systems intermingle, sometimes fluidly, and in this case, sometimes not. The main problem is that there needs to be much more unstructured ineraction, but instead, there’s very little interaction whatsoever. The theorizing and designing of technological and conceptual systems like MOOCs aim to provide more space for feral interaction, but given the structure of “one-teaching-to-many” and the control it requires, it still maintains the student/non-student structure of an educational institution while failing to meet that standard. My hope is that more than the educators, the students will (and should) do those things in any class setting, and the MOOC-as-technology and MOOC-as-concept will prove to be yet another enclosure for educators and students to be navigate in, and ultimately around.

DH, NA, and the Messianic Streak.

As new media documentarian Jonathan Minard, among others, has pointed out, the New Aesthetic’s intrigue hinges on imagining that you’re seeing these images through the sentient eyes and mind of a robot, as though the webcam is looking back. When recalibrated as the human images which these are, we just end up with far more shitty photos and less privacy. -Whitney Kimball, Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

DH is the square cousin of NA. The main critique of NA, like my critique of What Technology Wants, is that it is an act of imagining that machines are actually sentient, not that they actually are. Still, there’s a little bit of a messianic streak that comes out of a lot of DH and NA. From the same post, Kimball’s take on NA founder James Bridle:

New Aesthetic founder James Bridle then seized the stage: wildly gesticulating, he poured forth a double-time of storytelling and slides, interjecting things like “and yet, and yet, and yet!” I get now why Bruce Sterling described the New Aesthetic as being in its “evangelical, podium-pounding phase.” – Report from the New Aesthetic: The Movement Rolls on, Inward

So it goes. It also goes to show that whenever bright individuals cast an opinion on burgeoning scenes (both rightly and wrongly) they often use language designed to cast suspicion on any group: comparing it to religion. What greater linguistic guilt by association could there be other than implying that the interests of an entire group of people is somehow akin to the  great Satan of the unbelievers? Stanley Fish uses the same guilt by association technique that Kimball does, but instead of going after a slightly kooky but mostly harmless bunch of image-lovers, he takes a shot at some hyper-literate, theory-obsessed fellow humanists.

The anti-methodology that refuses closure and insists on fecundity facilitates — no, demands — sharing, and builds an ever-expanding community of digital fellowship, an almost theological community in which everyone explores in “the inexhaustible nature of divine meaning” (“Reading Machines”). -Stanley Fish, Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation

Not in response to Fish, but around him, Stephen Ramsay brings out the heart of Fish’s discomfort seemingly through another problem altogether:

A literary criticism that can only advance claims that are shown to be empirically valid is as deadening to the project of the humanities as a computational activity for which humanistic discourse lies permanently beyond its ambit. Risks need to be taken in both cases. In the former, the risk of saying something humanistically true but empirically false; in the latter case, of saying something empirically true that is humanistically false. -Stephen Ramsay, Stanley and Me

Depending on what frame of reference (humanities or science) you use, something can be true in one but not the other. The Foucaultian Librarian in me spots the easy binary that Ramsay drops. It is an issue that comes up with subjects and disciplines, when “(u)ltimately, we can easily end up believing in useful fictions as if they are true. In such cases we fail to recognize when the fictions take on a life of their own and we allow these fictions to separate from their own stories.” (James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Definitions and Challenges” p.84). Fish and Ramsay are locked into a real battle where the lines around academic disciplines have hardened into truth, with job descriptions, grants, fellowships, postdocs, careers, and the kinds of things we’ll teach our students on the line. To Ramsay’s point, when the dividing lines of discipline harden to such a point that two separate accounts of what is “true” are incompatible, it begs the questions of whether or not the project has the right outlook. Truth has and always be a slippery and frustrating beast, but the academic bifurcating of it will only continue to distort the usefulness of education writ large. One of the most exciting parts of DH is the ability to move between humanistic and empirical frames. Fish, it seems, is stuck on the dividing line in disciplines.

What seems to unsettle humanists is that religiosity, and it keeps things locked in the humanistic/empirical binary that holds to those “real world” factors surrounding higher education and research. The “messianic” streak found in NA and DH are both a result of both emphasizing scales and perspectives that go above or outside of the level of an individual human life (especially those which can be illuminated by empirical techniques), such are the forces that aggravate Fish, as described by Benjamin Schmidt:

Leaving individuals out of the story altogether, in other words, better acknowledges that there are other forces at work that operate orthogonally or antagonistically to human freedom. At times, that will be less dehumanizing than forcing histories that are properly about collectives to pretend that individual actors could or did make the difference. –Where are the Individuals in Data-Driven Narratives?

There are the rules and that’s fine, both the individual and large forces are part of the humanistic and empirical story of all of us. Finally, I’d like to thank Mr. Zizek for giving the whole of the United States (seems to include scholars) carte blanche to do as we like with ourselves, let alone our disciplinary frames of reference:

In Europe, the ground floor of a building is counted as zero, so the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. This trivial difference indicates a profound ideological gap: Europeans are aware that, before counting starts – before decisions or choices are made – there has to be a ground of tradition, a zero level that is always already given and, as such, cannot be counted. While the US, a land with no proper historical tradition, presumes that one can begin directly with self-legislated freedom – the past is erased. What the US has to learn to take into account is the foundation of the “freedom to choose”. -Slavoj Žižek, Why Obama is More Than Bush with a Human Face (Thanks to Mrs. Tsk*)

The Library of Alexandria and The Feral

The promise of digital libraries speaks to one key part of the Alexandrian ideal: to provide access to a “universal collection.” Another facet of the ideal is the creation of special places in which collaborative learning and research, and creative work generally, take place.

-Sam Demas, From the Ashes of Alexandria: What’s Happening in the College Library?

If libraries are to remain dynamic, the spaces that define them and the services they offer must continually stimulate users to create new ways of searching and synthesizing materials. There is no question that almost all the library functions being planned for today will need to be reconfigured in the not-too-distant future.

-Geoffery T. Freeman, Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space

And from among the chorus of rational behaviors arose the word sanctuary. Not sanctuary as in a place that was always and for every use absolutely quiet (although the need for quiet space, group and solitary, came up repeatedly). But the idea of a place steeped in the symbolic behaviors associated with libraries, from quiet contemplation to cultural enrichment, resonated through our entire meeting.

-K.G. Schneider, Celebrating Sanctuary

Demas calls for the creation of a place where collaborative learning and research take place, alongside creative work. Freeman wants the design of the place to stimulate new ways of working in libraries. Schnieder proposes a sanctuary. In a word, these ideas have risen from the very ashes of Alexandria:

The Great Library of Alexandria has assumed legendary qualities in the centuries since its creation and demise. The concept of a universal library, an institution containing all the intellectual works of the world, is one that has enchanted scholars for centuries. But where did such a concept originate? While there are indications of earlier attempts,[6] the first lasting attempt, and the one that has become fixed in the cultural consciousness of western civilization is that of Alexander the Great.[7] Old Persian and Armenian traditions indicate that Alexander the Great, upon seeing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh,[8] was inspired to combine all the works of the various nations he conquered, translate them into Greek, and collect them all under one roof.[9] While this inspiration was certainly prompted at least in part by a desire to consolidate information, and thereby power, under Greek authority, it is also an indication of Alexander’s desire for his empire to be a multicultural empire[10] — albeit one unified under the influence of Hellenism.

-Heather Phillips, The Great Library of Alexandria?

The caveat is generous. Alexander was consolidating power and information, and wanted to unify his empire (his power). Demas wants a “universal collection.” Freeman wants to provide external stimuli. Schnieder’s sanctuary contains the rational behaviors which embody themselves in symbolic actions. While it is not counterpoised directly against these ideas, I want to give voice to another force that librarians need to understand and accept: the Feral.

Having photographed in inner city environments for over 15 years it dawned on me recently that — despite all the destitution and abandonment — there was liveliness there that’s missing in the more regimented suburban environments we encounter every day. In fact it is was a landscape filled with political and vernacular artistic expression.

-Jeff Brouws, “It Doesn’t Exist”: The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner City America

But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.

-Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them”

In the face of organization, the universal, the rational, the church-like sanctuary, the feral can seize more opportunities than it is given. It is localized, it is vernacular, it only responds to stimuli if it needs to, and its voice makes a mess of expectations hoisted upon it. There is no “pioneering spirit” in the library of Alexandria; it is one of consolidation of power, not redistribution through a community. The pioneering spirit provides a home for the feral. It is where creativity lies, in not participating fully in environments created through enlightened planning, but taking what it needs when it needs it. We don’t need to pick one or the other, but understanding and planning for the pioneering and the feral will help us meet many of our patrons on their own terms. On the frontiers, and not in the seat of power.

Serendipity, Looseness, and the Creative Turn in Libraries

Perhaps the books have outlived their original intended purpose, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to use them.

You could pull almost any image in the library out of its context and it would probably be nearly impossible to identify its source or its meaning. In other words, the bizarre quality of the images might not necessarily be a function of the texts that they live in.

I wouldn’t want to prescribe a particular approach. I think that books are really interesting objects in part because they are relatively stable. Unlike electronic information, books are relatively difficult to change and revise.

-Zach Friedman and Anrew Beccone, Bomblog: Reanimation Library

In the face of the eroding perceived value of books, this lays out an interesting proposition, which relies on the strange combination of durability and the ability to be lost. Much of library practice relies on the idea that we need to keep information from getting lost, but as the reanimation library demonstrates, this is sometimes necessary for continued creation. Despite the increasing availability of full-text searching in ebooks, access to the ideas in books are heavily dependent on how they are represented in various titles, or, for the more cautious researcher, by the author and her affiliations. The upside of this being, you are more likely to read something that isn’t exactly what you were looking for. Conversely, the same looseness exposes the author and their work to unintended audiences. The Reanimation Library thrives on a more extreme version of this mechanism:  As a result of this serediptious proccess, the creative, unintended uses come to the fore.

Groups like the Library as Incubator Project and discussions by PublicPraxis move one step beyond this by shifting the definition of information, opening up new possibilities for libraries. About a breakdancing competition in a library:

We talk about how libraries have the ability to change the world for their users by providing access to information. Information is conveyed in many forms, not just the printed word or digital content but also via workshops and classes and exhibitions. A breakdancing competition won’t work in every library, nor need it. -Laura Damon-Moore, Elizabeth Hough, and Sharon Grover, Collaboration, Innovation, Incubation 

Scrapertown from California is a place. on Vimeo.

By organizing a group around the bikes they own, they promote creativity (they style their bikes, they make their own music), education (both formal K-12 and P2P), responsibility, self-respect (you must ride in style), community–and together they’ve created a world for themselves that meets important needs. All of these needs can be understood as information, as can all of the resources that fulfill those needs. So this is not some lofty far-out library moon colony, this is library terra firma. The way that Scraper bikes engage the members opens up knowledge, values, and opportunities that individually, these Oakland kids may not find widely accessible. -Meg Backus, Alternative Libraries

Both of these examples expand the definition of information, and by doing so expand the role of the library in the world. This is a much more aggressive tactic than what Reanimation Library employs, but the end results reach for the same goal: the breaking down of traditional understandings of what counts as “useful” information. They do this successfully be demonstrating that truly useful information is that which is put into action in a community. All of these projects demonstrate by freeing information from the constrictions we as librarians put on it, it has the chance to become something more–knowledge. For a more formal argument, consider this paper by Jennifer Nutefall and Phyllis Ryder. Serendipity, not a practiced lack of information control,but a openess to the rough edges of it, is actually a method that students and scholars use. Serendipity has always played a key role in learning about the world.