Saturday, May 30, 2015

Thoughts on Fermi's Paradox

“Let’s say we have an ant hill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the ant hill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?”

I woke up this morning and decided to reply to that post after several months...not sure why, other than I woke up with a certain phrasing around the issue, so this is not about eLearning...but I also hardly blog anyway...also responding to posts on Artificial Superintelligence Part 1 and Part 2 vaguely. 

Why that analogy? Imagine, instead, that your consciousness is an ant riding on the car riding on a ten-lane super-highway, instead of next to it. An integrated unit, much like your body. How would it seem to you? How would that over-consciousness communicate with you? Well, how do you communicate with an individual cell in your body? You don’t, consciously. Thus, you could well be involved, like our ants, in a system of consciousness that you can only glimpse in the slightest of anomalies or sensed at the odd moment in the mind. Do the individual cells of your body understand their role in the greater whole? If all of reality is what can be comprehended on the level of individual egos, are you not perhaps taking the same philosophical view as the ant or the individual cell in your body? What if the ego is a level of consciousness that is aware of its own existence but uncommunicative directly with other levels of consciousness? We are now deducing that there may be other parallel universes, so we are sensing an anomaly in our universe. Thus, we would have, on one hand, the “God Delusion,” and on the other, the “Ego Delusion.” Perhaps the best we can conceive at this level of consciousness is a space in between the two that inspires “goodness” regardless of one’s cosmology. The conception would mean that all the world religions are “anomalous experiences” for the ego that would indicate that there are higher levels of consciousness. That conception would also mean that individual anomalous experiences are also significant and not just tricks of the mind. That conception would also mean that the individual ego must not project its own self-concept onto its known universe. It could be likely that there is an actual planetary consciousness affecting individual egos and a universal consciousness affecting individual egos more distantly and then levels of consciousness beyond that equally self-aware and unable to communicate directly between levels. So, congratulations, you may already be immortal, just not how your ego wants to be. You can expand (or reject) the significance of this thought in any number of ways, obviously. Certainly, it cuts against the snobbery of modernity while perhaps acting as a fortification against the worst aspects of humanity that are only abetted by technology and perhaps an obvious bridge between so-called creationists and so-called evolutionists. It would also make our allegiance to any foundational belief or recognizable identity seem petty (“Oh, you think red ants are so superior to black ants? You’re an ant!”). Perhaps this would also explain Fermi’s paradox with an almost dismissive wave of the hand: why are you looking to the heavens and not studying the anomalies here for indications of greater levels of consciousness?

So, from this perspective, I’m actually not worried about Artificial Superintelligence (ASI) being achieved. We may be able to re-create the functioning of an ego via artificial intelligence, and that re-creation may teach us something about the limits of our own self-understanding. It may even create something greater than the ego’s self-conception, but for it to somehow start re-making the universe would mean essentially from our level of consciousness that we create a “God Machine.” I don’t think that is any more likely to happen in the near future than a horseman flying through the sky indicating a different apocalypse. 

Lots of people already think from this perspective. I just wanted to add my own musings in case my wording made sense to someone.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thoughts on Research Paradigms

In the last presidential election, Obama came out in favour of gay marriage. Even conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly (I think it was him) said that those who oppose gay marriage were on the "wrong side of history." Out of the three research paradigms we are studying ("positivist," "naturalistic," and "critical"), I was trying to argue, with limited time, about the general persuasiveness on popular opinion of each of the three, and how "positivist" research can have a strong role in social justice. I used the rapidly changing public opinion around gay marriage as an example where I think scientific research into the biology of gender and sexuality has had a profound effect on changing public opinion. It has been "facts" about gender and sexuality that have been more persuasive, I would argue, than people suddenly becoming more moral thinkers. If something is no longer an individual "choice," but just another genetic happenstance, then it becomes explicitly immoral to deny equality to those people. I certainly do not think of Bill O'Reilly and his ilk as "moral thinkers." In fact, Jon Stewart's The Daily Show spends a considerable amount of time lampooning the shifting moral principles of Fox News commentators. So what persuaded them that this issue now put them on the "wrong side of history"? I would argue that it is the persuasiveness of scientific research.

That conclusion does not diminish the "critical," emancipatory activism of the LGBT community in their struggle for recognition and equality, I don't think. I think the two paradigms have worked in conjunction. LGBT activism raised the issue to public consciousness, so that the scientific facts could then take root. After all, the scientific "facts" on homosexuality were already long established by Alfred Kinsey. So there needed to be an activist movement that would serve to raise public consciousness so that the facts could take hold. This movement is also in the context of a rapid change in Western moral codes that have become much more individualistic. Many societal moral prescriptions have been overturned since the 60s (homosexuality, divorce, obscenity) and continue to be challenged (drug laws, prostitution, etc.). In fact, even the notion of a "hotel detective" seems quaint.

Coming out strongly in favour of the persuasiveness of quantitative research also does not deny or diminish the "politics" of positivist research. Yes, positivist research may unconsciously re-affirm the existing societal power relations. As a person who grew up in the working class and a first-generation attendee of post-secondary education, I have a relatively de-naturalized, "outsider" view of academic culture. It does take long to realize how much conversation is "about" those who are considered uneducated and not "with" those who are considered uneducated. This view can lead to a classist perspective that somehow those who are not traditionally educated have a simpler, less critical worldview. It is as if, in this view, all one has to do is sit down with the average Fox News viewers and "explain" Marxism, for instance, to them and they will see the (critical) light. They are not ignorant of Marxism; it has already been digested in their worldview and rejected. This is not to argue that their worldview is not seriously wrong by any rational standard, but only to argue that their worldview, no one's worldview, should be considered any less "complex" than another's. This would seem to align with the view of naturalistic researchers, in that all socio-cultural studies need to have Geertz's "thick description."

However, and this gets more to the heart of my skepticism about critical theory, power relations in any society seem to have an Unconscious, in the Freudian sense. And like the Freudian Unconscious, we can never be sure if those power relations we recognize can get to the heart of society's power relations so that we can truly have equality or if those "critical" theories are only ones being thrown up as defense mechanisms to hide other power relations that are actually being strengthened (now, I think it's likely that like Lacan's notion of the Unconscious kernel, there is no there there, so I would not be too optimistic about finding any actual "heart" to society's power relations). What if "critical theorists" are just co-opted to better refine a more "just" coming technocracy that excludes and impoverishes even more. I'm skeptical that the small glimpse into the Unconscious of power that is afforded us by critical theory does not hide more than it reveals. And I think ultimately that's why "critical" research is the least persuasive kind. The ideological views they represent are already known and digested and explained away.

I'm arguing a bit here, I guess, for the deconstruction of "critical" sense versus "common" sense, a binary that I don't think Derrida ever deconstructed. In fact, for me, deconstructing the critical/common sense dichotomy, re-inflates the other deconstructed dichotomies into a field of pure indeterminacy that we cannot bound in any way by "pragmatic" line-drawing to determine what is the legitimate "field of play." Look at it this way, critically, Derrida deconstructed the nature/culture dichotomy through the incest taboo. Common-sensically, absolutely nothing changed. We still use nature and culture as categories of thought as if nothing has changed. In fact, I think you could argue that our "critical" sense depends upon an ocean of "common sense." Our Marxist critique depends upon stable categories of relations to capital but it is also shot through with the possibly elitist views of anyone who would undertake something called a "Marxist critique." In other words, there's something there that we call "nature" and there's something over there called "culture" and we use these categories of thought as if (I hope I would not be wrong to point to Hans Vaihinger at this point) they are stable categories even though, critically, we know they are not. We also "know" there is something called "rational" thought, and that concept may have some value, and that's probably why Habermas spend so much time trying to rescue the term philosophically.

So that's why I believe the naturalistic paradigm is more persuasive than the critical paradigm, but not as persuasive as the positivist paradigm. Those doing the descriptions, academics, no matter how thick, cannot account for (and are likely willfully blind to) their own relation to power. The researcher is still in the privileged position of researcher, and not subject. 

I could go on more about academia and cultural capital and being "in the true," but I think some things are better left unsaid.

So, in conclusion, I think the persuasiveness of each paradigm is inversely related to how strong an ideological grip has on the paradigm. Critical theory is avowedly ideological and therefore biased and therefore the least persuasive. Naturalistic descriptions attempt to account for ideology but are likely shot through with unconscious biases. So, while positivism and the scientific method are, of course, shot through with ideology and bias, it is the one method that actually strives to eliminate it, as much as humanly possible. Because of at least that attempt, I think it produces the most persuasive evidence. I think we need to act as if the scientific method is the surest way to acquire knowledge until something like the scientific method disproves it. I agree with the Dalai Lama when he said, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” I think we should all be prepared to test our beliefs in that way because the scientific method is the closest approximation we have to a system that removes bias and ideology from our thinking. I'm also well aware that the more "knowledge" we create about humanity runs the risk of producing greater, more efficient control over subjugated peoples. As I've implied, I worry about a coming technocracy, but, for now, I will behave as if the scientific method has the potential to liberate more than it subjugates. 

As confused as this post is, it represents an approximation of my views. Such is life when playing on a field of pure indeterminacy...where even any certainty in the idea of uncertainty is uncertain.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Giving Back to the Web

Remember in December when that (somewhat) annoying yellow box showed up on Wikipedia asking for donations? Did you ignore it and carry on with what you were doing? I did that all the time. Then, last spring, Jesse Hirsh ( spoke at our school. It's rare that I can learn so much from one person in an hour. One thing that he said resonated deeply with me. He said that we have an ethical responsibility to give back to the Web. We all use the Web everyday, but in a very real sense, we all use the Web everyday, in the more potentially abusive way. That was the point: what do we contribute back to the Web that we use everyday? Are we just takers?

So I posted that Jesse Hirsh's statement on the Collaborate slide on "Digital Citizenship" during the first ETMOOC session. The concept of citizenship contains both the ideas of "rights" and "responsibilities" as a few others posted on that same slide. We often think more about the former than the latter. Some people even use digital technology to make everything free; they think of that as their "right" too and download movies and music. I'm not going to judge that. I'm only going to point out that if we took Hirsh's responsibility to heart, we would likely be more willing to "give back" or compensate more freely. There are sites, for instance, where photographers release their images freely on the Web. I saw one image that was so beautiful that I stuck a dollar in the photographer's PayPal even though I had no use for the image. It was a just a tip, based solely on the fact the photographer had given back freely to the Web. I would never have done that before hearing Jesse Hirsh. And it makes me think that if we all took that notion more seriously, we would not have the problems we have with copyright. I would like it if artists provided PayPal links more often, so if I download their music, for instance (legally or illegally), I could contribute a little money to them. Maybe I download an album to see if I like it. In the old days, we might buy a whole album...I mean...CD and the one song we heard was the only song that we liked. You would feel a bit ripped off. The pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction now. And I would like the opportunity to compensate artists that I enjoy directly. Anyway, that is not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that I agree we have an ethical responsibility to give back to the Web. That does not have to be money. You can donate your expertise back to the Web as many do. You can freely share a creation on the Web. You could volunteer to tutor children on the Web. In fact, there are so many ways that one can "give back" to the Web that no one has a reason not to give back to the Web. In my case, I often feel like I don't have the time or the expertise to contribute in a valuable enough way to the Web, so I contribute money when I can. Because of what Jesse Hirsh said. Because it makes me a good "digital citizen." Because I don't want to be only a "taker" on the Web. So, this past December, I donated a small amount to Wikipedia ("small" relative to how much I use it) and, funny enough, the yellow box went away. They didn't ask me for more; it just went away. It was a small reward, but it was a nice reward for being a good digital citizen. It's funny that while some people think about ways to monetize MOOCs, the only thing that we have to think about, as consumers of MOOCs, is how do we ethically consume them? "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need" comes to mind. It is, of course, Marx's phrase, but the idea appears in the Bible originally. What if we all contributed according to our abilities and took according to our needs? I think we do a fine job of the latter and slight the former.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Welcome MOOCers!

Just a note to welcome anyone participating in the ETMOOC! Welcome to my blog! As you can tell, I don't blog much. I also don't tweet much or Facebook much, etc. I'm quite introverted, so I think it will be interesting to see if I can keep up in a "networked" environment.

I currently work in at an Ontario community college as an eLearning Designer. I help the faculty convert their F2F courses to hybrid and online formats. I have previously worked as a free-lance eLearning designer and developer as well as an instructional designer and project manager for a full-service eLearning provider. My background is actually in English, though, and I taught in-class and online previously.

I am quite proficient in Web accessibility. I have admin-level experience on 6 different LMSs, although I haven't had a chance to check out Canvas by Instructure yet in any detail. I can get around pretty well in Adobe Creative Suite. I'm not the greatest coder in the world, but I can still make my own multimedia if all of our media professionals are busy. Here's a piece that I did that precedes a blog reflection by the students: Virtual Crime Prevention. I also have experience with Captivate, Camtasia, Softchalk, as well as other software developer tools. I've studied numerous instructional design theories, assessment techniques, and educational psychology. I'm always willing to learn more. I would like to do more research along the lines of Mayer's e-Learning and the Science of Instruction.

Monday, September 3, 2012

I am thinking about threshold learning as it relates to eLearning, especially as it relates to resistance to adopting eLearning in various respects. The concept has allowed me to re-think on a higher level a problem that I run into often: content agnosticism. Being an eLearning professional, I believe that content delivered to students should be primarily HTML-based. Why? It’s one of those concepts that when you try to explain, the explanation never seems to add up to good enough reasons that content should be HTML-based (instead of PowerPoint slides, or PDFs, or Word documents; an app would be a separate discussion). It seems like a threshold concept: you either “get it” or you don’t. That is, you grasp the significance of all those little points or you don’t.

The browser already runs HTML. Delivering your content in something other than HTML is introducing a second software that is not needed. This is a very important point for some and particularly ho-hum for others. The threshold learning link above is a PDF; my computer opens it fine. What’s the big deal? Yes, it’s not really a big deal. Because I’ve opened a second software program, it may prompt me to install an update or it may crash, but we’re somewhat used to those experiences. So, again, it does not seem important. However, with the introduction of HTML 5, the browser is going to become so much more powerful and flexible that HTML may force itself into becoming the standard content-delivery mechanism it already should be. You will no longer need secondary software (Flash Player, Quicktime, etc.). And the content will be device independent. In addition, following standards makes your content future-proof, in general.

A second reason to use HTML is that properly structured HTML content is most accessible. I don’t just mean most accessible to learners using assistive technologies. Look at the previous paragraph, accessibility also means flexibility. It is accessible to all devices, as well as people, regardless of what software is installed on the device. Again, though, who cares? HTML can be made inaccessible. Just as PDFs and PowerPoints can be inaccessible. And if your phone can’t open a PDF, too bad, the learner can switch to a computer is the thinking. Introducing these unnecessary steps or software is not viewed as particularly important.

And perhaps it isn’t. I could be completely wrong. Perhaps this is a personal tempest in a teapot. That’s the thing with threshold concepts: they may or may not be correct, or they can be worded incorrectly, or they can be misapplied.

 But there is a threshold concept here. It has something to do with teachers becoming comfortable adopting technology. So perhaps my concern with HTML is too limited. It is subsumed under a wider threshold concept. But that concept also has something to do with best practices. It is obvious to me that delivering content via HTML is a best practice; it is not obvious to someone else. Again, that is either a threshold concept, in that it changes the way you think, or I’m wrong. However, I don’t think I’m wrong about the higher-level threshold concept. I will provisionally say it as follows: teachers should adopt technology following best practices.

First, you either agree or disagree with the concept. You take the blue pill or the red pill, in Matrix parlance. You may disagree with the concept and come up with various justifications, but it is becoming increasingly clear that disagreeing with the premise is going to put you on the “wrong side of history.”

Second, you then can agree with the concept but then misapply it or only apply parts of the insight. In terms of the SOLO taxonomy, you can easily become unistructural at this stage. You might say, “I am comfortable teaching with technology...look at this great iPad app,” for instance. Yes, it is great that you are implementing that technology, and that particularly app may be the best available, so that should all be applauded. And that thinking has led to a plethora of articles about iPad’s and education. But we are talking about one device. Why should our thinking (and students) be limited to one device at one point in time (an increasing number of app’s, for instance, don’t support the first generation of iPad). I actually shudder when I read articles, articles written with a tremendous amount of thought and enthusiasm, debating whether iPad’s should be used in education. The focus is simply too narrow, I think, for someone with a deeper understanding of the concept. It locks you in to a particular device at a particular time, and device-independence is another best practice (hence, the move to HTML 5 and away from Flash, for instance, which has been accelerating in no small part because of the iPhone and iPad).

So, my original problem is now re-framed. A teacher could say, “I am comfortable teaching with technology. Look at my great PDF.” And there is nothing essentially wrong with that assertion...unless you have gone through the threshold concept. A PDF is perhaps the second-best option. It is free. It is widely available. It opens nicely in a LMS. It is portable. For the portability reason, a PDF can sometimes be the best practice, but you have to understand the issues to even be able to make that conscious choice and not just turn to making PDFs because that is the software that you are comfortable with.

Thinking through the idea of a threshold concept will certainly help any eLearning professional who is working with (and potentially frustrated by) a recalcitrant or unistructural teacher. It allows you to put their thinking (and your own) in a wider context.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Do I Know? Yet Another eLearning Blog: A Taxonomy of an eLearning Professional

What Do I Know? Yet Another eLearning Blog: A Taxonomy of an eLearning Professional: I was thinking about what an ideal eLearning professional would be to plan out my own professional development. What are the skills, k...

A Taxonomy of an eLearning Professional

I was thinking about what an ideal eLearning professional would be to plan out my own professional development. What are the skills, knowledge, and attitudes such a professional would possess? As I worked on the various levels, I realized that there is a convergence of an “ideal educational technologist” and an “ideal eLearning teacher” at the highest end of both professions. Because of that convergence, I stopped focussing on the educational technologist side (more my interest) and focussed instead on the eLearning teacher side. Both professions, I think, are captured in the catch-all term “eLearning Professional.”

Since eLearning is still so relatively new (a point that is still easily overlooked)—such that, we don’t know what we don’t know—I thought it was important to put together a taxonomy of the different levels that an eLearning teacher could have. This taxonomy would allow me to compare myself to what the ideal talents of such a person could be, so I could plan for my own professional development. Perhaps, for that reason, you may also find it useful. In addition to advanced levels, I also worked back down the levels to those just beginning in eLearning, as I did as online college teacher in the late 1990s, where, admittedly, I was at the lowest level. Since I was doing this reflection for my own professional development, I created this based on my own reflections and experiences. So I have completed little research into existing resources.

I also noted two things. The first thing is that the different levels allow not just for increasing quality of eLearning but also increasing control either through the creation of new content or the ability to manipulate existing resources. Thus, for instance, copyright infringement becomes a diminishing concern as eLearning teachers can more and more easily generate original content for themselves. As well, existing resources can be more easily edited and customized to meet an eLearning teacher’s specific need; one does not have to rely solely on a specific image, resource, or activity already existing somewhere. The second thing to be noted is that the knowledge and skills listed do not have to reside in a single individual. It is conceivable, if not more likely, that the talents listed will be spread over an eLearning team. In fact, a large team of individuals with only one talent could equal one “ideal” eLearning teacher. However, back to the issue of control, the more skills and knowledge one possesses, the more control one has. So, for instance, if you moved from a school that had a full-blown eLearning development team to a school that had none, there would be less of an effect on that eLearning teacher’s abilities to produce high-quality eLearning.

Finally, the levels are not absolute. One could easily be between the levels in various ways. And, for the purposes of professional-development planning, you could select just one aspect from a higher level to improve on, perhaps one that complements your school’s existing resources. And, of course, due to the dynamic nature of the industry, the skills and knowledge listed will likely change significantly over the course of a decade. In this first draft of the taxonomy, I will focus primarily on some skills but more on describing the levels. It is fairly high-level at this point. I will add more knowledge and attitudes in upcoming versions, as well as go into more detail about specific skills that can be added for each level. Really, this is the skeletal structure to which I will add the “meat” in the future. This taxonomy is also, I think, primarily focused on the post-secondary environment.

eLearning Student

At the level of eLearning Student, you may already be a teacher, but to become an online teacher, some talents will have to be developed before you can be successful; thus, you are still a “student.” The talents listed here represent the minimum abilities you need to begin working towards becoming an eLearning teacher. This level also assumes that you have some pre-existing subject-matter expertise.

Knowledge and Skills

Basic ability to communicate effectively particularly in written form/Basic word processing/Basic presentation software/Email/Basic file management/Ability to save and print documents/Ability to navigate the Web using a browser.

eLearning Teacher

At the level of eLearning Teacher, you have the ability to facilitate an online course. It is unlikely that you could progress to the next levels until teaching at least one online class.

Knowledge and Skills

Can create online discussions/can upload and download files to an LMS/can grade online activities/can make announcements/can manage an online classroom

eLearning Mentor

At the level of eLearning Mentor, you have the ability to facilitate well online and can begin mentoring colleagues about online teaching. At this level, your courses are likely highly effective learning experiences for students. It is possible for your courses to win awards.

Knowledge and Skills

Experienced online instructor/knowledge of a wide variety of LMS tools and some functionality/comfortable teaching online/ employs some instructional design methodologies/ knowledge of some online assessment and evaluation strategies/can create basic content using LMS tools and can incorporate images.

eLearning Champion

At the level of eLearning Champion, you have the ability to lead your colleagues. Your online classes are guaranteed to be quality learning experiences, and it is likely that your courses can win awards. You have some control over the content.

Knowledge and Skills

Knowledge of all LMS tools and most functions/ confident teaching online/ can employ a wide variety of assessment and evaluation strategies/ can generate content using rapid eLearning software, screen capture technology/ employs a variety of instructional design methodologies/ can supplement LMS tools with some external tools/ has a basic knowledge of relevant industry standards

eLearning Hero

At the level of eLearning Hero, you have the ability to lead the industry. Like a hero, this level is almost mythical to be able to achieve. Just achieving three-quarters of these talents would be a significant accomplishment. At this level, your online courses routinely win awards and may represent some of the best in the industry. You have the ability to create and control all of your content.

Knowledge and Skills

Exemplary teaching/Can generate content using a wide variety of software (not at an expert level, but at applied level)/create content and images/expert in latest online pedagogical theory and research/can discern between a wide variety of tools inside and outside the LMS and select the best tool/current, advanced knowledge of all relevant industry standards