Instructional Design

There is a deep resonance between architecture, design and thinking about structures and systems of social, pedagogical, and institutional relationships. In my role at Sterling College, I often think in systems and complex relationships across a gradient of different scales of institution, program, course, class, and individual student/faculty interaction. When Neri Oxman last Thursday at UVM talked about the need for more multiscale systems that are interdisciplinary in their nature and structure, I could think of few better examples than the development of a resilient, adaptive, and multiscale curriculum.

spiral rubricI recently introduced students to the concept of an open rubric, which, for most of them, represented a far more open approach to goal development and self-assessment that they had experienced. The very question, ‘what do you want to learn?’ is enough to catch students off guard, and sometimes requires some processing of what that really means, and that, yes, I’m quite serious that they have to co-design their own learning experience.

The larger piece, less easily explained in the context of an assignment overview, is this approach nests into a organic and open curricular system.

Another part of Neri Oxman’s work in which I found a profound corollary with this level of systems thinking is the concept of a single material “catering to multifunctionality”:

The ability to design, analyze and fabricate using a single material unit implies unity of physical and digital matter, enabling nearly seamless mappings between environmental constraints, fabrication methods and material expression. Such unity – like that found in natural bone, a bird’s nest, a typical African hut and a woven basket – might promote a truly ecological design paradigm, facilitating formal expression constrained by, and supportive of, its hosting environment. (Material Ecology)

When a relationship between students, teachers, and experience is co-creative, the strength of that foundation of learning can yield rich, self-organizing, and interconnected pedagogy that is finely attuned, flexible, and resilient in the face of students’ learning goals and aspirations.

In an environment that emphasizes scalability, variability of form, and provides space for organic development, the boundaries between the facilitated learning experience and the larger systems of which college education is a part begin to dissolve and learning and its application begin to coalesce.

Radical Ecologies [call for proposals]

Radical Ecologies: (Re)Grounding Digital Pedagogy

A Special Session proposal for the 2014 MLA Convention

This special session seeks dynamic workshop-style presentations to engage participants in new ecologies of learning and leading edge ideas that connect ecological and educational systems. The session aims to explore the idea that technology and ecology need not be mutually exclusive and that they can play an essential role in the humanities classroom.

Drawing on points of intersection between experiential liberal arts education, digital humanities, biomimicry, sustainability, and ecopsychology, ‘Radical Ecologies’ will engage instructors and administrators in course development strategies and in helping students plan their own learning by using a systems approach to curriculum design.

This session is proposed to be an interactive and engaging series of workshops that enable participants to (1) take away tangible first steps to implementing ecologically-based digital course and curriculum design and (2) recognize the opportunities for learners at all levels in thinking experientially and ecologically about curriculum design.

Questions might include:

  • How can ecological thinking provide a model for a more intentional and dynamic liberal arts pedagogy?
  • Can digital technologies help us develop more ecologically focused learning environments and curricula?
  • How can teachers integrate ecological thinking into new and existing courses, units, and overall curriculum design?
  • Is there a role for ecological thinking in developing humanities curricula?
  • How can ecological concepts (re)shape digitally-inflected pedagogy?

Please email questions and/or a 250-400 word abstract by 1 March 2013 to Pavel Cenkl at pcenkl@sterlingcollege.edu.

For more on the MLA and convention: http://www.mla.org/

postdigital

Okay.

I admit it. I have a weakness for jargon.

I came across the (new-to-me) term postdigital in a tweet earlier this week, and try as I might, I’ve traced but few uses of the term outside of a handful of references — in particular in explorations of technological/human interrelationships in music and art.

In their now more than decade-old-book, The Postdigital Membrane, Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt sketch out postdigital as intending

to acknowledge the current state of technology whilst rejecting the implied conceptual shift of the ‘digital revolution’ – a shift apparently as abrupt as the ‘on/off’, ‘zero/one’ logic of the machines now pervading our daily lives. New conceptual models are required to describe the continuity between art, computing, philosophy and science that avoid binarism, determinism or reductionism.

Some of the stark binaries that Pepperell and Punt see as a challenge to a dynamic human system of interactions and experiences are certainly mitigated by the development of integrative model and thinking in systems and network paradigms that pervade our current moment of technological engagement.

Yet, now that the machine ecology is so pervasive, there is much to be said for thinking beyond the tools and the opportunities they afford to how we actually communicate, collaborate, think, and learn.

Pepperell and Punt go on:

The very unpredictability and ambiguity of human experience – its most valuable features – are being reconciled in the binary codes of digital processing . . . . These amputated descriptions expose the need for more flexible metaphors with which to describe the stable yet dynamic reality of the postdigital age.

In my admittedly superficial, wiki-borne knowledge  about the term, it’s apparent that postdigital has still not migrated far from its origins in acoustics, applied, and visual art. And in spite of its being fairly dated, postdigital makes contemporary sense as part of our technological present as a way to think about our engagement with ubiquitous technology–specifically, how does our use of digital tools and media define new and hybrid forms of discourse, interwoven cultural identities, and a perpetually networked social paradigm?

How, in other words, can we find a way of talking about “the digital” as more than just a quiver of  tools (albeit really cool ones), but rather a way to demonstrate our evoloving progressive, dynamic, and experiential engagement with communities and ideas?

Update:

In a timely a short piece at The Wall Street Journal’s Deloitte Insight yesterday, Suketu Gandhi defines “the postdigital enterprise” as one  in which business leaders have a choice to either “take your existing processes and apply these new technologies to them” on one hand, or rethink the process that technologies allow you to engage in.

Gandhi outlines”the big five disruptive technologies” which can help guide the direction of enterprise, most of which resonate quite clearly with aspects of the digital ecosystem I’ve been exploring on this blog:

  • social
  • mobility
  • analytics
  • cloud
  • cyber security

Nice as it is to see postdigital get traction in more mainstream media, it also underscores that much of the ubiquity of computing today is of course driven by opportunities to monetize social interactions and shifts in cultural perception. Not my intent here, but certainly illustrative of how insinuated culture and commerce often are.

 

 

machine ecology

A few ideas percolating this morning.

One from an AoIR email thread weighing the intentionality, activism, and idealism of the #pdftribute response to the tragic passing of Aaron Swartz, has me thinking about open access of information not only to human users, but to the machines that in actuality do the vast bulk of information parsing, organization, aggregation, and dissemination. Why not then engage a “machine public” (in the words of danah boyd) as a constituency, to which information should be openly accessible? Such thinking among academics necessitates a different order of thinking than interpersonal file sharing and social network-based link exchange.

Another, in reading around for a nascent book project, I’ve been struck by the clarity of Tim Morton’s premise, which begins his book Ecological Thought“At what point do we stop, if at all, drawing the line between environment and non-environment. . . ?”

Morton succinctly points to the danger of becoming so enamored of place that we may become separate from the ecosystem in which every place is situated. How can we understand our own place well if we cannot see it in a broader context or networks in which we actually live?

Morton goes on: “Ecological art . . . isn’t just about something . . . . Ecological art is something . . . insofar as it is made from materials and exists in the world.” Applying these ideas about ecological art to ecologies of information–to our digitally-inflected networked knowledge economy–only underscores that the network which enables and physically powers our digital interconnectivity is anything but virtual—what with real wires drawn across or buried beneath actual places and really integrated with the physical world in which the virtual is embedded. Kazys Varnelis and the late Anne Friedberg point out similarly, “place itself does not disappear in favor of the ‘city of bits.’ On the contrary, place is as important as ever, playing a key role in the network itself” (Place: The Networking of Public Spaces).

The place is the network infrastructure, and without understanding the nuances and complexities of that network, we are at risk of platial myopia. Indeed, I think that the term virtual world is itself a misnomer, in that ubiquity of digital places and their ability to augment our physical experience changes our corporeal experience of place in very real ways.

In a sense, it is the machines that constitute a tangible network ecology; it is our presence on the network that is virtual.

Of Lichens and Learning

‘Sometimes,’ I shared recently with followers on Twitter and Facebook, ‘the answers are in a book about lichens.’

Deep among the vivid pages of Lichens of North America, someplace between the descriptions of Cladina sterllaris and Cladonia cervicornis verticillata, I may have found the inspiration that I’d been seeking.  The glory of lichenate minutiae, the intricate interstices and curls of lace disappearing into fractal edges–It just isn’t possible to get close enough.

Somewhere among these images is what I am looking for.

To liberally paraphrase Karen Barad from her recent book, Meeting the Universe Halfway, the material conditions of much of our current postsecondary landscape “performatively produces” and reinscribes pedagogies and curricula that persist in sketching boundaries between learning and the world beyond the academy. Reminiscent of Tim Cresswell’s notion that we continually practice and re-inscribe ideologies through our daily practice (how do we know how to act in public spaces–how do we conversely recreate those places through our actions?), such reasoning etches parallel furrows in a granite landscape resolutely lichenate.

As educators, we follow, as a matter of course, such glacial scarring on a panoply of metaphoric stones, through or past, but rarely insinuated with the organic systems that surround us.

What would it be like, I asked students in my first-year Writing and Speaking to the Issues class recently, to jump these lines and devote all one’s life to a single passion and a single aim — and one that steps beyond the mere self-serving to change the ways that others think about the world.

If we choose, as I enjoined my students, to engage in dialogue with moments of the performative everyday, what I hope that may well emerge from the complexity of countless nodes and intersections–imbricated and involuted all–is a dynamic system that yields and demonstrates resilience.

So…how to begin?

I’ll see how the students answer that…tomorrow.

on small data

Maybe it will help to start small.

In the entirety of his poem, De Rerum NaturaOn the Nature of Things, as Lucretius advocates for Epicurus’ atomistic view of the world (and thus, now famously through Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book, helps to precipitate the Renaissance), Lucretius only uses the Latin word, datum, a single time–and then only as extrapolated by later readers from a section of missing text.

It strikes me as a bit odd that the term–from dare, to give, and refers to that which is given, present, extant–occurs only once in a treatise devoted largely to ideas about relationships among elements at the atomic scale. Throughout the text, Lucretius seeks exactly this–the unseen datum–something elemental or essential about which one could make assumptions and which could explain the underpinnings of the universe. No small task.

Today, however, our post-theory scholarly landscape reminds us of the continual subversion of any such underlying or essential truth, which leads almost inevitably to some significantly larger questions:

What is given?

What are the essential constituent parts of our inquiry process?

At this weekend’s THATCamp, a group of us interrogated the very idea of data in a session aptly titled “What is the Opposite of Big Data?” With guidance from Suzanne Fischer and Sarah Werner, we made a few tentative steps into the shallow lake of big data looking for some substantive ideational rafts among the flotsam of small data sets.

Two questions that came from our session that might foster some useful research or inquiry:

1) Do humanistic projects need to meet expectations about accuracy and statistical significance? And, how can scholarship that engages a sample size of n≈1  demonstrate its validity and relevance in an increasingly scientific discourse?

 2) Are big data approaches that advocate a distance-reading to large swaths of text or cultural artifacts in some way a response to continual challenges to the relevance of humanities in society broadly? And if so, how can small-data approaches be leveraged to demonstrate the relevance of humanities-based scholarship and liberal arts education generally?
One model around which we coalesced proposes to turn the traditional big data approach (one scholar, lots of texts) on its head (one text, lots of scholars) to underscore the utility of what are, frankly, some really cool DH tools to explore the materiality of texts and artifacts. By having a range of scholars converge on a small data set (be it a single book, poem, musical refrain, painting, or material object), we can turn attention to the affective response inherent in scholarship and create a network of nuanced meanings in the context of a very narrow slice of data. In such a model, the experience of reading itself becomes the data.

Suzanne succinctly summarized the discussion with what began to approach a mission statement–that as a group, “we do value the small and limited, and we do value modest claims. We believe that big data should try to make more modest claims and to think how humanistic inquiry can be ported over to those claims.”

I was left with a something not quite a manifesto and call for a renewed attention to the experience of reading, to the materiality of texts in an effort to reground and make relevant our teaching and scholarship.

Although I think we’d all admit to only being ankle-deep in this discussion, I think there’s also a lot of much more profound terrain to explore. In particular, trending toward small data can continue to decentralize, destabilize, and complicate humanistic study in ways that can (perhaps even more so when paired with contextualizing swaths of big data) open doors to innovative methods of inquiry that foreground the significance of humanities scholarship.

Integrative Studies and Complex Systems

I have been involved in several conversations in the past week related to cross-disciplinary scholarship. Some online, including “Lit vs. Comm”collected by @adelinekoh, and some at the College as we continue to try to articulate the most effective capstone experience for our undergraduate seniors.

As an academic administrator and professor at one of the smallest liberal arts colleges in the U.S., I am perhaps uniquely positioned to support both curricular and institutional initiatives that cross disciplinary boundaries. We are fortunate to have no defined departments, to meet as a whole faculty twice monthly, and to have fully half of our students designing their own majors, many of which capitalize on the breadth of institutional expertise rather than in a narrow and focused research area. Clearly, this kind of undergraduate liberal arts education is only one piece of the post-secondary system, but I think it’s an essential one–and one that could serve as something of a model.

In, Complexity as Practice: A Reflection on the Creative Outcomes of a Sustained Engagement with Complexity (in the most recent issue of Leonardo), Tom Davis introduces complex systems as

resistant to reductive analysis; an examination of a single entity in isolation does not reveal the true nature of its role in the construction of the whole. Complex systems support a worldview very different from that proposed by the reductive Newtonian theories of classical science. In contrast, they offer a more holistic view of the world, a world containing systems that can create new structures and forms on an epistemic or even an ontological basis. They possess the ability to outperform their designers, promise the allure of perpetual novelty and can possibly be deemed creative entities in their own right.

Complex systems, then, are themselves a performative act; if they are irreducible, continually dynamic and developing new structures, then they are similarly generative and effectively greater than the sum of their parts (the “room” that is smarter than the people in it).

A university or college is just such a complex system.

Nearly all of the tools and frameworks that are used to articulate links between technology and learning–  Open Courseware / Open Educational ResourcesNetworked Learning, Collaborative Learning, Hybrid Learning, etc.–underscore the rich collaborative, integrative possibilities of cross-disciplinary scholarship and teaching.

This aspirational rhetoric (as is, I will readily admit, ecologies of knowledge) gives us–and often enacts, to be sure–many models of integrative learning and scholarship whose champions nonetheless continue to negotiate with more traditional institutional infrastructures. Part of the evolutionary process in which many scholars (and many academic publishers) are in the midst of continues to draw attention to the still extant, long-standing concepts of academic disciplines and intra-institutional divisions.

Over the past decade, I’ve organized several conferences whose main purpose has been to take a broad interdisciplinary look at intersections of people and place. From such a regional studies perspective, there is no other way to look at scholarship except from an integrative perspective. When biologists, artists, literary theorists, ecocritics, historians, economists, and ecologists all get together to talk about place, the result is nearly always wonderful…and sometimes revolutionary.

I believe that more coordinated integrative conversations and projects in which we can actively take part, the more we will be able to recognize that the complex knowledge systems in which we work can empower entirely new modes of thinking and learning.