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On Not Going Far Enough…

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“Print is dead.” – Dr. Egon Spengler

It goes without saying that with all the technological advances in recent history, our lives have changed in almost every way. It’s been interesting to look at education specifically and examine the history and potential future of one aspect of our lives and see how technology has touched it. One thing that has struck me is that education, like many legacy pillars of our society, is holding on to out-dated models while it dabbles in this brave new world, mostly just for show.

A great deal of modern technologies being introduced into classrooms can be helpful, whether it’s clicker systems like those from eInstruction or TurningPoint, or smart boards like those from Smart or Promethean. But too often, they just give administrations an excuse to appear as though they’re embracing the future while still relying on an educational model and approach that’s largely unchanged for over 100 years. It’s like a newspaper that reacts to changing habits of subscribers by setting up a paywall and essentially doubling-down on an outdated business model.

One aspect of working on this project and being encouraged to think to an extreme degree about the current status of our area of emphasis. With all the technological advances in education, we are still trapped to a degree to physical locations and physical text books. Instructors have to be in a room with students to guide them along, all so they can take a standardized test on actual paper that proves little to show that actual learning took place.

Our project is going a long way to solve that problem (hopefully), and the starting place for our project is being honest about where we are. We have ebooks, we have video chat, we have long-distance learning in place. Instead of using these as tools integrated into an out-dated system, they should be the foundation for a new approach to education. That’s where our project begins.

Eating the Bishop

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In the film “RIP: A Remix Manifesto”, filmmaker Brett Gaylor relayed a story of the first Catholic bishops’ arrival to Brazil, and their subsequent death at the hands of cannibalistic devotees. The natives were so in awe of the human representation of their new faith that they literally ate him in order to be closer to that which he represented. An allegory of something being taken apart in order to make something new.

And with that, Gaylor begins to wrap up his “manifesto” in defense of the modern remix culture, a culture that takes bits and pieces of what came before to develop something new and fresh. Throughout the film, different angles of the debate over theft, intellectual property, morality, and music are examined in a somewhat entertaining but always relevant way.

RIP begins with a profile on Girl Talk, a “mashup artist” who employs a laptop as an instrument, taking snippets of songs written and recorded by other artists and mashing them together to create new songs, or at least vastly rearranged old songs. The very appearance of Girl Talk raises numerous questions of copyright legality and theft vs. creativity. Is Girl Talk an artist or is he guilty of capitalizing on other people’s work without paying what’s due to others?

Of course, Gaylor is favor of the remix culture and against any legal means by which freedom of expression and creativity are limited. He begins his defense by tracing “borrowed” music back to the blues and follows the line through the british invasion, all the while artists were taking elements of songs and reusing them in their own songs. Blues artists like Son House and Muddy Waters took from each other to make their own blues as ideas flowed through their circles. At no time did one bluesman threaten to sue another. The music example turned more interesting when The Rolling Stones, no strangers to “borrowing” from their blues-singing forefathers, decided to sue The Verve for sampling an adaptation of one of their songs in their massive hit “Bittersweet Symphony”. They took 100% of the profits, showing their dedication to copyright laws and intellectual property were stronger than their dedication to their craft.

Throughout, Gaylor laid out his manifesto which follows:

1) Culture always builds on the past

2) The powers of the past will always try to control the future

3) The future becomes less free

4) To build free societies, you must limit the control of the past

That last point is the most important, and Gaylor spends the last portion of the film urging caution in lawmaking.

Ultimately, laws are not only meant to reflect some shared, agreed-upon morality, but they can also be used to create or adjust boundaries to reflect the wishes of the majority. Like a dictionary, which isn’t so much an authority of language and usage as a reflection and record of it, laws can and should be adjusted to reflect the wishes of and changes in a culture. Copyright laws should be written in a way that not only protects proper intellectual property owners, but also fosters creativity and freedom.

The Miscellaneous Inbox

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David Weinberger goes to great lengths in his book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, to give various histories of how people have organized things. He covers everything from elements to books and photos to wedding dresses to show the great lengths we have gone through to force order onto the world(s) around us.

Weinberger tells us of three distinct orders of order that apply to whatever one happens to be organizing. The first order is organizing things themselves (plates on a shelf, spoons in a drawer), and the second is to create some file system to record how those things are organized (a card catalog in a library). The third order exists solely as a result of our digital culture. Now that we’re dealing with computer files and bits, information is not only easier to organize, but easier to find due to metadata and search functions.

While Weinberger gives the example of Flickr vs. a massive repository for physical photographs, I think a better example is the email inbox. As we’ve transitioned more into a digital world, many of the applications we use daily continue to reference their physical ancestors in name and in practice. In Microsoft Outlook, for example, we’re allowed to organize our email into a heiarchical folder structure to help make sure that our email is filed properly and easily retrievable at a moment’s notice. Surely this is an improvement on the old fashioned way of doing things where actual sheets of paper could get misplaced. With electronic mail, we simply create a rule and the digital mail gets sorted automatically into the digital folder. All I need to do is remember which digital folder to look in when I need that email again. The Future is Now!

However, that email system still fails where the paper system failed. If I had to find a document, I would have to remember the location and retrieve it myself. Not to mention the time it would take to organize that system to begin with. There is a very small step in between managing physical documents and traditional email. A leap needed to occur to fully embrace the freedom afforded by the digital. Enter Gmail’s insistance on search.

In a study published in late 2011, representatives of Microsoft and IBM reported that those who spend time organizing email according to folder structure are actually wasting time more time than their saving. Instead, they found that “those users who rely on tags, threaded conversations, and simply use search to find messages spend less time overall on refinding.” Furthermore, they discovered that “finding emails by searches took on average 17 seconds, versus 58 seconds finding the emails by folder. The likelihood of success – that is, finding the intended email – was no greater when it had been filed in a folder.”

As Google’s Gmail service has grown, it has depended more and more on Google’s main claim to fame – Search – as a central weapon. I no longer have to label and sort each email from my parents (although I still can using tags), I can just throw it in the figurative pile with my bills, letters from friends, etc. When I need to find the email that contained the important contact information for that meeting next week, I can search specifically for that data. To reflect the shifting attitudes towards this model, Apple and Microsoft recently updated their email applications with much more robust search features and Microsoft has even added color coding as a way of tagging by subject.

One area where the miscellaneous is still a present enemy is our contact list. As we move more into the digital realm, the tools at our disposal – and the freedoms they provide – cannot escape the reality of first and last names. Regardless of your email preferences, we’re still tied to the old formats of physical address books. We can’t just throw everyone we know into a pile and render relationships miscellaneous, which is something Google even admits with their Circles concept in Google+. Perhaps not everything is miscellaneous after all.