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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a newspaper that reacts to changing habits of subscribers by setting up a paywall and essentially doubling-down on an outdated business model.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.

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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.

Social > Virtual

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Throughout our readings in Remediation this week, we’re given the example of virtual reality over and over again for remediation in our culture. And, when this book was written over 10 years ago, perhaps that was the case. After all, the idea that we could create a new reality to be experienced in a wholly new way was the new frontier. I can remember being in a mall when there were still video arcades and the line taking up an entire hall full of people eager to try this new technology.

But, like laser discs and Second Life, virtual reality was more of a stepping stone to other innovations than a thing in and of itself. With our perspective, it’s easy to dismiss virtual reality as an example of our current culture, but I think the ideas expressed about VR could be extended to apply to social media today in terms of how it makes us interact with the world around us, and how we see ourselves in it.

On page 231, Grusin and Bolter write:

“When we put on the virtual reality helmet, we are the focus of an elaborate technology for real-time, three-dimensional graphics and motion tracking. This is not to say that our identity is fully determined by media, but rather that we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity. As these media become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become si- multaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media.”

I believe the key here is the statement that “we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity.” Regardless if that media is a manufactured graphical interface or a Twitter account, we use these outlets as ways to not only see the world around us, but to see ourselves. Social media is seemingly the outer edge of our defining ourselves in our own words, and in the role of personal broadcaster.

The various tools that have arisen in recent years – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, various blogging platforms – all allow us to broadcast ourselves, and for our personally curated content to be consumed, in radically different ways that previously available. They also become our identity; we are defined both by how we can express ourselves and how we can get others to consume that expression as validation of that expression. While at the same time, consuming the expression of others, becoming “both the subject and the object of contemporary media”.

– Andy Odom