Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Heart of Spain

As a Christmas present my dad just sent me a copy of Donald Harris's The Heart of Spain. My dad wrote the preamble. Harris is the founder of and it's not surprising that the book is a vision of Spain as seen through it's culinary traditions. Food, of course, is a elemental (alimental?) venue through which to understand culture. I tried to do a bit of the same in my own blog post "Tourism and Tequila Worms" which recounts (unfortunately a little pedantically) a tequila experience I had in Tepic about a year ago.

Tourism and Tequila Worms: Expanding an Exchange Program in Tepic, Mexico

This past January I went to Mexico for a week. During the first few days I helped expand an exchange between Weber State University -- which is next to Utah’s Great Salt Lake -- and the University Autonoma de Nayarit (UAN) in Tepic, which is an hour inland from the Pacific coast. A three-hour plane flight separates these two universities but they are linked by a common ecology; millions of birds fly between the Great Salt Lake and Nayarit's warm Pacific wet-lands every year. To preserve this flight corridor, Weber State, UAN and several other organizations have been sponsoring yearly bird festivals, bird education programs, and academic exchanges.

The business side of things met with considerable success. Weber State and UAN agreed on a number of joint projects that we hope to carry through in the next eighteen months. While the planning was carried out in board-rooms and administrative offices, there was also, during the latter half of the visit, some time for visiting the beach, wandering the market, eating out, and going on bird-watching tours through crocodile infested mangrove swamps. So if our primary purpose was business, we also spent some time being tourists.

At first gloss, these activities seem dissonant. After all, the hard work of formalizing agreements in offices is precisely the type of activity that tourists try to escape. And if the contrasts between activities that feel like work and activities that feel like play registered on a gut level, it was also confirmed by a book I was reading in my spare time titled Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters (edited by Dina Berger and Andrew Wood). While the book finds many redeeming features in tourism, the closing essay included part of a polemic against tourism that Jamaica Kinkaid wrote in A Small Place:

[the tourist is] an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that….never [realizing] that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness. p.371

Kinkaid’s polemic is wrenching and her point is reinforced by the fact that while over 15 million American tourists visit Mexico each year, far fewer Mexicans come to the U.S. as tourists. Moreover, while tourists are interested in seeing an authentic Mexican culture, a lot of what they actually encounter are constructed experiences that offer a view of Mexico far different from how Mexicans actually live.

The book made me wonder about our mix of activities and identities. In the capacity of academics we were there with an express purpose -- to forge stronger intellectual links with UAN by creating a collaborative community of academics who could research and teach together. If, however, we were turning into neo-colonialists when we replaced our suits with tourist garb then maybe our vocational and recreational selves were working at cross purposes. If in one scenario we were trying to meet our Mexican hosts as equals and as peers, in the next scenario, in the role of tourists we were re-awakening invidious relationships that might distance us from our Mexican hosts.

But if one can’t fully cleanse tourism of its unequal power dynamics, and the possibility that tourists are not really seeing the real Mexico when they visit, Dina Berger explains that U.S.-Mexican tourism has also served as a form of informal diplomacy:

Tourists, through pleasure travel, learned what made Mexico tick and learned to appreciate cultural difference and likeness….. those who enacted it seemingly played some role in forwarding foreign policy agendas, whether aware of it or not….tourism can and has acted as a medium for improving Mexican-U.S. relations. After all, through the act of travel, members of different nations came face-to-face with one another in a potentially meaningful exchange. And like more formal programs of public diplomacy, a certain image of national identity was portrayed by both host and guest. p.111-114

For me, tourism played this diplomatic role in two distinct ways. First, it served to break down culinary barriers, and second, it helped to assuage fears that had been instilled in me through the media.

In the afternoon after our first round of meetings, UAN representatives took us to a restaurant called “El Marlin.” There we were served a specialty called sarandeado which was a local fish marinated in soy sauce, lime and chiles, smoked over a wood fire and served with fresh onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. During dinner we were plied with rounds of bottled beer which I drank even though I can never recall drinking with fellow administrators in Utah, where our campus is dry. I was warmly warned, that at the end of the dinner we’d be having a shot of tequila and that I might be asked to eat the tequila worm.

I never actually was asked to swallow the worm but in acquiescing to the food and drink and to the challenge of eating the tequila worm I was engaging in what Jeffrey Pilcher, in “Jose Cuervo and the Gentrified Worm,” described as a common touristic experience with multivalent meanings:

The dinner table provides an arena for building community through two distinct processes, the physical act of sharing sustenance with insiders and the symbolic boundaries that exclude the food of outsiders as inedible….Through food and drink, tourists from the United States have consumed their Mexican neighbors: alternately dominating, transforming, excluding and embracing them…p.221

Pilcher notes that the tequila worm is itself an invented tradition, put in place as a marketing gimmick by distillers in the 1940s. By eating the fabled tequila “gusano” I wasn’t about to eat something that originated authentically from Mexican folk culture. But in volunteering to eat it I was still trying to engage in informal diplomacy. My rationales for being careful about what I ate and drank in Mexico were pragmatic; I didn’t want to get sick, and as an emissary I needed to consider whether I had to abide by the puritanical drinking norms of my own culture. But on an alimental level, to resist food and drink was to create an organic barrier between my own culture and a foreign one. By sharing in a common repast, I was showing my willingness to cross a primordial boundary.

I hope that by participating in manufactured culinary tradition I helped to break down some informal barriers. But if it didn’t, I do know that tourism helped me to cross other barriers that I’d buttressed through fear. These fears included anxieties about getting kidnapped, having to pay exorbitant sums of money to corrupt policemen for minor traffic violations, and the fabled “turista.” A few months ago the New York Times identified Mexico as having the most kidnappings of any country, with over 7000 a year. And last spring Arizona state universities issued travel advisories discouraging students from visiting Mexico, because of the escalating drug-related violence. Although I had blithely traveled through Mexico in the late 80’s after college, these reports gave me serious pause. With over a million American expatriates living in Mexico it’s self-evident that these fears are overblown. The fact that they are exaggerated is made even more apparent in books like Gringos In Paradise and On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, both of which provide soothing accounts of North Americans leading happy and uneventful expatriate lives in Mexico. But if books can assuage worries, a far better way was simply to hop on a plane and visit Mexico in person. As a tourist many of my experiences may have been banal; I successfully drove for a week without having to pay an onerous bribe, I ate fresh vegetables and fruit shakes without incident, and (big surprise) I made it back to the states without getting kidnapped. While these may seem shallow, they served to take away my fears. As such they are an important first step to take before moving toward more genuine exchanges.

In the closing passages of The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman exhorts that in a post 9/11 world we need to make sure to fathom the dangers that lie around us. At the same time, to live fruitfully in a flat world we also need to become masters of our fear:

It is always hard to know when we have crossed the line between justified safety measures and letting our imaginations get the best of us and thereby paralyzing ourselves with precautions….We all don’t need to become so gripped by imagining the worst in everyone around us that we shrink into ourselves…..We have to be the masters of our imaginations, not the prisoners…..Do whatever it takes, but get out the door. p.614-615

Books can help in putting one’s worst worries to rest. But it’s the actual act of getting out the door that really puts the most corrosive fears to rest. This isn’t to say that dangers don’t exist; indeed our Mexican hosts spent an entire evening dwelling on the growing violence in Mexico. But again, while the dangers of travel are real, it’s important not to over-estimate them; otherwise our ability to cross boundaries and to make connections with other cultures is seriously constrained.

As academics who’ve been steeped in the culture of political correctness and Kinkaid-like polemics, it’s easy to lose sight of the many if sometimes banal benefits that tourism offers. We think that if we can exchange ideas and collaborate on an intellectual endeavor that the rest of a friendship and an exchange will naturally fall into place. What we forget is that while academic collaboration can take us a long way, tourism can function as a useful complement. It isn’t likely to provide as much perspective into another culture as the experience of living in situ for a long period of time as an exchange student or faculty member. But it will take us a lot further than the compatriot who has simply stayed at home. Tourists, more-so than other travelers, fall victim to constructed forms of culture. After all, I’m pretty sure that in an average week average Mexicans are not having to ponder whether they’ll need to eat a tequila worm. But an encounter with constructed culture is better than no encounter at all.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Combating Digital Maximalism

I just finished William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry which is a great rumination on the costs we accrue as we become increasingly interconnected and what we can do to loosen it’s insidious grip on our lives. Powers (like Neil Postman in his third idea of technological change) thinks that an identifiable philosophy lies at the heart of technology and that in the digital era it's called "Digital Maximalism" and can be summarized by a maxim and two corollaries:

It’s good to be connected, and it’s bad to be disconnected.
First corollary: The more you connect, the better off you are.
Second corollary: The more you disconnect, the worse off you are. [p.35]

Like most people who value contemplation, Powers takes issue with this philosophy and devotes a good deal of the book examining how we can get off the grid and spend a little more time with our inner selves. He’s by no means the first to have written on this theme (think Carr’s well received The Shallows or my own small contributions in “iPhones Each Day Keep the Instructor O.k”), but I especially appreciate his attempt to look at a few famous men from Western history (including Socrates, Seneca, Gutenberg and Shakespeare) and examine what they’ve done to shirk the distractions of the crowd and get down to deeper and more focused thinking. If you need a fresh and interesting take on the canon, and you worry whether our intellectual capacities are diminishing as a result of recent inventions than this book is for you.

Addendum: Powers suggests that we need to build options into our current digital technologies that will allow us to adjust how much connectivity we want. Most of our devices attempt to realize the maxim and corollaries enumerated above. But when people choose the relatively less connected Kindle over the iPad they are often leveraging the kind of option Powers wants to see more of. People (like myself) who turned on Gmail lab’s “Email Addict” feature (which made Gmail unavailable for 15 minutes) were after the same thing too. It’s a shame that the feature was retired which (incidentally) is somewhat at odds with Google’s very own Eric Schmidt who as CEO once advised:

Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us. Nothing beats holding the hand of your grandchild as he walks his first steps. (quoted from p.76 of Hamlet’s Blackberry).

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Consuming Post-Socialist Nostalgia in Budapest

Ok this post isn't strictly about I.T. in the university but as Andrew Sullivan writes in "Why I Blog" a successful blog doesn't necessarily need to have the focus or formality or authority of essay writing. It's free to be a little more eclectic and experimental. So I'm trying a bit of that in this post.

I recently came back from a bike trip from Passau in eastern Germany to Budapest in Hungary. While in Hungary I went and visited Memento Park where I happened across an old Trabant. My pose in the above picture is intended to be ironic. My thoughts while standing there were of classmates who had proudly posed in our high school year book in front of their own (or perhaps their dad's) prized vehicles. I've attached one of these images although I count many more like it in my yearbook. I'm not sure exactly what underlies the irony; certainly I'm trying to signal that I wasn't the type to pose this way (although my own year book picture was equally if not more ridiculous). But I'm hoping that something more is evoked as well. In an essay my Dad shared with me (titled "Go Trabi Go!") Daphne Berdahl argues that going about in a Trabi in post 1989 Europe could symbolize your own poverty and lack of ability to afford something nicer but that later it took on a more nostalgic and ironic character. As Berdahl argues:

"The revitalized Trabi is....symptomatic of what I have called "ostalgie for the present", that is practices that both contest and affirm the new order of a market economy by expressing politicized identities in terms of product choices and mass merchandising....consumers of Ostalgie and drivers of Trabis may escape the dominant order without leaving it."

I was only semi-conscious of this "ironic awareness" when I posed hurriedly in front of the camera. But perhaps similar motivations were at work. It's too bad the Trabi wasn't around when I graduated from high school; maybe then I too could have a graduation picture that I'd be less embarrassed about.

Monday, June 28, 2010

iPhones Each Day Keep the Instructor OK; Mobility and Place in American Academic Life

My essay on iPhones and American mobility was just made available on At a recent executive briefing that I attended at Apple's campus in San Jose attendees were promoting the growth in mobile learning. There's a lot to be said for learning-on-the-move and the 2010 Horizon Report brings the trend to light. But some types of learning are still facilitated by more place-bound activities. I explore these tensions in the essay.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Kamenetz and Crawford: Mashing Up Class

In America, where the ideology of anti-intellectualism runs deep, it’s not hard to find people who call into question the value of education. If you are interested in the tradition, pick up Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, or if you are yourself an anti-intellectual simply recall the continued popularity of the quip: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (often attributed to Mark Twain). In DIY U, Anya Kamenetz, adds a chapter to the history, not because she espouses anti-intellectualism (she’s a Yale graduate and both her parents are academics) but because she argues, quite persuasively, that a college education is so expensive nowadays that it’s no longer the guaranteed gateway to the middle-class that it once was.

To remedy the problem, Kamenetz wants students to take greater advantage of the open educational resources which people like David Wiley, Jim Groom, Stephen Downes and the OCW initiatives have long espoused. However, while there certainly is an imperative for us to redress the economic burdens that we’re piling on students, there’s been some interesting conversations on David Wiley, Michael Feldstein and Dean Dad’s blogs on whether today’s students are sufficiently intellectually privileged to take advantage of these new open modalities and what needs to be done so that they can take advantage of them. The challenge isn’t just to push content out onto the Web but to provide students with the guidance and intellectual catalysts in a virtual format that are afforded by the residential college and Yale’s fabled master’s teas of which Kamenetz may have occasionally partaken. So in spite of their celebration of eduPunk, and their desire to “destabilize traditional hierarchies in higher education” neither Wiley, Feldstein, nor Kamenetz see the traditional university withering away. Its relative advantages vis-à-vis other ways of getting educated may be eroding, but it still enjoys some absolute advantages.

Although herself a product of the Ivies, Kamenetz isn’t interested in discussing elite education (presumably she thinks it knows how to take care of itself). Still, it’s worth pointing out that some of the destabilizing tendencies that are at work in the community college and at overpriced second tier institutions are also manifest in more prestigious settings. Take for example Mathew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft which came out last year. Heralded as the new Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Crawford’s book is about his experience as a recently minted University of Chicago political science Ph.D. who becomes disenchanted with academic learning and turns to motorcycle repair as a palliative. For a while after getting his Ph.D., Crawford tries to live the life of a knowledge worker but he’s unhappy not only with having to sit in a cubicle but with the relative returns on his educational investment vis-à-vis the blue-collar worker:

" . . .parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and want him to become a knowledge worker. If he accepts the basic premise of a knowledge economy that someone being paid a lot of money must know something, he may begin to wonder what is really going on under the sink." (page 20)

Maybe I too am focused overly much on the Ivies but I see it as a supporting exhibit to Kamenetz’ concerns. In DIY U Kamenetz wonders why as a journalist she was making so much less than her follow Yale grads who had gone to work as hedge fund managers. (p. 32) While Crawford directs his envy toward a different vocation (and by many measures a different social class) the laments are similar; even elite education no longer seems to offer clear remunerative guarantees.

The resonance doesn’t end there, however, as Crawford then goes on to suggest how best to redress these social worries:

"So what advice should one give a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump thorough the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid as an independent tradesmen than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable." (p. 53)

One should be careful, of course, not to press the Crawford-Kamenetz conflation too far. Crawford is a Jeffersonian Republican who is celebrating the modern yeoman. He’s interested in the lives and liberties of the working class but his emphasis is on independence freedom and work that is truly redemptive. Kamenetz, in contrast, despite her Yale pedigree, seems genuinely interested in social justice and expanding the middle class (p. xiii). Still, that doesn’t dampen the resonance too much. While Kamenetz ventured beyond Yale’s cloisters for internships at the Village Voice, Crawford took up Plutarch with one hand and a wrench with his other. Both are educational contrarians who seek to imbue a little more of a mash-up into the traditional curricular track. Like Twain before them, Kamenetz and Crawford have noticed a chasm between (their) schooling and education. And they are both seeking to help others close this chasm as a way of helping the next generation into careers that are both redemptive and remunerative.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ivy, Industry and The Incredible Shrinking CIO

Among the many great observations in “The Incredible Shrinking CIO” was Grochow’s remark that information technology has been democratized. This comment resonates strongly with Nicholas Carr’s argument in IT Doesn’t Matter. Educause articles have been written contesting Carr’s relevance in the academy. But even if Carr doesn’t describe what’s actually happening on the ground, the argument is compelling in the abstract: when information technology has been commoditized internal innovations yield less competitive advantages. And when innovations in I.T. have less R.O.I, there’s less incentive to place the CIO on the cabinet level if his/her role has become operational rather than strategic. In effect the role of the CIO shrinks as information technology becomes a technology one buys off-the-shelf rather than a system that one produces in house.

What is also striking is that The Incredible Shrinking CIO came out roughly around the same time as Greg Smith's post "Is Higher Education Losing Its Influence Over the Tech Industry?" and the Chronicle's highlighting of it. It’s possible that there isn’t any direct connection between the waning influence of the CIO and the waning influence of academe on information technology vendors. But the parallel is nonetheless striking.

Regardless of whether these conversations are directly related, or whether the authority of academe and the CIO is actually waning vis-à-vis the authority of the tech industry, information technology continues to play an important role in shaping cognition, and learning, and the flow of information. And since these are central concerns to the university, CIOs and other academic technologists who are committed to reflecting deeply on the relationship between technology and the academic mission need to continue to be involved. These concerns impel at least some of us to open source learning management systems like Sakai and Moodle. We perceive those movements as direct attempts to regain some of the control that we've ceded to vendors in the LMS marketplace. But in spite of this movement to open source, we shouldn't be too quick to imagine unbridgeable divides between what academics do and what vendors want. After all, as James Ptaszynski reminds us in his comment on the Chronicle article, there are many people who migrate between these different cultures and want to have a common conversation. Let’s have it!

Friday, May 7, 2010

iPad To the Rescue

Just when I'd given up hope in further innovations in the auto industry Chuck Severance comes to the rescue ;) :

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Technology, Feelings and American History

Last week, in Slate Magazine, Vaughn Bell wrote an article titled “Don't Touch That Dial!” Vaughn reminds his readers that anxieties about the effects of emerging technology on cognition are not particular to our own age. Indeed, we’ve been worrying about how new communication technologies affect thinking for a very long time. Even Plato worried about how writing was bad for thinking in the Phaedrus. I cover similar ground in the below post. But my post is at once narrower and broader than Vaughn’s. It’s narrower in that I focus on just a few forms of communication in American history. It’s broader in that I’m grappling not only with feelings of anxiety but other feelings as well. As the humanities strive to find their place in the 21st century academics need to invest time understanding how the fit between our feelings and our technologies have evolved through time. For historians of the emotions this is fertile disciplinary ground!


"We realized a long time ago that what you make people feel is just as important as what you make....." -- BMW Television Advertisement

In reading the past through the concerns of the present, I’m guilty of presentisim, which among historians, at least, is a taboo. Still, even if committing this methodological sin can skew an understanding of the past, it can lend insight into the present. I was especially struck by this after reading David Henkin’s The Postal Age; the Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. Henkin argues that the rise of the postal service allowed feelings of intimacy to be shared across greater distances than they had been prior to the the democratization of letter-writing. While a postal network was already in place by the Jacksonian period, it was primarily used as a means for distributing newspapers; personal correspondence was a secondary concern, and the cost of sending a letter was too high for the service to be used widely for this latter purpose. When rates dropped precipitously in the 1840s the exchange of letters rose dramatically, and in the wake of this, American’s in disparate places began to feel interconnected as never before. Henkin’s text is littered with personal accounts that document this feeling. For example, William Ellery Chaning observed that the postal office

“binds the whole country in a chain of sympathies….It perpetuates friendships between those who are never to meet again…..It binds the family in the new settlement and the half-cleared forest to the cultivated spot from which it emigrated.” Pages 50-51

Do Channing’s comments seem familiar? Today we have similar accounts of how Facebook and Twitter are expanding (or at least reworking) intimacy. For example, in the New York Times articleBrave New World of Digital Intimacy” Clive Thompson claims that these new media are expanding so-called “ambient awareness;” the feeling of being near someone through the stream of Facebook posts and tweets found online.

Ben Haley, a 39-year-old documentation specialist for a software firm who lives in Seattle, told me that when he first heard about Twitter last year from an early-adopter friend who used it, his first reaction was that it seemed silly. But a few of his friends decided to give it a try, and they urged him to sign up, too… Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes..Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. “It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.”

It’s not hard to come across other articles like Thompson’s. There are plenty of articles that document how new personal communication technologies are shaping feelings and how feelings, in turn, are reshaping these technologies. But Henkin’s history reminds that this reshaping has been going on for a long time. And wrapped up with this history is a complimentary concern about the proper etiquette and protocols to use when communicating through mediated means.

Since the advent of email, texting and twitter we’ve confronted all sorts of authoring challenges that resonate with longstanding epistolary challenges one finds earlier in letter and postcard writing: Should I begin my email with “Hi David,” “David,” or “Dear David?” How crafted and refined do my emails, texts, and tweets need to be? Since these technologies truncate my prose, should I be forgiven if I don’t craft my language as much as I might have in another medium? And just this month, with the advent of Buzz, people are lobbying Google to refine it so as to more closely mimic boundaries that we’ve established between our public and more private selves.

There is no question that we traffic in these questions today. But what is equally, if not more remarkable is that we confronted similar questions a hundred and fifty years ago. For example, Henkin narrates how Americans were not initially in the habit of checking for mail daily. In fact, days or weeks might pass between when a letter arrived at a post office and when it might be picked up by an addressee. As personal correspondence grew in popularity, and as correspondents began to expect quicker delivery and turnaround, the imperative to visit the mailbox or the postoffice more often also became more pressing.

This gradual immersion in a network comes as little surprise to those of us who’ve become more and more absorbed (or at least distracted) by growing streams of email, texts and tweets. But what is equally notable is that our own contemporary worries about how tweets and texts were corrupting writing are in some ways anticipated by the introduction of the postcard:

There was from the start something elegant, not to mention convenient, about cards that bore their own one-cent postage….since postcards supplied a built-in excuse for being brief, they further lowered the threshold for mail exchange (the postcard, as one recent celebrant puts it, “justifies, from the outside, by means of the borders, the indigence of the discourse”). Before 1845 a correspondent assumed a heavy burden in deciding to send a letter. Over the next few decades that burden had lightened, but the cultural construction of the personal letter as a gesture of intimate connection tended to maintain some of the earlier pressures…..if the postcard further democratized the exchange of interpersonal greetings, it fit uneasily into familiar constructions of epistolary intimacy. By emptying the personal letter of its enclosures, the tendency of the postcard was toward the reduction of correspondence to formal gestures. More obviously, postcards exposed themselves to public view….Page 174

Today we fret about whether digital technologies are deepening or shallowing out our relationships with others. But our worries are not completely new ones; they were anticipated by 19th century Americans witnessing the rise of the postal service. Although it’s not a new complaint much of the present discourse about information technology (and especially information technology within the university) suffers from historical amnesia; we often don’t go further back than twenty years in attempting to trace the ever evolving fit between our feelings, our technologies and our protocols or etiquettes. But as Henkin reminds us the connection between our technological present and our technological past is very much continuous:

Despite all the changes that separate us from the postal culture of the mid-nineteenth century, our pervasive expectations of complete contact, of boundless accessibility, actually link us back the cultural moment when ordinary American’s first experienced the mail in similar terms. The world we now inhabit belongs to the extended history of that moment. Page 175

It is perhaps too much to hope for, but as we fashion technology strategies for our university’s future let’s remember that our struggles to find a felicitous fit between our feelings and our technology precede the advent of the digital age.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Mission Behind the Margin

In a recent post on the Educause Openess Discussion List Brad Wheeler counseled that while open-source may indeed be a social movement, the current cohort of adopters are likely to be alienated if it's referred to as such:

I believe arguments for the efficacy of open approaches to aid in research and education are best made in the language of economics, utility, goals, etc. There is no doubt that those who labor to make open projects and services are part of the Innovators/Early Adopters work as a movement. Yet, across the chasm, the language of ‘movements’ and ‘causes’ that may motivate some Innovators/Early Adopters may actually undermine interest by those who seek solutions for the same problems but listen for arguments of economics and outcome. They are sometimes quite turned off as they do not wish to join a movement or be dependent in the long-term on one. [To see this quote in context visit the Educause ListServ archives at: ]

Pragmatically speaking I'm convinced by this. I make the strongest appeals to campus constituencies when I draw attention to the features in an open-source product, when I suggest that it will mitigate vendor-lockin, that we won't be forced to upgrade (or retire) a system because of a merger or acquisition, and that supporting open source helps to combat the monopolization of the LMS marketplace. I’m less sure of my appeal when I bring up references to Richard Stallman’s free software movement or the Edupunks movement.

It is hard to deny the traction of Wheeler’s argument; a lot of CIOs (or at least the CIO conversations I witness on the Educause Listserv) are distinctly uninterested in questions about open-source as a movement or whether the ideologies of these movements are more or less in alignment with university missions. Instead, most CIOs weigh the benefits of open source by reference to more pragmatic criteria. The mindset was captured years ago in a Chronicle article titled “Open Source is the Answer Now What is the Question?” by University of Chicago’s CIO Gregory Jackson. In it Jackson inveighs against so called religious thinking and proposes that we analyze open source through a calculus of costs and benefits:

the meanings of open source are diverse. Not surprisingly, so are the arguments in favor of it. Some of them seem almost religious: for example, that software should be free, meaning that software is merely the representation of ideas and methods, and that ideas and methods should never be commercial property. Other arguments maintain that certain software companies are evil, and that to support open source is to combat evil…Open source can be the right answer when colleges and universities base their decisions on careful, complete analysis of relative costs and benefits, avoid unnecessary heterogeneity, specify integration requirements carefully, and avoid "religious" arguments…..My advice is simple: Treat open source like any other procurement possibility, paying careful attention to the functions it is to serve, how it needs to be integrated with other programs, and its costs. Avoid simplistic notions of good and evil.

Since Jackson’s and Wheeler’s views are representative of those of many other CIOs, we need to attend to these points of view as we’re performing open-source advocacy.

Still, even if these are good pragmatic strategies, choices between open-source solutions and proprietary solutions should be informed by understanding the larger social movements that support and lend significance to free software and free culture. And part of understanding these movements depends on articulating the values, ideologies and belief systems that give impetus to these initiatives.

While one might wish to avoid “simplistic notions of good and evil,” it’s hardly the case that there aren’t important value questions to consider when universities need to choose between open and closed partnerships. Nor should universities avoid using the language of ethics or values to understand what open source is. Indeed, value questions are the soul of the university. Without frank talk about ethics and missions and values we’d be failing to carry forth one of the most important ways that universities have made sense of the world.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Alexandria Complex

At the American Historical Association meetings which I'm currently attending I dropped in on a panel discussing whether Google is good for history. Participants at the session identified many problems which Google has yet to redress adequately: the fact that Google’s landing pages don’t disabuse users of what one panelist called “the Alexandria complex” (the hubris to believe that all of the world’s knowledge might be contained in one place), that Google doesn’t clearly identify the limitations and biases that are inherent in online search, and that absent these warnings, Google may breed a level of epistemological trust in users that erodes the healthy skepticism upon which good scholarship depends. By and large I think Brandon Bader, the Googe rep, handled these criticisms gracefully especially in his willingness to acknowledge that he was a little “embarrassed” by the current interface in Google Books. Google might not be as transparent as librarians and academics would like it to be but it’s still playing an important role in democratizing access to knowledge. And while a Google search refracts and bends this knowledge, when used as a complement to other research techniques it’s good for history.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Still Not Dead

The most recent Sakai Executive Brief is out, this time highlighting the formation of a Sakai Product Council chaired by Clay Fenlason, a longstanding contributor to Sakai and perhaps it’s most erudite spokesman. True to form, Clay gave a very engaging keynote at last September’s Australian Sakai Conference which closely follows his article titled "Back to basics: the web, academic values, and Sakai" article. It's opening lines are:

“One could be forgiven for confusing virtual learning environment
(VLE) debates with those of theology….a growing number of voices has
taken up a Nietzschean cry, declaring the VLE dead. What now? What
will take its place, and on what grounds? …..Technologists who labour
in this area are in a period of soul-searching. The forms of VLE we've
known, however useful they have been, now plainly represent an
intermediate stage that will soon be superseded. The world has moved
on, and the form of the VLE must shift with it. Call this shift a
"death" if you like, but we're still left with the business of working
out its consequences.”

Clay is politic in not taking explicit sides in the Not Dead Yet versus the Social Media is Killing the LMS Star debate. But is it hubris to even tacitly suggest that the VLE is dead and that Sakai is poised to move beyond it?

On the one hand, it’s definitely not true. Sakai has many things to be proud of, not least of which is its efforts to re-imagine how the VLE as a CLE can better service the mission(s) of the university. And more so than any other VLE initiative, Sakai is making great efforts to leverage the wisdom of crowds.

On the other hand, Sakai still is playing catch-up in the VLE marketplace. Our own campus pilot and those of campus instructors at other universities have confirmed that there’s still some clunkiness in using Sakai if one tries to use it as a VLE. If in Moodle one can lay out a course in much the same way as one constructs a syllabus, in Sakai this is a much more difficult
proposition. In Lisa Lane’s illuminating essay “Insidious pedagogy:
How course management systems impact teaching
” she levels much the same critique against Blackboard:

"The construction of the course syllabus is a familiar beginning point
for most instructors, yet few CMSs consider this. It would be natural
and useful for novice instructors to see a blank schedule into which
they could create each week’s or unit’s activities, rather than a
selection of pre–set buttons or links. Most professors think in terms
of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved
within the context of time, rather than space. Some think in terms of
topics they want to cover. Blackboard/WebCT’s default organization
accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface. It
forces the instructor to think in terms of content types instead,
breaking the natural structure of the semester, or of a list of
topics. Again, we know that the setup can be customized with relative
ease, by going to the Control Panel and selecting Manage Course Menu,
then using Modify buttons. You could change all the course menu
buttons into “Week 1”, “Week 2”, or organize by topic instead of
content type. But few professors try that, or they assume that they
can’t do it. Blackboard can be highly intimidating to learn, and may
“seriously hinder” choices the faculty member makes while using the
tool [4]. Faculty are led by the interface of a CMS not only because
they do not immediately see an alternative, but because the familiar
signposts (the Syllabus button) imply a single way of completing the
task (upload a document). Only the Moodle system provides a default
setup that looks like a calendar-style syllabus...."

Having taught for multiple semesters over many years in all of these systems, I can say that many of the same challenges that Lane experiences with Blackboard can also be found in Sakai.

When the next major release of Sakai is ready for adoption the course-authoring deficits mentioned above should be resolved. And there are already plenty of positive reviews of Sakai. But the play on Nietzsche’s jeremiad does obscure a very painful deficit that exists between Sakai and the conventional art in the VLE. Until it’s bridged, my bet is that my own school will continue to regard these other VLEs as very much alive.