After E-learn: Small is small

November 19, 2008

A few thoughts on the first day of the E-learn conference (all I got to attend). Given my short stay in Vegas, I decided to attend the talks of the invited speakers, and this was an excellent choice. All three were really fine public speakers, and each left me with plenty of e-food for thought.

Richard Baraniuk spoke about open access educational materials, and in particular connexions, his successful “place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.” He believes education should follow the lead of music, and allow for rich user customization and personalization (creating, ripping, mixing, and burning) to engender creativity, access, and participation in learning. He made me realize how the YouTube class was my attempt to force the ethos and practices of open access education into a corporate site that easily resists and regulates our attempts. We all could use an educational video platform, and soon!

Elliot Soloway, also a fine and rambunctious speaker, while gently pitching his company dedicated to developing mobile learning environments for K-12, explained how educators have been often fooled by complex views (and uses) of technology mixed with simple views of the social situations of teaching (and living), while clearly the reverse is more apt. While he convinced me that children will be excited and playful with tiny and mobile hand-held learning devices, this continued to raise my concerns about the loss of the long-form. While he and I share the belief that learning should be fun, we also recognize the joy of investigating and experiencing in-depth, and must continue to include these possibilities in (and out) of the technologies we use, develop, and support.

Continuing the celebration of the small, Ken Carroll, founder of Chinesepod which teaches language in 10-minute chunks to lots and lots of people all over the world (based upon the “digital learning object” which actually nicely links the commitments of all three speakers), explained how “small is beautiful” in that “small gives users more control.” He’s right. And we’ll all need to decide, as we live through it, to what gains and what losses. As Carroll reiterated, “the medium is the message” and it is critical that we design each medium to maximize its best qualities while understanding its limitations. We probably won’t use mobile phones to read or write novels or feature films. But as new technologies, and the entrepreneurs, users, and educators who meet there, begin to form defacto standards (like the 2-minute YouTube video; or 7 second one, below), we may be gaining fun (and participation) while giving up the long, deep, and complex. A great loss:


This blog must be brief, mostly because I’m over-committed to other forms of writing, but I do want to make a few comments about the terrific conference I got to attend last week at Irvine, The Future of Writing, and how it impacted me. As “inter-disciplinary” as my work is, it is always shocking to be reminded of the neat little silos in which we inevitably operate. At this conference, as is perhaps even more true for the one I’m attending next week, E-learn, I found myself in fruitful dialogue with scholars and teachers of rhetoric, writing, and education as well as the technologists who support, code and theorize the moving of our diverse practices and interests into the digital. It reminded me how much of my typical conference experience is about “content” (i.e. documentary or youtube videos) rather than about “process” (teaching, writing, making–whatever the content). As always, I learned a lot from fellow panelist, Liz Losh, who is carefully theorizing from and documenting her own experiments with teaching digital writing at Digital Rhetoric.

Most dramatically, many of we singing detectives seemed to agree that all these gizmos that we’re enthusiastically adding to our repertoire don’t actually seem to be improving writing, or reading, or teaching. Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Lester Faigley,  in his talk “Considering the Possibility of Writing 2.0,” concluded that blogging has certainly expanded the number of writers and their many pages, but has not necessarily made this writing any better. Furthermore, the sheer number of words at our disposal has turned us all into skimmers and summarizers, even when the task at hand (writing a letter of evaluation for tenure, for instance) demands better. Before this, at lunch, I was chatting with Mark Marino, who teaches writing at USC and its interfaces with new media, electronic literature, and visual culture. Remember, we’re the people out there playing with this stuff. And he too lamented that old-fashioned paper and pencil writing instruction might lead to just as good writing as all the stuff he was inventing with his students through the nifty spy-gear he introduced to his students.

I left feeling like we needn’t go back, but we also need to be better at labelling how these tools move us forward, what they’re good at enhancing, and when we might want to shelve them.