Sunday, January 30, 2011

Networks, Neighbourhoods and Communities: A Reflection

1. Network Components

In Friday's CCK11 Elluminate session I highlighted some of the properties of networks in the following diagram:


Now this isn't the most official diagram in the world, but it suffices to highlight some of the properties of networks we want to include in our discussions. First, there are the two major parts of a network:

- the nodes (also known as vertices, entities, units, etc)
- the links (also known as edges, connections, etc)

Within these collections there are various properties that parts of a network may possess.

The node, for example, may have the following properties:

- the activation state - that is, the current state of the node, which may be off or on, 1 or 0, excited or at rest, etc. The activation state may be very simple, or may be a combination of a large number of factors, depending on the complexity of individual nodes.

- the number of connections (indicated by C in the diagram), or the list of the set of connections for a given node, etc.

- the activation function, that is, a description of what sort of combination or type of inputs is required in order to switch the node for (say) 'inactive' to 'active'. Activation functions may be expressed in terms of signal strength, the type of signal, or the number of signals being received. It may be an absolute value, a probability function, or some other type of function.

The link, meanwhile, may also have various properties:

- the directionality of the link, whether it is unidirectional from one node to another, or whether it is bidirectional (Twitter follows, for example, are unidirectional, while Facebook friends are bidirectional).

- the strength of the link, or the breadth of the link, which may be (for example) an indication of what proportion of a signal being sent will be received by the receiver. In formal networks, strength is clearly enumerated, but in less formal networks, we may use less formal terms ("he's a strong friend",  "the strength of weak ties", etc.)

- the type of connection, for example, 'friend', 'neighbour, etc. or nature of the interaction

- the number of strands in the link, which may be seen as a combination of different types of links, of different intensities

2. Communities as Networks

From this perspective, we now turn to the analysis of communities as networks, and in particular, I'll turn to Barry Wellman and Barry Leighton's "Networks, Neighborhoods and Communities, from Urban Affairs Quarterly, 14 March, 1979 (thanks, George, for the suggestion).

What Wellman and Leighton are trying to show in this paper is that traditional network discourse would be more effective were it expressed in terms of networks. They cite a variety of literature that examines the nature of communities in urban settings, noting that these analyses have their own frames and vocabularies to describe these communities. And they ideantify three major types of arguments in the literature:

- the 'community lost' argument - this is the argument that increasing urbanization has weakened communities. "Lost scholars have seen modern urbanites as alienated isolates who bear the brunt of transformed society on their own."

- the 'community saved' argument - communities form regardless of the circumstances. Humans are fundamentally gregarious and "Densely knit, tightly bound communities are valued as structures particularly suited to the tenacious conservation of its internal resources, the maintenance of local autonomy and the social control of members.

- the 'community liberated' argument - "people are seen as having a propensity to form primary ties... out of utilitarian ends." These ties may not be local or geographically based, but tight-knit communities nonetheless exist.

Now consider how Wellman and Leighton cast each of these three theories in network terms:

Community Lost
(a) Rather than being a full member of a solidary community, urbanites are now limited members (in terms of amount, intensity and commitment of interaction) of several social networks.
(b) Primary ties are narrowly defined; there are fewer strands in the relationship.
(c) The narrowly defined ties tend to be weak in intensity.
(d) Ties tend to be fragmented into isolated two-person relationships rather than being parts of extensive networks.
(e) Those networks that do exist tend to be sparsely knit (a low proportion of all potential links between members actually exists) rtaher than being densely knit (a high proportion of potential links exists).
(f) The networks are loosely bounded; there are few discrete clusters or primary groups.
(g) Sparse density, loose boundaries and narrowly defined ties provide little structural basis for solidary activities or sentiments.
(h) The narrowly defined ties dispersed among a number of networks create difficulties in mobilizing assistance from network members.

Community Saved
(a) Urbanites tend to be heavily involved members of a single neighborhood community, although this may combine with membership in other social networks.
(b) There are multiple strands of relationships between members of these neighborhood communities.
(c) While network ties vary in intensity, many of them are strong.
(d) Neighborhood ties tend to be organized into extensive networks.
(e) Networks tend to be densely knit.
(f) Neighborhood networks are tightly bounded, with few external linkages. Ties tend to loop back into the same cluster of network members.
(g) High density, tight boundaries, and multistranded ties provide a structural basis for a good deal of solidary activities and sentiments.
(h) The multistranded strong ties clustered in densely knit networks facilitate the mobilization of assistance for dealing with routine and emergency matters.

Community Liberated
(a) Urbanites now tend to be limited members of several social networks, possibly including one located in their neighborhood.
(b) There is variation in the breadth of the strands of relationships between network members; there are multistranded ties with some, single-stranded ties with many others, and relationships of intermediate breadth with the rest.
(c) The ties range in intensity; some of them are strong, while others are weak but nonetheless useful.
(d) An individual's ties tend to be organized into a series of networks with few connections between them.
(e) Networks tend to be sparsely knit although certain portions of the networks, such as those based on kinship, may be more densely knit.
(f) The networks are loosely bounded, ramifying structures, branching out extensively to form linkages to additional people and resources.
(g) Sparse density, loose boundaries, and narrowly defined ties provide little structural basis for solidary activities and sentiments in the overall networks of urbanites, although some solidary clusters are often present.
(h) Some network ties can be mobilized for general purpose or specific assistance in dealing with routine or emergency matters. The likelihood of mobilization depends more on the quality of the two-person tie than on the nature of the larger network.

Now what is important here is not whether one or another of these descriptions is true or accurate - this is a matter of empirical investigation. Rather, what is significant is that through the use of network terminology, we can precisely formulate these theories into a set of contrasting alternatives, the dimensions of which may be easily viewed and understood.

Note how each of these three descriptions is composed by stepping through a series of network properties: (a) membership in networks, (b) the number of strands in the links, (c) the strength of the links, (d) the number of connections an individual has, (e) the number of connections members in the networks have in general (ie., network density), (f) the coherence of the network, (g) individual activation function, and (h) network activation function.

3. Reflections

So much discussion in the field of education is based in loosely defined terminology and concepts. Take, for example, the advice to 'form community'. There are many things this advice could be manifest as, including any of the three accounts of community given above, and a wide variety of other permutations.

Typically, the advice to 'form community' is understood as advice to form solidary activities and sentiments - what I would in other works characterize as groups - but which here may be more precisely understood as actions undertaken in unison ('collaboration') and sentiments held in unison ('commonality'). But of course such exhortations are only one way communities can organize, and not even the most effective ways. But there is always no shortage of people - Larry Sanger, Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle, to mention a few raised recently - ready to lament the 'lost community' or 'techno-groupthink' in technology-based education.

What do these criticisms mean? What is their validity? Rather than use prejudicial and imprecise vocabulary, we can examine what it is about technology-supported learning and its proponents that bothers these authors. Perhaps it's all about a sentiment of community lost, as defined above. In such a case, we can respond to it meaningfully, with clarity and precision.

Or take the discussion of 'interaction' in online learning. While more interaction is typically lauded as better, we tend to be sharply limited to narrowly defined notions of interaction - perhaps Moore's formulation of learner-content, learner-instructor or learner-learner interaction. Or maybe Anderson's more sophisticated formulation of the same idea.

But if we can approach the concept of 'interaction' from the network perspective, allowing for the existence of many types or strands of interaction, many degrees or strengths of interaction, various interactive media, and more (as I tried to explain in this series). Again, the point is that we can use network terminology to explain much more clearly complex phenomena such as instruction, communities and interaction.

Wellman and Leighton's paper was written in 1979. It is well-worth anyone's while to look at more recent work to appreciate the depth and utility of network analysis.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Live Skype on Radio #ds106

Today I ran a test on Radio #ds106 to see whether I could stream a live Skype conversation over internet radio. The answer to that question is: yes. Here's what I did.

First, I went out and bought a new headset with speaker and microphone plugs that plug right into the sound card (specifically, a Plantronics Audio .355 Multimedia Stereo Headset). I've been trying for a long time to make this work with my USB microphone, and it just doesn't work.

Next, I set up my computer so the default sound application was the Windows stereo mixer. There's a few steps to this.

First, open the Windows Recording Devices screen (my screenshots are for Windows 7 but Vista is very similar) by right-clicking on the speaker icon and selecting 'recording devices' (you can also get to it via the Control Panel).

This will bring up the recording devices screen. You should see a selection for your microphone input. If you're lucky, you'll see the 'stereo mix' option. If not, you'll have to unhide it.

To do this, highlight one of the microphone selections, and then right-click on it. In the pop-up menu that appears, check the box titled 'show disabled devices' and 'show disconnected devices'.



When you close the window, the Stereo Mix box should appear. It looks like this:


Highlight the 'stereo mix' box and then select 'default device'. What this means is that your programs will accept as input the sounds that your computer makes - system sounds, you tube videos, and the like.

You need to make sure the Stereo Mix is actually producing sound. Click on 'Properties'. You'll get this screen:


The 'Controller Information' may be different for you. Not to worry (I don't think).

Anyhow, click on 'Levels'. You'll see:


Make sure your Stereo Mix has a non-zero level. As you can see, I've set mine to 88.

Next, make sure your microphone is capturing sound. Select the microphone icon in the 'Sound' window (with luck, you'll have only one; if not, select the microphone that is plugged into your sound card). Click on properties, then on Levels, and make sure the levels are non-zero (this will also be useful later if you notice your microphone is too soft - depending on your sound card you may also be able to boost your mic).

You want to make sure your microphone is included in this mix. So right-click on the speaker icon, as above, and select 'volume mixer'. It may take a few moments to appear. This is basically your Stereo Mix mixing board (it really is annoying that it takes so long to appear, and I don't know why it does, and sometimes it just doesn't appear - try closing all the other sound windows first).


Update: Note that as I was setting up on Windows 7, I was still not able to get my microphone working in stereo mix. I did some searching and finally found this:  "Here's the secret part: When you click on your microphone then click on the "properties" button, and then click on the 'listen' tab, and then click on 'listen to this device'." Which did, indeed, solve my problem. And, best of all, it also works with USB microphones, so I can use my high quality sound sources.

Next, you want to test your configuration. I use Audacity for my system check. If you don't already have it, download and install Audacity. Then, open Audacity and go to the preferences window (select Edit/Preferences, or type ctl/P). In the audio I/O window, under 'recording device', select Stereo Mix.


Now, audacity will record any system sound. Test it out by clicking OK, clicking on the 'record' button (the red circle) and then playing a sound in YouTube. You should see the wave-form in the Audacity display indicate that you're recording audio. Now stop YouTube and try speaking through your microphone. You should again see the wave-form appear again. Stop the recording (press the button with the black square) and play it back. You should hear the YouTube audio and your voice.

If you're not able to record the sound in Audacity, you need to stop here and figure this part out, because if it doesn't work in Audacity, it work work on radio.

You can also save the Audacity recording in MP3. But note that, in order to do this, you'll need to download a separate plug-in called LAME. Here are the instructions in the Audacity wiki. Alternatively, when you get to this point, just download the .dll directly from here and save it to your Audacity directory. Then, try to save your find as MP3. It will ask you to locate LAME. Select the file you have just downloaded in the file selection window.

OK, you're set up to produce Audio. Now what you want to do is to set up your system to send that audio to the radio station. Here's how I'm set up:


So, the next step is to download and install the WinAmp player. Here's the download page. You don't need the pro version (though, honestly, if I'm going to do this sort of thing regularly in the future, I'll buy the pro, just because).

You don't need to do anything special with Winamp.

Next, you need to download the Edcast plugin for Winamp. This is a bit tricky since the creator has discontinued support for Edcast and has moved on to other things. It certainly makes me nervous. A bunch of sites still refer to the no-longer useful Oddsock link, but I found it here, on the Elite Radios site. There's enough support out there for both Winamp and Icecast that this vital link will be retained one way or another, I think. In the mean time: it works now, until somebody 'upgrades' and breaks things.

The Edcast plugin downloads as a .exe file. To install it, run the .exe file. It will save the required .dll files to the Winamp directory. During the install, though, it will ask you to download and install the LAME and ACC .dll files separately.

Now what I found was that I had to do this as a two-step process. First, I downloaded the zip files from the sources provided. Then I opened the archive with 7-zip and saved the .dll files (specifically, lame_enc.dll and libfaac.dll) to a temporary location (actually, just my home directory). Then I used the Windows file manager to copy them from the temporary location to the Winamp base directory (specifically, C:\Program Files (x86)\Winamp ).

I needed to do this because I needed administrator access to save the files in this location; I couldn't just save them there directly from 7-zip during the install process. This was causing Edcast to install without the lame encoder, which was creating problems later.

Finally, the Icecast server itself. You could install one on your own computer, or you could buy server space somewhere and install it there. Or you could purchase a server system from a provider. This is probably the best route to take.

In the case of #ds106 radio, Grant Potter had already purchased access to an Icecast server. Icecast is a GPL streaming media server project that currently streams in MP3 format. It's very similar to Shoutcast, which is a more popular application that does the same thing.

I can see why Grant chose Icecast. While Shoutcast has a larger directory of stations, and while both support both an auto-DJ as well as live broadcasting, the Icecast does not require a server reboot to switch from auto-DJ to live broadcast. This is important because it means you can cut into a live broadcast whenever you want, without booting all your existing listeners off the station.

Grant's own post was very useful to me here. He used Nicecast, which broadcasts music from a Mac. But more to the point, he found a hosting service which uses CentrovaCast to manage its streaming servers. Centrovacast is basically a control panel for the server (WHM is an alternative). You don't need to get this, but it's something to watch for when you're selecting a streaming server host.

As I indicated in my previous post on #ds106 radio, Grant found all of this on myautodj. He set up the simple $30/month Icecast streaming server with 100 simultaneous listeners supported. You can see the server options on myautodj's CentrovaCast page. You can see the packages here.

So I didn't buy one; I just used Grant's.

What you need to do is to configure Edcast to connect with the Icecast server. The following information is required (and this is what I asked Grant to provide):


Server hostname:     208.82.115.69
Server port:     8010
Server type:     IceCast
Mount point:    /live
Bit rate:     128
Username: xxxxx
Password:     xxxxx
Encoder: LAME/MP3
Quality: 0
Sample rate: 44100
Channels: 2


Thes especify different properties of the audio being sent from the encoder to the streaming server. The hostname and port specify the sever location. The server type is Icecast, and mount point is the location in the sever the broadcast will be sent from (the auto-dj, meanwhile, has a different mount point). The bit rate refers to the quality of the MP3 audio being sent; for voice audio, you could go as low as 32, while 128 is standard for ordinary MP3 music.

So, open WinAmp, and then select Options / Preferences (or hit ctl/P). In the menu at the left-hand side, under Plug-ins, select DSP/Effect. I`ve highlighted it in the image below:


DSP stands for 'Digital Signal Processor'. In my screen, you can see that I have an 'effects' DSP (I can use this to create echos, loops, and other effects with my audio). I also have a shoutcast DSP, in cast I wanted to broadcast to a Shoutcast server. But for our purposes here, I want to select the edcast DSP plugin. Highlight the plugin name and then right-click. You will get the configure screen (for some reason, the 'configure' button doesn't work with edcast.

Here's the configuration screen:


This is the screen you'll actually use when broadcasting. Highlight the line under 'encoder settings' (it might look different from mine, because it hasn't been set up yet).


Then select 'Configure' from the popup menu. This is where you'll enter all your settings:


Fill these values with the values Grant gives you (or, if you've set up your own server, with the values set in your server configuration). As well, if you want to set the name of the program and a program description (this is what will show up in the Icecast directory) the click on the tab YP Settings and fill that form out. Click OK.

If it all worked, then you're back in the previous screen. Make sure your encoder is highlighted, and click 'connect'. There won't be any bells and whistles, but you are now broadcasting dead air over the internet. Click on the microphone button and say something.

At this point I wanted to test. So I logged on to the station using my iPod and listened to it from there. To do that, I downloaded and installed the RadioBox app (99 cents), selected 'Favorites', and entered the custom URL for the streaming media server ( http://208.82.115.69:8010/stream ). That way, I was able to listen to what was coming out of the server while I attended to what was going in. There's a 10 or 15 second lag, so be aware of this.

Now, play your audio. Any audio file you play in Winamp will be broadcast over the radio station. But also, because you set Stereo Mix as your default, any system sound at all will play on the radio station - this includes YouTube videos or Skype calls. And because your mic is working, you can broadcast both sides of the Skype call.

If you're doing anything momentous, you should record your broadcast. In the YP Settings you can specify the location of a recordings director. The recording will be in MP3, and in my system, it was broken into roughly 12 minute segments.

What next? Well, I play to test the system with Elluminate - we could have our regular #cck11 live session in Elluminate, while at the same time broadcasting the MP3 stream to people with less bandwidth, mobile phones, or who prefer streaming audio. After that, the sky's the limit.

Friday, January 28, 2011

On Being Offended

A comment on Chris Lott's post which in turn was a response to this and this.

I was born only 14 years after the end of the Second World War. Memories were still fresh, the rubble was still on the ground, and we were well into the Cold War and anti-communism.

Bob Crane as Colonel Hogan in disguise as a
Nazi officer in Hogan's Heroes. Source.
Why is this relevant? When I was a kid, the swastika symbolized little more than 'bad guy'. It could be used, it was used, to indicate (as was the case with the biker gangs (mostly from the same age group)) to show that you are a badass. As for its use in humour, heck, Hogan's Heroes was on TV, and of course we were being treated to a host of very good movies about the war.

It is only in the last 20 years or so that the swastika has been so demonized that its appearance on a wall or in a blog post warrants a news broadcast of stinging denunciation.

It's also culturally specific. I find the extreme aversion to the swastika to be localized to conservative Christian regions - ie., the U.S., and western Canada. In Britain there was outrage recently that a Prince wore a Nazi costume to a Halloween party, but it's more telling that he did, and thought nothing of it.

This is why Leigh can say he was just running a parody and why other readers can totally not get what he was thinking. We are tempted by the technology to think we are all the same, but there are generational differences and cultural differences.

So I think everybody needs to back off a bit...

Because, you know, I found it really ironic that on the very same day one of the complainants was publicly unfriending Leigh, he was also DJ-ing an 'all fuck' program on #ds106 radio. And to *my* generation, casual swearing isn't cool, it's not something we do, and we don't get that younger people just don't think it should bother anyone.

Me, I don't so much care about swear words, I'm not afraid of them, they don't offend me (hate, bigotry and corruption offend me), but I don't use them, and I even post 'language warning' on links to posts using them (I got some snark about that, of course, by one of the self-same casual swearing generation).

I mean, why go out of my way to offend anyone? I can understand, people do it, but it's not for me.

Protest over publication of cartoons in
Denmark. Source
Or, a few years ago, when I was in Denmark (total coincidence), the furor over the publication of photos of the Prophet erupted. Yeah, I know, they're just cartoons, they're nothing harmful, etc. etc. but I have chosen not to publish them, not to look at them, and for good measure, not to print the name of the Prophet. I mean, after all, why go out of my way to offend people when it's nothing - *nothing* - to follow a few simple courtesies?

Obviously, it's a judgement call. There are people out there who are offended at the drop of a hat. Search for "I'm offended" on Google and find 8,100,000 hits.  I've had people write to me and say "I'm offended" because I disagreed with them about some fact or interpretation of the facts.

But it's also pretty easy to not be offended. I mean, you have to go out of your way to be offended. You have to make a deliberate effort. But we live in this media-saturated culture and it seems that in order to be seen as having any feeling at all about something we have to have the most extreme feeling: outrage, offense, of some such thing.

So, again, why can't people back off a bit?

One the one hand, we could all be a little more sensitive to the things that offend others (and yes, I include myself in on this, because I've been known to stomp on the feelings of some people without having a clue that I've done it).

We should all adopt a bias for respect, rather than disrespect. Being free, being radical, these aren't about saying things that other people find offensive. They're about saying things that other people think are not true. It's a fine line, sometimes, to be sure, but let's learn toward respect.

And on the other hand, we could all be a little less easily offended. I know, it's hard to do when there are hoards of people (trolls, scumbags, and haters) trying to get your goat, to tweak your nose, to rub your face in it.

But, you know, when you're offended at everything it loses its meaning. There are some bloggers out there (I won't name them) who have been 'offended' so many times I don't know what they mean by it any more. Save your offense and outrage for the things that really matter.

The former rebel chief, Laurent Nkunda.— Uriel Sinai/
Getty Images. Source
Yeah, I know, maybe Nazi images really matter to you. Maybe Satanic scrawls on church walls really matter to you. I know, it grates. But do they matter, say, as much as actual torture, decapitation, dismemberment? You know, things that are *actually* happening in places like Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar?

But what's the best response? It it to fire off reams of outrage? Maybe to protest in the streets or declare a holy war against the author? As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for you?"

The thing with punk is that it's in your face. To some people, that's the essence of punk. But to me, the heart of punk lies in being free, not being offensive. We can all strive to be a bit nicer, to throw salve, not grit, into the mechanisms of our interactions.

An ideology based on nastiness is not for me. And it is out of the presumption that it's OK to be nasty that most of the things I find truly offensive find fertile ground to breed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When Words Lose Meaning

In which I explain what I meant by my comment to this post from Doug Johnson. I commented, "If the word is not the thing, how do you evaluate the sentence 'Dragons are green?'"

It's probably foundational for semiotics that the word is a sign or symbol, and in some way stands for or represents something else. This separation allows us to meaningfully use words like 'red' without particularly worrying about the reality of whatever they represent.

But the question of whether essence implies existence shaped much of 20th century philosophy. What do you say about the meaning of words that represent or refer to things that don't exist? If the meaning of the word 'dragon' does not depend on representation of or reference to dragons - since there are no dragons - then where does it get its meaning?

You might say that 'dragon' is just a fictional example, that we don't need to worry about its meaning, it's just metaphorical. But what about a sentence like (to use Bertrand Russell's famous example) "Brakeless trains are dangerous." It's not fiction, it is, moreover, true, and known to be true, and yet (by virtue of that very fact!) there are no brakeless trains.

So, while it's simple and appealing to say, "The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; the map is NOT the territory it stands for," there are important senses in which it's not true. In some important senses, the thing is the thing symbolized. When we talk about 'tiger' we are in fact talking about the concept 'tiger', which is just what is contained in the word 'tiger', and not about things in the world at all. When we talk about 'the tiger' we are (Russell would say) making two claims: that there is a thing that exists, and that it is an instance of this concept we call 'tiger'. All the referring happens in the word 'the', not the word 'tiger'.

You might think, this is all meaningless babble. Who cares? But it has a direct and immediate impact on how we think about learning. On the simple picture, you just show people some tigers (or trains, or dragons) and they learn about them. Or (since that's very inconvenient) you simply give them a series of propositions about tigers, trains and dragons ("dragons are green", "tigers are orange", etc.) and that teaches you about the world. Except - it doesn't. It teaches you about language. Most of what we learn about in school is language, not reality. Math - science - these are all disciplines of language.

In a very real sense, a traditional (text-based, languages lased) education is an education based on fiction. Very useful fiction, to be sure, since most other people are willing participants in that fiction, and it helps us do useful things. But it renders us unusually vulnerable to propaganda and media, since we can convince people of some reality merely through the use of words - actual evidence or experience is not required. We buy into beliefs like 'the world is described by numbers', 'if it can't be measured it can't be managed' and other variations on the old positivist principle of meaningfulness.

Most of the work in late 20th century philosophy goes to show that meaning and truth are embedded in the representational system - that, in other words, the word is the thing the word describes, the map is the terrain (if you don't believe me, try walking across an international border). van Fraassen on how explanations in science are descriptive mostly of our expectations. Derrida on how the meaning of the word is based largely on the range of alternative possible words that could be used. Quine on how translations are based on guesses (or what he called 'analytic hypotheses').

None of this implies that there is no reality, that there is no physical world, that there is no experience. Of course there is a great deal of all three. It's just that the supposedly privileged connection between word and reality - the one represented by 'The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized' - is an illusion. And that these representational and referential systems are elaborate fictions.

This is not new knowledge. It is very old knowledge. And as the Taoists used to say, knowing that these distinctions we find in language represent our interpretations of the world, represent our projections onto the world, is very powerful. Very enlightening. Because it frees us from the absolutes we believed ruled us with an iron grip. What people thought were right and wrong, for example (which is why we can make sense of how something that was once 'right' - slavery, say - is now 'wrong'). What people thought were plants or animals. Sentient or senseless. Planets or non-planets.

This is not an endorsement of relativism. It is merely the assertion that what is represented in language is fiction. If we rely solely on language - solely on what were told - then anything can be true. Look what happens to viewers of Fox News! What it tells us is that we cannot rely on words, on language, on mathematics, on representational systems. We have to, in our own lives, appeal to our own experiences, our own connection with the world itself. The Taoists would say we have to connect to 'The Way' - the ineffable reality behind human descriptions. But it's not an appeal to the mystical. It's an appeal to the world that lies beyond our descriptions of the world.

In an important sense, then, I want to say that semiotics is wrong. Not in the sense that it is descriptively false - for no doubt there is a truth (or, as experience shows, many, many truths) in semiotic accounts of meaning and representation. But rather, that semiotics as epistemology, or even ontology, are false. That there is no actual relation of reference or representation, only (within the referential or representative system) a fiction of one.

In a sense, we're at the same position today that Descartes was at in 1616 when he said, "I entirely abandoned the study of letters." At that time, knowledge, philosophy and science were in the hands of the Scholastics, who understood the world through finer and finer distinctions and relations between the categories. Descartes descided - and proved, through his sceptical argument - that theirs was a world of fiction, that we would not understand the nature of reality by dividing things over and over again into increasingly arbitrary categories. Descartes (and his contemporaries, for this was a broad social movement) derived an analytical method of dividing the world into parts, and using mathematics, not qualities, to represent this fundamental nature.

Now we understand that mathematics is yet another kind of language. We understand that merely measuring the world is to produce a kind of fiction. Though, to be sure, there are many Scholastics in today's world who are like the doctors of medieval times, shuffling their figures in finer and finer dimensions to articulate very precisely one fiction after another. And now a lot of people are pointing to networks or connections (etc) as the new underlying description of reality. But we ought to know by now that networks, too, are a form of fiction, that they are our imposition of this or that order on our perceptions, experiences and reality.

When we teach, while it is our job to ensure that our students are well versed in the fictions of the day, for they'll need them in order to socialize and make a living, it is our obligation to ensure that our students are not entrapped by these fictions, that they have it within themselves to touch their own reality, their own physicality, their own experience experience.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chinese Programs

Is this serious? Really?

We have a Confucius Institute here in Moncton, Canada, where the Chinese government provides support for Mandarin Language learning in our community. We are happy to have them, and warmly welcome the cooperation between our two societies the institute represents.

Nations with a substantial culture and presence in the world have a long history of providing such assistance. The American Universities in various countries around the world are evidence of this. Radio Canada International performs the same function for Canada. None of this constitutes 'turning our school kids over' to Beijing, Washington, or anyone else.

As noted here (added later), "Countries like Britain, France and Germany have always put great store in it and funded it accordingly. The BBC, Alliance Fran├žaise and the Goethe Institute have for decades been instruments of 'soft power,' spreading the culture, values and language of their respective governments around the globe."

If there is a genuine concern to be raised about 'buying off' educators, it is not the paltry contributions of the Chinese which ought to be of concern, but rather, the well-funded, loud, intrusive and pervasive efforts of the corporate right, which are in the main attempting to eliminate public education entirely, and substitute for it a new profit centre for its subsidiaries.

But I guess Chester Finn wouldn't know about that, hm?

(Update: I've created a Wikipedia Page for the Confucius Institute in Moncton).

Network Diagrams

For #cck11 here is a selection of network diagrams:

Web of Data
From Linked Data Meetup






Last.fm Related Musical Acts
From Sixdegrees.hu





Map of Science
From Plos One, Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science

Saturday, January 22, 2011

ds106 Radio

I like this a lot. It took me a bit to figure out what to do (the post never actually tells you how to *listen* to #ds106 radio, but eventually I took a flyer and just clicked on the link titled "streams that audio out to a play list" and it launched and simply started playing in VNC Player (and I assume it would do the same in iTunes if iTunes were my default audio application).

The music isn't exactly to my tastes, but it's OK. I'm listening to it as I do this follow-up. I wish people would announce band names and song titles, in case I hit something I like (like the Bowie I'm listening to right now, which I had to learn about by Googling the lyrics).

Just as an experiment, I tried stopping the stream to see whether the audio player would pick up later at the same spot. No. No way to skip forward, either. So now I'm not listening.

Extracting the link and doing a search on tunein.php took me to a list of a *pile* of these radio stations. I see there's a tunein radio app for the iPhone.  Also for Android I wasn't able to find any documentation or download for the tunein.php application itself, though (Google search is just awful sometimes).

Looking up the file format gives me more information.

Now I'm listening to Radio Super Medellin, a talk show in Spanish, in yourmuze.fm - a web-based .pls stream player, formerly called Moodio (mobile users can go to m.yourmuze.fm ). I was able to add the ds106 station to the station list and now I'm listening to it in yourmuse.fm (still no way to skip ahead, though).

All very fine, but how do you *make* a .pls radio show? I tried another serach string from the ds106 URL, 'myautodj', which took me to Myautodj, a  Shoutcast radio station hosting service. I like Shoutcast a lot - I have the client on my iPod Touch and listen to old-time radio broadcasts late at night. It's as though the radio signals travel through time. It looks like myautodj costs $20 a month, though - not too expensive, but I want to explore more. There's a huge list of options - the ever-useful Robin Good summarizes them.

Still listening to ds106 and it seems the songs are different, even though the bumper was the same. So maybe it doesn't just repeat. Cool.

Still looking for ways to create. Winamp and some other players will allow plugins that allow you to create and upload .pls files based on what you're listening to, which is a pretty good idea. I'm looking for something stand-alone, though. I found some here - MP3 Tag Assistant Professional and Music Tag Editor

I downloaded the Music Tag Editor to create some demo playlists. (Half an hour later) OK. Figured out how to make a playlist with songs from different folders. The out-of-box set-up for Music Tag Editor is very confusing, as it's set to wipe out your playlist and automatically create a new one every time you change file folders. In folder view, you have to unselect the 'automatic addition' buttons at the top of the folder list (there's two of them, one 'with clear' (which is selected by default), and one 'without clear'. Then, to actually create the playlist, click the 'generate' link in a completely different panel. Usability fail.

So that worked. But all the song addresses are windows directory addresses, which won't work very well online. Can I just use web addresses? I open the downloaded ds106.pls file and... Nope. Instead of specific songs, it says simply: File1=http://208.82.115.69:8010/stream - Ah! A stream! (That's probably why I can't skip forward). The stream won't play in my browser (Chrome); it just gives a broken palyer screen. But I can enter it into the 'play network stream' window in VNC and play it from there.

Well, yes, streaming is better than downlading. But you needs a streaming server, which I don't have. So we're back to sending the playlist to some service, or installing a streaming server. Hmm.

Well, maybe I can just make a list of MP3 files work. Uploading MP3 files (wait.... wait... bandwidth challenged service provider, aka. Rogers). I edit the .pls file manually in Notetab to point to the http file locations, and upload that to http://www.downes.ca/files/audio/mylist.pls and then try to open it...

In the browser. No joy. It just shows the text of the file. I guess I have to set up my server to serve .pls files as a specific mime-type. Not sure which mime type, though...

I try downloading the .pls and clicking on it. That works, sort of. It won't open the first file ("Your input can't be opened: VLC is unable to open the MRL  http://www.downes.ca/files/audio/04 - Open Window (Live).mp3'. Check the log for details". It jumps to the second and starts playing it. It probably hates the file name with spaces and brackets and such in it. I fix the filenames and - yes, that's it.

OK, the mime type. Let's look that up and Google. Looks like it's audio/x-scpls - as given by fileext.com  And this site confirms that, and also offers a suggestion of how to create a link for it.  So how do I set my server to serve .pls as audio/x-scpls ? You can set up a .htaccess for it  but I'd rather change the server configuration itself.

In the server, mime types are defined in /etc/mime.types (your server may vary) so I ssh into my website, log on as root, and open the file ( vi /etc/mime.types
 ). Then I restart the web server and try the URL again. Excellent! Now it behaves exactly as the ds106.pls file behaves.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Socialism Is About

Replying to Michael Laxer and Andrew Kloche, Seeking the democratic socialist in Canadian political life, posted at Rabble and blogged at The Ginger Project. Posted to rabble.ca, January 12, 2010.

As a long time New Democrat and socialist, I certainly agree that we should not stand content to have John Ivison or the National Post to define what we are.

That said, the attempt in this column falls far short of satisfactory as well.

I don't identify myself as a 'worker'. I want to be in favour of things, rather than 'fighting the destruction of the middle class', whatever that means. I want to reform corporations, not merely stand up to corporate crime. I want to help people create their own enterprises, not merely have them take over others. I want to define a mechanism for social support, not tie myself to social equity oiecemeal through certain programs. I want to manage for prosperity, not merely resist austerity.

I don't want to gather huddled under a big shield designed to pretect me from the evils of the world; I want to have the strangth and the means and the legislation that allows me to stand on my own. I don't want to be a part of some mass movement, as they just exchange one set of leaders for another; I want to be able to define my own movement, however small, and make my change in my own way. I don't want to be a part of an army, or engage in flighting, or to be resisting, I want to build, create, grow, and develop.

The NDP is successful only when it taps into that people want to be. People live and dream (and vote) with their aspirations, not their limitations of class or poverty. I want to define socialism in terms of what we want to be, not what we want to avoid.

-- Stephen Downes

(p.s. I hate my name 'Troll' but I can't seem to change it, and I'm not willing to simply create a new account, as I've had this one for something like six years, and even though I don't comment much, that still counts for something. Not like anyone's reading this disclaimer.)

Reply from M. Spector

Spoken like true entrepreneur and rugged individualist. This kind of condescending disdain for the concerns of the working class - i.e., the vast majority of Canadians - is a good example of what is wrong with the NDP.

My response

> This kind of condescending disdain for the concerns of the working class...

I said nothing of the sort.

If I have "condescending disdain" for anything, it's *your characterization* of the concerns of (what you call) the working class.

I am and have spent my entire life among (what you call) the working class. Nobody - NOBODY - talks like your 'alternatives'. What you are presenting is a made up dream.

We - what you call 'the working class' - talk about our hopes and dreams, what we want out of life and what we want for our children. We talk about having enough to make ends meet, making enough to buy a home or new car or entertainment system. About how to pay for college, how to access medical services and pay for prescriptions, about whether we can keep our teeth.

YOU are the one who wants to make us one big mass of undifferentiated anger and hostility. Sure, we're discontented, but that doesn't make us foot-soldiers in your army. We want a politics that serves our needs, wants, and interests.

That's what socialism is about. After all, what's it for, why do we do it at all, if not to achieve our aspirations, hopes and dreams? The people who (like me) may work for the union, negotiate for a better package, work on language all night - do you think they're doing it simply to "fight for workers rights", etc? No - the fight isn't the end in itself.

We want workers' rights (as you call them - I just call them 'human rights') because we are FOR something - we are FOR the ability of each person, no matter who they are, to be able to lead a rich and dignified life, to be safe in home and substance, to each lead their own lives however diversely they choose.

-- Stephen Downes

(still hate the name 'Troll' - I used to run a site called newstrolls.com which is where the name came from - the site is long since history. But we had a good run.)


Reply Submitted by pjmora 

There is an alternative to party politics. That is, "Perpetual Direct Democracy", where parties become redundant because all political issues could be decided not by the Monarchy, not by the political parties, not by the politicians, but by the majority of Citizens via referendum.

A pilot project is demonstrated on www.nowpolling.ca, and when enough citizens realize the potential political revolution this system can bring, citizens will participate on this pilot project, or will adopt one of their own.

Canada Elections will try, on the next federal election, a pilot project of voting on line; BC Liberals and NDP Party will soon elect their leaders using the internet. It is just matter of time before we Canadians realize the potential benefit of participating on all political issues. In other words, shifting the power of legislation, not just form one party to another, but from the elite politicians to the citizens.

Tommy Douglas urged us not to shift our support from the white cats to the black cats, to the spoted cats, to Zebra cats,but to ourselves, the mice. Ovbiously He ment to promote the Labour Party then, but now we can go a step further, with the new computer technology, and promote peoples' direct governance, not parties.

My response

> by the majority of Citizens via referendum

There's merit to that suggestion, and I have written in the past in support of direct democracy.

My fear, however, is (to continue the analogy) that it's just another way to vote for cats.

You would think that, in principle, if people had the chance to vote for measures that improve their lives, whether at home or in the workplace, that they would do so. This, though, was also the premise behind representative democracy: that the will of the people would be served by allowing them to chose their representatives directly, rather than by having them appointed by a monarch.

It didn't work out that way; almost immediately, instead of representatives of the general population, we got cats. We got the choice between Tories and Liberals, with the voice of the alternative drowned out by one set of corporatists fighting another set of corporatists. Simply posing a question and having mass yes-no responses is no better than voting for Liberals or Tories.

I would like to see a system of direct democracy that is very fine-grained -- the more fine-grained the better, because the detail and diversity is what makes it increasingly difficult for the rich and powerful to purchase outcomes. I don't want to prescribe a precise mechanism -- I think this is something we would have to work with and learn how to do.

-- Stephen Downes

(You can see for yourself my socialist credentials in my articles, here http://www.downes.ca/me/articles.htm which includes all of my NewsTrolls articles and much more. Not that I'm advertsing them or anything. But if people are going to talk of my 'condescending disdain' they should at least have some clue who they're talking about. Of course, all this belongs in the reply to the previous post...)

Benchmarking

David W. Campbell writes, I have encouraged communities to benchmark themselves against peer communities across Canada - that way we get an apples to apples comparison.

Yes, but it depends very much on just what data is collected. As we see with the Learning Index, very different things can be used to differentiate between ‘intelligent’ and ’stupid’. It’s important to identify the *right* things.

Data is not automatically useful, and benchmarking is not automatically informative. You can draw some very incorrect conclusions and actually point your city in the wrong direction through a misuse of benchmarking.

Take, for example, ‘new cars’, which in the MoneySense report is “2007-2009 model year vehicles as a percent of total vehicles.” Does that reflect prosperity? Or does it reflect terrible road conditions? Or does it reflect a dysfunctional mass transit system? Attempting to increase the ‘new cars’ rating could be helpful to a city, or harmful.

My own view is that these benchmark comparisons often do more harm than good. Moncton is not Calgary or Vancouver, and we shouldn’t try to be. What works well, and reflects success, in those cities may be something very different from what works in Moncton. What we value here - bilingualism, say - might be thought of as unnecessary or worse in the other centres.

Evaluations of cities should be conducted according to their own criteria. What goals has the city set for itself? Is it approaching those goals? Vancouver decided it did not want freeways - it would rank very low compared to Edmonton, which has energetically constructed freeways. But the choice represents differing values, not the success of one and the failure of the other.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

About 'Teaching'

Responding to a comment on my post from yesterday:

> Have you ever taught someone something?

> Lots of people have learned from you and what you have written, but have you ever actively taught someone?

Good question (and I understand that you do *not* mean "have you been in front of a classroom and been paid to help students get good grades on tests?" Because I have lots of experience doing that, which I know you know.)

I have *shown* people things.
I have *convinced* people of things through argumentation
I have *explained* things to people
I have *described* things to people
I have *demonstrated* what I do and how to do it
I have tried to act as a *model* of the values I hold
(etc)

Have I therefore 'taught' people these things? It depends very much on what, precisely, you mean by 'taught'. And I think my view is that the verb 'to teach' is so vague that it is almost useless.

In fact, I would call it a 'success term'. It describes not what I did but the result of what I did. For example:

'I showed thing X to person Y' and 'Y learned X' = 'I taught X to Y'.
'I argued in favor of X to person Y' and 'Y learned X' = 'I taught X to Y'.

Even this is a bit too vague. Because, in this formulation, what do we mean by 'Y learned X'?

- Y *remembers* X?
- Y can *do* X?
- Y *believes* X?
- Y *understands* X?  (and so on, until we replicate Bloom's + a bunch of other verbs)

So, the question becomes: what type of succcess(es), in combination of what action(s), is required for action(s) to be called 'teaching'?

Well - I *could* spend time trying to answer that question. But I am rather more interested in the constituent parts. Which is why it seems like I have eliminated the term 'teaching' from my discourse.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Better Education Through Technology

I was in a restaurant in Monterrey when I remarked to a number of colleagues who had joined me about how many staff were in attendance. There were people to guide us to our table, others to offer us a drink menu and obtain our orders from a bartender, still others to take our food order and bring it from the kitchen, where it would be prepared by a culinary staff, still others to remove our plates and refill our drinks, still others to wash the dishes, scour the pots and shine the cutlery, and various managers attending to our needs and making sure all was in order.

The same scene is evident on the street as well. Where in Canada we may see a street with just a few people walking from place to place, in Monterrey (or Medellin, or Kuala Lumpur) we see people sweeping the street with brooms and trash barrels, parking attendants directing traffic and watching over cars, vendors of lunch snacks, sunglasses and magazines, police officers directing traffic at intersections, and more, much more, so that what would be a quiet Canadian street is transformed to that hive of activity we all enjoy so much when we leave home.

And the thing with most of this is that, in a straight up-and-up comparison, most of the tasks being performed on the Mexican street are in Canada performed by some machine or another. Take parking management, for example. In Canada, we just find a spot at the side of the road or a stall in a parking lot, walk over to the parking meter or ticket machine, deposit our money and place the stub in the window. That's it. No person is required to guide us into a spot because there is plenty of room and neat lines painted on the roads and parking lots. There is no person needed to take our money, and nobody needed to watch over the car while we're gone (if security is required it is centralized using surveillance cameras).

The immediate reaction of the typical Canadian (ie., me) on seeing a sight like this is to suggest that everybody would be better off with a little more investment in technology. After all, the people who direct traffic, take your payment and watch over your car while you're gone make only a pittance. The same with the staff in the restaurants; they can hire so many people because they pay them so little. But they could instead higher fewer people, pay them more, and use technology to make up the difference.

Of course, as with most immediate reactions, it is wrong. It's not so simple just to replace these people with automated systems. For one thing, there would be no new jobs at which these displaced persons could work. For another, it takes a lot of time and effort to maintain technical systems, much more so in places like Mexico, Colombia or Malaysia. But third, and perhaps most critically, you don't actually get any improvements in output using the technological solution. Your food doesn't taste any better, your car isn't parked any better.

It is in this context we need to read an article like Kentaro Toyama's Can Technology End Poverty? Toyama's argument is much the same as we see here. "In the developed world, there is a tendency to see the Internet and other technologies as necessarily additive, inherent contributors of positive value," he writes. "But their beneficial contributions are contingent on an absorptive capacity among users that is often missing in the developing world." He explains this via the thesis that "technology - no matter how well designed - is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute."

And he has a point. Technology won't make things happen where they weren't happening before. A goods restaurant that invests in a dish-washing machine will still be a good restaurant, while the same investment in a bad restaurant will yield only a bad restaurant. Parking meters in a safe neighborhood will result in good parking, but installing parking meters in a bad neighborhood will not make your car safer; indeed, it may well make the car less safe. So it is easy to see why Toyamo would argue that the same sort of logic applies to educational technology.

In a recent and widely circulated article, There Are No Technology Shortcuts To Education, Toyama expands on this argument with respect to educational technology. Specifically, he offers four specific arguments countering the advocacy of technology in education:

    - The history of electronic technologies in schools is fraught with failures.
    - Rigorous studies show that it is incredibly difficult to have positive educational impact with computers.
    - Technology has a huge opportunity cost in the form of more effective non-technology interventions.
    - Many good school systems excel without much technology.

It is interesting to note that much the same statements could be made with respect to parking meters.

Take, for example, the deployment of parking meters in Bangalore. Prakash Advani writes, "The Hi-Tech city of Banglore has a parking meter at Brigade Road. The funny part is its a manned by a person who puts the coins. So why have a parking meter in the first place?" And the rest of the argument is much like Toyama's. "So why have a parking meter in the first place? Its better to have a person writing a receipt. The problem is that people want to get Hi-Tech but not everyone knows how to use it."

And yet - in Canada we have a widespread deployment of parking meters. We do not employ people to deposit the money, and in only a few cases do we actually employ people to manage parking at all, and this only in very large and busy parking lots. Why do we do it this way in Canada, when surely we must have faced exactly the very same issues and challenges faced by the people attempting to deploy parking meters in Bangalore?

The simple answer is: it's better and it's cheaper. But it would have been very difficult to show this prior to the fact.

Take the suggestion that it's better, for example. It almost never is, on a point-for-point comparison. As Advani notes, parking meters actually take too much money. They take extra time to fiddle about with. They do nothing to enhance security. Similarly with dish-washing machines. Hand-washed dishes often come out cleaner. Or consider the case of automated check-out services now being deployed in Canadian supermarket. These are the slowest lines of the lot, an inexperienced customer cannot scan a price as well as an experience cashier, and the customer has to do his or her own bagging. The same could be said of any other technology. It doesn't do the old job as well as the old method, and it often makes a bad situation worse.

Taken in a wider context, however, the new technologies are invariably better. Typically, once people are used to them, they provide a great speed advantage. It takes much longer to negotiate parking with a person than it does to just pop a few coins into the machine. And there's the advantage of volume. With a dish-washing machine, a single person (such as myself, when I was eighteen) can manage all the dish-washing for a complex of 800 people, three meals a day, something that would take a team of workers to accomplish by hand. But more, these and other technologies make it possible to do new things. Automated parking enables multi-level parkades, greatly increasing capacity and allowing for the creation of large malls and downtown office buildings. Dish-washing machines enable the creation of residential homes for the elderly.

Saying that technology is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity is like saying that an elevator only amplifies the intent and capacity to move up and down. But 'more' rarely means 'more of the same'. An elevator allows you to have a thirty floor office building, something that is not practical or feasible with stairs alone.

With respect to the suggestion that technology is cheaper, here again we may think at first glance that it's not. No doubt drivers in Bangalore would rather see the money spent on better roads than on parking meters that don't actually save on the cost of parking. And it is questionable whether the restaurant in Monterrey would find a $30K Hobart  like the one I used to use to be a worthwhile investment. But that's only because staff are so poorly paid and because the technology, which often must be imported, is so expensive. When the staff begin to be paid more, the economics of a dishwasher make more sense - and now savings can be had in other areas, such as the cost of water and detergent used, the overhead required to manage the staff, and more.

If parking meters and dish-washing machines were not actually better and cheaper, wealthier economies would not use them. But it is no coincidence that these technologies are found in wealthy economies. It's not that the technologies are useful in these economies because these are wealthy economies. Rather, it's the other way around - these technologies (and others like them) made the economies wealthy.

This, then, brings us to the impact and cost of educational technologies in particular.

Toyama argues, "Three months after a large-scale roll-out, and despite teacher, parent, and student excitement around the technology, students gained nothing in academic achievement." That's probably true. But it is ridiculous to expect an improvement in educational outcomes from the one technology alone and within the short time frame of three months. The first few months of telephone service probably did not bring any great advantage to people either. It takes more than three months just to figure out what the things do.

Similarly, Toyama argues, "the best-performing nations have a political commitment to universal education, high standards for achievement, and quality teachers and principals. Notably absent is any mention of technology as a critical element of a good school system." All true, but nonetheless one cannot help but note the correlation between educational outcomes in technologically advanced countries such as Canada, Finland and Korea, with the corresponding placement of the less industrialized countries in the bottom half of the Pisa list. And while it may be true that one can teach basic literacy without technology, just as one can climb a five floor stairwell, at a certain point it becomes more and more difficult to offer a quality education.

And it is arguable that some of the technological environment is simply taken for granted. It would be difficult to find a correlation between the use of electric lights, or the installation of flush toilets, and educational outcomes, but there does seem to be a wider correlation between the use of these technologies and the feasibility of offering an education at all. And while one may question the utility of radio and television in prompting specific educational outcomes in a classroom environment, one wonders what impact the widespread availability of such technologies have on expectations of literacy and other educational attainments at all.

It has been argued - and I have been one of the ones to argue it - that educational outcomes increase because of a wide range of factors, the most important of which being social and political. Technology, I agree, has no direct bearing on educational outcome. But technology is essential to creation of social wealth and political stability. Technology - including educational technology - as a whole, contributes to the well-being of society. Such technology, in turn, contributes to the education necessary to function in such a society. It becomes a part of the wider social milieu that promotes improved educational outcomes.

Let me finish by addressing Toyama's 'myths' point by point.

- To the proposal that "21st-century skills require 21st-century technologies" Toyama asks, "What exactly are the '21st-century skills' that successful citizens need?" He suggests, "The skills haven’t changed; only the proportion of people requiring them." He adds, "As far as I know, not in the 500+ years since Gutenberg invented the printing press did anyone suggest that every school, to say nothing of every student, needed a mini-printing press to learn printing skills."

To which I respond that the use of the Gutenberg press is illustrative. It is quite true that people did not need to become printers (though many did). What they did need to learn how to do was to read. In fact, reading, the skill Toyama says 'never changes' is the first and foremost of the new Gutenberg literacies. The suggestion that 21st century skills are as simple as 'learning to Tweet' and 'learning how to operate a computer' misrepresent the change the new technologies are bringing to society. Basic literacies such as pattern-recognition, contextualization, logic and association form the foundation of a 21st century literacy. These precisely are skills that are not taught in classrooms today, which is why we don't see evidence of them when we conduct classroom tests for literacy in reading, writing and mathematics, as Pisa does.

- To the proposal that new technologies allow interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, [insert educational flavor of the month (EFotM) here] learning," Toymana replies that "without directed motivation of the student, no sustained learning actually happens" and that good teachers are interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered and all that and "... are also capable of something that no technology for the foreseeable future can do: generate ongoing motivation in students."

My response is, first, these are not simply flavours of the month, but are examples of successful pedagogy largely because they do take into account such factors as motivation, and second, that technology can be shown to generate motivation in the absence of teachers. What draws people to technology, and what makes them want to learn using technology, is the possibility of being able to do something they could not do without the technology. This is as true of earlier technologies such as ships, cars and airplanes, as it is of today's technologies.

- Ah, responds Toyama, "but the novelty factor of most technologies quickly wears off, and those which don’t tend to turn viewers into zombies rather than engaged learners."

I respond that if we view technologies as gadgets, then the novelty wears off quickly, however, there are many technologies that engage learners for sustained periods, often involving entire lifetimes. An oscilloscope may become boring in a few weeks, but an interest in electronics lasts a lifetime. A stethoscope may become boring after you've listened to your pet's heartbeat, but medicine can become an all-consuming career.

- To the suggestion that "Teachers are expensive [and] technology is a good alternative" Toyama responds, "Low-cost technologies are not so low cost when total cost of ownership is taken into account and put in the economic context of low-income schools. Furthermore, technology cannot fix broken educational systems. If teachers are absent or poorly trained, the only proper solution is to invest in better teachers, better training, and better administration."

I reply that there might be a point here if we were to treat the role of teaching as an indivisible whole, but as I have argued, 'teaching' actually consists of a number of different professions, each of which ought to be assessed individually. Moreover, as I have argued, while in a low-tech economy the cost of some technologies may appear excessive, this is only through comparison to the low wages that exist. It is worth noting that the increase in teacher quality will be concurrent with a rise in teacher wages; people who have professional-level skills are no longer content to work at minimum wage salaries.

- To the suggestion that "for the price of a couple of textbooks, you might as well get a low-cost PC," Toyama replies that "anyone who says this is using American predatory pricing of textbooks as a guide. In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents. For $1-3, you could buy all the textbooks a child will need for the year."

I respond to this by observing that this amounts to six or seven books per student per year, which seems to me to be a very impoverished supply of reading material. In more developed countries, and in richer households, children are surrounded with reading materials. That is why they become proficient readers. Six or seven textbooks is not a close substitute to that. One would want the equivalent of a daily newspaper or magazine, plus the equivalent of books and catalogues they may read for fun, plus more. We are talking about hundreds of dollars of reading materials, not three dollars, even at Indian prices. But more, and perhaps more significantly, a book on the computer is not the same as a book on paper. It can become not just a passive experience, but an immersive one, involving speaking and writing as well, contributing to literacy through a variety of modalities.

- To the suggestion that technology is being used to fix a bad educational system, Toyama argues that novelty for its own sake is unwise and that "technology has never fixed a broken educational system... if other efforts aren’t working, maybe the school system needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from the ground up, as Qatar recently did with its education ministry. There are plenty of new things to try that don’t require new technology."

In response I agree. It does not make sense to continue to do the same thing as before with technology. The addition of technology to the equation allows educators to do new things, like introduce people from different sides of the planet to each other, or visualize flying a jet airplane, or create music videos. The very idea that technology simply replicates schools and teachers is mistaken - and yet this is exactly Toyama's thesis when he says that technology is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity.

- In response to suggestions that studies show that technology is effective, Toyama asks, "how good was the educational environment in Study Z without the technology? Invariably, it will have been good; often, very good. This means it was secret-sauce + technology that caused the benefit, not technology by itself. Second, what was the total cost of the technology (including training, maintenance, curriculum, etc.)? Inevitably, it will be a factor of 5-10 more than the cost of hardware. Both issues suggest that for ailing schools, technology is not the answer."

In response I observe that there's a lot packed into these statements, including some unproven generalizations about the nature of the studies being criticized, some presumptions about the cost of owning technology that are incorrect, and mistaken beliefs about the way in which technology improves education. Specifically, let me argue that technology does not improve education by making what you are already doing better, it improves education by making what you are not doing possible. Teaching children isolated in the bush, the outback or the Arctic: without technology, impossible. With technology: common. Teaching doctors and pilots through simulation: without technology, impossible. With technology, common. That's why, as well, the cost of ownership is not comparable. Even if the total cost of ownership of a simulation system is some amount of dollars, you still can't simulate flight with a teacher in a classroom for any amount of money.

- In response to suggestions that "Computer games, simulations, and other state-of-the-art technologies are really changing things" Toyama responds "this article was written with current and near-term technologies in mind" and postulates that "sophisticated software could become richer in the range of things they can teach and the degree to which they sustain motivation" but that "any such advances should pass lab trials, pilot runs, controlled experiments, and cost-effectiveness analyses before anyone starts advocating them for widespread use" and "so far, no technology has met this bar."

In response, I would observe that current educational methods have not passed such a level of testing either. In fact, we are barely struggling along, unable to meet most of the world's educational needs at all, poorly serving large portions of the population, and offering quality learning only to an elite few in developed countries and economies. Meanwhile, we have ample demonstration that people can learn a wide range of things using existing technology, which is why such technology is widely deployed.

- In response to the argument that "technology is transformative, revolutionary, and otherwise stupendous! Therefore, it must be good for education" Toyama replies that "This myth is pervasive because it is so easy to believe and because we want to believe it so badly.... But, why do we believe this? It makes no sense. We don’t expect that playing football video games makes a child a great athlete. We don’t believe that watching YouTube will turn our kids into Steven Spielbergs. We don’t think that socializing on Facebook will turn people into electable government officials. And, if none of those things work, then why do we expect it of writing, history, science, or mathematics?"

And of course, in response I argue that nobody expects a simple computer game to make a person a great athlete, but would point to the wide range of technologies employed by football teams - from video of previous games to exercise machines to statistical analysis to simulation and visualization to better athletic equipment and more - to counter the argument. To suggest that technology is not used to train football players is to not understand football! And while watching YouTube by itself won't make a person a great director, no person could become a great director without watching hours - days, months! - of film or video. And today's aspiring Speilbergs are greatly assisted by video editing suites, CGI effects, digital distribution channels, and much more technology without which video production would be impossible.

Toyama writes, "A good education is second only to parenting in the importance it has in raising capable, upright members of society. We would never think to replace parenting with technology (and when we do at times, we do it with shame, and only because we’re too damn tired to parent, not because gadgets are superior to us). Why do we keep trying to replace teachers?"

And yet he ignores the many impacts technology has had on parenting, from the intervention of in vitro fertilization, intensive care units and other advances that make childbirth much more possible and safe in the first place (it is worth comparing infant and maternal mortality rates in those societies that don't use technology with those technologies that do, even though it cannot be demonstrated that the use of technology produces better babies). Families in industrialized countries can benefit from multiple incomes because a wide variety of labor-saving devices - from cooking utensils to dish-washers (originally invented for restaurants) to entertainment systems - make parenting easier and less time-consuming.

To conclude, it is disappointing, as Toyama says, to read reports of the failure of the deployment of educational technology in India. Disappointing, but not surprising, if what was expected is that everything would be preserved, and that technology would magnify only, and not change. What needs to be understood is that technology fundamentally changes what you are doing because it makes new things possible that were not possible before.

Toyama summarizes by paraphrasing Anurag Behar describing what he learned from education leaders in Finland and Canada (two countries who consistently do well on PISA): "not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building." That's exactly the wrong lesson to learn from Canada and Finland. These are advanced industrial economies with a high degree of technological sophistication, in which significant effort is directed toward income parity and provision of social services. These economies could not exist without technology and would be surprised at the suggestion that their children's education would be just as good without it.