Monday, July 25, 2011

I am What I think I am

I know that the question of personal identity is one of the most debated and discussed topic in philosophy and in the humanities generally. It is also one that assumes a greater importance as time goes by. As Damon Horowitz wrote, "The technology issues facing us today—issues of identity, communication, privacy, regulation—require a humanistic perspective if we are to deal with them adequately." But we can't, most of us, deal with them adequately - there is to much involved in living a live to devote that life to the study of itself - too many of us need to be doctors and engineers, teachers and physicists, botanists and lawyers. Well, maybe not lawyers.

The most important thing for anyone to learn, I would say, is that the concept of mind, the concept of self, is what we make it. Literally.

There are different aspects to the self - there's the part that experiences, which seems based in the human body (but then there's empathy and mirror neurons). There's the part that thinks, plans and infers, which may be the unaided mind, or may be mind plus calculator, or may be mind plus drill sergeant. There's the part that remembers, which may be the the structure of the neural net that composes our brain, may be so-called 'muscle memory', or may be a book, a library, or a good friend that keeps reminding you who you are. And there's the part that hopes, dreams, wishes, idealizes and aspires, which some say is spiritual, some say is ethereal, and some say is hopelessly romantic. You know the type.

My perspective is that what we are is not just what we think we are, it's not even just what we think we can be, it's everything we can think we can be. We are, literally, our imaginations.

Let me explain, simply, with an example. Consider basic language, basic linguistic form. Yes yes, I know there is much more to our imagination than what we can express in language, but roll with it. Think of the basic statement, "I am." Think about how that explodes into worlds of possibility. We have "I was" and "I will be" and all of a sudden our identity comprises our past and our future. We also have "I had been," "I have been," and "I will have been," which is the same past, present and future from a different perspective. There is "I might have been," "I could be" and "I might be" to express possibilities. Or "I must be" to express both an imperative in our lives and a discovery about ourselves.

We could begin with "I am" and be pragmatically present, or we could begin with "I want to be" and work toward our aspirations, or "I could have been" and live in a land of regrets. All of these, and all the other forms of life we can imagine, as aspects of ourselves. Every minute of every day one of them or the other is present in our mind. We are what we think we are, literally.

Thanks to Alex Reid, for making me think about this again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How To Fix Google+ Circles

What's the difference between what Google+ does and what I do now? Let me explain, and in so doing point to a way to 'fix' Google+.

Before Google+ I had several streams of content:
- OLDaily, which consisted of short posts documenting and commenting on issues and advances in learning tech and new media
- Half an Hour, which contains longer pieces and articles on everything from local politics to learning theory
- Twitter, which contains short blurbs, thoughts, links to my posts and to posts that interets me
- Email, containing personal messages to people, and compies of my newsletter; some emails went to discussion lists, including private discussion lists at the office
- Google Reader Share, consisting almost entirely of political and issues-oriented links
- Flickr, consisting of my photos and photo sets
- Let's Make Some Art Dammit, containing flickr photos, videos, graphics and other art
- OLDaily Audio, my podcast feed, based on the 'Presentations' page on my website
- Ed Radio, my streaming audio server I populate with audio recordings of videos, talks, live conference events, online events, etc

OK, there's probably more, but you get the idea. It's not simply that I'm one of those people who can't stop creating, it's that my creations (like everyone else's) are arranged, mostly by happenstance, into various channels.

On Google+, these channels are called "circles", and the idea is that I can direct my contributions to whatever circle is most appropriate, and it will go to the right people.

But there are two things wrong with Circles.

1. Content addressed to a circle has limited distribution within the circle. If I want the wider public to see the content, it has to go into the 'Public' circle. As a result, for the most part, everything I create in G+ goes into the one circle.

2. People can't follow my circles, they can only follow me. This means a person getting my content through G+ gets _all_ my content, even if they're only interested in photos.

In other words, there's no way for me to present different facets of myself to the wider world, and no way for the wider world to select from those facets. So while Google+ gives me very fine-grained tools to direct private content to individual audiences, it gives me no tools to direct public content to appropriate audiences.

So, I want two types of circles: private circles and public circles. Private circles remain as they are now, while public circles function just like private circles, except that content sent to them is 'public', and people can subscribe to one of more of my circles instead of to all my content.

---

I don't think I would support the idea of G+ taking the place of my blogs or other content sources - I'm distributed and I like being distributed, especially as it allows me to add mew media or new forms of content as I learn more or as my tastes change. So I will not abandon the Stephen's Web pages, nor the Blogger blog, nor Flickr photos, and the rest.

So the other side of what I had to say above is that I want a nice way to stream content in from these other sources into Google+. In other words, G+ becomes a subscription mechanism, a way for people to follow my many activities wherever they are. Now - I am not at all sure this is what Google has in mind; they would like to have everyone create content on the Google platform. But it must be at least part of it, as I can easily see the share feature in Google Reader being attached to G+, or Blogger blogs, or Google Docs, etc.

But this is what makes the subscription circles proposal so important. Because if G+ aggregates all my feeds and streams into this one location, it dis-differentiates them (is that a word?). It merges them all into one uber-feed. And it raises the question of how my content from outside the Google properties can be shared in the same environment.

This is tricky, and Google needs to be careful. One of the most commonly expressed feelings about circle I've read on G+ thus far (and I've read a _lot_ of G+ comments over the last few weeks) is that they are glad people can't machine-post into circles and G+ generally the way they do in Twitter. And they have a point. Twitter has a major problem with spam. The spam has made any subject-based search on Twitter useless. When I search my own name, for example, all I find are auto-generated tweets about some MMR fighter, some artist and some British footballer.

But that's why subscribed circles are important. If people can subscribe to circles, not just people, they can obtain a very fine-grained system for searching. And it's one which (via connections) could be expanded - 'search subscribed circles only', 'search cubscribed circles + 1 degree of separation', '2 degrees', etc. up to 'entire web'. The spam would have to penetrate the circles, and it's not going to do that, because who would subscribe to a spam feed?

There is, finally, one other side to this, and if Google does it (and I think they might) they will destroy Facebook and Twitter - or, better, transform them utterly. And that would be to do all this openly. If they do this openly, it would be like they took RSS, made it a lot more flexible, added author attribution to everything, and applied it to social networks. And that would be outstanding.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Open Educational Resources: A Definition

The Definition

Open educational resources are materials used to support education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared by anyone.

Stephen H. Foerster wrote:
Stephen Downes wrote: "Open educational resources are materials used to support  education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared by anyone." This is simple, accurate, and effective. I'm not sure I'd really support the idea of an "official" definition, but when I have reason to describe succinctly what OER means, I'd personally be happy to use this version

I don't support the idea of an 'official' definition either. I was moved to offer this by Chris Pegler's post that suggested a short succinct account of OERs would be needed for pragmatic purposes, such as introducing the concept quickly to people unfamiliar with them.

The statement takes the classic three-part form of definition:

1. name the entity ("Open educational resources")

2. state what larger class of entity the entity belongs to ("are materials used to support  education")

3. state how they are distinct from other members of that larger class of entities ("that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared by anyone")

Some things to note about this definition:

- it avoids needless redundancies. Specifically, it avoids phrases like "digital or non-digital' which, on examination, mean the same as "everything". It also avoids formulations like "OERs are resources that..." because this has the form "resources are resources", which is not helpful.


The nature of the larger class of entities

- the nature of the larger class of entities is described *functionally*, rather than essentially. By that, what I mean is that I have taken a term (materials) that is vague about the nature of the entity, and specified it according to how the entity is *used*, or in other words, by the 'function' to which the entity is put.

Why do we prefer to define the larger class of entities functionally? Because the idea of a definition is to capture what *won't change* about the entity. File formats change, media change. What doesn't change is what we want to be able to do with the entities, which in this case is to use them to support education.

(There was a whole debate in the late 90s and early 00s about 'what is a learning object' that dragged on needlessly because people tried to define the *kind* of object (reusable, discoverable, digital, object-oriented, whatever) rather than how the object was used. So my thinking here is, let's avoid that. Pragmatism does not mesh well with essentialism.)

- why did I use the word 'education' rather than 'learning'. Because I wanted to capture not only the activities of those people who are engaged in learning, but also those people who intend to support learning - in other words, those who intend to educate. By using 'education' therefore I am referring (roughly) to both teachers and students, where by using 'learning' I would be referring only to students.


The statement of how they are distinct

- the statement of how they are distinct is stated as a modality, rather than essentially. That is, it describes what people *may* do with the entities. So again we are not trying to describe the *nature* of the objects - we don't care - but rather, what functions the objects support (as some might say, what are the 'affordances' of the objects).

Why do we prefer to describe how they are distinct as a modality? For the same reason as above, we want to is to capture what *won't change* about the entity. Media change, markets change, institutions change. What doesn't change is what we want to be able to do with the entities, which in this case is to access them, reuse them, modify them and share them.

The statement has two distinct parts: 1. A statement of what people we are talking about, in this case, "anybody", and 2. What they can do (access, reuse, modify and share).

- though typically omitted from accounts of OERs, the reference to 'anybody' is important. I want to be clear in this definition that we are referring not only to education providers, not only to teachers, not only to enrolled students, but to *anybody*, the entire population of humans. To me, this is the key part of the objective of the OER movement, the key point where it becomes more than just a technical discipline and embraces some sort of wider vision or idealism. It's the reason I support OERs.

- the reference to "access, reuse, modify and share" is partially adapted from Wiley's account referenced here, which in turn is roughly modeled on Stallman's four freedoms. It is also partially adapted from Creative Commons. But it also incorporates some things I think are important:

Access - is most frequently left off the definition of OERs, and yet is the most important. Nothing else follows if you cannot access the resource, that is to say, obtain the resource (or a copy of the resource) for oneself. Fundamental to a resource being open, in my mind, is the ability of anyone to access it. This is what allows us to say that things like YouTube videos are at least *partially* open - whatever else their flaws, at least we can access them.

Use - is most frequently stated. I've chosen a deliberately vague verb here, because use varies depending on the resource. To use software, for example, we 'run' software, which is the first of Stallman's four freedoms. Or we may use a resource by reading it, studying it, watching it, playing it, whatever. Wiley's definition demands the freedom to 'reuse', which is a narrower definition of 'use'.

Modify - is explicit all definitions. Wiley describes it in two ways, to "revise" and "remix". Stallman refers only to the ability to "modify" a resource. Creative Commons has a "derivatives" clause but is otherwise silent on modification.

Share - is again explicit in all definitions. Wiley describes the freedom "to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others." Stallman describes the rights to "redistribute copies" and "distribute copies of your modified versions". Creative Commons addresses sharing under the 'share alike' clause, which mixes two separate concepts. Since here we are merely defining OERs, and not creating licenses, we can simply use the term "share".


A Note on Conversion

The definition of OERs is silent on the question of conversion, and deliberately so. Conversion is not a matter of definition, but a matter of licensing. Please allow me to explain.

The 'conversion' of an open educational resource is a modification of the resource, or conditions related to the resource, such that it is in some way transformed from being an open educational resource to something that is not an open educational resource. I describe it at length here.

The license attached to an open educational resource determines whether or not the author will allow it to be converted into a non-open resource. My own view is that OERs should not be licensed in such a way as to allow conversion. Other people, for reasons of their own, disagree. That's fine, but what I reject is the suggestion that a resource is not an OER unless it is licensed in such a way as to allow conversion.

What makes material used for learning an OER is not the license it carries with it, but rather, whether it allows anyone to access, use, modify and share the material.

(updated July 16, 2011)

File Formats

Having offered my commentary on the definition, I would like now to offer a few words on how the definition as proposed applies specifically to the issue of file formats.

Consider a statement like the following, asserted in this case by Wayne Macintosh:

> If these projects used open licenses and open file formats, the digital objects would still be around for continuous improvement and reuse.

The point of the statement is to focus on the nature of the resources, and to argue that if the resources were of the right nature - that is, in the correct file format, and with the correct license, then the digital objects would still be around.

But, and this is a key point: the openness of the object is not in the object

The openness, rather, is in what one can do with the object. If the user can do everything stipulated in the definition - access, use, modify, share - then the nature of the object becomes irrelevant. The reason why proprietary file formats are discouraged is because people using open source software cannot open them, edit them, share them. But the very same formats, if accessible via open source software, renders them open.

This has in fact happened. Formats such as PDF, SWF and DOC were at one time impenetrable, and useless to people running Linux. Today, it is the rare Linux user who is unable to access, download, read or play, modify and share resources in those formats. Yes, it requires some skill, but everything requires some skill.

Finally, the purpose of a functional definition - one based on the ability of a person to access, use, modify and share the resource - is that it enables a simple empirical test. Instead of metaphysical discussions about the nature of an object, we simply ask, "Can a person access the object, can a person use the object, etc.?", and on being shown that they can, conclude that the resource is open.

"Freely"

I deliberately inserted the word "freely" into the definition. Carolina Rossini, for example, writes, "The word 'freely' however has always brought tons of problems in every area of free culture in regard to its accurate concept. Below, it feels like it refers to 'gratis' ...."

It does, and necessarily so, because with enough money any person can access, use, modify and share any resource, and the meaning of 'open' collapses into meaninglessness. If a person really wants to access an Acme proprietary format (say) all the person needs to do is buy the company and all secrets will be revealed. Other companies grant access for lesser amounts of money, by way of licenses.

The purpose of the word 'freely' in the definition is intended to stipulate that the resource may be access without conditions. This, by the definition, means without payment. Not 'payment at a reasonable cost'. Not 'payment to access but freedom to redistribute'. So yes, it involves the sense of gratis as well as the sense of libre. Because you cannot put a financial cost on free as in freedom. If you have to pay a poll tax, it is not freedom. It's freedom for those who can afford it.

'Freedom of access without conditions' entails a lot, and it extends far beyond mere access to the resource. One of the most correct things Wayne Macintosh has been saying here is that supporters of OERs should be looking beyond the OER movement specifically.

In the world of print publications, 'freedom of access' meant the institution of libraries and reading rooms. 'Freedom of access' meant universal public education in support of literacy. These were, quite rightly, viewed as guarantors of freedom and democracy. In the world of electronic media, we require the equivalent; in Canada, we built a network of 'Community Access Points' in libraries in every city and town in the country, and computer education has become part of universal public education in our country.

Yes, people will want to sell copies of openly licensed materials, and to build business models around these materials. I don't have a problem with that, but we need to understand that this is sometimes a process of conversion of a resource from open to non-open. Because it is no longer open if the only way to access a resource is to pay money for it.

How can commercialization co-exist woth open educational resources? If we use the functional definition, then we have an answer. If a person can still freely access, use, modify and share a resource, then commercial use has not converted an open resource into a closed resource. But if access, use, modification and sharing are impaired, by whatever mechanism, then conversion has taken place, and the resource is no longer open.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Theoretical Synergies

A reader asked:

I read an article that was published in March 2011 edition of IRRODL: “Proposing na Integral Research Framework for Connectivism: utilising Theoretical Synergies”, from B. Boitshwarelo (Botswana).

I founded it very interesting. However, certain questions have arisen in regard to the analysis done by the author.

1- Accordingly to Activity Theory (AT), learning is initiated by intention (p168): “learning as conscious processing, a transformational process that results from the reciprocal feedback between consciousness and activity”. Is this true in connectivism? Connectivism says that learning is the ability to construct and traverse networks. Sometimes, this process may not be intentional. I mean, sometimes we learn without being aware that this is happening (as a child, for example). Does connectivism contradicts AT?

Does connectivism contradicts AT?

No doubt different people have their own theories, but I have argued in the past that one of the major differences between connectivism and constructivist theories generally is that in connectivism learning is a property of the system, something that happens all the time, and is not therefore the subject of intentional activity. You don't decide to learn now, and maybe to not learn later, you are learning all the time, it's what the brain does, and the only choice you exert over the process is what you will do to affect the experiences leading to your learning. Watch TV all day and you'll learn about game shows and daytime dramas, practice medicine and you'll learn to be a doctor. Similarly, where constructivists say "you make meaning", I disagree with the expression, because the production (so-called) of meaning is organic, and not intentional.


2- (p 169) The author says that one feature of connectivism is that it recognizes the need to adapt to the ever-changing nature of information “in order to resolve the disharmony introduce by such change”. My point is: does connectivism talk about this? Does connectivism aims to resolve these contradictions or is about to accept and learn to live with them? Are connectivist systems stable?


Does connectivism aims to resolve these contradictions

There are of course no contradictions in nature. A contradiction is a linguistic artifact, the result of sentences believed to be true each entailing that the other is false. Because so much of cognition is non-linguistic, it is probably not useful to speak of contradiction in this context, but rather to speak of harmony and disruption. (I say this almost off-the-cuff, but this would really be a significant change in our understanding of logic and reason).

All connectionist systems - ie., all networks, as understood computationally - work though a process of 'settling' into a harmonious state. What counts as harmonious varies depending on the precise theory being implemented. For example:
- Hebbian associationist systems settle naturally into a state where neurons or entities with similar activation states become connected
- Back-propagation systems adjust according to feedback
- Boltzmann systems settle into a stable state as defined by thermodynamic principles

The 'disharmony caused by change' is best thought of as a new input that disrupts this settling process. The network responds to this change by reconfiguring the connections between entities as a result of this input. This is learning.

Whether we are able to address linguistic artifacts, such as contradiction, with a given learning experience, is open to question. There is no reason to expect a contradiction to be resolved, though were our linguistic artifacts based in experience, such a resolution would be a desirable, and expected, outcome.


3- (pp.171-172) Is it really necessary to use the theoretical concepts of other more consensual and tested theories to study and validate connectivism? Does connectivism have his own tools of analysis to do this? Does connectivism need to be feed by constructs of other theories? Doesn’t this contradicts connectivism as new approach to learning in the digital age?


Does connectivism need to be feed by constructs of other theories?

I think it's important to understand that connectivism is the adaptation of educational theory to these other theories, that it points to a theme underlying these other theories, and is not distinct from these theories.

Connectivism is, in my mind, a particular instance of a much broader theory of networks. Thus, evidence that informs us about the theory of networks generally also informs us about connectivism.

This is an important point. Constructive approaches to education (and most other things) place a special significance on the role of theory, and particularly the role that theory plays in providing a perspective or 'lens' through which a phenomenon is experienced. Hence we expect any given theory to provide a given 'stance', provide analytical 'tools', and beyond certain constraints (such as non-contradiction) no one theory is assumed to constitute a privileged stance. Theory-construction thus becomes an importance scientific and pedagogical activity, leading to a host of other constructs (such as, say, 'identity').

Connectivist learning is very different. It is not about creating cognitive constructs such as theories. Learning, according to connectivism, is a process of growth and development or networks rather than a process of acquisition and creation of concepts. Networks are not concepts. Concepts are represntational systems, they postulate a devide between what they are and what they represent, they therefor entail a theory of signs, or semiotics, and have linguistic properties (such as the law of non-contradiction). Networks are physical systems, not cognitive systems. Though they can be depicted as representing things (eg., a brain state may be thought of as representing a physical state), this depiction is in itself an interpretation, and not a property of the network itself.

Now I think that network theory in general and connectivism in particular can provide a set of tools to analyze *other* phenomena - I describe these as six elements of critical literacies, but the exact nature is unimportant here - but it is rather akin to the way mathematics offers us tools for the evaluation of other phenomena - mathematics can define data and instrumentation, such as measurement, ratio and comparison, and bookkeeping - but it would not be reasonable to turn these phenomena around as a means of evaluative mathematics.

Networks, in other words, are what they are. Network theory is nothing more or less than a description of networks, and the application of that description to other phenomena, just as qualitative theory is a description of properties (such as colour, size, shape, position, relation) and quantitative theory is a description of number and ratios.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The Google Ecosystem



This is an illustration of the Google Plus Ecosystem I created to try to explain the flow of information through Google Plus from its (currently undocumented) sources through to its (currently broken) output.

Just a Test of Hashtags in Google Plus

Just testing: #change11

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Issues

Responding to Martin, who in the comments of this post says "I do worry that this kind of fine hair splitting/navel gazing is ultimately unproductive and offputting."

Martin, I don't think these issues are fine-hair splitting. They represent, from my perspective, the major philosophical divides in 21st century education. The divides are:

- commercial vs non-commercial? What is the role of the private for-profit sector in learning? Is open education the the final full flourishing of public education, or is it the end of it?

- directed learning vs self-directed learning (or, instructivism or constructivism; or, formal vs informal; or, control learning vs free learning) - or to put it another way - does the education system serve the interests of the providers, or of the learners?

These are not easy issues. They are hard issues, and it is not always clear on what grounds they will be decided. That's why David's arguments and mine appear to hang on a hair - nobody is sure what argument (if any) will break the debate open.

It's also difficult because neither perspective is an absolute. In a strict sense, as Richard Hall said the other day, there are no public and private sectors - it's all a blend, so the issue is really in how to manage that blend. And similarly, both the interests of providers (aka society (and to some (undetermined) extent the private sector) and the interests of learners must come into play. But how?

And these issues have eminently practical consequences. I cannot overemphasize how large the stakes are.

Brian Lamb today summarized what's at stake with the first set of issues. The potential for the private sector to usurp education, the way Rupert Murdoch has usurped journalism, is too great to be ignored.

And this plays directly into the second issue. Education can at the drop of a hat become propaganda unless there are safeguards in place, but as the banking crisis has show we are as a society all too liable to be conned into giving up our safeguards.

There are days - most days, I fear - when I believe that David Wiley doesn't see these issues the way I see them, doesn't even see these as the dividing lines at all. That was the purpose of our day-long debate, to try to at least come to an understanding about what the issues are.

I see him as too naive, trusting in the good intent of the corporations and the private sector, not realizing that when the economy collapses and the environment degrades completely, that he along with the rest of us will be thrown under the bus, grist in the mill as the wealthy and powerful close ranks and save only themselves.

And I suspect he sees me as too cynical, too sceptical, too willing to believe in the corrective role of government, too willing to believe people can steer themselves through and out of crisis.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Knowledge Transfer

I'm so much in a "not writing" mode these days it pains me to put metaphorical pen to paper to author these words. Maybe I'll be more interested in writing when it's fun again.

So we have this discussion back and forth about the merits of MOOCs. We have the Chronicle acting as though the MOOC has just been invented by some American, Wiley complaining that “MOOCs and their like are not the answer to higher education’s problems” and now this piece of nonsense.

Did I say nonsense? Yes, I said nonsense. There's no call for this sort of condescending and catty response to people who are trying their best to work through some difficult issues.

The problem, of course, is that Wiley doesn't think it's a difficult issue. "By asking, we are asking them to transfer their knowledge to us. By responding, they do so. There is no swirling cosmic dance of emergent fluidity. There’s a simple question, and a simple answer. And knowledge is transferred in the process. End of story."

It brings to mind "a reader" Keith Harmon's response to Wiley. "Well, of course MOOCs favor sufficiently prepared learners. All classes favor sufficiently prepared learners." The totality of Wiley's example works only if both questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.


At the risk of being pedantic, let's actually look at Wiley's simple examples.

- when someone asks me "what time is it" my first response is to ask back, "where?" Half the people I talk to in a given day live in a different time zone. Also, when people as me what time is it they are often asking about a specific event, such as an online forum. "I'm doing a session today," I remark to a friend on Skype. "What time is it?" he asks. "Where?" I respond. Oh I know, Wiley had a wholly different scenario in mind. The point is, this entire scenario needs to exist in order for the question "what time is it" to even make sense, let along constitute the trigger for a knowledge transfer (about which we'll get to in a moment).

-when some asks me "who won the game last night?" my usual response is, not surprisingly, "what game?" In some few instances - the Vancouver-Boston game, for example - I might have a clear idea. But Wiley was probably not talking about that game. I imagine he's a basketball fan. I hate basketball. I don't even know whether Wiley likes sports. If he asked me that question I'd be genuinely confused. What could he possibly mean?

- when someone asks "do you know where I left my keys" I invariably answer "yes". The joke, of course, is that I know that the person wanted an answer to the question "where are my keys" but is signifying so in a less direct manner intended to be more polite. I read once that in Spanish it's rude to simply say "yes" or "no" so I would be less direct to a Spaniard. In other cultures I have read that I should be less personal. So depending on circumstances I could answer "That knowledge is to be had." Wiley, though, would probably find such an answer rude.

- if someone asks "are there any tissues left in that box" I would answer "do you need a tissue?" To which the answer could be an obviously exasperated "yes, why do you think I asked?" but there is an equivocation between being unsure of our tissue supply, perhaps just prior to going to the store, and a request for a tissue expressed in the more passive polite voice. My wife often uses expressions like "You could close the door." She means "Close the door," but won't say it directly. Anyhow, note that while this example and the previous are structurally identical they actually demand differently-typed responses.

- if someone asks "where would you like to go for dinner?" my first (unspoken) response is "who's buying?" Just kidding. But going to dinner is one of those context-laden activities that blends place and time with location and the need for nutrition, dietary concerns (especially for me) and social circumstances. Where I'd like to go to dinner is the local pub where I can sit by myself, read the paper, watch the game (never mind which game), and enjoy a stack of barbecue ribs. For reasons too numerous to mention, that's not an appropriate response (I still haven't lost the poundage I gained in Edmonton). But that's what I like.

- if someone asks me "Who's your favourite author?" (favourite spelled with a 'u' because the asker is probably from a Commonwealth country) I typically respond that "it varies depending on the day." Often, my favourite author is the person I'm reading now (because what better evidence of being 'favourite' could there be?). But if pressed I equivocate because there's really no comparison between Tolstoy and Gibbon, say, and Hume or John Stuart Mill, or Robert A. Heinlein or Bruce Sterling. Or Ernest Hemingway. So I'd probably respond, "it's not a competition." Leaving people from that certain perspective where everything is a competition perplexed and puzzled.

- if someone asked me "what's the weather supposed to be like today" I would respond "I didn't think anyone was planning it." I would then enter a disputation on the question of whether the way the weather is supposed to be is the way I want it, the way the farmers want it, or the way some person paid to read Environment Canada forecasts off a teleprompter said it would be. The whole equivocation between 'want', 'need', 'ought' and 'will be' inherent in a word like "supposed" is a source of fascination to me. And I'm supposed to think it's simple?

- if someone asks "When will Brandon Sanderson release his new book?" my response is, "Who?" Because I genuinely don't know who Brandon Sanderson is, and doubly don't know why anyone would think I know when his publisher will allow people to purchase his book (I'm not sure even Brandon Sanderson knows this, so I don't see why I would be expected to know"). OK, now I'm going to look him up on Google. ... OK, I assume this is him? Now I'm even more puzzled.

- if someone asked me "Is there any pizza left in the fridge" I would respond "I thought we agreed we weren't eating pizza any more." OK, so I'm not likely to be asked this. If it were a food I actually eat these days, I'd probably say "no" or "I'll get you some," because this is again possibly one of those passive requests for pizza. It's always a mystery with these sorts of questions.

And that's kind of my point, isn't it? It's always kind of a mystery when it comes to these sorts of questions. Pick the simplest example you want - or stay with these putatively simple requests - and even the slightest investigation reveals that the questions are not simple at all. In fact, they are questions that would totally stump a computer. Or - more likely - would elicit a literal and highly inappropriate response. The stuff that dozens of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes trade on.


But that's not even the main point. The main point - and I'm sorry for burying the lede - is that the concept of 'knowledge transfer', although superficially simple, is, just like those questions, fraught with difficulties. And that I really find it frustrating and even offensive that someone who should know this like David Wiley would respond in such a callous and high-handed fashion to someone who was making an honest effort to make the point in a brief comment.

Let me put the point in terse, plain language: people who say that there is such a thing as "knowledge transfer" cannot make the first coherent point about what it is that is transferred.

Seriously. Try it some time. Tell me what is transferred. You'll start by saying "knowledge is transferred." As though eliding one of the central questions of 2,500 years of philosophy will somehow make your response more believable. "Knowledge?" I'll ask, wilily. Do you mean 'justified true belief?' Not because I'm trying to lure him into a Gettier problem, but because I want the amusement of watching him now explain how not only belief will be 'transferred', but also truth and justification. Because, after all, if you believe P, and you have justification for P, and you say "P" to me, the justification does not come with it.

Let's go back to one of those simple examples to make the point. "Is there pizza in the fridge?" Let's suppose that context suggests to me that this is a genuine request for information, and not a passive request for restaurant service. So I say "Yes, there is pizza in the fridge." Now, note carefully, it is not redundant to ask, "How do you know?" So the justification did not travel with the answer. And I reply, "I looked." Now that is not the same as you looking. The justification still resides with me. If you want justification, you have to either get up and look yourself (in which case, our attempt to transfer knowledge has failed utterly) or you have to tell some longish story (to yourself, please) about why you trust me.


Of course, we know that knowledge is not justified true belief. We know that it's a lot more complicated than that. We know that what constitutes "the knowledge that P" depends very much on what P is, how it was expressed, what relevant alternatives there may have been, what is the state of the world, what is one's doxastic state (ie., are we in a position to know?), and whether we have the capacity to distinguish that P.

Does my asking of these questions make me a snob? Seriously? Because I have actually taken the time to work through what is implied in a common everyday presumption, and to show that it is empty, does that somehow make me a snob? Well, let's suppose it does. I've been called worse. What it doesn't make me is wrong.

Let's get back to knowledge transfer. Let's get back to the question of what it is that is transferred. Let's forget about the whole problem of knowledge. Maybe it's just data, or information, or some such thing. Let's look at what's there, what can be observed, and see if we can work it out for ourselves, you know, non-elite like.

The first and probably most important thing that leaps out at you (it certainly leaps out at me) is that there is no physical thing that is transferred from me to you when you ask "is there any pizza in the fridge" and I answer "yes". Not even pizza (which was, by stipulation, in the fridge, not in me). Reconstruct it with me:

- sound waves enter my ears, stimulate some hair cells and cause a cascade of signals to be sent through my auditory cortex.
- neural activity occurs. I form the intent to respond, assemble a response into words, which I now utter.
- these waves travel through the air, possibly through walls or telephone lines, and enter your ears
- these sound waves stimulate a cascade of electrical signals to be sent through your auditory cortex

Pretty basic. I could probably have expanded on the details, but I think the point is pretty clear. No physical transfer, not one atom, has taken place. Whatever it was that was 'transferred' from me to you is not physical.

So if it's not knowledge that's transferred, and it's not something physical that's transferred, what can it be? We can run through the list of possibilities. Maybe it's data. Maybe it's information. Maybe it's functional awareness. Maybe it's a depression in the noumenon. We can run through the full list of theories. I've studied them all, David. I'll punch holes in every one of them. It's not hard.


My answer, and it's a perfectly reasonable and well-research answer, is that nothing is transferred. That the whole idea of "knowledge transfer" is a handy fiction that we have created over the years, as simple folk, to function as shorthand for what we know is a much more complex process.

Probably the best intermediate position a person can attempt here is something like "knowledge replication". That's what's actually happening in a lot of people's theories. We know that the sending of a message from one person to another involves a state change. The signal (another handy fiction; let me have it for now) crosses through several media en route from sender to receiver. Thus questions of signal integrity arise, the problem of distinguishing signal from noise, and all the rest of it.

We know that it doesn't really matter what happens to the signal between sender and receiver, so long as what has arrived is (reliably and knowably) the same as what was sent. That's why the electronics industry invented mechanisms like checksums and callbacks. It's like double-entry book-keeping. Call-and-response. It allows for errors in transmission, enables the transmission to actually occur in parts, and ensures that what has arrived is the same as what was sent. Thus, I think, and then say "There is pizza in the fridge." Stuff happens. Then you hear, and thus think, "There is pizza in the fridge." Communication has happened, everyone's happy.

This would be great, except for one problem. The sentence "There is pizza in the fridge" is the medium of communication. It is not the thought, either of sender or receiver.

This is important, and is the foundation of modern education theory. If what was received in your head was exactly what was originally in my head, it would be useless. Even if we allow the theory that we have sentences in the head, that the idea of 'brain writing' is true (I don't, I think it's ridiculous, but people like Fodor do) these sentences are still composed of a neural substrate, and this substrate is very different for you than it is for me.

All very good, you may say, let's forget the neural substrate and just focus on the sentence. If we can just make sure the sentence is the same, then we're find. That (in my cynical estimation) is the foundation for direct instruction. And it's as foolish as it is stupid. It's easy to get someone to remember a sentence. We do it all the time; we force people to recite prayers and oaths or play popular songs over and over until their etched on people's minds. But being able to repeat the sentence "there is pizza in the fridge" is very diffierent from knowing that there is pizza in the fridge (if this needs empirical support we've both travel to China and I'll teach the phrase to a unilingual Chinesde speaker and then wait for you to show me he understands there's pizza in the fridge).

The substrate matters. The relation of that sentence to all other sentences (or if we're really really lucky, a significant subset of those sentences) needs to be the same, or at least relevantly similar (for a relevantly sufficient understanding). But this is not something you can transfer. Or at least, not in any simple manner as implied by the question-and-answer set posed at the outset.


You know what makes a snob, for me? The person who says, "oh well, of course, everyone knows such-and-such." The person who presumes this his or her 'simple' and 'basic' understanding is obviously the right one. The presupposition that there is only one way to understand the world, and that he or she has it. I stand up to such people and say to them, "You think you understand the way the world works, but you don't." And I hate such people telling me what to learn, and how to learn, as though they really believed their magic carpet theory of learning actually worked, as though if they just willed it enough, I'd become just like them. Well it's not going to happen, and that's why we (George and I) invented MOOCs.

Because if learning is not knowledge transfer, as I'm arguing here, that leaves open the tremendously exciting question of what it actually is. If you are open to the idea that learning isn't transfer, isn't transmission, isn't even replication, you are open to the idea that the person doing the learning can actually become something more than the person doing the teaching (there's also the possibility that he or she could be something less, but that was always a risk, even in the transmission theories, which is why there's so much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the "state of education" and the "crisis in America's schools" over in that camp.

You have the nine billion theories of constructivism to guide you, each an interesting way people can create, or (somehow) 'construct' their own knowledge, with more or less support from teachers, coaches, guides, or brilliant instructional design (people sufficiently educated will recognize the reference to Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favourite authors). Me, I don't think it's something we can just make happen, as though knowledge were a building or even a well-tended garden (though it's much more like the latter than the former). But people are welcome to try, and sometimes they perhaps over-engineer their environments, or their instruction (that's what I think has happened in eduMOOC, but I'll wait for some data before criticizing).

People always think they can engineer things for a precise result. To me, that's a bit like imaging there's some way the weather is supposed to be. I don't think it's random, I definitely don't think it's value-free, but it's not magic either, and fairy-theories of "knowledge transfer" and other fictions do not suddenly make it snap into some predictable form. And - frankly - I get offended when someone pompously claims that someone is ignorant and uneducated for not buying into the fantasy.

Yes, you can make a person utter the words. If you have a sufficiently large rifle, you can also make them goose-step and murder their enemies. You can hound them into submission, you can brainwash them, make them believe in nutty causes and blow themselves up, make them memorize the spelling of fifty thousand words, lull them into believing that the Grand Canyon was created by a giant hand, convince them that people of a different skin colour are animals, almost anything. You can shape people with no end of methods and mechanations physical and psychological.

But you can't use any of this to make them learn. You can't make them understand. Understanding is a voluntary act. It is the act of a free person, inhabiting a world in which he or she can interact with a stimulating and diverse environment, creating a rich fabric of what we would call thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, fears, and all the rest of it. Understanding and learning are the results of a life-long process of experience and growth. You can present the things you think are important and should be valued, but people must accept these for themselves. Freely.