How it looks at the end of March 2005

30 March
I haven't made a summary of current directions for several months, but I have started to collect some 6-month practicalities ('Endgame'), and a lot of recent ruminations on technologies are mixed into the logfile for the course I've been teaching during this term.

In the last year I've explored an amazingly powerful collection of tools and technologies in realms of management, production, and distribution of content. I've been tracking a collection of technology blogs and trying to work out possible pedagogical implications of the florescent landscape of affordances like mp3 players, RSS feeds, digitizing initiatives, social software, and emergent management tools. Each added bit isn't all that revolutionary, but the synergies of their cumulation are getting to be pretty remarkable.

What follows is an effort to summarize both the origins of my recent attention and the directions of likely future explorations.

1. Experiments with new media for teaching and learning
During the last six months I've been exploring the pedagogical potentials of mp3 and other sound formats, most intensively in Cross-Cultural Studies in Music. When the phenomenon of podcasting erupted in the fall, I saw the medium as an obvious complement to work I've been pursuing with blogging as a teaching/learning medium (see materials for a December 2004 Faculty Academy session and the blogs for my Fall term Anthropology of East Asia and Winter term CCSinM courses). Both technologies are readily applicable to many educational settings, and seem obvious enrichments to the palette of distance education tools.

Podcasting provides a rubric under which instructors (and their students) can develop and distribute mp3 files as learning objects, thanks to easy access to production and sound editing tools: the free app Audacity and an inexpensive microphone forms the basic package, and FTP to a Web server equipped with blogging software can wrap an mp3 file in an RSS enclosure, for conveyance to feed subscribers. There's more and more support for the developing community of podcasters, including podcastexpert.com, and mp3 players (iPods and others) seem more and more ubiquitous.

I've made several experimental podcasts:

On Musical Variety (18 minutes --see track list)
call-and-response demo (40 seconds)
on Neva Sabah (6 minutes)
morning rumination (30 minute walk)
on some teaching issues (4 minutes from a morning walk)

The presentation technology labeled by Jon Udell as 'screencasting' provides another desktop tool for creators of broadband presentations. Camtasia seems to be the tool of choice, and Jon Udell is the reigning master of explorations with this medium: see Udell on del.icio.us and GPS and photo and narrative, and his 25 March posting "Fast-forward e-learning".

I've done some experiments with Camtasia as a platform for distributing computer how-tos. One of the first was a short screencast on del.icio.us (needs Internet Explorer, alas...) from mid-November 2004. Others are Moveable Type instructions from mid-December, and some quick Audacity how-tos for my students:

Basic Audacity 1: recording voice
Basic Audacity 2: adding an mp3 file
Basic Audacity 3: recording from an mp3 player
Basic Audacity 3a: a better demo of mp3 player
Basic Audacity 4: cleanup and export to mp3

End-user access to mp3s and digital video (the next incoming wave) certainly requires DSL or equivalent broadband capabilities which are pretty limited in rural Maine, but that may be where local public libraries enter the picture of content delivery for distance education. I can imagine a lot of practical scenarios for creation and distribution of multimedia files, and I've been tracking developments in a number of locations which share Maine's cartographic remoteness from metropoli --Maricopa (and via Alan Levine's blog), Calgary, Moncton (and Seb Paquet's blog), Finland-- but which contrive to be on various cutting edges of IT evolution.

2. Problems at the intersection of libraries, classrooms, and IT
Whatever else I do with "retirement", I surely intend to continue to study the rapidly-changing frontiers and trajectories of teaching, libraries, and IT, and I hope to find practical ways to connect these interests with adjunct teaching and consulting activities.

In this decade, the Web has clearly emerged as the core technology of teaching and learning, and in the next few years it will become even more central as a means to deliver resources and facilitate communication. Colleges and universities struggle to find the proper mix of services and support for digital technologies, but the best paths are rarely clear, and many of the players are apprehensive about the future. Most libraries haven't embraced the opportunity (necessity, obligation) to innovate in the arena of Web services, most instructors are hesitant to commit to rapidly-changing technologies, and many IT people understand the technologies better than they understand the clients who must use them. The materials we have to work with seem to change daily, as new devices and services and software cross our screens.

As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by the mutual incomprehension that seems to dog these three academic subcultures: in most educational settings, the connections among IT, libraries, and pedagogy are fragmented and often antagonistic, though all three believe they exist to serve the needs of the end user --the student or the researcher-- who needs the resources and specific expertise of all three. Each group presides over complementary domains of data and knowledge, and the collaborations that might build effective learning environments get a lot of lip service, but mostly don't produce cumulative results.

As a librarian without portfolio (i.e., as Science Librarian emeritus), my professional interests will continue in work that augments people's capabilities to (1) find and (2) manage and (3) use the information they seek. As a potential teacher of library personnel, I'm interested in helping students develop conceptual background and practical skills so that they can assist end users to make effective and responsible choices in searching, evaluating, managing, and repurposing the materials they find. Finding and evaluating have long been central skills and responsibilities of librarians, but the realm of digital tools for management and repurposing of information is often thought of as the territory of IT specialists, particularly when the media go beyond text.

The potentials of collaboration with IT and the necessity to be more actively involved with teaching seem to be pretty dimly comprehended by many otherwise highly skilled and broadly competent librarians. Part of the blind spot is a byproduct of the air of embattled panic that seems to dominate the world of libraries, whose personnel feel themselves whipsawn between rising costs of traditional materials, proliferating digital media that don't fit well into collection development frameworks, and a public perception of growing irrelevance as "everything" seems to be available in digital form. The challenges and opportunities that loom at every turn demand that librarians rethink many of their assumptions and build new services for their constituents. The skills and knowledge of librarians are MORE needed than ever, AND librarians need to develop a new array of digital skills and perceptions.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the burgeoning world of Open Access. Archives like OAIster and The Internet Archive are now joined by Google Scholar, by Google's plan to scan millions of out-of-copyright books, and by Yahoo's recent announcement of "a Creative Commons search engine, permitting you to search the web, filtering results on the basis of Creative Commons licenses" (see Larry Lessig's posting). A recent searchenginewatch.com posting on searching for digital books exemplifies the challenge and the opportunity, and the announcement of Ourmedia.org offers a place for people to store and share their multimedia archives. How are librarians to link faculty and students to these resources, and what will the consequences be for library personnel as print collections move increasingly toward digital access and personal management?

A case in point: in a recent IT Conversations posting of a session from the October 2004 Web 2.0 conference, Microsoft's Rick Rashid mentions "programming against" Web services (his whole presentation is 10 minutes). My question: where does one go to find support for experiments with this "programming against APIs"? Expertise with Web services of this sort ought to be available in the library, and illustrates the importance of collaboration between content and technology specialists.

Among the most eloquent spokesmen for the frontiers of information services are Brewster Kahle and Larry Lessig, both of whom are well represented in mp3 versions of recent talks:

Lessig at Etech (10 MB, 20 minutes, crummy sound quality but a really great talk, from about a week ago in San Diego. See commentary)
Lessig at Library of Congress (video streamed: 90-odd minutes, good sound quality)
...and a recent Lessig blog posting

Brewster Kahle at Web 2.0
a 90-minute mp3/streaming delivery of Kahle's presentation at Web 2.0... "The idea of universal access to all knowledge is within our grasp", says Brewster Kahle ...should we, can we, may we, will we...

3. End-user tools: the emergence of social software
The Web offers many possibilities for connections with like-minded others, and the last year has seen explosive growth in the use of "social software". This class of utilities is "emergent" in that the usefulness of a service unfolds and becomes manifest as people experiment with it, and so discover and create new possibilities, and as Web services link to one another. For many adventurers in the world of blogs and social software, the personal outcome of attention to this realm is increased responsibility for their own learning. Users learn to read sources critically by reading more, and the possibility to become authors in cyberspace is likely to increase "critical thinking" as well as creativity. Much of this territory is included in Educating the Net Generation (an EDUCAUSE eBook).

How would one introduce somebody to "social software" who had never heard of it?

At the moment there's a lot of discussion of the user-built classifications that are developing many of these services, and the whole subject of tagging and folksonomy is considerably more interesting than the metadata stuff I was struggling with for a workshop presentation in June 2004. The liveliness of the debate is remarkable, e.g., Controlled and suggested vocabularies: Are tags making us dumb? (Dave Weinberger) and IA Summit report.

Many librarians are suspicious of social software in general, and of Wikipedia in particular. Where, they ask, is the authority in a product created by an army of anonymous contributors, or in a blog written by just anybody? Such qualms miss the important point that Wikipedia and other creations in the world of social software are serving functions and creating collections that can be seen as complementary to traditional print-based media.

4. The Big Picture
Educational institutions at all levels need to adopt a wider-angle view of the future of teaching and learning in the environment of increasingly digital information and ubiquitous broadband access. The strengths of the traditional library (or classroom) do not need to be abandoned, but a whole new array of services and skills needs to be melded with the familiar tools and ways of thinking. Libraries need to reinvent themselves by building the infrastructure to support new media and new modes of information seeking, and librarians (in cooperation with IT specialists, and in collaboration with classroom teachers) are ideally placed to develop the largely empty niche of support for the development and promulgation of information management skills and utilities.

It goes very much against the grain for academic library people to consider other sectors of the Information industry as cognate organizations, but there are interesting parallels between the plights of the entertainment industries and higher education. Consider this passage, substituting 'libraries' for 'media companies', and then read it again, substituting 'universities' or 'schools':

The rapid adoption of more compact, inexpensive, smarter technology that puts consumers in control should surprise no one. But it has. Traditional content producers and distributors are scrambling for ways to offset sliding fundamentals by capitalizing on this change, which is exploding in countless daily developments...

Most media companies continue to be encumbered by the legacy processes, infrastructures and rituals that hold them together but must be literally torn apart and reinvented if they are to thrive in an interactive digital universe that remains virtually unregulated. They're having to rethink strategies that seemed like good ideas five years ago now that digital cell phones and portable video game consoles are emerging as powerful "third" screens for information, entertainment and communications in a Wi-Max, 3G world...

The truth is, digital conversion no longer is a blue-sky stretch; it is a mandate...
(from "Note to media, showbiz: The status quo is history" By Diane Mermigas, Hollywood Reporter 22 March 2005)
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/business/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000847369

Stephen Downes addresses the grand issue about as eloquently as anybody I've read or heard:

The greatest non-technical issue is the mindset. We have to view information as a flow rather than as a thing. Online learning is a flow. Itís like electricity or water. Itís there, itís available and it flows. Itís not stuff you collect. I donít see myself sitting in my home collecting jars of water. I use the water as it comes. If you think the internet as an environment that is moving and shaping all around you, then you will have a better attitude to be able to handle the flood of information that is coming at you.
(from http://flosse.dicole.org/?item=future-of-flosse-interview-with-stephen-downes-part-2&category=interviews
and cited by Brian Lamb at http://careo.elearning.ubc.ca/weblogs/brian/archives/011219.html
Both FLOSSE interview mp3s are very much worth listening to!)
and just in, this from Mark Stefik at XeroxPARC:
Herb Simon, the late economist and Nobel laureate, used to insist that attention is the scarce resource. An abundance of information yields a poverty of attention. The scientific edge today in understanding sensemaking is cognitive task analysis... Peter Pirolli, Stu Card and their colleagues at the Palo Alto Research Center have extended the analysis from information foraging (the information retrieval part) to sensemaking (how people organize and use information). In his keynote address to the Information Visualization conference in October, Stu Card [said] ďWe set out to understand and develop new ways to visualize information. To a large extent we have succeeded. Itís time to declare victory and move on to something else. The next big thing is sensemaking.Ē
(http://www.parc.com/about/pressroom/news/2004-12-00-sensemaking.html)
...and I can't resist adding this remix for education (by Scott Adams) of The Cluetrain Manifesto's 95 Theses.