Towards a Paleoconnectivism Reader #opened14

This is a complement to Jim Groom’s notes from our joint presentation (sadly missing one Brian Lamb) at OpenEd14. There’s a lot more stuff I want to write about from that conference, and from the awesome UMWHackathon I was lucky enough to participate in afterwards. But this is a start.

On birth myths

Last year in Park City we were honoured to be able to hear Audrey Watters speaking about the apocalyptic preoccupations of the culture that has grown up around education technology.

Our work here today is a look at the other end of the mythological journey – the birth myths of open education. We know them well – Sebastian Thrun inventing massive open online learning in 2011, George Siemens inventing massive open online learning in 2008… MIT (and/or the Hewlett Foundation) inventing sharing learning materials in 2002…

Birth myths, even more so than apocalyptic narratives, are ahistorical. They tie in with a phallogocentricism of the concept of creation as a single act by a single person (generally a man…) rather than a whole set of pre-existing conditions and preoccupations.

Paleoconnectivism is an attempt to recontextualise our current work in looking at the pre-creation history of the concepts and interests we share. It’s an attempt to begin to clear the way for a literature, a research base that connects with other work in cognate fields.

As George Siemens wrote recently:

 “I can’t think of a trend in education that is as substantive as openness that has less of a peer reviewed research base. Top conferences are practitioner and policy/advocacy based. Where are the research conferences? Where are the proceedings?”

We could add – where are the roots in the fields that openness sprang from? Where are the connections to long standing work in copyright reform, education studies, communication studies, philosophy?

Larry Lessig and the First World War (a worked example)

What were the causes of World War 1?

That’s right, the cause of World War 1 was ethics in games journalism.

Or at least, ethics in journalism. The power of the fourth estate.

On the first day of this conference, Larry Lessig talked about “tweedism”, the idea that the interests of those who funded politics would always prevail over the choice of politics offered to the electorate. His analysis omitted the power of journalism of all forms to shape politics, and even to start wars.

Alfred Harmsworth began his career writing for Tit-Bits. This was a UK periodical that collected the best of other journalism from around the world, based on reader recommendations and occasionally reader contributions, and presented it in weekly issues [Students of the history of copyright will note a parallel with the late c18th journals like Mathew Carey’s American Museum that excerpted UK copyright scientific materials and republished in the largely (at the time) lawless US. Which was the way the US became a superpower, and is another story that I also didn’t get to tell last year.]

Basically, it was Reddit.

He moved on from there to found what was essentially Quora, a periodical called “Answers To Correspondents” where readers could write in to ask or answer questions of and for other readers. This quickly became a hugely popular publication, and the profits from this enabled him to buy and found a range of UK newspapers including the Times, the Daily Mirror and – most terrifyingly – the astoundingly popular Daily Mail in 1896. He became ennobled – Lord Northcliffe.

Throughout the early 1900s, all of these papers pursued a belligerent and, frankly, xenophobic line against the rival European power of Germany, using their near-blanket control of public opinion to force more and more hawkish policymaking from the government of the time.

One of the few papers he didn’t control, the Star, noted:

 “Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war”

During the war his papers brought down the British Government of Asquith over an alleged shortage of munitions, and had David Lloyd George installed as minister for munitions in the following coalition government. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916, Northcliffe turned down a proffered ministerial post and was made Director of Propaganda.

Not Lessig’s “green power”, not the power of popular opinion – something else. The curated and managed mass opinion used to shape policy. (Even now, it is widely considered that the Daily Mail receives and prints more readers letters than any other UK paper). Somehow this all feels very modern, and very relevant as we consider popular resistance to a more progressive agenda. And, though I loved Lessig’s presentation, this was an aspect of policy making that his analysis missed.

The Sheer Pace of Change (back to edtech)

 One means of shaping popular opinion is to emphasis the sheer pace of change. Again, Audrey touched on this last year – but consider this from Martin Bean of FutureLearn and the UK Open University:

 “Perhaps the most difficult thing for those of us in higher education to get to grips with is the sheer pace of change”

He’s right, in a way. Things change so slowly. Old battles are refought, old divisions redrawn. Old ideas are lost and, perhaps, rediscovered.

“Educational institutions, too, are expected to change themselves so they can somehow be one step ahead of (or just catch up with) where people already are. Resistance to change is presented as resistance to what is natural and inevitable, like fighting a rising tide or an avalanche (yes, these are the same metaphors used in MOOC-hype articles – no coincidence). Universities are depicted as recalcitrant in the face of changing external circumstances, the latest of which is the ascent of the digital” – Melonie Fullick

 There is a vested interest in a fast rate of change, and the interest comes from – as always – people with things to sell. Education is more like a glacier than an avalanche. Change is slow, but relentless and final – arching fissures in the landscape that remain long after the reasons are forgotten.

The Time of the Cyclops (in the country of the blind…)

Martin Bean worked for the Open University in the UK, an institution that began as the “University of the Air” – shaped by and inspired by technology.

 “Between church and lunch I wrote the whole outline for a University of the Air.” – Harold Wilson

 As the University charter  sets out:

“The objects of the University shall be the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by teaching and research by a diversity of means such as broadcasting and technological devices appropriate to higher education, by correspondence tuition, residential courses and seminars and in other relevant ways, and shall be to provide education of University and professional standards for its students and to promote the educational well-being of the community generally”

 The OU has both a remit to, and a history of, experimenting with new technologies. FutureLearn is one example, another is Cyclops – which was designed in the late 70s and used in trials until the mid 80s. It extended the then-contemporary use of phone conferencing, and was seen as a less technical alternative to the full on CoSY web-conferencing (multiple-email list) action in stuff like DT200, which we’ll come to later.

No-one appears to have recorded, what – if anything – Cyclops stands for. My best guess is Control Your Class Like Orthodox ProfessorS.

Mike Sharples is now Pedagogic Lead at FutureLearn, but he was also one of the key team at the OU working on Cyclops. Here’s some notes from a presentation about it he gave in 2009.

Students preferred it to the alternatives… so why isn’t it used now? Framework for evaluation at three different levels: Micro, Meso and Macro –usability, usefulness, efficiency
  • Micro layer – worked at this level! Familiar system – like an overhead projector, true wysiwis, students operated it with no training.
  • Meso layer – tutors adapted it to their teaching style, tutor station with graphics pad
  • Macro layer – matched students needs, wrong business model, saved student travel costs, but increased OU costs for facilitator and line charges”

A familiar attempt to capture student attitudes at the time, is detailed in Bates’ 1984 book. The Role Of Technology in Distance Education:


And from a longer paper [McConnell, David and Sharples, Mike, “Distance Teaching by Cyclops: An educational evaluation of the Open University’s telewriting system”, British Journal of Education Technology, vol 14 issue 2 (May 1983)]

McConnell and Sharples

Precisely why adding graphics to telephone teaching would make it more effective is not discussed in any of the literature I am able to find. What the telephone teaching added to distance learning was the connection with the others,and  although early work focused on content the key was the connection.

Elsewhere in the 80s education technology literature (specifically in the Robin Mason edited “Mindweave“) researchers were clear that further work should draw on fields that study human communication. For example:

 “Finally, in the user arena, we need to continue to do, and to make use of, fundamental work on the characteristics and processes of human communication, at the individual (cognitive and psycho-affective) level as well as on the social (group interaction and cooperative working) level”  (Peter Zorcoczy in “Mindweave”, p262)

The student experience research I cited earlier suggested that a visual focus of attention  was one of the primary benefits that the Cyclops system can offer. But is all digital content just a “visual focus of attention”? Some pretty lights to look at whilst the learning happens elsewhere?

#DT200 is your new #4LIFE

 “It could be argued that the inherent pedagogical characteristics of CMC are independent of whether it us used in a distance or campus-based environment. They revolve around two very important features of the medium:

* it is essentially a medium of written discourse, which nevertheless shares some of the spontaneity and flexibility of spoken communication

* it can be used as a powerful tool for group communication and for co-operative learning” (Anthony Kaye in “Mindweave”, p10)

Computer Mediated Communication (via tools like Guelph’s CoSY system) was the big noise in the early-mid 80s, with the OU’s own DT200 of legend being one of the first courses to use such a system with (comparatively) inexperienced distance learners.

This was the first time the OU had used CMC as a primary means of supporting learning. Opinions of students were, at best, mixed:

 “A series of questions about the convenience of electronic communications was included in the questionnaire for the course database. These show that about 60-70% of students returning questionnaires found [CMC] less effective for contacting their tutor, getting help, socializing and saving time and money in travelling” (though methodological issues around survey timing)” (Robin Mason in “Mindweave”, p123)

 “There seem to be a lot of people with axes to grind, particular things which interest them which they put into the conference which aren’t really relevant to the course at all. Sometimes they are interesting to read, but it is pretty much pot luck – you don’t know what you will get out of them” (student quoted by Robin Mason, as above)

“Before we started I had naïve visions of vast amounts of stimulating conversation going on […] By and large this has not happened and I have learnt that electronic communication is both hard work and time consuming. There is also concern about social isolation produced by the new technology, the electronic communicator can spend a large part of his or her time alone, neglecting the family and perhaps having little time left over for face to face interaction.” (student quoted by Robin Mason, as above)

 As Mason concluded, “Conferencing did not have a high enough profile on the course to be a medium for discussing course issues in depth” (p137)

Fundamentally, the people who liked computer mediated conferencing, liked it. It made sense as a supplement to other modes of interaction, especially amongst interested groups. But it was a long time before eLearning (as it became) became a standard offer at the OU, especially given the expense of providing modems, loans for computers and when contributions towards academic and support  time spent responding online were added up.

This was, of course, in line with the more theoretically grounded research writing at the time:

 “Although technology is important for any mediated activity, it cannot automate what is in reality a social encounter based on specific social practices. These social practices are unusually complex because of the difficulty of mediating organized group activity in a written environment. Failures and breakdowns occur at the social level far more than the technical level” Feenberg in  “Mindweave”, p28

 The message the keeps coming across is that this is difficult stuff. Not really difficult technically – at least, not in 2014 – but difficult conceptually. Interacting and learning in this way online is not “like” social media, any more than it is “like” a face-to-face conversation. It is something different. And, until a learner is used to it, it is something that can be very complex.

Networks, not work.

 “This message map analysis shows a complex web of interaction composed of many interconnected linkages. This visual mapping of the comment linkages supports reported observations that online discussions are not linear and that complex referencing occurs […] collaborative learning is predicated upon interaction; analyses of on-line course indicate highly synergistic and interactive learning patters. There is dynamic interaction and weaving of ideas” Linda Harasim in “Mindweave”, pp56-57

 We still don’t really understand the implications of this, despite the huge growth in social and learning analytics. I’ve seen so many diagrams that just demonstrate that a lot of people talked to a small number of people. We’re still staring at these images of networks as if they will reveal something about what makes them work.

You might think that this post is just another example of edtech nostalgia. But I’m not here to laugh at old dreams of the future. To me it is a salutary reminder that so much of the work has yet to be done. We’ve improved the technology, we have yet to improve our understanding of the underlying issues. As “open education” becomes a field of inquiry rather than advocacy, this is the unfinished business left to us by our predecessors.

 “Everything may be possible eventually through technology – but we should ensure that what is done through technology is what we want, no less in distance education as in other aspects of our lives.” Tony Bates in “The Role of Technology in Distance Education”, p230)

(why a paleoconnectivism reader? well, originally we had some thoughts of launching a call for chapters for a book covering all this stuff. It may still happen. Most of what I have written here is taken from dusty old books retrieved from academic library clearances. Next time someone comes to relearn this I want them to have some chance of finding an artefact to work from. 80s and early 90s history is a bit of a blind spot for the internet, sadly…)

10 thoughts on “Towards a Paleoconnectivism Reader #opened14”

  1. Hmmm, I am late, I see “6 thoughts on “Towards a Paleoconnectivism Reader #opened14” yet all of them are… automated.


    Damn I learn a lot here. Always Be….

    Super appreciation for the whole story on Cyclops, which is paleo yet not so paleo since the people behind it are around. I looked on the app store and could not find it.

    There are many nuggets here, but a small one that jumped out was your insight on “the sheer pace of change” — it’s a trope so apparently obvious and repeated (my raising my hand).

    But there has always been more information and resources in the world that a human could comprehend. That’s how we got things like libraries and schools and cyclops and, etc. But it’s always been beyond our human capacity, so we develop both tools and networks and communication patterns to try and deal with it- yet IMHO it shall always be beyond our grasp.

    And that’s what makes it interesting to me. That there’s a lot of room to know what we don’t know.

    Now write that new book, eh?

    1. Cheers CogDog – the automated comments are WebMention trackbacks, taking the reclaim idea of having some record of interaction around my content as a guide. I’ll see how it goes.

      Terrifying thing about cyclops – I read this about a function of the new Apple iWatch – drawing images on a screen, viewable remotely in real time. Sounds oddly familiar?

      Indeed – knowing what we don’t know (and can’t know) is something that we, in this world of big data and text mining, have forgotten how to do.

      Where’s your book? You must have plenty of longer form blog/medium posts you could repurpose.

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