Archive for the ‘Wicked complexity’ category

Valuing tech vs. valuing learning

August 19, 2008

When will the computer finally recede into the ubiquitous background as promised by Don Norman a decade ago? Instead, educational reform is grasping at technology as the innovation, bringing technology front and center, as you have pointed out here. But how do we expect students even younger than yours Sam, such as inner city high school students, to switch to an online pedagogy and self-educate with discipline?

It is the individual that chooses to self-educate – the tech are tools, not the stuff of learning itself. I’m not as sanguine about the role of interactive tech per se in the classroom, even though two heavy hitters in innovation (Clay Christensen) and organizational learning (John Seely Brown, blogged here) have recently weighed in with tech-oriented reform promises.

Christensen says “For virtual learning to have this transformative impact, however, it must be implemented in the correct way. The theory of disruptive innovation shows us a way forward.”

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served — people we call non-consumers.

Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems — and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The key is that instead of simply cramming computers in the back of classrooms as a tool of instruction as we have done in the past, we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative to computer-based learning is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact in transforming education.

There are a few problems with Clay’s innovation theory as applied to education. I am a big fan of Innovator’s Dilemma, and have written up RPV as serious business theory in “real” articles, not blogs. But my issue with disruptive innovation in education – is that the problem is NOT with students, or school systems as such. It is socio-economic, cultural, and systemic – a complex system, not a market of users or consumers. Disrutpive innovation owes something to the concept of early adopters predicting the trend. But in education, the early adopters are the self-educators who workaround the system. We can pick up and use anything, but that doesn’t mean other students should use the tech tools I did to self-educate. Example: Long before the Internets, after exhausting the simple lessons in 5th grade, I would ask to leave the class and sit in the hallway and read the Britannicas.

And which students get to fail while the system tries to “go disruptive” and falls even further behind in the tyranny of state school district measures? A couple of years worth of classes before they get it right? Christensen’s innovation theory says large incumbent firms are literally unable to innovate in this way. But has he ever seen charter schools in real “urban” districts? These attempts at innovation lead to outsourcing (like to Sylvan), which does no good, and leaves “no learning behind” for others to bring forward as an innovation.

Take a look at Dayton, Ohio. Patricia started one of the Gates schools (she’s not teaching there or anywhere in a system anymore). The program was primarily problem-based, no issue with that. But self-motivated, self-direct learning kids excel at this already, regardless of technology.  The charter schools in Dayton are (not to put too fine a point on it) total failures. The Gates program? Mixed – the self-motivated always do well, the others make teachers do twice the work they normally do, which is already a lot more than you can imagine.  “It won’t change until society values education” Patricia says “It’s so much government cheese.”

Cognitive impacts of Google’s info hegemony

July 19, 2008

Referring to the prior post, the title was meant to provoke and reprieve the Atlantic article thesis. As with many technological aids to cognitive augmentation, the answer is “both” dumber and smarter.

Perhaps we are all still only in the first few years of a new media behavior, and like “boiling frogs” we cannot see the effects on ourselves yet.  Surprisingly, there are no in-depth research studies on Google-think. As somone who’s researched and observed information behavior in the search and research domains for over 10 years, I want to consider longitudinal aspects, not just whether Google makes us “feel” smarter or dumber.

I have researchable concerns over the universal casual acceptance of Google’s information hegemony.  We are smarter in some ways, for sure – but I have also sensed a rapid dismissal of Carr’s (Atlantic article) thesis, as if it were obvious he’s just making a fuss. There may be ways – ways in which we don’t have easy access to awareness – that continual Google use makes us dumber.

How do we know what behaviors will be obviated by growing up with a ubiquitous search appliance whose evolution of relevancy reflects popular choices? (Over time, anything popular reverts to the mean, which is not exactly “smart.”) PageRank bases relevancy on (among other things) having the highest number (and weighting) of citing pages to the given page. It displays (by default) only 10 items on the results, and overwhelmingly people select the top hit in a search. While Google is powerful, the results display is not as helpful for browsing as – for example – the clustered responses of Clusty, or search enginers like Scirus being used in science research.

It rides our cultural proclivity toward instant gratification – we get a sufficient response VERY quickly, making a compelling argument to rapidly explore the top hit. How often do we pursue the hits on page 3 or further? Do we know what knowledge we are avoiding in our haste? Why do we think the most-referred to pages are the most “relevant” to our real needs? This “instant good enough” may lead us to demand that value of other types of services and supposed knowledge.

Kids may then demand this type of easy, superficial access from their teachers. A quick relevant story: The  teacher I probably learned the most from in all my years of formal education was Dave Biers, graduate psychology research methods and stats. Rather than laser print his worksheets clearly, he insisted on using old blurred, photocopied mimeo. The formulas were barely readable – so you HAD to pay attention in class, where everything was explained and scrawled on the board. This made you attend class, and attend in class. If you didn’t understand, you couldn’t act as if you did. Illegibility was a deliberate learning device.

In a 2005 article in Cognition, Technology and Work I reported on a study at Univ of Toronto on information practices in scientific research. I reported on the trend of grad students using Google and PubMed instead of the expensive, dedicated research tools often used more by their faculty, such as SciFinder, Medline, Web of Science. The earlier use of the more “opaque” search interfaces, now being obsoleted, had at one time trained a generation to think about the terms used in the domain of their research.Opacity is helpful when it reveals opportunities for further learning that you would miss if in a hurry.

This may have also enabled serendipity.Discoveries in science often happen by analogy and serendipitous relationships. Google’s ruthlessly immediacy and transparency of the “top” answers bypasses some of these learning and suggestion opportunities. Even Google Scholar hides a lot more than it shows. How do we actually “slow down” the process of info foraging so that we can find patterns in a problem domain and not just assume the top hits are best?

Now consider the McLuhan tetrad model of the replacement of an older media by a newer regime. The tetrad is a model for thinking through trends and impacts of media transformation. It is also a helpful way to map out the impacts of a new media and to make predictions of its future directions.

So using the tetrad  on Google we get:

  • What does the medium enhance?  Information foraging – finding many sufficient, alternative responses to a given question that can be described in simple keywords. Google amplifies our temporal effectiveness – it gives us the ability to respond quickly in time to almost any information need. It enhances our ability to communicate, by giving us access to other people’s points of view for a given topic of interest. It augments our (already-weakened by infoload) memories by allowing us to neglect exact dates, names, references until the point of need.
  • What does the medium make obsolete? Published encyclopedias, and many types of indexes. It obviates the memorizing of factual details, which can now be retrieved quickly when needed. (Exact retrieval is not a typical competency of human cognition). It reduces the importance of directories, compiled resources, catalogs, list services, even editorial compilations such as newspapers.
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? Do we know yet? It may return the ability to create context across domains of learning. It may enable multi-dimensional thinking, that was more common in the 18th and 19th centuries than today. Recent re-readings of Emerson and Thoreau have left me astonished at the breadth of lifeworld of authors of that time. They had a Renaissance-person grasp of culture, news, politics, geography, literature, scientific developments, and the intellectual arguments of their time. Our culture lost much of this in the specialized education created to satisfy the demands of industrialization. I have hope that searching may lead to a broader awareness and access to the multitude of meaningful references that can be positioned into waiting dendrites in our pre-understanding of things.
  • What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes? Google is flipping into itself. Google has already flipped into the world online library (Print and Books), it has flipped into the world online geosearch (Earth) and navigation (Maps). Images. News. Video. These are not just object types – these are new media with new possibilities. What’s next? Immersive broadband imagery by your preferred channel of perception.

What it does not help us with is version control. I had to rewrite the tetrad from memory after (apparently) clearing the WordPress editor somehow and clicking Save. Then finding the editor empty – why isn’t there yet a Google Undo?

Feeling dumber? Maybe it’s just Google-think.

July 13, 2008

Maybe it’s in the secret sauce?  In the last month, I’ve heard several commentaries on the notion that sustained use of Google is affecting our thinking processes. As if Google were the “bad television” of the 21st century, the meme apparently suggesting overuse of Google searching is dumbing us down because of our passive/receptive way of literally consuming information.

The Atlantic’s recent article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (July/August issue) is the most immediate and critical reading for interested information seekers. Google, Nicholas Carr suggests, has perhaps caused a permanent alteration of our information and reading behaviors, not just searching, but browsing, reading texts, researching, and sensemaking. We (many of us) now skim the surface, jump around from link to link, and cannot attend to an entire article online, let alone an entire book offline (remember, they are still available in printed form). He cites a few examples of Very Smart Persons exhibiting these symptoms. Perhaps he’s right.

My wife Patricia, being an artist, was on the leading edge of this wave. She was concerned that Google was interfering with her imagination, which is the source and font of all wonder for the creative life. She was searching Google in her dreams. And she reports that she finds herself doing similar behaviors, of relentless surfing and wandering the Net, losing total track of time. But she insists its a positive modification of mental life, if it is indeed permanent (she says “it’s the network, you’re able to see all the interconnections of things you never could before, you learn what’s behind everything.”) Something like, that anyway. Maybe she’s right – a couple of years ago she was on about Tristram Shandy being the first hypertext novel, and how that really heralded post-modern thinking. So maybe people were trying to think like Google makes us way back in 1759.

And just recently at the ELPUB conference in Toronto, in an offline conversation, John Senders (what, no Wikipedia article?), one of the founders of the field of human factors (from at least 1942), was observing basically the same thing (the “television is bad for you part”) about Google.  His observation was in effect that Google was changing the way children were learning and interacting with knowledge. Rather than trial and error, observation, finding out for themselves, etc., young children would (and do) just search and rely on whatever they locate online. His main concern was for the eventual (or even current) dumbing down of the future generations as they developed intellectually though their chief years of learning by relying on the common information appliance. He wanted to pursue the issue as a social science experiment, which is a good idea. Maybe John is right as well.

Carr’s article cites Larry Page’s statement to the effect that Google is creating a type of Internet AI, that we are all smarter when we tap into the world’s published information whenever we have a question or problem. I cite Carr’s concern that follows, that perhaps “easy access” is not the highest human or social value associated with information seeking.

“Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”… Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

Carr also cites the UK’s JISC/CIBER program, a 5 year + study on online information behavior in UK education and society. I also found this provocative publication just in time to cite and interpret for the current Redesign Research study of eBooks user experience at the University of Toronto Libraries. CIBER essentially suggests the Google Generation is trending toward a style of thinking and working characterized by endless skimming, jumping around, and scavenging rather than thinking for oneself.

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Maybe they are right as well. What do you think? Are we becoming Borg’d? Do you feel your link to the Matrix yet? Have you read a NOVEL lately? I will post my responses (agreements, disagreements, expansions) in a later post.

Learning – A disruptive innovation of self

June 20, 2008

You’d think we would have learned by now. Over the last 50 years we have seen our best thinkers decry the state of institutional education in the Western world (yes, we usually hear this framed as a US “National” issue, but really, the socially conformist view of education is Western if not global.) There are as many perspectives on the educational-industrial complex as there are commentators. One that comes to mind is George Carlin’s famous and distinctly non-funny observations about “our” educational system (blogged very neatly here at On Education and eLearning.) I respect Carlin’s insights on culture and social issues because comedy is a way of telling truth that cannot be censored, and that people actually get. And since George died just last week, I’d like to honor his contributions to critical thinking – he awakened perhaps millions of people in the disruptive innovation and oral tradition of comedic truth-telling.

Deeply literate (and less popular), critics of our educational systems – who have promoted a better way – include Ivan Illich, Rollo May, Neil Postman, Paolo Freire, William Irwin Thompson, Jean Houston. To some extent the host of 20th century’s greatest thinkers from Einstein to Feynman have weighed in on the sorry state of learning. My wife Patricia and I advocate Slow Learning, informed by these thinkers. Slow Learning encourages individuals to envision their desired future learning destination and then follow a real world learning plan, working with those already in the communities where you hope to later thrive.

We must allow ourselves to understand that we are truly on our own, the system is not there for us. Learning is a choice we must take into our own lives, and sustain it continually. Russ Ackoff says so.

Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg on Change This: “Education should be a lifelong enterprise, a process enhanced by an environment that supports to the greatest extent possible the attempt of people to “find themselves” throughout their lives”For too long, we have educated people for a world that no longer exists, extinguishing their creativity and instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. The principal objective of education as currently provided is to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the status quo—to produce members of society who will not want to challenge any fundamental aspects of the way things are. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom.

Ackoff can be credited for first defining the hierarchy of knowing (1989) in the somewhat Kabbalistic series of: Data – Information – Knowledge – Understanding – Wisdom. His 2008 book Turning Learning Right Side Up asks a series of transforming questions:

Must schools be the way they are? Do classrooms make sense anymore? What should we teach? What should individuals contribute to their own education? What if students did the teaching and teachers did the learning? Is it possible to eliminate old-fashioned distinctions between subjects and between the arts and sciences? What would the ideal lifelong education look like: at the K-12 level, at universities and colleges, in the workplace, and beyond? How do you educate for a world that doesn’t yet exist?

These are powerful questions, indeed. I have oberved the programs of institutional education fall further and further into mediocrity, and see university education driven by economic instrumentalism. The only choice we can make in the here and now, for our own learning paths, is to make our own choices. Educate yourself and your children.

We Tried To Warn You

March 23, 2008

In Boxes  and Arrows, March 19

There are many kinds of failure in large, complex organizations – breakdowns occur at every level of interaction, from interpersonal communication to enterprise finance. Some of these failures are everyday and even helpful, allowing us to safely and iteratively learn and improve communications and practices. Other failures – what I call large-scale – result from accumulated bad decisions, organizational defensiveness, and embedded organizational values that prevent people from confronting these issues in real time as they occur.

So while it may be difficult to acknowledge your own personal responsibility for an everyday screw-up, it’s impossible to get in front of the train of massive organizational failure once its gained momentum and the whole company is riding it straight over the cliff. There is no accountability for these types of failures, and usually no learning either. Leaders do not often reveal their “integrity moment” for these breakdowns. Similar failures could happen again to the same firm.

I believe we all have a role to play in detecting, anticipating, and confronting the decisions that lead to breakdowns that threaten the organization’s very existence. In fact, the user experience function works closer to the real world of the customer than any other organizational role. We have a unique responsibility to detect and assess the potential for product and strategic failure. We must try to stop the train, even if we are many steps removed from the larger decision making process at the root of these failures.

Bursting at the Seams

October 16, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs – Speaking on solving global problems at the Reith Lectures. He may be a one-man Club of Rome.

And how can it be, ladies and gentlemen, that we think we can be safe? We think we can be safe when we leave a billion people to struggle literally for their daily survival, the poorest billion for whom every day is a fight to secure enough nutrients, a fight against the pathogen in the water that can kill them or their child, a fight against a mosquito bite carrying malaria or another killer disease for which no medicine is available, though the medicines exist and are low cost, thus letting malaria kill one or two million children this year. How can this be safe? How can we choose, as we do in the United States, to have a budget request this year of $623 billion for the military – more than all the rest of the world combined – and just $4.5 billion for all assistance to Africa and think that this is prudent? One might say it is science fiction that a zoonotic disease could arise and somehow spread throughout the world, except that AIDS is exactly that. How many examples do we need to understand the linkages, and the common threats, and the recklessness of leaving people to die — recklessness of spirit, of human heart, and of geo-political safety for us?

President Kennedy talked about a way of solving problems, and that too will be a theme of these Lectures. We are entering I believe a new politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. I’m going to call it open-source leadership. If Wikipedia and Linux can be built in an open source manner, politics can be done in that manner as well. We are going to need a new way to address and to solve global problems, but our connectivity will bring us tools unimaginable even just a few years ago.

We have new, old, and reinvented tools – online and offline – for generating collective wisdom toward solving complex social problems. What’s missing is the same thing that has always been missing: a bit of vision from the stakeholders, who might be committed to resolving differences among the different holders-of-stakes, to attempt a true dialogue with a meaningful consensus for action.

Dialogic design may be a means for such open source politics. It provides a means of engaging people with a problem in common in an open, democratic, and productive design thinking process. Policy making is a design problem, wherein a large and variable set of unwieldy inputs and voices overwhelm the decision maker, and a sensemaking process ensures to arrive at a decisions that intuitively organize the meanings and needs of the policy into a course of action. This is very hard work for politicians and policy wonks, neither discipline of course, being trained in design thinking. But it is a problem of designing, nevertheless.

In dialogue, you are heard and your contributions are honored, as are all contributions. Wisdom is that which emerges from the common through the exchange, understanding of the problem space, and generation of design possibilities. It is not wikiality – whether online or on-face, its the real deal.

How does social networking carry over to organizational behavior?

September 24, 2007

GK Van Patter recently asked the question:

What is the impact of consciously or unconsciously importing on-line interaction dynamics into organizational cultures?

Is that importation inevitable? How is that importation impacting organizational cultures today?

What do you think? Good question? Where do we start?

Online interaction dynamics might refer to styles of work and time organization, meeting management, distribution of information,structuring of departments and line accountabilities, task assignment and project management, management style. I would suggest all of theseare affected by our experience and learning from social Web interaction. Bonnie Nardi et al wrote in First Monday back in 2000 how organizational knowledge dynamics were changing due to people relying on “intensional networks” for problem-solving versus identifying local experts and contributors in the organization itself. Organizations, as Cluetrain Manifesto aimed for, are becoming more porous and less secretive, extending their knowledge networks through virtual networks of team members.
Another example that comes to mind is how our attention spans in organizational discourse are mediated by the Web multitasking experience. While it may be a blessing that some meetings are shorter now (in product teams due more to Agile than anything else), my experience has been that less ground is covered. I”ve been involved as a consultant in several projects where significant issues are missed and surface later (sometimes months) because of the fragmented, bullet-listing style of meeting and project management. To some extent this may draw from our everyday experience of paying less and less attention to more and more things online. Then carrying over that impatient mindset to the world of F2F social interaction.


One participant made reference to Karen Stephenson’s work in online interaction, trust, and organizations. The finding of how people backstab in competitive environments using BCC to inform undisclosed third parties of their direct discussions with people is a bit disturbing. I’m sure some of this is cultural and perhaps related to organizational size and type as well. Not being an insider anymore, I have little insight into this dynamic – but its a bad trend and one that makes me grateful for being a consultant for hire and not one that has to worry about insider politics.
Personally, I’d prefer the social knowledge network measure of the number and depth of email discussions to external consultants and non-paid advisers. In other words, how often are people in large organizations using their intensional networks for local problem solving?