Showing posts with label george siemens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label george siemens. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When is a MOOC not a MOOC?

 (What MOOC means to me)

I have to admit I would not be drawn to a blog post entitled so vacuously as, "what MOOC means to me"  (so I thought up something catchy and made the real purpose of this post its subtitle). However, it's early days for working out what MOOC means for anyone.  People have different ideas about what MOOC means, period.  Obviously, the most relevant meaning is the one that reaches any one of us personally.  MOOC means a lot to me, I'm going to try to pin down that meaning here, and maybe this will help you get your own grip on what MOOC might mean to you.

John Hibbs and I presented on the topic November 14, 2012, at the Global Education Conference (, which Steve Hargadon has pointed out, is a conference on global education, not an international conference particularly).  John has prepared a few documents on his own blog:
Here are our session artifacts:

MOOCs for ESOL and language learning

There are two thrusts to the presentation.  One is that an excellent audience for MOOCs might be in ESOL and language learning in general.  To my knowledge, this is indeed an avenue not particularly explored or developed as MOOC, though my own online credentials stem from what might be viewed as one of many precursors to MOOCs.  Dave Cormier takes credit in the "The True History of the MOOC" for invention of the term MOOC in the spring of 2008 (mp3 available,  He does point out that there have been many MOOC-like configurations for learning since the 19th century, but that the term MOOC to describe them began with his inspiration, which Leigh Blackall says (in A True(er) History of Moocs, that MOOC's emergence as a meme for universities and businesses, has become 'irritating'.  I have argued that we had MOOCs before 2008 as well, one example being, which offered language lessons to all comers, and which spawned Writing for Webheads, which started leaving artifacts online in 1998 <>.  So regarding what MOOC means to me, one interest I have in it is as a platform for what we were doing in 1998, when we were experimenting with platforms for teaching people ESOL and other languages for free online.

It was around this time that I became aware of John Hibbs's work in the pre-MOOC era.  John had created a web page from which he launched a virtual ship each year to make a journey around the world hour by hour in 24 time zones <>.  He had organized people in different parts of the world to manage the program for that region and in 1999 I was tapped by the Middle East organizer Neil Hynd to make a presentation of some kind.  I remember that the first one I did, I was patched into the stream through a POTS phone line, but in subsequent years John was using Real Player for streaming the audio, Though our team again presented in 2001 from Abu Dhabi using a POTS phone patch, we listened via Real Player. At the time this was impressive stuff, right on the cutting edge. John was one of the first pioneers of free (that was unusual!) online seminars of educators who could meet in real time through his web pages. John's effort stimulated me to do something similar in organizing three WiAOC's (Webheads in Action Online Convergence), each one a 3-day round the clock free all-volunteer online conference that I coordinated in 2005, 2007, and 2009 <>.

Webheads in Action (WiA, came about in response to the fact that an emerging community of educators had started overwhelming the ESOL student voices in the original  Writing for Webheads community.  How this happened has been documented elsewhere (e.g., but again as far as MOOCs are concerned, Webheads began focusing on teachers as opposed to students when it started giving EVO (Electronic Village Online, sessions in 2002, and the WiA community grew from there, to over a 1000 members today in just the Yahoo Group alone.  Again, this is not meant to be a description of WiA or EVO, but simply to suggest that if WiA and EVO are considered to be courses, and if 1000 members is massive, then they are definitely open and online, and had we started them 6 years after we did we might have called them MOOCs.  At the time we called them variously groups, communities, and networks (Stevens, 2009).


Meanwhile I have been teaching a Multiliteracies course for EVO and the last couple of years I've been utilizing MOOC elements in the course at  It's essential for such a course to have a framework. When I started the course in 2004 I patterned that framework on Stuart Selber's aspects of functional, critical, and rhetorical multiliteracies.  After attending WorldCALL in 2008 and meeting Mark Pegrum there, I divided the course into the lenses through which he viewed the topic in From Blogs to Bombs.  But as I learned more about MOOCs and experienced them more and more firsthand, in 2011 I started dividing the topics of the available five weeks into those suggested in Dave Cormier's viral videos explaining the 5 steps to Success in a MOOC: orient, declare, network, cluster, and focus (this link will point you to all the videos in the series:  Now, in 2013, I have renamed the course Multiliteracies-MOOC (or multiMOOC for short) and Ana Cristina Pratas and I are going to run it even more overtly as a MOOC, as described in the proposal and rationale here:  

In this course, the syllabus is just a suggestion (orient). Participants decide, each individually, what they want to accomplish in the course (declare). They network with one another to collaborate on shared goals, they produce what I call Me-Portfolios to reflect on how well they have accomplished their goals, and this next time around I hope to introduce some form of badging to help participants focus their goals and vis a vis their accomplishments in the course. In our last Learning2gether event, on Sunday November 11, Jonathan Finkelstein offered to help us envisage and realize that through the LearningTimes BadgeStack facility,

So what is a MOOC course then?

First of all I should point out there there are different kinds of MOOCs, and mine is just one of those kinds.  Lisa Lane has isolated at least three strains in the wild, as shown in this graphic from her blog post here:

In this scheme, multiMOOC would straddle network and task-based. Many people these days would make that distinction in reference to cMOOCs and xMOOCs. The kind of MOOC that I am emulating is a cMOOC, a connectivist one, where the course facilitator lays out a cohesive structure for what is to be learned but, in Siemens's words, does not walk the path for the participants, expecting them to follow <>.  The facilitator instead encourages the participants to find their own pathways through the material.  What George actually says is transcribed in part here:

"I’m not aware of any research actually that says linear structure produces better outcomes than more chaotic meandering structure. Our intent, based on our theories of learning is to argue that the experience of learning, making sense of that chaos, is actually the heart of the learning experience, but if an instructor makes sense of that chaos for you and gives you all the readings and sets the full path in place for you then to a degree you are eviscerating the learner’s experience because now you’ve made sense of them and all you’ve told them is walk the path that I’ve formed. When it comes to complexity I’m a great fan of letting learner’s hack their way through that path and getting the value of that learning experience and that sense-making process.”

If the facilitator for whatever reason (too many participants, thinks it's better if s/he stands aside) gives the responsibility for sense-making to participants in a MOOC, then they might negotiate how to make sense of their syllabus with one another.  This is where the massive part of MOOC kicks in.  If the critical mass of participants is correct, then nuclear fission will occur in some people's brains, and they will be driven to blog and tag and comment on each other's posts, and leave reflections up as artifacts on the web. If the MOOC is run by Stephen Downes then it aggregates these posts through a script called gRSShopper <> and publishes them each day in a daily 'newsletter' generated from that aggregated content.  If the MOOC is run by me then we have to replace the word 'massive' in its acronym with something more appropriate to the scale of the venture, say, 'minuscule' for example.

In any event, this addresses the first issue of our presentation, the appropriateness of MOOCs to teaching ESOL and other languages.  Also the kind of MOOC best suited to a communicative and socially-driven endeavor such as language-learning is cMOOC, based on the concept as initiated by Siemens and Downes, with Cormier's contribution of the just-so acronym. As for why anyone would want to run such a course, the Internet is full of sites already where language teachers are competing with one another to share their knowledge with students in the most clever way possible, for free. Stephen Downes was once asked why he would flog himself across the back with a course open to thousands (of course, they didn't know at the time it would attract so many :-) when he could have left it at just the two dozen enrolled in the course at the college, and he replied simply, because he would learn from it.  This is the prime motivator for setting up a cMOOC.


I thought* George Siemens (2012) had coined the term xMOOC when he added a tentative ? to his remarks about "the well-financed MOOCs by Coursera and edX (xMOOCS?)."  While taking pains to explain that feedback on xMOOCs suggested they were effective in achieving  their purposes, he went on to explain: 
Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

(* However Stephen Downes takes credit for that distinction at 61 minutes into this recording:
This brings us to the second brunt of John's post, the second thrust of our presentation, and this is that MOOCs, and by this John means xMOOCs, as conceived by Coursera and Mechanical MOOC, might damage hard-earned university branding.  John and I have both enrolled in such courses.  I have experienced the very humanistic gentle reminders and suggestions issued by Mechanical MOOC,, almost as if there was a human there, while John can (and will in the presentation) document very different experiences of frustration with Coursera. John's contention is that in their rush to sign on with mechanical courseware generators, universities might be weakening the quality of their offerings until the purveyors of such courses can improve their quality to the standard of instruction expected from those institutions.  Though written to a different topic, Siemens's quotable "there's no there there" springs to mind from the anecdotal evidence that John reports (Siemens's quotable article:

John's is not a voice in the wilderness. Mike James in an article in I Programmer says that "the methods used by the hugely successful courses are little changed from the dark ages"  James refers to Sebastian Thun's co-professor in the Stanford AI course, Peter Norvig, who had made reference to the dark ages in his TED Talk on the AI MOOC,

But this article is about what MOOC means to me (to me it means "cMOOC").  However, the extrapolation of the MOOC concept to xMOOC is I think part of what is irritating both John Hibbs and Leigh Blackall.  When Sebastian Thun took the MOOC concept to the point where he demonstrated that he could not only teach Artificial Intelligence in a MOOC, and scale that to thousands of comers, AND assess and evaluate those participants through algorithms developed by Amazon, the proof of concept he had shown was xMOOC.  Thun proved the concept so well that he decided his tenured position at Stanford was beneath him and left there to work for Google and ended up with his own xMOOC, Udacity, (  Thun is fully convinced that he made the right move, and he might be recognized as a visionary for it, and like Stephen Downes he will surely learn from the experience, but the motivation for this effort is more toward the flip side of education from that of cMOOC.  Whereas one obvious limitation of cMOOC is that participants need to be highly motivated self-starters who are driven to learn about a particular topic, xMOOC is addressed more at the masses, the hoards of students for whom expensive Ivy League education (or increasingly, even community college education) is less and less an option.  Candace Thille, director of the OLI at Carnegie Mellon University, worries that this development might lead to a "bifurcation" in educational opportunities in the not-that-distant future,

Given the downward spiral in the world's economies and shortage of resources, abundance is a word more and more applied to knowledge resources than to natural and manufactured ones, which are approaching scarcity.  Where the ascendancy of knowledge abundance intersects with the increasing lack of natural and economic resources, xMOOCs may well be the most viable path of quality education for learners of the future. John's point has to do with the present state of the quality of THAT instruction, and how that might impact branding of universities associated with the current xMOOC players.

When is a MOOC not a MOOC?

So as not to get off on a semantic battle, technically, a MOOC is a MOOC if it has lots of participants, if it's open to anyone, which means for free (otherwise it wouldn't be open), if it's online, and if it's a course. All of the sites mentioned in this post are MOOCs in that broad definition.

So my conclusion applies to the spirit of MOOC, what I in my heart of hearts feel is MOOC in its pure form.

If I were to conceive of a diagram giving the whole spectrum of MOOC from the 19th century (as Cormier mentions) up through the 20th (with and Writing for Webheads) and into the turn of the century (where for example EVO started teaching open courses massively online) - then I would put those early efforts off to the left and place cMOOC as conceived in 2008 squarely in the center, with the current evolution of xMOOCs veering off to the right and into the future.

I would say that open online courses we used to organize and try to scale massively predated a window of opportunity for social networking and aggregation of content that the cMOOCs slotted nicely into.  And I would say that these early efforts depart from what I think of as truly MOOC about as equally as do the later renditions, which though technically massive, open, online, and courses lack a lot of the flavor of the middle-cMOOCs by virtue of not having well developed the connectivist aspects of the 2008 model.

MOOCs in the future: A return to center?

Stephen Downes thinks that MOOCs must evolve in a return to their roots.  He illustrates this for us in a sketch in the Bb Collaborate / Elluminate version of the True History of MOOC (shown in this screen shot from

The sketch began with MOOCs in the middle and with the entities at the end of each line setting up free open online courses but monetizing some aspect in the form of accreditation, help facilities, etc.  The circle around MOOC indicates that MOOCs utilize OER (open education resources) and the "open web of content" as illustrated in the diagram Stephen inserted and then relegated to the top left corner. Then Steve Hargadon asked in the discussion if these entities (the new xMOOCs) were paying tribute to their roots in cMOOC.  Stephen said off the top of his head, "no" but did note that in something he had come across lately, it was found that the biggest predictor of success at Harvard (apart from getting into Harvard) was participation in study groups.  As others commented, Stephen proceeded to wipe the MOOC from the center of his diagram and put in xMOOC with study groups forming around any given xMOOC.

Stephen then explained, for xMOOC to be truly viable, it will inevitably have to move in the direction of cMOOC.  In his words, “The connectivism model will become the primary model … [xMOOCs] have to grow to become cMOOCS ... They will do that over time." You heard it first there, read it first here :-)

Referenced websites

Blackall, Leigh. (2012). A true(er) history of MOOCs. Open and Networked Learning. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Downes, Stephen. (2012). A true history of the MOOC. Stephen's Web. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Hargadon, Steve. (2012). Tonight - A true history of the MOOC. Education, technology, social media, and you! Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Hibbs, John. (2012). MOOCs Global Education Conference Presentation. Ben Franklin. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Hibbs, John. (2012). MOOCs For Credit – Coursera & Antioch. Ben Franklin. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Hibbs, John. (2012). Crown Jewels, 21st Century Diploma Mills, MOOCs on the Moon. Ben Franklin. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Hibbs, John. (2012). Global conference Hibbs prepared remarks. Ben Franklin. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

James, Mike. (2012). MOOCs Fail Students With Dark Age Methods. I Programmer. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

James, Mike. (2012). Peter Norvig On The 100,000-Student Classroom. I Programmer. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Kolowich, Steve. (2012). MOOCs and Machines. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Lane, Lisa. (2012). Lisa's (Online) Teaching Blog. Retrieved on November 15, 2012 from

Pegrum, Mark. (2009). From Blogs to Bombs: The Future of Digital Technologies in Education. UWA Publishing, Crawley, Western Australia.

Selber, Stuart. (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Siemens, George. (2012). MOOCs are really a platform. Elearnspace.

Stevens, Vance. (2009). Modeling Social Media in Groups, Communities, and Networks. TESL-EJ, Volume 13, Number 3:

Stevens, Vance. (forthcoming). Learning2gether: Wiki-based worldwide teacher professional development Paper presented at the annual TESOL Arabia conference in Dubai, March 9, 2012. Submitted for publication in the proceeds. Version available online:

Tracey, Ryan. (2012). The future of MOOCs. E-learning Provocateur.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Narrows and the Shallows

Most of us can relate to the befuddled lady in the "Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder" video  With the constant distractions of modern life interrupting completion of any tasks begun, the lady depicted can't keep up with frequent alterations to her memory synapses which are potentially activating a few genes capable of creating protein for memory storage which might find their way into the gene pool in case reproduction was on her agenda (oh, NOW I remember where I was going in the car :-)

For many of us, these distractions would be Internet-activated: checking email, Facebook, and hey what's this? Google Plus! This is new, can't wait to check this out!  We get a pleasant jolt of dopamine in our nerve synapses just anticipating the next Internet event, the classic addiction syndrome, to which many of us succumb at the expense of other things we should be doing. Worse, our brains are being altered in favor of accommodating our newly learned horizontal tracking behaviors and this is drawing resources from areas that used to accommodate our more focused vertical thinking skills.  These facts are as certain as global warming.  The question is, as with global warming, to what extent should we be concerned?

In his book The Shallows,  Nicholas Carr lays out a case for his contention that our infatuation for Internet is costing us our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. In one collapsible argument after another, Carr follows up with a next level of argument in which he says he's aware that we would have spotted that flaw, but hang on, here's more evidence. 

My video conception of denizens of this planet being overwhelmed with inputs impinging on focus takes place during Neanderthal times, in a cave. Someone is hungry so Daddy goes looking for his club but on the way gets distracted by a painting on a wall near where he sometimes leaves his clubs but he's out of a certain pigment, so he calls to the wife who suggests he go into the forest and collect some moss off the trees. Meanwhile granny is remarking on the fact that their last child was born with a forehead with distinctly less of a slope (due to re-allocaton of brain cells, get it?). Distracted, she fails to prevent another child touching a hot coal near the fire. The child starts crying.

So what else is new? Learning creates new synapses. It changes our brains. That's positive isn't it? We survivors are here thanks to that process of species improvement.

Paul Howard Jones uses the analogy of fire to compare its use with that of the Internet Fire brings warmth and access to fine cuisine but it can be the source of tragedy and must be treated with caution. We have trained ourselves and our children over eons to take advantage of its affordances while avoiding its pitfalls. The title of Jones's video lecture, "What is the Internet doing to our Brains?"  echos the subtitle of Carr's book. In this lecture Jones assesses whether the latest scientific findings support popular fears about how technology is rewiring our brains.

Jones addresses three popular beliefs: (1) that technology is a 21st century addiction, (2) that Facebook is infantilizing us, and (3) that Google is degrading our intelligence, as Carr famously suggested in his Atlantic article, "Is Google making us stupid?" (which prompted Stephen Downes to write that if that were true he must be a raving lunatic by now, or something to that effect).

In taking on the notion that using search engines takes something away from us in neural terms, Jones reminds us that "learning is always associated with changes in the brain." He cites research where naive and experienced Googlers used search engines; and another case where subjects practiced difficult multiplication problems. These studies found that in unpracticed subjects processing tended to take place in areas of the brain already taxed by demands of short term memory; whereas with experienced subjects this activity moves to the rear of the brain, areas associated with automaticity. Yes, experienced subjects had learned how to search or multiply more efficiently, and yes their brains had been rewired.  That always happens in learning.

Jones addresses other areas of  research, dismissing findings of decreased socialization with Internet use done on teenagers in the 1990s because the friends of the research subjects would not have been themselves connected. But nowadays, kids are, and current research shows that where social networking is used to augment existing relationships, this leads to happiness and well-being. Does screen readng disrupt sleep (apparently reading from small screens does)? If so, it would disrupt memory and learning as well.  Does use of technology contribute to obesity by suppressing exercise? Jones finds after weighing the results of 178 studies "no evidence of digital technology's special influence on the brain."  

The social media site Facebook might indeed be a panacea for a major problem for the elderly.  Nick Harding's\
-social-network-2329529.html reports on a year-long study by Daniel Miller, Professor of anthropology at University College London, which he has reported in his book, Tales From Facebook. "If there is one obvious constituency for whom Facebook is absolutely the right technology, it is the elderly. It allows them to keep closely involved in the lives of people they care about when, for one reason or another, face-to-face contact becomes difficult... Its origins are with the young but the elderly are its future."

Furthermore, with all this talk about what is lost with the new technologies, Facebook is seen here as a throw-back to a time when everyone in small communities knew everyone else's business: "As Facebook transforms our relationship with public and private, it also updates the notion of community, becoming a simulacrum of the neighbourhoods lost in the West over the past 50 years - a place where people can keep abreast of the lives of their online neighbours. "

Such findings support Jones's contention that, as with our use of fire, maybe the positive aspects of technology can be emphasized through our better understanding of what it does do for us.  Looking at past research on technology used in training memory and other useful skills, Jones notes that transfer has been shown to be a problem in traditional studies, but that research in video games suggests the opposite. Gaming research has revealed that enhancements can be achieved in performance on motor tasks, ability to task switch, to filter distractions, and in inference ability.  And the reason for this is that in each instance the addictive response to the constant distractions of the Internet (the dopamine hit) is harnessed toward these outcomes. Jones grants that technology can generate addiction and aggression but more importantly, "benefits arise from exactly the same processes,  learning new skills, pro-social behavior, and immense educational potential."  So it's  not whether we use technology but how we use it (we know fire burns, so use it safely).

NPR's On the Media did a show recently on video games, including a segment on the Future of Gaming In this segment Brooke Gladstone explores how the potential envisaged by Jones is playing out in today's marketplace, culminating in Jane McGonigal's TED talk from February, 2010 on her research into how video games can contribute to training for a better world:

George Siemens has been expressing some dissatisfaction with the shallower aspects of  social media in his Elearnspace blog; e.g. Here, George dismisses social media as being mostly about flow, not substance. Perhaps, but without flow, substance would be lost, and that to me is one importance of social media.

George is saying, I think, that SM is impoverished where it doesn't create content, but simply kicks it along.  This is certainly true in many cases of vanity posting (and just look at Farmville); however  
social media's significant impact in contexts where mainstream media is locked down is well understood. Clay Shirky dwells for a chapter in Here Comes Everybody, on the idea that popular uprisings occur not when "everyone knows" and not even when "everyone knows that everyone knows" but when finally "everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows" that the king has no clothes. Social media like Twitter is highly significant in creating that awareness. But George points out that it can also appear self-serving, cliquish, and a waste of time if you're spending mouse clicks sorting your friends yet again into this circle or that.

But in this post George doesn't count Blogging as social media.  On the contrary, where "Social media=emotions", "Blogging/writing/transparent scholarship=intellect."

Michael Coghlan notes in a recent talk on The Shallows (; and print version how he becomes productive only when he disconnects. I can relate to that, I've been mulling over this blog post  for over a week now, articulating it bit by bit in posts to the Webheads Yahoogroup. Such fora comprise another form of social media, time consuming, unproductive, and shallow only if you consider such deliberations as avoidance of a more deeply construed final product. However anyone who teaches writing knows the importance of process in achieving a well-crafted product. The most progressive writing teachers are putting their students in touch with peers via 
social media (here, including blogs). Is this misguided? I think George and Michael are bringing their valid and treasured perspectives on a 'problem' which I guess I'm saying is actually a part of the process.

Harold Jarche has been blogging about PKM, the gist of which he encapsulates in 5 minutes in this video presentation on "Sense-making with PKM, personal knowledge management":

This  complements Siemens's views on some of the dilatory effects of social media with an explanation of how what are suddenly being called distractions fit as part of the process of knowledge management, with an assertion at the end that Jarche's critical thinking skills have improved as a result of his cycle of PKM (which I suppose would be anecdotal evidence of lateral thinking processes leading to vertical ones).

Jarche defines PKM as "a set of processes individually constructed to help the flow from implicit to explicit knowledge." Managing the flow of knowledge, "staying abreast events and advances in our respective fields takes more time than many of us have." Consequently "the lines between learning and working are getting blurred," and proper management of workflow becomes essential.

Knowledge management seeks to make implicit knowledge explicit through Internal (how do I deal with this) and External (who can I work with on this) processes. This entails a continuous loop of four internal elements: sort, categorize, make explicit, retrieve; while percolating these through the key external elements of  Connect/ Exchange / Contribute. This enables us to observe, reflect, put tentative thoughts out;  read, listen, converse, and reflect. Jarche points out that this is more about attitude (what I call paradigm shfts) than a particular set of tools, but the rest of the presentation is essentially about what tools go with which part of the flow.

Jarche concludes by saying that PKM is "part of a social learning contract" wherein we have an "obligation" to participate so that we can learn from each other. "Cooperation is the glue that holds together the important social networks in which we work and live."

This helps put Siemens's insights into perspective, but Jarche also touches on Carr's when he says at the end that he feels that he has been creating a powerful resource, "a growing and connected digital library. It has also helped me to better develop my critical thinking skills."

However Carr comes to similar conclusions himself in his series of beguilingly collapsible arguments, but then  explains why all the input we're subjected to now is different from previous information revolutions (e.g. the one where using calculators freed our minds for better internalizing maths concepts) because this latest onslaught isn't freeing up mental processing power so much as it is making what's left impervious to keeping what flows past around long enough for proteins to form that will put it into long term memory. 

I would argue that again these resources are being optimally allocated. We are evolving systems for tagging and bookmarking that are placing information at our fingertips where and when we need it, so we can process perfectly well once we recall where we can link to what we need. I guess I am arguing that resources devoted to long term memory are increasingly being devoted more to tracking linking mechanisms; whereas Carr seems to be saying that this is the shallow part, we index it but don't process it.  On the other hand, this very process could be developing a level of abstraction that further pushes the boundaries of our cognition which distinguish us from other less capable species.

Samuel Johnson was aware of this distinction in the 18th century ("Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." from Boswell's Life of Johnson). Coghlan mentions this in his talk where he contrasts the relationship between horizontal thinking (multitasking, allowing us in the midst of composition to link out to the Internet for the source of a certain quote by Johnson, for example) vs vertical thinking (layered and focused, to allow us to complete the piece in which the quote is inserted). He shows us Howard Reingold's video ( about how Reingold finds, organizes, curates, filters, and begins to compose using an impressive array of tools which have everything to do with generating two paragraphs of prose with awsome face valididy.  Coghlan intends this as an illustration of how a wired academic can harness distracted horizontal processes to contribute to deeper vertical ones, but in the example we see no direct evidence of developing or adding value to content (though we can see that Howard is about to take that step, if the phone doesn't ring :-). Reingold's workflow appears however to work for him, he is after all a Stanford professor with an impressive publication record, and his output and workflow illustrate how he is able to manage and leverage certain processes for linking and abstraction to eventually produce a well-crafted final product.

Carr however seems to be saying that this kind of workflow is making us incapable of deeper processing. True I was listening to an instructional designer in a VTE podcast the other day saying that whereas before you could count on a 12 min attn span now you had to reach learners in 5. But this doesn't mean we are incapable of processing. We are reading Carr's book aren't we? We are deeply examining the ideas to the extent that they engage us. So? We're distracted! - isn't this the human condition? From time immemorial? (And if it's immemorial then it didn't form the protein to make it into long term memory back then either.)

The skill of indexing and retrieving through networks is at the core of connectivism, an idea whose development is anything but shallow.
 Siemens for example says in his free ebook, Knowing Knowledge (available at

"Once flow becomes too rapid and complex, we need a model that allows individuals to learn and function in spite of the pace and flow. A network model of learning (an attribute of connectivism) offloads some of the processing and interpreting functions of knowledge flow to nodes within a learning network. Instead of the individual having to evaluate and process every piece of information, she/he creates a personal network of trusted nodes: people and content, enhanced by technology. The learner aggregates relevant nodes…and relies on each individual node to provide needed knowledge. The act of knowing is offloaded onto the network itself. This view of learning scales well with continued complexity and pace of knowledge development."

David Weinberger has an interesting take on
The Shallows. He says that "if the Net is the shallows (a brilliant title, by the way), then the old media that Nicholas romanticizes was the narrows: narrowing the richness of shared experience to a manageable trickle." 

Today's learners must learn to navigate between the narrows and the shallows. A recent CIBER meta-analysis of the reading and learning behaviors of student visitors to libraries, both brick & mortar and virtual, highlights trends it sees for the near future (next 5 years, 10 years from 2008) as noted in CIBER. (2008). Information behaviour of the researcher of the future. UCL.

The report finds on p.9 that the emerging form of information seeking behavior of those in the study appears indeed to be "horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature." These users are "promiscuous, diverse and volatile."  This poses "serious challenges for traditional information providers, nurtured in a hardcopy paradigm and ... still tied to it."

As with any data, these are subject to interpretation. My interpretation is that as information becomes more accessible patterns of access are of course going to change. On the other hand, maybe not all that much has fundamentally changed. I can't tell you how many nickels I put into photocopying machines when I was in grad school in 1981 in order to take away copies of journal articles I possibly skimmed at home looking for factoids I could use to augment my references, or perhaps didn't read at all. Except that back then, the library was neither able to track my behavior apart from monitoring my expenditure of nickels, nor know what I did with the material once I got it home and put it on the growing stack of accumulated papers.

I'm taking the stance that this is much ado about nothing much. Carr points out early in his book that, regarding the "torrent of new content ... one side's abundant Eden is the other's vast wasteland." Young people might tend to be hitting at links in their recreational browsing, as we all do, but to extrapolate from this to 'they therefore never engage in deep vertical absorption of what they are browsing' is in my view quite likely false.  It could be that they have so much more data to scan that they simply click on a lot more horizon, as we all do, before we latch on to the bits we feel we need to explore in greater depth (possibly because there is so much horizon out "there", and now in my mind I hear Siemens warn, "there's no there there" :-).

As we learned from Clay Shirkey's Cognitive Surplus it's not so much a question of what someone is doing at a particular time but what they would otherwise be doing. Dan Pink asked Shirky in an interview, what was your favorite episode of Gilligan's Island, an inside joke because Shirky counts himself as one of a generation plunged into the vast wasteland of passive addiction to the shallows of television. It would have been impossible when Clay Shirky was curled up on the couch to know how young people in his day ('the TV generation') would develop as researchers and academics of the future. Shirky nevertheless seems to have undergone some positive plasticity considering his subsequently observable ability to grasp concepts and convey them to others in deeply textured literature.

Regarding my own cognitive surplus, I hardly ever sit down for any length of time in front of a TV anymore, and though my kids might do that, they don't just watch whatever's on, they'll have chosen their program and have some purpose in watching it. I would think that this observable change in behavior is freeing up time and cognitive surplus for the kind of horizon scanning that emerges in some of these studies.

In other words, if you have some moments where you are tired from a long day and you have no pressing deadlines, what do you choose to do? Do you play solitaire? sit down in front of a TV? Pick up a good book? See what's on YouTube? Check email / Facebook/ Twitter? If you tend toward the latter end of the scale you're in good shape in my view. And when many of us were growing up we didn't have the latter options, but now that we do, we learn a lot from YouTube / email / Facebook / Twitter, and other interactions with our PLN which, when it's time to write and reflect, we switch off and get down to it, as Michael said he did in writing his article. Switch it back on and it feeds and stimulates the times when it's switched back off.

The CIBER report recommends that "information skills have to be developed during formative school years and that remedial information literacy programmed at university level are likely to be ineffective [and that libraries should] go with the flow and help children to become more effective information consumers."

We should be making ourselves and our kids aware of how to successfully leverage the affordances of the new technologies while avoiding the pitfalls, same as for fire, TV, the telephone before that, books in the 16th century (much decried by writers back then, get the irony? writers?).  What we would need (but will never have) is a comparative study of how much deep cognitive endeavor people did during the TV era vs what they engage in now. I think that, in Shirky's terms, a lot of cognitive surplus was merging with recreational time and now that we invest more of our  cognitive surplus in recreational time, we still can only devote so much energy a day into that deep cognition, and for recreation, we web surf rather than watch TV, storing up links (utilizing our tagging and feed systems) for retrieval later during our focused work hours.

This is actually a positively enlightening development, making possible, in my view, a renaissance in thinking and sharing, along with a reversal of power directionality, as when cognitive surplus gets invested in Wikileaks, for example. Many people are scanning those superficially, but there are many others demonstrably capable of delving into the revelations deeply and distilling what they find into packets appropriate for consumption by the scanners. Is that a problem? (answer, only if it's your power that's being reversed :-)

There is an interesting quote in a post where Andrew Keen interviews Nicholas Carr regarding the central thesis of The Shallows: "Indeed, the depth and sophistication of much of the debate about the book—especially the thoughtfulness of many online critiques—might be taken as an argument against its thesis."

Case rested (for now, until the next comment or blog post :-)  I'll just switch my network back on now and see what they have to say about this

Incidentally, Michael Coghlan and I and others had a discussion of these ideas on Sunday August 7, 2011, at our weekly Learning2gether event, in Elluminate.  You can access the recording at


Some of my network are saying ... 

From Elizabeth Hanson-Smith 

From Mark Pegrum