Sunday, May 31, 2015

Latour: The Fourth Uncertainty - Matters of Fact vs Matters of Concern

Continuing on the (one sided) conversation of ANT with Latour we have the 4th source of uncertainty which is Matters of Fact vs Matters of Concern.  I guess, starting off here, that one cannot debate matters of "fact" because they are facts and therefore immutable, whereas "concerns" are broad categories and the "answers" will most likely be in a state of flux.

ANT is the story of an experiment so carelessly started that it took a quarter of century to rectify it and catch up with what its exact meaning was. It all started quite badly with the unfortunate use of the expression ‘social construction of scientific facts’. (p. 88)
I am wondering what is so unfortunate about 'social construction of scientific facts'.  Is it that the word "fact" was used? or is it the "social" in 'social construction'?  Or is it both? I know that Latour seems to have an issue with how 'social' has been defined (wonder what he thinks of 'social media') but it seems that this chapter is also focusing on the semantics of the word 'facts', as it related to explorations of knowledge. I do think that as humans we want facts because of desire to have something tangible at the end of our explorations.  If at the end we have something fuzzy, did we accomplish anything through our hard work?

Unfortunately, the excitation went quickly sour when we realized that for other colleagues in the social as well as natural sciences the word construction meant something entirely different from what common sense had thought until then. To say that something was ‘constructed’ in their minds meant that something was not true. They seemed to operate with the strange idea that you had to submit to this rather unlikely choice: either something was real and not constructed, or it was constructed and artificial, contrived and invented, made up and false (p. 90)
Ah! I guess I should have read a little further into my own copy/pasting.  Well, words have no meaning but for the meaning that a community of speakers endows upon those words and expressions. I can see how constructed might mean un-natural (as in a building is constructed), however just because something is not found in nature it doesn't mean that it is not true.  I am standing in a constructed building, using a computer which was constructed, in order to put together this blog post. Does this mean that what's being created is not true?

yet, it became painfully clear that if we wanted to go on using the word construction we would have to fight on two fronts: against the epistemologists who went on claiming that facts were ‘of course’ not constructed—which had about as much sense as saying that babies are not born out of their mother’s wombs—and against our ‘dear colleagues’ who seemed to imply that if facts were constructed then they were as weak as fetishes—or at least what they believed fetishists ‘believed’ in. (p. 91)
Huh...interesting. So, I guess part of the issue here, again, is what sorts of meanings we put on the words that we use.  I am wondering if the hurdles to come to an agreement over how to use language will be as hard as having someone else's epistemological standing validated by the status quo.

This is why I thought it more appropriate to do with constructivism what we had done for relativism: thrown at us like insults, both terms had a much too honorable tradition not to be reclaimed as a glorious banner. After all, those who criticized us for being relativists never noticed that the opposite would be absolutism. And those who criticized us for being constructivists would have probably not wished to see that the opposite position, if words have any meaning, was fundamentalism (p. 91)
No comment - just an interesting note about the various opposites.

Our colleagues prefer to say: ‘Social explanation of science has failed because it is contradictory.’ Or they might say: ‘It has succeeded fairly well, let’s go on with business as usual.’ But ANT proposes: ‘It’s a great opportunity now that it has failed so thoroughly since it may finally bring social theory to its senses.’ In the same way as church fathers celebrated Adam’s sin as a felix culpa (a fortunate fall from grace) because it had triggered Christ’s redemption, I could say that the failure of a social explanation on science has been the great chance for social theory. (p. 97)
Religious imagery aside, I am actually wondering if contractions are always a problem.  It seems to me that there are some problems in experimental physics (for example) that seem contradictory but we still study to make sense of them. Things work, so there must be something there, hence more studying of things that appear contradictory. To me it seems like a great opportunity to continue learning, and to try and solve a suborn puzzle. Why assume that is has failed due to contradictions? Why not study the phenomenon more and gather more data to analyze?

Such is the interpretation I chose to give to the ‘Science Wars’: scientists made us realize that there was not the slightest chance that the type of social forces we use as a cause could have objective facts as their effects (p. 100)
But... when is a fact a fact? Is a fact perpetually a fact or can a fact lose its "factness"?

ANT does not assert that all the other domains of social science are fine and that only science and technology require a special strategy because they are so much harder, so much more important, and so much more respectable. It claims that since social accounts have failed on science so pitifully, it must have failed everywhere, science being special only in the sense that its practitioners did not let sociologists pass through their turf and destroy their objects with ‘social explanations’ without voicing their dissent loud and clear. (p. 101)
I guess... But isn't ANT meant to look at the fleeting social connections?  I guess I am back to contemplating the meaning of the world 'social' within this context...

So, ANT cannot share the philosophy of causality used in social sciences. Every time some A is said to be related to some B, it’s the social itself that is being generated. If my questioning of social explanations looks unfair, blind, and obsessively literal, it’s because I don’t want to confuse the assembling of the collective with the mere review of the entities already assembled or with a bundle of homogeneous social ties (p. 103)
No comment - just thought the above was interesting. Wish I had taken a side note on the PDF on this one...

We have now reached the very birthplace of what has been called ‘actor-network-theory’ or, more accurately, ‘sociology of translation’— unfortunately the label never held in English. As I said, ANT is simply the realization that something unusual had happened in the history and sociology of scientific hard facts, something so unusual that social theory could no more go through it than a camel through the eye of a needle (P. 106)
Quite interesting.  While ANT is a bit of an odd acronym, I prefer Actor-Network to the 'sociology of translation'. It seems to me that 'translation' is just as vulnerable to definitional issues as the word 'social'.

The social of sociologists thus appears exactly as it always was, namely a superfluity, a purely redundant rear-world adding nothing to the real world except artificial conundrums—just like the ether before relativity theory helped physics (p. 107)
I wonder how my sociologist-colleagues would feel about this ;-)

From the first three uncertainties, we have learned that studying their relations might be empirically difficult but is no longer a priori forbidden by the ‘obvious objections’ that ‘things don’t talk’, ‘fish nets have no passion’, and ‘only humans have intentions’. Social is nowhere in particular as a thing among other things but may circulate everywhere as a movement connecting non-social things. Stage two: social is back as association. We don’t know yet how all those actors are connected, but we can state as the new default position before the study starts that all the actors we are going to deploy might be associated in such a way that they make others do things. This is done not by transporting a force that would remain the same throughout as some sort of faithful intermediary, but by generating transformations manifested by the many unexpected events triggered in the other mediators that follow them along the line. This is what I dubbed the ‘principle of irreduction’ and such is the philosophical meaning of ANT: a concatenation of mediators does not trace the same connections and does not require the same type of explanations as a retinue of intermediaries transporting a cause. (p. 107)
It's interesting, this made much more sense to me (or was much more of an "aha") 10 days ago when I first read it.  At the moment I think that I highlighted this because it highlights the approach that ANT takes toward non-human actors - in other words non-human actors are actors in their own right. The one thing that is making the mental gears turn, which I have italized above, is making me wonder what the system-wide effects in our interpretations are if we look at a connection from A----D as one concatenated connection vs. A--B--C--D vs.  A--B----D vs. A----C--D.

To designate this thing which is neither one actor among many nor a force behind all the actors transported through some of them but a connection that transports, so to speak, transformations, we use the word translation—the tricky word ‘network’ being defined in the next chapter as what is traced by those translations in the scholars’ accounts. So, the word ‘translation’ now takes on a somewhat specialized meaning: a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting (p. 108)
I think this connects with my previous point about the word translation. This is a non-mainstream meaning of the word. Interesting relationship, from plain ol' transport of causality to co-existance, but what does it really mean? Does it mean that both mediators (actors?) are of equal importance within their connected network? Co-existence generally means that the two aren't competing, but I didn't think that actors in a social network competed in such a way.

If some causality appears to be transported in a predictable and routine way, then it’s the proof that other mediators have been put in place to render such a displacement smooth and predictable (see Part II). I can now state the aim of this sociology of associations more precisely: there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exist translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations. (p. 108)
The italics are mine. Interesting, but how do we define traceable associations?  Are they strong bonds? weak bonds? no bonds (we're just playing archeologists)? If there are strong or weak bonds between mediators, does that not imply some sort of a system, even if voluntary?

So this is where the fourth source of uncertainty can help us. If we accept to learn also from the controversies about non-humans, we soon realize that matters of fact do not describe what sort of agencies are populating the world any better than the words ‘social’, ‘symbolic’, and ‘discursive’ describe what is a human actor and the aliens overtaking it. (p. 110)
No broad response back to Latour about this - I just found this quote pretty interesting and adding to the description of what ANT is. It's one of many quotes collected to find out what ANT is all about. Latour is presenting this almost like a murder mystery...

To our great surprise, once the artificial boundary between social and natural was removed, non-human entities were able to appear under an unexpected guise. For instance, rocks might be useful to knock an idealist back to his senses, but rocks in geology seemed to be much more varied, much more uncertain, much more open, and deploy many more types of agencies than the narrow role given to them in empiricist accounts (p 111)
The thing that got me thinking here is the whole notion of a "tool".  We think of tools as lacking some initial motivation to do something.  A hammer for example has the use of hammering, or removing, a nail (at least that's the intended purpose - what it allows you to do is a whole other kettle of fish). Here we can see this specific tool given a place in some sort of social interaction, but does the tool really matter, or does it not?  The computer mediates my communication with the audience of this blog, but does a tool, that doesn't have mediatory allowances, matter in an actor-network graph?

ANT is not interested only in freeing human actors from the prison of the social but in offering natural objects an occasion to escape the narrow cell given to matters of fact by the first empiricism. (p. 114)
Hmmm... so I guess with ANT we are giving non-human objects equal consideration in the network of actions and how those are translated?

 The discussion begins to shift for good when one introduces not matters of fact, but what I now call matters of concern. While highly uncertain and loudly disputed, these real, objective, atypical and, above all, interesting agencies are taken not exactly as object but rather as gatherings. (p. 114)
No comment - just interesting quote.

This is exactly what the fourth uncertainty wishes to thrive from: the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism—and hence the divide between ‘natural’ and ‘social’. (p. 114)
Again - no comment - just adding this to my "trying to understand ANT" pile...

Such a multiplicity does not mean that scientists don’t know what they are doing and that everything is just fiction, but rather that science studies has been able to pry apart exactly what the ready-made notion of ‘natural objective matters of fact’ had conflated too fast, namely reality, unity, and indisputability. (p. 116)
I wonder if he is getting a a duality in Actor-Network with this.  Each network is an actor, and each actor is comprised of a network (or networks)?

There is unity and objectivity on one side, multiplicity and symbolic reality on the other. This is just the solution that ANT wishes to render untenable. With such a divide between one reality and many interpretations, the continuity and commensurability of what we call the associations would immediately disappear, since the multiple will run its troubled historical course while the unified reality will remain intact, untouched, and remote from any human history. (p. 117)
Just an interesting quote. Note to self - add notes to margins...

Controversies over ontologies turn out to be just as interesting and controversial as metaphysics, except that the question of truth (of what the world is really like) cannot be ignored with a blase´ pose or simplified a priori by thumping on desks and kicking at stones (p. 118)
I am getting flashbacks from 802 with this quote ;-)

Scientific practice is the drosophila of social theory since it offers an exaggerated and scaled up version of what can later be studied in much more inaccessible domains. Once you learn how to respect shifting ontologies, you can tackle more difficult entities for which the question of reality has been simply squeezed out of existence by the weight of social explanations. (p. 119)
Not sure what to make of this, especially the weight of social explanations.  To some extent I thought we were discounting them up to now... :-/

When we list the qualities of an ANT account, we will make sure that when agencies are introduced they are never presented simply as matters of fact but always as matters of concern, with their mode of fabrication and their stabilizing mechanisms clearly visible (p. 120)
As I read this, again, I am wondering if agencies (and connections) are therefore (to some extent) in the eye of the beholder.  How one analyzes something, and from what frame will make a difference in how one perceives agency...

That's it for the 4th uncertainty.  One more to go!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Assessment of....?

Image from Flickriver, Brian Hillegas
A few days ago, and totally by stroke of chance, I happened upon a twitter discussion between @HybridPed@otterscotter, @actualham, and a few others.  I am not sure what the original topic was but I came in when they were discussing assessment. Do we assess learning or competency? Some regarded learning as transcending competency and some saw competency as transcending learning. It's hard to to really have a meaningful exchange of ideas in 140 characters, especially when the twitter train grows and grows.

When I jumped into this conversation I took the stance that what we assess is learning, not competency.  Competency, I would argue, is something that develops over a period of time. It is something you hone and improve.  Your skills (i.e. your competency is something) becomes improved the more your practice it. And, by practice, I mean being present while doing it and analyzing your own performance while doing the task, not just going on autopilot.    Learning on the other hand, for me, is learning distinct facts.  That the declaration of independence was signed in 1776. That the Greek War for Independence was in 1821, that many historians think of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand kicked off World War I, that π = 3.14 (and goes on to infinity), and so on.†

From what I gathered, the individuals that saw learning as transcending competency think of competency the way I think of learning - i.e. I can demonstrate that I know how to code an HTML page (got a badge for that, I haz competency), whereas learning is something akin to lifelong learning. It is a skill you acquire to continue learning and it is something that can continue ad infinitum if the learner wants.  Both positions, in my mind, are equally valid because we are defining things differently.

Some types of learning are easy to assess, at least in the short term.  Things that allow the learner to regurgitate discreet pieces of information area easy to implement (short answers, multiple choice test, and so on).  Things that require the learner to demonstrate systems knowledge can be done at the individual class level if you can find microcosms of the system skills that you want to assess and extrapolate from that some broader competency, and it's a bit easier to do near the end of one's studies through a thesis or some sort of comprehensive exam because the learner will have had a broader set of learnings to draw from in order to explain what is going on in that system.

This issue of learning and assessment is big.  It's big in many fields.  It's big money for  companies like Pearson.  It's a big question for accrediting agencies.  It's big in the field of MOOCs.  I've most recently seen it in MOOCs where some claim that watching videos is learning, and some claim it is not.  Videos are just a tool. They can be used for learning, but they can also go merrily on in the background and they can become background noise.  I've had the privilege of being able to see live videos...aka lectures...when I was an undergrad (and a grad student sometimes too!). They were just as interactive as the videos I watch on OCW or various xMOOCs.

Even in courses that were interactive and active learning took place do I still remember everything 10 years down the road?  As part of my BA, focusing on computer science and minoring in Italian (and almost minoring in German, just needed 1 more class), I took courses in Italian literature, in German culture, in world history since 1500, the history of the Weimar Republic and WW II Germany. I learned ANSI C and Java. I learned SQL, and about automata.  Do I remember everything?  Hell no.  Does this mean that my undergraduate education is null and void? I don't think so.  It was just a little building block to get me to where I am now, despite the fact that I don't remember discreet pieces of information.  Even with my most recent MA in Applied Linguistics there are things that I just don't remember any more.  There are some things that are really vivid because I know them, and some that are vivid because they still trouble me today (Processability Theory being one of them).

I agree with Maha, who joined the twitter train on that topic, who says that some types of learning cannot as easily assessed as others. Maybe they'll take my instructional designer practitioner's membership card away for agreeing (LOL), but I don't think everything can be assessed by an ABCD method (Audience, Behavior, Condition, Degree‡). This might be doable in some skills, such as firearm training, but in many topics in education there is just too much fuzziness for ABCD to work without reducing assessment to a caricature.

Maha continued with another comment, which is also quite true, that assessment is no guaranty of lifelong learning.  I am sure I did well in all those classes I mentioned (I got the degrees to prove that I didn't fail anything), but the lifelong journey I am on has little to do with those classes specifically and more with my own curiosity.  I'd expand on Maha's comment and say that assessment is no guaranty of practice in that field either.  I completed my computer science degree, but I opted to not get a job in that field. Something else came up that seemed more interesting, and I haven't coded anything in Java or C since.  The closest I come to coding is HTML and Javascript on my own website.

So, the question is this:  beyond credentialing and certification, does assessment matter?  And if if it does matter, in what ways does it matter?  Take #rhizo15 for instance. This was a course♠, but how does one assess what I "learned" in it?  Does it matter to anyone but me?

† hey, I am channeling Latour with all of these examples!
‡ an example of ABCD is "Learners in INSDSG 601 with a blank chart of the Dick & Carey model will be able to demonstrate knowledge of the names of the phases of the Dick & Carey Model with 80% accuracy"
♠ Rhizo15 was a course, wasn't it? I guess that's a whole other discussion about what makes a course...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is the Dissertation still relevant?

It seems like the cosmos is back on another round on beating down on the venerable dissertation as final exercise for a doctoral degree. Stephen Downes posted yesterday this article from Times Higher Education which is asking the question as to whether or not the Doctoral Dissertation is obsolete.†

The article quotes Jeremy Farrar of Imperial College London:
“An awful lot is going unused and unread,” he says. “Is this really appropriate for the modern world? Communication within the science world and with the public is becoming shorter and snappier, yet our PhDs still seem to be stuck in the 1960s.”

Another strand here is a recent post from Maha who writes:
What’s a PhD got to do with….
  • Writing 6,000 word articles? My PhD was over 100,000 Words. That prepared me for writing books but not articles. Some PhDs are composed of articles but most aren’t so… 
  • Working collaboratively – you work alone and you learn to manage. Then in real life your research can be so much better when working with others 
  • Teaching. Unless your uni offers prof dev or you teach while doing the PhD  Audience. PhD prepare you for the safe-ish limited audience of your supervisor(s) and examiners. The rest if the world seems so much more intimidating by comparison. –
  • Confidence/ego. Let’s face it we need some kind of confidence and ego to succeed in academia. PhDs don’t help with this really unless the transformation happens within you. I was lucky i got some stuff published and some good feedback from mentors to give me that push in the end. 
  • Carrying oneself. I still get the “no, you have a PhD?” look/talk because I wear jeans and stuff to work more often than not (P.S. Having a 3-year old means other pants look dirty real quick from her shoes as i carry her on my lap and walking to daycare and stuff).
And finally, Latour (from the fifth uncertainty) writes:
A 50,000 word thesis might be read by half a dozen people (if you are lucky, even your PhD advisor would have read parts of it!) and when I say ‘read’, it does not mean ‘understood’, ‘put to use’, ‘acknowledged’, but rather ‘perused’, ‘glanced at’, ‘alluded to’, ‘quoted’, ‘shelved somewhere in a pile’.

I've been thinking about the dissertation as a final exercise for one's doctorate for a while now - maybe I've even written about it on here before (I honestly don't know what I've written over the last 5 years on here!).  Personally I think that the idea of one academic monograph, that is of book length, as your final exercise in a doctoral program is pretty antiquated.  I get the historical reasons for it, but I think that our world has changed a lot since doctoral degrees started being conferred. While writing a book, or having your hand in some sustained piece of writing is important, I don't think that  it is indicative of what we are asking of academics to do today! 

What we are asking of academics to do, people who have earned a doctorate is to publish original research in journal articles that are space-constrained (which boggles the mind considering that we are mostly foregoing print these days for OA journals). We aren't asking academics to go our and write books.  If anything (book related) - we are asking them to be editors, to compile works of others into cohesive and coherent volumes. Now, your mileage may vary by your discipline.  I can only speak from my little corner of the galaxy - the field of education.  Are there original works out there?  YES.  Are they coming out in droves?  Nope!  The most published things are academic articles.

No convinced? Pretty much all faculty members that I have spoken to about a potential dissertation (not at Athabasca- but that's just by chance, but at my home institution) tell me that I should pick a dissertation topic that lends itself to break it apart and creating a few publishable articles out of it.  Huh?  Really?  If you are meant to show a train of thought, and a way of processing something from soup to nuts, how are you also going to break it apart and have the smaller chunks make sense?

Furthermore, even if we accept the prevailing narrative of the one monograph standard, we have Latour (above) who bursts our bubble who says that the thesis is only read by half-a-dozen people.  We may not believe him, but I can also go (anecdotally) by my own experiences.  Most of what I read are academic articles.  I did read through a few dissertations this past semester as part of a class project and I have to say that most of them didn't impress me much. They were OK reads, but I expected much more quality, fewer typos, more coherent thought processes, and the answer to the "so what?" that Pat Fahy asked us to ask of what we read and what we do.

Lastly, having spoken to an acquisitions editor for big academic press a few years ago about dissertations I learned that dissertation almost never get published as books unless they undergo heavy editing and changes.  If the book is the gold standard, and publishers won't publish unless major rework is done, there is something wrong here.

So, where do we go from here?

Do you have any suggestions? What would you want to see in lieu of dissertation? I have some ideas, but I am pretty sure they would all get rejected by faculty councils ;-)

† I didn't know until recently that Downes is ABD (all but dissertation). Maybe he does have a bone to pick, but does that mean he is wrong? I don't this so :-)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Rhizomatic Learning - The Practical Guide

Well, it's week 6, the last week of #rhizo15 that Dave will host. The topic of this week brings us back to the original topic of this rMOOC: A practical guide for Rhizomatic Learning. It's hard to really come up with something that encompasses the meaning and approaches  to rhizomatic learning  - heck, I am only now starting to "understand" it and I've only been really thinking about it for 18 months.  Sure that was that brief exposure in Change11, but that almost doesn't exist in my mind.

I started off thinking that in #rhizo15 I would finally be able to read an engage with Deleuze & Guattari and their book a thousand plateaus, but that didn't quite happen. I was deep in the thick of it with my second doctoral course (end of first year, yay!) when the #rhizo15 started, then I was working on a #rhizo14-related project with fellow "classmates" from #rhizo14 on Actor-Network Theory, so I ended up starting to read Latour, and now we're at the end of of #rhizo15, so no D&G this year.  Oh well. Foiled Again! ;-) I do wonder who engaged with D&G in #rhizoDG this year - maybe Aras knows!

So, what would I tell someone about teaching rhizomatically?  I would say that first you'd start with a topic and let your learners explore the topic.  Engage in it but don't be preachy.  Also, design your course so that there are a few weeks left at the end where the "lunatics" can run the asylum, sort of like how we did in #rhizo14.  I think that two of the bigger hurdles in implementing rhizomatic learning in higher education are the following:
  • How do learners "cope" or deal with their new-found "freedom". Many learners expect to be lead, sort of like that Lisa Simpson GIF that was posted early on in #rhizo15.  How do you help learners acclimate to this "open" environment?  Also, how do you deal with preparing learners for this?  I think that it would not be a stretch to say that most people who made it through to the end of both #rhizo4 and #rhizo15 are people who are (at the very least) determined, curious, stubborn, and can deal with ambiguity (and some of them can have fun while doing this). Institutionalized learners don't necessarily have this (think 1984 Apple ad and people sitting in neat little rows). How do you prep learners for this "revolution"? It's not fair to them to dump them on the deep end of the pool.
  • How do you assess the learning that is happening in the course? I know that we have independent studies as examples of how to assess learners in an emerging environment, but how do you deal with 10-15 different assessments in a fair manner.  Is fairness or sameness something we should be striving for in a rhizome or not?  Are fairness and sameness the same?

In the end, no matter what the intention of the designer and the course instructor (Dave in this case), the rhizome will find its own way! It seems that the thing to train both learners and instructors is how to deal with uncertainty.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Swarn the Google Doc, or so says the ANT

Did someone say "swarm"?
Alright. I've completed the first half of Latour's book on Actor-Network Theory titled Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. In a couple of blog posts (really soon) I will be continuing my exploration of ANT through this dialogue I've developed with Latour. I also, at the recommendation of Maha (I think) read Cressman's brief overview of ANT (PDF here). So now, inspired by Maha's post, I turn my attention to utilizing ANT (whatever my rudimentary understandig of it is) toward an analysis of the #RhizoResearchGroup's use of collaborative technologies.  Specifically I am dealing with Google Docs (or at least some elements of Google Docs given that ANT can lead you down a rabbit hole).

Briefly I would describe ANT as being a philosophy, or frame of mind, that attempts to account for both human and non-human elements in various interactions. Non-human elements can be technology, such as the keyboard I am using to type this up, but also things denoted by collective nouns - such as corporations, groups, senates, parliaments, and SIGs.  Actors can be just actors, or they can also be networks.  It just depends on what frame you are looking at them from. This type of complexity is a bit mind-boggling because  there are many ways of interpreting some occurence. Latour even says to be prepared for failure, which doesn't bother me, but knowing that consensus is going to be hard to come by makes this activity a bit frustrating.

Anyway - I am not focusing on Google Docs, specifically the word processor part, and our use of them for the #rhizo14 collaborations. What I remember using this for were the following (might be interesting to compare our lists). The list is in some sort of order of recollection (not of significance):

  • collection of our various stories for the collaborative autoethnography
  • creation of the Untext
  • Writing of the CAE
  • Preparing for #ET4Online discovery session
What's interesting is that I don't remember the brainstorming document that Maha mentions.  It must be that different things are more vivid in the minds of some actors than others.

In any case - Presenting ANT meets Google Docs (meets RhizoResearchGroup!) I think that the place to start is to acknowledge that technology is neither valueless nor value-neutral. Technology should also not be seen as a black box. Design decisions made during the design and creation stage of any product have a way of impacting how that product shapes the interactions that users have with it, and with others who are using this product.  Here are some of my observations using the Word Processor (WP) function of GoogleDocs (GD).

WP were developed with the mindset that there is one user with one keyboard.  Think of a typewriter and a person typing.  The document that is being written on the typewriter is almost done. It's not a rough draft, it's not some ideas that you are throwing on the page.  This was done, presumably, on paper before you even touched the keyboard. The draft you are creating with the WP is mostly dealt with as a draft-for-comment, your final draft before someone else sees it.  This is due to the historical development of the WP as an electronic update to the typewriter.

The WP does add functionality, however.  The processor part does allow the author (or typist if the author can't type) to go back and edit.  To cut things out, to paste things in, to process the text by adding and removing formatting like typeface, size, style, and various formatting options. It even allows for editor functions, like adding comments, editing text and marking changes and who made what change when.  Of course, even this collaborative function isn't really  collaborative but cooperative.  The software still treats the document as having 1 owner who is ultimately in control of the document, and others who can come in, make some small changes, and add comments. These are seen as parenthetical and on the side, so they aren't meant to distract from the main part of the document, which is the focal point.

So, how does the historical development of the WP affect how we interact with it?  For one thing, the focal point of 1 document, 1 (or few) ideas, 1 author, and many in the peanut gallery make it hard for a swarm to come in and try to make sense of a document in a linear fashion - which is what the WP was created to do: put something into a linear document for consumption by others. Even when reading one person's contribution (e.g. their story in the collection of stories document), the reactions people had to parts of the story (agree, disagree, adding to, cheering on, etc.) had the effect of bringing you out of that narrative and into the sidebar. In essence the WP became a faux-hypertext document in that you could take branching paths to go to different places in the document as you read, but unlike a hypertext document where the author can control whether they click somewhere to go, those highlighted passages, and dotted lines - like the Sirens in the Odyssey - lured your attention from the main document to the marginalia. This isn't bad per-se, but does the technology, and how it presents itself to us, influence how we interact with the words on the page? I would say that WP is not setup for a swarm approach to document writing, even though we made it work.

This "issue" of marginalia, and other attention breaking devices, is device dependent.  If you read the document in a mobile browser, something like a smartphone or tablet, chances are that you didn't see the marginalia, so your attention was not taken from what individual authors wrote. If you did not have full permissions to the document you might see it, you might not see it, and if you did see it you might now have had the comments showing.  Or, you might have been able to make "suggestions" rather than edit right on the page. This has an implied power-dynamic, and it brings me back to the origins of the WP, as a one person-one document setup.  I think that this also, at a subconscious level, had an effect on how we interacted with the text originally. Instead of going in and stepping on someone's toes by directly editing their contribution we added marginalia, asked questions, tried to negotiate, instead of actually allowing the swarm to work it out - to go in and change parts, without permission, and see where the document ends up, as opposed to the negotiation aspect that we've been enculturated into.

From a Power dynamics perspective, comments and the "resolution" of them, again assumes a certain power structure - that the 1 author of the 1 paper has the power to accept or dismiss the comments made by other people.  Even if we are all authors, the fact that I have the power to "resolve" Keith's comments means that others may not even see what he wrote as a comment in the document, one node - one actor, has much power over that network in this sense..

Finally, ideas will not begin with the WP.  They are carried there by actors. These actors have interacted with other actors, both human collaborators and other non-human actors such as collaboration technologies.  As Maha wrote, what ends up on the Google Doc hides much of what happened outside. This reminds me of Latour's fifth uncertainty - when you start notating and jotting things down you lose the richness of what has transpired.  Even with this blog post, I've boiled down something really complex into one post.  Even with this post I have not discussed everything that could be discussed about Google Docs, WP, power, and design decisions around software and group processes, so much is lost. To some extend the fifth uncertainty seems rather nihilistic...


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Post-Grades Assessments...and Grades...

I wrote (a few days ago) that I am re-designing  an introductory course in instructional design (see syllabus here).  In my assessment activities I've decided to go with a pass/not pass model.  There will still be something approximating traditional rubrics and categories for different things that learners need to address in each activity, but I am toying with the idea of doing away with prescriptive rubrics like this one†.  I think that grading rubrics, and the exercise of sitting down to create one, is invaluable for instructor and instructional designers.  It helps you go through the process of articulating what you want learners to be able to do in this activity.

There is only one problem, not everything can have a meaningful rubric.  For instance, in the rubric I linked to, how does one convey to learners that they minimally summarized vs. summarized something?  Or summarized vs. extensively summarized?  Qualitative feedback is obviously important to help disambiguate, but this is really after-the-fact feedback (once assignment is in and graded). Thus the rubric helps in establishing categories, and some criteria, but they aren't always clear.  Sometimes the rubric maker is awful at making rubrics, and other times the type of assessment doesn't lend itself to that sort of rubric.  Hence, my pass/not pass attempt at assessment.

This, however brings up an interesting conundrum: what will the final grade of learners be? Do they all get an A?  Is that fair?  Am I being lazy and just contributing to "grade inflation"  - is that even a thing? or are we being all doom and gloom about this?

This and a recent (and last!) ET4Online from the OLC made me think of a badges first approach to assessments.  For this I was also influenced by David Wiley's IOE12. For that course David Wiley had an interesting schema for assigning a final grade (see badge descriptions here on The final schema looked like this (IOE12 was both a MOOC and a for-credit course):

No badges earned = F
1 Novice Badge = D
1 Novice Badge + 1 Apprentice Badge = C
1 Novice Badge + 2 Apprentice Badges = B
1 Novice Badge + 2 Apprentice Badges + 1 Journeyman Badge = A

I thought to myself... well... this could work, why not try it?  So here is my attempt. I have two types of badges:
  • Known and tied to specific knowledge and skills demonstrated [credit-bearing]
  • Hidden (Easter Eggs) tied to interactions in the course [non-credit-bearing]

No [credit bearing] badges = F
1-2 Explorer badge = F
3 Explorer badges = C
3 Explorer badges + 1 Instructional Designer Apprentice Badge = B
3 Explorer badges + 1 Instructional Designer Apprentice Badge + 1 Reflective badge= B+
All of the above + participation in weekly discussions = A

It should be noted that the easter-egg badges are mostly tied to weekly discussions, but I don't want people to be forced into patterns of participation.  I also do want to encourage a spirit of exploration in the course by having easter-egg badges, so those are hidden until discovered.

The explorer badges are going to be earned by exploring different areas of instructional design throughout the weeks (theories of learning, different modalities, specific edtech, and so on).  The Instructional Designer Apprentice badge will be earned when the learner submits a passing-quality final project in which they have employed ID, and the Reflective badge will be awarded for learners who have completed at least 8 weekly reflections on their own learning.  Participation will be based on participation in the forums each week ;-).

I can already see issues like what happens if I have 2 explorer badges, 1 ID apprentice, and 1 reflective badge?  I guess I will need to figure that out at some point.  What do you think?  Any thoughts at this point?

Now I need to design the easter-egg badges ;-)

† in case the image doesn't show up in the future, it was just one of the first images of a grading rubric that came up on google search.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Latour: Third Source of Uncertainty - Objects have agency too!

Continuing on my exploration of ANT, and asynchronous and indirect dialogue with Latour - this blog post will cover the third source of uncertainty, which according to Latour, is that Objects have agency too! As with the previous blog posts, I've pulled out quotes from the book that seemed interesting, or that I reacted to in some way, and I am responding to them here.

no tie can be said to be durable and made of social stuff (p. 66)
This quote seems to continue Latour's assertion that there is no such thing as "social" or "social stuff" and that "social", or the meaning of needs to be negotiated and better understood.  It also continues the thought that social can only be seen from the actions of its actors, the traces they leave behind, and that these bonds are not durable because they need continuous reinforcement. I guess Social is a perishable item.

Left to its own devices, a power relationship that mobilizes nothing but social skills would be limited to very short-lived, transient interactions (p. 66)
So, social skills aren't all the rage?  They are only one part of a larger equation? What other things are needed to sustain interactions?

Social action is not only taken over by aliens, it is also shifted or delegated to different types of actors which are able to transport the action further through other modes of action, other types of forces altogether. (p. 70)
One of the issues with Latour is that he likes his examples, and he circumnavigates the point he is making.  At this point I am wondering if Aliens was a metaphor, aliens of the Spock variety, or of the kind that burst out of your belly.  I think the key point here is that action and interaction is like a set of dominoes (which I think I referenced in the previous post).  Your action of knocking down one domino will eventually lead to knocking down another, and in the end that action you initially had might even be transformed into another action altogether. The question is: do we treat this as a black-box? as an integrated system with various cogs? Or something else entirely?

if we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor—or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference? (p. 71)
Figuration here, according to Latour, is the counterpart to agency. No figuration, no agency.  The whole issue of action, and in this case agency, reminds me of the animated videos of molecules traveling fast. If they don't hit anything they travel on their merry way, and if they hit other molecules not only do they alter their original path, but they also alter what that other molecule was doing before the collision.  The question that comes to mind is this.  Can an actor through their own actions make a difference in themselves (think action returning back to self), and in this case would it be considered agency by Latour if the action is reflexive to the original actor and not affect other actors?  I think it would, but how does one measure difference? And is this a joint endeavor by a researcher and the researched (the actor)? Or just something the actor does as well - as in when the actor is an actor/researcher (maybe I am over-thinking this...)

In addition to ‘determining’ and serving as a ‘backdrop for human action’, things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on. ANT is not the empty claim that objects do things ‘instead’ of human actors: it simply says that no science of the social can even begin if the question of who and what participates in the action is not first of all thoroughly explored, even though it might mean letting elements in which, for lack of a better term, we would call non-humans. This expression, like all the others chosen by ANT is meaningless in itself. It does not designate a domain of reality. It does not designate little goblins with red hats acting at atomic levels, only that the analyst should be prepared to look in order to account for the durability and extension of any interaction (p. 72)
Here Latour introduces the notion that non-human (and non-living) elements could be actors in the actor-network. It's not just us humans that are actors and have agency, but non-humans can as well. Of course, from this brief bit, Latour doesn't tell us that non-humans must be counted, rather he is coming from a position that we must ask what the elements are before we start thinking about our network, rather than starting from a presupposition of what's to be included.  This reminds me, to some extent, of grounded theory.  In one of the varieties (because that couldn't be simple and just have one variety) you go into the data without any predispositions (which can be thought of a bit as a white lie because we all have biases), and you let the data guide you.  Similarly in ANT it seems that you can go in and observe what's happening and then determine who or what is an actor in this network.

ANT claims that we should simply not believe the question of the connections among heterogeneous actors to be closed, that what is usually meant by ‘social’ has probably to do with the reassembling of new types of actors. ANT states that if we wish to be a bit more realistic about social ties than ‘reasonable’ sociologists, then we have to accept that the continuity of any course of action will rarely consist of human-to-human connections (for which the basic social skills would be enough anyway) or of object-object connections, but will probably zigzag from one to the other (p. 75)
Quite interesting.  I think the thing to keep in mind here is that I don't think Latour is claiming that objects have personalities and agency, like Robots and Androids on television (see Mr. Data on Star Trek for example), but rather that our interactions between human actors are mediated and translated and carrier through non-human means.  For instance, as with my previous blog posts, I typed this out on my computer and keyboard, on my internet connection, and you are seeing it wherever you are, while the content is stored on some google server.  That said, this medium mediates the communication, the action itself.  If we were in close proximity I would most likely discuss this in person with you, but then what I said would go up into ether (assuming that the air that carries my voice can be considered an actor itself), whereas here there is some constraint (I don't write as I would normally speak for example), but the words and ideas have some sort of permanence. Actors mediate, transform, alter the original actions.

ANT, even though it is not a specific stretch of land nor an enclosed turf but only a brief flash which may occur everywhere like a sudden change of phase. (p. 79)
This is probably one of the frustrating things of ANT thus far - neither here, nor there.  How can one grasp it if it's not concrete?

To be accounted for, objects have to enter into accounts. If no trace is produced, they offer no information to the observer and will have no visible effect on other agents(p. 79)
It's not that I disagree with this, but how does one account for traces? And what do traces mean?  Can one person see a trace in a certain ecosystem and another person not see that trace?  I wonder if this is a case where you would need different raters to establish inter-rater reliability.

information—it is clearly more difficult for objects, since carrying their effects while becoming silent is what they are so good at as Samuel Butler noted.(p. 79)
I guess I can't argue with this, Latour.  Then again

Speech acts always look comparable, compatible, contiguous, and continuous with other speech acts; writing with writing; interaction with interaction; but objects appear associable with one another and with social ties only momentarily. (p. 80)
I guess...?  I am not sure what Latour's background is (I could look it up, but I am feeling lazy, and I want to finish this blog post so I can get to other things) but if you ask a linguist I doubt they would think that speech acts are always looking comparable, compatible, continuous, and continuous with each others. I haven't studied linguistics in depth (at least core, traditional, linguistics - I am at the moment more into the applied variety) but even I would disagree with Latour on this.  By the same token, even though social ties are only momentary the should be comparable (etc.) with other social ties. Just because they are momentary it doesn't mean that they aren't comparable (etc.) - unless I am missing something :-)

The first solution is to study innovations in the artisan’s workshop...In these sites objects live a clearly multiple and complex life through meetings, plans, sketches, regulations, and trials. Here, they appear fully mixed with other more traditional social agencies. It is only once in place that they disappear from view. (p. 80)
I liked the metaphor here, the artisan's workshop - it also has a feel of a master/apprentice relationship which seems to me where I am at the moment with my doctoral education. The thing that stood out here for me was that the objects disappear from view. Probably NOT because they are no longer there, but because they blend into the background.  This got me thinking - Latour says that the social needs to be reinforced and groups need to reform and re-establish themselves, otherwise they cease to exist. If actors disappear from view - and objects here are actors - then why not the "social" itself? Why does it need work to keep going?

The third type of occasion is that offered by accidents, breakdowns,and strikes: all of a sudden, completely silent intermediaries become full blown mediators; even objects, which a minute before appeared fully automatic, autonomous, and devoid of human agents, are now made of crowds of frantically moving humans with heavy equipment. (p. 81)
Latour here, in my mind, argues that when turd hits the fan with in-animate objects that's when we notice and they become full-blown actors.  I agree to some extent (if I assume I am buying his argument that non-human actors exist), but I don't agree fully.  I think that non-human actors are already full-blown actors in what we do regardless of whether they are functioning fully or not.  Just because we notice them more when they don't function it doesn't mean that they weren't  full actors before that. It's just that the malfunction makes them act in new, and sometimes, unpredictable ways.

Fourth, when objects have receded into the background for good, it is always possible—but more difficult—to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections, etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born (p. 81)
I agree with this. Once an object becomes antiquated (for lack of a better word) it's hard to imagine how it was used.  You have to replicate all of the conditions of the ecosystem that that object in order to better appreciate its function within that ecosystem.  This is one of the reasons I wanted to be a computer and video game archivist in previous years ;-)

Social explanations run the risk of hiding that which they should reveal since they remain too often ‘without object’. (p. 82)
A good caution by Latour.  Not sure what I can add to it other than "I agree".

When a bicycle hits a rock, it is not social. But when a cyclist crosses a ‘stop’ sign, it becomes social. When a new telephone switchboard is installed, this is not social (p. 83)
This is one of Latour's many examples in the book - thus far - .  My feelings here is that there is a level of nuance that goes unexplained with all of these inanimate objects.  The implicit assumption is that because a human actor put up the stop sign, and that symbol means something within our culture, running a stop sign is a social act (what sort of social act it is requires more investigation).  The assumption is that the rock just exists, and therefore when the bike hits it there is just action-reaction but no social.  But, what if someone put the rock there?  What is Wile E. Coyote put that rock there intentionally to stop the Roadrunner?  Does this still leave the rock being asocial?  Or does the act of one actor imbue the non-human object with some sort of social potential?

Thus concludes Uncertainty #3.  Only two more to go. thoughts?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Counting, Grading, α, β, γ, δ ,ε, στ, ...

A few things happened this week which seemed to point to a nexus on grading, grades, and a throwback to Week 3 of Rhizo15 on what counts. The three thing that came together for me were Whitney's post from Week 3, My own grades from EDDE 802, and me designing (or rather re-designing) the introductory course in instructional design which I will teach/facilitate/rhizolead this summer.  All these things happened independent of one another but in reading Whitney's post I realized that there was some sort of coming together in a nexus, or rather a vortex of grades and assessment.

Part I:  A reaction to Whitney's post
Whitney writes that she is not a fan of grades and that she has found them motivating at times, and demotivating at other times. This got me thinking about my own connection to grades.  People assume that since I have earned 3 master's degrees I am naturally some sort of smart person and that I care about grades. The reality is that I don't.  I don't dislike grades, but at the same time I don't like them either.  I am ambivalent toward them.  As a kid, growing up in Greece my grades were average (or just below average).

In the US, in high school, I was able to hit the reset switch on grades. I had better academic support to be able to catch up in some academic areas that I had fallen behind in K-8. As a result I earned better grades.  One of the reasons, or motivators to earn better grades was also the negative attention I got from my father in the US. Get better grades (translation: get "A") so that you don't get the talk about academic achievement...  Even in college I barely cared about grades, but I needed to maintain a certain GPA to graduate (which I barely made in my major ;-) ). I remember in the final weeks taking the bus into school and sitting next to my professor for my final computer science class trying to draw out of him if I passed the course with a high enough grade to graduate.  Those were the days.

Finally, for my graduate degrees there was really only one reason to care for grades: honors at graduation.  We don't have Latin Honors at UMass Boston for graduate programs, but each department has a Book Award for one graduating student in that degree, and departments also have other awards that they give out during this time (Applied Linguistics I think has six awards each year).  Was this perk motivation enough for me to get straight-A's?  Nope!  I did manage to earn top honors for 2 of my 4 graduate degrees without trying - which probably pissed others off. By the time I was done with my first graduate degree education ceased being about a piece of paper (although it does open some doors), and it was more about life long learning, and more importantly having fun with the stuff you are learning. I think this was probably why I got good grades. I was less concerned with rubrics and more concerned with learning.  But...isn't that sort of oxymoronic?!

Part II: Grades in EDDE 802 (and doctoral-level education in general)
This week we also got grades for my second doctoral course (thus finishing off my first year as a doctoral student).  The grades first hit moodle, and then the SIS (student information system) which had the grade of record.  The course was taught/lead by George Siemens so for me, in addition to getting a refresher, and very in-depth expansion on research methods, I was able to be in the same classroom as someone whose work I've been following since I got into MOOCs in 2011.  The final grade, for me, was more of a curiosity than anything else. I had made a comment earlier in the semester on twitter, while interacting with Lisa (from Cohort 6) and George that grades really don't mean much at this level of study (unless you fail, in which case that signifies something).

I logged into Moodle and my grade was an 81. I thought to myself "not bad, that's like a B+ or A-".  In the US the numeric to letter grade system is different and a 81 at my institution is a B- (and sort of frowned upon in graduate study). Well, the moodle auto-calculation was wrong, and I think my correct score was actually a 90. Again, still not bad - this pushed me into a solid A.  However, what was most valuable for me in this course was not the grade, but the interaction with my cohort, my instructor, the feedback I got, and the grappling with epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies (can't forget about those ;-) ).  The more I learn, the less concerned I am about grades. A simple Pass/Not Pass would suffice for me.

Part III: Design of an intro course
So, just by stroke of luck I have a course to teach this summer: INSDSG 601: Introduction to Instructional Design (just finished the syllabus). I wanted to go all Open Access and Creative Commons with my materials for this course, but the time constraints didn't allow for it.  Oh well, maybe on the next round of design.  The two topics that I really wanted addressed in this course, that I didn't feel were addressed well in previous iterations of the course's design, were:
  •  ID beyond a "simple" process. In other words what areas relate to the instructional design process that learners could have hooks into for future study (either on their own, or through a program like the ID MEd program at my school).  Think of it as an amuse-bouche or an appetizer to wet the learner's pallet for future learning, but that still has relevance for this course.
  • How does one assess this added stuff, and how does one include it in the course without overwhelming the learners?
One of the things that I don't like is haggling over numeric grading.  Even with a rubric, that clearly states the different levels of competency the learners can demonstrate there is (at least in Blackboard) a range.  So if you are in the mid-range of some competency you will be given a grade between 79-89.  Why give one person a 80 and another and 85? What's the difference?   Over the years I've tended to just give everyone the upper range of that category unless I think they've just half-assed it to meet the letter of the rubric (this doesn't happen often).  Since learners in introductory classes are probably coming back to school after a period of not having structured classes grades are probably at the forefront of their minds. I just don't want to haggle for numeric grades - I do want to give feedback and see people grow!  So, my solution is to make assignments pass/not pass.  There are still deadlines (which are important to me). My main issue is that Blackboard doesn't allow for pass/not pass, you still need to have either a letter or a numeric grade... So I've devised the following schema:
  • 0 points - you did not submit anyway
  • 50 points - you submitted something, but it didn't pass muster, needs major revisions
  • 80 points - you submitted something and it was passing quality, needs some revisions to improve
  • 100 points - you submitted something and it was passing quality, needs minor revisions to improve
I am hoping that this grading schema will desensitize the students to grading and focus them more on reading and analyzing the feedback and on improving.  There is still the small issue of what people get for a final grade (do they all get "A"s?) but I'll save that for another blog.

Part IV: Welcome to the vortex
OK, so all these things are happening independently, and suddenly there was a reaction between these three ingredients and BAM. Question forms (partly based on Whitney's post): Grades, what are they good for?  I learned last year in Edmonton (and maybe this is apocryphal) that  the grade system (A, B, C, etc.) is based on the USDA's grading system for meat.  What separates an A from a B from a C? And, when people graduate, do people care?  Do people use grades in classes and transcripts for things other than assessing "proficiency" in those courses?  I know that some HR departments look at GPAs, but what does that tell an employer about the work you can do?  As someone who focused on HR in my MBA I'd say "nothing" - but feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

A Challenge for you: Grades, what are they good for?

  1. In case you didn't catch it in the title, the Greek letters aren't just Greek Letters, but rather ancient Greek numerals. Α = 1, Β = 2, Γ = 3, and so on. It seemed appropriate for the topic of this post ;-)
  2. Finally  caught up with all Rhizo15 related posts on my Pocket! yay!  Now, just you watch...more will show up...

Friday, May 15, 2015

Latour: Second Source of Uncertainty - Action is overtaken

Continuing on the exploration of Latour and ANT, the second source of uncertainty according to Latour is: Action is Overtaken. To be honest a few days after I've read the chapter and copied interesting parts from it for this post, I am not really sure what that means... I had to look the chapter title up to make sure that I wasn't making a mistaken ;-)  As with previous blog

In most situations, we use ‘social’ to mean that which has already been assembled and acts as a whole, without being too picky on the precise nature of what has been gathered, bundled, and packaged together. (p. 43)
This seems to sound just about right.  I think that "social" as a term, in general, has been abused and over-used since the advent of "social media".   Anything that has interaction between two entities is termed to be social, but what does that really mean? It doesn't really help that a lot of tech, and edtech, companies just parade the word out as a feature...

Action is not done under the full control of consciousness; action should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled. (p. 44)
What Latour writes is setup as a dichotomy here: we are not in full conscious control of our actions (with which I agree). Instead we should see actions as....(what he said).  I don't see this as opposites.  I think that our actions are not all under full conscious control AND we should see action as a network with nodes and vertices. I do not think that the two are mutually exclusive.

For the social sciences to regain their initial energy, it’s crucial not to conflate all the agencies overtaking the action into some kind of agency—‘society’, ‘culture’, ‘structure’, ‘fields’, ‘individuals’, or whatever name they are given—that would itself be social. (p. 45)
I don't think I disagree with this.  Not all "action" is social.  Some action is downright antisocial (ever worked with someone who is passive aggressive?)

To use the word ‘actor’ means that it’s never clear who and what is acting when we act since an actor on stage is never alone in acting. (p. 46)
I both agree with this, and at the same time I disagree.  I think, to some extent the metaphor is flawed. When someone acts they don't necessarily have to act with other living things (living actors). I think Latour here is trying to bring in the notion of inanimate actors, objects as actors.  So as I am acting now, I am acting alone using the blogger platform to blog. However I am acting with a variety of non-animate objects and 'actors' in real time, such as my keyboard, computer, browser, web-connection, and google's server's).

If we consider non-real-time (or time-delayed) acting, if you are reading this I am interacting with you in some sense.  However, I don't think that it isn't clear who is acting.  I think it's perfectly clear - at least to me -that I am pushing certain buttons.  The intent is that those buttons will show me something on my screen. When I hit "submit" I am acting to get these words to a venue that you will see it. Even when I am not there to physically act (by pushing buttons), if you are reading this and it turns some mental gears, I am still acting.  Now, that acting is mediated by technology - and the technology is acting in some fashion, but I think that there is some aspect of being able to enumerate at least some of the actors and what some of their acts might be in this chain of events.

Action is borrowed, distributed, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated. If an actor is said to be an actor-network, it is first of all to underline that it represents the major source of uncertainty about the origin of action—the turn of the word ‘network’ will come in due time (p. 46)
The source of action may be uncertain when we first feel the effect of action, however can we not trace it back, in some sense, to the original actor? Sometimes networks mask this identity, but I don't think that is is impossible to unmask the originator.

Uncertainty should remain uncertain throughout because we don’t want to rush into saying that actors may not know what they are doing, but that we, the social scientists, know that there exists a social force ‘making them do’ things unwittingly. (p. 47)
This was an interesting quote. I wish I had scribbled something in the digital margin when I underlined it. Reading this quote now I am getting a feeling that we shouldn't ascribe everything to black box, the force that moves us as unwitting pawns. Not something I can disagree with, but beyond that I am not sure why I highlighted it.  Just goes to show that sometimes one thing will pique your interest, and others it's a "well d'uh!".

The mistake we must learn to avoid is listening distractedly to these convoluted productions and to ignore the queerest, baroque, and most idiosyncratic terms offered by the actors, following only those that have currency in the rear-world of the social (p. 47)
I guess Latour here is inviting us to go down the rabbit hole of the queer, baroque, and idiosyncratic. To pay attention to things that don't quite fit because those have the potential to explicate things in the real world.  I don't disagree, but I also see some pragmatic issues at hand. Things that have "real-world currency" are things that ground us to what's valued.  If we stay very much outside of that world in our explorations, and we are not grounded within what's current, our ideas and findings will just be on the fringe and won't really have a lot of impact.  Some people don't care about impact (and that's fine), but your explorations are judged by a current system.  I don't think we should necessarily conform to fit a square peg in the round hole, but we should relate the finds from such explorations of the baroque to what's current in the real world.

We have to resist pretending that actors have only a language while the analyst possesses the metalanguage in which the first is ‘embedded’. (p. 48)
Agreed.  I think we are going back to ontological and epistemological frames of reference here, and those should be acknowledged.

An invisible agency that makes no difference, produces no transformation, leaves no trace, and enters no account is not an agency (p. 53)
Interesting - this reminded me again of the lurkers in MOOCs. If they produce no transformation they have no agency.  But then again, how does one measure making a difference and transforming something?

The presence of the social has to be demonstrated each time anew; it can never be simply postulated. If it has no vehicle to travel, it won’t move an inch, it will leave no trace, it won’t be recorded in any sort of document (p. 53)
Ouch! Sounds like 'social' has no memory.  I don't disagree that the social needs strengthening and re-establishment, like kindling a fire. The question here is, what are the vehicles for 'social' and what what is the fuel it uses?

actors also engage in criticizing other agencies accused of being fake, archaic, absurd, irrational, artificial, or illusory (p. 56)
The question that came up here is this: If we are to pay attention to the queer, baroque, and the outside of the usual, why are actors engage in criticizing the fake, archaic, and other agencies listed in this quote? Why don't we analyze and pay attention to the 'irrational' for instance? Is it really irrational or are we just framing it as irrational due to our previous frames and existing biases?  And, if we do indeed discover that it is irrational (however we define that), then what?

actors are also able to propose their own theories of action to explain how agencies’ effects are carried over (p. 57)
Nothing much to say about this - seemed like an interesting and on-the-point point

if vehicles are treated as mediators triggering other mediators, then a lot of new and unpredictable situations will ensue (they make things do other things than what was expected)(p. 59)
The second solution, the one preferred by ANT, pictures a world made of concatenations of mediators where each point can be said to fully act (p. 59)
Reading these two quotes brought up the mental image of dominoes falling in succession after some actor caused that first domino to fall.   The one thing that I am not so sure about at this point is what does it mean to "act fully"?  Is there such a thing as "partial acting"? Can you act without agency?

ANT is simply the social theory that has made the decision to follow the natives, no matter which metaphysical imbroglios they lead us into— and they quickly do as we shall see now! (p. 62)
So, is ANT another type of ethnography? I know that ANT is not a research method, but based on this it seems to fall into the broad sphere of ethnographies.

This concludes my second interaction with Latour.  Thoughts? Comments?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Invasive species, echo chambers, and community: This week on Rhizo15!

I was going for a News show feel with that title. I don't think it came across.  The more I think about it the more I am thinking that video might satiate my dramatic tendencies - but that would take more acting talent and more time.  It's just text for now! If you have an idea for a name for a Mock News Show (like the Daily Show but for EdTech, drop a comment ;-) )

So, week 5 Rhizo15 - this means that there is only one more week left if I am not mistaken. Dave talks about the doom and gloom of community. It's such an invasive species.  It assimilates all that it touches. Oh my!  Just to set the stage here Dave asks if community is just replacing one authority - the instructor - for another, which I would guess he means the Hegemony of the Group.  Is the course becoming an echo chamber?  Does the rhizome choke the air out of everything it touches?

I am pretty sure that Dave is being controversial here (surprised?) and possibly a little tongue in cheek. Generally speaking my guess would be that if I tried to "design" a course around rhizomatic principles my students would most likely mutiny. I am actually not even sure how one would "design rhizomatically"† anyway. That's a topic for another post I guess.  Even if we don't go full-rhizo on a course, and we work out the community aspect where the instructor steps back and lets the class take over, that doesn't mean that the power of the instructor (in a formal academic setting) isn't something on the minds of learners throughout the course (I think Maha wrote about this in Week 4).

Is group-think a potential problem in teamwork?  I think it is, but just because it's a potential problem it doesn't mean that we have an echo-chamber situation.  Some posts from previous weeks are bubbling up on twitter because some of us are only now getting to them and if we see something in them we like or identify with we share them, even though they came back a few weeks ago.  Since MOOCs are open entry, open exit, open re-entry (and so on), it's not out of the realm of possibilities that content will bubble up from time to time. I think this is a logical part of a course that does not have a linear structure.

Still, the issue of the echo-chamber may persist.  The twitter SNA that Aras is kindly keeping track of seems to indicate more posts, but fewer people on twitter.  Is this a problem?  Well, maybe - or maybe not.  It depends on what the goal is.  The community is distributed in at least two social networks - facebook and twitter.  Three if you count the weekly Vialogues that are coming up‡. And some people might be just engaging on their own blogs without interacting with the rest of the community. Some members just do one network, others do both, others do all three, some blog on top of that.  I think that twitter-action is only one side of the coin and we can't base our interpretation of interactions in the course only on that metric.

Furthermore, there are other considerations.  It took me up to week 3 of #Rhizo15 to really get started. My EDDE802 course was still in session when Rhizo15 started so my attention was on something that would get me feedback on assignments and earn me a grade to allow me to go on to the next step of doctoral studies. I would have loved to have participated early on, but such is life.  I would assume that there are still others that were able to participate early on but may not be able to participate as much on this end of things.  Without bugging our 201 members on the facebook group (assuming that's an official count) for weekly temperature checks, how does one account for non-course priorities that affect course "performance"?  I also see 11 new members on the Rhizo group which means, to me anyway, that the membership is fluid and not fixed in time.

Now, are there groups of people that know each other from previous MOOCs (or online life in general) that tend to prioritize members of that group over others?  I don't doubt it!  To some extent people who you know from before have undergone a mental vetting process. You sort of know what you are going to get from them, so you might prioritize reading what they write over some other unknown.  Is this an echo chamber?  I would say no because they might not be parroting the same things you say or think (that would be boring in my mind anyway). I don't think that when new groups are formed you are out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new each time you have a new learning setting. Having a known point on the compass is a great start, but as learners we should aim to expand our horizons, and this means reading contributions from people we don't know. That is how our network expands.  By re-engaging with people we know we strengthen that social bond as well.  I guess, as Latour says in ANT, groups are constantly being formed and re-formed. There isn't just one group that stays as is in perpetuity.

Your thoughts?

† If you do know or have an inkling on how to do instructional design for rhizomatic courses, and you want to submit an article for a forthcoming peer reviewed special issue of CIEE on the Instructional Design of MOOCs let me know!

‡ I guess I should try this at least once.  Maybe this week...

Independent side note: I don't think that community chokes the traditional because many people are still resistant to community and group learning.  Just dump knowledge in my head and test me on it - that's their motto ;-)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Latour: First Source Uncertainty - there are no groups!

Look for traces of the "social"
One of the things I like about Rhizo14, and our collaboration, is that we keep going, exploring our participation, and collaboration post Rhizo14 through a variety of lenses.  This keeps the mind active and exploring new areas.  I've been meaning to get acquainted with Actor Network Theory (ANT), but the time is rarely right. Classes, work, other projects conspire to distract me :-).  That said, with a presentation looming for some of us in the rhizo14 group, it's time to read about ANT.  The book recommended is Reassembling the Social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory by Bruno Latour.

I am currently 100 pages in (out of 300) and I am getting the sense that Latour likes to write, and likes to give a lot of examples, but doesn't really get to the point - at least quickly enough for my satisfaction.  If one thing can be said about me is that I am stubborn.  I will get through this book.  Now how to segment it and talk about it?  I think I will do so in chapters.  The first part of the book had 5 chapters no 5 different sources of uncertainty.  The first one being "No group, Only Group Formation".  I think I will be devoting a blog post for each source of uncertainty, and decide after I am done how to tackle Part II.  The way this is going to work is as follows: I have highlighted various parts from each chapter - something that made my mental gears go. I will present the passage and add some commentary. I think this works since I don't, yet, have an overall idea of ANT.  Latour, as I wrote, doesn't get to the point as quickly as I had hoped, and the only overall picture I have is this: You can't see social, you can only determine its presence from the marks it's left behind, sort of like the footsteps in sand above.

A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or to ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative—it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical, natural—and some positive—it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order. (p. 3)
So, what I am given to understand from this is that perhaps humans aren't social animals biologically speaking, as we have been told many times, but rather social does take work, in a variety of areas, in order to happen and to be maintained. No surprises there.

The duties of the social scientist mutate accordingly: it is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers offering cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is made of. Your task is no longer to impose some order, to limit the range of acceptable entities, to teach actors what they are, or to add some reflexivity to their blind practice (p. 11-12)
This reminds me a lot of critical theory, ethnography, and autoethnography; in other words things discussed in research methods courses. It basically seems to me that Latour is critiquing traditional research, and ontological perspectives, that see people in a community as informants rather than as co-creators of reality.  While I don't disagree, not everyone would agree.  It, thus, seems to me that ANT tends to lean more on the critical side of things rather than on the positivist side of things.

There’s no question that ANT prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, and by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket. (p. 23)
A little poetic license here by Latour, but it does give you the sense that if you are using ANT as part of your research, be  prepared for the long-haul.

it seems that the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society (p. 28)
Why is this the most important decision?  Why not start as a tabular rasa?  Granted, we all come to the table with biases and pre-conceptions that we don't always acknowledge, or they don't bubble up to the top, but why start defining which ingredients are important before you start? What if you discover something on the way that is important enough to consider?

If someone pointed out to me that words like ‘group’, ‘grouping’, and ‘actor’ are meaningless, I would answer: ‘Quite right.’ The word ‘group’ is so empty that it sets neither the size nor the content. (p. 28)
No comment in specific on this one - I just liked that he pointed out the arbitrariness of vocabulary and started getting a bit into semiotics.

ANT doesn’t claim that we will ever know if society is ‘really’ made of small individual calculative agents or of huge macro-actors; nor does it claim that since anything goes one can pick a favorite candidate at whim. On the contrary, it draws the relativist, that is, the scientific conclusion that those controversies provide the analyst with an essential resource to render the social connections traceable. ANT simply claims that once we are accustomed to these many shifting frames of reference a very good grasp of how the social is generated can be provided, since a relativist connection between frames of reference offers a better source of objective judgment than the absolute (that is, arbitrary) settings suggested by common sense (p. 30)
I guess this was the first mention of what isn't...and what it kind of is.  ANT is relativist.  At the moment it doesn't appear to be a methodology, but rather a way of approaching the analysis and processing of what goes on in a situation which we might term social - i.e. there is some sort of interaction between the actors (human or non-human)

Group formations leave many more traces in their wake than already established connections which, by definition, might remain mute and invisible. If a given ensemble simply lies there, then it is invisible and nothing can be said about it. The ensemble generates no trace and thus produces no information whatsoever; if it is visible, then it is being performed and will then generate new and interesting data. (p. 31)
This reminds me a lot of things that we in the MOOC community (ha! I guess for ANT to be happy I'd have to define community...but I won't at the moment) have discussed since my foray into the MOOC arena in 2011.  If you aren't active in a MOOC, if others can't see you, or see your acts, or see consequences of your acts (those invisible traces), then you are invisible and nothing can be said about you.  The area, in MOOCs, that has generated a lot of discussion (and handwringing) over the years has been the issue (non-issue in my mind) of "dropouts".  We assume that because people aren't visible that they have dropped out.  However, I would say that there is a difference between someone who had consciously (to some level) made the decision to not participate visibly,  someone who has made the decision to drop out, and someone who is plainly inactive.

First, to delineate a group, no matter if it has to be created from scratch or simply refreshed, you have to have spokespersons which ‘speak for’ the group existence  (p. 31)
That's quite an interesting concept, and one that I struggled with a bit when it came to the Rhizo group that I've been working with.  They are all great people, but my initial group framework included such a spokesperson or group "leader" to pull and organize certain projects through. We didn't always get this. What we got was a swarm, and unlike the Borg, the swarm didn't have a spokesperson.  Many of us spoke of our experiences of the group, but I don't think we had a unified persona.  I still don't think we do, but I don't think that's a problem.  There is something that binds us, but what is it? Can you quantify that?

Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what. (p. 31)
I thought that this was an interesting characteristic of groups, according to Latour, to point out.

There is no group without some kind of recruiting officer. No flock of sheep without a shepherd—and his dog, his walking stick, his piles of vaccination certificates, his mountain of paperwork to get EU subsidies. If you still believe groupings exist ‘by themselves’, for instance the ‘individual’, just try to remember how much labor had to be done before each of you could ‘take your life into your own hands. (p. 32)
This quote to me brings me a few quote up to the spokesperson.  The same things I wrote about the spokesperson could apply here.  I do think that we all act as recruiters for our swarm, but unlike traditional recruiters that bring in people without necessarily consultation of the group at large, when we have an idea we consult the swarm.

whenever some work has to be done to trace or retrace the boundary of a group, other groupings are designated as being empty, archaic, dangerous, obsolete, and so on (p. 32)
Not quite sure what this means... Thoughts from others reading Latour?

So for every group to be defined, a list of anti-groups is set up as well. (p. 32)
I don't know if I agree with this assertion of Latour.  It is certainly true that some groups did have anti-groups (axis and allies comes to mind in World War II), but that seems to me to be one type of inter-group dynamic.  I do think that there are groups that are not defined by the people who they are not. I do think groups can co-exist without having opposite groups be there as well (in fact or in someone's mind).

when groups are formed or redistributed, their spokesperson looks rather frantically for ways to de-fine them. Their boundaries are marked, delineated, and rendered fixed and durable (p. 33)
Spokesperson aside, I do think that we tend to view groups as defined, marked, and delineated.  We are a group who plays ONLY nintendo games, and nothing else.  We are a group that ONLY drives chevrolet cars. We are a group that ONLY discusses Deleuze & Guatari.   While that may be true in some instances, I don't think that is is true in all instances.  I think that boundaries are porous and permeable. I do think that if those boundaries become too porous they no longer exist, and there is, potentially, no defining feature of the group which attracts and keeps members there. However, I don't think that  the boundaries are as hard as one might imagine. I think boundaries that are too hard, or too soft, pose issues and problems for group formation and maintenance.

among the many spokespersons that make possible the durable definition of groups, one must include social scientists, social sciences, social statistics, and social journalism. (p. 33)
Just some examples from Latour...

For ANT, if you stop making and remaking groups, you stop having groups. (p. 35)
So, for ANT, the end product (group) is not the goal.  It's all about the journey and the acts undertaken to form, maintain, and remix groups - this is what is important.  Pretty interesting - and a little Zen I think.

The problem with any ostensive definition of the social is that no extra effort seems necessary to maintain the groups in existence, while the influence of the analyst seems to count for nothing—or simply as a perturbing factor that should be minimized as much as possible (p. 35)
Interesting thoughts. Anyone who's been in a group knows that it's hard work to keep the group going and connected.  This brings us back to the researcher as an observer of the group vs. researcher as participant. Back to epistemological questions.

OK, that's it for now.  Your thoughts on groups?