Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Learning Portfolio Strategy: Be Public

This is one of the "portfolio patterns" (borrowing from the "Pattern Language" of Christopher Alexander) we have distilled from our case study of users creating learning portfolios.

A strategy that users of a learning portfolio adopt is to be public on the Internet. The goal is to create and join public communities, and by interlinking, raise the “Google Rank” of the problem and the problem solvers.

Information Scarcity vs Information Abundance

In a conversation (long .mp3 file) with Dennis Haarsager, Interim CEO of National Public Radio, he described the Internet as "'anti-scarcity', it’s about information abundance. The way to obtain value is not in controlling a scarce resource, the value is to be had in the ability to extract value from the mass of information, by organizing it, filtering it, 'chunking' it" What he called an 'information [organization] theory of value.'

The opposite perspective is the value of scarcity. “While some industry pundits have proclaimed print-on-demand to be the future of publishing, there will always be a positional advantage to the conventional book. It says somebody thought enough of this writing to run off a whole batch. In sum … the Web will never destroy older media because their technical difficulties and risks help create glamor and interest. At the same time, however, the Web does nibble at their base…” Edward Tenner The Prestigious Inconvenience of Print, The Chronicle Review, B7-B8, March 9 2007. One of the values Tenner claims is that print content undergoes more review and scrutiny in the production process. If production cost, risk, and technical difficulties enhance the prestige of older communication media, one of the problems the traditional book still faces is lag times.

The role of the public showcase in the learning portfolio

In our interview, Haarsager argued for the public lectures he gives on his chosen problem. The lecture is a showcase portfolio of Haarsager’s current, best thinking. The medium is mostly broadcast, but he feels it allows him to reach new audiences, and to get kinds of feedback about his ideas that he does not get in comments on his blog.

Tamez is also creating showcase “mini-portfolios” in the form of printed fliers and media interviews. These productions may have some of the risk-related prestige that Tenner ascribes to printed books, while at the same time having the new audience-reaching and immediacy values that Haarsager associates with his lectures. In her learning portfolio, these mini-portfolios document where Tamez’ thinking was at points in her learning trajectory.

The learner who works in public, in order to gain any value from working in public, must participate in collaborative efforts to extract (or make) value from the information richness of the Internet. This kind of strategy has been called Learning 2.0 by Stephen Downes, who has created this diagram to describe differences between groups and networks as organizational strategies for learning (original sketch midway down this post).

Group (Learning 1.0)Network (Learning 2.0)
Groups require unityNetworks require diversity
Groups require coherenceNetworks require autonomy
Groups require privacy or segregationNetworks require openness
Groups require focus of voiceNetworks require interaction
Downes also suggests that this working in public is not necessarily "more" work, rather its an attitude to push the work you are doing for various more private audiences into a public arena. Tamez demonstrates a variant of this in her portfolio, where she adapted a strategy of cc:ing her portfolio when writing email.

Another value of learning in public is the assessment that comes from dialog in community. This assessment takes two kinds of forms: assessment of the idea, testing its merits, and assessment of the individual, in the sense of reputation and social capital. These ideas about assessment will be addressed in a later section of this analysis.

Link and be linked; Tag and “Digg” Making value among plenty

“But Google and its ilk notwithstanding, the sheer volume of information, its global origins, and especially the dynamic, real-time nature of information today is simply overwhelming our traditional, centralized institutions of information screening and management – whether research libraries, book and journal publishers, or newspapers and other news media.” Peter J.M. Nicholson, “The Intellectual in the Infosphere” The Chronicle Review, B6-B7 March 9, 2007.

Saving all one’s work in a portfolio creates the same problem of information saturation on a more personal scale. One challenge is to “rise above” the information to see the ideas, and from the ideas, rise to action.

In his video “The machine is (us)ing us”, David Wesch points to a consequence of the networking ideas Downes is suggesting. Wesch explores the implications of linking from one document to another. Linking provides a kind of metadata for the thing linked. It says that the two web pages share some relationship between them, but it does not say what that relationship is (e.g., citation, example, counter example, refutation).

Linking is one of the traits Google uses to determine page rank. As a result, a Google search is one means to perform a “rise above” on a large collection of related material. What the Google rank does is call attention to an item in the collection of documents. The weakness is that it points to a specific item, it does not present a gestalt across many items that could surface emergent themes.

Tagging is a mechanism for adding metadata to your own materials (e.g., blog posts or wiki pages) to organize them. It is also a mechanism for adding metadata to other people’s content, for your personal organizational purposes. Patterns emerge from group tagging of the same thing and related things. Tag Clouds are visual representations of the frequency of appearance of tags among a collection of documents, and serve as a way to see emergent patterns. The Flickr photo sharing site has a page of tag clouds, including one for this week and last 24 hours. As I write "ArthurCClark" is among the tags of the week, Clark having passed away recently.

Chirag Metha gives an example of extending the tag idea to an analysis of all the words in a text to show emergent themes. His site has an “aging tag cloud” analysis of US presidential documents. The engine has the usual tag cloud text graphical analysis, but Metha extends the tag cloud idea by trying “to figure out how long ago a given word hit its peak usage and brighten[ing] the recently used words while fading away words haven't been used in a while.” The result is a trend analysis over time of words used in American politics.

Other tools for rising above can be seen in Gapminder, which is a demonstration the Trendalyzer engine’s rendering of UN demographic data over time. By sweeping across time in the visual rendering of the data, one can find both big trends (the 3rd world is getting richer and having fewer children per woman) and local events like the genocide in Rwanda. These observations in masses of data can lead to hypothesis generation and exploration.

While the idea of “rising above” the data in a portfolio is an appealing one, among the cases we’ve examined so far, we do not see evidence of use of any these strategies to help the portfolio author guide their reflection or future action. The values of working in public seem to be coming from collaboration on a problem and assessment arising in that collaboration.

(Updated with new pp just below table on 7/15/08)

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