PLENK2010: Just Play

In which I follow up on the exhortation to “just connect” by noting an additional approach to connective learning.

“Play, which is more prevalent during the periods of most rapid brain development after birth (childhood), seems to continue the process of neural evolution, taking it even one step farther. Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. It is activated from and organizes what I call “divinely superfluous neurons.” These are neural connections that don’t seem to have an immediate function but when fired up by play are, in fact, essential to continued brain organization…

"...don't seem to have an immediate function..."

In playing we foster the creation of those new circuits and test them by running signals through them. Because play is a nonessential activity, this testing is done safely, when survival is not at stake….

Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s counterpart. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it. As we grow older, we are taught that learning should be serious, that subjects are complicated. These serious subjects take serious study, we are told, and play only trivializes them… [But] sometimes the best way to get a feel of a complicated subject is to just play with it…

"... we are taught that learning must be serious..."

When play arises out of innate motivations it is also likely timed to occur when we are primed for the most synaptic neural growth. That is when we are embracing the issues that grab us most, the ones we may not even be able to voice logically…

Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties… Stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play…

"... stepping out of a normal routine..."

The world needs play because it enables each person to live a good life…”

From: Brown, Stuart and Vaughn, Christopher (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

In which I consider for myself, at a great length, an unwieldy mass of  raw, cooked, and half-baked idea relating to learning, invisibility and silence… ironically with lots of pictures and an alarming amount of purple-patched prose.

It is an hour past sunrise on this August morning, and I am enjoying the green-scented breeze, the full summer flush of the potted pink impatiens, and the neighborhood’s awakening cicadas. I have settled at the table on our do-it-yourself–to-save-construction-costs second-story deck. Eight years ago, in our most advanced and now-appreciated act of home improvement ever, we mounted the modest twelve by twelve cedar platform just below the outstretched branches of aging, rather unkempt maple and elm trees, framed and anchored on two sides by the ell of our periwinkle Cape Cod’s body and the house-garage breezeway link that extols its 1954 construction. (I hereby admit a reluctance to commit the recommended grown-up acts of pruning and trimming the long limbs nodding overhead, unwilling to let the dreamy tree-house atmosphere and welcome shade fall victim to such mundane maintenance.)

Limbs overhead

It is from this location that, weather and familial circumstances permitting, I commit what an anthropologically-or ethnographically-minded observer might call my first identifiable act of overt personal learning for the day. In the absence of such specifically trained observers (although several other observers, witnesses, participants and/or spectators appear and disappear during the day’s flux), I suppose I am uniquely situated to depict – several years of action research being the ongoing modus operandi –the nature and reverberations of these endeavors.

I do so somewhat cautiously and with great ambiguity, aware that a love-affair backlash seems to be brewing in the tiny, somewhat lonely and amorphous culture  (all highly interpretive words, to be sure) that has embraced the terms personal learning network and personal learning environment… terms now undergoing some scrutiny. I have always found myself uneasy with these phrases, or perhaps with the often techno-cultural-progressive rhetoric that frames them, and have rarely used them raw or straight out of the package, finding myself instead only able to employ in all sincerity the first two-thirds of these phrases, “personal” and “learning.”

These words, in currant parlance, resonate, whereas the implications and assumptions of the terms personal learning network (defined broadly as people connected through communication, and conceptually linked to connective learning) and personal learning environment (insofar as this has consistently been defined as a set of technologically-based tools and programs with which one surrounds oneself and uses to create and connect to the aforementioned network) have left me wary, and, on many days, weary. I also wonder if terms which were coined essentially as Bateson’s  “knots in a handkerchief,” a place marker or temporary terminology to talk about things which are still fuzzy in concept, have become rapidly cemented as absolute ideas with presumably clear definition (perhaps to the dismay of the very originators of the terms).

With these compound terms I have been instinctively inclined to hesitate, drawing meditative breaths, perhaps here and now fatally throwing myself off my quiet and tentative perch in the bandwagon in order to better examine the juxtaposition of apparent and entrenched tradition against prospective and prescriptive innovation from many perspectives. Here I draw on ethnographic, anthropologic and even historiographic perspectives:

“…the moment a professional historian picks up a page, he or she begins taking a sophisticated series of steps that are almost completely unknown to the novice learner. When presented with a document, [they] …began by looking at the bottom of the page in search of information about the author and the nature of the source that would help situate the text within some larger context. But this was only the most obvious of the steps that the experts went through, as they treated texts as complex “rhetorical acts” whose basic nature had to be reconstructed. The historians zigzagged from one text to another in order to make explicit the motivations of the authors, to relate the text to its historical context, to explore the connotations of the words used to describe events, and even to construct a “mock reader” who fell into the rhetorical traps set by the “mock author” who was posited as creator of the text…. the historians read the texts like prosecuting attorneys…”

A series of steps

The paradoxical quest for a significant narrative

As an outcome of this type of deep questioning, I view with particular concern a perceptible shift from descriptive approaches for personal and connective learning permutations to prescriptive ones. Current skirmishes aside, I am finding that the “texts” of personal learning networks and environments, often embedded within “social learning” and connective advocacy, have become their own gospel and cause for hallelujahs, rather than objects of judicious theological study.

It is also here that I wonder if  complaints about change (change is not happening fast enough, at great enough magnitude, at pervasive enough levels of acceptance) are related to a focus on overly large scales of “measurement” and observation. Is the eagerness to formulate grand narratives of change, to identify unifying broad themes and approaches and perhaps even to view one’s life work as a vanguard of a movement also a certain type of… assumptiveness? (Manifest destiny, anyone?) Does the current preoccupation with evaluating and praising “change leadership” perhaps fail to recognize quietly authentic action? (To create an omelet of change, one needs to break a few eggy rules. Advertising this becomes… counterproductive.) And to what degree are people still in the grip of the very learning they expect to change?

“Howard Gardner…  suggested a few areas where such early patterns of social learning might create …[mental models] such as the expectation that history is organized according to narrative patterns that make a certain kind of moral sense, that events have a single cause, and that general stereotypes can be applied to entire classes of people.”

Some days, when early morning on the deck is already burdened with heavy, humid air and the sulk of coming storms, the combative question of whether there is a hegemonic flavor to the essentially progressive narrative that underlies educational technology and related learning roils on the horizon.

Metaphor made literal: clouds on the horizon

In observing and engaging in efforts to communicate about connective/personal/social learning networks and environments, I tap into an intuitive sense that such connective features might already exist in many places, invisible and undiscussed. I speculate whether it is not a lack of understanding by those not convinced, but rather an issue of approach, or perhaps one of insufficiently connective conceptual language, that might be getting in the way of understanding and encouraging learning in ways that are  (I say while wearing my activist’s hat) essential for survival. In understanding personal learning landscapes, I suspect there is much left uninvestigated, much that is invisible in the efforts to effect change. Ann Oakley notes:

Some issues on which research reports usually do not comment are: social/personal characteristics of those doing the interviewing; interviewees’ feelings about being interviewed and about the interview; interviewers’ feelings about interviewees; and quality of interviewer- interviewee interaction; hospitality offered by interviewees to interviewers; attempts to interviewees to use interviewers as sources of information; and the extension of interviewer-interviewee encounters into more broadly-based social relationships.”

This passage points out the many layers of understanding and, as I see it, learning potentials rendered invisible by standard practices of social sciences. Without understandings of the existing relationships (connections) and personal choices within each person’s complex context, I wonder if connective and personal learning, which are consistently framed within the social science practices of education, run the risk of becoming (ironically) yet another set of externally applied, generically defined learning expectations.

Local landscapes, domestic details, and sense of place

Fortunately, the antidote that prevents this from becoming a paralyzing concern is a daily life that inevitably reflects connective learning embedded in personal contexts, and it is here that I return to the dappled sunlight on the blue-and white checkered tablecloth, a second cup of coffee lapping at the rim of a slender porcelain cup. Personal learning does not appear here as an environment or network imposed or exposed, but rather as emergent activities and occasional performances, ones which I create and improvise. Yes, these are peripherally enabled through an environment in the sense of objects/tools surrounding me, but even more they are crafted and created through and by an environment of multi-sensate and multi-dimensional immersion.

The terms environment, landscape and geography occupy similar connotative space, with varied implications. While my initial preference is for the immersive term “environment,” it has been perhaps irretrievably usurped in relation to personal learning, and so landscape and geography remain more viable terms in attempting to communicate the descriptive essence of personal learning.

In the efforts to capture the apparently fundamental aspects of personal learning, we are often urged to build or reflect upon “our network,” or to construct a “mind map” of the digital tools we use the create a web or network of communicative/learning opportunities. This is helpful in a rudimentary fashion, but I suggest the significance of personal learning is not due to the collection of tools or a grouping of people which allows us to engage, but because it allows us to develop our “sense of self” within a developing “sense of place.” Sense of place, suggests geographer Kent Ryden, is “that complex of meaning that gives a landscape its significance in the eyes of the people who inhabit it, marking it off from the surrounding terra incognita… the sense of place achieves its clearest articulation through narrative…”  (This idea of geography or location is reflected in the concept of online visitors and residents, whereby each group has different agendas, senses of place, and levels of habitation and habituation.)

And yes, there is certainly an awareness of narrative related to personal learning in the nascent personal learning culture. But it seems often to be an awareness imbued with an agenda, one intended to prove the rightness of the learning environment phenomena. Personal anecdotes are informative, but are not proof of rightness for all, and I worry that some efforts confuse the two. Behaviorist cheerleading also disturbs my ethnographic sensibilities, when narratives of shared place and experience are invited based on attitudinal agreement, whereby small but visible groups define the sense of space for others. Instead, I wonder if it would be equally productive to foster gradually accrued understandings (though not “definition”) through astute observation and listening by and to individuals and their own coalescing and competing (even interwoven) existing place narratives in spaces in which they feel most comfortable.

I envision personal learning as growing from the local, the small things forgotten, the minutia of daily life. These things are, I would posit, the very essence of personal learning, much as history is comprised of the amassed flow of uncounted, unidentified and yet undiscovered individuals, in spite of work which frames it in terms of leadership, power and those people, places and things easily and widely documented.

Maps with meaning

And so, for example, fighting a bit with the gentle breeze and finding the coffee suitably cooled, I spread before me an oddly obsolete personal learning device, the daily print edition of the local newspaper. There would be those witnessing this act who would, I suspect, jump to conclusions about absent RSS feeds, about my technological know-how, about hardware have and have-nots. A curious ethnographer would soon elicit the information that even with laptop and iphone immediately at hand, and ready recognition that the very same articles are available without cost on those devices, and sophisticated information abundance coping and flow mechanisms, I still continue to subscribe, with admitted environmental qualms, to dead tree deliveries. I posit that the “whys” in this scenario offer one set of examples about the complex and often ambiguous processes that support personal learning on the personal level. But first my coffee needs cream, and the sun is penetrating the leafy branches, which means I need a hat.

In documenting geography and landscapes, much as we have been asked to document our personal learning networks and environments, one turns to graphic representations, largely maps and charts and neatly packaged videos. In a world just coming to terms with the renewed idea that learning is not just a matter of manipulating text and language, the less-verbal pictorial representations are indeed a welcome expansion.  But, as Ryden notes…

“While the modern map is a marvel of efficient geographical communication… in other important ways it does not tell us very much as all…. I spent nine years of my childhood among these hills, houses, rivers, and lanes. The map tells me where certain hills are, but I retain in my legs the physical memory of what it feels like for a child to climb them. It tells me where certain buildings are, but I know what they look like inside and out—and not just as a photograph freezes an image, but what they look like at different times of the day and year. I … remember what I did in those buildings… [maps convert] a complex geographical reality into a purified objet of aesthetic contemplation. The map pays no heed to the ambiguities of that shifting, amorphous zone where land meets sea; it states firm conclusions in sharply etched lines and bright cartographic blues and greens… it compresses that landscape’s ambiguities into an arbitrary and simple flatness- it is all surface, lacking depth… The map has nothing to so with the quality and character of human existence as it is lived and felt on the surfaces that it describes…”

"A feeling in the legs"

It strikes me that descriptions of personal learning networks and environments are often as similarly sterile as the modern map, or obedient recitations of latitude and longitude. I wonder if descriptions and instruction intended to support personal learning to this point are absent the acknowledgement or discussion of precisely this “feeling in the legs.” Yes, “you have to do it to get it” is a popular phrase. But while encouraging participation, it also implies that unless the learner is engaged in the “it”  (blogging, podcasting, writing a wiki, joining a Ning group) identified by the speaker,  “it” is not right. This phrase further tangles with chicken-and-egg learning dilemmas, suggesting the act of doing will inspire the feeling the speaker wishes the other to achieve, rather than working toward a feeling of emerging or connected rightness to inspire a selected act.

I would posit that many people already have a feeling in the legs regarding their own learning, but that we have not supported a culture that allows this to become a legitimate and valued part of a map, or learning landscape. While maps in the pre-satellite image world were created by individuals, and for centuries were idiosyncratic and artistic representations of and by their creators, they have long since been consistently stripped of personal and lived reflections.  How many of our current learning maps, whether curriculum guides or and mind maps of personal learning environments, are reflections that, as Ryden says, “inspire imagination, emotion and words,” or any type of “poetic creativity?”

Folklorists, ethnographers and the like value maps, but learn to see them not as an end in themselves, but largely as one of many potential scaffolds for understanding lived experience; experience they seek themselves in attempting to comprehend to map, and also experience they seek to understand by listening to others inhabiting the map space.

Experiencing the map

Complexities of tradition, change, and reading the comics

In the summer, the two teenagers of the house are relatively late risers, but still, I have found that it is best to peruse the newspaper first thing. Otherwise, I find myself negotiating for the front page, a time-consuming endeavor, and can’t track down the features section until much later in the day, usually finding it crumpled, scrambled and half-hidden under the dark blue couch cushions. Worse yet, householders persist in wanting to read amusing cartoon captions and punchlines to me, whereas I prefer to enjoy words and visuals as a single entity as intended by the creator (or at least the Creators Syndicate). The rhythm of my personal newspaper reading is best capped off (and the direness of the previous news sections mitigated) by the unspoiled Reading of the Cartoons.

All these facets of experience are, one could argue, available elsewhere, with technological ease. And while I conceded the inevitability of online newspaper perusal into the future, my current assessment is:

  • The navigation of the online version is cumbersome and oddly linear.
  • Learning serendipity, particularly related to local oddities and grim curiosities often not addressed in even the best of my feeds, is greatly reduced online due to layout constraints.

    Serendipitous print amusements

  • Coffee and keyboards are a dangerous combination, especially on dark, bleary-eyed winter mornings in the depths of Minnesota winter.
  • The printed newspaper serves as an insidious and highly effective gateway drug for accumulating awareness of the surrounding world for younger household members. At the youngest ages, the two pages of comics easily endured banana-mash fingers (pages only improved by the liberal application of crayon). Later, cartoon-peripheral, ambient news awareness emerged since the paper was an item of high portability and great physical endurance, and because it was visually more obvious, tactilely more satisfying and acoustically more intriguing than a Macbook screen.
  • And yes, even though everyone in the house now has methods for tailoring and expanding their news and information processing, the pull of tradition, of messy newspapers first thing in the morning and the “could someone finally put the paper in the recycling” call to prayer in late afternoon are a part of the household routine creating “home.”

I cite this example not in attempt to defend a Luddite approach to the news, or to facilely defend the simple superiority of the old ways, or to deny the wonders of technology. Instead, it is simply to point out that this is but one small and yet extremely complex example of the kinds of preferences and contexts which contribute to the choices, processes and tools for personal learning– learning which is, I would add, never just my own, but is innately connective in facilitating or modeling these things (or serving as a cautionary tale, for that matter) for others.

Newspaper comics as gateway drug to ambient news awareness

Multiply these observations and choices by the almost limitless contextual elements related to the rationales for the construction of my idiosyncratic blogroll, my Google alerts, my Twitter followings, my library browsing, my love-hate relationship with my scanner pen (the very ownership of which reveals my constant negotiation among the printed and digital world), my need to change or eliminate chairs, my selection of conversational (dare one say social learning) partners based on, for a start, quickness of wit and their ability to recognize the difference between useful conversation and what one acerbic sociologist of my acquaintance called “online and offline grooming behaviors masquerading as friendship.” Add to this my weakness for fine-tipped colored Sharpies and the sly use of iMovie 09 sound effects, and the fact that I have an admittedly promiscuous attitude toward novel or high-quality expression, whether “open” and digital or not. In this context, my personal learning and expressions thereof, while meeting some obvious hallmarks of social and connective learning in networks, and while using diverse tools which comprise an “environment,” are best seen as complex tapestries that are not well represented by a map or a network diagram.

Is this complexity and humanness communicated to others in current discussions and descriptions of personal learning environments and networks?

Go left at the fiberglass beaver

To speculate a bit further: if we regard personal learning as a form of geographic exploration within a personally situated and interpreted landscape, I wonder if current efforts to create maps or to identify the large landscape features as guidance systems for others suggest a misleading simplicity.

Instead, I am inclined to map whatever personal learning processes and features (routes/routines; likes and dislikes; fearsome, edge-dwelling dragons) are already part of a personal landscape, but still perhaps invisible because formal (and even personal?) learning cartographers have been taught or inclined to ignore or neutralize these features and interpretations. It would seem more reflective of human experience to ask about existing conceptual maps, which potentially offer views of personal learning already deeply rooted in common behaviors, activities and worldviews. It does not necessarily mean these processes will be polished, ideal, or immediately effective for learning going forward. But they provide a much different framework and/or language in considering if, how or whether learning might occur.

An example aside: our household recently required the services of a lawyer. In subsequent conversation, it turned out that while one member of the household viewed this as hiring someone to review and amend a document, another saw this as hiring someone to protect the interests of the potential document signer. Both things were true and occurred, but the frames of understanding were quite different. It is this expansion of available frames for understanding, rather than rejection of any particular frame, that I am attempting to address here.  A further, landscape-oriented example: When I need directions, I need to hear “slow down when you see the Git-n-Gun and swing a left by the giant fiberglass beaver,” not “go east on Highway 18.” Both pieces of information lead to the same location, but one type of information “works” better for me.

In a similar vein, philosopher Gary Comstock (cited by Ryden) points out there is a difference between “places of little sense” and “places of big sense.”

Places of little sense

“Places of little sense, says Comstock, ‘have very much sense; it is just of a modest, local, sort: farmers in orange feed caps discussing whether the girls’ basketball team hadn’t oughta switched to five-player rules, doughnutmakers showing sixteen-year-olds how to boil potatoes to make broth for Paget’s Bakery cinnamon rolls, children encouraged by their parents on Saturday night to layout their Sunday clothes. Such people have a good deal of practical wisdom, knowledge located in bones and bellies.’ The sense of such little, unpretentious places derives from the everyday round of localized experience. It emerges, piecemeal and humble, of custom and conversation. Places of big sense, on the other hand, are characterized by the University of Chicago, where Comstock went to graduate school, where daily conversation is devoted to big ideas and grand abstract theories, a place populated by ‘philosophers spending their lives searching for the key to all moralities, dinner guests telling intimate details about the lives of G. E. Moore and Paul Tillich. There is plenty of knowledge here, of a cerebral sort. Often, the bones are brittle.'”

Tacit and emergent maps

Would inquiries into existing (rather than projected or prescriptive) frames– “little” frames, perhaps– simply uncover what is already known as a personal learning network or environment? If not, what does this suggest about the nature of such networks? Or will they operate as is currently the understanding of “big frames” among network scholars? Will one person’s belief in or understanding of the networked environment be borne out in another’s personal landscape? What would this mean for efforts to deliberately alter learning landscapes on a large scale? And what about the idea that changes on our personal maps (towns damaged by storms or floods, neighbors who move away, road construction that tangles up the fastest route) invoke frustration and even grief?

The point is not to “refudiate” the concepts of networks, or personal learning environments, learning technology, or social learning. It is instead an attempt to expand the focus of conversation and investigation to reflect the intimate, the personal, the domestic aspects of learning that seem invisible in the big thinking language which expresses the desire to propagate change through mechanics, strategy and construction. (Social network “building,” for example.)

Perhaps there would be some benefits in an effort to create a process that recognizes the existing landscapes of personal learning that speak to and with others, including those who are often resistantly overwhelmed by the language of social media, high technology, and information abundance learning.  The idea that today’s personal learning options are new and improved—or even just improved—is not, I suspect, a sufficiently convincing reason for most people to move from the suburbs to a condo with a view of the skyline. Rather than colonizing others’ maps with prebuilt homes, it makes more sense to me to explore any territories that individuals already tacitly, shyly, or even defiantly have mapped and occupied, in order to understand how, or even if, they may link to other places with other senses and sensibilities.

A personal and connective learning landscape offers complex mapping challenges

While I have no patience for the pervasive, impersonal and standardized mapping that is a hallmark of much current formal learning, I worry that viewing an alternative landscape of personal learning as a currently underutilized or unoccupied space, waiting for just the right people and tools to bring forth fertile growth, is equally presumptive. Equally troublesome in these considerations are claims that lack of openness and obvious (publicly visible and “audible”) expression and exchange — public mapping, if you will– correlates with lack of learning. Poet Adrianne Rich wrote:

The technology of silence

The rituals, etiquette

the blurring of terms

silence not absence

of words or music or even

raw sounds

Silence can be a plan

Rigorously executed

The blueprint to a life

It is a presence

It has a history a form

Do not confuse it

With any kind of absence.

At the end of the day, I often return to my perch on the deck to watch swaths of pink and purpled clouds slip silently over the last glowing efforts of the sun. And here I am led to speculate: what could become of concepts and paradigms related to personal and connective learning if instead of first framing these in terms of power shifts and trying to re-sculpt the landscape with blogs and wikis and the deliberate construction of networks, we began by  recognizing and mapping the personal learning landscapes that we already inhabit, however silently and invisibly?

Works considered

Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an ecology of mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” The American Historical Review October 2004 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/109.4/pace.html&gt; (3 Aug. 2010).

Glenn, Cheryl, Unspoken: a rhetoric of silence. (SIU Press, 2004).

Oakley, Ann, “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms,” in Lincoln, Yvonne and Denzin, Norman K. Turning points in qualitative research: tying knots in a handkerchief. (Rowman Altamira, 2003).

Ryden, Kent C. Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing and the Sense of Place (University of Iowa Press, 1993)

In which I, like Jenny, really don’t have time to pursue the Critical Literacies 2010 “course,” but found myself  wandering along the periphery with what I’m trying not to describe as a snake-like fascination:-).

Jason Green responded to a Moodle forum conversation on expertise, and I found myself  “thinking out loud” in response to Jason.

His suggestion is that the role of an expert is expanding from that of having expertise in content knowledge to having expertise as a subject guide, as one who can help others sort through masses of information. Yes… and more, or possibly less, when it comes to learning?

Is the definition of expertise in an information-rich society really expanding the tasks of a single individual, or is it becoming more nuanced depending on context? I’d agree that expertise could be considered not just in terms of content knowledge, but also in terms of the ability to serve as a guide. My observation is, however, that this is asking a lot of some people, and maybe these types of expertise aren’t embodied or required in the same individual.

It’s a relatively rare content “expert” (as currently defined in terms of depth of content knowledge) who is so able to objectify their own thinking that they can remember what it was like to be new to a concept in a way that relates to the thought process and conceptions of a novice or developing learner. And my observation is that some experts aren’t necessarily interested in doing this. Those who are very successful at facilitating/guiding/grounding others’ development of knowledge/expertise seem to have the ability to understand the beginner’s mind—or where the learner is at a particular moment—above and beyond, or maybe below, the subject itself. Maybe it’s not “knowing a lot about something,” but rather “knowing enough about something” AND “knowing a lot about the learner.” Perhaps there’s some category of “experts” more suited to supporting others’ learning who are more expert Vygotskian scaffolders than they are content experts with great uni-directional communication or sorting skills. (OK, that’s simplistically expressed, but… And I already hear someone asking whether this individual is basically a “teacher.” There’s so much baggage associated with this term, I hesitate to use it here.)

Searching for an expert guide?

My thought is “yes” to guidance, creation and sorting skills as an expert, but to be most effective, these skills are not generic—they are more an individualized application of expertise/guidance, creating and sorting in cooperation or collaboration with the information seeker/learner. I suppose I’m actually addressing a kind of mentorship expertise, but maybe one which privileges the primacy of a relational, “next-door” kind of mentorship, rather than traditional expert-to-novice transfer of expertise.  (I just ran across this article along those lines yesterday.) And, ultimately, an expert can’t make someone else into an expert (or learner, for that matter), no matter how great the exposure—that’s a personal learning process.

So, for the nuclear medicine example, I would actually start by seeking my own information on the topic– throwing information at the wall to see what sticks, trying to find my own entry path to the subject. In the depths of this mess, I am likely to find someone (yes, this is a leap if you haven’t lived it) who understands where I currently am in my grasp of nuclear medicine, who could recommend– or is currently modeling– a “next step.” That helpful individual (or collection of individuals) is likely to change over time as my own understandings change.

So… how about: the definition and role of expertise is relative to the needs of those seeking or experiencing the expertise?

Or—way out on a limb—expertise as an absolute/single state of being may even be an obsolete label in an information-rich and networked society?

(Addendum:  a just-through-the-feed piece addressing the basic issues surrounding the “curation” of information– The Future of News 3: The age of curation)

Believe it… or not

The ether is recently re-focusing on teachers and teaching, what with George Seimen’s Teaching in Social and Technological Networks and Will Richardson’s Teachers as Master Learners.

The conversations are nuanced and respectful and full of expertise.

Still, I wonder if we’re missing a piece. Because while it makes sense to talk about how teachers need to learn to do things differently, and need to teach differently, and need to use different tools, this all seems to revolve around a focus on function.

Whereas I tend to see any potential changes in education – in our conception of learning– as first requiring a focus on belief.

There is a poetic and sincere symmetry in seeing the solution to education and learning as more and/or different education and learning. And I do not refute the potential for education to create change, and for people to change through their learning.

But I worry that asking  or requiring teachers to be learners, or to be shapers of networks, can be superficially interpreted as a basic shifting of job tasks—a mechanistic replacement of “doing x” with “doing y.” I know most folks engaged in the conversations understand it isn’t this simple. But to put a more pointed spin on this, I wonder how much this conversation is about as effective as telling Catholic priests that they will need to conduct Wiccan services from now on because, after all, it’s all religion in the end.

I wonder to what degree the acknowledged resistance to educational change has to do with a tension in which those asking for change are essentially, inadvertently, and tacitly perceived as being disrespectful of the beliefs of those invested in traditional conceptions of teaching.

Understanding the job of education as transmission or socialization or whatever other roles we wish to attribute it with is one level of analysis. But how and why we do this says something about what we believe about people, about “learners,” about children, and about ourselves.

All of the potential of the “new” world of learning really forces an age-old question. Do we believe that people are innately capable of personal development, of choosing learning, of goodness, of acting in the best interests of themselves and society? Or do we believe that people inherently need to be watched, guided from above (or from the side) and kept within structures and parameters with ideals set by “wiser” others because it’s “helpful”? (Nel Noddings writes of the difficulties of insisting on providing care not desired by the cared-for, perhaps out of a desire to feel significant.)

I suspect the vision of what a “teacher” is gets set very early in life. And folks who want to be “teachers” by title and job definition do so with that early image of a teacher in mind, with all the cultural and social accoutrements and assumptions that vision holds. Teaching as a named profession in our current environment requires a set beliefs that are subsequently expressed in structures and rituals. Folks who are less willing to engage with these structures and rituals, who find them, perhaps, hypocritical to their beliefs, are, I would suggest, not seeking to be “teachers.” (OK, maybe a few Lutherans have wandered into the sunrise rites, hoping for an interesting post-service potluck….)

So what is all this talk of change really asking of current teachers? Is it to change their work? Or is it something that’s really more fundamental… requiring a conversion, if you will? It’s an uncomfortable notion. Lots of questions here– about the effectiveness and rightness of evangelism. And about the lines between evangelism and education.

Maybe there is some common ground in all of this educational, cultural and societal change. But I think it will take some teasing out, because, quite frankly, when it comes to bedrock beliefs about people, skepticism and distrust are deeply embedded in the structures and rituals of teaching in its current form. And that belief is running smack up against the potential for more, shall we say, heretical forms of learning in a changing environment.

So how can this tension be addressed?

For those who might be inclined to take the “human potential” view of learning, I’d start by offering the early (1970’s) observations of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, who wrote [quotes condensed from various essays]:

“…there is no doubt that… insistence upon a known and certain universe has been part of the cement that holds culture together….Today we face a different situation…

… It appears to me that the way of the future must be to base our lives and our education on the assumption that there are as many realities as there are persons, and that our highest priority is to accept that hypothesis and proceed from there … Here lies the challenge to educators–probably the most insecure and frightened among any of the professions–battered by public pressures, limited by legislative restrictions, essentially conservative in their reactions. Can they possibly espouse… a view of multiple realities…? Can they begin to bring into being the changes in attitudes, behaviors, and values that such a world view would demand?…

… It seems obvious to me that we need a change, amounting almost to a revolution, in the training of our teachers. …Suppose only a very small percentage volunteered? That would not concern me.… I happen to believe that such turbulence would be constructive. Traditionalists would be angry at these new innovators, and vice versa. Sacred cows would be questioned….”

Rogers goes on the envision a “free university,” where learners set their own curricula, facilitate their own learning and evaluate with tools other than grades.

“The persons who emerged from such a training program could be channeled into one of a limited number of schools that would welcome them….”

I think the potential of learning today goes well beyond the assumptions of structures and programs Rogers envisioned. But in terms of choice and change and rationale and “learner-centeredness,” Rogers seems quite prescient.

Believe it… or not.

Noddings, Nel. Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. University of California Press (2002),

Rogers, Carl. R.  A Way of Being. Houghton Mifflin (1980).

In which I craft a table with wobbly legs.

As connectivism and connective learning gain a wider audience, or at least acknowledgment, I’ve been plagued by the suspicion that, upon first exposure, connectivism is sounding an awful lot like a shaken, not stirred, version of constructivism to a lot of people.

Complicating matters is the recognition that theories have various instantiations in practice. This is undoubtedly true for constructivism and its formal classroom companion, inquiry learning, especially as this is implemented in its spectrum of shadings (guided inquiry, open inquiry, “Understanding by Design,” project learning, active learning, etc.).

(Is this also true for connectivism? Hard to say, since the idea of connectivism as a “practice,” especially classroom practice, seems to create some cognitive dissonance for me.  But I’ve used the term “connective learning” below as an expression of  the “practice” of connectivism.)

Connectivism, constructivism, behaviorism, humanism and cognitivism have been laid out in a variety of comparative tables.  It is also important to point to Stephen Downes’ assessment that constructivism and connectivism are not the same thing.

[Connectivism] shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. Hence people see a relation between connectivism and constructivism or active learning (to name a couple). Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic. Connectivism is, by contrast, ‘connectionist’. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience. It may consist in part of linguistic structures, but it is not essentially based in linguistic structures, and the properties and constraints of linguistic structures are not the properties and constraints of connectivism. In connectivism, a phrase like ‘constructing meaning’ makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not ‘constructed’ through some sort of intentional action. And ‘meaning’ is a property of language and logic, connoting referential and representational properties of physical symbol systems. Such systems are epiphenomena of (some) networks, and not descriptive of or essential to these networks. Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways.

That said, constructivism and connectivism are, if certainly not the same, allied in a few significant ways.  One is in their common respect for the learner, and another is in the concept of learner empowerment. Both theories also require, at least to some degree, reconsideration of the traditional conceptions of teaching, of the goals of learning, and of the idea of schools.

So while both theories are a difficult sell in traditional and formal educational settings, I’d posit that constructivism’s relatively long history and basic inroads in education to date offer a credible scaffold for discussing connectivism, and that those who have been able to at least initially incorporate ideas and practice related to constructivism may be best in the position to approach—and personally engage with—connective learning.

A perhaps minor roadblock I’m seeing, however, is that connectivism discussions to date haven’t necessarily used language that is familiar to “on the ground” practitioners, facilitators, teachers, or whatever one may wish to call them. (One exception, perhaps, is Wendy Drexler’s The Networked Student, which offers a contained classroom orientation to connectivism.)

The following rudimentary table makes a run at the language barrier. While there’s going to be some disagreement on how inquiry and connective learning are depicted, it seems to me that the table does reveal just how far connectivism moves the cheese for those working with or toward inquiry. Connectivist thinking, to a greater degree than even “progressive” inquiry approaches, shakes up some deeply entrenched assumptions about education, knowledge, learning, and teaching.

The table is admittedly a stream-of-consciousness mash-up of both theoretical understandings and a sense of how these theories play out on the ground, which is where things get pretty messy and lines get pretty blurry in a hurry. (When working with the infinite variables of learning, purism seems self-defeating…)  A table like this is also only a snapshot in time, as the concepts under consideration are clearly moving targets. (Example: the inclusion of the terms communities and construction/bricolage on the connectivist side of things. These are more a reflection of trends I’m seeing in conversations than any formally definitive element. And trying to use the term “knowledge” correctly?  Yipes.)

Even with these disclaimers, I suspect that the table can also serve as four-way cannon fodder, as both proponents and opponents of both theories will have some objections kind thoughts about how I have chosen to articulate these theories. But still, it seems like an item worth “throwing out there” for further consideration.

Italicized words and concepts are recognized as potentially contentious. Other words and concepts are also undoubtedly contentious, but a fully italicized table seems like overkill.

Inquiry learning Connective learning
Understanding big ideas Understanding fragmented ideas
Depth of understanding Depth/diversity of connections
Question, investigate Converse, immerse, connect
Collaboration (team with shared goals) Cooperation (individuals with aligned interests)
Teacher as facilitator Learner and network as facilitators
Guide on the side/meddler in the middle Modeling, demonstration
Anticipated processes, goals Emergent processes, goals
Understanding, reflection Increasing/improving connections, construction/bricolage
Interdisciplinary Transdisciplinary
Focus on developing “whole” learner (values orientation, socialization) Come as you are/ “knowing to be”
Active/continuous participation Option of legitimate peripheral participation
The practice of experts Distributed expertise, state of expertness
Learner-focused Learner as node, hub, link
Authenticity: Actual and simulated/designed Space: “Real” and “virtual”
Groups and communities Networks, communities
Use of resources beyond classroom Classroom/coursework as one potential resource
Assessment by more knowledgeable other Ongoing assessment through network interaction (via self and others)
Consciously uses “technology” “Technology” is assumed/invisible/ubiquitous
Exploration, discovery, experience “Foraging,” way-finding, pattern recognition, surfing, sensing, experiencing
Encourages relevance, motivation Requires relevance, motivation
Resulting knowledge is new to learner Resulting knowledge is new to all (to network)
Considers content (existing knowledge) in addition to process New knowing emerges from process of network activity
Learning results in knowledge Learning results in/is “being”

In which I might be onto something, and in which I make an initial stab at trying to pin it down.

I’ve been journeying rather far from home for quite some time to explore a strange but compelling land where “learning” and “technology” and “education” and “change”… and people… seem to converge.

I travel with biases. We all view the world through personally honed lenses, ground through psychological inclinations, experiences, academic training, etc.

And so I find I’ve begun to frame/articulate what I (think I) have been seeing in those travelled lands as something familiar, something with similarities to the land in which I generally reside as an observer and participant of culture.

"Carved by the hired hand on the farm."

Folklorist Henry Glassie writes about art and culture:

“We have drowned ourselves so thoroughly in our own tradition that we casually mistake its intricate artifice for natural process.”

I suggest that this applies to learning as well. And when stripped or relieved of all the imposed mechanics and quantifying measurements and manufacturing goals of “modern” education, the iterative processes and communicative acts and products of learning are, in essence, forms of creative expression.*  **

To justify this explanation, I am tempted to take a pretty big detour—one that explains the territory of folklore (from whence, in part, I come)  to the legions who are baffled by the very idea… but that’s what links are for, aren’t they?

So, moving on…

One form of creative expression familiar to most people, and perhaps therefore easy to understand, is the creation of objects—of craft. I use this word a bit hesitantly, but trust it will serve simply as a relevant and “graspable” example of creative expression and not bring forth too many biases. (Paula Owen notes: “The ambiguity of the word ‘craft’ is troublesome because for the majority of people it connotes hobby-level kitsch, which nullifies significant achievements and ideas. It is [also] troublesome because many young artists have grown up in a world of cultural fusion and no longer find the classification relevant.”)

Nonetheless, for the sake of example: in creating—crafting—a quilt, or a chair, or a “found object” sculpture, the creator employs a wide variety of decision-making process, all of which vary in emphasis and importance due to the complexities of the interrelationships between the choices.

  • A craftsperson has choices of materials, of tools, of subject matter.
  • A craftsperson makes choices about how much to adhere to a tradition, and how much to vary or innovate within and beyond it.
  • A craftsperson works with varying sources of information and inspiration, in different contexts of time and space, with differing demands and responses from one or more audiences.

This sounds to me much like the options available to learners today, for those who choose to choose.

Along the same lines, E.M. Fleming suggests that material culture (i.e. artifacts, such as craft objects) can be analyzed through developing understandings of an object’s:

  • history
  • material
  • construction
  • design
  • and function.

At the parade. Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

I would suggest that in working to understand others’ learning and resulting communicative products (especially as they develop outside formal educational boundaries), these are equally useful lenses.

A further thought is that by understanding how creative expression such as craft functions, we can also understand the potential of, as well as current resistance to, viewing learning as a creative process. For example:

  • Craft as a process of creative expression creates its own emergent structures of authority or non-authority; learning can be formal, informal, non-formal…. (Perhaps so subtle as to be “invisible.”) Mentorship, apprenticeship, being “raised in the tradition,” formal instruction—all are viable processes. Choices regarding this are frequently the province of the creator.
  • Creative expression is an emergent, “design as you go” process (one of bricolage, as Graham Atwell has pointed out in his explorations of personal learning); one which is multi-directional. Henry Glassie writes: “The process is a common one, known to every cook and carpenter. It is a matter of reorganizing materials. As more and more that matters is pulled into the process…it gathers more into itself and so gains the strength to reach out more broadly…” This pulling and reaching supports both tradition and innovation.
  • Craft expressions are best understood as processes and products of the interplay among the intent (motives and motivation) of the creator, her community, and other context, rather than as “masterpieces” of an individual artist/genius working in splendid isolation.

Among the difficulties:

  • The idealized perfection of uniformity promoted by mass production. (Interestingly, the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century was in many ways anti-factory-production, but its adherents were not necessarily anti-technology, nor were they opposed to efficiency in production.)
  • A cultural bias devoted to promoting the supposed moral superiority of “high art” and assumptions (indoctrination?) of an “educated elite” about the presumed, innate, and absolute “quality” of such art over craft.
  • Tacit and explicit lack of respect for cultures and communities which bring craft expressions into being; whether cause or effect, craft is associated with populations which have been marginalized, particularly based on gender and race. These populations and their creative expressions have been called “naive” and even “unschooled.”
  • A cultural view that suggests domains reflecting Cartesian worldviews– math and science, for example– are more valuable (economically, politically…) and worthy of transmission than domains of craft/creative expression. (I do not claim that math or science is purely Cartesian nor that these pursuits are not creative. Nor do I mean that learning within these realms cannot result from learning as a result of the same choices of creative process noted above—only that this is currently not/rarely the case.)

Presently I’m feeling a bit like a hunter who has stalked prey across unfamiliar stretches of savannah, wrestled it to the ground in a bruising but respectful battle, and is now dragging the bounty back to the comforting campfires of home, a dietary enrichment for the tribe…

Or, potentially a little less bloody in extended metaphor, here’s where I seem to be travelling now: through a messy roundabout of learning, education, technology and the enticing potential of “hand-crafted learning.”

* Please, please, please do not read this as “students should do a project/learn some stuff and write a song about it.”

** This observation is distilled from a multi-page rambling I’ve been stuck on for a couple of months, one which inspired me to post an equally distilled summary comment recently on Dave Cormier’s blog discussing factory education– an important “getting over the hump” step to this post, for the record of those who are tracking connective processes 🙂

Works consulted:

M. Anna and Owen, Paula. Objects and Meaning. New Perspectives on Art and Craft. Scarecrow Press (October 2005).

Glassie, Henry. The Spirit of Folk Art. Harry N. Abrams (February 1, 1995).

Schlereth, Thomas. Material Culture Studies in America. American Association for State & Local History (June 1982).

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Utah State University Press (May 1, 1996).

In which I recognize the irony of benefiting from openness on one front while still questioning its implications on another.

The Connectivism and Connective Knowledge ‘09 forum is currently working through a conversation on the concept of openness.  Since, as usual, my thoughts require lengthy text, I’m posting here.

The question at hand: Does the fear of being Googled keep you, your colleagues, your students from being open?

Trompe-l'oeil door. Belfast, Maine.

How open?

I probably missed some context for the question, having not followed up with the week’s Elluminate recording, but as I look at the landscape, I do suspect some definitions/clarifications would be useful. I’m not sure, for example, that I would tar all reluctance to be “google-able” with the assumptive brush of “fear.” We need more information and understanding about what motivates people in an “open” landscape, and why they make the choices they do.

Secondly, we use the term “openness” in varying ways. Interestingly, the question seems to suggest “open” in the sense of  “sharing of professional work/talents” but the responses seem to focus on “revealing of personal information/contexts/behaviors.”  And I’d suggest that “Amazing Stories of Openness” could just as easily be viewed as “amazing stories of generosity and cooperation” and “amazing stories of willing public performance” (see Goffmanetc.). These things overlap and thus it all gets messy in a hurry. But what are the differences between (and differences in perceptions of) privacy, secrecy, openness or transparency? It’s easy to conflate related concepts such as these, and I wonder if taking it all apart might be helpful…

But since this would be biting off way more than I am prepared to chew for the time being, I instead corralled some thoughts about the “personal” end of openness, since that’s where the forum comments headed:

Lisa Lane reflects about beer-drinking pics on Facebook, “But the kids who’ve grown up with this stuff don’t have an ‘ever before’. They’re not going to see the problem as that serious, and if my student is correct, who will care?”

Actually, my observation is the opposite: that kids who are Googled by their peers (or “google-stalked” in local vernacular, a name telling in and of itself) take this very seriously, and they are both surprised and distressed when they feel/discover that they don’t have choices about the results. These observations inform my approach and response to an ideal of openness. I worry that a student’s current “Who will care?” is more of a wishful response that dodges a personal responsibility to self and others than a reasoned and empathetic evaluation of consequences or a definitive harbinger of societal change.

Too Much Information?

And while, yeah, I’m with Alan Levine — working for judgmental employers is, um, undesirable– I also sometimes wonder if personal openness/transparency is inadvertently limiting. It’s clear that sharing of information and interests online allows us unprecedented opportunities to connect with similar others, or explore heretofore unknown worlds. (Mountain unicycling— who knew?) But I’ve been wandering down the garden path of questions, some of them admittedly more extreme than others.

For example, do we miss some opportunities as we create others through “openness?” Do we, through perhaps Too Much Information (shades of Lessig!), limit potential diversity in our conversations and contacts and prematurely shut out opportunities for interaction with others with whom we may have some things, but not all things, or even critical things, in common? Is learning about each other (and each other’s past) with less immediate/comprehensive data a dishonest bait-and-switch, or is it a more tolerant space for “getting to know you?” And is there an exaggerated impression of a trend to openness (or to a life lived on Facebook) because advocates are “open” and therefore obvious? Is there such as thing as the “tyranny of openness,” or is the desire for and growing ability to receive information creating a sense of information entitlement (ducking and covering now:-)), or is this too simple?

Ultimately, I can’t choose how others represent me or interpret my actions or, in many cases, what information others make available about me. However, I can choose, by striving to be knowledgeable about the mechanics and principles of openness, where and how I personally, voluntarily, and deliberately contribute information. And, where I don’t feel that I have choices about this, or where I feel the choices are deceptive, I am unlikely to participate. (How hard is it to view someone’s Facebook page? Um, not. Aside from cut-and-paste, it only takes one mutual acquaintance with access to offer an over-the-nondigital-shoulder view, making all that tweaking of privacy settings more a placebo than anything else. See also: Graham Attwell’s recent observations.)

So, while I find it kinda interesting to feel my way through the labyrinth of openness while the paths are still shifting, in agreement with Frances Bell, I am reluctant to require anyone else to commit to a moral quest or an ideal (principle? ideology?) that with a little imagination could be viewed as potentially detrimental as well as enormously beneficial. I’m not sure that more people being more open (on a personal level) is a remedy against this; I’m certainly intuitively skeptical of the idea that more openness on a personal level will make people as a whole less judgmental. Maybe it just gives people more to be judgmental about. (And, yeah, maybe these folks should all go jump in one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. But it’s pretty hard to paddle a canoe through all those floating bodies– and we lean to the left here.)

Right now, one can always become more “open;” it’s much harder rescind something made public in the name of openness. (If this inability to rescind or the ability to reveal freely changed, I wonder what might happen…) Maybe “targeted openness” is an option? I’d also observe that as learning becomes more personal/personalized, those who facilitate learning are confronted with much more pointed issues related to learner privacy; sharing information about process, among other things, is inevitably more revealing when the generic “my students” is no longer a catch-all phrase but rather a highly individual and identity-linked one. I could see this affecting the interpretation of openness in education among teachers.

We’re not dead yet

I also wonder about the potential aggregation of identity from a more concrete standpoint, knowing what I know about how I work with other people’s personal information.  On the days that I wear my historian’s hat as a biographer, I am first tasked with creating an agglomeration of an individual’s past traces, obtained from snippets of newspaper articles, old letters, family pictures replete with body language, minutes from “the club,” inventories of possessions from probate… the list goes on. Most folks are not aware of how many tracks people leave in the non-digital world. Once upon a time, these tracks were harder to trace, requiring visits to attics full of pigeon droppings and the ability to control seasickness while watching microfilm spool past. And while these are still important skills, primary and secondary search capability in the digital world has made much information available to many, many people and much more expansive.

I’d also note that biographical research focuses not only a single individual, but also includes an exploration of that individual’s associates and relationships to develop a broader picture; a consideration of “we are known by the company we keep” still applies here. Additionally, autobiographical productions/statements, etc., while a great resource, are always weighed against more independent, less self-interested sources. Or against those who have an axe to grind. So while individuals can try to craft (or “manage”) an identity/legacy for posterity or review, it does not, in most cases, become more significant than the aggregation of other information.

My second task in biography is to interpret the information, while recognizing that it is inevitably a mosaic instead of a complete picture, and to create a narrative. This is not a work of fiction, nor simple sequences of events, but more an exploration of patterns suggested by the “data.” Patterns gleaned from such data suggest areas in which to dig deeper or offer insight into things not necessarily addressed directly in any individual piece of information: personal health issues, the tenor of relationships, etc. (How many beer pictures are fun, and how many does it take to suggest alcoholism?)

So here are some thoughts this raises for me in the era of Google:

  1. Maybe high levels of openness don’t matter…. if you’re dead. Or if you, personally, are somehow an island. But, having spoken to family members of individuals I have researched, the availability and publication of personal information often does matter to others… who might matter to you. Openness and identity are not just about “me”; they’re linked in social contexts and affect others.
  2. I’ve learned to examine, to the best of my ability, my own assumptions and biases and to identify unsupportable interpretations in the creation of narrative… to understand intuition but not leap to conclusions. How many of the average “googling” employers, etc. have this anthropological mindset? Does this expertise and perspective or a lack thereof matter?
  3. Absence of data or less openness might be telling… or it might simply be an absence of data or less openness. I question the conclusion that it is somehow a misrepresentation of self, a false persona, or a “less honest” representation.
  4. People “try on” identities and try out new skills in periods of growth or change (both children and adults). One significant difference between “then” and “now” is that, with some exceptions, the sources I mentioned contain and perpetuate fewer details on children/youth as individuals. For better or worse, children/young people who are on Facebook, or who are required to blog publicly for school, or whose parents who discuss their mental health online or put their violin recitals on YouTube, do not and will not have this “blank space.”  This permanence of representation will be a boon to future biographers, true, but from another perspective, it seems a huge, and perhaps developmentally questionable, responsibility for developing limbic systems and immature prefrontal cortexes to bear (and this applies well into the traditional college years), certainly without excellent and knowledgeable mentoring, modeling, and demonstrating. (Currently in short supply, I think.)

Sure, openness might mean we should all always be on our best behavior. (In the best case scenario, it might also mean that an alcoholic will get help.) But can everyone always decide, at a given moment, what “best” is? Not being “open” could be perceived as an attempt at hiding flaws—or it could be perceived as a reflection of an existing or reconsidered sense of personal integrity or dignity or just plain privacy for one’s self and others.

Door with middle knob. Levanto, Cinque Terre, Italy.

Different approaches to openness... and opening.

I have also begun to wonder, as the conversations on this topic aggregate, how much of a gender division there might be in the various approaches to and thoughts on personal and professional openness, and among those who find the personal and professional blended, rather than an “at home” and “at the office” thing.

As Lisa notes, choices related to openness and privacy also imbue our offline life. But somehow “openness” has become a more acute dynamic and focus of online behavior. Maybe personal openness has gained in interpretive significance in online contexts in the absence of the physical and social cues we use in other encounters… although this off/online thing gets blurrier by the day.

I’m the first to admit my discourse and actions are rife with internal contradictions and subject to a fuzzy math of risk-benefit calculations. I would consider my attitude toward openness a work in progress. To be clear, I don’t have any clear future path or absolutes for myself or others in terms of openness. I don’t think openness, personal or otherwise, is inherently “harmful.” But right now, I do have lots of questions, an abundance of caution, and a play-it-by-ear, go-with-the-gut approach.