Where do I go from here?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

Now that we have been thinking about memory, it is interesting to think about how we apply things that we know to different situations. This is known as transfer.

Transfer of information can occur in a couple of different ways. Information that was learned previously can be transferred to new settings, we can transfer what we learn in a classroom to things in our daily life such as work, and we can transfer new ideas to new situations.

There are several necessary components that help when transferring information from one context to another:

  1. For transfer to occur, there needs to be a certain amount of initial learning that has already happened. In other words, to be able to transfer information to a new context, there needs to be a certain amount of existing information that can be transferred.
  2. New learning is based on previous learning, experiences, memories, etc. When we learn new things, we relate that information to our previous learning and experiences.
  3. Information that is more abstract (less specific to a certain context) can help facilitate the transfer of information to new contexts.
  4. Transfer is a process. It takes time and intentionality and it can be challenging.

So what can educators do to facilitate transfer for our students? Well, we can try to explicitly connect what students are learning with what they previously learned. We can teach students more abstract concepts as opposed to specific, highly contextualized concepts. We can give students time to transfer that information to the new setting. And we can gauge students prior learning to help them correct any misconceptions or help them make new connections.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn.
  • Simons, P. R. J. (1999). Transfer of learning: Paradoxes for learners. International Journal of Educational Research, 31(7), 577-589.

Now what was I doing?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

There are many times when my memory seems to have failed me. Sometimes I walk into a room and don’t remember why I went into the room. Some days I can’t remember what I did the previous day. Sometimes I just block things from my memory and other times I wish I could block things from my memory but seem unable to do so. And sometimes I get the wrong idea in my head and it just sticks there.

Memory is a very interesting thing. It can be so helpful, but it can also be problematic at times too.

There are three different types of memory: semantic memory, episodic memory, and procedural memory. Episodic memory is memory related to experiences that we have had, semantic memory is the memory of facts and information about the world, and procedural memory is the memory of how to do things.

Memories get stored and we can later recall our memories, bring that information back up in a conversation, and sometimes we can even forget our memories.

So how do things get stored in long-term memory? First, information is encoded, meaning it is registered. This information is then stored for a period of time and can be retrieved at a later date.

But there are many different things that can affect our memory.

When information is first encoded, it may be related to other information that is already stored in memory. For example, when encoding information, I might explain the information in a way that makes sense to me and that is related to my prior experience and memory. But those connections may not necessarily be correct.

When information is stored, we may have problems recalling that information at a later time, especially in a different context. We have all experienced the lapse in memory when we go to say someone’s name (even if it is someone we know well), and their name just sits on the tip of our tongue without us being able to recall their name. The name usually comes back to us at some point, but there still is that period of time where we can’t remember the name.

And if we repeat things enough, we can sometimes develop misconceptions about a topic or idea. This video is an interesting demonstration of this idea.

Students are asked why we have seasons. Students give a variety of explanations based on their past experiences and through incorporating new information with existing information. However, when we tell ourselves these explanations over and over again, they can become ingrained and stored in our memory. Even if these ideas are not correct. And then these ideas become harder to correct the more they are enforced.

These challenges with memory can cause problems and frustrations for students. So how can we help correct any misconceptions and help students store accurate information in their long-term memory?

Here are a few tips:

  • First, find out what students know or believe at the beginning of a class/unit/week/day. This will help the instructor understand what students may be having a hard time with or what the students may have misconceptions about.
  • Have students connect the new knowledge to previous knowledge (warning! You don’t want students connecting new knowledge to incorrect existing knowledge. That is why it is so important to try to understand what students know about a topic in the beginning).
  • Have students reiterate what they learned at the end of each class period, and start out the next class period with a brief review.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Matlin, M. Chapter 8: General knowledge. In Cognition (7th ed., pp. 239285). Wiley: Hoboken,
  •  Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American psychologist, 54(3), 182.
  • Tulving, E. (1984). How many memory systems are there? American Psychologist40, 385 398.

Where am I going? (Part 2)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

In the previous post, Where am I going? (Part 1), I mention automaticity and some of the challenges that come when students (or any of us) are on autopilot. But is automaticity all bad?

In a word, no.

Automaticity can be a negative thing in education when students go through the motions without thinking about what they are doing and why they are doing it. But automaticity can also help students focus on specific parts or more challenging aspects of a problem. In general, this automatic processing for a particular task doesn’t require an individual’s attention, doesn’t need the individual’s effort to do it, and is processed quickly. So if students can do some things automatically, they can focus their attention on other parts of the problem.

Let’s think about an example.

When I first learned how to ride a bike, I was not focused on the rules of the road and how to ride on the road with cars and not get hit (in fact I was very far away from any cars and roads and people). All I was focused on was how to not fall over. And that took a long time for me to get to the point where I didn’t fall. But once riding a bike was automatic, I could focus on other things like riding my bike to my friend’s house and figuring out the best route to get there. I didn’t have to focus on not falling over (usually) and I could focus on riding with traffic, obeying traffic laws, and other things that you should do when riding a bike. But I had to practice riding a bike first.

The same is true in educational settings. Students often need to practice simpler problems before we throw all the complexities at the student. But once some things are automatic, students can focus their efforts and attention on more challenging aspects of a problem.

Let’s think about a few more examples related to the education of engineering students.

  • When students have mastered topics such as algebra, they can focus their attentional resources in their upper-level math and engineering courses on the material that is specific to that class (be it differential equations, dynamics, design courses, etc.). This automaticity with the math concepts can help students focus their attention on other material which could help them develop expertise in these other topics.
  • In some situations, engineering students participate in design classes early on in their engineering education. These early design classes can give students opportunities to practice using a design process (identifying requirements, evaluating alternatives, researching information, etc.) that makes them familiar with the design process. Then in future design classes (or once the students begin working as engineers during internships or after graduation), students are already familiar with the design process and can focus their attention on other aspects of their work or project.

Practice can help students develop automaticity. Practice can help students be more efficient in what they do, can result in a shift in how students approach problems, and can help students be more knowledgeable about a topic which requires less attention to solve problems related to that topic. That is often why we have students practice things multiple times. This helps it stick, helps it get to a point where it requires less processing.

So automaticity can be a good thing if it is something that students have gained a lot of practice with and that allows those students to focus their attention and efforts on specific parts or more challenging aspects of the problem. However, as mentioned in the previous blog post, automaticity can be a bad thing if students go through problems and courses automatically without understanding what they are doing and without gaining expertise with that topic.

Here are a few suggestions to help students use their automatic processing to solve new and different problems without letting students use that automaticity to avoid thinking about difficult problems.

  • Have students explain what they are doing and why. This could help students better understand their own processing (whether it is automatic or not), and helps make that processing more explicit to both the student and the instructor.
  • Have students summarize key steps in a process, key ideas in a paper, key points in a chapter, etc.
  • Explain various aspects of a process being taught to students instead of just listing steps in the process.

Where am I going? (Part 1)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Cognitive Processes in Engineering Education

Many times, I find myself on autopilot; just going through the motions without really thinking about what I am doing.

Automaticity, while there currently is not consensus about the exact meaning of the term, is this idea of processing information with little to no attention (Moors & De Houwer, 2006) – it is this idea of autopilot. We have probably all experienced this in our daily lives: we drive home after work instead of driving to the grocery store, we read something – a news article, a book – and have no idea what we read at the end.

Another place where we can see this automaticity is in the classroom. Students (myself included) can end up just going through the motions, following a script, without thinking about what we are really doing. Have you ever read something, gotten to the end of a paragraph or section, and realized that you have no idea what you read? Because I have. And students can do that too. Just going through the motions.

Another place where I have seen this “just going through the motions” is in students’ problem-solving. Novice engineering students, when solving problems, may just follow a series of steps because that was what was presented to them. Instead, we want students to be problem-solvers, not just recipe followers.

Let me give you an example. For solving statics problems, the statics for dummies cheat sheet (here) lists just a few necessary steps:

  1. Set up a free body diagram for the whole system
  2. Write equilibrium equations for the support reactions
  3. Write equilibrium equations for the internal forces
  4. Solve for the unknowns

Seems simple enough, right? But when students follow these steps, do they really understand the different forces that are at play or are they just going through the motions? Do they understand how to represent the free-body diagram and represent relevant forces? It may be hard to tell.

In addition to automatically following a set of steps to solve a textbook problem which has a defined answer, students can act automatically when solving ill-defined problems too. When solving these ill-defined problems, students often move through the problem formulation and idea generation phases quickly and move on to picking the best idea. With these ill-defined problems, it can be challenging to get students to really focus on the complexity of problems and the variety of possible solutions.

However, we want students to be able to solve a wide variety of problems and to be able to transfer the information that they learned in one context to another context. [For a more information about transfer, look here: Where do I go from here?]

To help students avoid falling into this trap of automatically going through the steps, here are a few strategies that can help.

  • Have students summarize what they read. Having students write a summary, even a really short summary, can help students avoid just going through the motions when reading a textbook or article.
  • Have students explain how they solved a problem. Teachers can ask students to both solve a textbook problem numerically and write an explanation for how they solved the problem. This can help the teacher identify if students are just following a series of steps exactly as they were presented, of if students are identifying the various nuances in the problem.
  • Have students solve a variety of problems that don’t necessarily look the same (but use the same principles)
  • For ill-structured problems: Have students identify the problem components, constraints, and criteria
  • For ill-structured problems: Have students generate multiple possible solutions
  • Give students cases or problems that differ in some meaningful way and have students compare the cases.

For more information, check out these resources:

  • Logan, G. D. (1988). Toward an instance theory of automatization. Psychological review, 95(4), 492.
  • Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: a theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological bulletin, 132(2), 297.
  • Schneider, W., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: I. Detection, search, and attention. Psychological review, 84(1), 1.
  • Shiffrin, R. M., & Schneider, W. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: II. Perceptual learning, automatic attending and a general theory. Psychological review, 84(2), 127.

Learner-Centered Syllabi Gems (#Gedivt S17)

As promised, I’m posting an assortment of “gems” from the draft syllabi we workshopped in Grad 5114 a few weeks ago. This collection is suggestive rather than exhaustive, and I’ve removed names unless you specifically indicated that it was ok to include them.  Lots of inspiration here! Course Descriptions / Introductions: “Whether or not you …

Contemporary Pedagogy at VT: A Conversation with Shelli Fowler

Working with the Open Learning cMOOC  (#OpenLearning17) has given me the opportunity to re-connect with one of the most inspirational and talented educators I know. During her long tenure at Virginia Tech Dr. Shelli Fowler developed and taught a graduate course  called “Pedagogical Practices in Contemporary Contexts.”  A jewel in the crown of certificate programs in Transformative Graduate Education and Training the Future Professoriate, Contemporary Pedagogy brings together graduate students from across the university in a seminar devoted to developing a distinct teaching praxis. Shelli designed the course, which is known across campus as “GEDI” (the Graduate Education Development Institute) to help graduate students acquire the diverse and flexible skill sets they need to succeed and lead as teacher/scholar/professionals in the changing landscape of higher education. It works at multiple levels — as a professional development forum for early-career teachers, as an interdisciplinary discussion of the challenges and commonalities of engaging undergraduates at a Research I university, and as a site of critical engagement over the connections between the philosophical underpinnings and practical application of pedagogy (praxis).

When Shelli moved to VCU in the fall of 2015, she asked me to continue offering the class for the graduate school. I was delighted to help, because the course, its creator, and its constituency had terrific reputations. I also welcome any and all opportunities to work with students outside my main area of expertise.  As I’ve learned to teach GEDI over the last few terms I have been inspired by the passion students bring to the linked endeavors of professional development, interdisciplinary dialogue, and critical engagement with pedagogy. I have been invigorated by their talent and willingness to grow and learn from each other.  And above all, I have been mightily impressed with the form and substance of Shelli’s curriculum.  I have tweaked the corners of the reading list, updating a few things here and there. But the only major change I made to was to shift more of the interaction and content creation into the open and into connected spaces. The arc and substance remain Shelli’s.

Busy as she is in her position as interim Dean of University College at Virginia Commonwealth University, Shelli generously agreed to help facilitate this week, and to answer a few questions about the history and design of GEDI.*

*Pronounced like “Jedi” – as in “GEDI’s use the Force to Cultivate Curiosity.” The current course website is here: http://amynelson.net/gedis18/ Find us on Twitter @GEDIVT and #gediVT.

AN: Tell me about the Genesis of GEDI: Where (and when) did you start, and how did you move from concept to implementation? What was your main goal for the course?

SF: GEDI began in the spring of 2003 as a pilot graduate seminar with around 18 students.  I was a new addition to the Learning Technologies division (new TLOS) at Virginia Tech.  The VP of my unit, Dr. Anne Moore met with the new Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Karen DePauw, to explore how her unit might collaborate with and support the new Dean’s Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative.  The idea of a professional development experience focused on teaching and learning for the 21st century, one that supplemented and moved beyond mentoring at the departmental and college levels, was born.  Because of my work in faculty development and critical pedagogy, I was tapped to create GEDI.  The first couple of semesters it was a small graduate seminar and I worked with the graduate student participants to discover what they knew about teaching and learning, what they wanted to know, and how we could co-create a semester-long seminar experience that provided opportunities to move beyond the still over-utilized ‘stand and deliver’ content-delivery approach that informed their disciplines, both in the experiences as learners and, for those who had done some teaching, in the ways they were expected to teach.  The main goal for GEDI was to create a dynamic, active co-learning environment that continually challenges us to reexamine traditional teaching strategies and explore active, connected, critically engaged co-learning across the disciplines and in a wide range of learning environments–small and large, face-to-face, blended, fully digital.  As such, I really intended from the very beginning to ‘gently disrupt’–a favorite descriptive phrase of mine, the status quo of teaching and learning practices that students suggested were based on ‘we’ve always done it this’ or ‘it’s efficient and easy to assess,’ or ‘just follow the teaching tips on the handout provided.’ Interestingly, the emphasis on (and some might argue epidemic overvaluing of) assessment as the driver for curricular and pedagogical praxis very often leads to over-simplified student learning outcomes and an attempt to standardize assessment in ways that indicate the teaching (and coverage) of material occurred but that fails to gauge student agency and engagement with, or ability to apply and build upon, curricular knowledge.  What was unexpected was how quickly the course grew.  By the third semester, the course had gone through the university-wide approval process and became a three-credit, graded, semester-long graduate seminar, GRAD 5114, and a core requirement of the “Preparing the Future Professoriate” nine-credit graduate certificate.  This is not a GTA workshop or a college teaching: tips and tricks one-credit course that are common at many institutions.  GEDI is a dynamic graduate seminar taught each semester.  Until I left Virginia Tech in May 2015, I worked with approximately 90-100 graduate students each year in the course.  Doing paradigm-busting with GEDI Knights (as they began to call themselves) has been a great experience for me as both a teacher and a learner.  While I love the challenges and opportunities of my new gig at VCU, I miss–and will always miss–the unique TGE program at VT, all of the remarkable GEDIs and the opportunity to work with and learn from our future faculty in that arena.

AN: The syllabus presents a lovely balance between the practical and the theoretical.  We start by talking about the mechanics of connecting online via the website, which makes for an easy segue into the concepts of connected learning and active co-learning, which makes it easy to problematize and interrogate some pretty important and often unexamined assumptions about the significance of what we as faculty “do” in our classes, what traditional assessment modalities do (and don’t do), and even what we mean by “learning.” These meta-level issues become concrete in discussions about authentic and sideways learning, and by examining how different teaching modalities work on the ground. Then students have the opportunity to integrate all of this into a learner-centered syllabus. How did this particular configuration of topics come into being and how did you determine how best to integrate the theoretical and applied components of the course?

SF:  The exploration and development of one’s own teaching praxis is a central focus of GEDI.  A critically engaged Freirean approach requires us to embrace the ways in which our theory must inform our praxis, but also reminds us that our teaching experiences in different contexts must also inform our the theoretical approaches.  The specific sequencing of topics on the GEDI syllabus evolved with input from the graduate students.  The focus on disrupting unexamined status quo practice is a constant current, no matter what activities and co-created deliverables. That requires reflection, of course.  A critically self-reflexive awareness of who one is as a teacher, of how one’s ‘teaching self’ is read and misread, and empowered and/or disempowered, is an important part of the process, too.  That work begins in week one of the seminar and informs the work we do together in the readings and the creation of curricular materials that students do relevant to their current or future teaching.

AN: I’m also struck by how the intensity of the course builds through the first seven weeks (and the syllabus project). The topics from these weeks lay the foundation for heart of the matter —  Inclusive Pedagogy and Paulo Freire’s Critical Pedagogy.  Why are these two topics so important and how do they inform your own teaching praxis?

SF:  While an inclusive praxis informs all we do in GEDI, I discovered from the GEDIs that the most honest, deep-dive, open and vulnerable engagement with the topic of diversity, social justice, equity, inclusive excellence occurred after the community of co-learners had been challenging themselves and each other of less fraught topics.  We become better listeners, more attentive to the cultural differences among us, when we’ve been doing some collective ‘paradigm-busting’ as a learning community.  Rather than begin week one right out of the gate with Freire and inclusive pedagogy–a focus that might unintentionally be (mis)perceived as a prescriptive methodology when a Freirean praxis is intentionally non-prescriptive and essentially an anti-methods pedagogy–GEDIs begin by exploring the broader category of teaching and learning in contemporary U.S. higher education (or K-16 +).  They begin to reflect and interact and support and challenge as they discover or articulate what they think and why in their blogging and as they begin to challenge unexamined assumptions about what teaching should be or what constitutes learning.  In my work, adapting a Freirean pedagogical praxis is essential, regardless of disciplinary field(s) or course content.  The very difficult work for all of us is to invent and (re)invent our praxis so that it is dynamic, rather than static, and stays attentive to equity and access and social justice, domestically and globally.  In the GEDI seminar, we begin that process and intend for it to shift and evolve not just throughout the remainder of our seminar but over the span of our teaching.

AN: After the heavy-hitting weeks devoted to inclusivity and Freire, the momentum again shifts in more practical directions. Once again the “deliverables” (a teaching philosophy statement and Problem-Based-Learning / Case study assignment) find powerful undergirding from meta-level framing at the same time they are shaped by very practical “how to” thought-pieces and flowcharts. How did you develop this part of the course in ways that speak to future faculty in all fields — the engineers and other STEM specialists as well as those of us working in the humanities and social sciences?

SF: One of the things that occurs with the move back to what the GEDIs affectionately refer to as ‘tangibles,’ (items such as those you name above that they will use as they construct, or reenvision, their teaching praxis), is a rethinking of the ways their assignments reify traditional power structures in our learning environments.  In GEDI, the meta-level framing encourages participants to foster collaborative and inclusive learning environments not just via their syllabus redesign, but in their PBL/case study assignments, for example, with the integration of ethical dilemmas that require students to navigate the complexities of systemic inequities as they learn and apply content to become problem-solvers and problem-posers, including in the STEM fields.  I have found that GEDIs in engineering, the sciences, and vet med to be some of the most think-outside-the-box innovators when provided the opportunity to do PBL/case study/ethics curricular design.

AN: The last thing I want to comment on and commend is the way the final module (on ethics in the 21st-Century academy) bring the student back to the notion that we are all in this together. As faculty we face the same challenges and imperatives as our students. We need to commit to learning from and with each other, and to identifying the best ways to make our educational system more humane, ethically oriented, and responsive to a rapidly changing world. Would you like to speak to this?

SF: We are facing similar challenges and imperatives, you’re right.  The final curricular segment in GEDI uses a Parker Palmer article, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited,” to spark awareness that we as faculty need to foster learning environments that encourage learners’ sense of agency and their understanding that their actions as (future) professionals always have ethical repercussions to which they should attend.  And that is the same for those of us in academe, too.  It is increasingly important in this current moment–how do we best leverage the power of networked co-learners to build and to shape more humane, ethical, equitable, and responsive educational opportunities and non-institution-like institutions of higher ed?  One of my takeaways from working with GEDIs is that it is possible to do this if we value working with and learning from our students.


Who am I…?

Have you ever had a tough time in classes when you want to say something and the moment is suddenly gone?

Have you ever thought so deeply about the answer to a question that by the time you reach a thoughtful conclusion it is too late?

Have you ever raised your hand in class and slowly lowered it because the professor did not notice or you decided to not say what you had to say anymore?

Well…that is me for sure! I am an Introvert!


And quite frankly I am completely satisfied with it. I believe that it is a part of my true authentic self. Yes! I know you all are getting ready to write your blogs about your authentic teaching self. For the past few weeks spending time with you all in class has been a fantastic experience for me.

As I read your blogs every week, I observe that you are making the connections, that you are trying, that you are putting forth your ideas for us related to the information we present for your perusal. And even though in the moment it may be confusing, disorganized or elusive, you are sharing your thoughts about the concepts presented and I enjoy reading your thoughts SO much. But, something is missing…

Last Spring, when I took GEDI, something was missing for me too till I got to the post about MY true authentic teaching self…you know what it was? My voice…because


Yes they do…and yet, I realized while I wrote this post last year that my voice and being able to communicate my ideas IN CLASS was super important. Not only for the benefit of my professor or my participation but because I needed to hear my voice in the classroom in order to find and be my true authentic self. Some of you may be inspired by my post, some intimidated and some not find it useful…but I know one thing – I want to hear your voice. I want you to speak up, I want you to raise your hand and keep it raised till you are called upon to speak.

You know who you are –


Let us hear you speak!


“Help Me Grok it and I’ll Help You Make it Real” / Filtering Forward the High Value Trails

Grok Hybrids?

Wednesday’s webinar and twitter chat with Hypothes.is founders Jon Udell and Jeremy Dean — masterfully MC’d by OpenLearning17′Gardner Campbell — gave me so much food for thought.  We are starting to use Hypothes.is in the graduate pedagogy class I teach and we read “Working Openly on the Web” (7 Ways to Think like a Web) during the first week of class. So getting to listen to these three in action was a huge treat.

Our jumping off point  was Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” published in the Atlantic in 1945 as the imperative to leverage the technological innovations of wartime to more peaceful purposes seemed especially compelling.  Bush’s vision of the memex – a computerized combination of note cards, annotations and information sources that could extend the reach (capacity) of any one learner by integrating that individual’s knowledge with the sources that informed it in a durable medium that could then be used and developed by others — underpins web annotation projects such as Hypothes.is. It also supports networked learning frameworks that facilitate collaborative learning, knowledge production and reflection.

As a historian, I’ve been intrigued by Hypothes.is since it first came to my attention last year. Historians are trained to think about how knowledge is produced and organized as an essential element of the research process: What was the author of this essay, article, book trying to say? Why was this archive created? Why are the records organized the way they are? Why did they keep what they kept? What are the assumptions behind the Dewey decimal or LOC cataloguing systems? In what context was this book, manuscript, court record, ship’s manifest created?)

Once you have a handle on those questions you need to figure out how to find where the resources you want to consult are and how to get to them. There is a dialogic process to this that involves reading, searching, thinking, taking notes, making lists, thinking, reading more, going back to your bibliography, supplementing it with new things you find, reading those things, taking more notes, thinking, going back to the older notes, etc…..I realize as I’m typing that this I might be describing a pretty generic research practice for many fields….

Anyway, at some point in there, I think two conceptual maps of a project emerge that overlay each other. The first is defined by types of sources — not so much a list, like a bibliography — but more like a grid of different kinds of evidence with points of overlap as well as nodes of distinction and empty spaces that still need to be filled in. The empty spaces let you know what you need to keep looking for and what silences your work might have to address. The points of overlap provide nuance, depth and corroboration, and the points of distinction raise new questions, redirect the inquiry or foreground a significant problem that might not have been evident when considering one source in isolation.

The second structure comprises the notes and annotations that are attached to those sources but also connected to each other (in your head or on a piece of paper or in your word processor) by the interpretation you are developing about the evidence. I see Hypothes.is as a medium through which those annotations can be assembled AND shared, which is just mind-blowingly wonderful.  (Hypothes.is annotations for “As We May Think” are here.) While the analog or un-networked digital version of note taking certainly allows for all kinds of remixing and re-purposing, with Hypothes.is the annotations can themselves become nodes on or elements of a new kind of crowd / collaborative / collective “source” – a distributed conversation about a particular web page. We’re used to thinking about different kinds of sources: primary, secondary, web-based, archival, print, biographical, testimonial, etc.. Maybe a set of Hypothes.is annotations on a particular article would be a Web 3.0 source? A networked source? A memex-cubed source?

Two points in the wide-ranging Twitter chat especially resonated with me. We had been talking about how Hypothes.is helped realize Bush’s vision of “associative trails” and I asked if Jon and Jeremy saw those trails as supplements to or replacements for conventional taxonomies. Jon thought they were complementary, and Jeremy cautioned that the annotations alone might not constitute “trails” — they needed to be connected or flagged somehow, perhaps by a tag. (I like  the metaphor of trail blazes.)




So, annotations become associative trails when they are marked out by tags or blazes — or any durable and accessible symbolic representation of the cognitive framework that helps you knit meaning into the tapestry (or navigate the cacophony?) of information about the world. And those trails serve as jet-packed complement to the conventional taxonomies for organizing knowledge. YES!!!!!

But how to get to the trails you really want or need? I’m imagining a future when a good chunk of the web has been trailed by Hypothes.is. And I’m imagining that all trails will not be created equal.  I won’t be able to read it all, and I don’t want to fall down a rabbit hole without some warning, so how am I going to know where the good stuff is? How will the high value trails get  filtered forward?

And here came the second nugget moment: Jon Udell responded to a query about this by saying “Help me grok it and I’ll help you make it real.”

Oh wow.

I’m pretty  sure I haven’t groked* it myself.  But here goes:

As teachers we spend a lot of time helping students learn how to find, sort through and evaluate resources. (Crane Librarian has spoken to the challenges of doing that in the library.) And as researchers our own successes (and failures) in finding the sources and communities we need depend largely on a somewhat ineffable combination of content expertise / experience, and skill — the “scaffolding” we’re always talking about providing and developing for learners. In this sense, I do feel like I have groked the research process. But the prospect of having something so powerful and potentially overwhelming as a Hypothes.ized web makes me think I’ll need to develop another kind of sensibility and that the trails and webs marked out by Hypothes.is will need some kind of context sensitive markers to help direct individual users where they want to go.  At the most basic level this would be a system whereby spam and trolls (they are, I fear inevitable) could be marginalized. But even more valuable would be a marker that would flag certain kinds of annotations — and the connections between them — and also allow for the dynamic process of ongoing annotation. What would that look like? I don’t know yet. But it would be cool. And I think it’s worth thinking about. I know I’m hoping for something that would make the web more akin to Doug Dorst’s and J. J. Abram’s book S. and would not like to see a set of user-conditioned algorithms  turn Hypothes.is into a colonial outpost of my Facebook feed.  It also seems that the conceptualization behind sites like Jon Stewart’s Open Note Database project could be really helpful. I’m just not sure how.

So there you go. Not at all groked, I’m afraid. But maybe glimpsed as a desirable future? Thanks for encouraging me to think about this. I will continue to do so.

*my working understanding of “grok” falls closer to the flower child sense of mastery that is so intuitive it feels innate than the techie understanding of internalizing a concept so completely it feels like second nature. But grok is also the only Martian word I know, so that might be an issue.

1 2 3