Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Echoes of content

glass, white and blue by wdj(0), on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by wdj(0)

Today I had an interesting discussion with a colleague who questioned the value of sharing and curation in education. We were discussing social media tools to be used in a new project and as usual the discussion was a lively comparison of the pros and cons of various tools: discussion in Facebook, curation in Scoopit, link lists in Diigo, Twitter for links and tips, Slideshare for presentations, YouTube for films etc etc. Many of us find this digital diversity perfectly natural but it's always valuable to meet the child who has noticed that the emperor has no clothes on. Are we all so busy sharing that we don't stop to wonder if anyone is listening?

Educators create mountains of learning resources and an increasing number are sharing them as OER but only a tiny amount of this is ever used by anyone else. There seems to be a barrier about using someone else's teaching material, perhaps the inner voice that tells us that we're being in some way "lazy". Often the resource you find is great apart from one small but crucial detail; a culture-specific reference, irrelevant details, wrong style etc. So in the end you need to create your own version and so yet another resource gets stored on a server somewhere. We're all busy filling the world's servers with information yet only a fraction of it is seen by more than a handful of people, if that. Even scientific research disappears quickly into the digital mist as the number of theses and journal articles increases at an alarming rate. As the mountain of titles rises the chances of anyone reading your efforts diminish.

On top of this there is all the time spent sharing these resources via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Scoopit and many, many more. Here we're not creating anything new, simply creating echoes of someone else's content. We curate pages full of interesting links either individually or with colleagues in a team or project. These can be very useful for your group but I wonder how much further they reach, given the sheer volume of similar resources. So everyone is busy curating, compiling, tweeting, retweeting, sharing and tagging but is anyone listening or is all this a gigantic digital echo-chamber? The intentions are admirable but when everyone is sharing they're too busy to see what others are doing. Before you create another channel, resource, news feed or suchlike it might be good to look around to see if someone else is already doing just this and maybe not bother adding more echoes to the already high volume of digital noise.

As an enthusiastic blogger, curator, tweeter etc who believes in the benefits of sharing knowledge and resources, this discussion disturbed me a little at first. Of course all this openness, sharing and transparency is a good thing! But the more I think of it the more I realise that we need to discuss ways of encouraging digital recycling, reducing background noise and maybe choosing not to add new resources unless absolutely necessary. Just as the physical world is producing more products than can be consumed, we're producing more digital content than can be used.


  1. Alastair,

    I am glad I stopped by. I enjoy finding people who question conventional wisdom in a domain. I also think you put the issue across very clearly and balanced. I often wonder about the digital echo chamber we create. Only yesterday I responded to somebody on Twitter who asserted "The more we share the more we learn" "well, only if we read what she share!". But she was not having it "sharing always gives us more opportunities to share', she asserted back.

    I also often react to those who build profiles online through simply 'echoing somebody else's content' and that is often me, myself, I. Tough issues to hold the mirror up to. You say at the end of your post: "we need to discuss ways of encouraging digital recycling, reducing background noise and maybe choosing not to add new resources unless absolutely necessary. Just as the physical world is producing more products than can be consumed, we're producing more digital content than can be used."

    I am part of a community for digital storytelling known as DS106. In blogging about design, I talked about the consequences of us encouraging our students to produce more and more content in the name of creativity. Some took my comments as a personal attack on their right to produce it rather than social commentary. I clarified:

    "My current reflections are about the unintended global and long term consequences of our virtual habits, yours highlight the individual argument about how we benefit from what we own and produce. Just as I see the negative consequences of individualistic pursuits in landfills in our physical world, I also fear for our open web as we keep producing, throwing stuff away and engaging with content from a cumulative but non-reflective perspective." http://bit.ly/1e4v8HR

    I am not sure who is listening anymore, and particularly who is listening in any deep sense. I know my 'read later' folder is bursting with stuff I will read and comment on one day. But may be I am just inefficient …

    Thanks for writing something that echoes my own content :-)

  2. Thanks Mariana. I like the idea of digital landfills. Maybe curation can be expanded to include wise management of resources such as pruning/deleting outdated and irrelevant material. Maybe resources could have a sell-by date after which they simply vanish.

    1. Alastair, I love the thread we are developing here! My job as a curator **should** be to manage resources and that includes prune and delete. I love the idea of a sell by date for resources - like Google data manager. You set it to delete all your data if you have not accessed your account for a time of your choosing. I would pay for a service that offered that. I could design, develop, use, reuse but acknowledge that there is an end to the cycle. Yet, so many of us in #EdTech have a passion for archiving it all. It is the paradox of preservation and deletion but forgetting to ask about purpose, I guess. I look forward to getting to know better and may be exploring some of these issues together. You Swedish influence may be linked to a concern for our digital landfills. I used to work with Volvo and loved Sweden and its people. I can see why you stayed :-)

    2. A lot of people's curation and bookmarking activities used to be carried out privately and it's mostly about simply storing useful information that may be useful later. That's the main reason behind my Scoopit site as well as Diigo and a few others. They are primarily for my own reference and it's handy that I can access them anywhere. However every tool on the net has sharing as default and I wonder if that's such a good thing. I love to share but when a couple of billion people share every photo, bookmark, idea, greeting, film or whatever we're saving information that should be ephemeral. Snapchat has the right idea - send a photo that disappears completely after 10 seconds.
      When the ephemeral becomes permanent ... Wait a minute, I feel a new blog post taking shape :-)

  3. Digital recycling is a wonderful concept. I started curating when I started participating in MOOCs as a way to organize the vast amount of information being generated (creating order out of chaos). I also wanted to learn new ways to curate. I culled each 'binder' to meet my own needs and hopefully as Cliff Notes for the community of learners. At the time, we found it useful. In reading your post, I realize I do need to figure out a way to recycle what was valuable so it doesn't end up in the digital landfill.

  4. Hi Alastair! Before commenting your excellent article, I just wanted to know if you know Chris Allen who I am working with on a telecollaboration project called CLAVIER?

    This question is related to the following comment.

    I think you are putting your finger on a key issue in curating and networking. Like many teachers I curated resources for years in folders for myself, and they became resources for other teachers and learners when I shared knowledge of my filtering work.

    I gradually moved all of my work on line via bookmarks, youtube collections, private blogs, etc. Little by little I looked to blogs to orient myself in my thinking, people like Stephen Downes, Graham Attwell, Steve Wheeler, have been my go to people for years in enabling me to navigate my future more effectively.

    As new tools have appeared, I have trialled them for a while to see how they would fit in in my work. Diigo I never got, Pearltrees I prefer, Scoop it I use, Pinterest, Youtube, Slideshare etc have become essential parts of my means of constituting and sharing resources.

    Today I am using Scoop it, with students to help them understand referencing, filtering, adding value to resources, working collaboratively, developing effective research techniques.

    I am convinced that for others our work will be perhaps seen as noise - no different from the other billions of bits.

    It takes the human connection, the human community to work more effectively together, but no community can be long-lasting today if it does not have at least scouts to warn of danger connected to wider networks.

    How many drawings do children do which they keep? How many teenage blogs are now untended? In my opinion it is pretty unimportant.

    I feel the metaphor is often more important than than the reality. Understanding that our research is the research of others, our mess is the mess of others, our fears are the fears of others is a start.

    If nothing else curation may give us a sense of our place in universe. Pretty insignificant but pretty essential all the same.

    #Tagging led me to your blog, to this conversation. Bearing in mind that you may know someone who I am working with at the moment, that is a pretty amazing coincidence in the insignificant morass of the world wide waste.

    Greetings from Clermont Ferrand!

    1. Hi Simon. It's nice to see that at least this post is not part of the echo-chamber ;-)
      Yes I do know Chris, his office is about 200m from me.
      I was in Clermond Ferrand a couple of years ago at a project meeting so yes we all have connections in some way.

  5. Hi Alastair, not sure if my comment was posted or not. So sorry if I am repeating myself.
    Do you know Chris Allen who works in Linnaeus? That would be an amazing coincidence as I am working with him on a telecollaboration project called CLAVIER.

    If I am here it is thanks to a # and a RT

    Pretty amazing really the power of #'s and a network.

    Having curated like most teachers for years first in folders then online with bookmarks then with shared bookmarks, now with Youtube, Pearltrees, Scoop it, Blogs, Site, Pinterest, Slideshare, Deezer, I am sure that I have stuff that might or might come in one day. I am sure however that making connections with people brings the work of searching, filtering, tagging to life.

    Little by little I have found my place in this online mess thanks to years following a small number of bloggers: Stephen Downes, Graham Attwell, Steve Wheeler, the Couros brothers, and others. I think that the first thing we need to do is to find out how we are connected and what exists before we waste our lives re-inventing the wheel.

    However, I am currently using Scoop it with students to enable them to learn more effectively critical search competences which will be shared from generation to generation. If the resource becomes disconnected from a community that is fine, it may give others ideas but it is not the most important element. It is impressive to see how such a tool brings research, tagging,filtering to their lives meaningfully. Discussion about facebook tagging, digital identity, community building, lead off naturally. How many exam papers, books, photocopies are stocked thoughtlessly in our schools and universities. Who reads them? Who cares?

    All civilisations produce vast quantities of rubbish, little remains after years of disuse or misuse, and nobody cares unless the waste is toxic.

    Like many parents I have years of drawings of my kids which I have to decide to keep or to throw away. It takes years sometimes for kids to accept that their efforts should be dumped. That's ok - sorting and filtering and realising that you are not alone is part of growing to see your place in the house, the community, the network (if you care to look, to connect)

    Would be interesting to continue a conversation with Chris over a beer!

  6. I too liked your article Alastair. I was thinking about the students' experience of collaborative learning with Scoop it and what difference it may make in their lives (study, work, play). There is a lot of interest in digital literacies and the role of education in their promotion. Information literacy is just part of this. Some great work is done in primary schools - saw a teacher blogging with her students via Twitter last evening. With students in higher education I found it a challenge to connect their (often vast) with my own for mutual benefit. One way that had some traction with students (many have done this) was to model the power of my own personal learning network on Twitter by asking it a question in class and displaying the responses as they came in. That led to a meaningful discussion about how to cultivate a valuable network and the relational qualities within that network. Many had seen Twitter as a place to get fan information or do 'private' gossip - the idea that they could get questions answered by people who perceived them as someone who would answer questions was a revelation. As was the idea that the network helped us judge the reliability of the source - who are our trusted sources? as you identify Stephen Downes etc. above. Their pln might be used for learning about spread betting, for finding new knitting patterns or even for study.

  7. I love the power of collaboration as you describe and it's vital we work on giving such positive examples to students. I'm just concerned that we try to avoid unnecessary echo and creating lists and repositories that are simply echoes of what's already there. If everyone is busy creating new OER then it defeats the purpose. Instead of really sharing we're just accumulating more and more of the same.

    1. All wise thoughts have been thought thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them ourselves. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      Of course Goethe never said we must blog, curate and tweet them :)

      The accumulation of unused resources and the phenomenon echoing other people's content without deep listening is a side of open education that deserves attention without rationalisation about people's rights to create content and/or the social/interpersonal impact of having a personal cyberinfrastructure, these are sides of the same coin not mutually exclusive issues.

      all the best.

  8. I came to your post, Alastair, via a link that someone shared. In a more efficient universe of digital expiration content, would you want to reduce the possibility of that? Your words echo thoughts I have had before, but I somewhat disagree,

    These things which you talk of as accumulating in giant piles of landfill like waste dumps, or dusty warehouses, have almost no real size, Negroponte's old distinction of bits versus bytes. And I think we are talking of a range of things that are being treated as equals, whether they are theses, un-used OERs, or just blog posts.

    It is easy to feel as stuff we put online has no impact or value. No one comments. How do you really know it's reach? Many people, indexing crawlers visit your online house, but you never know they were there. If your OER inspires one person, generates someone else to do something you did not anticipate, isn't that potential for the unexpected more valuable that the purpose we originally made something? I have seen countless times where a person (often me) posts something online, and someone else uses it in a completely unexpected way.

    So to me, I see it not as a waste pile, but an energy field of potential energy of ideas. I have been influenced by reading Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, and a main thread is that they come from a place where we have an abundance of things tried, failed, half done... that we get more innovation in an ecosystem of idea abundance, not a neat warehouse of clean and labeled shelves.

    This occurred early in my career in the 1990s; in a large multi-college system, 2 different ones were creating a multimedia project on dissection on the fetal pig. It seemed wasteful, redundant, to duplicate. But rarely do different groups produce carbon copies. And there are things learned in the process, that perhaps do not end up in a final product, that have further implications that are not seen at the time.

    Also, when you decide to discard that old web site because it feels no longer relevant to you, there is a part of history that is erased. A part of the history not like the encyclopedic one, but your own evolution of thought, development. It's like students who focus solely on the final project and miss the whole idea process of its creation.

    Count me out of a world of expiring content. All of this stuff which to others here looks like mess and chaos and piles of dog poop, are to me, very much like the primordial soup idea of the elements that eventually combined to create the first cell. They are potential energy of future ideas we do not know of.

    The metaphor of a digital landfill makes no sense to me. it's kind of like saying there is too much space in the universe. There is almost, on a human scale, no limit, so why start making them?

  9. Wow, I had an awesome comment here that would have blown your minds, but Google seems to have munched it.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts Alan and I agree with you to a large extent actually. My post was inspired by a colleague who questioned my enthusiasm for sharing and tagging everything I find interesting and useful. She felt that a lot of the alleged sharing that takes place is a form of academic posturing rather than actually contributing something insightful. Rather than simply echoing others we should focus on producing less but more meaningful content. It got me thinking, though I don't have any answers. I see her side of the argument as well as yours.

    I know that storage space is virtually unlimited but I'm just questioning whether we really need to share everything as default. Just because we can doesn't make it good. Should everything be saved? I think we should be able to take control of our output and consciously prune it from time to time. How many trillions of cat photos do future generations need? I remember looking at a large box which contained all my handwritten university notes, essays and test papers and hesitating before dumping the lot. I haven't regretted that for one moment and I continue to dump folders of digital material every year (mostly copies of meeting minutes, draft articles etc). Not to save space really but just because it's pointless storing it all.

    One problem with OER is that there's plenty of creation but very little reuse. There is a danger that everyone keeps producing more and more without looking around to see whether it is necessary or not. We need to search before we create, not just reproduce.

    I didn't agree with this colleague at first but later I saw some valid points that made me wonder. I'm still doing that.

  11. What a great dialogue! yes, I can see it from both sides and I too am still thinking. I am touched by Alan's statement: When you decide to discard that old web site, a part of history is erased, part of your own evolution of thought. It is the distinction between individual benefit and collective benefit. I have seen how I can practice critical self-reflection by reviewing my content online - helpful to have the record. I also see the it is not necessarily the case that just because x is good 2x is better. I go away to think some more with this question: should we be able to take control of our output and consciously prune it from time to time? This is not the same as keeping 'a neat warehouse of clean and labeled shelves' - it is just asking for mindful storage and sharing of content, no?

  12. Hi Alastair - great post, thanks for sharing.

    A long time ago I decided to turn off all analytics on my blog - though I'm capable of writing very click-friendly articles (Watch for my "Seven Amazing Blogging Mistakes That You Don't Know You Are Making", complete with animated gifs!) I wanted to have an "authentic" space that I could use without worrying whether anyone was reading or not.

    I arrived at this based on my distrust of OER metrics, reasoning that if an OER is used only once - in 10 years time - it could change someone's life fundamentally, and a focus on measurement would work against this serendipity. Sometimes the act of making things available is more important than whether they are used or not.

  13. wow, this has been such a thought provoking discussion! A discussion which I stumbled on..via a tweet from Mariana tagged #ds106 #rhizo14 to her post http://theds106shrink.tumblr.com/post/75366179094/digital-landfills-and-creativity which was a reflection on this one.
    The question on whether default sharing is the right setting? I think, like Mariana suggests, it's a case of promoting more mindful sharing, consumption and creation rather than eliminating stuff altogether - part of the skill set we should be developing to navigate abundance and complexity.