How Everything and Nothing can be the same

Imagine silence – the absence of all noise and sound. Strain as much as you like your ears cannot detect anything.

This is Nothing.

Now you hear an orchestra begin to play a concerto. It starts softly, the strings, the woodwind the percussion and brass building in layers. The music steadily gets louder. Another orchestra starts to play another concerto. Over time more and more orchestras join in, each playing there own concerto. The noise builds and builds to a cacophony of tones, rhythms, chords and progressions. It gets louder and louder. The waves of sound crash together. The sound is so overwhelming that you hear nothing. You cannot make out a single note, beat or melody because the noise has become so complete.

This is everything.

In everything you hear nothing; everything is the same as nothing.

They are two opposites that unite and share a perception. Entirely different, but entirely the same.


Abstraction is changing the way something is represented in order to move it beyond its constraints.

This is perhaps best represented by the abstraction of oral language into written form. This abstraction frees language from the constraints of the spoken word – in particular the physical and temporal. It’s why we can read the words of Plato and Shakespeare despite the centuries that have passed since they last spoke.

The process of abstraction also changes the nature of what it represents. This uncoupling of constraints impacts both positively and negatively. In the case of language – writing liberates language so that it can be communicated broadly across time and space. At the same time this process removes key elements of its oral base – the social, ephemeral and tonal qualities that are embedded into the spoken word.

The written word takes on a monumental nature, embodying permanence and scale in comparison to the fluidity of our oral languages.

Stone vs water.

As an aside its interesting to see written text begin to embody more liquidity as the abundance of data and information being produced increases.

One of the most valuable aspects of abstraction is its ability to simplify complicated processes. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mathematics. Through mathematics the simplification of complicated information and processes has been turned into an art. Extraordinarily complicated calculations and data sets can be crunched down into elegant and often beautiful equations. In doing so we can extend mathematics into increasingly complicated areas – but they’re complicated not complex.

Complexity is the weakness of abstraction.

At its heart complexity involves uncontrolled change and variation, which tends to wreak havoc on carefully developed complicated systems. The process of abstraction removes many of background, meta and environmental factors as noise in order to improve the signal they have chosen.

Complicated systems are improved by breaking them down into individual parts and components. These can then each be improved which will lead to incremental positive change to the system as a whole. This is the Talyorist or Scientific Management process.

Complex systems don’t follow the same pattern, in fact quite often working on the parts separately or in isolation actually damages the system. Improvements to a complex system are made by working on the interactions between parts, rather than the parts themselves.

(This is a repost of the original FedWiki contribution. You can fork, edit and extend the original.)

Silence and Free Speech

There’s a false argument that’s been floating around the concept of free speech for some time. Over the last couple of months I’ve taken an interest in it to attempt to understand what it is that’s really going on.

The argument itself pits Free Speech on one side and Offence or Decency on the other. The media rolls this thing out constantly tapping into the publics seemingly endless ability to take offence at anything you can possibly say. Whether it’s a bad joke, a good joke, an utterance that’s lip read or a misguided or youthfully naive tweet. If you want to read just one piece that utterly destroy the dichotomy of free speech and offence I would turn to the wisdom of the clown. Comedian Doug Stanhope have written the most fluent and coherent counter to this debate .

The problem is that these comparisons and equivalencies are false. They are not the two sides of the same argument and indeed the comparison hinders any real debate about the essential idea of freedom. My reasoning for this stance is simple:

Free Speech is about the act of Expression.

Offence and Decency are not a counterpoint to free speech, they are a reaction to it. They are themselves – expressions.

The opposite of Expression is Silence.

The dichotomy between free speech and offence or decency is false and it’s why the current debate is nonsense. The underlying premise is wrong and what you end up doing is essentially arguing against the same side of the debate. To actually have an argument you would have Free Speech I one side but you then need to put an actual equivalent on the other side – and that’s Silence. Silence is the absence of expression. You can attach motive and meaning to silence just like you can with speech. These may not be self-evident but embedded and contained within.

Silence is extremely powerful counter point to free speech. Steven Skala explores it in-depth in his lecture The Power of Silence. He prompts us to reflect on the silences as a guide to genuine understanding.

Silences and omissions, covert and overt, occur around us and cause us, positively or negatively, to shape our own experience, and most significantly, our understanding of the nature of things that are often most important to us.

When you start to reflect on the silences around us things really do start to get interesting. On one side you have the ability to expresses and on the other we have the inability to express. Now we can really start getting into a real debate!

When you discuss the right to say things vs the silence it creates we’re getting into a proper debate. We start to head beyond the trivial of offence and start to uncover what is truly structural, pervasive and damaging. When you start to notice is not the words being said but the silence that’s left behind you start to ask questions.

When someone uses free speech to preach hate, who’s voices are getting lost? When debate is framed by the extreme opposites of the argument, who doesn’t get a say? When we begin to really reflect on silence we have to question the mechanisms we hold up as tools of free speech. The free press for instance. Always the darling of free speech but what about the silence it creates, fosters and amplifies?

Who’s voices are missing in corporate media?

What ideas are missing when there’s a vested interest in the status quo?

What hope is there when ultimately someone else decides what the narrative is, who gets the bull horn and for what purposes?

How “free” is the press anyway?

Does a commercial, or even a publicly funded press, actually enforce silence at the expense of promoting free speech?

Comedian Frankie Boyle discusses the consequences of when free speech is equated with offence . Interestingly what he alludes to, without being explicit, is that it actually re-enforces the silence. It creates new ones, enforces old ones to deeply affect our ability to actually discuss and understand. In many ways silence is the preference to free speech when dealing with complex issues:

It’s always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time-consuming process of understanding them.

I understand that offence and decency may be big issues for some people – but I’m with Frankie on this one

We have given taking offence a social status it doesn’t deserve: it’s not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.

By avoiding those difficult conversations we create Silence. As I’ve written before – the cost of free speech shouldn’t be silence. If we’re discussing free speech without paying any attention to silence we’re missing the point.

The Current State: Mobile Learning

I’ve written a couple of opinion pieces over the years about the Current State. There’s this one on the The Education System, this one on Society Transitioning, and Educational Technology and my personal state. They’ve been a nice way of articulating a specific view of space and time relating to a theme. They’re interesting as markers in the sand, for wayfaring and digging around the past. They’re also a way to think more deeply about what we’re doing. So in that tradition, here’s the current state of Mobile Learning.

I’ve been working around mobile in higher education since 2010. I’ve written a few papers, done presentations, developed mobile content, systems and apps – so feel I’ve got a good handle on it as a topic. While it’s true that mobile is now part of the conversation, I still wonder if Mobile Learning is even a thing yet.

Here’s some observations:

  • Single app adoption is widespread, but that seems to be the extent of “mobile learning”. A single app for a single use in a single subject with a single purpose. That’s nice and all but is that what we would call mobile learning?
  • Students and staff are ill prepared to use their devices for learning. They lack the knowledge, practice and skill to integrate the technology into their learning and teaching. Those fresh faces out of high school have just emerged from an environment where mobiles have been contraband, so have little concept of how or why to their mobile in a learning environment. Staff and mature age students have barely got beyond mastery of text messaging (see parents that text) let a lone anything more complex. It’s an interesting dilemma as far as technology goes because for maybe the first time the issue isn’t access or event equity. The issue is cultural and what we are willing to invest in.
  • Content is still rarely mobile friendly. There’s limited use of “eBook”s – ones that go beyond text on a page and cater for on screen reading experiences and interaction with content (highlighting, notes etc). There’s also the systemic reliance on PDF which means that content is locked away in an A4 page and nothing is “mobile friendly”.
  • The administration systems we tend to use are still only designed for the desktop. They still only ever support a full and rich experience from a desktop browser. Mobile is a poor cousin and the experience shows.
  • Institutional web teams are often too small to affect the kinds of redesigns at the kind of scale that’s required. Instead the result tends to be a set of piecemeal components that shatter any hope of a coherent user experience.
  • The only system or practice that seems to have a consistent increase in use and reach is…. email. Yep, it now infects every device we own with pings and vibrations that we attempt to ignore. Email – the most un-mobile of technologies. It fundamentally fails to provide a good experience – for reading or writing – or utilise any of the amazing affordances of todays mobile devices that open up the opportunity for improvements to communication.

Yay us!

The reality is that institutions (and the entire edtech industry) have under estimated the paradigm shift required to embrace mobile. It’s still treated as just a feature, or a nice to have rather than the future of computing.

In fact it’s the failure to actually treat mobile as a legitimate computing device that is perhaps the biggest problem.

Mobile is still treated like a toy rather than a serious device.

This is despite the fact that mobile is more contextual, more powerful and packed with more affordances than any PC. Somehow if it doesn’t have a keyboard or mouse it doesn’t seem to count. Mobile just doesn’t seem to justify investment in the eyes of most IT departments. This is despite the fact that the mobile device we have in out pockets is in most cases newer and more powerful than the junky PC we, and our students, are working on. Compare working with video on your phone vs your PC. Which one struggles? Which one drops frames? Which one renders longers?

The underlying fact is that mobile represents a significant change – in the type of technology, the kinds of affordances it makes available and more importantly, in the way we interact with it.

I published this table in 2013 to illustrate the kind of shift that mobile represents. It sticks out to me because I don’t think that much of the change or transition has actally occured. I think we’re still too PC in our mindset and have yet to actually embrace the reality that mobile represents. The current state of Mobile is that we’re not there yet – we’re stuck in the PC Age. Thinking PC thoughts. Doing things the PC way.

I developed this table at the end of 2013 as a way to express the diffferences I could see between the PC and Mobile mindsets and the way the thinking defined the two Ages. The idea was to encapsulate the change in affordances that each technology bought with it.

PC Age Mobile Age
tethered location mobile
static environment dynamic
slow speed of change rapid
separate technology embedded
formal structure organic
low level of convenience high
abstracted authenticity situated
centralised resources distributed

Since I published that earlier table I’ve worked on developing a more expansive list.

- Version 2 Additions -
passive interaction active
broadcast communication dialogue
institutional data sovereignty personal
linear timelines polysynchronous
curated content contributed
physical storage digital
possession content communal
concealed practice shared
isolated learning connected
generic interaction personal
consumtion information creation

The Current State?

So what’s the current state of mobile learning?

We’re haven’t even started.

Critique & Creation

I started this post about 6 months ago and after observing the to-and-fro between Audrey Watters and Stephen Downes I went looking for it. I found it laying in a drafts folder, something started but not finished. Over the last couple of days other posts have come out, Debbie Chachra & Mike Caulfield, and it’s highlighted for me again the importance and role of critique. So I decided to push it out as the sentiments can perhaps add to the conversation but also explain my deep admiration for the work that people who don’t “make”, but instead think, care, connect and give.

I’ve written a few critical blogs and tweets in my time. What’s interesting is that they’ve been read, shared and replied to more than any of my positive, happy and (perhaps) thoughtful pieces. I think I am often at my sharpest when being critical, but being critical is not necessarily being negative. I am not an overly negative or pessimistic person – in fact I feel I’m the complete opposite. I’m a happy, optimistic, positive and passionate person. It’s this passion drives me to do better, to transform, reform, rebuild and create – not for their own sake but to be better than before. I’m an optimist that’s based in reality. I need to understand what is wrong in order to make it better. I think I have a talent for rooting out causality and seeing past the obvious, and perhaps that’s why those particular posts resonate more strongly with people.

It’s for these reasons I am such a fan of Audrey’s work. She has a way of clear communicating her insight to a broad audience and of explaining the nuance of quite complex themes and ideas. Her work is well researched and often provides the missing historical perspective from many of the deep conversations we’re having around EdTech. She has a talent for clearly communicating complexity, unveiling the hidden and asking questions that have been left unasked and unanswered. Her critique is sorely needed in educational technology where hype and hyperbole are the mainstays of communication. I often think that maybe the problem some people have with her work is not the criticism, but the fact that it’s all been done before (usually by more talented and progressive people a decade or more ago).

My education in art and design which baked in the critique as part of the creative process. I’ve learnt to appreciate it deeply because when it’s done well but someone who knows what they’re talking about it can change your life. It’s opened up my eyes to a different way of working and creating that is less self indulgent and more rigorous and defined. You see critiquing isn’t a review where you let fly with your opinion, no the purpose of the critique is to make the work stronger, better, and more fitting.

To be effective doesn’t just entail listing all the mistakes. Instead it requires a deep level of empathy and understanding. There must be understanding of the subject but also an empathy of the person and context to make it a critique and not an attack. One cannot simply critique the work, you must understand where it comes from, what is it’s context, and what is its purpose so that you can offer something back to the work. For this to occur critique requires work, and it’s damn hard work! It requires rigour not just an opinion. In the critique your not entitled to your own opinion, you have to actually earn it.

Critique is so important that it’s what good creatives leverage to do & be better. It’s how you grow, learn and change. It’s how you get better and actually improve. For that purpose alone a good critique is more important than the act of creating itself. Doing something wrong (repeatedly) or making something is not good or better because it’s “creative” – it’s stupid. Both the work and the critique have equal importance. They are symbiotic and by themselves ultimately futile.

The creative work might exist, but the critique is a plan for where it can go and how it can evolve. That might mean starting again from scratch, tweaking or taking an idea in a new direction, but it is not a dismissal of the contribution or the effort of making it.

The art of a good critique is a fine line but it can be guided by one sentiment – what are you offering back to the work?

  • If it is nothing but criticism, it is not a critique.
  • If it nothing but your opinion of what you would have done without any mention of the works context ,it is not a critique.
  • If it is criticism aimed at the person, it is not a critique.

Critique is important for any practice because it is a tool that improves that practice. Despite the old saying, practice does not make perfect – it simply makes it permanent. Critique is one of the most effective way of learning and improving.

From reading Audrey’s work for some time I find her critique of Educational Technology valuable and important because they demand we pay attention. They demand those that do make, to make are better things. They demand that we ask questions about ourselves and what we do to, for and with others. This critique asks us to do better and provides insight into where we go wrong and where we can do better.

We should want Educational Technology that addresses real problems, not manufacture new ones or answer a need we never, ever had. We should want EdTech that’s more authentic, more caring, more open and more free. Technology that humanises.

Technology can humanize

A great deal of energy and attention has been focused on using technology to automatically grade quizzes, to “capture” lectures, to make the most massive MOOC . . . to McDonaldize education. There is another path. Technology can humanize. It can augment, extend, and empower. There is real transformative power for students and instructors when they interact and build with these tools. The ability to make useful products, to unite the abstract and concrete, to compress action/feedback cycles, to allow for fluid and interactive presentation of data towards new and deeper understandings – this is where technology starts to matter.

— Tom Woodward, Aspirational vs Operational EdTech

A beautifully composed statement! This is what drives many in EdTech not to give up or surrender to corporate colonisation of the space. It’s the belief that people are what really matters.

The FedWiki Happening

Over the last month or so I’ve been participating in the #fedwikihappening that the amazing Mike Caulfield has been running. I’ll admit I crashed the party a little, asking for an invite having seen a Twitter conversation I wasn’t part of, but I’ve been following Mike’s work for a while and was really keen to have a go at Smallest Federated Wiki. The main reason I wanted to get on board was because there was a structured reason behind it. This was a happening not just a free for all. This structure meant a lot as it provided motivation as well as tasks and purpose to participate. It’s definitely something I want to adopt if I’m doing anything similar as the structure allowed those involved to not only explore the potentiality but also put the technology through it’s paces.

I’ve outlined my experience below into a couple of thematic areas which might help

The Technology

So lets start with the technology. It’s still in development and if you go in with that attitude you’re going to be OK. There are some idiosyncrasies to learn, some slightly odd concepts and practices but if you’ve ever driven a French car it’s nothing you can’t take in your stride. Things aren’t quite where you expect them or work how you might have intended but with a bit of practice you can quickly get the hang of things. I did encounter the Orange Halo Of Death but finally diagnosed that it was to do with the online security at work – so not browser or user related! FWIW – I used Chrome rather than Firefox throughout and never encountered any issues.

The Happening Process

The bulk of the happening happened over the Christmas break – which made my attendance a little difficult. There were a few days of travel in there and a strong desire to spend plenty of time with the family rather than the computer. I wasn’t prolific but did make a good attempt at trying to find my way and post some “forkable” pages.

I managed to tweak my background and flag image with a shot from my recent trip to New Zealand and a pre-job interview selfie to provide a bit of a personal look to the interface. I then set about getting my head around what is FedWiki, how does it work, how can it work better and how can I actually use this?

  1. You Write – That’s how you use it in the beginning, developing up a little portfolio of ideas and expressions. They’re primarily for you but they’re written with an audience in mind.
  2. Then you Fork – Forking is an interesting concept and the fundamental feature of the fedwiki system. Forking entails copying someone else work back to your site along with the pages history and connection to other authors. Pages are yours to do with as you wish but they are embedded with a relationship. Previous authors can see your changes and they can in turn fork them back to their copy.
  3. You Fork Everything – One of those interesting and idiosyncratic things with Fedwiki is that Forking is synonymous with saving, merging, fixing, connecting & reconnecting. It’s your one stop shop for all things Fedwiki. This has its advantages but it’s intellectual baggage if you come from git or other fork/merge systems. To me this was the least intuitive thing to learn. Upside is I guess, I want to fork everything now!
  4. You Learn – The great thing about the Happening and the forking feature is that you contribute to something bigger – others can see, edit and extend your work. You start of selfish but quite quickly your activity tends to be social. You begin to create with the intention of others seeing and forking. And even when you don’t, others see potential and do. This was a fantastic learning experience for me. I’d write to the extent of my knowledge – then someone would pick up where I’d left off. I could track that, read it, use it and then fork it to make it my own. I’ve never used something that allows you to do that so intuitively! Simplifying learning is as a process is one area I can see Fedwiki having a huge potential. Jon Udell had some great ideas about using it for learning basic composition

FedWiki Thoughts

I’m kind of shocked at the flexility of Fedwiki as a tool. It’s really only limited by your imagination and I’m only just starting to get a sense of how it can be used. I’ve got to sit down and map some of this out a bit but as a personal tool alone I can see how it can change the way I take notes, record and map ideas. Scale that out to group work and theres some amazing potential for an incredibly tool to dramatically improve efficiency, productivity and creativity. The only drawback I can see at the moment is in publishing – but that’s really only if you’re thinking in terms of an artefact with a temporal constraint. As something living and breathing – Fedwiki would be perfect.

Happening Deconstruction

I’m really enjoying the blog posts on the deconstruction of the Happening as much as the participation but I’ve also tried to capture some of my reflections using fedwiki rather than the blog… because I kind of want to fork everything now! You can have a read over here and if you’ve got a FedWiki to play with have a go at forking it!

I posted this over on Frances Bell’s blog in the comments. The post and the comments provide a great insight into other participants perspective the whole thing and are worth a read.

One of the themes coming through from the shared and personal experience is this idea of Cooperation vs Collaboration. I think we’re too used to automatically assuming that group work has to be collaborative. Mike’s post bought it home to me that no – the difference here is that it’s actually cooperative.

I think a cooperative approach is a significant shift away from the norm – and perhaps mirrors the rise of auto-ethnographic research that some others have picked up on – because it actually injects the self back into the work. Despite the sell of personalisation so much of what we do, see and read is effectively depersonalised – anything that vaguely provides a clue to a personality or identity is stripped away. I think this kind of connective (rather than collective) approach provides a better way for us to learn. In many ways it’s more a kin to our existing social experiences of dealing with individuals rather than the hive mind that collective processes tend to foster.

Yes there are technical issues – but that cultural curiosity and the embedded potential have made this a really worthwhile experience.

We are on the way

We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.

— Martin Luther

Thinking this has plenty of resonance going into 2015.

Coming Soon – A Contribution not a Prediction for 2015

2015 has arrived and there’s a plethora of posts offering predictions, Top 10s, Year of _____, biggest trends etc etc etc. I’ve decided to do something different and talk about my contribution to the future rather than spruiking what it could be.

This year brings an opportunity for me to actively drive some innovation within our institution (in my new role as Online Learning Technology Leader), rather than simply react and respond to what’s happening outside. So I thought I’d seize on that and use this year to develop some new skills and explore some new ideas. So here’s a few things I’m hoping to work on.

Distributed systems

The anniversary of the web and the Snowden leaks that revealed the level and scale of surveillance has really put into perspective the need to re-discover distributed systems. The growing centralisation of the web has made surveillance easier but also made us too dependant or what are massive fail points. Concepts like Domain of Ones Own appeals to me in the sense that it empowers users rather than traps them. Data and information remains yours and in your control, not something that’s matter-of-fact-ly subsumed by a corporate interest. The start-up data trail is a particularly interesting thing to note – when a product fails commercially the one asset they can sell is user data. This kind of behaviour is something we should be paying attention to and beginning to actively avoid. The other big interest I have is to more fully explore the potential of the Federated Wiki. Having participated in the Happening I can see the massive potential this system has for authoring and creating (I’m still not sold on it being the best ‘publishing’ interface – but maybe that’s simply something to explore further).

Customising WordPress

I’ve been a user of WordPress for sometime now and as a blogging tool it’s been great. What I’ve really noticed over the last few years though is it’s slow evolution to highly adaptive and customisable CMS. It’s gone so far down that road that I’m personally thinking of swapping my blog over to Jekyll or something more light weight. But that CMS functionality could be deployed and utilised as an effective backend for a variety of systems. So I want to get in there and begin to use its plugin and theme structures as a development tool. To that end I’m keen to really explore custom posts and interfaces and how they can be utilised to create new content systems. One of the great things is that WordPress is one of the easiest technologies to rollout that fits a distributed model. Using a Domain of Ones Own or a Multisite installation you can really go to town on developing smaller distributed systems. I have some concerns of a lack of a proper API but an open and hackable system is an OK option.

Design Patterns

Mike Caulfield’s posts on design patterns got me thinking a lot and I believe there’s something significant in the concept. In my new role I specifically interested in the potential of patterns to be used to scale up and scale out good practice and innovation. One of the hidden themes at Ascilite 2014 was the power of good teaching. In fact I’d go as far as saying that effective innovation requires good teachers that capable of adapting good practice. The area I was thinking about was digitally mediated interaction as it’s something where I sense there’s a significant gap. It’s also an area that’s ill-defined and often ill-conceived so I think there’s something scholarly in there (maybe).


At the Ascilite Conference I co-facilitated a workshop with Kim Tairi and Joyce Seitzinger on the Networked Professional. I got a lot out of the day where we were as much participants as facilitators. I’d like to keep up that work over the year. Maybe running the workshop again – or maybe developing up some ongoing ‘events’ – TweetUps, Hangouts… something to keep that momentum and shared practice going.

I’m not sure if that aligns with anyones list or trends for 2015, but they’re areas where I CAN do something and make something happen.