The Information

the-information-gleickWhat is Information? Is it inseparably connected to our human condition? How will the exponentially growing flow of information affect our societies?  How is the exploding amount of information affecting us as people, our societies, our democracies? When The Economist talks about post-truth society, how much of this trend is related to the failure of fact-checking, increasing polarity and fragmentation of media and the distrust of ‘experts’?  The Information starts with a reference to Borges’ Library of Babel:

The Library of Babel contains all books, in all languages.  Yet no knowledge can be discovered here, precisely because all knowledge is there, shelved side by side with all falsehood.  In the mirrored galeries, on the countless shelves, can be found everything and nothing.  There can be no more perfect case of information glut. We make our own storehouses.  The persistence of infomation, the difficulty of forgettting, so characteristic of our time, accretes confusion. (p. 373)

In The Information, James Gleick takes the reader on a historical world tour to trace the origins of our ‘Information Society’, basically an old term that keeps on being reinvented. It’s a sweeping and monumental tour that takes us from African drumming over alphabets, the beginnings of science, mathematical codes, data, electronics to the spooky world of quantum physics.  He shows how information has always been central to who we are as humans. He points to foreshadowings from the current information age such as the origin of the word “network” in the 19th century and how “computers” were people before they were machines.

shannonThe core figure in the book is Claude Shannon. In 1948 he invented information theory by making a mathematical theory out of something that doesn’t seem mathematical. He was the first one to use the word ‘bit’ as a measure of information. Until then nobody would have though to measure information in units, like meters or kilograms. He showed how all human creations such as words, music and visual images are all related in the way that can be captured by bits. It’s amazing that this unifying idea of information that has transformed our societies was only conceptualized less than 70 years ago.

It’s Shannon whose fingerprints are on every electronic device we own, every computer screen we gaze into, every means of digital communication. He’s one of these people who so transform the world that, after the transformation, the old world is forgotten.” That old world, Gleick said, treated information as “vague and unimportant,” as something to be relegated to “an information desk at the library.” The new world, Shannon’s world, exalted information; information was everywhere. (New Yorker)
At its most fundamental, information is a binary choice.  A bit of information is one yes-or-no choice. This is a very powerful concept that has made a lot of modern technology possible. By this technical definition, all information has a certain value, regardless of the content of the message.  A message might take 1.000 bits and contain complete nonsense. This shows how information is at the same time empowering, but also desiccating. Information is everywhere, but as a result, we find it increasingly hard to find meaning.  Has the easy accessibility of ‘facts’ diminished the value we assign to it?
Despite the progress in producing and storing information, we have remained human in our ability to filter and process information. Gleick gives the example of his own writing process:
The tools at my disposal now compared to just 10 years ago are extraordinary. A sentence that once might have required a day of library work now might require no more than a few minutes on the Internet. That is a good thing. Information is everywhere, and facts are astoundingly accessible. But it’s also a challenge because authors today must pay more attention than ever to where we add value. And I can tell you this, the value we add is not in the few minutes of work it takes to dig up some factoid, because any reader can now dig up the same factoid in the same few minutes.
It’s interesting because this feeling of the precariousness of information is everywhere. We think information is so fragile, that if we don’t grab it and store it someplace, we’ll forget it and we’ll never have it again. The reality is that information is more persistent and robust now than it’s ever been in human history. Our ancestors, far more than us, needed to worry about how fragile information was and how easily it could vanish. When the library of Alexandria burned, most of the plays of Sophocles were lost, never to be seen again. Now, we preserve knowledge with an almost infinite ability.
Redundancy is a key characteristic of natural information networks. As Taleb taught us, decentralized networks are much more resilient than centralized structures.  Every natural language has redundancy built in. This is why people can understand text riddled with errors or missing letters and why they can understand conversation in a noisy room.  The best example of a natural information network may be life’s genetic make-up:
“DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level—an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being.” “When the genetic code was solved, in the early 1960s, it turned out to be full of redundancy. Some codons are redundant; some actually serve as start signals and stop signals. The redundancy serves exactly the purpose that an information theorist would expect. It provides tolerance for errors.”
 Technological innovation has always sparked anxiety. Gleick quotes Plato’s Socrates that the invention of writing “will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.” (p.30) Mc Luhan recognized in 1962 the dawn of the information age.  He predicted the confusions and indecisions the new era would bring and wrote about a ‘global knowing’.  Thirty years before H.G. Wells wrote about a World Brain, a widespread world intelligence, taking the form of a network.  Wells saw this network as a gigantic decentralized encyclopedia, managed by a small group of ‘people of authority’. The network would rule the world in a ‘post-democratic’ world order.
Gleick writes that we’re still only at the start of the Information Age. Some effects on us and on our societies will only become apparent in the coming decades. Will the internet continue to evolve into a world brain or will it splinter into various parts. Will the atomisation of our media into countless echo chambers continue and what kind of society will it lead us into?
The library will endure; it is the universe. As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we recognize creatures of the information. (p.426)

Blog Temporarily Suspended

DSC02924Blogging can be harmful.  A sudden burst of blogging activity, triggered by participating at the WorldSTE2013 conference, apparently triggered a WordPress machine alert.  As a result, access to this blog was -without warning – suspended for nearly a week.  Fortunately, after a few days, just when I considered returning to Blogger, someone at WordPress found the time to review the blog and clear it.

Things I wished I’d known when I started the MAODE three years ago (I’ve finished, I’m doing H809 as CPD – already!)

Other thoughts on H809 from Jonathan, truly inspiring fellow learner

Mind Bursts

A thorough introduction to the platform and tools as a common 16 hours to all modules.

An afternoon, face-to-face tutorial? Through OU Students regionally if not with your tutor. Perhaps through Alumni support groups in Google Hang outs or some such?

This may sound like anathema to the online, distance learning purists, but I wonder if the OU will have to ‘turn itself inside out’ and have undergrads on campus – not just postgrad doctoral students. As ‘traditional’ universities offer everything the OU and a handful of other distance learning specialists around the world used to have as ‘unique selling points’ they will be able to offer it all: e-learning support for resident students, e-learning for distance learners and blended learning for everyone in between.

Turn the Michael Young building into the OU’s first Hall of residence.

If I go into academia I will want to teach even if my…

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#H809 Some final impressions


credit: DarkStar701

As for previous modules (see reflections on H800, H807, H810), I want to write down some final thoughts on H809.  I, myself, have appreciated very much other former students’ course reflections, for example this one from Sylvia Mössinger.

Let’s start with the strengths of H809, and fortunately,  I found quite a few of them.

  1. The selection of papers is excellent.  There’s a wide range of contexts, methodologies, themes and theoretical frameworks covered.  The list seems to be regularly updated.  Each paper seems to contain some flaws, and most were vilified in the forum.
  2. The course introduces a useful range of questions and issues that may arise with educational research.  It brings up examples of correlations and causations being conflated, context being omitted, weak theoretical frameworks and dubious ethical practices.  In this, it provides an essential part of a MA course and an excellent preparation for a doctorate.
  3. As in other modules, the composition of the tutor group is paramount.  Every group needs a few enthusiasts who can get and keep discussions going, in particular if the tutor takes a backseat position.  Luckily, the group was excellent and was of real added value.  As mentioned above, some papers were torn apart with everybody weighting in with great arguments.  Most students are active in education and some had strong a statistics background.
  4. The course certainly changed my conception of what constitutes valuable educational research.  With a background in positive sciences, I tended to prefer quantitative reesarch,  with the randomized control trial as the pinnacle of evidence.  The course helped me appreciate other approaches such as Grounded Theory and ethnographic approaches, and dispel some of the arguments of the randomistas.

And, of course, now comes the part with some weaknesses.

  1. Some collaborative activities were included in the course design, but they just didn’t work.  Looking at Salmon’s e-tivity framework,  it could be due to insufficient socialisation activities.  As I argued earlier, you need to include at least a few tutor-led synchronous sessions to get student-led sessions and collaborative work going.  The in-depth discussions of paper would have provided an excellent opportunity to organize such synchronous discussions.
  2. For a 30 credit and 4-months course the frequency of papers is rather high.  With three TMAs and one EMA there was a deadline on average every month.  Word counts were somewhat lower (2000 and 4000 words) than in other modules, but that doesn’t necessarily reduce work load.
  3. Tutors take very much a backseat position in OU modules.  Usually, that’s fine, but I believe there still needs to be a presence in the forums, where the occassional nudge, reference and argument can be of tremendous value.

Overall a valuable course, but not yet the perfect one.  Next module for me is ‘Education for Development’ (ET821), which is also the last one needed in order to obtain a MAODE degree.

Time To Listen (3): Donor Policies and Agendas

ImageThis is the third post on the Time to Listen report, that aims at giving a voice to those on the receiving end of development assistance.  Earlier posts can be found here and here.

Donors usually have external interests and agendas that influence international aid.  These agendas are not always shared by the recipients and have negative effects on their societies.

A grandmother who was caring for her orphaned grandchildren explained that a decision to provide aid only to people who tested positive for HIV/AIDS meant she got food to feed only one granddaughter, who was infected, while her other grandchildren were also hungry. She was amazed that donors set a political policy that forced her to choose among her hungry grandchildren. Others noted that the focus on humanitarian aid only for those affected by HIV/AIDs left able-bodied children and children who had living parents without any support. This neglect of healthy children and families was, they felt, short-sighted because it could undermine the country’s future development.

“It appears there is a need to be in a war situation before we can get assistance. We have to risk our lives in order to get development aid.” – Community members, Philippines

Procedures intended to make aid more transparent and consistent have often the side effect of being complicated, rigid, and counter-productive  reducing efficiency and effectiveness and wasting both time and money.

Western concepts of vulnerability and worthiness do not always match local concepts. For minority ethnic groups in Cambodia, who stated that they believe everyone is equal and deserves the same aid, foreign concepts of vulnerability clashed with local concepts of fairness. “They come and ask about our needs and then come with district officials to distribute…. We don’t agree with the selection. Poverty assessment is based on whether or not the family owns a motorbike or a wooden house (richer) or no motorbike and bamboo house (poorer).” People were angered by the selection criteria and stormed out of the community meeting. (Listening Project Report, Cambodia).

There is wide agreement that outside aid providers should work through existing institutions where they are strong and support them, if weak, to help them gain experience and resources for bettering their societies. Receivers and providers of aid together recognize that international donors are only temporary actors in recipient societies and that governments and local organizations know their contexts better than outsiders do.  However, local institutions may have their own motives for selecting activities or target groups.

“If you are from the opposite party, you will get no aid to develop your area. And the ruling party will accuse the other parties of not helping people. Aid is manipulated for political favor and to disfavor other political parties. Foreign assistance is used to show that the ruling party is generous.” – Local NGO staff, Cambodia

Corruption is a daily concern of many involved in development work.  Beyond the unambiguous manifestations of corruption through theft, diversion, and unfair distribution, people often raise three other issues. These are aspects of international assistance that they see as “corrupting influences”. These include what people see as extravagant spending or needless waste by international aid agencies and their staff, the delivery of too much aid (too quickly), and the absence of serious or effective accountability in aid efforts.

When sizeable resources come into otherwise poor communities with the message that these must be spent quickly to comply with donor guidelines, it is not surprising that this prompts abuse. A number of people are surprised that international aid providers continue to make this mistake, which leads, they say, to misuse.

Some principles should guide the development of an alternative funding system: “Enough, but not too much”; “Available, but not necessarily spent”; “Steady, but no burn-rate requirement”—such funding principles would connect resource flows to a mutually developed strategy and to a given context.

Donors need to be honest and forthright about what they really mean by ‘participation.’ Is it simply a consultation with communities to get approval or support for a project that has already been pre-determined, or really to decide jointly and to work together?

An aid worker in Senegal admitted, “It is true that an obstacle to getting real involvement of local populations may be the cost and time commitment that it entails. With the emphasis on speed and efficiency, there is little time for true community involvement.”

“Not until I spent three weeks staying in a village did I feel like I was getting truthful information about what the community really needed and wanted. Only after they knew me and trusted me, did this frank exchange became possible.” (Aid worker, Lebanon)

“Presence takes time and money. Presence requires openness and humility. Presence involves prioritizing time and resources and delineating roles and responsibilities between levels (outsider, insider, stakeholders of various sorts).” (International Aid Worker, Denmark)

Opinions on paying people to participate are divided.  Many practitioners observe that such payments can undermine the principle of participation, influence the quality of relationships, raise expectations, and create perverse incentives for people to “participate” in aid processes. Some aid providers and recipients believe that paying people to participate erodes the traditions of mutual self-help in communities. Others argue that aid agencies should not expect local people to contribute their time, input, and efforts without being compensated. Some feel that giving people money or other forms of payment constitutes a gesture of appreciation and respect for people’s effort to spend a away from their regular duties. Others feel that payments for involvement feed into a monetization of what should be community-based or volunteer activities.

Local organizations report that when wealthier aid providers pay higher participation fees, recipients will sometimes refuse to engage in activities that do not pay as well. Local NGOs can rarely compete with international agencies’ larger budgets and find it challenging to work with the “professional workshop-goers” that this precedent has created.  The latter is certainly relevant in donor-darling Cambodia.  There are guidelines issued by the government on the amount of per diem fees, curbing some of the misuses of ‘per diem collection’.

Time To Listen (1): Hearing the Voices from People Receiving International Aid

time-to-listen-cover1-218x300  I recently spent time reading Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of   International Aid, by Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean. It’s published by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, a non-profit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is a distillation of 6000 interviews carried out from 2005-9 with people who have received or been involved in aid – individuals, local NGOs, international NGOs, bilateral aid agencies etc.

The methodology of doing the interviews and distilling the findings is valuable and the subject of another post. I’ve selected the main findings and quotes I found relevant.  The book is certainly worth reading in full though and can be freely downloaded. Many of the findings are not new for people active in development cooperation. However, it’s convincing and often uncomfortable to read them from people on the receiving end from many different countries.

Most people feel that international aid is a good thing. They are glad it exists and want it to continue. Many tell positive stories about specific projects, individual staff, or special planning or decision making processes that they credit with achieving what they hoped for. Some of the positive impacts are lasting, such as when a road improves access to a market or women develop skills that they feel improve their families’ lives.

People often distinguish between the beneficial short-term impacts of certain projects and the cumulative negative long-term impact of aid.  This focus on the cumulative impact of aid on poor people is really valuable, because it contrasts with most interviews that intend to get feedback on the results of a specific programme.

The interviews lay bare some of the weaknesses and perverse incentives that aid generates, often remarkably consistent among countries.  Everywhere people described markedly similar experiences with the processes of assistance and explained how these processes undermined the very goals of the assistance.

A main side-effect of much aid is that it increases dependency and powerlessness.  The “Message” of Aid extends beyond ‘we care’ to  ‘you don’t have to worry, we will take care’.

“By giving out so easily, you are turning them into beggars. Some villages received too much to stop and think of the value of all the things they have been given.” (Policeman, Thailand)

“It’s important not to get things for free so that people are not programmed to get aid. If you give it for free, you take away the sense of responsibility they had.”  (Karen leader, Thai-Burma border)

“One truth about external aid that occasionally presents itself is a double dependency … whereas grassroots people can develop a dependency on NGOs and other supportive entities, the NGOs in turn become dependent on grassroots leaders and groups. They need them to launch their projects, bring out the people, generate enthusiasm in the participants, and finally, to demonstrate to supervisors, donors, and visitors their achievements, or at least that the projects are underway. Their positions, salaries, and sense of efficiency are all linked to the cooperation and conformity of the aid recipients.” (Listening Project Report, Ecuador).

A recurrent them in the book is that the selection of beneficiaries is often not transparent or perceived as unfair. Criteria for disadvantaged groups are arbitrary, selection of target areas is based on political criteria or  external priorities.  In all but one country, international aid over time had introduced or reinforced tensions among groups and that, cumulatively, it had increased the potential for violence and/or fundamental divisions within their societies.

“I feel jealous. I don’t know why NGOs help [the refugee village] and not our village. The refugee village has electricity; the road is better there, and here it is muddy. It makes me feel they are better than us.”  (A male in a village next to refugee returnees, Cambodia)

#H809 Methodological Reflections on the Hiltz and Meinke Paper

The first paper in H809 is an oldie, a paper from Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Robert Meinke published in 1989.  The paper aims at comparing the learning outcomes in a few courses between online and face-to-face delivery.

Research Questions & Design
The article seeks to find out whether a virtual course implementation (VC) produces different learning outcomes than a traditional face-to-face (F2F) approach. Secondly, it looks to determine variables (student, instructor and course characteristics) associated with these outcomes.  The research uses quantitative research methods, using pre- and post-course survey data.  It complements these with evaluation reports from the course instructors.
The research aims at relating the mode of delivery to learning outcomes, measured by data such as SAT courses.  It takes a behavioural view on learning.  Alternatively, the research could have focused on the degree of understanding, the development of ‘soft skills’ 
Limitations of the research:
1. Distribution of students in groups (VC vs F2F) was done through self-selection (quasi-experimental approach).  Student characteristics may thus not be similar.  Perhaps, more disciplined or motivated students chose to take the VC approach.
2. The use of self-reporting pre- and post-course surveys may be prone to response bias. Responses may have been skewed by a desire to please the researchers. As students were asked to compare VC experiences with previous F2F experiences, they needed to rely on (distorting) memory. 
3. The scope of the research was limited to two institutions and a small student population.  Not surprisingly, few results were statistically significant: “In many cases, results of quantitative analysis are inconclusive in determining which was better, the VC approach or the F2F approach.  The overall answer is: It depends.”  Setting up methodologically sound quantitative research designs in a ‘real’ educational setting is challenging, as there are so many environmental variables that may influence the outcomes and which, in an ideal setting, should be kept constant in order to have conclusive results for the dependent variable.
4. The researchers mention implementation problems, such as resistance by faculty members.  Unfortunately, they don’t elaborate on this.
5. The same teacher, text and other printed materials were used in both modes.  This seems like an objective way to compare two modes, but it may not be. The teacher may have been less familiar with online delivery or failed to adapt his/her mode of instruction.  Texts and other printed materials may be suitable for F2F delivery, but online delivery calls for different course designs (See the work of Mayer and Clark).  For example, online delivery requires short chunks of text for online reading, proximity of a graph with the explanation of this graph and removal of redundancies in information.
6. The research focuses on the comparison of delivery modes (VC vs. F2F).  However, in their discussion on collaborative learning, the authors seem to suggest that it is mainly the selection of instructional strategies that counts, in particular the inclusion of collaborative learning activities like seminar-style presentations and discussions. 
The self-selecting of the samples is a weakness in the study.  Random selection would arguably provide a better basis to compare the learning outcomes of two delivery modes.  However, assigning students to a delivery mode, which you may suspect will put them to a disadvantage  and for which they have paid good money, raises ethical questions.  Providing the courses free of charge for students willing to take part of the study could be an option, although this may in turn affect the research.  Students may behave differently in a course for which they paid.
The study found little evidence of statistically significant correlations in learning outcomes between the two modes of delivery.  The pre- and post-test surveys did show some significant correlations in subjective assessments such as interest. Correlations were in both directions. For a mathematics course the online course generated higher interest course, whereas for an introductory sociology course, the result was opposite.  The authors suggest that this may be related to the fact that the sociology cohort was an academically weak group, as illustrated by their SAT scores.  
What counts as evidence in the paper?
The researchers look for statistically significant correlations.  I believe such a correlation gives more support for a claim, by indicating its strength and reliability. However, the claim is limited to the particular circumstances in which the research took place (characteristics of students, teachers, institutions, courses…) and cannot be extended to other circumstances without insight in the nature of the circumstances and their causality with the learning outcomes. In what circumstances do students achieve better learning outcomes in an online course?  For what types of courses does online learning offer a better learning experience?  The authors do discuss these circumstances, but base themselves mainly on their personal experiences as instructors rather than statistical tests.
A next step in the research could be to look for anomalies in the data.  Students, courses and implementation strategies that fail the hypotheses made.  For example the hypothesis that online learning is beneficial for more mature learners. Or the hypothesis that online learning is less suitable for wide, introductory courses that touch upon many topics.  
The research could form input to meta-analysis, which could compare the claims with other studies and try to distil findings based on a more diverse set of circumstances.