Networks as Critical Texts

Visualization-of-Algarottis-World-from-Mapping-the-Republic-of-Letters

Cover. Visualization of Algarotti’s World from the Mapping the Republic of Letters project at Stanford University. (Source)

My initial thoughts about networks are that they are complex and inaccessible, but they have the potential to revolutionize reading, writing, thinking and learning practices as we used to know. But from my various visits with individuals who are theorizing and trying to deploy networks in their own research, teaching, and learning, I am come to recognize networks not just as a tool but a rhetorical strategy that could empower its user in unprecedented ways. Combined with data analytics, networks offer some powerful methodologies for gaining insights (predictions) and intelligence (current knowledge). For humanists, questions remain: How should and might we harness such power? What are the potentials and perils of authorizing networks to connect, extract, transfer, and exchange information? How might we master these capabilities to offer our world something of value? Instinctively, these questions lead me to thinking about the rhetorics of networks, and the relationships between language and logics since the expression of networks is engendered by the two. Before I explore further, I would like to include here a brief preface to network studies, a broader field in which lives the majority of the theoretical frameworks and traditions I am going to employ in my study.

Network Studies

Over the past decade, network studies has emerged to be an increasingly prominent academic discipline thanks to prevailing and advancing technologies. Both theory and method, network studies thrives on available means for visualization to model relationships between entities. Social network analysis, a process that involves investigating social structures through the use of network and graph theories, has particularly enjoyed greater uptake across disciplinary landscapes. Within rhetoric and writing studies, wherein activity theory and actor-network theory (Latour, 2005; Spinuzzi, 2010) are drawn quite heavily upon (more so in technical and professional communication), social network analysis provides writing researchers relevant frameworks that add dimensions to their scholarship. An example of project born of social network analysis within writing studies would be the “Writing Studies Tree” project (see http://writingstudiestree.org). With this project, along with other budding initiatives in the our field, networks are beginning to gain recognition as valuable and productive methods for accomplishing the goals of composition and its instruction. With an eye toward the critical functions of networks, I provide in this essay a snapshot of networks pertaining to the interests of composition studies––networks as texts. To do so, I review arguments from several critical scholars and take a shot at offering some implications for composition pedagogy as networks become more and more preeminent in our field. Before entering that conversation, I provide in the next section a brief overview of connectivism as a network and learning theory.

From Social to Network to Critical Perspectives

As most compositionists and writing instructors are aware, social theory has long influenced how teaching and learning are done in the classroom. For instance, Albert Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory informs educationalists about how students learn through modeling and reciprocal processes. Social constructivist theorists, later update Bandura’s theory with social construction of meaning in collaborative learning and interactive knowledge construction (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978; Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). As social theory frameworks typically focus on the individual’s experience in group settings, a networked perspective encompasses more and different relations, looking at the diversity of social relationships people maintain and the diversity of relationships that make up communities and other forms of social networked structures. Such perspective calls forth the consideration of the idea of social capital, which according to Pierre Bourdieu (1986), is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (p. 248). In the technological age, the notion of social capital has been adapted into the digital-social realm, denoting the use of technologies to expand, enhance, and accelerate an individual’s social network. Situated within this paradigm is the birth of connectivism.

Connectivism is the theoretical framework developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes as a means to reconceptualize knowledge in light of new technologies and environments for learning. According to Siemens (2006) and Downes (2011), “Connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.” Connectivism harnesses the affordances of network structures to set up connections between people, information resources, organizations, and other entities that add values to one’s learning interests. Siemens (2008) points out that “the capacity to know is more critical than what is actually known.” And it is this “critical capacity” of networks that has intrigued many scholars to look into the effects of digital connection systems on pedagogy. In “Occupying the Digital: Critical Pedagogy and New Media,” Pete Rorabaugh (2012) calls teachers to pay attention to digital learning spaces and treats them as “a site of moral agency” since there could be models of interaction that impede learning. In an interview with a Middlebury fellow, Downes (2012) defends the consistency of digitally-infused curriculum to a critical pedagogy approach. He writes, “[Our objective] is about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education … We (those of us working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire” (Downes, 2012).

Now (there and back again), considering networks under the light of critical theory, I envision a space for discussions of how learning is changing in the 21st century––If students live in a culture that digitizes and educates them through a screen, they require an education that empowers them in that sphere, teaches them that language, and offers new opportunities of human connectivity. It is this motivation that inspires the following sections in this essay. I look to some early literature that critiques the coming of a technological turn in composition studies and writing instruction as a way to demonstrate its parallelism with the emergence of networks. That means I need to take us back in time for about 30 years where our journey began.

Critical Understanding of Technology

In the summer of 1987, the English Coalition Conference took place at Wye Plantation in Maryland. The purpose of the three-week-long conference was to attempt a consensus about English education and its goals for the coming decades and to find solutions to lingering problems, including the changing student population and institutional environments. As reported in Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea Lunsford’s edition of the conference report, one of the main discussions was the modern model of literacy and its crucial role in affording the notion of ever higher (or deeper) levels of understanding––understandings that are often preceded by the adjective critical. The English Coalition has revealed a persistence of an attachment to the belief that overriding goal of literacy is to afford students the power coming from a critical understanding of their world:

The information explosion makes learning how to read and write absolutely vital for living, because without these abilities students will not be able to assimilate, evaluate, and control the immense amount of knowledge and the great number of messages which are produced every day. The development of new media similarly requires of citizens an enhanced ability to use different ways of reading and writing. (English Coalition, 1989, p. 86)

Underscoring the belief that the English Coalition Conference has asserted is a heightened sensitivity to emergent information technology as means of discovery and the critical exploration of that experience. As proven through the number of work published in the recent years under computers and writing that critically examine machine learning, and the dedication of our field to the rhetorics of technology, the English Coalition’s ideal of critical understanding has been imperative to technology and literacy scholarship way beyond the conference.

Amid the proliferation of computers in writing instruction, critical literacy scholar Myron Tuman (1992) edited one of the landmark collections in computer-assisted pedagogy to discuss the promises and perils of reading and writing with computers. In the preface to his book, Tuman contends that “technology is one of the prime aspects of culture that literacy must overcome” (1992, p. 4). In critiquing the debates of the 1980s where computers were often ignored or treated as obstacles, Tuman observes,

No one was inclined to see a word processor as a transitional step either to a radical new way of conceiving text or with the ready integration of graphics, to a radical new way of organizing knowledge itself. It was instead more likely portrayed as a turbocharged typewriter, which enables individuals to writer more (or at least faster) and perhaps to undertake more revisions. (Tuman, 1992, p. 5)

Tuman seeks to postulate a relationship between literacy and technology that posits computers within the possibility for extending literacy by enhancing accessibility, comprehensibility, and critical thinking. His notion is shared by Jay Bolter, who in his early writing, “Literature in the Electronic Writing Space,” demonstrates not just how interactivity of digital composition extends certain essential aspects of print literacy, but also rationality, authorship, and the embodiment of meaning in digital texts. Following this line of thought, I introduce in the next section the need to pay attention to networks as an emerging form of “texts” due to its complexity and increasingly preeminent status in writing studies amid the digital information age. More importantly, I seek to draw attention to the inventional possibilities that networks afford writing practices.

Networks as Critical Texts

I would like to begin by using maps as a parallel illustration for the rhetoricality of networks. Maps can be rhetorical devices through the portrayal given to various land masses (Boynton, 2013). All good maps have a central point. Where this central point falls gives the viewer an idea as to what is the most important part or parts of the world. In Cynthia Selfe and Richard Selfe’s (1994) “Politics of the Interface,” maps were used as a critical metaphor for identifying central points versus peripheries, dominant cultures versus borderland representations, interests versus reality, etc. Selfe and Selfe have also used maps to demonstrate how values are made implicit and explicit through complex landscapes (computer interfaces) that are often political and ideological.

Like maps, networks are a rhetorical way of portraying information. Such portrayal reshapes the scope of literacy as we know it considering how the immense retrieval powers of computers and connections are subtly and decisively changing the status of the standard text––static and unified. Even the previous most groundbreaking technological shifts in writing practices––word processing and desktop publishing––have yet to achieve such level of exploiting of the power of technology to transform what we know as texts. In Bolter’s critique, word processing and desktop publishing applications have only used the computer to prepare texts that will eventually be translated back into the older medium of ink on paper. Networks, on the contrary, uses the computer and connections as media in their own right––both for the creation and for the reading of meanings. Networks are free of the primary constraint of the page, the linearity of reading, and the units of text such as size and arrangement.

Network’s capacity to create fluid textual structures and present them interactively to the reader constitutes a new space of literacy unlike those of the previous print spaces. Consider the following example in Figure 1, a project based at Stanford University called Mapping the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria). According to its creators, the project aims to enrich the understanding of the intellectual networks of major and minor figures in the republic of letters, the international world of learning that spanned the centuries roughly from 1400 to 1800. By creating visual images based on large digitized data sets, the network reveals the hidden structures and conditions that nourished the growth of the republic of letters in the early modern era and the causes of its transformation in the nineteenth century.

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Figure 1. Learning about the Republic of Letters via (a) print versus (b) on-screen texts versus (c) a mapped social network (http://republicofletters.stanford.edu).

In comparison, conventional reading or viewing of the Republic of Letters, either in print or on screen, would not appropriate the kind of engagement that is make possible by a networked text interface. A network text is organized as a web of interrelated textual elements: the author creates the elements and defines their relations and hands the structure to the reader. This changes directly––in very practical ways––the role of the author and the materiality of the text. Effective reading of the network can only be done in the form it is presented in and not any physical medium, because only the programmed form of “texts” can handle the links between the elements and help the reader navigate within the networked story.

What networks afford is continuity between texts, hypertexts, and contexts. The embedded interactive mechanism for information presentation and storytelling calls for emergent language use and presentational practices, for current methods rely heavily on our long experience with print. Above all, networks challenge the sense that writing is complete, isolated, and independent. Network texts on a given subject form a connection of facts or information, insights, and arguments. They encourage the reader to think of all texts as occupying the same compositional space but permitting multiple ways of reading and that each perspective offers a different entry point to the subject.

Yet, even maps that are perfectly accurate have distortion (Boynton, 2013). So do networks. Thus, technical and ethical issues involved in designing networked texts need more than just trivial attention. Too often we overlook the power of designed texts to reshape the representation of our physical world. In an older piece, “The Electronic Panopticon: Censorship, Control, and Indoctrination in a Post-Typographic Culture,” Eugene Provenzo (1992) argues that while computer-based reading and writing has the power of liberating us from the constraints and tyranny of the author and the text, it is fraught with danger. Take for instance again the visualization of the Republic of Letters. While digitization and network visualization give us new ways of apprehending information, visualization in fact is not the goal; the goal is to use new tools and develop new ways of reading and composing. Caroline Winterer, in her report of the digitization of the Republic of Letters, admits that network visualization “cannot and should not replace the traditional work of the humanist” (2012, p. 599). In her words, “We cannot just digitize and visualize data; we still need to read texts” (p. 599; emphasis mine). Such reading of texts calls for for active human agentive involvement as well as intervention, and I concur with Winterer’s defense.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bolter, J. (1992) Literature in the electronic writing space. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York, NY: Greenwood.

Boynton, M. (2013). The rhetoric of maps. Retrieved from https://sites.psu.edu/aeblincoln/2013/09/25/the-rhetoric-of-maps/  

Downes, S. (2011). Week 1: What Is Connectivism? Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011. Retrieved from http://cck11.mooc.ca/week1.htm

Downes, S. (2012). The Rise of MOOCs. Retrieved from http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2012/04/rise-of-moocs.html

Duffy & Jonassen, (1992). Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

English Coalition (1989). Conference report: Democracy through language. Eds. Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea Lunsford. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Landow, G. (1992). Hypertext, metatext, and the electronic canon. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Provenzo, E. (1992). The electronic panopticon: Censorship, control, and indoctrination in a post-typograpic culture. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rorabaugh, P. (2012). Occupying the digital: Critical pedagogy and new media. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/occupy-the-digital-critical-pedagogy-and-new-media/

Selfe, C., & Selfe, R. (1994). Politics of the interface: Power and its exercise in electronic contact zones. College Composition and Communication, 45(4), 480-504.

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/KnowingKnowledge_LowRes.pdf.

Siemens. G. (2008). About: Description of connectivism. Connectivism: A learning theory for today’s learner, website. Retrieved from http://www.connectivism.ca/about.html

Spinuzzi, C. (2010). Secret sauce and snake oil: Writing monthly reports in a highly contingent environment. Written Communication, 27(4), 363–409.

Tuman, M. (1992). Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ulmer, G. (1992). Grammatology (in the stacks) of hypermedia, a simulation. In Myron Tuman (Ed.), Literacy online: The promise (and peril) of reading and writing with computers. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Winterer, C. (2012). Where is America in the Republic of Letters? Modern Intellectural History, 9(3), 597-623.

Creating a Personal Learning Network (PLN)

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Rooted in George Siemens’ and Stephen Downes’ theory of connectivism (2005), a Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a tool and strategy for individuals to learn from the people and resources around them. A PLN thrives in an informal, personal learning environment and allows individuals to visualize and build connections for knowledge exchange. In this video, Marc-Andre Lalande breaks own the acronym to explain what a PLN does.

In the courses I teach, students are always encouraged to build their PLNs. While there are many ways to go about starting a PLN, I find it helpful to begin with the 5Ws+H questions:

  • What do I what to learn or accomplish with this PLN? In the past, students have utilized PLNs to formulate research questions, locate an internship, get connected with hirers, and learn about important issues in their respective fields.
  • Who have I already been connected to? Who would I like to connect with? Depending on the goals of the student PLNs, students choose to connect with people who would help them achieve their goals.
  • When should I get in touch with the people I’d like to connect with? The question of time/temporality is tricky in a classroom setting. The teacher may want the students to build a PLN right away, but the target subjects may not have the availability — this is when the teacher should help to facilitate the connection process. If the students couldn’t find the appropriate time to connect with their subject, try to rethink the connection as a prospect rather than expected connection.
  • Where should interactions take place? A PLN is not limited to the online learning environment. Students may consider physical or virtual networking spaces depending on the availability of their resources.
  • Which are the best tools/technologies to build connections? The are hundreds of thousands of applications and methods out there for building a PLN, whether conceptually or technically. Students should consider the viability, popularity, and usability of these tools when deciding which to use for their PLNs.
  • How should I maintain these connections once they are made? I find this the most important question to consider especially when a PLN is created in a classroom, and that students are interested in using the connections they have made for future endeavors.

Some Examples

If PLNs were built early in the semester, students may be able to see changes and developments over the course of time. They could also learn from one another through sharing of ideas or sketches in a peer-review setting. Once a backbone/wireframe is created, students could visualize their networks using different formats, such as a network graph or an infographic. Here are some examples of artistically visualized networks that students in the past have created:

PLN 1

PLN2

PLN 3

Tips for Success

I have shared these tips with my students and I think they are important considerations for novice and experts alike:

  • Keep it going
  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, with caution (online safety concerns)
  • Join various groups and existing connections
  • Share your work with your classmates
  • Don’t just consume; contribute!
  • Maintain boundaries
  • Credit where it’s due

In a writing classroom, a PLN can also be an effective tool for complementing prewriting exercises, building a thesis, or finding sources/bibliographies. If you are interested in learning how connectivism and composition could work hand-in-hand, check out my previous entries on connectivist composition and connected learning.

Riding on Connectivism: The ConnectED Initiative

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As part of the US Government’s plan to reform its school systems, President Obama announced the ConnectED Initiative in June 2013, an initiative designed to enrich K-12 education in America. ConnectED aims to empower teachers and students by giving them the most relevant instructional technology and trainings to make the most of them, empowering the teaching and learning process through individualized instruction and rich digital content.

Such initiative seems to promote connected learning by thriving on the theory of connectivism and networked pedagogical approaches. The following outlines how ConnectED works (drawn from WhiteHouse.gov):

Upgrading Connectivity

The ConnectED initiative will, within five years, connect 99 percent of America’s students to next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon are already providing their support, collectively pledging to connect more than 20 million more students over the next two years.

ConnectED will also provide better broadband access for students in rural areas, by expanding successful efforts to connect parts of the country that typically have trouble attracting investment in broadband infrastructure.

Training Teachers

Our teachers need better tools to help them succeed – and technology can play a central role. For example, new digital education tools can allow for real-time assessments of student learning, provide faster feedback to drive professional development, and enable the creation of interactive online lessons, helping teachers understand each student’s strengths and weaknesses and design lessons and activities to better meet their needs.

ConnectED invests in improving the skills of teachers, ensuring that every educator in America receives support and training in using education technology tools that can improve student learning. ConnectED will also lead to new resources for teachers from any school to open their classrooms to interactive demonstrations and lessons from world-renowned experts, and to collaborate with other educators worldwide.

Encouraging Private-Sector Innovation

Educational devices supported by high-speed networks are the portal to the world of online learning and interactive content, to personalized software that adapts to students’ needs, and to breakthroughs in assessing understanding and mastery. These devices give students access to more rigorous and engaging classes, new learning resources, rich visualizations of complex concepts, and instruction in any foreign language. They also allow students to work more at their own speed and receive additional one-on-one help.

Leading technology companies can produce feature-rich educational devices that are price-competitive with basic textbooks. And a robust market in educational software can unlock the full educational potential of broadband investment, while creating American jobs and export opportunities in a global education marketplace of more than $1 trillion.

In February 2014, the president announced that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will invest $2 billion over the next two years to dramatically expand high-speed Internet connectivity for America’s schools and libraries — connecting 20 million more students to next-generation broadband and wireless.

Private-sector companies have also committed more than $2 billion to deliver cutting-edge technologies to classrooms.

All politics aside, I think this is a step forward in the education industry and students are likely to gain more out of their schooling experience with such initiative.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Funds MOOC Research Initiative

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The following call is announced by George Siemens, the man behind Connectivist Theory:

The dramatic increase in online education, particularly Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), presents researchers, academics, administrators, learners, and policy makers with a range of questions as to the effectiveness of this format of teaching and learning. To date, the impact of MOOCs and emerging forms of digital learning has been largely disseminated through press releases and university reports, with only limited peer-reviewed research publication. The proliferation of MOOCs in higher education requires a concerted and urgent research agenda.

The MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) will fill this research gap by evaluating MOOCs and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general.

MRI is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a set of investments intended to explore the potential of MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalized, more affordable pathways. MRI is a $400,000 investment with grants in the range of $10,000 – $25,000 each. The MRI grant program is led and administered byAthabasca University with support from an advisory committee of experts in learning design and MOOCs. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports Athabasca University and interested academic institutions through research grants to examine the efficacy of early MOOC models for various learner audiences and in a wide variety of contexts.

Due to the rapid development of online education and the pace of MOOC adoption and new technology-enabled models of learning, the grant and research, successful grantees will be announced by the end August, with research beginning immediately. An international conference on MOOC research, which will include interim reports by successful grantees, will be hosted by the University of Texas, Arlington, December 5-6, 2013.

Information on MRI, including call for proposals and timelines, is available at: www.moocresearch.com.

Questions can be directed to gsiemens@athabascau.ca

If you are interested, the first round of proposal due date is July 7. Shortlisted candidates will be notified to submit an elaborated research proposal. All grants will be successfully awarded by August 30, 2013.