Landing : Athabascau University

Holding to a centre: Selection, organization, and the ideology of technological precarity

What we describe as deregulation at the top of the system is informalization at the bottom. (Sassen 266 n. 11)

I'm initially skeptical about claims for the pedagogical value of temporary aggregations as a substitute for centralized design, so I would appreciate some research references that detail and theorize these claims. However, I can better appreciate claims for the value of temporary aggregations as a complement to centralized course design. I just don't think the former can supplant the latter, and that doing so entails problematic ideological effects.

Tagging and term-based searching help develop selection as a critical skill. The founding principle of teaching students about online research is judicious selectivity: learning how to tell an authoritative source from a spurious one, and how to assess and verify a source’s claims and content. In the process we learn to be selective, discerning, judicious: in a word, critical.

But I think what is lost, if we rely exclusively on selection, is the complementary value of organization as a research and teaching skill. Selection and organization, taken together, are the core activities of most kinds of composition, from research design, literature reviews, and polemical essays, to poetry, film-making, and DJ performance. So to privilege either selection or organization at the other's expense seems a disservice to teaching composition across the curriculum, and to teaching as a kind of analytic composition itself.

With more specific reference to navigating learning in the Landing, I find that tag searching (when it works) can lead to unexpected places and people, but I find it also takes some time to filter search results. This is why I began aggregating (centralizing) course content, as I found it, in the designated Group for the TLSTN course. The Group is a centralizing application that seems very well equipped to house and organize a course in the Landing--as well as cultivating (and containing) a critical mass of participation. And the Group is just one click from my Dashboard or Profile or the home page.

Lastly, I have a more theoretical reservation about privileging temporary aggregation over central accretion, further to first-week discussions among the posts about Postman’s idea that every technology imposes its own ideology: "Embedded in every tool is an ideological bias" (13). In that context, I worry that a preference for and reliance on individualized searching to establish an informal course coherence encodes an ideology of privatization (and precaritization in learning labour) and a corresponding discouragement of collective action and organizing.


Works Cited

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Sassen, Saskia. "Spatialities and Temporalities of the Global: Elements for a Theorization." Globalization. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 260-278.


  • That's interesting. I'm just starting to warm to the idea of networked learning because I imagine I see its potential as a set of connected hubs for communal activity. The notion of branding oneself to create a coherent virtual presence seems highly individualistic, but at the same time it is necessary to do that in order to take part in collective knowledge creation and sharing--people have to know who I am and what I have to offer. It's a lot of work to organize and present information so that it's useful to a group. I find the notion of altruistically sharing knowledge and experience appealing--it recaptures some of the innocence of the early Internet. BTW, thanks for aggregating our blog posts--I think you missed one, though:

    Mary Pringle April 28, 2010 - 2:50pm

  • You make a good point about balance between the individual and the collective, and a good point too about branding, which I'd rather term "reputation" or "social capital" -- or Whuffie (Cory Doctorow's word) to depart from the language of "branding" (a corporate language with echoes of livestock husbandry and slavery) towards a discourse that better captures the position of the individual that participates and shares, often altruistically, in collective knowledge and networking. Maybe changing how we talk about emerging digital cultures can help, however modestly, to recapture some of that innocence of the early Internet. One of my favourite preservations of which is:

    Mark A. McCutcheon April 29, 2010 - 10:58am

  • I tend to agree with some of the comments that Mary has made. We all bring different perspectives and different levels of knowledge/information to this task as with any task. Unless we know what an individual's perspective and level of knowledge is, unless someone posts something that shows a level of ignorance or bias, then evaluation is difficult.

    Veronica Baig April 29, 2010 - 11:17am

  • Mark - I wonder how the aggregated lists you have created in the group lead others' learning.  For example a couple of course participants, even myself, have posted the first week blogs well after your list went up, and therefore your list doesn't mention them.  So do the creation of lists like yours lead learners?  Create a center when one is not intended exist?  Is not your listing a selection of items you prioritized? How does this affect later participants?  Hmmm.

    I agree that selection is a critical skill, but really, when I search for the tag what comes up?  Well are they not the most recent posts? Yep. So I am already predisposed to read from top to bottom... I didn't scroll to the bottom and start (maybe should have), and I didn't read all of the posts (not enough time this week) so how is my learning being affected by the limitations of time and ease of access... This may be why ratings are valuable. Ratings on a post can tell us people coming after whether others thought it is valuable as a read or watch.  What are your opinions on ratings, which reflect popularity, but not necessarily quality, on the web?

    Nathaniel Ostashewski April 29, 2010 - 10:40pm

  • These are fair questions.

    My lists don't include links to subsequently posted items, but they do emphatically invite others to add these links to the discussions threading from the lists. My listing is not a selection of items I prioritized; it's the report of results for a particular moment's tag-based search. I am neither picking and choosing whose posts to link, nor sorting them in any thought-out order. If I miss a blog that's already there, it's a blog the tag search is missing too (and blog posts going awol have been an intermittent technical issue). If I miss a blog that's not there yet, I'd love to see another student add it to the thread when it is.

    I don't think of this as leading, but as my own scramble to follow: to find out who all else is in the course; to keep abreast of what they're posting; maybe to model the uses and affordances of the course Group site (and maybe lead in that way, sure); but mostly, and not at all altruistically, to manage my own study time as best I can in the process. I did reflect at the start whether taking the aggregation upon myself would step on any toes. But I figured that if the course was not designed to cultivate this kind of "see-how-the-mice-redesign-the-maze" experiment in pedagogy, then the Group app wouldn't have been offered. (Don't mean any offence with that lab cliché.)

    Now this question about tags and ratings gets me curious. (Reminding me of another reason I started aggregating: the tag search wasn't working at the time.) In retrospect, my point about selection was more about the Internet writ large (and how and when to trust sources found across it), and as such so it was off-topic viz. material in the Landing. Anyway, you make a solid point about access and time--about the encoding of a temporal bias into the search technology, which means it's already doing some pre-selecting for you. At the same time, the tag search is a dragnet. When it's working, you'll get more than blog posts: comments, discussion threads, course pages, maybe not wire telegraphs yet but it's being looked into...

    Which brings me to ratings. Well, to asking about them. How are they deployed? Got some examples, some references? I'd love to hear more. There could be an informal ratings system in the number of comments prompted by a given blog post. In that case, this reply's maybe just a wordy bump.

    Mark A. McCutcheon April 29, 2010 - 11:28pm

  • Good points all Mark. My comment is simply that posting one's list does lead others. Is this a good thing? Something that others should replicate? Maybe when there are newbies, as this does provide guidance for them... be that what it may, this has provided a "center" for the course... or maybe "clearinghouse" is more appropriate.

    As for ratings - on the SNS I develop Courselets in for teachers, the videos have a ratings button.. you click on your rating out of 5 stars.  A year ago I figured that this was not of any value. In fact, how dare anyone rate a video as bad! Well, after considering the pile of blogs to read here (not really that many, but time constraints will limit ability on some weeks) having a rating on a blog may alert the readers to others' value in the posting - hence guiding following readers to decide to read / no read that particular post.  So maybe my tag search would return tlstn AND list by rating, rather than recently posted... in fact then the most recently posted would be pushed to the bottom of such a search string.  Would this maybe encourage participants to post early? Is this, as you say, and informal system of rating the blogs with a certain tag?  I like your "number of comments" idea. If a particular blog generates numerous comments, then it has a certain "must read" value.  Maybe that is how the tlstn search should display - by numbers of comments in a blog-conversation?  Anyway, thanks for the convo - certainly pointed out some potentials for tag searches eh!

    Nathaniel Ostashewski April 30, 2010 - 12:02am

  • In reply to: Mark A. McCutcheon

    Mark, this looks interesting but I don't want to invest time studying it to understand. Could you tell me what you are saying in short, simple sentences?



    PS. I've bookmarked you as I believe many others have.

    Michael Cenkner April 30, 2010 - 9:14am

  • In reply to: Nathaniel Ostashewski


    What's SNS?

    Michael Cenkner April 30, 2010 - 9:15am

  • In reply to: Michael Cenkner
    Social networking site

    Nathaniel Ostashewski April 30, 2010 - 9:30am

  • Hi Mark - it is good that you are sceptical about "temporary centre" claims :). Since networked learning is still somewhat new (at least in its technological iteration), research on "the pedagogical value of temporary aggregations as a substitute for centralized design" is largely incomplete. Of course, there are many jumping off points: what is the impact of learner autonomy on grades? How does self-efficacy influence participation? how does active participation in a networked course influence feelings of orientation and content coherence? "Pedagogical value" can lead us into numerous side channels. 

    In our elluminate discussion today, the topic of networked learning as a replacement for centralized courses was addressed somewhat. My views on this are more radical than AU's. I think a networked course could (should) replace centralized courses. However, that is not AU's stance. AU sees the landing as a means to add a social layer that is often lacking in self-paced courses, and to extend the social presence of individuals after a course ends (groups in the landing have a longer life expectancy, in theory).

    wrt your comment on temporary centres as perhaps lacking critical information skills, I see it as the opposite: when we make our assumptions and views explicit, we reveal our conceptual understanding in such a way that it can be critiqued by other learners or in a way that can solicit responses from the educator. The Private Universe ( example emphasizes the failure of centralized systems of instruction that lack opportunity for learners to reveal their conceptual structures through discourse. The corrective feedback of fellow learners or the instructor is lacking if content duplication and replication are the key learning tasks. A networked course - again, theoretically - will reveal conceptual errors as learners engage. It's the educators role to monitor conversation and respond when feedback is needed.

    btw #2 - your work of pulling together lists of posts is very much an example of learning. You serve as a content/conversation curator. You create artifacts as you try to make sense of complexity...and when you share those artifacts, you  help other learners make sense as well.



    George Siemens April 30, 2010 - 10:53am

  • Mark,

    I read your post with interest, specifically your comparison of the centrality, permanence and structure inherent in scholarly discourse to the dispersed, impermanent, and ill-structured (from certain povs) nature of information within social networks. The information may seem ill-structured because we do not have the correct algorithm or adequate background (e.g. prior experience, disciplinary expertise) to interpret the information in the network (or database). I agree that the results of some searches seem to be the product of a deranged computer mind (Hal perhaps), however tagging is intended to reduce some of the randomness but it is only as good as the effort put into the creation of the tags. Even then with each participant in a network having such diverse interests and unique filters with which they interpret information it is unlikely that any search will perfectly match anyone's individual needs.

    Its almost a question of an orientation toward the world - one orientation (status quo) seeks to replicate pre-existing structures, patterns and practices. The other seems alien (given that it is based not on a human approach to classifying a small number of objects according to directly observable criteria) and founded on the use of algorithms and generated from vast amounts of data.

    This brings me to a novel that I read sometime ago entitled The Dispossessed (Ursula K Le Guin) in which there are two opposing views of civilization, one based on a kind of seeming anarchy (but with an internal logic of human relations albeit threatened by bureaucracy and tendency towards centralization) and the other based on traditional hierarchical power structures. I think sometimes it is in how we perceive things as much as how they are. Social networks seem anarchic disruptive but they are also an organizing force. It may just be that our technology is not perfectly able to reflect the complexity (but a complexity that is penetrable) of social networks, hence the disconnect between what we expect and what we get as a result of searches.

    Sandra Law April 30, 2010 - 11:05am

  • Thanks all for your comments here.

    @Michael: Let me break it down like this.

    1. The preference of networked learning for temporary not fixed centres cultivates the critical skill of selection -- but at the expense of its counterpart skill, organization.

    2. Both selection and organization are valuable critical skills to teach, in balance.

    3. A preference for temporary centres nromalizes an individualized experience of precarity that reproduces the neoliberal ideology of privatization (structurally, not necessarily intentionally).

    @George: I don't mean to suggest that "temporary centres [...] perhaps lack critical information skills," only that more fixed centres and centralizing strategies cultivate different but equally important kinds of critical skills.

    Your point about the metacognitive value of "mak[ing] our assumptions and views explicit" is well taken and worth keeping front and centre for this course and for DE pedagogy in general.

    @Sandra: One point I tried to make in my post is that I think networked, temporary centres are now more the "status quo" than are centralized structures. Maybe not for university curriculum, but moreso for its increasingly contingent labour force and dispersed student body. And that kind of labour and social dispersal seems to me consistent with the status quo of social relations under neoliberal globalization: flexible and mobile, but precarious and intensely surveilled.

    And now I have to revisit LeGuin's novel, which I started some years ago but for now-forgotten reasons didn't finish.

    Mark A. McCutcheon May 3, 2010 - 10:19am

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