Archive for July, 2010

Do we really need these “new agnostics”?

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The rise of the new agnostics. – By Ron Rosenbaum – Slate Magazine. is a childish rant against the so-called “New Atheists” based on the canard that

Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually.


Mythical Myths – #1: People read on the web

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Many of the items in this list of usability myths are genuine myths, but the very first one is not.

There are two reasons that “People read on the web” is not a myth (by which I mean a widely believed falsehood). Firstly it is not widely believed, and secondly it is not false.

Almost anyone these days, if asked to describe their main behaviour on the web, would identify scanning rather than reading. And they would be right because that is what most websites are designed for.  So it is foolish for “usability experts” to express surprise or claim some merit for the discovery that people typically approach a new web page by looking for the navigational elements that they have been trained to expect.

But although it is not widely believed that “people read on the web”, there are in fact many web sites which are designed for deeper reading, and although some may initially aproach them incorrectly there must be plenty who want to read deeply online or otherwise they would not survive. (Examples include thoughtful blogs like PhilosophyTalk, and Real Climate, as well as various on-line books such as David McKay’s Without the Hot Air, along with most of the items linked to by Arts&Letters Daily)

Thus the idea that people read on the web is not a myth, and it is rather the claim that it is one which is the widely believed falsehood. So the idea that it’s a myth is itself a myth which makes it a mythical myth.

(And although it’s not the first on my list I think it deserves the #1 position – which I have been holding open til now while waiting for the perfect candidate).

Assessing Learning in #CritLit2010

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Stephen Downes post on Semantics at Half an Hour: Having Reasons is devoted largely to the issue of how to establish the well-foundedness aspect of knowledge as well-founded true belief.

A large part of the discussion was devoted to the question of how confidently it can be asserted that “interesting learning” occurred in #CritLit2010. (With “interesting learning” apparently referring to the acquisition of new knowledge rather than just unfounded beliefs or behavioural responses – which are also of course examples of learning but not so interesting)

In the course of that discussion Stephen referred to slide 23, where the inference of learning appears to be derived from observation of behaviour in a social network. But it requires quite sophisticated observation to confirm that the behaviour is based on beliefs that are founded on good reasons as discussed in this posting. (For example it might involve observation of exchanges between members of the network when solving problems together and evaluation of the explanations given to one another in that process.) Also, there would have to be a change of behaviour (beyond that attributable to increasing familiarity with that specific network) in order to infer that the demonstated knowledge was newly acquired and so evidence of learning.  Given the looseness and scale of the network involved it would be a huge task to sift through all of the exchanges to identify signs of increased knowledge in even just a few of the participants.  So I must say I agree with those who are skeptical of Stephen and co’s ability to provide convincing evidence that “interesting learning” has occurred (other than perhaps by direct testimony of the participants).

Ulop’s Theory

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

In the follow-up to #CritLit2010, Ulop OTaat (whoever he may be) has expressed a theory about what the educational theory called “Connectivism” is (or is not).

Basically he appears skeptical of its value as more than just a new lingo without practical consequences:

But that is all that connectivism does, add a different perspective couched in different terminology, jargon if you will.  It does not solve any issues, on its own. It is not the end game of learning theory.

I must admit that I have had similar concerns as to whether it had any direct paedagogical implications. But the jargon has some appeal to me because of its relation to the neural network model of how learning may occur at the physical level, and so I remain open minded as to the possibility that thinking in “connectivist” terms may in fact lead to techniques which might not otherwise have been discovered. (Perhaps it might help in dealing with the chronic problem of failure of “transference” of a concept or technique from one domain of application to another – but I have nothing specific in mind at this point.)
Also of course, any reasonably valid understanding of how learning works may help with the Critical Literacy of avoiding the learning of things that are not true.

Where I have even more difficulty is with imagining possible uses of the analogy between neural and social networks (which seems to get a lot of play in the “Connectivist” worldview). Yes, the development of patterns of connection in a social network may be “reinforced” by interaction with some external stimulus, but I guess I am not sufficiently social to have any idea of a non-trivial pattern as a goal – let alone how to design an appropriate stimulus to achieve it. Perhaps some complex business or political relationships mught be enhanced by forcing a social network to “learn” its way into a particular pattern though – so maybe  Hari Seldon will one day be quoting Stephen Downes as he takes the first steps towards the Foundation. And maybe that makes an understanding of how to train social networks a Critical Literacy for the future.


Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

#CritLit2010 is now over.

I enrolled in this largely out of curiosity about what it would entail and in the knowledge that my travel plans for subsequent weeks would make it difficult to devote much time to it.  I was interested enough to go through most of the readings and to make some discussion entries and blog postings, but if I had had to pay for it then I think I would have been a bit disappointed.