abstract time machine basics transactions being in public coda references

Infrastructure and Transactions: students as custodian enablers


Students are expected to play three roles in course-related activities. The roles of creator, commentator, and custodian, reflect constructivist principles. It is here suggested that attention to these role-based activities that privilege collaboration and communication can inform design methodology and lead to support for course delivery systems that exploit a "distributed" infrastructure. A basic question is posed: how do the tools and skills that students "hold" translate into "hand-offs" or educational transactions?

Time Machine

In The Community of Scholars, Paul Goodman offers a little budgetary exercise. He prefaces this exercise by a statement that is suggestive for contemporary thinking on teaching and learning in networked environments. He writes:

But I am proposing to take teaching-and-learning in its own terms, for the students and teachers to associate in the traditional way and according to their existing interest, but entirely dispensing with the external control, administration, bureaucratic machinery, and other excrescences that have swamped our communities of scholars

The emphasis is Goodman's. I quote him here to remind ourselves that an institution's teaching cadre conducts its professional and academic activities in an environment framed by the tension between administration and pedagogy, between the consumer interests of students (the paying customer) and the managerial interests of the institutions (often forced to do more with less). It is important to remember that the clash of economic and social imperatives predate the vital questions raised by the advent of electronic networks. It is also important to anticipate that in a competitive environment attracting and retaining students may of course have as much to do with the demography of catchement basins as with institutional policy regarding digital access, assistive technologies, proprietary courseware, locked-down content, licensing fees. Such a mix of factors, as well as possible shifts in market forces, dictate that administrators will also have to forsee technology migrations.

Sometimes, migration migranes can be mitigated if one remembers that technological deployments and developments also have a shadow history. User sophistication grows. Email exchanges, browsing & searching the World Wide Web, file storage and sharing are basic skills that both teachers and students are more and more expected to possess. Such a resevoir of prior experience with the medium of computer-mediated communication allows designers and delivers to offer technical solutions that concentrate on learning activities. Questions of interface recede. The end-user controls the interface. The fundamental fungibility of electronic files is respected. The instructor is not just pushing rich content. The instructor is inviting working with content. What rip, mix, and burn is to sampling, quote, rewrite and publish (via blog, email, or ftp) is to composition. All partners in the pedagogical enterprises can act as custodians of information, creators of information and commentators on information that has been gathered by custodians or produced by creators. In short, computer-mediated communicators no longer have to be formed while the course is delivered.

A culture of wide spread comptuer use exists. And that culture rests on distributed computing capacity. Both can contribute to lowering the cost of doing business i.e. providing the infrastructure for teachers and students to gather and encounter each other as learners.

Even if one were not to assent to Goodman's anarchist prescription for good governance, one could nevertheless consider the intent of leverging of an investment to orchestrate learning experiences. The first step would be to remind oneself of under-capitalized parts of the investment. Those connected machines that reside in that distributed computing environment beyond the firewall mean that computing power doesn't stop at the browser box.

Where there is multitasking, there is capacity to play with the material that is presented and it is just a step to formalize the reporting of the results of such play. Student A doesn't have access to authoring software to modify graphics but can view images. Student B has the software. Student A and Student B can still work together. And indeed their collaboration might be richer because of a differential access to some tools and skills in an environment where basic computer-mediated communication is common.

Basic Basics

Grover Furr III traces out a set of personal technology migrations in From "Paperless Classroom" to "Deep Reading": Five Stages in Internet Pedagogy. His experience is valuable to the people who have come to online interaction in the era of the plug and play machine. His story is particularly valuable for the depiction of the hunt for tools. The account exudes an engaging common sense in assessing what works. Readers are offered a fine example of a gradual progress in acquiring technical savvy. It may inspire others to consider their own tool set and its costs.

What do you need? What do you have? Can you imagine delivering a course with email without attachments and FTP? Furr reminds readers of the importance of subject lines for dealing with the flow of email. I stress this because it is simple and often overlooked. As well, properly addressed messages with informative subject lines are the sign of a person who understands that content travels and contextual markers need to travel too. The mantra is clear: sort at source, design for finding, keep on learning. The exchange of screen shots of directory structures and file folders can go a long way in providing students a view on the variety of ways humans classify and organise.

Furr reminds us also of FTP (File Transfer Protcol) sites. I here add some further considerations to his account:

  1. An FTP site can house compressed files. This is an advantage for users who use dial up and for users who cannot for whatever reason connect to the Internet via a flat fee unlimited access service. It may prove an impediment for users that rely on library or internet cafe connections. There the use of external storage media such as disks may be restricted. However the use of FTP sites and compression of larger files means that more modestly powered and priced machines can be effectively used.
  2. An FTP site presents a directory structure. Easy to see at a glance what is available. Differential access can be provide to small working groups, the full class, and the public.
  3. An FTP site can help manage digital rights issues. As Furr writes: "I needed a different method of electronic distribution, one that would be fast and free, and one that would not constitute "publication" so that, if a work I believed was in the public domain should actually be under copyright, I would have credible legal protection. I chose FTP, or file transfer protocol."

Yes, FTP is a mode of asynchronous exchange. Rich content takes time to develop. Students in accounting can swap spreadsheets (and video, audio, text). The point I am making is that nothwithstanding hypertextual front ends to courseware, instruction can be delivered via a mechanism that fosters a variety of exercises that are not all Web-based. It pays to remember that WWW does not equal Internet.

Exchanges, Contacts & Frequencies

I think that much of the debate over the value of asynchronous and synchronous interaction hinges upon a question of frequency of exchange. And that the value of those exchanges depends upon the productive time between meetings. Regular intervals assist in the good sorting (and sometimes creative shuffling) of records. And a record can be created, be subject to comment and held in custody (or released). And be broken. :)

Access to MOOs and MUDs is certainly on my wish list. The performative joy and the rush of scrolling text are lovely experiences. The speed fix is also available through rapid email exhange. And delay send commands can lead to some interesting effects. For the rhetoric of timestamps see some of the commentary to Jill Walker's September 12, 2003 web log entry on "usenet".

Logging the interaction and revisiting the record is where the pedagogical value resides. Elsewhere I have drawn upon Richard Schechner's theatre practice and anthropology to explore cognitive and aesthetic dimensions of translating experience "Strips of behaviour can be slowed down, speeded up, juxtaposed." as they are "decontextualized and processed in the "twice behaved" behaviour of ritual or performance." Here I want to emphasize the value of the act of reviewing or rehearsing and the importance of the interval, the time between contact.

Roles & Transactions

Offline, students are creators, commentators, and custodians. They cultivate and maintain their own personal archives. What happens when teaching online is not understood as merely replicating the classroom online? What happens when teaching online is connceived as building the infrastructure for what Goodman has referred to as association in the traditional way? Instructors have the task of fostering transactions and constructing the space for pondering those transactions. Does the institutional infrastructure allow for guests to visit?

Field Trips & Walls

Consider conducting part of a class in public (pseudonyms optional). To locate an example, find a class blog at Pomona College called The Literary Machine. For a checklist oriented to teachers and students wishing to explore discussion lists outside of a class setting, see A Guide to the Rhetoric of Discussion List Participation. If you have done it, share your experience. And do it again!


Large chunks of the infrastructure are extramural. Energies can be devoted less to building the spaces for lively interaction and exhange and more to using the tools at hand.

Carl Rogers in the forward to Freedom to Learn asks:

Will education be taken over by profit-making corporations, who can be more innovative, more responsive to social need and demand, and who will also be more governed by the desire to produce the profitable "hardware" of learning? I do not know.

I do know that characterizing the online learning experience as a perpetual field trip, a magical show and tell, means that we can do a lot more with less. And someone someday will tell some dean that online learning is all about an encounter: pedagogy of the oppressed meets the theatre of poverty.


Furr, Grover C., III. "From "Paperless Classroom" to "Deep Reading": Five Stages in Internet Pedagogy" The Technology Source. September-October 2003

Goodman, Paul. The Community of Scholars. (New York: Vintage Books, 1966)

Lachance, François. "Storing and Sorting" in Sense: Orientations, Meanings, Apparatus. http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~lachance/S6.HTM#between

Schechner, Richard. Between theater and anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Walker, Jill. Blog entry "usenet" September 12, 2003. http://huminf.uib.no/~jill/archives/blog_theorising/usenet.html

abstract time machine basics transactions being in public coda references
François Lachance