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Design considerations for digital learning

As I wrote in my LibrePlanet2022 video post, digital technology is not just a tool but a form of experience that can impact the future of knowledge. I am interested in exploring the choices we have in the design of digital knowledge and how it is shared. The ability to leverage this potential, however, is limited by the problem of digital literacy, which not only involves more skills than what we mean by literacy, but also requires more serious literacy, e.g. through the ability to navigate and evaluate information. Additionally, given the concern for the future of knowledge, consideration of digital learning should also design for progressive onboarding through simple and sustainable tools, which have the added benefit of being ecological. Design for digital learning involves far more than blank boxes to fill in with grades and assignments. This post sketches out some of the “extra” considerations.

The post is in rough note form. It is being shared for dialogic purposes, to have something to point to in conversation.

Digital literacy

An example of the “extra” digital literacy skills needed even by non-programmers is the ability to understand the educational value of algorithms about processes. Such extra skills can bring insight into “applying something systematically and explcitly” or understanding neural networks and their limitations (Knuth). Robust digital learning tools will thus necessarily involve some “meta” components along with bottom-up knowledge activities. But that is to say nothing of the more philosophical aspect to digital literacy related to navigation and evaluation.

Sustainability

An example of a simple, sustainable, and human-centered tool that allows for continuous learning is vanilla Emacs, as I tried to explain in my newbie EmacsConf2021 talk. Emacs allows for what Christopher Alexander called generative processes. Human-centered unfolding will be harmonious with the earth around it.

But now that I have linked to Alexander’s site, I want to digress.

Breaking the endless scroll – on purpose

The site that Alexander built to introduce – and even propagate – his ideas is perplexing and possibly frustrating: there is no interlinking, the site map is possibly incomplete (I was viewing the site on the Wayback Machine), and there is no search function. I could not understand why it was designed that way until I read this WikiWikiWeb comment:
Another viewpoint: his website design demonstrates his methods better than most people think; it is quirky, inviting, and each small location gives the sense of being the center of the whole. There are no pages anywhere on the site that are simply “passageways” to other pages; each page is an end in itself. (It would be folly to think this content could be presented as well on a Jakob Nielsen-style website.) That said, Alexander’s beautiful books accomplish the same thing but are successful in a way that his website is not. Surely a better site design is possible. The books would make a good starting point for analysis.
I digress here because there is something fascinating about stopping expected flow – albeit if furnished by needed explanation – that can lead to deeper reflection. This is actually not a digression because I used this concept in the design of the CMS I made for my classes. The low-fi can occupy a meaningful place in a world of bells and whistles. (It can also put a site like mine in the 98th percentile on the Website Carbon Calculator.)

Early knowledge tool/management inspiration

For as much (ecologically taxing) technology exists to mine, aggregate, correlate, and analyze data about us, mere individuals, few insights garnered from this data are shared back with us. There is so much more computing power and potential available to us today than when the following knowledge webs came into being, giving inspired insight into what we could do with shared knowledge resources: the VictorianWeb, The Mind Is A Metaphor, Mapping The Republic of Letters, hypertext book editions, like of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus (e.g.), and sophisticated scrapbooking/GTD tools like Tinderbox (which I feel compelled to say can be matched and superseded by Emacs). A yet-unsolved problem is how much knowledge remains siloed, requiring elaborate workflow setups to discover and integrate within one’s own knowledge system and experience.

Contemporary knowledge tool/management inspiration

Two compelling workers in the field of shared knowledge management today are Andy Matuschak who is creating an elaborate digital hermeneutic tool and Mark Strausser who writes on research debt, extracting knowledge from academic publications, the question of annotations and a so-called knowledge futures product package that rethinks publishing and knowledge sharing protocols.

Mindmaps

Interesting mindmap, illustrated, and drawing tools include Loopy: an animated systems thinking tool, Explorable explanations, drawpile – a free software collaborative drawing tool, and a drawing tool created by Serge Zaitsev, On the Same Page. (His minimalist slides are also inspiring.)

Free software mindmaps include Vym and Semantik. I currently make my own mindmaps mostly using PlantUML in Emacs, but this is not a free software solution. I am trying to figure out how it would be possible to include a mindmap tool as a sustainable, “free as in freedom” collaborative teaching tool.

In my LibrePlanet2022 talk, I suggested that all academic subjects should, at least in periodic sub-components of a class, explain how the subject relates to other subjects. Explaining this can be helped through using disciplinary mental maps, such as Towards a Literacy of Cooperation and Castellani’s Complexity Map.

One resource on how to create one’s own maps can be found at Picture It Solved, which makes the point of how visualizing ideas “improves communication, problem solving, and decision making.”

Dialogic dreams

My ideal teaching tool would include a collaborative mindmap tool in order to generate new ideas and discover and interrelate existing ideas. While my own teaching tool focuses on these problems, I like how Org-roam resolves them. I also like the variety and integration of different types of analysis on Thoughtstreams. Further, annotations and interlinking, most passionately put forth by Ted Nelson, are old questions that are possibly yet to have their time. Consider, for example, the linking manifesto.

“Book” reading

The problem of annotating is related to the problem that technology cannot solve, which is that no matter how much technology can augment our knowledge, it is ultimately up to us to internalize this knowledge. Even in the digital context, books provide needed in-depth exploration of knowledge. Even if a person has a hard copy of a book, the online version can help forge new interrelations. Examples range from bread and potatoes W3 Schools to Nystrom’s aesthetic Crafting Interpreters that brings grace to the extraneity of footnotes, to cheat sheets with tables and diagrams bringing structure to the information, like nLab’s Computational Trilogy.

Wikis

Wikis may yet have their day. Beginning with the star spangled WikiWikiWeb but also continuing in Community Wiki and Meatball Wiki, wikis can remain “local” enough such that contributors share a culture and can know enough about each other to make jokes while remaining relevant enough that the knowledge and information they contain is valuable to others.

Wikis make explicit and often visually illustrate the categorization and interrelation of knowledge according to shared and collaborative schema. They are also static, and their open, public-facing nature lends them to easy referncing in multiple ways (quick access for copy/pasting, easy to load via hyperlink…) A lot can be learned about wikis through Alex Schroeder. A recent post of his on this topic considers the problem of Projects for the benefit of others.

The wiki structure encourages elaborate mindmapping. This is the appeal of Tiddly Wiki, which further promotes how, while a private knowledge management system, can be shared.

Wikis are the French formal garden (nonetheless related to the Italian Renaissance garden) variety of hypertext gardens like Bernstein’s.

Other aggregations, methods of discovery

Linklogs (e.g.) and webrings (like xxiivv’s, gurlic, or special fish), alternative aggregators like Fraidy Cat, and search engines like Lieu (for blogs), AndiSearch, Wiby, and Marginalia help with the sharing of knowledge and also demonstrate a need for a “personal touch” of moderation in aggregation and discovery methods. On this note, though, RSS is not dead, and many excellent web feed clients exist (e.g. Emacs’ elfeed).

Also useful are discovery techniques, such as Gwern’s Internet search tips and learning resource aggregations like ossu’s path to free learning in CS.

Games (and zines)

Learning can be understood as a game, to follow after Huizinga and Nachmanovitch. WikiWikiWeb further suggests gamas as patterns: “A game can be a solution to a problem in context”. They suggest that a workshop can thus be conceived of as a pattern of games.

More literal use of games in teaching can be seen in how role-playing games are used in history, such as by Zach Fredman or Barnard College’s The Reacting to the Past Consortium.

Playful, experimental inspiration can also be taken from the early digital games of interactive fiction and Alexander’s calculator game on how to make “the most beautiful and practical kitchen you can make for what you can afford”. Inspiration can be taken from zines like the thoughtful ones the Austin Center for Design produced and interactive digital magazines like Compost.

Alternative hosting

All of the above is fine and dandy – but who is hosting it? Hosting is another problem in learning structures that is in need of care, especially given the problem of data and knowledge ownership and control. An inspiring hosting initiative that leaves much to consider is Chatons.

Miscellany and coda

As suggested by the wiki and mindmap sections, good digital learning will make use of a variety of different digital resources – and in different ways. Other resources not mentioned here include online museums. They could also include a podcast by an expert made especially for the class, addressing points of local/personal relevance, or resources made by students sharing how they are navigating their digital learning with other students.

Alexander’s approach to design patterns suggests that the moment we arrive at a solution, a new problem will arise in need of a new solution. More specifically to this post, Maha Bali has shown that no size fits all in higher education design. Digital tools and digital learning needs to be adaptible and extensible to fit the needs of different teaching contexts. These contexts can also change from year to year – not just place to place. Ideally, though, the digital learning and tools will point to and make affordances for a greater ‘beyond’, sustainably.

One way to do this would be to take advantage of the structure of the Textpattern content management system, and build variations on it, writing extensions where necessary (e.g.).

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