Inverted LMS Revisited: The various uses of containers

Gardner Writes has a good critique of of my Inverted LMS post, which raises a number of important issues.

So let’s say first I am both manifesto-prone and conversation-addicted, and those things generally equal out.Â

This is conversation Mike speaking.

The question Gardner poses is whether “student-centered” swings too far in the other direction:

But I’m driven to respond because the matter is not simply one of awakening from a “hasa” world into the brave new “isa” world. If only it were that simple. “Hasa” and “isa” are not alternatives. They are partners in a dance. They are both parts of the inescapable, imperfect, provisional, necessary work of conceptualization itself. Of identity.

There’s a “hasa” element in our experience that we should not reject, lest we swing from one mistake to another.

I absolutely agree on this point. The interplay between who we are and what we are contained by is inescapable.

Or rather, I should say the tension between those two models is inescapable, since we can model most things either way.

So are we entering a brave new world of isa? Partially. I heard Dave Weinberger the other day on IT Conversations, talking about his latest book, Everything is Miscellaneous. It seems related to this. One of the advantages of modern tagging systems is that we break free of having to impose a single hierarchy on things. In the world of data, you can file the spatula both in the silverware drawer and by the grill.

I think that’s a really major thing, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the ramifications of that. And at the same time I think that the chance of hierarchy and taxonomy going away completely is exactly zero. As I said in the original post, it’s too comforting. Inspired by your post, I’ll clarify even further: it’s too useful.

I’ll give a great example — in my free time, I co-run a pretty prominent online political community called Blue Hampshire. It’s run on a piece of software called Soapblox, which allows all 600 members to post their articles on the site and comment and rank them and so forth. And compared to the blogswarms I’ve been a part of, Soapblox is very much a box. You’re in that community or you’re not.

Now would I dismantle that community and break it into 600 WordPress blogs x-reffing each other? Not on your life. Or at least, not yet. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why that would be a disaster, but I’ll mention four:

1. Comfortability: People on the site very often come from DailyKos, a national site that runs similar software. They know how this system works. Why not capitalize on that?

2. Power in Numbers: As one of three managing editors of this 600 member site, I represent the community. Because we’ve pooled our effort here, I can get candidates to talk to us. I recently got all the Democratic campaigns to write up a short paragraph for us describing explicitly what their differences on Iraq policy were. Had we been seperate blogs, they never would have considered that.

3. Shared Identity and Unique Experience: People sometimes x-post to other sites, but what the community really appreciates is stuff written for them precisely. There’s something about having something very precisely keyed to members and not available anywhere else (including one’s personal blog). You see people express this feeling often in comments.

4. Policing: The nice things about boxes is you can very satisfyingly kick people out of them if they break rules of engagement.

Is all this possible in a more distributed model? Maybe. I’d say most likely. You can kick someone out of an MU aggregator by unsubscribing to their feed. You could syndicate more selectively. You could collect stats to show your bargaining power….etc.

But the point is this: the very simple model of Soapblox, for all it’s faults, enabled us to become the number one blog community in New Hampshire within three months of our launch. And more importantly, it has allowed our members to have a real effect on both New Hampshire and national politics. We’ve involved over 600 people (that have signed up to post), and we average about 70 comments and ten posts a day. Campaigns contact us, rather than we them.

And I’ll admit we couldn’t have done that, on that level, using a more loosely coupled model.

At least, not yet.

There’s a lot more I want to say, but I will end with this — where Gardner says…

But the impulse of which the LMS is an institutional perversion is not, I’m beginning to think, wholly wrong. The challenge is to re-imagine school so that the boundaries can be artful, changeable, semi-permeable, and the result of creative decisions, not administrative convenience.

…I think we’re in complete agreement.

 So if I know all this, why the manifesto?

Because I think 99% of people don’t even know there is another way. And they can’t imagine another way things might work. And frankly there’s no really extant example that goes as far into the attribute model as Blackboard goes into the container model.

So while it might seem unneccesarily Hegelian, I think we need to talk about what the antithesis is, and hopefully build it. It’s not always obvious, for example, how one might model a study group vs. a class using a less container-oriented approach. Part of that is doing what Gardner describes — understanding the good things the modern LMS/CMS has done for us.

But I think the other part is building the antithesis and taking it for a spin. It’s only in that way that we can really know it’s efficacy, and to my knowledge no one has tried that yet.

My gut is if we do this we will find ways to deal with many of these issues — if we give it a chance.

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