A recent GoldenSwamp.com post posits how knowledge for learning is growing as a superorganism from which everyone on earth can learn. That superorganism is a network that lives within the open internet. The first image (above) sketches how the learning mind, which is a network, can directly apprehend patterns of knowledge from the network that forms the superorganism online of what is known by humankind. That apprehending can be thought of as the mind mirroring patterns it encounters on the internet.
If the learning mind can apprehend knowledge patterns from the emergent knowledge online, why then is it that we spend $$ billions every year on systems of knowledge delivery to education that look something like the second image (below)? Would it not make more sense to curate the online knowledge nodes and network, refining them to signal among themselves to create cognitive patterns to mirror directly into learning minds?
The education establishment has assumed from the beginning of the internet era that it was they who should judge, select, and organize knowledge to be learned that is located on the internet. There is a fatal flaw in those assumptions: in the open internet, the knowledge self-judges, self-selects, and organizes itself better than those things can be done by educators because human knowledge is itself a network and obeys network laws. My statement here is radical, I know. It is also a fact of the internet that is morphing learning resources into the superorganism of what is known by humankind. It is a truth too beautiful not to be true and enormously hopeful for the global future.
Since the late 1990s, when I was working with education study subjects that were then pouring in to the internet, I have been convinced that what is known by humankind would form a “grand idea” online. By that, I have meant a large network, fully interconnected, of all the subjects we know — what we call academic subjects, the stuff we learn in school. That grand idea network would not and is not something that has grown from the top down. It begins as nodes that signal and connect to each other based on their meaning — the cognitive content they have that is learnable by us humans.
Can it be that the grand idea is like a superorganism, as described in a fascinating article in SEED magazine on this topic: “Our bodies harbor 100 trillion bacterial cells, outnumbering our human cells 10 to one. It’s easy to ignore this astonishing fact. Bacteria are tiny in comparison to human cells; they contribute just a few pounds to our weight and remain invisible to us.” The following are some excerpts from the article [with some comments by me] that suggest similarities between the communication among our bacteria and the behavior of knowledge online. The fundamental reason they are alike is that bacteria and bits of learnable knowledge are small pieces that communicate in network patterns.
Indeed, several scientists have begun to refer to the human body as a “superorganism” whose complexity extends far beyond what is encoded in a single genome.
The physiology of a superorganism would likely look very different from traditional human physiology. [Learning resources in libraries look very different from what is online.] There has been a great deal of research into the dynamics of communities among plants, insect colonies, and even in human society. What new insights could we gain by applying some of that knowledge to the workings of communities in our own bodies? [to the workings of knowledge when it gets online] . . . .
Even confined in their designated body parts, microbes exert their effects by churning out chemical signals for our cells to receive. [Yesterday I posted about signaling by cells and signaling by learning nodes.] Jeremy Nicholson, a chemist at Imperial College of London, has become a champion of the idea that the extent of this microbial signaling goes vastly underappreciated. Nicholson had been looking at the metabolites in human blood and urine with the hope of developing personalized drugs when he found that our bodily fluids are filled with metabolites produced by our intestinal bacteria. He now believes that the influence of gut microbes ranges from the ways in which we metabolize drugs and food to the subtle workings of our brain chemistry. [The influence is a form of connectivity.]
Scientists originally expected that the communication between animals and their symbiotic bacteria would form its own molecular language. But McFall-Ngai, an expert on animal-microbe symbiosis, says that she and other scientists have instead found beneficial relationships involving some of the same chemical messages [again: signaling connects] that had been discovered previously in pathogens. Many bacterial products that had been termed “virulence factors” or “toxins” turn out to not be inherently offensive signals; they are just part of the conversation between microbe and host. [Open educational resources (OER) often are, and need to be, able to converse (signal) each other.]
Online knowledge aggregation – - the golden swamp – - is NOT linear. When subject knowledge goes openly into the internet, it settles into the network matrix that lets it link up among its internal ideas and with related webpages. In the internet knowledge cannot be forced into the usual linear ruts of textbooks. Eventually we are going to get to the place where teaching uses the natural networks of knowledge online — where students can learn by following patterns of interconnecting ideas. Professors will move beyond lining up bits of what they know in textbooks to optimizing links among their concepts online.
Edward H. Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, said in an interview that the new e-textbooks were developed based on an ethnographic investigation of student study habits done by the company. He said the company learned that students often do not study in a linear fashion, but instead jump around in the text, whether in print or electronic textbooks. “One kid in a biology class said, ‘I don’t read the chapter. I just look at the art. If I understand the art, I go on to the next art. If I don’t understand the art, I read,’” said Mr. Stanford. “When he said that, it made perfect sense to me, but until he said it, I had never thought about it that way.”
Of course, the Blue Brain is not flesh-and-blood. It is a model made of silicon, and yet, as the WSJ reports:
Dubbed Blue Brain, the simulation shows some strange behavior. The artificial “cells” respond to stimuli and suddenly pulse and flash in spooky unison, a pattern that isn’t programmed but emerges spontaneously.
“It’s the neuronal equivalent of a Mexican wave,” says Dr. Markram, referring to what happens when successive clusters of stadium spectators briefly stand and raise their arms, creating a ripple effect. Such synchronized behavior is common in flesh-and-blood brains, where it’s believed to be a basic step necessary for decision making. But when it arises in an artificial system, it’s more surprising.
The implications for this same sort of activity within networks of human knowledge online are a big “Hello” to educators — a Mexican wave, as it were, hailing them to harness the internet for reflecting knowledge to students.
My contention that the internet can showcase educational content in powerful new ways, by mirroring the inherent network structure of learning, is directly confirmed by the approach the scholars have taken in building Digital Defoe. (more…)
This animation gives you a place to play with the long tail of study subject webpages. There are four subjects in the Emerger, with clickable samples of how they are connected into ideas that you can click to bring together to teach or learn.
One of the examples here, of comparisons of how Rembrandt depicted hands, seems like a small subject and simple detail. That is true, yet the comparison connects the greatest museums on the planet. Even young children can learn from the pattern that emerges of similarities and differences in the depictions, and for painting scholars the lessons are sophisticated.
The open internet gives education a new place from which to access the knowledge it teaches. Organization of that knowledge that mimics nature’s network laws will keep us from laboring in vain. Supporting evidence is found in one of the most popular listings this morning on delicious: The 15 Coolest Cases of Biomimicry, which begins:
“Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain. – Leonardo Da Vinci . Biomimicry – The practice of developing sustainable human technologies inspired by nature. Sometimes called Biomimetics or Bionics, it’s basically biologically inspired engineering.”
My personal favorite, of the 15 cases, is Lotus Effect Hydrophobia.
They call it “superhydrophobicity,” but it’s really a biomimetic application of what is known as the Lotus Effect. The surface of lotus leaves are bumpy, and this causes water to bead as well as to pick up surface contaminates in the process. The water rolls off, taking the contaminates with it. Researchers have developed ways to chemically treat the surface of plastics and metal to evoke the same effect. Applications are nearly endless, and not just making windshield wipers and car wax jobs obsolete. Lots of researchers are working on it, and General Electric’s Global Research Center is busy developing coatings for commercial application right now.
The image on the right above shows my Grandfather Louis Merrick Breck in 1907, driving what my Dad, his son, remembered was El Paso, Texas’ 17th automobile. It was a fine Pope Toledo. The image at the left shows the Brecks a generation earlier when my Grandfather was a boy — when it took a horse to move a carraige.
The Pope Toledo that was my Grandfather’s pride and joy was noisy, bumpy, slow, not very well-protected in bad weather, and received quite a few “Get a horse!” jeers from sidewalks and wagons. I would argue, though, that the kind of change an individual’s education is undergoing had already happened for personal transportation by the time my Grandfather was sporting his Pope Toledo.
For transportation the change was from horses to the motor: you still had the carriage but the power source was fundamentally different. The coolest green hybrids coming off the automoblie assembly lines of the future will still be powered by motors, not horses.
For education the fundamental change we have now gone through is from scattered resources to networked: you still have the facts, skills, ideas to be learned, but now they are interconnected. The 3Rs, humanities, sciences, technologies learned through the future’s coolest devices and grandest social networks will all be connected in cognitive patterns.
As motors took over powering carriages, networking powers learning resources. Yelling “Get a horse!” was old hat. Doing unconnected education is old hat today.
The illustration, and the parts of the New York Times article that discuss online reading, are excellent introductions into the connective powers released by reading within a network. Very much is said and written about the social networking teenagers are doing. This time the focus is on the networking of ideas and knowledge that operate online. There is a rich resonance between the networking of abdominal anatomy in the illustration and the networking of the same ideas in the mind of the learner who views and reads these online materials.
My guess is that the article is “Most Popular” with NY Times readers because it does a very good job of explaining something that I, for one, think is the Internet’s most useful gift to the younger generations: engagement of knowledge in network format that mirrors their mind in content and context. As the kids will tell us, it’s awesome.
I put the Illinois Learning Standards and the Synapse side-by-side to suggest that we require students to learn subjects inside of little boxes, while students think about them in highly connected networks. The boxes in the Standards are separated from each other in all sorts of ways: living things are in different boxes than processes of the Earth. Different things about the same subject are spread out over five different grade levels. There seems little chance of having a thought that relates an early box in “A” to a late box in “E.”
Yet the news for the future is very, very good! The beautiful Sanger Institute drawing of the synapse network looks an awfully lot like what subject knowledge does when we put in on to the open Internet. Students’ synapses would seem naturally to mesh with online learning because both are networks. Learners can – as the drawing suggests – start at most any point or level in a subject and follow what they are thinking and learning to connect it to any and all other points.
The premise of this blog and generally of my writing is that the Net is a swamp filled with the gold which will cause global enlightenment as the 21st century rolls on. Both Gilder’s and Zimmer’s Microcosms describe the sort of swamp where tiny pieces interact to cause it all. In the golden swamp, gold too is micro. Take this sample (page 43) from Zimmer:
How does E. coli’s metabolism manage to stay so supple when it is made up of hundreds of chemical reactions? With thousands of possible pathways it could choose from, why does it choose among the best few? Why doesn’t the whole system simply crash? Part of the solution lies in the shape of the network itself, the very layout of the labyrinth.
How does the massive heap of information we call Wikipedia emit supple knowledge. With millions of of possible paths to webpages to choose among why does Google choose to place the best few at the top? Why does the chaos of content connections online make sense emerge instead of just crashing?
There are big answers for understanding the future of learning in two principles at work here. First: Yes, the Net is a content microcosm — what happens emerges from of cosmos of tiny pieces. Second: That cosmos is a network. Zimmer writes (page 42): “In neither case does robustness come from some all-knowing consciousness. It emerges from the network itself.”
As Gilder has done in the past, Zimmer exercises our thinking for getting our heads around online education. We need to know we fail when we impose some all-knowning education practice from the analog world. Letting E. coli show us the robustness, flexibility, and versatility of micro bits in the action of life suggests how we might entice knowledge to emerge from the content of the Net.
Social Networks and Web graphs exhibit certain typical properties. The classic work by Barabási–Albert showed how nodes in such network link preferentially — popular nodes often gain disproportionately larger share of the links. This is also known in other fields as the 80/20 rule or simply the “rich get richer phenomenon“. Another early work by Steve Borgatti studied social networks and found that they exhibit a core-periphery property. A small set of (popular) nodes form the core and the rest comprise of the peripheral nodes.
A HUGE KEY to the new education of our connected world is that networks express long tails of BOTH students AND what they are learning! The community long tail is what the chart copied here from the ebiquity post is supposed to illustrate. The same chart illustrates the learning subject content long tail with equal veracity.
The content side of network behavior is at least as exciting for education as the community side. Something almost magical happens when an open network becomes the structure into which cognitive stuff is imbedded: the ideas act just like the communities of the students who seek to learn them. The idea content goes into 20/80 formations and exhibits the long tail—yeah, like the students do.
Just as there are some 20% of the students who learn 80% of the ideas, 20% of the ideas are about all that 80% of the students learn about a subject. Most kids studying American history learn about Washington, Jefferson, John Adams and Franklin—but only a scattered number have access to Paine, Knox, Sam Adams and Greene.
Here is a dirty big secret we are just beginning to understand: Education has been institutionally cutting off the long tail of content for decades. Standards are satisfied when students score well on 20% of ideas in a subject; the other 80% are not even included in standards. Textbooks do not have room for more than about the 20% of the main subject material. As students move through grades, they get to learn a higher percentage of their subjects, but the tail just gets a little longer each year.
Because content for learning that is open online is imbedded into a network, the ideas that form the content can and do interconnect cognitively and in context. A student can follow the network from George Washington to his generals Knox and Greene. The long tail of learning content is not cut off.
Yesterday I made a presentation to a group of about 30 gifted teenagers (15-19 year-olds) about opportunities blogging and the burgeoning search engine optimization (SEO) field offered them now and in the future. I explained how they could make money writing blog posts, and that doing so in high school and college was a very effective way to hone their writing talent and build a skill they could use in many ways throughout their lives.
To introduce the SEO discussion, I quoted an email I received this week from a colleague in the open education efforts: “I have been connecting with friends in Silicon Valley that have knowledge of SEO gurus. Given the enormous economic impact of an optimized site, hot SEO people are among the highest compensated folks in the web-industry these days.” The kids were amazed. Only a couple of them had heard of search engine optimization.
I had begun the talk by telling the group that the book in the picture I was projecting on the screen we were looking at was my textbook from 1958, the year I graduated from college. I explained that I have kept the book because in terms of what has happened in biology in the past 50 years, the book is now quite quaint: it does not mention DNA.
For the young people in my audience, SEO is apparently in the same state of obscurity as DNA was when I was their age. In 1958, Crick and Watson had discovered the double helix and the genetic coding method it held for replicating life. Biologists have worked through the half century since to understand the new science of genetics and to implement its powers. In 1958 the huge implications we now know of DNA were barely hinted.
Can it be that the network structures over which search is being optimized as the 21st century method of commerce and communication are discoveries as important as DNA was? I think they are. The challenge for educators is to understand the new network science and to implement its powers for learning.
Using SEO for education means optimizing open education resources (OER) so the search engines can find them when students look for what they want to learn. Just because kids are early adopters of computers, we cannot assume they should have to figure out SEO for learning resources. They don’t yet know what that is, best I can tell.
Natalie Angier has written an essay in today’s Science Times that has opened a new area of analogy for the GoldenSwamp: viruses are to life something like what questionable webpages are to the online knowledge commons. Educators recoil from the “junk” on the Internet. Angier points out that: “Scientists initially dismissed the viral elements in our chromosomes as so much tagalong ‘junk DNA.’”
We do not know yet what the evolved Internet will be in terms of how it will organize and interface human knowledge. We do know that Google caused a transitional mutation when it captured the selective choices of users to push superior content. We can say Google’s underlying mechanism is to let users pick out the good stuff from the junk. The effect is that users organize gold within the swamp. Maybe the swampiness is necessary for something like this to be going on: “higher organisms have in fact co-opted viral genes and reworked them into the source code for major biological innovations . . . .”
David Weinberger’s terrific book Everything Is Miscellaneous describes Internet content as looking very much like Balint Zsako‘s illustration (shown with this post) from the Times for the biological virus swamp. The same kind of rules may operate with viruses and the miscellaneousness of Internet content. The result: order out of chaos. An example of a powerful analogy of such a thing for viruses is our own immune system. In the spirit only of provocative analogy, it is fascinating to read from Angier’s article:
Yet viruses have not only taken; they have also repaid us in ways we are just beginning to tally. “Viral elements are a large part of the genetic material of almost all organisms,” said Dr. Sharp, who won a Nobel Prize for elucidating details of our genetic code. Base for nucleic base, he said, “we humans are well over 50 percent viral.”
Scientists initially dismissed the viral elements in our chromosomes as so much tagalong “junk DNA.” But more recently some researchers have proposed that higher organisms have in fact co-opted viral genes and reworked them into the source code for major biological innovations, according to Luis P. Villarreal, director of the Center for Virus Research at the University of California, Irvine.
Some genes involved in the growth of the mammalian placenta, for example, have a distinctly viral character, as do genes underlying the recombinant powers of our adaptive immune system — precisely the part that helps us fight off viruses.
In fact, it may well have been through taking genomic tips from our viral tormentors that we became so adept at keeping them at bay.
“Our bodies spontaneously recover from viruses more so than overwhelming bacterial infections,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Viral infections have shaped the nature of the human immune system, and we have adapted to mount a very effective response against most of the viruses that we confront.” Vaccines accentuate this facility, he added, which is why vaccination programs have been most successful in preventing viral diseases.