Libraries for netroots activists?

Netroots is a term that describes political activism organized through blogs, wikis, social network services, and other online media. Jerome Armstrong used it first in Netroots for Howard Dean (2002) on MyDD.

The netroots can be a powerful alternative to traditional media and organizations. Often though, the change that activists promote never happens, can’t be sustained, or can’t scale. Netroots talk doesn’t always lead to action.

It may seem to strange to turn to libraries as a solution. Aren’t libraries all about books and old stuff, not the new participatory culture of the net? Aren’t they determinably neutral, both unwilling and unable to engage with the kinds of change activists seek?

In fact, libraries already play a crucial role to support activism of various kinds. And they’re already deeply entangled both with how we go online and with how we find what’s not available there. They’re not only a supplement to the netroots, but a necessary resource to bring netroots activism to life.

If you go to any public library in the US at opening time, you’ll see a group of people waiting to enter. They’re of all ages, ethnicities, and genders, dressed in formal business attire, sports clothes, or old rags. Some may be waiting to check out a book or video, but most are waiting to go online to read their mail, connect with friends, check the news, hunt for a job or apartment, shop, book travel, or do any of the many other functions that reveal how much the net has infiltrated our lives. For them, the library is the face of the net, and the only, or at least the best, way of connecting with it.

Moreover, libraries can provide substantive data, e.g., on the climate, business trends, local history, political processes, art, and more, which is not always available online; text resources, including books, journals, magazines; videos and software; and repositories or archives of local activities. They also offer meeting spaces, and sustainable local points of contact. These resources can expand enormously the knowledge base for netroots activism, something that can turn strongly held views into evidence-based arguments and uncover duplicity in corporate or government bodies.

Libraries also offer reference services, which is important since the deep web holds several orders of magnitude more information than the surface web, and non-web information is much more than that. Libraries also offer instruction on accessing all of these resources, data, and services.

Beyond finding information, libraries increasingly offer opportunities to create and house community-designed or collected resources. For example, a collaboration between Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Newberry Library in Chicago led to a student-curated Puerto Rican history exhibit at the Newberry: Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.

As a means of finding information and tools, a venue for creating resources, a place to learn, and access in the first place, libraries can help turn netroots talk about activism into real action in the world. Of course, most libraries are devoted to principles of open access for all. As a result, what they offer is available to groups large and small, but also to groups on opposing sides of an issue. This means that despite all the power and innovation of the net, much of the action is still, if not increasingly, found in the library.

Technologies to improve the quality of life

Gary McDarby was one of many very impressive people I met during my stay in Ireland during 2007-08. If you watch this short video, I think you’ll understand why.

It’s amazing how he manages to introduce several important projects in a short time, including Camara, SMART, and the Computer Clubhouse.

Prepare yourself for some tears.

Gary writes:

as many of you know, on the 7th of August 2009 Stuart Mangan and Robert Stringer passed away. I had been working with Stuart on technologies to help improve his quality of life (he had suffered a severe spinal injury in 2008) and Robert Stringer had been taking a holiday after volunteering with Camara in Tanzania when he was killed. In a strange twist of fate they died on the same day.

I have been giving a series of talks on these events with the sole of intention of trying to create something positive out of what was a very sad and challenging time. First and foremost I want to pay tribute to these two wonderful young men.

Recently I gave an IGNITE talk in the Science Gallery on what happened. It’s a short, 5 minute format which is quite a challenge to do, especially if the subject matter is non trivial.

I wanted to try and create something meaningful in this short format so it could be passed around in the viral ways we are all so used to. Its by no means perfect but please feel free to pass it on. The talk is here:

Inquiring and acting

John Dewey makes an interesting distinction between understanding and information:

An individual may know all about the structure of an automobile, may be able to name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for. But he does not understand the machine unless he knows how it works and how to work it; and, if it doesn’t work right, what to do in order to make it work right…Understanding has to be in terms of how things work and how to do things. Understanding, by its very nature, is related to action; just as information, by its very nature, is isolated from action or connected with it only here and there by accident. (Dewey, 1937, p. 184)

If we line up “how things work” with inquiry and “how to do things” with action, we have a good summary of the Youth Community Informatics activity guide, Community as Curriculum. It’s set up with units on Youth as Inquirer and Youth as Activist.

An example might be to study the problem of alcoholism in your community (Inquirer), then make a book about it, such as This is the Real Me (Activist). Several thoughts occur to me:

  • The inquire/act distinction is not absolute; it’s hard to come up with a good example in which the two roles are not blended and mutually supportive. But it can still be useful for reflecting on our work, and thinking about future directions for community informatics.
  • The Inquirer part goes well beyond what usually happens in school in terms of relevance, connectedness, community base, and so on. But the Activist part rarely happens at all.
  • Much of the research in social informatics, and even community informatics, which studies community use of ICTs, digital divide, or demographic patterns, tends to “name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for.” That can be useful, just as it would be for an automobile.
  • But, if we seek understanding in Dewey’s sense, we need more of a community inquiry approach.

References

Dewey, John (1937). The challenge of democracy to education. In The collected works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. Electronic edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Volume 11: 1935-1937, Essays, Liberalism and Social Action. [First published (February 1937) in Progressive Education 14, 79-85, from a transcript of an address on November 13, 1936 at the Eastern States Regional Cnference of the Progressive Education Association in New York City.]

Youth planners in Richmond, CA

I was fortunate to have a visit with youth planners at the Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA on Wednesday this week. These were students studying their own community and developing plans to improve it. They’ll be presenting these plans to the Mayor next month.

What I saw is part of Y-PLAN (Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now), a city planning program run by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Deborah McKoy is the creator of Y-PLAN and the center’s founder and executive director.

Sarah Van Wart from the UC Berkeley I School was my guide. She and two undergrads, Arturo and Sarir had been leading the high school students in a community planning exercise. They first examined their current situation, using dialogue, photos, and data. They then considered alternatives and how those might apply to a planned urban development project.

The development will include schools, housing, a park, and community center, but the questions for city planners, include “How should these be designed?” “How can they be connected?” “How can they be made safe, useful, and aesthetically pleasing?”

On the day I visited, the youth had already developed general ideas on what they’d like to see in the development. Now they were to make these ideas more concrete through 3-D modeling. Using clay, toothpicks, construction paper, dried algae, stickers, variously colored small rocks, and other objects, they constructed scale models of the 30 square block development. One resource they had was contact sheets of photos of other urban environments. They could select from those to include as examples to emulate or to avoid.

I was impressed with the dedication and skill of the leaders of the project, including also the teacher, Mr. G. But the most striking thing was how engaged the young people were. I heard some healthy arguing about design, but I didn’t see the disaffection that is so common some high schools today.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to follow the process from beginning to end. But from the rich, albeit limited, glimpse I had, the project is an excellent way to engage young people in their own communities, to use multimedia for learning and action in the world, and to learn how to work together on meaningful tasks. It’s a good example of community inquiry.

Sara Bernard has a more detailed article on the project on Edutopia, which includes an audio slide show:

Audio slide show: Putting Schools on the Map Slide Show
Putting Schools on the Map

References

Bernard, Sara (2008, October). Mapping their futures: Kids foster school-community connections.

Bierbaum, Ariel H., & McKoy, Deborah L. (2008, Spring). Y-PLAN: A tool for engaging youth and schools in planning for the future of their communities. IMPACT: A Multidisciplinary Journal Addressing the Issues of Urban Youth, 2(1).

McKoy, Deborah, & Vincent, J. 2007. Engaging schools in urban revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now). Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 389-403.

Open world learning

People often talk of the Internet as a venue for open learning. But this openness often means simply that students can explore a vast array of resources, perhaps coming across sources that neither they nor their teacher expected.

It’s useful to think about the various ways that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) create additional possibilities for open learning, including both its benefits and costs. Several years ago, Umesh Thakkar, Eric Jakobsson, and I along with others developed such an analysis for the case of Biology Workbench (see Molecular Science Student workbench and Swami). The general idea is that Biology Workbench could facilitate open world learning.

Biology Workbench is a suite of computational tools and data sources, which is used by scientists across a wide range of disciplines to explore and analyze protein and nucleic acid sequence databases. There is a wide variety of analysis and modeling tools, within a point and click interface that ensures file format compatibility.

Thus, Biology Workbench is not an alternative tool for teaching biological concepts, although students who work within it can expand their understanding of biology significantly. Rather, it is an exemplar of a venue for learning, one in which students explore genetics, protein structure and function, physics, chemistry, and other domains of inquiry, invoking processes of pattern-matching, probabilistic reasoning, and both inductive and deductive analysis. Its potential significance for learning relates to three major ways in which it is an open system.

Open Data and Problems

The Workbench architecture provides the potential for using information technology to provide an open world of learning and exploration. Previous approaches to using computers in education have focused on the creation of closed worlds in which students could navigate and explore. Many of these computational environments are excellent and useful, but they are limited. Students are not encouraged to investigate the unknown. In general, students cannot investigate phenomena that the creators of the environment themselves do not know.

The open environment of the Biology Workbench is fundamentally different. By providing access to essentially all that is known about biomolecular sequences and structures, together with powerful analysis and visualization tools, the Workbench makes it possible for students to learn more than what their mentors and teachers know, and even to generate new basic knowledge. The key idea here is not only that there is a large amount of material, but that the data are constantly changing as a result of scientific work. This is true of course for the Web in general, but appears more striking in the case of rapidly changing molecular data (see point #2 below).

This aspect of the Workbench was exemplified by one instructor who was using the Workbench in a university class. She commented that once the students went beyond working through specified exercises, they were essentially doing original biological research, doing analyses that perhaps had not been done before, and she was hard pressed to know how to grade their work.

Open Computational Environment

In addition to providing a window to the entire world of molecular biology, the Biology Workbench is open in a second sense. It is continually growing, adding new features that extend its capabilities and domain of applicability. New domains of applicability include the ability to reconstruct metabolic pathways by utilizing data from newly developed microarrays (gene chips and metabolic flux chips) and the ability to do molecular simulations. The Workbench continues to grow as the whole field of computational molecular biology grows, because it is more than a computer program. It is a computational environment that integrates tools for exploring and learning about all aspects of molecular biology. This dynamic growth is both a plus and a challenge for teachers or curriculum designers who might reasonably seek consistency in their curricula.

Open Community

The Biology Workbench exists within a community of investigators working across a variety of areas within molecular biology. These investigators are not only users, but creators of the system, as they add their research results to the available corpus of articles or their findings result in additions or other modifications of the databases. This community is a powerful resource for education, but it does not exist to meet educational needs per se.

Students who attempt to learn through the Workbench are able to enter into that community of investigators. In so doing, they have stepped outside of the protected world of the classroom. Their learning becomes much less structured, even potentially hazardous without the assurance of carefully vetted curricula, but it can also be far more engaging and applicable to learning beyond the classroom.

Search engines’ dirty secret

I just saw a reference to a New Scientist article, Search engines’ dirty secret – 31 March 2010 about the energy use of search engines, such as Google. The author, James Clarage, who is a physicist at the University of St Thomas in Houston, does some rough calculations to show alarmingly high energy costs:

Google serves up approximately 10 million search results per hour, so one search has the same energy cost as turning on a 100-watt light bulb for an hour…We’ve all heard the future of information architecture is cloud computing. It just might be a cloud of carbon dioxide.

Tim Rustige had the same reaction I did: Yes, web searches use energy, but it can’t be that much. In New Scientist 3rd April 2010 ‘Search’s dirty secret’ he runs through some more detailed calculations to show that the energy use by Google is much less, perhaps 1% of what Clarage estimates.

Neither author takes into account the energy us of the home computer or smart phone that access Google. That’s likely to be many times the cost of what Google does. When that’s factored in, along with the costs of manufacturing, servicing, shipping, and disposing computers, it’s clear that Clarage’s basic point is still valid. There is a serious environmental impact of search engines and computers, and much needs to be done to improve their efficiency.

Turtles in China and Australia

During our sabbatical in Beijing and Brisbane, we had a surprising common theme: turtles.

I’ve always liked turtles, so perhaps it was natural that I saw them everywhere we turned. It started when we asked Caroline, a ten-year-old friend from Canada, about her classes at the Bei Da elementary school. She described a strange typing class, which involved typing expressions such as “FD 100 RT 120 FD 100 RT 120”. Although she didn’t realize it at first, this was not typing class, but computer programming using the Logo language. The commands were eventually to be used to command a robotic turtle, or one on a computer screen. In this example, the turtle would be commanded to draw an equilateral triangle, 100 pixels on a side.

We decided that turtle talk was a nice, limited domain in which to practice our feeble Chinese. Wang Dongyi, a Chinese friend, was helping us with that, and we were helping him with his English. Before long we had a bustling turtle circus going in our apartment at Shao Yuan on the Bei Da campus. Caroline, Emily, and Stephen played the turtles, with occasional help from certain childlike adults. We’d issue Logo commands in Chinese or English, and learn from the consequences of the turtles’ behaviors. In this way, we were all practicing both language and programming skills. We of course had to learn the Chinese word for sea turtle, Hai Gui (海归), so that we could say Turtle Emily, forward 30, or its equivalent in Chinese.

These navigational commands happened to be useful for us visitors, as we were continually seeking of giving directions. We began to refer to taxis as Hai Gui, since they needed to execute programs such as forward ten blocks, left, then forward three more.

Hai Gui, from Woodblock Dreams

We saw images and sculptures of turtles. We even ate Hai Gui, probably more than we realized, since we couldn’t always identify or obtain a name for what we were eating. We then learned that the “Hai Gui” or “sea turtles” of China are the returning professionals who contribute to the growth of the Chinese economy. These are the students who were sent abroad, like baby sea turtles, to get advanced degrees and Western experiences, then return to lay their eggs in their homeland.

When we reached Australia, we spent a lot of time outdoors, taking advantage of the beautiful countryside in Queensland. We saw many turtles in lakes and in the ocean, and even swam with adult loggerheads. One highlight, near Bundaberg, was Mon Repos Beach, one of the two largest Loggerhead turtle rookeries in the South Pacific Ocean. Successful breeding there aids survival of this endangered species. The research program conducts animal surveys of nesting turtles, studies of reproduction, migration, behavior, incubation, and genetics.

Visitors can watch the turtles, and if they’re lucky, see the adults lay eggs (from mid November to February) or even better, see the hatchlings emerge and crawl to the sea (from January until the end of March). We couldn’t miss that. The night we went was magical. We saw baby turtles hatch and then crawl to the sea. Emily and Stephen took on the role of turtle guides, standing with legs spread and using a flashlight to guide the way. The turtles would follow the light until they neared the ocean edge and then could follow the moonlight.

Susan and I would not have done well as turtle guides since watching Emily and Stephen do this was too wonderful on its own. As Susan wrote in an email at the time, “The theme of any future message will be turtles; we did see the hatchlings and Stephen and I swam with a huge loggerhead on the [Great Barrier] Reef, a few seconds that were worth the total airfare.”

In that year, we were Hai Gui ourselves, emerging from our safe nest with little understanding of the world we were about to encounter.

Inquiry Based Learning interview

Michael Hallissy recently interviewed me from Dublin, Ireland for a podcast on Inquiry Based Learning. I can’t bear to listen to my recorded self, so I’m not sure why you would, but in case you’re a masochist, the link above should be just what you need. Extra credit if you can spot the two factual mistakes we made, one by Michael and one by me.