Forward and Back

I’ll grab my soap box, and deep thought pose and with a deep breath… get going in this all annecdotal, unresearched or referenced mind dump.

In the news this week, there were two stories about local newspapers shuttering in Canada. The first is CBC Sunday Edition’s story on Moose Jaw losing it’s paper (podcast) and the second is from CANADALAND (podcast) – edit and Day Six (podcast). While these stories are similar and are only related enough to the point I want to make as to inspire this post, they point to the demise of what one could easily say is the most common form of storytelling that we have only lost in the past few years.

Newspapers, magazines, and letters used to be the way stories were told. The length of the story connoted some measure of quality. It used to (and some would say still does), cost a significant sum of blood and treasure to put together a story that fully and rationally explore an idea. Perhaps “back in the day” stories were better balanced to ensure that everyone would have some element of their voice heard. This lead to the idea that if it was in print, the story must be true.

But then as the cost of printing fell, voices started to separate. As more individuals could access the means to publish, the number of publications increased, and to be well read meant that one had to access more sources and those sources, to capture more people reduced the size of their stories. Quickly getting to the point of their argument.

Today we find ourselves in a sound bite and headline world, having slipped down a slippery slope. The co-efficient of friction and the slope continue to move in opposite directions to a point that wants to move stories in front of us so fast, that they are there and have had us react before we even know that we do through the use of managed newsfeeds and predictive algorithms.

These older stories used to have value because they provided insight about the past. Seemingly, it was the past that was the most important part about the art of storytelling – be it the news or epics about heroes. Now it seems that the value of a story is all about how close, and how amusingly it can get a glimpse about the future. So how do we get around this to use stories as a tool to teach when the very tool that we want to use is/has/or will change?

Is it worth trying to use an old tool in a new world?

Two Worlds Reflecting

For almost twenty years, my professional life has centered around EdTech. Using the tools that are available to extend the ability of individuals to communicate with each other, and in so doing, teach and learn in more efficient ways. I haven’t abandoned my interest in that sphere, just shifting it away from the tools toward the product. The product is the story, and the tools? Well they can range from the most basic technology of spoken language, to well, nothing. Our technologies are all used, in some manner or another to communicate with each other, and in communicating, we learn and grow.

So this morning, when I saw this (NYT original), story online, and heard it on CBC, it got me thinking. For a very long time, people have been talking about using computers in the classroom. But it seems that this use, hasn’t been as an extension to the abilities of the students or teachers/instructors, but as a replacement. And there is why, I believe that laptops in the lecture theater are failing students. As a replacement for pen and paper, it has become too each for everyone involved to process the information only once (if at all – image directly linked from NYT).

So while the research talks about other reasons, from the storytelling perspective, I’m thinking what’s missing is that people have forgotten that notes taken in meetings are stories that we will later tell to ourselves or to others. The words on the screen, or on the page are nothing until they have been processed through reflection.

“Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius

Looking at the quote from Confucius, I realized how/why I had to put down some words when I read and heard the story. I’m under no impression that what work I will ever do will “save” EdTech, Teaching, or Storytelling, that’s not the point, what I’m interested in, as I mentioned before is how we can use stories to improve teaching. And all stories are told in some manner through technology. But because so much of technology makes things “quick and easy”, we have fallen into the trap that Confucius is warning about.

In a lecture (already a barely adequate teaching paradigm, it’s really just spray ‘n pray), we perform an action that we believe to be learning, using technology, that cuts out the reflection. In a lecture, this would have been re-copying notes, or doing further research. To Confucius’s point, it is learning without reflection.

But what about the second point? Reflection without learning? I think that is what we are doing now. We have seen what poor integration of technology in the classroom (or other meeting spaces) has done to the quality of the learning environment, so how can that be changed?

Perhaps by telling students about what they need to learn, versus talking at them. Perhaps by creating a grander context for details versus merely dumping facts. Perhaps by leaving space for students to think, and not just boxes to check off on an exam.

 

Where is the simulacra?

What is and what isn’t reality? That’s a question that is not new at all. Stories have taken people off to “other places” since the very first time they were told. Until recently, the tools and the generation of the narratives have all been in the hands of human actors. But that is going to change. Likely sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, Spark ran a story about the power of storytelling in games. Putting a movie into a game has been done before, but this time, the idea is a little different. Rather than taking the easy route of doing a shooter, they made this game into a horror based game that can be experienced uniquely for each player. The branching narrative that allows the player to choose their own adventure isn’t new either (some of you might remember those old CYOA books). This ability to make choice leads to a significant level of empathy (PBS Thank You for Playing, Psychology Today) is what motivated the creation of the game.

Outside of the content and the presentation, the Apocalypse Now game doesn’t really break new ground, especially when you consider what it refers to as source material (Heart of Darkness, and The Odyssey). But this is where the jump from human agency to Artificial Intelligence can occur.

To create a game like this, artificially, one would need a narrative. Teaching AI to do this, the models from Vonnegut are the place to start. Without a strong narrative, the story is going to be a dud. Thankfully (perhaps) for AI, iteration to improve itself is par for the course, so it can make a convincing story with an almost endless number of branches and terminations. With enough compute cycles the iteration and improvement is going to get things perfect (perhaps too perfect). With the bones of the story in place, AI can then create the visual representation, if needed, similar to this world that was created randomly.

With these basic elements, we know that we have the tools to allow non human agents to create stories. What we need to be able to do now is look at those stories objectively and identify ways to create ones that can deliver an objective. That objective for my interest, would be to teach something, and in so doing looking to see if the checkpoints of laughter and truth are passed by. If they are, it would suggest that these two elements are vital (perhaps among others), to using stories to teach.

Those other things may come from elements that are identified in this TED Talk with Shonda Rhimes. She makes a comment on the CYOA stories and how they may not be as satisfying:

I’m watching a movie, I know for a fact that a story is not as good when I have control over exactly what’s going to happen to somebody else’s character. You know, if I could tell you exactly what I wanted to happen to Walter White, that’s great, but the story is not the same, and it’s not as powerful. You know, if I’m in charge of how “The Sopranos” ends, then that’s lovely and I have an ending that’s nice and satisfying, but it’s not the same story and it’s not the same emotional impact.

So if we are looking at fabricating stories for specific ends, the task becomes “easier”. The story creation system no longer needs to perfect an infinite number of endings. It only needs one that is going to create that impact.

You know, if you could decide that, you know, in “Jaws,” the shark wins or something, it doesn’t do what it needs to do for you. The story is the story that is told, and you can walk away angry and you can walk away debating and you can walk away arguing, but that’s why it works. That is why it’s art. Otherwise, it’s just a game, and games can be art, but in a very different way.

I’m always excited when new technology comes out and I’m always the first one to want to try it. The possibilities feel endless and exciting right now, which is what excites me. We’re in this sort of Wild West period, to me, it feels like, because nobody knows what we’re going to settle on. You can put stories anywhere right now and that’s cool to me, and it feels like once we figure out how to get the technology and the creativity of storytelling to meet, the possibilities are endless.

So it looks like I’m not the only one who is thinking about this and what stories can do, or be made to do for us and society.

Truth and Perspective – Laughing to the other side

I was listening to the October 27th Startalk Daily as Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to Bill Maher. During the interview, cut together with other conversations, Maher brings up some interesting points that I’m sure we have all heard in some manner before. The first is truth. The second is laughter. Looking at the second point first, there is a well recited claim that “if they are laughing they are listening, if they are listening, there is a chance that they are learning”. And the first point, the truth is relative.

Looking at Truth and truth, there are many people who have spent their life examining truth and a short blog post isn’t going help move the stick here. For now, we will assume that truth is related to an idea that is accepted as being fundamental to being. In order to get someone to accept your story, they need to to be able to align the ideas that they are being presented with the truth or the type of truth that they are looking for. Around the 51:51 mark, Tyson identifies three types of truth. The first being a personal truth. This is a truth of personal conviction that you would see in someone who is looking at truth in religion. This is a truth that is well, personal. Next is a political truth. This is an idea that becomes truth simply from repetition. Finally there is an objective truth that is established through repeated observation.

These truths need to then fit into a story arch. And just as there seem to be prescribed forms of truth, there are also common story lines. Kurt Vonnegut has a decent little video looking at this on YouTube, and this graphic from io9. Linked below:

Shapes of stories from io9.

All this brings me back to an article from The Atlantic that pulled all these ideas together. And part of what kicked off my interest in the power of storytelling was this section:

“This is an active area of research,” Reagan says, “and there are a lot of hard problems yet to be solved. In addition to the plot, structure, and emotional arc, to write great stories, a computer will need to create characters and dialogue that are compelling and meaningful.”

If we are trying to get computers to do this, we need to understand it first. And once we can do that, once we can systematically understand storytelling, we can use it for some amazing ends.

The power of stories to teach

Being away from the academy in a formal manner for years has started to really start an itch in me. For the longest time, I defined my interests in terms of how technology can be used to extend one’s ability to make messages accessible, and by extension, improve teaching outcomes.

Over the past few years however, technology has started to fade into the background. There hasn’t been much of an “oh wow” or “must have” piece of tech entering the teaching environment. It seems that technology is fading to the background and iterating. While this may be temporary (I think it’s likely happened before), it does allow us to take a breath and think about substance more than shine.

What I’m curious about isn’t something that puts technology together with storytelling, ala digital storytelling. Alan Levine aka CogDog has done some amazing things with this in ds106 as has Brian Alexander (h/t Ken Bauer of Flipped Classroom fame). Digital storytelling uses technology as a means of democratizing the production of high impact stories that share the perspective of the creator, from Wikipedia:

One can think of digital storytelling as the modern extension of the ancient art of storytelling, now interwoven with digitized still and moving images and sound. Thanks to new media and digital technologies, individuals can approach storytelling from unique perspectives. Many people use elaborate non-traditional story forms, such as non-linear and interactive narratives.[1]Simply put, digital stories are multimedia presentations that combine a variety of communicative elements within a narrative structure. Media may include any combination of the following: text, images, video, audio, social media elements (like tweets), or interactive elements (like maps).

Digital stories may be used as an expressive medium within the classroom to integrate subject matter with extant knowledge and skills from across the curriculum. Students can work individually or collaboratively to produce their own digital stories. Once completed, these stories can easily be uploaded to the internet and can be made available to an international audience, depending on the topic and purpose of the project.[2]I certainly see the power of this tool in the classroom or in educational spaces in general, but what I’m more interested in is the story aspect of it. I want to explore not only what makes a digital story effective as a teaching tool, but what makes any story effective as a teaching tool? How can educators harness the power of narrative in their pedagogical practice?. From the traditional classroom, to the work site, my experience over the last 20 years has shown that context, analogies, and interpersonal connections make teaching anything more effective. In my experience, my teaching, and the teaching of others has been that a solid story can help anyone to learn just about any topic. After all, learners are not just vessels to be filled, they are more akin to sculptures to be formed and hewn.

I’m not foolish enough to think that I’m the first to do this, or think this way. There have to be others with similar thoughts, but this is what I hope to be able to find out more about over the next while. There are ideas from Education of constructionism, and connectivism that look at how people build and connect ideas together in the learning process. There will also be ideas from literary theory.

X or Ten

It’s become apparent to me that I need to start writing more, and the best place to do that here is here. And with a goal or putting ideas together about storytelling, this is going to be random and techy.

I woke up this morning at 12:45 to be sure I could get my hands on a shiny new iPhone X. And I was ready. Both the Apple Store App and the web store were loaded and refreshed and at 12:59, I waited. Looking for 1:00 to show on the clock and the mad refreshing to begin. But something happened… the clock skipped… 1:01. What? Was this a glitch in the matrix? Was this something else? Was I paying too much attention to something else? I don’t know. But within a few minutes, I got in and Inhad in my “bag” a 256GB Black iPhone X (image via c|net).

And I had a pickup time set for November 3, now all I had to do was pay. And then it happened. ApplePay said there was an error. I don’t know if it was frustration or panic, I felt, but I was suddenly far more focused. I didn’t want a shipping window. But in the 10 seconds it took to refresh everything, that’s exactly what happened. This time, I defaulted to the basic payment method. Entering numbers manually just to be sure. The result was a window. 2-3 weeks (November 22-29). Crap.

But maybe not. Maybe the skipped time and the ApplePay fail saved me. Block A of a Rev A device may have a few issues that the subsequent blocks may not have. It could also be that I get my date moved up. Who knows.

Thinking about this post right now, it looks very much like a journal, a story to myself. Now that it’s captured, what will it teach me? When will I learn it? Who will it enlighten? How can I grow ideas like this?

Edit… looks like I wasn’t the only one .

What the duck

A week in Mexico was much needed this past week, but then on returning, I came back to the same cesspool that I left. While I so feel that I need another vacation, what I need is a change. Hopefully that happens in short order, and leads to better things. If it does that may be a vacation on its own. If not, these white sands and turquoise waters are calling.

Toes in the Water

So it has finally come to pass. boora.ca is going to be home to the extended Boora clan’s online musings. My niece Naomi will be writing at naomi.boora.ca. After a botched WP install last night, I got things up and running. I didn’t have a real FTP client to deal with the files, so that made things go really slow, and somehow a handful of files were missing and then the database kept getting errors. So I pitched in the towel and went with the one click install offered by my host. 

So her toes are now in the water with a public online presence and potentially with some code geekery as well. 

It’s a new world.

Spirit

This summer, we roamed around Alberta. From Waterton in the south to Japser, Drumheller, and around Edmonton. Through all these travels, we made all manner of memories. Well at least three of us did. The little one didn’t but in making memories with him, I think there was something far more important happening. We were all seeing how this family that had been only three for so long functioned as four; and we saw how little smiles and giggles gave new energy to all of us.  Spirit Island is one of those bucket list shots for me, and with Nut strapped to my chest, I managed to get a shot that I can’t wait to see printed on the wall. There is another print that I want – and it’s very much on the other side of this one. It’s a panorama of Lake Minnewanka that is a washed out black and white. I took that one when Nut was still on his way. We visited the mountains as a family to celebrate his impending arrival and a milestone anniversary for the grandparents. That’s another one that I want on the wall, and together, I think they tell quite a story of how a little change can bring all manner of life to the world.

Fly

So this weekend, while visiting family in Lethbridge, at an age of just over seven months, it seems that little K has become self aware. For the first time, he signed for milk, moved with intent, and participated in a game. I know Bug went through all these stages, but they happened so fast that it seems that they may have not been appreciated. This time however, they were duly noted.

 

We’d seen him lighting up and paying attention to all manner of things over the past few weeks, but now that those lights are on, and we can see that someone is home… things are going to get far more interesting.

It’s time to baby proof.