An Autodidact is Social

Seems like a contradiction in terms, but autodidacts are social; we have to be. When I learn from the web, I access websites, support people, books, friends, and the wonderfully generous denizens of the web. I’ve spent much time over the last couple of weeks trying to get on top of creating the website I want, one that looks competent and meaningful. (I believe, as I repeatedly say, that we start reading before we decode a single word. We get an impression of the page or screen and our attitude hinders or helps us understand what is in front of us. So I want a site that appears knowledgeable.) To create the site I want I have,

  • searched for information on Google, using different queries;
  • complained on Twitter (and elicited help);
  • phoned a generous web-friend and accepted his help;
  • bought and read parts of books;
  • downloaded and read parts of pdfs;
  • talked to knowledgeable friends;
  • tried out all kinds of WSIWYG solutions, both offered by friends and found through Google;
  • finally circled around to deciding on either (decisions are hard for me ;-> ) KompoZer or WordPress.org both of which I’ve been learning piecemeal over a number of years;
  • settled in to create the site I want on my domain;
  • read up on FTP through Google and on my domain host’s Support pages;
  • sorted out, with phone help from my domain host’s Support, NetFirms, how to use FileZilla;
  • re-installed the use of WordPress, which I had deleted in a fit of frustration and pique, with the help of NetFirm’s phone Support;
  • choose a free wp template, Titan, (brother of the theme I’m using in this, my wp.com blog) and decided I would need their Support, and to pay for it because they have to make a living;
  • decided to follow Jestro on Twitter for information and quick requests for support;
  • Spent all day trying to follow a tutorial on how to access Titan’s CSS, gave up and added my problem to the Jestro Pro forum and went to supper. (I had done similar CSS work with help from Dave Ferguson on my wp.com blog so I knew it was possible.);
  • Got back from supper to find the answer already on the Jestro Support Forum (and an explanation that the tutorial could have been clearer);
  • made some changes I feel good about, but also discovered that my learning will be continuing! ;->

All of those were interactions with people or the communications created and left by people. Even autodidacts are, by necessity, social learners.

I will be accepting the help of other generous people, directly and indirectly, but there are two more important observations I want to make:

  • As a teacher, I understand why students get cranky and worse when they are frustrated because they are just not “getting” something they want to learn. It makes me (and I suspect them) feel unintelligent and inadequate, and I, (and I’m sure them) get upset with myself and anyone else I can blame. It must be even more so for those who learn differently than our schools teach. That is why I am revealing my own struggles; learning is only easy when you are, by your own nature, good at learning in certain areas. We ought to be compassionate for our own and others’ struggles to learn in the areas where we don’t have the natural velcro for.
  • It is hard to ask for help, even help you have paid for, but you must in order to keep on keeping on (as Gladys Knight advised)! I don’t know if it’s a societally developed fear of loss of face or an inherent fear of showing weakness, but I find it difficult to ask for help. I think others do too.

So that’s my current learning struggle, which I will continue on with, after I get some work that I’m good at 🙂 done.

An Autodidact Learns From the Web

An autodidact is someone who learns outside of regular school settings, someone who teaches herself (or himself). It used to be a kind of demeaning label, meaning someone who had spotty and uncertified knowledge. I claim the label “autodidact” as a badge of honour! I used to learn from books, even sometimes from tv, but now we have the web. I love the web. I learn so much from what I find on it.

Recently I gave myself a task that requires me to learn more about how to create web pages. I’d heard about CSS and knew, theoretically, what it could do. But every time I tried to do anything using it I hit THE GAP. THE GAP is the point where I get stuck and can’t go any further, even though I can see what I could do two steps along the learning path I’m on. When I hit THE GAP, I’m stuck. What I do then, is ask a knowledgable friend, if I can find one, or, more often, find a workaround. For a while, my workaround was wikis. I love wikis but they’re meant for sharing, not for using as your personal website, although they can work, sort of, as one.

One of My Wikis
One of My Wikis

Sometimes I find something a lot of the design work has been done for me, and I use that. Blogger had templates, and so does WordPress, which I graduated to.

My Blog
My Blog

But my design vision just isn’t satisfied.

I used tools like the old Netscape Composer and currently its grandchild, Nvu, both of which are WYSIWYG web page creators.

My Domain
My Domain

But my reach exceeds my grasp because I want something I have more control over. I want to produce the kind of website that says to readers “this person has powerful content: you can tell by the appearance!” (I’ve read the research on how people are reading before they decode a single word. The appearance of the text and page gives information that signals information to readers which profoundly affects how they take in the content.)

I’ve learned a little HTML code, and I’ve bookmarked sites where I can find more. But I’ve never taken a course in it, and a lot of it just looked bizarre and unreadable to me. (I was a text person initially, and not technically inclined, but I want to communicate on the web so I have to learn how to do so wholistically.) And using “View Source” and copy/paste seemed to me like a kind of plaigarism and theft. (What can I say? I’m old-school.)

Sometimes I think I learn backwards. I know my desired destination but I keep getting blocked at THE GAP. But I continue to struggle to build a little further out into the unknown territory, and I learn something from each struggle. Each struggle closes THE GAP a little more. I read manuals and follow instructions but I think most people who are inside the knowledge bubble have trouble being aware of what those outside the bubble might not know. The instructions are crisp and clear until they mention going to the “terminal shell” or some other ‘obvious’ term. Huh? Wikipedia tells me what it is, but I don’t get how to use it in this set of instructions. (I’m not the knowledgable audience they were writing for.) So I stop and try some other path. Till I get frustrated with it, because I’ve found THE GAP in it. I’m really good at finding THE GAP. So when I find someone, often on the web, who explains things in a way I can understand, someone who gives me the practical aspects of the concept, I am delighted, excited and grateful.

That happened to me today. I found Chris Coyier’s video on HTML & CSS – The VERY Basics. 32 minutes of pure pleasure. He shrank the gap – till it virtually (no pun etc.) disappeared for me.

He has a gift for teaching and I’m a grateful student.

From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able by Wesch

Academic Commons
Academic Commons

Michael Wesch is a pedagogical hero of mine. I’ve watched videos his classes made; I’ve watched a video of him explaining his teaching, and I asked a question on Twitter, and even though he doesn’t follow me, got an anwser from him within a few hours! He understands the impact of the new communication ecosphere we swim in, applies his understanding to his teaching, and can explain clearly why this is urgently central to education.

Here is a link to my highlighted copy of his recent Academic Commons article – From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able which I discovered via Stephen Downes. Indeed, as Wesch says, you set up your network and information comes to you.

Higher Education’s Survival

Sometimes you find someone saying what you have been thinking about. I think the future of higher education is in danger, and I would hate to see the loss of something so precious. Through Stephen Downes wonderful newsletter, OLDaily, which can be linked to here – http://www.downes.ca/, I found David Wiley’s 2008 ELearn presentation – http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/660 – which I’m embedding below. Serious food for thought


Kluging: An LMS Alternative

I confess I’m ambivalent about Learning Management Systems such as WebCT ad Desire2Learn. (I’m not at all ambivalent about Content Management Systems, such as WordPress – I am an enthusiastic user.) The distinction is that an LMS is a container for class work –

Learning Management System is a broad term used for a wide range of systems that organize and provide access to online learning services for students, teachers, and administrators. … web.mit.edu/oki/learn/gloss.html

and a CMS is

used to edit your website by giving the user an interface where they can log in and make text, graphic or structural amends to then publish the new pages on the live website. … absolute-digital.co.uk/glossary.php

I’m ambivalent about LMSs because I learned to use the web in teaching using an early version of WebCT – it was a scaffold for my learning and, as such, I hold it in some affection. However, as a teacher of communication skills and arts, as someone fascinated by language, I continued to learn about what could be done on the web, even outside of the LMS. Both passion and a sense of (teacher) responsibility drove me.

Currently I avoid, as much as I can, LMSs. Instead I kluge together a loose collection of free web applications, (Eduspaces Community blog, PBwiki, Pageflakes, Audacity, a password-protected mark site, and whatever free file-hosting service my current students recommend.) It’s a bit more work than using a LMS but I believe this approach, the kluging together of a selection of free web services, is a richer and more productive teaching practice.

Pageflakes - the homepage for my kluged together cellection of web apps for my course
Pageflakes - the homepage for my kluged together collection of web apps for my course

Instead of keeping my students within a walled (and very expensive for the institution) garden, I am requiring them to learn how to use sites that are easily available to them for their personal and professional purposes. I am helping them become more indenpendant and sophisticated users of the most profoundly new communication tool our species has ever seen. And I’m pulling/pushing them into being part of creating the evolving web culture.

Teaching Communication Now!

As a longtime communications teacher, I am fascinated by our changing communications media and platform. And when I’m teaching, no matter the direct subject I’m teaching, I never lose awareness of the changes our culture is going through, and the responsibility of teachers to help prepare our students for this new and rapidly evolving communications environment. They will be swimming in it for the rest of their professional and personal lives.

What is often unnoticed is that in just over a century we have gone from having one way of recording, putting marks on paper, to multiple ways of recording, all more viscerally immediate than text. Photographs, recorded sound, moving pictures all speak more directly to our senses and emotions than squiggles on paper – which our minds must translate into meaning before we can have our sense and emotional responses. It is easier to think critically when text is what we are ‘reading’ than it is when we see and hear less mediated (so to speak) representations of the world we live in. We are now living in what Ong called “secondary orality” and that is what our students have been growing up in, and to a certain extent, what we grew up in too.

I have never known a world without photographs, radio and records, movies and television. However, text was still the dominant medium, at least in my educational experiences, for most of my early schooling, and mass media ruled. I looked, listened and watched, but I could only critique; I couldn’t participate.

Now I can sit in my study and produce multimedia, as in this blog post.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The audio is poor, but understandable, and I’m combining text with video. I can embed other sites, like what I thought about this new multimedia platform that we can access using computers –

and I can link to other sites for readers/viewers who want to explore more of the educational possibilities – http://jnthweb.pbwiki.com/

and I can make movies using my screen –
Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “Generating a Table of Figures in Word…”, posted with vodpod

There are other tools that I can use to create a mixed media text, and, here is the point I want to make:

We need to be teaching our students (technical and non-technical) how to compose using the expanding possibilities of the web as a multimedia, participatory communication platform!