Sunday, December 19, 2010

Activity Streams: Splicing Information and Social Relations (Siemens)

Splicing information and social relations in activity streams is the next critical area for educators to develop capacity. My colleague at TEKRI, Jon Dron, uses the term “context switching”. Splicing/switching are similar and essentially involve giving individuals control over how they encounter information and social relations in different circumstances and for different purposes.

Let’s clarify a few things before getting into more detail on splicing.

Bounded information units (a course, a newspaper, a book) have their legacy in physical systems. It’s far more affordable, in physical systems, to bind information into appropriate units. After all, it’s easier to publish one daily paper than 100 smaller papers. It’s easier to publish one textbook with 30 chapters than 30 texts with only one chapter each. These constraints do not exist online, but we still carry the mindsets of bounded information units into our interactions with information, each other, and teaching and learning.

But, we have to reconcile two concepts:
1. Information sources are increasingly fragmented.
2. In order to learn, act, grow knowledge, we need some level of coherence in information.

The fragmentation of information is obvious enough as most of us experience it in our daily lives. Instead of watching the evening news, we encounter a daily flow of information through blog posts, news alerts, links shared by friends, social networking services, and dozens of other sources. Unfortunately, this flow is not always very helpful. To act meaningfully or understand deeply, we need to reflect on and integrate these various information elements in order to see the patterns they represent. Then, based on recognizing those patterns, we need to reflect on possible implications. Knowledge growth in a discipline or society first requires connectedness…and then exploration of implications and potential ways to respond to those implications.

If we are no longer relying exclusively on bounded information units, how do we make sense of the world and complexity in general? We make sense by creating temporary information centres. Examples of this include:
- Hashtags (on Twitter)
- Tags (on Delicious)
- Personal aggregation systems (Pageflakes, Netvibes, Google Reader)
- Google Alerts
- Lists (Twitter)
- Groups (in Elgg, partly in Facebook)
- Activity streams in social network services (LinkedIn, Facebook)
- Short-lived groups or discussion chats
- Collections (Elgg)

Instead of a bounded information unit, created a priori learner engagement – such as a course – temporary information units rise and disappear as needed by individuals. Want to track Team Canada at World Juniors (yes, of course you do)? Want to learn about trends in mobile learning? Or perhaps you want to learn basic programming skills. Through a mix of apps, tags, and distributed information sources, each individual can create their own temporary information centre, with fairly easy ways to connect with others (hashtags). This process of splicing information and social interactions is critical to making sense of activity streams. If you follow a few hundred people on Twitter or Facebook, the need for mechanisms to order that information and flow soon becomes evident.

When applied to teaching and learning, I see activity streams and social/information splicing as the response to traditional structured courses. As detailed in the image below, the flow of information – including instructor-provided resources, learner interactions, information and interactions that occur outside of the course – needs to be spliced in such a way as to provide each individual the ability to created personally-bounded information objects (with coherence between how the various elements are related to each other).

Splicing information and social relations to suite the needs of different situations is increasingly important. The fields of learning and development have not yet been transformed to the online environment. The combination of learning/knowledge analytics, data visualization, and activity streams provide, I think, a sufficient basis for educators to begin planning for a post-course view of education.

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