Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Formalism in CCK11

Our CCK11 Elluminate conversation today, 2011 Feb 09, featured guest speaker Neil Selwyn, who said several times that he thought we might lose something valuable if we indeed ever managed to rid our educational selves of formal institutions and practices. I imagine that he meant such things such as universities, school boards, curricula, programs of study, grading scales, and college deans. I think I have a faint appreciation for his point, but first I want to quibble with his use of the term formal.

To my mind, Mr. Selwyn was contrasting the wide open, free, self-directed, personalized, sometimes chaotic connect-and-collaborate informal structures of networks with the closed, restrictive, other-director, depersonalized, usually well-defined command-and-control formal structures of hierarchies. Popular usage of formal suggests that hierarchical structures are formal while network structures are informal, but I disagree. I take formal to mean any structure that is capable of generating a recognizable form on the basis of some regular procedures. If this is so, then a flock of birds is a formal structure: it is recognizable as a structure (a flock) and it is formed on the basis of a few, regular procedures. A fractal image is just as formal as, say, a triangle. A swirling eddy of water is just as formal as, and much more common than, a perfectly executed circle. Some forms are rigid and geometric, while others are flexible and fractal, but all are forms and, in that sense, formal.

That being said, hierarchies are different from networks, or rhizomes (to use my favorite term). Hierarchies are closed, rigid, and authoritative. Networks are open, flexible, and collaborative. Hierarchies are imposed on reality. Networks emerge from reality. I greatly prefer networks over hierarchies, and I suspect that many in CCK11 share this preference and predisposition.

Still, I think that Mr. Selwyn has a point. Hierarchies have built much of human culture for the past few millennia, and perhaps we dismiss them at our peril. It's at least an idea worth contemplating for a few minutes. Of course, in the past, we hardly had any options. If we wanted to build large organizations (churches, states, businesses, universities), then we almost had to resort to hierarchical structures, bureaucracies and such. We did not have the technology to enable one hundred thousand people to spontaneously gather and coordinate their behavior for some effort or play. We needed churches and states for that, so we built them—some big ones, too. In some ways, then, hierarchies have been one of the crowning achievements of humanity. I just happen to believe that they've been rendered somewhat irrelevant by networks, but perhaps not totally irrelevant.

The question, then, is what do hierarchies do well that we should keep them, at least in special cases?

Clay Shirkey posted an essay entitled Ontology Is Overrated that addresses this very issue, I think. What he calls ontological classification is very much like what I refer to by the word hierarchy. They both impose a prescribed order on reality rather than allowing an order to emerge from reality (this is reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between tracing reality and mapping reality). Shirkey makes a strong case that the new technology allows for humanity to largely abandon ontological classification schemes for more flexible tagging schemes for tracking and finding information. However, he notes, classification and hierarchy still have some strengths. Hierarchical classification works best when the domain being organized has:
  1. Small corpus
  2. Formal categories
  3. Stable entities
  4. Restricted entities
  5. Clear edges
This is all the domain-specific stuff that you would like to be true if you're trying to classify cleanly. The periodic table of the elements has all of these things -- there are only a hundred or so elements; the categories are simple and derivable; protons don't change because of political circumstances; only elements can be classified, not molecules; there are no blended elements; and so on. The more of those characteristics that are true, the better a fit ontology is likely to be.
Shirkey adds that this scheme also benefits from being used with certain types of people, those who are:
  1. Expert catalogers
  2. Authoritative source of judgment
  3. Coordinated users
  4. Expert users
If the educational objective fits the above characteristics for both content and students, then traditional hierarchical structures may provide the student and teacher real benefits over a network structure. Thus, the first introduction to a new programming language might benefit from a more formal approach, in the sense that Selwyn was using the term. However, becoming a really good programmer means that eventually we leave the formal behind and move toward the more informal.

Even as I write this, something in me rebels. I'll have to think some more.
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