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    Design Thinking 

    This video was developed and created by Bree Galbraith, a Design student at Emily Carr University.

    Dr. Ron Burnett Kinetic Typography for Current 2011 from The Design° on Vimeo.


    Virtual/Real/Virtual (3)

    (This is the third and final part of a presentation to DIGIFEST in Toronto in late October of 2011)

    "An Ad Hoc Committee of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching
    (NARST) stated in 2003 that there are three “important characteristics of learning… First, learning is a personal process, second, it is contextualized, and third, it takes time…Learning occurs when people reconstruct meaning and understanding; a different way of thinking, perhaps, or a different way of responding to an idea or event. Learning that occurs today depends on yesterday’s learning and is the foundation for tomorrow’s learning. The cumulative, iterative process of learning emphasizes the importance of time.”. Our own research in this area reinforces the importance of iteration." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

    Learning takes time and follows many pathways. A good teacher can create a map with destinations, but the routes have to be developed by the students. Those routes may meander for a while because the iterative process is not the same for everyone. Knowledge and information can be shared along the way. Wisdoms can be imparted through discussion and interaction, but these travels will always be characterized by the richness of the unexpected sometimes colliding with the expectations of teachers and other times producing engaged and engaging dialogue.

    The tyranny of schedules in schools is that they artificially 'locate' learning at a time and place that may not be convenient for everyone. The schedule cannot account for iterative processes because it generates a linear type of learning that goes against the essence of learning experiences. We have created schools where the mapping from experience to learning is not fluid enough to match the needs of a new generation.

    Iteration, non-linearity, informal learning. These are all characteristics of networked environments which by their very nature encourage what has been achieved by the Khan Academy for example. Here is one individual without any resources other than his own skills and intelligence, who decided to create a learning environment through video demonstrations. He has 2600 hundred courses up at this site and receives thousands of learners every day. Students use the site to move at their own pace. Khan is pointing to something very important. Courses and their contents can now be customized to the needs of learners and learners can choose when and where to learn. 

    "To summarise: learning rarely, if ever, occurs and develops from a single experience. It is cumulative, emerging through diverse experiences. It is a dynamic, never-ending, and holistic phenomenon of constructing personal meaning. Much of what people come to know about the world, including the world of science content and process, derives from real world experiences within a diversity of appropriate physical and social contexts, motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn." (Susan Stocklmayer, Public awareness of science and informal learning - a perspective on the role of science museums, published by the National Academies in the US)

    So, it seems clear to me that the digital age is emphatically about informality — learning through multiple means in multiple ways and in many different contexts. A key question remains. Can all of this informality be structured? Should it be? How can the dots be connected between learning that is driven by personal concerns and areas like mathematics and writing that need some formality in order to be mastered? Must all learning be governed by choice? Or are there certain basic subjects that require mastery through more formal strategies?

    I made the point earlier that digital experiences encourage and support the creation of imaginary environments and imaginary connections. This is not a pejorative comment. Rather, what is exciting about these informal spaces for learning is that they are so imaginative, so full and rich with many choices and many possible avenues of exploration. Informal learning then combines with imaginative projection to allow learners and the public to engage with their ideas in many different ways. The challenge for schools is how to frame and harness these various and sometimes different learning strategies. Teachers need to be as adept as learners in a new and engaged multi-disciplinary ecosystem.

    Epilogue (The 21st Century Student)

    I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools from Twitter to Facebook to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto YouTube.

    He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Smart phones are expensive, but he finds the money and uses his phone constantly. This sounds familiar; an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

    Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

    However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

    What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

    Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

    As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications and learning to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

    Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence.

    He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

    It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

    Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

    I have been talking about a new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications.

    So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum will lead to connectivity and interaction and to new forms of learning and knowledge acquisition.

    Part 1

    Part 2


    Virtual/Real/Virtual (2)

    (This is the second part of a speech given in Toronto at DIGIFEST)

    Virtual spaces contribute to what Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski have described as ‘dynamic density’, a lovely metaphor that describes the intense effects of all the multiple levels of communication that occur in cyberspace environments. Digital ecosystems operate at so many levels that they are almost impossible to control and regulate. A further challenge is that it is very difficult to see into and through all that density and to appreciate where the horizon begins and where it ends. This is why we have tended to see the world today through the lens of globalization which is ultimately an all too simple metaphor to describe the overall complexities of networked cultures, the manner of their interactions and the simultaneous impulse to connect and disconnect.  

    It appears as if we can maintain all these forms of disembodied interaction, when in reality the complexity I am describing drives people to seek physically defined experiences in real spaces.  

    Try for example to imagine Twitter as the only means of communications between yourself and your family and friends. Or imagine Facebook as the only interface between yourself and the world.

    The attraction of virtual spaces is both their convenience and the imaginary environments we create with them. I will return to this point in a moment.

    One of the great benefits of this density is its unpredictability. This is what makes political dictatorships nervous. It is impossible to draw a single or simple line from what people say in cyberspace to what they do. It is very hard to anticipate the outcomes of discussions that are populated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Most importantly, cyber environments don’t easily map onto conventional political processes let alone authoritarian ones. 

    The Argument

    I have been discussing the shifting landscape of digital environments and the implications and outcomes that are produced both culturally and politically by the density of networked connections.

    Let me now turn to learning and education within these contexts.

    An editorial in the April 8th, 2010 edition of Nature raises some important issues about student learning experiences in the sciences. [The] "evidence strongly suggests that most of what the general public knows about science is picked up outside school, through things such as television programmes, websites, magazine articles, visits to zoos and museums — and even through hobbies such as gardening and birdwatching. This process of 'informal science education' is patchy, ad hoc and at the mercy of individual whim, all of which makes it much more difficult to measure than formal instruction. But it is also pervasive, cumulative and often much more effective at getting people excited about science — and an individual's realization that he or she can work things out unaided promotes a profoundly motivating sense of empowerment." (Nature 464, 813-814)

    The same argument can be made for many other disciplines. The relationship between informal and formal learning is characterized by extreme fuzziness. Classrooms and formal lectures may well be the last place in which empowered and empowering learning takes place. The formal schedules of schools, departments divided into sometimes highly contested disciplines, and the credit system all discourage the value and importance of informal learning.

    In fact, learning informally is at the heart of how people discover new things and new ways of understanding the world. For example, a visit to a museum combines the experiences of viewing with the challenges of interpretation. It would be difficult to summarize or quantify the relationships that viewers developed with Mark Rothko's work at a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. Something was happening, although it was difficult to know what. Many visitors sat and stared at the paintings for quite a while. Were they wasting time? Or were they exploring the canvases, their brilliant colours and careful shading?

    Part Three 

    The first part of this series can be found here.


    Virtual/Real/Virtual (1)

    (This is a written version of a speech given in Toronto in October at DIGIFEST)


    The age of virtualization is changing. When the digital adventure began in the early 1980’s, the future of computers and hence the digital age was unclear, even fuzzy. Today, after 30 years of experimentation it is pretty clear that there have been some tremendous successes and also some clear failures.

    I want to approach the issue of virtualization with great care. And, my approach will be framed by a deep concern for what is happening to our learning environments.

    So, let me start by talking about space, that is, architectural and public space. The recent and continuing protests that began in New York and have spread worldwide are important indicators of what is happening to the generation that has been most influenced by the technologies we now take for granted.

    Keep in mind, that technologies that virtualize break down as many barriers as they build up. So, when protestors get together in a park and create a variety of methodologies to develop consensus, to manage their affairs, to provide services, they are engaging in the type of face to face contact that completely transforms not only their perceptions of each other, but also their perceptions of the world. Virtual encounters inside and through screen based technologies permit exchanges of a similar sort, but these are qualitatively different from what is happening in Zucotti Park or Vancouver or Toronto.

    The need to explore embodied relationships suggests that the increasingly complex mix of the virtual and the real will be measured against our experiences of each other in the real world and not vice versa.

    The protestors in New York and elsewhere are using what to them is a novel approach to the discussions that they are having with each other. In a version of broken telephone, they are communicating their ideas to each other through individual repetition. People are transmitting the core ideas behind the protests using an oral tradition of storytelling. This is being done to strengthen their resolve and to personalize the relationships that they have with each other, but also to transform each conversation into a memorable one. In a period of history when conversations are fleeting and efforts to hold onto our memories are dictated by reminders, phones and computers, orality is both central and ephemeral to these protests. 

    So it is ironic that in the Facebook age when short form communications dominate, that the protestors have turned to oral traditions that are thousands of years old, a mixture of the Greek polis and the Roman square.

    Virtual communications have always seemed an efficient way of promoting interactions across numerous boundaries and this has challenged conventional forms of communications. The irony is that the virtual cannot exist without the real. The mistake we have been making has been to celebrate the virtual as an end in itself. For example, we talk about video games without talking enough about video gamers. We discuss Facebook through the interface and restrictions it provides and not about the potential shifts in human relations generated by  virtual interactions.

    And, this mistake will not be very easy to overturn. Virtual spaces are just too attractive and the ease of use, the genuine feel and form of interactions, the potential to be a broadcaster with an audience, however small is a very powerful attraction. 

    Part Two can be found here.


    Design Thinking at its BEST


    Steve Jobs


    On The Topic of Culture (3)

    (This the third part of a reedited presentation to the Arts Umbrella community from September 7, 2011. The first part can be found here and the second part here.)

    We need to understand that the creative act is never singular in character or in action, never clearly purposive although filled with intention. Creativity is very much about crossing and challenging boundaries not only between different disciplines but also among different practices.

    As the distinctions between many professions and artists has grown wider and wider, and as the boundaries have become less permeable, it has become difficult for discussions to take place among the different and sometimes contesting sectors. There may well be many similarities in process and outcome among these sectors, but the walls between them have become more solid and not less as many assume.

    The best example of this is the profound disempowerment of artists from the activities of programming for digital tools. A very small minority crosses this increasingly solid boundary, but for the most part artists have to use tools developed by computer scientists working from assumptions that are steeped in a misunderstanding of creativity and most importantly, the history of art.

    Although David Hockney does some amazing things with his iPad and iPhone, he has no control over the programming language that is making it possible for him to work in the medium or with the technology. He has overcome some of those limitations but must recognize that he cannot push too far without having to learn much more.

    My point here is that boundaries are important and although different disciplines have different histories and practices, one of the most important learning experiences for artists is their ability to break the mold, and to challenge conventions and expectations. When creative engagement is classified according to craft or technique and when artists are classified according to their ability to practice those crafts, the purposes of artistic engagement can and will be devalued.

    Nomenclature is important but it also must be open to challenge. Training for example, is quite appropriate for certain professions because their activities are circumscribed, defined and quite concrete. We definitely want to train the pilots who fly our airplanes and the construction workers who build what our architects imagine. Some aspects of the cultural production pipeline need people who are well trained. The complexity of learning how to be creative, how to produce, make and distribute artifacts, how to bring inventiveness and innovation into material processes is not fully explained by the term training. We need to think differently about the interaction of craft, critique and creativity. 

    So, let me return to an earlier point about whether creative engagement is an essential part of our society. As I said, arts organizations are always the first to be cut back as I might add are educational institutions. Have we missed something?

    I speak to many different audiences from all walks of life. What always amazes me is the nostalgic warmth people feel for the arts. Many talk wistfully about wanting to be artists, others remember specific moments when they were moved by a poem or a painting or an opera. The extraordinary proliferation of digital cameras can be traced to this nostalgia, this desire to find some means, any means to express our perceptions, to summarize our experiences, to perhaps shed new light on the ordinary activities of looking, visiting or talking.

    Yet these same people will rarely lift a finger when the arts are removed from high schools or local cinemas fail. And, make no mistake about it, policymakers know this and in some senses exploit what seems like a very obvious conundrum. My own sense is that the arts are both attractive and repulsive, the former because of this strong desire to be expressive in many different ways, the latter because creative release, creative realization threatens not only convention but also existing patterns of daily life.

    More often than not, art disrupts and in the process lays bare some of the contradictions of our daily lives that we are sometimes not prepared to explore. This disruptive effect, so inherent to the learning and creative process, so crucial to growing and changing can also be profoundly disturbing. There is then a deep ambivalence about creativity and about our imaginations, about the dreams and nightmares of putting oneself on the line and about the risks inherent in exploring new ways of seeing oneself and the world.

    The work of being an artist or a designer or a media creator is centred on rigour and on being able to sacrifice the time and energy to understand one’s intentions with as much depth as possible. This requires time, a real commitment of time, going beyond the boundaries made possible by a consumer oriented society and stepping with great trepidation into the unknown, a landscape without maps.

    Here is a quote from Steven J. Tepper and George D. Kuh in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education:

    “A recent national study conducted by the Curb Center at Vanderbilt University, with Teagle Foundation support, found that arts majors integrate and use core creative abilities more often and more consistently than do students in almost all other fields of study. For example, 53 percent of arts majors say that ambiguity is a routine part of their coursework, as assignments can be taken in multiple directions. Only 9 percent of biology majors say that, 13 percent of economics and business majors, 10 percent of engineering majors, and 7 percent of physical-science majors. Four-fifths of artists say that expressing creativity is typically required in their courses, compared with only 3 percent of biology majors, 16 percent of economics and business majors, 13 percent of engineers, and 10 percent of physical-science majors. And arts majors show comparative advantages over other majors on additional creativity skills—reporting that they are much more likely to have to make connections across different courses and reading; more likely to deploy their curiosity and imagination; more likely to say their coursework provides multiple ways of looking at a problem; and more likely to say that courses require risk taking.”

    I will not comment on this quote in great detail because its message is so clear. Suffice to say, that we need new models of creative engagement that cross and create new boundaries among all creative practices.

    Let me now briefly comment on the argument around the creative industries because the term carries so much power and is in my opinion fraught with difficulties. While it is true that 8% of the Canadian GDP is centred on a very broad definition of the cultural sector and this is greater than mining and forestry combined, the creative industries as a label both takes in too much and describes too little. The difficulty is that industry suggests assembly, manufacturing, production and trade. Its original 15th century meaning was more related to diligence, cleverness and skill.

    “The current definition of the creative industries is based on an industrial classification that proceeds in terms of the creative nature of inputs and the intellectual property nature of outputs.” Jason Potts, Stuart Cunningham, John Hartley and Paul Ormerod, Social network markets: a new definition of the creative industries Journal of Cultural Economics Volume 32, Number 3 / September, 2008, 167-185.

    You can begin to anticipate where I am going with this. It is not that markets and commerce are in any way in contradiction with creative work, it is that the label, the nomenclature makes it seem as if creative work can be framed and packaged. This is the dilemma. Entrepreneurship is at the heart of most creative work, and yet that is neither the sum of what artists do nor the metaphor that best describes their work.

    Think of it this way. Ambiguity is at the heart of working on and developing an art work. There is no direct line from an idea to a product or a painting or a film. In fact, ideas themselves travel indirect routes from their progenitors to viewers or consumers. This is a complex system and not a simple one. There has never been a complete map of creativity because in large measure so much of the process is driven by multiple strategies, some intuitive and others more specific, more empirical. The beauty of creativity is precisely that we cannot contain its excesses, cannot simply frame its meanings, cannot reduce what we do not know or understand to simple formulae. Thankfully this is also the challenge of teaching and learning which is why we are so often surprised by our artists and teachers and students.

    End of series. 


    On The Topic of Culture (2)

    (This the second part of a reedited presentation to the Arts Umbrella community from September 7, 2011. The first part can be found here.)

    Digital cultures are hugely democratizing because they encourage many different forms of creative output, but this does not mean that the works being produced will find a significant place in our society. In fact, we now need more and more sophisticated curatorial strategies to even understand the range of what is being produced. So much is being created that we are inverting and dissolving conventional notions of high and low culture and this is leading to what I will describe as a series of micro-cultures. Micro cultures are both an exciting development and also full of pitfalls. They reflect the increasing fragmentation of cultural activity into interest groups often driven by very narrow concerns. At the same time, they represent a profound change in the conditions which drive the production of creative work.   

    How is that the creation of cultural artifacts that are so essential to our sense of community and nation exist in such a fragile relationship with the population and government? If there is a consensus that the arts are important why do most cultural organizations struggle and in many instances rely on government funding and public philanthropy for their survival? The only conclusion that can be drawn from these contradictions is that cultural creativity is not that essential, which is why cultural organizations are always the first to feel the sting of government cutbacks. I will return to this point in a moment.

    Third, the move to identify the arts in particular as functional parts of a cultural economy carries with it many dangers. One of the most serious is that we conflate the deeply felt desire on the part of a significant number of people in our communities to satisfy their yearning to create with the outcomes of that creativity. It is so important to understand that creativity does not necessarily mean that there will be identifiable and valuable outcomes to the process. The key word here is process. It is the same with learning. If all we are aiming for are outcomes, then we will end up with a linear process, one that is predetermined by what we anticipate from it. Part of the joy of creativity and learning how to be creative particularly in the arts is that we don’t know exactly where we will end up nor do we often know why we even began.

    The joy here comes from the quest. And if the final object, process or event reflects our deepest sense of what we want to say and why, then that should be enough. As we know, in the present context, it is not.

    We need to sharpen our understanding of this contradiction. In the 18th century culture meant something very specific, usually related to crafts and to guilds. Although many of the arts were practiced in elite contexts and produced for the elite, the distinctions between creativity and everyday life were neither sharp nor seen as necessary. In other words, the boundaries between the arts and other activities were permeable.

    Over the last fifty years or so that permeability has decreased to the point where creative practices are now classified as one of many professions. In fact, from a policy perspective the systems of classification that we have in place are very convenient. However, and quite ironically, if creators are engaged with their work, they are likely to make a mockery of the classifications largely because the voyage of creative engagement often has no clear purpose. This is in fact the opposite of what traditional professions are designed to accomplish which is why the most current word used to explain how people enter various professions is training. Purpose of course has many meanings as well as outcomes. The same issue haunts research. If it is too directed towards outcomes then there will be few surprises and innovation will be stifled.

    Part Three is here   

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