Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Exploring a technical architecture for a "Convivial Learning Enviromnment"

As I have been commenting on recently, one of the problems with current technologies in e-learning has been that they only afford a few pedagogical approaches, of which constructivist inquiry and instructional design have been most dominant. Those techniques which tend to get left behind are those techniques which genuinely exploit the fact of people 'being together'. This is probably because 'being together' online is still difficult. But convivial activity online is not impossible, as Eric Whitacre's 'virtual choir'  - albeit not a real-time example - showed (see

The pedagogies of conviviality are most closely associated with Paulo Freire and his associate Augusto Boal. For both these theorists, there was a fundamentally different approach to the issues of learning. This can be summed-up as:
The principal impediment to learning is emotion.

In the back-streets of Rio Freire dealt with the emotions, teaching illiterate kids to read and do maths. The highly unusual way he did it has been an inspiration to teachers ever since. Boal took on these ideas, developing theatrical activities which could be used in different locations to loosen up channels of communication - particularly within those who were usually too timid to speak out. But by creating safe situations for people to explore their feelings and express themselves, both Boal and Freire sought to teach through 'unblocking'.

But importantly, these techniques depended on people being together, sharing in an experience, caring for each other.

How could such situations be engineered online in ways which can be ready-to-hand for teachers in classrooms now? Can technology provide new ways of encouraging the sort of pedagogical approaches pioneered by Freire? Can technology, which until now has at best been a rather cold experience, be a vehicle for something profoundly human, warm and convivial?

There are a number of challenges:

  1. There needs to be a gradation of power-relationships in the control and organisation of technology which enable meaningful coordination by activity leaders (i.e. teachers and learners)
  2. The technologies for participants needs to be easy to use and ready-to-hand. It should be easily graspable, with zero administrative overhead for teachers
  3. The technologies for activity leaders needs to be almost as easy, although teachers/leaders can manage the complexity of their own machines in a preparing an activity, providing they know that the control of that activity is ready-to-hand for learners.
  4. Whatever is done by a teacher must be easily reproducible by other teachers.
I've long thought that the principle advantage of the Wookie Widget Server is its ability to bring technologies to-hand easily in a variety of different environments (VLEs, blogs, mobile (nearly)). So I had conceived of 'controllers' which were Wookie Widgets that could collectively control things that happened on a teacher's machine.

Inspired by Pauline Oliveros's 'deep listening' exercises (which are very like Boal's dramatic activities), I decided that I would like to create a convivial musical environment, where sounds could be contributed to the environment by individuals engaging with controllers.

The architecture for this set-up involved establishing a web-socket based chat server on the web. The purpose of this server was simply to forward messages from those clients that connected to it via a WebSocket connection. I then wrote two 'clients' for this service. One of them was a Java applet designed to be a Wookie Widget (which is just a matter of wrapping the Applet in a W3C Widget zip file). 

The other client was a Java Application, which similarly connected to the same WebSocket, but which was designed to interact directly with other applications on the local machine through sending UDP messages. In essence, this Java Application was the teacher's 'server'. But for it to do anything interesting, the teacher needed to think what would respond to those messages.

In my case, I decided that I would like to make sound, so I used PureData (a real-time Digital Signal Processing engine) to create sounds on the teachers machine in direct response to the messages being sent from the server.

I hacked around with an existing PD-patch (that's a type of program in PD) which would respond to the UDP messages sent by each controller clicking buttons...
And then I invited people to try clicking on my widget buttons. The response times were very quick, even when people were clicking in other parts of the world, so the immediacy of engaging with the control and something happening to a 'global' environment was quite striking.Each individual could see the difference they made to the environment that affected everyone else.

This, I think, is the essence of the convivial pedagogies that Freire and Boal (and Oliveros) have experimented with. The only limits to thinking in this way are thinking about the different sorts of things that can actually change in the environment, and how that environment is presented to participants. 

Since I'm working on the iTEC project, my focus is on the classroom. Indeed, with this technique I think I can address my principal concern about widgets in iTEC, because the teacher clearly gets something out of using widgets in their lessons.

However, there's no reason which environment which individuals contribute to cannot exist online: as an internet TV stream or radio. The key to such developments lie in the real-time web and WebSocket technology. In this way, my principle interest is in seeing if genuine convivial situations may be created where distributed individuals participate and experience rich shared experiences, and where different sorts of convivial pedagogy might be explored for the first time in online environments.

1 comment:

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