Jun 18 2010

A textbook case

(Cross-posted from my Learning Alliances blog.)

From my perspective we wrote Digital Habitats as a call to action (and reflection) more than anything else. So it’s a bit ironic to see it used as a textbook, at least for me, being so skeptical about exactly what kind of learning is going on in schools. But actually it’s pretty cool. Of course it make me wonder exactly how it’s used? What kinds of conversations result from its use? And: beyond schools or its use as a textbook, I always am curious: how do people use it, if they do? Is it helpful? In what way?

The short answer is: you can never really know. Why? Using our Digital Habitats jargon, it is because participation trumps reification. Here’s one heavy duty answer as to why by Lucy Suchman on p 110 in Orr (1996):

Indexicality of instructions means that an instruction’s significance with respect to actions does not inhere in the instructions, but must be found by the instruction follower with reference to the situation of its use. (Suchman 1987, p .61)

Which amounts to saying that the context of use and the situation where conversations occur matter a lot. (An aside: is Digital Habitats is a set of instructions? Not in any simple way. A call to action, yes. But you have to decide on the actions!)

Anyway, it’s interesting to see a field trip happening in plain sight. A few weeks ago, Kathy Milhauser’s class at City University of Seattle came here for a field trip. A Wordle summary gives a glimpse of the discussion.

The following week they had a conversation “back home” on Blackboard. Kathy provided a nice summary of the discussion.

A couple weeks later I was invited to talk at the opening of the second day of Pepperdine University’s Cadre 12 Action Research Conference of their Master of Arts in Learning Technology because several students had used Digital Habitats as a textbook. Kathy Milhauser graduated from one of Pepperdine’s technology programs and as Margaret Riel pointed out during the session, Pepperdine has made a very systematic effort to bust out of the sequestered classroom model. The event was a wonderful effort to allow people to participate at a distance. I would have liked to be there but appreciated being able to be there at all. Nice to see familiar names.

I have to confess though that I multi-tasked off and on during the morning after my talk. The video stream let me listen in. I heard someone say, “Digital Habitats as become my bible.” I heard Scott Mortensen say “After reading Digital Habitats and everything clicked for me, then I ….” Wow! (Here’s a glimpse of Mortensen’s thinking.) In keeping with the biblical theme, Babette Novak reported that she asked herself:

W W E W D?

Translation “What would Etienne Wenger Do?

Later on I hear Michael Cramer (an IT executive ) tell a story about people brought together into a company through a merger or acquisition process who recognized each other through story telling. One of the snippets was about how many people had been seen sprinkling a loved one’s ashes from the top of a Ferris Wheel because somehow that was where the deceased’s heart was.

Problems of indexicality aside, all this work with our book made one heart in Portland, Oregon feel very warm.

Reference: Julian E. Orr, Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job (Ithaca, NY: Ilr Press/Cornell University Press, 1996)

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “A textbook case”

  1. John,
    We were so pleased to have you open the third session of our conference. Your book (with Nancy and Etienne) is so perfect for our learning technologies program. Students, in their action research are often trying to do just what you describe in the book. Over time, we will be able to help CPsquare develop an action research dialogue around effects that were, and were not, successful as researchers try to support digital habitats. We look forward in working closely with you. Students are increasingly finding that CPsquare is a great community to join as they complete the program. We are open to ideas for how we can work together. Also, many of the presentations in session two also identified Digital Habitats as the resource that was most helpful. So thanks again for all of your help.

  2. Thanks for that, Margaret. Your response gives me a chance to mention that after I hit “publish” I realized that there were A LOT of other interesting things to observe and re-tell about the activities at Pepperdine. I’m afraid there was a lot more interesting design and experimentation happening there than I could possibly do justice to in a rushed blog post! It’s interesting to me that one of the issues behind the work at IRL 20+ years ago was “the transfer problem”. In retrospect that very question has a very “domain” feel. Your comment puts it in a “community” frame — what communities do we move TO when we leave a program steeped in practice like the one at Pepperdine? (In fact that kind of question was behind my efforts to get CPsquare going in the first place — after finishing the “foundations workshop” and having nobody to talk with about a way forward.)

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