DARnet interview part two.

In part one of the DARnet interview, Cormac Lawler asked me, Andy Roberts, about distributed action research, cycles, groups and background.

This second episode continues the interview, again with Cormac’s questions in red, followed by my reply.

* So, which online university did you attend? What were you studying?

The online university was a research project itself at the time,
called “Ultraversity” and run by the now defunct “Ultralab” centre
attached to Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford, Essex. I
registered an interest before it started up and was admitted to the
first cohort, who came to think of ourselves as guinea pigs for the
revolutionary new online degree with zero face to face element and no
content. That may sound a bit mad but you have to understand that the
BA Learning, Technology, Research degree is workplace based, so mainly
for adults in employment. The subject for the research and therefore
content for the degree then derives from individual circumstances. So
the Ultraversity research project was launched with high hopes of
becoming an independent force for transforming UK higher education,
but has ended up being absorbed into the Anglia Ruskin education
department, minus some of the ideals and as a shadow of the original
ambition. I hear that some of the original ex-staff are building
something elsewhere.

* Did your research there feed directly into what you do now, or are you referring to a grounding in research methods/practice?

In a way, yes I did manage to make my studies relevant to future work.
I set up the distributedresearch domain and the DAR wiki as a major part of it, for example, and one third of the subject (L,T,R) was a grounding in action research theory, methods and practice.

* Are you still affiliated with any formal study programme?

I really don’t have a taste for undertaking any post graduate studies,
but as one of the alumni, I still have access to the online community and I’m
a member of a small informal group where we try to help and sometimes
mentor individuals from subsequent cohorts.

* I’m still not sure if I understand the domain of your research. Is it fair to say that it’s all based on your own practice, and not that of a group?

At its best, action research is always participatory and I do work
with groups in terms of facilitating online communities, with a
particularl interest in communities of practice. But since I became
a full time work-at-home internet entrepreneur last year, I’ve needed
to concentrate at first on activities such as pro-blogging, hence the
need for a spot of first-person action research to get my own act in
order. My domain and primary interest is still very much the social web.

* What is/are that/those practice(s)? What is the relationship between your community/ies in/to your work?

Sometimes it’s a very indirect relationship. For example, one of my oldest communities of practice is the UK cider makers group “ukcider” which I convened and facilitated since 2001. There is no business model, and it’s sometime difficult to find a way to pay the web hosting fees, but I suppose I’ve learned stuff through the processes and development there which I then manage apply in other domains.

About changing of groups’ structure over time, I think my own domain
(Wikiversity) is showing an increasingly strong tension along the lines of
making Wikiversity a place of ‘blue-sky’ or experimental learning versus an
alignment to known pedagogical forms. See Wikiversity_talk:Learning_resources#the_wiki_way and below for some discursive material on this topic.

Education is a political battlefield, and it often looks to me as if
the war was lost ages ago. The fundamental question is to ask “who is
this institution meant to serve?” which requires an understanding of
the nature of the state. Often the people who work in education start
out with idealistic notions of what the work is for, and imagine they
are helping to shape people’s minds in an empowering way, but end up
carrying out orders in the interests of the powers that be, who long
ago gave up believing that an educated general workforce is a
desirable thing as far as advanced capitalism is concerned. They need
people educated enough to be able to work the machines of an
information economy, and to be consumers in a digital age, but only a
small number are required to be independent, creative, critical
thinkers and problem solvers. So the prevailing model for education
is always content based, with the students viewed as empty vessels to
be filled. Even the UK Open University, which was born out of the pro
labour reforms in post war Britain, has been based largely on a pushed
content model, now with added forums.

I’d be very interested to hear to what extent parts of Wikiversity have managed to break away from the idea of the “course”, the expert, and the content. If you have people transfering across from the Wikipedia culture then it’s going to cause problems, but you could always fork a minority project for the more revolutionary work if it seems to be getting defeated.

It’s perhaps not an example of a change of guard as such (and the debate within Wikiversity’s development is not new), but I’m starting to see the tension as a pretty fundamental one for Wikiversity. I’m not predicting the splitting into groups, as you say, but I think it will be interesting to see how it plays out. Indeed, I see the role of my own action research to explicitly throw into relief the sometimes conflicting viewpoints that people bring to the project – in order to reveal something deeper about what we’re doing, and how we can move forward with a simultaneously more critical and expansive mindset.

You’ve used a phrase from Wikimedia’s mission – “the sum of human
knowledge”. Do you think such an entity exists? How do you see it? How do
you have access to it? How do you participate in it?

I’ll rephrase that to “The full extent of human knowledge” because of
course knowledge doesn’t really have a sum, does it!

Ten years ago you could find out just about anything by tracking down
the right bulletin board or newsgroup, asking a carefully explained
question, and coming back later to view responses or ask a
supplementary. Within a few days you’d have the best the net could
come up with. Now we have Google search, with all its limitations and
gaming, and google scholar for some of the hidden internet, but you
can still usually track down the author of particularly pertinent
idea, find out their online presence with a bit of luck and chance a
speculative email. So the backbone infrastructure of having
connections between devices all over the world will always find a way
to serve people who know a little bit about how to seek and connect,
no matter what infrastructure is built on top of it all, and I’m still
pretty optimistic about that regardless of whether we lose some
battles along the way such as net neutrality or the health of the
regime in charge of Wikipedia.

End of part two of the DARnet interview. To be continued.

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