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Activity Steams: Splicing information and social relations

Whenever a new technology a) changes how we access, create, and share information or b) changes how we connect and interact with each other, there are educational implications to consider. Blogs, open access journals, social network software, wikis, ebooks, Skype, “the cloud”, Google Scholar, and YouTube are a few examples of how information and social interactions are impacted by new technology.

It takes time to develop language, methods, categories, and concepts with which to communicate these changes. For example, blogs, wikis, and podcasts had been around for about five years before the term “web 2.0″ was used to describe the read/write web. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn had been around for several years before “social media” become a common term to describe the tools and methods of interacting online. Unfortunately, these terms soon become buzzwords and hype-fodder for consultants and authors.

What’s the next big idea for learning and development?

Three trends are high on my list of “things to follow”: data visualization, activity streams, and learning/knowledge analytics.

Data visualization is related to learning analytics (I’ve been tracking various visualization and learning analytics trends on delicious). And, as I’ve previously noted, TEKRI is involved in organizing a conference on learning and knowledge analytics in 2011. In order to visualize and analyze information most effectively, it needs to be digital/external and connectable. Google has been digitizing books for years. Now, they’ve announced an interesting project – Books Ngram viewer – that provides researchers with the data to analyze trends and concept development during the history of the books. Book visualizations that I have seen so far are fairly basic, generally tracking word frequency occurrence. However, the concept is astonishing: the ability to easily access and analyze what was previously confined to physical space. I’m sure we’ll gain new insights into society’s relationship, and co-development, with books and texts as researchers dive into the valuable resource of digitized and connectable texts.

In addition to the digitized and connectable attributes of books, we now have access to a growing amount of data on our social interactions. This causes some to fear about the dangers of externalizing knowledge or the benefits of radical openness. These concerns cannot be easily ignored – consider what medical insurers are doing with social media data. An astonishing degree of insight exists when we can integrate and traverse data silos (a critical insight evident in the Total Information Awareness Office). Essentially, institutions (technology) can know us better than we can know ourselves.

The value of radical openness and cross-silo data access is mixed, and will likely become a legal and ethical battle ground over the next decade. On the one hand, and as others have stated (can’t find the source), if you are using a service for free, then you are the product being sold to marketers and other organizations. How long until Jesse Schell’s disturbing vision of life as a game becomes a reality? However, openness provides terrific opportunities for connecting with others for learning, development, and knowledge growth. The value of openness is obviously highly contextual and personal, especially when applied to learning.

Activity Streams: Splicing Information and Social Relations

Splicing information and social relations in activity streams is the next critical area for educators to develop capacity. My colleague at TEKRI, Jon Dron, uses the term “context switching”. Splicing/switching are similar and essentially involve giving individuals control over how they encounter information and social relations in different circumstances and for different purposes.

Let’s clarify a few things before getting into more detail on splicing.

Bounded information units (a course, a newspaper, a book) have their legacy in physical systems. It’s far more affordable, in physical systems, to bind information into appropriate units. After all, it’s easier to publish one daily paper than 100 smaller papers. It’s easier to publish one textbook with 30 chapters than 30 texts with only one chapter each. These constraints do not exist online, but we still carry the mindsets of bounded information units into our interactions with information, each other, and teaching and learning.

But, we have to reconcile two concepts:
1. Information sources are increasingly fragmented.
2. In order to learn, act, grow knowledge, we need some level of coherence in information.

The fragmentation of information is obvious enough as most of us experience it in our daily lives. Instead of watching the evening news, we encounter a daily flow of information through blog posts, news alerts, links shared by friends, social networking services, and dozens of other sources. Unfortunately, this flow is not always very helpful. To act meaningfully or understand deeply, we need to reflect on and integrate these various information elements in order to see the patterns they represent. Then, based on recognizing those patterns, we need to reflect on possible implications. Knowledge growth in a discipline or society first requires connectedness…and then exploration of implications and potential ways to respond to those implications.

If we are no longer relying exclusively on bounded information units, how do we make sense of the world and complexity in general? We make sense by creating temporary information centres. Examples of this include:
- Hashtags (on Twitter)
- Tags (on Delicious)
- Personal aggregation systems (Pageflakes, Netvibes, Google Reader)
- Google Alerts
- Lists (Twitter)
- Groups (in Elgg, partly in Facebook)
- Activity streams in social network services (LinkedIn, Facebook)
- Short-lived groups or discussion chats
- Collections (Elgg)

Instead of a bounded information unit, created a priori learner engagement – such as a course – temporary information units rise and disappear as needed by individuals. Want to track Team Canada at World Juniors (yes, of course you do)? Want to learn about trends in mobile learning? Or perhaps you want to learn basic programming skills. Through a mix of apps, tags, and distributed information sources, each individual can create their own temporary information centre, with fairly easy ways to connect with others (hashtags). This process of splicing information and social interactions is critical to making sense of activity streams. If you follow a few hundred people on Twitter or Facebook, the need for mechanisms to order that information and flow soon becomes evident.

When applied to teaching and learning, I see activity streams and social/information splicing as the response to traditional structured courses. As detailed in the image below, the flow of information – including instructor-provided resources, learner interactions, information and interactions that occur outside of the course – needs to be spliced in such a way as to provide each individual the ability to created personally-bounded information objects (with coherence between how the various elements are related to each other).

Splicing information and social relations to suite the needs of different situations is increasingly important. The fields of learning and development have not yet been transformed to the online environment. The combination of learning/knowledge analytics, data visualization, and activity streams provide, I think, a sufficient basis for educators to begin planning for a post-course view of education.


  1. Keith Lyons wrote:

    What a great post, George. Splicing is a great way to characterise our work. I remember from a long time ago being taught how to splice ropes. Both forms of splicing are crafts that require practice and attention to detail.

    Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Thanks Keith – I had a similar experience (learning how to make ropes) in my youth. Not sure there are too many people out there learning how to make ropes these days :) .

    Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Nick Kearney wrote:

    You describe the list of temporary information centres (hashtags, tags)as ways in which we make sense.
    I am not sure this is true, these are simply filters we create, ways of managing the flow of information.
    We may splice them, slice them or dice them, but these information centres are just the beginning of the process. And I would suggest they are no different from stacks in the library, and pages in a notebook. We have always done that, in traditional courses and outside them. Though we now have a wider range of information sources.
    But I would suggest this is just the start of the process of making sense: the assembly of the elements that may contribute to our understanding is only the beginning. The key is how we then process them, how we combine and recombine them, but it is we, the learners who do this, we need to do it because that is how we learn. The teacher or course designer cannot do it for us. Should not do it for us.
    Perhaps the key to a post course view of education is helping each learner to create their own course, rather than doing the splicing for them.

    Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Melanie wrote:

    Hello George,

    Thank you for posting your thoughts on new elearning trends and how those will affect our current OLEs. It seems that this idea of “splicing/switching” is really focused on the learner pulling information rather than having the information pushed on to the learner. Here is yet another example of how online learning continues to develop a more student- centered approach.

    Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  5. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Nick – while those are ways to filter information, I’m presenting them as means to organize information when the sources are more fragmented than in a course. In each of the open courses that I’ve been involved with, the concern about how to make sense of information is prominent. While the information is fragmented, individuals need to find ways to weave and pull together elements in order to have a coherent view of a subject (you mentioned this in your response to my MOOC course). Just because we use tags/hashtags, etc. in managing other information flows doesn’t mean that they can’t also serve as temporary information centres…

    I agree with your comments that “the assembly of the elements that may contribute to our understanding is only the beginning. The key is how we then process them, how we combine and recombine them, but it is we, the learners who do this, we need to do it because that is how we learn. The teacher or course designer cannot do it for us. Should not do it for us.”

    We can’t begin to assemble and recombine if we don’t have some initial coherence by being able to track and manage the conversation (i.e. activity stream)

    Sunday, December 19, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Amir Toister wrote:

    What a great Subject George. I’m playing around with Slicing & Splicing for more than a decade. Even wrote in 2003 an OFFICE Automation package to slice documents and splice them according to a rule based system, but never got far enough. I’m sure that this path has great potential for taming the info explosion monster.

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  7. Re: Nick Kearney’s comment: You seem to suggest that we might need the pedagogy to shift from a focus on content to a focus on skill. Even in a content-based course, such as American History, the learning may derive more from the student’s active seeking out of information across the internet, as opposed to passively digesting a pre-packaged textbook. This makes me wonder where that leaves the publishing industry. As more content gets distributed directly from the scholars and researchers who authored it, the editorial role of a publisher seems that much more vital (a glorified RSS aggregator, if you will). Or, if the goal is to teach students the skills necessary for dealing with these surging streams of information, then perhaps publishers should focus on developing skill-based tutorials that are content-agnostic (teach a man to fish…). Or perhaps they should divorce themselves from the technology altogether and become simply content-producers who commission quality content in small digestible units and make those available for end users to find, repurpose, and customize however they deem useful.

    Monday, December 20, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  8. Hi George. I’m currently working on an open-source project: Learning Goals / Goal Tracker, one of the aims of which is to provide activity streams and analytics, helping people support each others learning and learn themselves in the context of their life (rather than centred around a course).

    If you’re interested, I’ve done a 1.5 min. overview of Goal Tracker, as well as a 6 minute demo of a very rudimentary prototype. Further details are also up on the drumbeat project page for learning goals.

    BTW: I don’t expect you to remember, but I presented a role-play of a typical day in our web design class at a connectivism workshop for the Department of Education in Australia.

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 5:20 am | Permalink
  9. Woops – I missed the link to the 6 minute demo of the early prototype.

    Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at 5:22 am | Permalink
  10. Jay Cross wrote:

    Right on, George. I am also finding a parallel when writing. I hardly notice what platform I am plugging into. It is all somewhere here in the cloud.


    Monday, December 27, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink
  11. TUI wrote:

    If anything I think that spliced information would hone a student’s critical thinking skills by forcing them to analyze the information further; it’s not all black and white as if it were in a textbook.

    Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink