My Friend Max

CineramaDomeBack in Fall I got a PS3 at home, we also go a HD television which replaced by 27″ tube after more than 15 years of hard work. On principle I hate how home theaters have eroded cinema culture, but in reality over the last six months I have loved my TV. Millions of widescreen, high-definition images reflecting off my eyes in the comfort of my den each evening doesn’t suck, even if it’s not the L.A. Cinerama Dome. What’s more, the 42″ TV fits perfectly in the built-in bookshelves, it really ties the room together.

None of this is particularly interesting, I know, but it’s somewhat of confession for me. I have resisted home theater for more than a decade, but I my defenses have fallen. I don’t want to be right any more! Not to mention it’s all become much, much cheaper, which helps out a lot.

Anyway, I wrote all that to say this. I’ve made a new friend recently thanks to this new setup, and his name is Max. He’s actually not a he, or even a sentient being for that matter. He’s a Netflix algorithm that tries to help you find movies you’d like based on your watching habits. What’s interesting to me about this approach, which I believe is only available through the PS3 currently, is that it’s presented through the persona of a colloquial gameshow host. He’s a character, and I find him compelling. As he asks you to rate films on a scale of one to five stars he’ll quip  on the basis of your rating. For example, if I give a movie one star, he”ll say something like “That film is dead to me!” I would say that, so I obviously love this approach 🙂


And as contextualized data like this works, the more I watch on Netflix the better Max gets at predicting what I will want to watch. As a result, the easier it will be for Anto and I to find movies we like on Netflix, and that’s often an issue for us that needs to be solved. It’s a creative solution particular to their service, and it’s been fun for us to play with. We get to rate movies, shoot Max’s suggestions down, and the whole thing never lasts more than a couple of minutes. He knows when he failed, and he bows out gracefully, which is pretty awesome. So much so, that when Anto, GNA Garcia and I were searching for a movie last night we turned to Max. We initially shot down his recommendations, which were all pretty good, but after further searching decided to take one of his five recommendation. Once we did, Anto noted that she “hopes Max knows as much because he seemed dejected.” I do too. Max is nice.

But am I not only blogging about Max because he is nice. It actually relates to a conversation I had recently with Svetlana Dotsenko about just this idea. I met Svetlana at the MOOC Research Conference in Dallas back in December, and we spent most of the conversation talking about nihilism in 19th century Russian literature—it was exhausting! More recently we talked about her work with Project Lever, as she’s interested in how MOOCs might connect people as they’re going through a course. Fresh off my experience with my imaginary friend Max, I was wondering aloud with her what it might be like to have an experience built into a course that connects people at the beginning of the process, as well as along the way.

While I’m not necessarily a fan of the corporate MOOC and its designs for using big data to define the educational experience therein, I remain fascinated by what it all will mean as it becomes an integral part of how we both educate and are educated. As with Max, I am interested in an approach for courses that is playful, and actually builds in a narrative experience rooted in the tropes of the discipline. What if you had a Marlowe-esque character connecting you with other people in a course on Hardboiled fiction as a result of the work you were doing. Or an evil scientist taking you through how to take over the world in Chemistry 🙂 Make a game out of it, use the localized data for the course to turn it into an even more engaging, serendipitous experience.

The idea of the course and the game converging not in the popularized imagination of a first person shooter, but rather in the more nebulous form of exposing the lattice of connections and bringing them into juxtaposition more seamlessly than ever before. This seems to me what we’ve been trying to do with wikis, blogs, Twitter, and a variety of other social media at UMW over the last decade. If more detailed data can serve to reinforce these connections through a variety of platforms I am interested in it. However, when it becomes enslaved to the ideas of massive, scale, closed, venture capital, and vendors I lose interest really quick. It goes back to an idea Brian Lamb has been talking recently that I think is right on the money, so many of these innovations go from infancy to maturity overnight, with no real time to experiment with the myriad possibilities along the way. There is little to no room to experiment because so much of the conversation around innovation in higher ed is being driven by venture-capital funded start-ups, and that a shame. Especially given the origins of MOOCs tell a radically different story. I believe universities should be a place for this development between infancy and maturity to play out for these pedagogical possibilities, but more and more we are buying back the mutantly-maturated offspring of our own idea babies 🙂

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9 Responses to My Friend Max

  1. Have I mentioned how much I like your den?

    More seriously, I have to say I love how willing former/current/whatever EDUPUNKS have been to engage with this stuff, but from a different angle. There’s a perception that we’re rigid sometimes — stuck in a 2006 view of what education might be. But when you dig into your stuff, or Brian’s, or Hawksey’s, or Weller’s, etc, I don’t see the rigidity at all. The idea here is that Big Data (or really, small/medium data) in the service of a course narrative could be a really cool thing.

    I don’t know, just a thought. I sent a rant-mail to Brian the other day and I’m feeling bad about it.

    • Reverend says:

      Just rebranding for the next wave of venture capital funding 😉 And don’t rant at Brian, he’s my ace in the hole.

  2. Chris L says:

    Here’s the thing: it’s not just economic pressures and institutions and profit-seeking. You’re talking about an inherent function of the creative process and audience. Edupunks (or whatever you, myself, Brian, and all the rest are) are interested in the art of the field: the art of teaching, the art of technology for expression…all the stuff that goes beyond mere craft. And it’s the role of the avant garde in art to propose and practice innovations that are mystifying, dismissed and resisted. Setting aside simple refusal, the most common resistance to the work of art (and by this I mean the labor)–the refusal to go deep–is to play leapfrog and glom onto the next thing. To attempt to dive in and keep swimming forward, to really work out the tenets of a new pedagogy, say, while also jumping into the world of big data and MOOCs and saying something important there is essentially impossible.

    Really digging into what’s new is hard work. That work can be accomplished by individuals sticking with it or, over a much greater span of time, the little pushes here and there of the larger masses who–often incidentally–excavate a bit here and there. The innovators either endure this dynamic and keep pushing or give up to catch the next thing or just stop altogether. I rue the (so far) mostly unrealized potential of the formerly avant garde art of technology…we haven’t gotten all that far with the ideas of 5-8 years ago and then, accompanied by a giant sucking sound, all that becomes old hat. Choose any span of a few years for at least the last 100 years (and, I’d argue much further) and you can easily identify something innovative and important that has been left behind.

    We haven’t worn out paper and ink. Poets haven’t worn out the sonnet. Freire remains mostly forgotten. It’s not too surprising that blogs and RSS are dead now that we have Facebook and digital storytelling platforms to be the new shiny. It’s sad and inevitable and exciting all at the same time. And we’re constantly forced to make grave choices about our art that usually aren’t connected to making that art better…choices that I’m increasingly convinced are really pit art against innovation and obscurity against layered innovation (rather than successive). Sorry to ramble.

    • Reverend says:

      I think that idea of churn that happens in this field is right on. Brian Lamb has been pushing hard on the idea that most institutions in higher ed never really engaged the deep and deeply rich possibilities of blogs, wikis, and social media more generally. I think he is right on. UMW is an anomaly because we have been able to nurture those tools and push through that narrative. But there is no joy in being fairly alone in this, in fact. While open publishing may seem dead and buried to most as they’ve have moved on to celebrating learning analytics and MOOCs, I take stock in the fact that trailing edge technologies are where the gold is. Just think of the GIF 🙂 And despite everything, it’s still spam-driven syndication that is driving the aggregation community at I remember when you first talked about that idea in 2007, and we are still stuck on that idea. In fact, just about everything we’ve done at UMW for near on a decade has been some riff on a simple vision of open publishing and syndication, and Domain of One’s Own is just an abstraction of UMW Blogs one level to give everyone involved a bit more freedom.

      One of the voices that gives me solace in this, and I am returning to it regularly these days is Jon Udell. His vision of trailing edge technologies as they refer to open formats and the open web buoys me these days, and I hope the idea of open publishing on the web is a trailing edge technology that still has not had its day. And I really hope that’s not simply wishful thinking.

      • Chris L says:

        I keep thinking about this dynamic and it strikes me (and I need to write more on this, probably) that the human factor involved–the thing that all of the usual edtech suspects/artists I care about share–is that they aren’t just interested in their ideas, but they *love* them. They love what’s in front of them and what it and they can become. They love the aspects of the technology that lead to art and expressiveness…they aren’t just interested in them. When you’re interested in something, or someone, it’s easy to move on to the next thing. But artists–humans–love…and love doesn’t come cheap or often. It’s not easily or willingly discarded and the manifold possibilities that emerge from that kind of relationship grow exponentially with time and exploration. If I’m gulty of golden-age thinking, it’s not because things were better 5 years ago, but because I fell in love with something that touched me and I love it still.

        • Reverend says:

          There is no fuckign way I can express that idea any better. And that really gets at the compulsion, I feel about RSS and what it afford and academic community like I feel about Harryhausen films or Mario Bava. There is a deep appreciation for the complex layers of beauty and joy they afford my sensibility, I love them.

  3. Tim Owens says:

    A video game that I used to love is You Don’t Know Jack because I loved the personality of the host talking back at us as we sat in front of the computer playing a game show. There was no video of him, just audio slinging insults and wit. I’d love to see something like that play out within a MOOC like you’re imagining where there’s a faceless guide pushing the participant along with suggestions and prompts. Like taking the grouping script of the Mechanical Mooc software and putting it on steroids.

    • Reverend says:

      It seems to me an automated Summer of Oblivion! How awesome would that be, although impossible, certainly worth imagining how to use the data you collect for a course like this to connect the people in the course. It seems that it’s a logical development of the work we’ve done with ds106, and like Mike and Chris both suggest, it’s not divorced from what we are doing becomes there is a context for it. It’s born out of a primary impulse to connect people, not things, and that is where Max falls down a bit. it’s connecting em with a thing, I want something in a class that connects people with each other. it’s like the whole eduroulette idea Caulfield had a few years back, that still makes total good sense for a MOOC.

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