Zombies and Pirates: Let’s begin

Gratuitous audio: Download Sell My Soul

Obligatory image of a zombie to piss off Joss WinnWhen I started talking about the Zombies and Pirates course I was thinking along the lines of a syllabus, a series of texts, a schedule, and a unifying theme. In some ways a traditional approach, one which I am comfortable and actually enjoy to some degree. The real difference for this example was going to be that it was free for anyone to join in from where ever they are at any point.

I figured it would be fun, at least for me, and I would kind of steer the operation, a navigator of sorts. There is no question that courses like David Wiley’s Intro to Open Ed two years ago and George Siemens and Stephen Downes’ experiment with the Connectivism course last year provide important models, and I love the idea and execution of both these examples. And while I signed up for both, I actually never really followed through on either–I’m an opened drop out!

In fact, while I was in Puerto Rico a couple of months ago I was talking with Mario Núñez Molina and Antonio Vantaggiato about the Connectivism course, turns out we all signed up for it, but none of us really followed it through. I was quick to say something about time, work and family obligations, whereas Mario quite succinctly noted that he was far more drawn to an informal, on demand model, wherein you searched, researched and wrote about what you were looking for at a given moment, or for a particular period of time and produced something. The organization of people into ephemeral, self-organizing communities is already happening irregardless of such a course—what a course like CCK offers is an occasion to formalize it and in many ways experiment with the possibilities, yet that formalization process is labor intensive—and dictated to some degree by a handed down syllabus, papers, and the like.

The other thing is the sheer number of poeple involved in a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC), much has been made about the sheer number of people that signed up for the Connectivism course, and with 2000+ people it was, indeed, daunting. And while it was anchored by the central presence of Downes and Siemens as instructors, it seemed a bit like the network effects of learning online were being crammed into a distributed course cattle car. Now this may seem a bit unfair, but remember this is the impression one gets when hearing about the number of people that were part of this course—-that is almost half the entire student population at UMW in one online course. At the same time, you have to keep in mind that many people were following the course for a wide range of reasons besides credit—some for building a network, informal learning, looking for some recommended reading, etc. And while the course was rather formal in its schedule and sense of assignments and coverage, it was novel in its open and distributed approach on a massive scale.

CCK was modeling the internet on a controlled scale as a kind of experiment to gauge the kind of tributary networks that emerge from such relations, and that is a grand experiment. But it’s interesting to me that somehow the internet seems a bit more intimate and more personable than the idea of taking a course with 2,000+ people. Filtering your queries and depending on serendipity-fueled discovery through blogs or referring sites like Google or YouTube or WIkipedia doesn’t seem nearly as institutional. And that for me is what is fascinating about the idea of the Connectivism course, like with most things, the attempt to scale the original idea (in this case the course) for something like the internet explodes the very idea you started from—the course seems quiant and outdated. So, while I will try once again to follow the CCK09 course because it’s fascinating in its potential repercussions for the end of courses—a kind of training wheels for PLEs—I imagine I will once again sign-up and once again drop off. It seems to me the nature of a voluntary course online, why would you want to be locked in to the idea of a course when you can just search and discover things on demand? And why these 2000+ people vs the relatively few individuals you will be sure to come across in the process of searching a specific idea, topic, or issue? I’m I’m 37 years old and a Ph.D. dropout, why would I ever want to take another god damned course?

So, this long consideration of the impression of Connectivism (and I freely admit it is an impression because I was only marginally following the action) allowed me to think more about this Zombies and Pirates idea. I was originally trying to get to a topic that was not about educational technology specifically, and the emergence of the iconic cultural figures of pirates and zombies in this moment particularly interests me, I believe it might suggest something important about the internet culture more generally, and a deeper look at some of the history, literature, and contemporary cultural production might prove fun and generative. Fact is, it’s a kind of search, an attempt to make meaning, and in many ways I already have part some part of my argument. i.e., that we are once again in a short-lived moment of the “golden age of piracy” that characterized the ten year period 1716-1726—that the contemporary explosion of piracy and concomitant crackdown on piracy through insane settlements, propaganda, and selling-off sites like Pirate Bay and the co-opting process of making the Pirate Party official marks a kind of end to an idea of free and open we have harbored—a trace that is beautifully framed in Marcus Rediker’s history of the Golden Age of Piracy between 1716-1726. Having said that, I immediately acknowledge my own specific interests in the re-emergence of the pirate figure as somehow embodying this ambiguous moment (or is it specter of cultural rebellion and liberation) followed by a swift and brutal crackdown. And deeply related to this is the harrowing zombie figure standing in for the individual and the capital machine that refuses to act and think (in the case of the individual) and die (int he case of capital) despite the most horrifying abuse and social decay.

There it is, an idea of a cultural moment that is best worked out and cleaned up in conversation with others, but people who bring a range of ideas that can respond to these ideas—and this already happens often on this blog. SO, why would I set up a syllabus to re-inforce what I already want to say? I could, but immediately the possibilities are limited. In my original post Scott Leslie immediately threw out key suggestions and possibilities that take it in whole new directions. So, in short, what if I just pick a few things I’m interested in reading and talking about, like Marcus Rediker’s Villians of All Nations, Seth Graeme-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, White Zombie, etc., and a host of works I am still thinking about and start writing about them, and performing them. Why not interview Redicker (he’s just up the road at Pittsburg), a critical reading of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as well as curated look at Dawn of the Dead? What do we have here, we have a small piece of footage and fodder from one person for a much larger documentary project. If four or five or six others follow their own interest in this space and write, film, interview, and create as well, we have footage and fodder for both an ongoing conversations as well as a kind of project. And that is what interests me, I don;t want to take or teach a course, I want to make something.

Why couldn’t we create a documentary on pirates and zombies from five or six or seven different vantage points, or even more. And idea of following our own impulses to think about this stuff and make the raw material available for each other to re-cut and re-interpret on for a larger group or individual project. I’m thinking a documentary film argument in my mind’s eye, but it could be anything. But it need not be labor, we don’t have to read the same thing or follow a schedule. We just have to agree to focus our interests around a series of ideas for a little while, and see if we can’t connect them. Simple fact is I want to follow this strain of thought, and I want to write about it and get feedback and make something, but I don’t know if I want it to be a course. I want it to be a project, a kind of creation of something— a kind of Make for ideas and arguments. Does this make any sense?

Damn, that’s a long post. Anyway, as you can see I am struggling with why call it and make it a course at all, everyone who is interested, and that is a select few, is already busy. Why not just frame what you want to read and think about it as a series of ideas, posts, creations etc, and we start from their. No coverage, no particular schedule, just the interest to follow it through, and if that dies, then who cares, fun and good ideas lead to cool things, bad ideas don’t, and not enough bad ideas die a natural death. If that’s the case here I am fine that, but I still need to read this stuff and get these ideas out. The other idea I had was for a radio station along these liens, or a one-to-one interview about a reading between people, a discussion to pull stuff out of. Anyway….

I wouldn’t blame you for not getting here, but if you did what do you think? Did I just kill all interest? 🙂

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9 Responses to Zombies and Pirates: Let’s begin

  1. Frances Bell says:

    I did, more or less, follow CCK08 all the way through, being active and engaging but without submitting assignments. It was a great experience and I think there are some lessons for you to learn in your venture. First, the numbers are very deceptive. Although 2300 signed, most were inactive and I think about 20 (maybe 24) gained credits. Despite this there significant numbers tuning to activities and online places, often forming connected subnets but definitely falling off over time. Something I noticed, that may have been to with language, culture or the presence of an indefatigable connectivism hater on the forums, was the rapid fall off of many participants from non-English speaking cultures (though there were Spanish language activities). I think that the ‘course structure’ provided points of connection (weekly activities and topics) but didn’t prevent participants from pursuing and connecting themes over time. The ‘instructor/student’ didn’t inhibit some healthy critique. We all did our own course but within a time and subject framework.
    I mention this because I think that your suggestion of a ‘project’ approach could provide an alternative open framework unified by collaboration on a product rather the wish to assimilate a subject (as if connectivism was some stable and fixed concept). However, I think you would probably face the same challenges of domination and invasion (by pirates and zombies??). I was involved in a discussion recently about a project to increase community participation in a documentary film production. In the end, we visualised 2 products – first the professionally edited and produced film, and the second an archive of all collected materials from which anyone could produce their own film or other creative work.

  2. Reverend says:

    Frances,

    Thanks for the clarification and input. CCK is, indeed, a fascinating beast that needs to be considering pretty closely, and I like the idea of the subnets of communities you mention. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the idea of assimilating material as opposed to working on a project, and I think the two can be seen as different, but in many ways everyone in CCK was probably working on building a Personal learning Environment to some degree, so the project is in many ways built in. I wonder if the fact that CCK was focused specifically on edtech and networks made this a unique experience, given it was so specifically focused and positioned with the very medium and community it was dealing with.

    Let me ask you this, would you take the class a second time?

    And ultimately how many people from that class are you still reading, commenting, or collaborating with?

    I also like the documentary idea you had, and it is similar to what I am imagining for this zombie and pirates experiment which will be lucky if it has 5 or 6 people. But this idea of a shared archive of footage and resources is interesting, as well as some idea of a theme that is loosely connected, which sounds similar to how CCK played out, just with a series of touch points to focus on weekly.

  3. Frances Bell says:

    I am really undecided about whether / how to participate in CCK09. I thought I might see what the plan is then maybe do some uncourse activity (as in unconference) if the structure is too repetitive. Maybe I will contact George about that.
    CCK08 really did increase my PLN, and I still follow on Twitter or Facebook Ed Webb (he’s how I found this blog), Lisa Lane, Pat Parslow, Keith Lyons (thru blog) Maru del Campo and others.

  4. I recall a phone call w/ you earlier this year. We talked about the paranoia connected to free-flowing online content…and how that free flow of ideas + the re-purposing of those ideas, make up a large part of what interests us about academia.

    I keep coming back again and again to Deleuze & Guattari. The Desiring Machine/ Pirate (They also call this a War Machine, or Nomadic thought ) vs. The Body Without Organs / Zombie ( The blank slate for Capitalism to overcode). This will be the lens I’ll be studying this project with.

    Lately I’ve also been keeping up with Doug Rushkoff’s Book, blog , and Radio shows. His New Book Life Inc centers on how we might imagine and make new currencies and systems of exchange. If you can fit it in, i think you might dig it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Life-Inc-World-Became-Corporation/dp/1400066891/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248058441&sr=8-1

  5. Reverend says:

    Justin,

    this…

    I keep coming back again and again to Deleuze & Guattari. The Desiring Machine/ Pirate (They also call this a War Machine, or Nomadic thought ) vs. The Body Without Organs / Zombie ( The blank slate for Capitalism to overcode). This will be the lens I’ll be studying this project with.

    Is awesome. That’s exactly the kind of frame an idea like this affords, and I love it just for that. Through you I can actually dig into Deleuze and Guattari, two thinkers who are in many ways german to the cultural questions that beset us currently. So, I guess we just have to find a place to aggregate all this stuff to, or simply create a wiki for our respective readings and rss feeds.

  6. Alan Levine says:

    Reverend,

    I’m most excited to hear you taking a “de-course” approach to this. It’s struck me that we are still largely stuck in a rutted mindset that “learning” only happens in this “courses” made up of tidy chunks of weekly activities, readings, wrapped in a syllabus. Nothing against what CCK does, which is a traditional course blown open, but still tightly structured,

    What you seem to be describing is even more open in terms of structure, to be more like a group of people who decided to assemble and create something out of mere shared interest, like hackers, open sourcer-ers, robot builders, etc– to gather to create something, build, make a body of work.

    If it were me in your shoes, I’d dream of a structure that did not rest on a single person, so if you can manage to find other champions to lead certain phases, all the better.

    That was not the sound of me raising my hand- as much as I am eager to watch over the fence, I’ll admit that zombies and pirates are not much of a big interest here– but you’ve got a core group bubbling already.

  7. Scott Leslie says:

    My ham-fisted take – the approach you are describing is akin to being a network learner and “just sharing” – something you already do really well, and because of the open way in which you do it already of immense benefit to all. To call it a ‘course’ is, I think, partly to start to assume some responsibility for others’ learning, make allowances for where they are at, ‘planning to share,’ try to fulfill the ‘promise’ of a syllabus – none of which are fundamentally *bad* things, but all of which speak to slightly different motivations as well as likely different ways of executing it. I am not sure if both can be done at the same time, but I know at the very least it takes a masterful network learner/teacher to do so.

    I know, given my own situation, that the level at which you and I are able to interact is not likely to increase *that* much – maybe if I knew there was something of particular interest on the horizon I could carve out time to read it too, which would obviously raise the level at which we could learn together, but it would have to be something compelling, as I am not looking to totally ‘drop out’ of my current flow or focus for, well, pretty much anyone. My $0.02 – I think this is a major issue for formal learning to engage with, but at the same time I think sometimes, as network learners ourselves, we overstate the shortcomings of existing formal learning approaches for *the level and situation of the learners they are aimed at.*

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