A New Article Out

I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t even had time to post notice that I have a new article published in ALT-N. I’ve been having conversations on and off with Rob Abel about ways to ensure that educational technology standards (and, of course, the educational technologies themselves) are more effectively informed by our developing understanding of best practices in online teaching and learning. More recently, I’ve been having somewhat similar conversations with Seb Schmoller, except in the context of ALT rather than IMS. Coincidentally, Seb sent me an issue of ALT-J that talks about the use of pattern languages to make sure that accepted best practices in online learning are more effectively informed by various cognitive and learning theories, and vice versa. (Longtime readers know that I have a fondness for notion of pattern languages and have even created a category on my blog about applying the concept to education.) As I read the article, it occurred to me that use cases serve a similar bridging function between software users/practitioners and software developers. If you could form a bridge between a pattern language of educational best practices and a body of use cases that describe how software could support those best practices, then you might really have something. Hence, the article.

As usual, Stephen Downes as a few nits to pick.

To begin with, he complains about the use of the word “praxis,” which he describes as “just the word ‘practice’ with an attitude.” It’s true that “praxis” is often incorrectly understood as and used interchangeably with “practice,” which is why I usually avoid using it. I chose to use it this time for two reasons. First, the authors of the article on pattern languages used it, so if I chose not to use it I would be creating an inconsistency in language which I would have to take significant word count to explain. More importantly, though, they had used it correctly. Praxis, properly understood, refers to the set of best practices that is empirically derived from practice (as opposed to being the practice itself). It is a kind of experiential-derived theory and is meant to be contrasted to more classical scientific theory. So principles of physics are theory while principles of engineering are (generally) praxis. Or, in this context, principles of education derived from cognitive psychology are theory while principles of education derived from teaching experience are praxis.

His other complaint is…well…I’m not sure what it is. He writes,

I’m uneasy with this – it’s hard to articulate why, exactly – but I don’t think software should be designed to ‘do things’ so much as it should be designed to ‘create capacity’. I know that’s not a very clear distinction. But it’s like the difference between ‘process’ and ‘creation’.

He’s right about one thing. It’s not a very clear distinction. In fact, I have no idea what he’s talking about. The only thing I can think of regarding “creating capacity” is Don Norman’s concept of affordances. But affordances are entirely consistent with use cases. In fact, use cases are an excellent (and commonly used) way to ensure that your software is designed to “create capacity” in the way that users want.

So I guess I’m still in the dark. If Stephen (or anyone else) wants to couch his criticism in concrete terms that are consistent with the…um…praxis of user-centered software design, then I’ll be happy to respond further.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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7 Responses to A New Article Out

  1. You write here: Praxis, properly understood, refers to the set of best practices that is empirically derived from practice.

    Which is still ‘practice’ with an attitude.

    Anyhow…

    I’m not going to give you “criticism in concrete terms that are consistent with the…um…praxis of user-centered software design” because,

    first, my criticisms aren’t that concrete, reflective of an uneasiness rather than a specific methodological objection, and

    second, when the critiques are meta-critiques, as this one surely is, then a requirement that it be expressed in the terminology being critiqued is really just a fancy way of begging the question.

    So – I was just thinking aloud, as I sometimes do. Not all of my thoughts have to be fully formed. People generally like it when I wonder, rather than aver.

    The problem with use cases (and similar sorts of things, including best practices) is that they’re a type of design that works with specific instances in mind.

    But the design of an application (it seems to me) is never the sum of the specific instances. This is because it has to be used by many people in many circumstances – far more than imagined by the use cases.

    The best software design, it seems to me, is software that can be used in ways never imagined by the designers.

    Use cases (best practices, etc) seem to imply that everying important about something can be known a priori. That is, in my experience, never the case.

    Anyhow – you might not think this even an objection, much less a clear one. That’s OK. I’ll live with my uneasiness, and I’ll leave the use cases to others.

  2. Rather than getting into a point-by-point fight here, I’m going to focus on the underlying cause that provoked my response to your post.

    Stephen, I write short posts too from time to time, but when I do so, I refrain from criticizing other people’s work. If I don’t have the space to offer constructive criticism, I try not to criticize. As a matter of fact, I try to do the same thing in my longer posts too, even (or particularly) when I’m “thinking out loud.”

    There’s nothing to stop me from doing differently, of course. I have every right to write as I choose. But I choose not to do that sort of thing, because it’s self-indulgent. When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision that every post would be about trying to start a constructive dialog. As a part of that, every time I post–especially when I criticize somebody else’s work or words–I think twice first. I try to decide whether I’m writing because I honestly think what I have to say might be valuable to somebody else or whether I’m just expressing myself for the pure pleasure of self-expression. If it’s the latter, I tell my wife or my friends what’s on my mind, or I write it in my private journal, but I don’t post it on this blog, where I have made a commitment to the people who don’t know me and yet still are willing to take the time to read what I write.

    Viewed from that perspective, I’m sorry to say that OLDaily has degenerated into little more than a series of drive-by shootings. Typically at least half of your posts on any given day are a couple of sentences of excerpts followed by a nasty one-liner. I seem to remember a time when your one sentence of commentary was more likely to be something that encouraged people to read the article you referred to and added some extra context that provoked thought. Maybe it’s just that I’ve changed as a reader and practitioner, but I find that I’m getting that value out of fewer and fewer of your comments these days.

    Again, you can, of course, do whatever you want. But I’m telling you as one of your long-time readers that what you’re doing now with increasing frequency is not very useful to me and comes across as highly unprofessional. I suspect that you can live with that too. But I would be remiss in my own commitment to the purpose of my own blog if I didn’t call you on it.

  3. I was afraid for a moment that your criticism was on point, but when I looked at the last week of OLDaily’s (those being the closest at hand) I find that in five days of posts I criticize exactly two items: yours, and an announcement from UNESCO on world copyright day. Where is the nastiness? Where are the one-liners? I went back through several weeks of OLDailys to be sure. I’m sorry, but your description of the newsletter is just wrong. Yes, sometimes I am critical but by far the majority of my coverage is positive.

    Read the archives for yourself: http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/archive.cgi

  4. Pingback: John Connell: the blog » Blog Archive » Praxis .v. Practice

  5. First of all, I appreciate the fact that you were open-minded enough to actually look back at your posts. Following your suggestion, I did the same thing. And I confess that my perception of the density of cheap zingers was higher than the actual count (though it was higher than you suggest). Perhaps that’s because I (and my colleagues) have been the targets of a handful of these zingers in recent months.

    What I object to most are comments like this one (direct at me)

    I think Michael Feldstein’s faith in market demand is touching (though naive) but I have some sympathy with his support for the common cartridge standard. Some. I need to look at it more closely, though, before I can say whether it does the job.

    Or this one (directed at somebody else–maybe not in the last 3 weeks, but definitely in the last two months):

    Animation of the e-Framework (a set of coordinated tools to support e-learning). After clicking through a bunch of links (including a link-loop for the unwary) you get a 23 megabyte Quicktime that won’t play on Linux. Which really in itself says everything you want to know (hint: YouTube exists now, we don’t need unplayable video any more).

    These are gratuitously insulting and nearly content-free. What is the value here, other than your personal satisfaction from insulting something or someone you don’t like?

    On other occasions you will go on longer rants which, while not quite as content-free, are still gratuitously insulting:

    I have been sort of sympathetic to the concept of the learningmanagement operating system (LMOS) because, after all, the concept includes things that I favour: distributed resources, user access to the underlying system. But I began to falter when Michael Feldstein said “We don’t just want to offer many different affordances. we want to orchestrate them.” And following his link to Bernie Durfee has sketched out a first use case implementation sent me over the edge. I’ll say it bluntly, and apologize later: this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen. Durfee is describing what the rest of understand as ‘upload a file and base a discussion thread on it’. Something I did right here in about 10 seconds today. But he requires J2EE containers, portlet containers, service integration agents, native Java interfaces, a whole mess of stuff. Ridiculous. Absurd! That’s it – if that is what is meant, toast the whole LMOS concept.

    These comments don’t invite thought and they certainly don’t invite dialog. In this last case, the guy you were criticizing (Bernie Durfee), happened to be a junior colleague with no blog of his own to write in his own defense. Luckily, Bernie happens to have a thick skin. But your comment certainly wasn’t conducive to encouraging a bright young programmer to think about the problem from your perspective. Nor did it encourage your readers to look at both sides of the discussion with open minds. Who would bother to go read something “absurd” and “ridiculous”? And by the way, you never did “apologize later.”

    I’m not averse to good, sharp criticism. Lord knows I’ve thrown a few elbows on this blog. But I try very hard to write in a way that opens up conversation with the person I’m criticizing, and if I absolutely can’t see anything worthwhile about the content that I take issues with, I generally don’t write about that content. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when I’m trying to provoke a response from a large corporation that has been unresponsive on a high-stakes issue, but I try to be very aware of when I am making an exception, and I try to make sure that I have good reasons to do it.

    Stephen, you and I have had some good, constructive online debates over the years. But we haven’t had any recently. And I don’t think it’s just me. The recent dust-up you had over Elgg and Open Source is another indicator. If people are taking your criticisms personally, maybe it’s because they’re a little too personal.

  6. Hi Michael, My name is Noor Azman Bin Othman and I’m from Malaysia. I know this gonna be off topic, but I couldn’t find your email address.To
    make it short, I would like your permission to use your comments to
    Stephen (see above) which was published on April 26th, 2007.I
    would like to publish it on my blog as an answer to some criticisms. Of
    course I shall publish your byline and resource box. I’m not gonna
    claim it’s mine.I do hope to get your permission. Hope to hear from you soon.Greeting from Malaysia.http://web-directory.blogspot.com

  7. Noor, while I appreciate your asking permission, I have already given it. All my content is under a Creative Commons license. Feel free to use whatever you like, as long as you give proper attribution.

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