Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Publi-sumption: Merging Publication, Curation and Subscription


For web users--not advertisers--the web does three great things.

Publish, Curate, Subscribe. Or one thing: called "publi-sumption": publication and consumption made possible through the subscription model.



  • I write short messages--the size of an SMS message.
  • I write a little blurb.
  • I write an essay.
  • I take photos I want the world to see.
  • Maybe I make some videos.

I want to share these.

Maybe some are for the world, some for business colleagues, some for family, friends.

In short, I want to publish with permission control.



I find stuff I like that's already online.

  • I favorite things.
  • I bookmark things.
  • I collect my bookmarks in web sites like delicious.com.
  • I pin photos on Pinterest.
  • I Favorite videos on Youtube.

I want to browse it in once place--and also share stuff with friends.

  • Maybe I share this stuff with friends or colleagues on a project.
  • Maybe I just like looking at it--like a private book or photo album, favorite movies or home movies.


There's stuff I want to read.

We used to get magazines and newspapers delivered to the doorstep. (I personally still do.)

Now I can subscribe to feeds from favorite sites.

  • I have podcasts that come into iTunes--news, lectures, humor.
  • I might have an RSS reader that pulls news from the web.
  • Facebook is items that friends have found interesting--so subscribing to updates from friends: social subscription.
  • Twitter is more social subscription.

This is fresh content.

  • I didn't choose it once, and it stays there.
  • I choose a whole channel or box and new stuff flows in every day or hour or week.
  • Maybe I want to filter it by keyword--like search plus subscription.

So Why Can't We Do ALL of These?

Here's what I want.

  • I publish any feeds or files I've selected.
    • This could be files from a dropbox or cloud service.
      • If .doc or .pdf, they show up embedded--or even a few lines of them pulled out like a blog post teaser.
      • If a folder of images is pulled in, some thumbnails show up.
    • My blog pushes out to anyplace I want those items to appear.
    • My items come in from image- and video-hosting services: flickr or Youtube.
      • Google owns Picasaweb and Youtube, so that's a slam dunk.  
  • I curate my favorites.
    • Videos I Favorite or lists I make on Youtube show up.
      • They come in as content areas or menu items.
    • Articles I like come in from hither and yon--as they do in ReadItLater and similar tools.  
  • Maybe the user configures the interface from templates.
    • The template might be controlled through drag-and-drop layout.
    • Or a simple enough coding language + CSS could be read by the server. (Django uses the same programming language to describe the data and also the layout.)  
  • I read stuff I want to subscribe to.
    • Feeds come in to make my own 'magazine' that I browse.
    • It's an RSS-reader on steroids, a combination of paper.li and flipboard.  
  • My site could even be a mash-up of all three:
    • Stuff of mine.
    • Specific items I've selected and linked in.
    • Stuff I like reading that's updated regularly.

I'm basically talking about the subscription model--aka RSI aka feeds--but a combination of publication and consumption.


Publisumption. Publication and consumption together. Social. Enabled by feeds, RSS, atom, API's.

  • Finding things we like to consume and sharing them.
  • Sharing our subscriptions with others.
  • Authoring things and sharing those around different social circles, from one person to the world.
  • Controlling the layout and organization in ways we like--but not locking things inside a CMS database.

It's Google's Fight To Lose.

Some people were almost there and just fell by the wayside. Pageflakes?

Some people are almost there now.

Google has the most to gain and the least to lose.

  • Youtube is their video site.
  • Picasaweb is their photo sharing site.
  • Blogger.com is their blogging platform.
  • Whatever they lose from their users' content showing up elsewhere, they can re-gain by being that elsewhere, tracking and advertising.

Google could probably do it in two seconds: Google++.

With Google+ I can subscribe to the feeds of people I'm interested in. But everything must be embedded in a Google+ post.

  • Why not pull in external feeds?
  • Why not make Google+ a reader?
  • Why not have it pull feeds from blogger, Favorites and account feeds from Youtube?
  • Why not let me lay out out as my personal site?

It could all be done in three panes.

  • My Stuff. Stuff I wrote, authored, from the cloud, from blogger, from photo sharing sites.
  • Stuff I Like. Thing's I've +'ed, Thumbs Up-ed on Youtube, maybe saved as a url. (Why does Google not have a link-curation service yet?)
  • Stuff I Follow: Blogs I read every day. Twitterati I follow. Podcasts I subscribe to. News services I read.
  • A Mash-up: Selected bits of all that, nicely arranged on a page using a few templates.

Start with the Google-verse. Then add Vimeo, dropbox, flickr, etc.

--Edward R. O'Neill


Monday, July 30, 2012

When Is an LMS NOT an LMS? (When It's Free....)

The Enterprise System Everyone Loves To Hate

If you’re in higher ed, you know what an LMS is. Not that you’re ever happy about yours.

Which is the problem. If there were an alternative, most people in higher ed would jump there in a heartbeat.

But I get ahead of myself.

An LMS is a “learning management system.” It’s an enterprise system–meaning the institution pays for it, and generally everyone has access. Examples are:
  • Blackboard,
  • Desire2Learn,
  • Moodle,
  • Sakai;
  • more recently: inStructure.
Using an LMS, an instructor can:
  • send announcements,
  • share files,
  • host online discussions,
  • create quizzes,
  • accept assignments,
  • and similar things.

The Swiss Army Knife

The LMS is a Swiss Army Knife in which every knife is not quite so sharp, usually a generation or two old.

Nothing in the LMS is best-of-breed. But like a Swiss Army Knife, you're happy it's in your pocket when you need one of the things it has.

(These folks really need to create an architecture that’s more plug-and-play. People like to choose their own tools. But that’s a separate topic.)

In short, an LMS is a publication, collaboration, interaction and survey platform with permissions. (A test is a survey.)

So What’s the Problem?

Universities often pay million$ for the$e things–and no one ever loves their LMS. They accept. They work around. They do not love.

But now there are serious alternatives.

So what? The alternatives are free. Yes–
  • free as in beer, not ideas.
  • Zero cost.
What are they? Let’s just take two.

iTunes U

Formerly, this was podcasting for education: users could subscribe to audio or video podcasts–lectures, for instance. And that was sort of it.

Now iTunesU is a hosted LMS.

Anyone, anywhere can publish audio, video, documents, iBooks (Apple’s propetary ebook format). There’s even something like discussion.

And it’s 100% free. Apple hosts it for you.

The catch? It’s for Apple’s networked mobile devices only–i.e., iOS: iPhone’s, iPads. So it’s free to publish, but it essentially costs $600 (for an iPad) to learn. Cough cough.


This is very powerful. An instructor can:
  • organize students into a group (a “Circle”),
  • give access to just that group–or the whole world,
  • share all the normal document formats (text, spreadsheets, data sets, pdf’s),
  • share videos from Youtube and photos from Picasaweb,
  • create discussions around documents, videos and photos (comments, really),
  • give surveys or quizzes,
  • accept files into a Google Docs folder.
In short, anyone for free can do most of what an LMS does. And on a platform people know and use daily.

What does an LMS have that these systems lack?
  • Restricted access.
  • Connection to the student information system:
    • only registered students can get in.
  • Automatic course creation:
    • a site exists for every course being offered and
    • enrolled students have automatic access.
Is this really important?

Yes and no.

In fact, classroom doors are generally unlocked. If you have a large class, anyone off the street can wonder in.

But LMS’s are a locked door. Only students, staff and faculty can get in.

Permissioning students into the Google-verse is mostly trivial. But it’s done by hand.

Should the Purveyors of LMS’s Be Afraid

Very afraid.

Dear LMS: your days are numbered. Apple and Google are coming up behind you.

Run. Fast.

And do not look back.

–Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Freely-Flowing Content & My Dream of a Piffwy Web


No, I don't talk funny. It's an idea I have--a dream, almost.

The web is broken.

Long live the web. But the promise has not been fulfilled.

Oh sure: we can get all kinds of content on all kinds of devices.

  • We can watch movies and read books and news and blogs and listen to music.
  • We can watch and read and listen on laptops and desktops and phones and tablets.

I'm not upset that streaming video companies need to make contracts with content providers and only let in paying customers. I'm fine with that.

But the back-and-forth is swinging in a bad direction--as pendulums will tend to do at least half the time, maybe more.

This pendulum I'm talking about is:

proprietary vs. open formats,
closed vs. open systems.

They're not exactly the same, but they overlap.

And my interest is: publishing my own stuff. User-provided content. Self-publishing. What made the web explode in the first place.

My dream of the web's future is: the Piffwy Web.

"Piffwy" is short for PIFWII, meaning: Publish It From Where It Is.


My Wish List.

Here's what I want.

  • I've got a file on my desktop.
  • I've got some photos on Flickr or Picasaweb.
  • I've got a video on Youtube or Vimeo.
  • I've got some essays in the cloud.

And everything can be anwwhere I want it to be.

  • I can have a site with all my content.
    • The photos and videos show up in galleries.
    • The documents get organized how I like--by date or folder.
      • Maybe the documents show up like blog posts--the first few sentences, then click to read the reast.
    • The files can be browsed this way or that--topic, tag, folder, date, type.
  • The site with all my content might pull from all over.
    • Maybe I want my videos on Vimeo and my documents in Google Docs.
    • Maybe I want files in the cloud--on cloud.net or box.net.
  • Further, if the viewer wants to pull some stuff into a package--an ebook, a zip file, a static document--she can. Schloop. As long as it's enabled.

This is not so weird.

  • I can get a cheese sandwich: at the supermarket, at a deli, at a restaurant, from a speciality store.
  • And I can eat it there or be done, or I can wrap it, box it, bag it, freeze it--as I like.

Why can't it be the same with web content? As long as the author and publisher agree.


The O-Word.

Ontology is what media scholars talk about. "What the heck kind of thing is it? Is it a shadow, a mirror, or a picture?"

The most basic ontological distinction of media is: live vs. recorded.

It's the basic forking of media is-ness, the what-ness of what media is.

I want it both ways.

  • I want live and recorded.
  • I want an electrical outlet and a battery.
  • I want flowing tap water and also some stored in a bottle.
  • I want a remote video feed and also a tape.

Web 1.0: Linking and Freely-Flowing Content.

The early web was static content. But it came from servers and showed up in browser. And many of the file formats were open--widely readable.

Early web authors knew they could save those files from the browser and re-use them. Or they could just link to the original.

So in the beginning was linking, and it was good.

Also embedding. We're still there.

  • A video on Youtube can be shared by link--or embedded in a blog.

Then came the API. Not files with data in little buckets. But sites whose data could be called by other sites, programs, apps.

  • If a web site gave access to the way it spit out information, programmers could write applications which pulled selected stuff out and layed it out nicely.
  • A whole Twitter feed or RSS feed can be embedded in the side of a blog via a widget.
  • Photos from a flickr set could be pulled into an animated gallery wall.

Linking, embedding, feeds, API's and widgets unlocked content and sent it live to where you wanted it, could use it.

Shortly later came apps, which pulled data through feeds and API's and made it pretty and easy to sort through on the device of your choice.

So began the dream of FFC: freely-flowing content.

There was a dark side: the same data everywhere.

Freely-flowing content is also: the same crap everywhere. Voting. Mediocritzation.

The internet became: a Burger World and Sugary Coffee Outlet on every corner. Whereever you went on the internet, every page started to look the same--the same feeds, the same videos, the same content.


Oh Woe Is Us...

...for we have seen the rise of the content management system. Drupal, WordPress, whatnot. (Others have come and gone.)

The CMS is one of the many forces pushing against FFC (freely flowing content).

The content management system is misnamed. Today's CMS is not a system for managing content: it's a system for locking content inside a system, and customizing that content so it's locked in there for good.

The Content Management System is a prison, and your content has a life sentence. API's are mere windows to let in a bit of air. Visiting hours. You choose the metaphor.

There are new file formats--many proprietary. This is AOL all over again: the Walled Garden.

Books and magazines are the worst area. And here the bedfellows get really strange.

  • Google will actually scan books--the better to lock them into a file format no one's software can open--except Google's.
  • Amazon uses Google's Android operating system, but the Kindle uses its own proprietary format.
    • I remember Amazon selling pdf's, but now it's Buy Our Hardware--or else.
  • Oddly, Apple and Adobe, normally sworn enemies, collude so that magazine publishing exists in its own format, nearly inaccessible without an iPad.
    • Clearly, consumers with a spare $600 for what's basically a toy are desirable customers for magazine publishers who otherwise deep-discount their increasingly irrelevant content.
    • Adobe's software lets the same content be published to the web and to apps. But do magazines really do that? Why mouse-click when you can finger-swipe?
  • Apple is the worst of the worst. "We'll give away free stuff--so people buy our expensive hardware."
    • Free software to author iBooks in a proprietary format--sold by Apple alone, and no one else.
    • Free hosting services on iTunesU--the better to push students into buying $600 tablets.
      • A laptop can be had for $300.
      • A tablet in the Android-Amazon or Android-Google ecosystem can be had for $200.

There Are Forces Pushing Against the Locked-Down Web.

But are they strong enough?

Ebooks: Content To Go.

  • MediaWiki and WordPress both have plugins that export to EPUB--an open-source book format.
    • Wikipedia lets me sign and and select items it will bind in a pdf or publish on paper (for a price).
  • EPUB is open-source, but it seems to be losing out.
  • Pdf's can be read on all platforms, but Adobe's clout is waning.

Easy Sharing & Permissioning.

  • Embedding is still here. Youtube still rules video sharing.
  • Twitter and link-shortening mean: sharing links is still vibrant.
  • API's mean data can be shunted out to the still-exploding marketplace of low-cost apps made by hungry developers--some teenagers.
  • Google+ made permissioning easy with Circles: put everyone you know in Circles, and share with one,
  • Google also made nearly univerals the three-tier permission hierarchy:
    • Published and searchable for all to see and find.
    • Shared by link but not indexed, not findable: public but secret.
    • Sign-in only. The strictest standard.

Most Tantalizing of All: The No-Database CMS.

Can't I just write some text files, stick them in a folder and call that my blog or web site? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Various folks are doing this.


We need more services like Droppages.

  • Forget html.
  • Forget CMS's.
  • Let content hosts for videos and images do what they do.
  • Let me publish from my desktop or dropbox or some other cloud folder.
  • Let me organize files in folders again--like the Web 1.0.
  • But let me style and organize separately--with xml or some simple coding lingo.
  • Let programmers build sites and apps that bring these together in beautiful interfaces, with few or many designs, little or lots of control.

I want to Publish It From Where It Is. Once. From the cloud. From Youtube. From Flickr. All my content: pdf's, .doc files, photo sets, structured data.

I want the Piffwy Web. I weawwy weawwy do. (Okay, maybe I do need to work on my diction.)

--Edward R. O'Neill


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Is the Lecture Good for Learning?

In an earlier blog post, I summarized and analyzed a lecture that can be found online inside a “MOOC”–a massive open online course. Since lectures are a primary resource within such online courses, and since so many people are jumping up and down calling the MOOC ‘the future of education,’ I think it’s worth asking the pesky question: Is this kind of lecture (which is not at all uncommon) good for learning?

Consider the listener.

I have an advanced degree. I can not only decode this a standard, even very good academic lecture: I can decompose its formal elements. But some degree of training went into this knack: it represent the self-awareness of a frequent participant in these solemn rites–aka lectures.

But I am not the target audience for this presentation. And therein lies a problem.

The listener–who is not screened, who self-selects and self-enrolls, with no prior criteria, with no offer of pre-requisite knowledge–is in the arduous position of determining all this for herself.

This is a course intended for anyone anywhere in the world who cares to take it. The main “guidance”–though it seems laughable to call it that–comes from the students' peers. Presumably some may be able to decode this array of quotations, references, historical events, texts, genres and authors. But will enough students be able to decode well enough to guide the rest? And is there some reason that the expert speaking feels no responsibility to do so? I cannot claim to know.

It is possible, however, to spell out clearly:

Why This Kind of Presentation Is NOT an Optimal Starting Point for a Course.

People will differ, but I would think two things would be absolute minimum requirements for a discourse orienting learners towards a course or learning experience to follow.
  1. What is the topic? What is the course about?
  2. What will I learn–and to what standard? What will I be able to do, or to do better? Measured how?
  • Is the topic cooking or crockery? Art or computer programming?
  • Will I learn to make a stew, or read tea leaves? To draw the human form, or to print “Hello, World!” in the python programming language?
After listening to this expert lecture, does the listener have any notion–especially the listener who is untutored, may speak English as a second language, may not have finished high school, may have no other college experience, or a quite different one–of these two things?

Topic Is a Pretty Basic Kind of Thing.

The distinction between topic and comment is central to the study of language: the fields of semantics, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics all have need of it. College instructors regularly criticize student papers for lacking a clear topic. Hence we would easily imagine that any fine college instructor could produce ten or twelve minutes of consecutive talk with a clear topic.

Now consider the first or pre-first lecture in Coursera’s course on Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The topic is not defined. The very meaning of the course title is not explained.

And what is to be learned–the learning objective, as it is technically named in circles which give names to such things?

What Can the Learner Do After the Lecture that She Could Not Do (or Do as Well) Before?
  • The learner may recall some etymologies.
  • The learner may recall some facts about buildings and folk tales.
  • The learner may be able to name some authors and fictions, might or might not know the authors for the fictions mentioned.
  • The learner may recall the era in which these fictions were written.
  • The learner may recall the names of some experts mentioned without knowing who they are, when they lived, what made them experts, or in what their expertise consists.
  • The learner may be able to explain the meanings the lecturer gives to these fictions and tales.
What the learner cannot do is
  • to discover these genealogies, facts and interpretations for herself;
  • nor determine the principles and procedures which form these genealogies, facts and interpretations;
  • nor determine what makes these relevant and other similar items not relevant.
Mimicry vs. Ability.

In short, the learner can mimic the kind of knowledge presented. What she cannot do is:
  • to avail herself of the know-how that would generate such knowledge,
  • nor indeed to grasp why all this might even count as knowledge in the first place,
  • except in the trivial sense of this information being important to another, of it being historical information that can be recalled in order to attest to one’s learnedness.
In the absence of such ability and principles, all information reduces to trivia.

In short, all the learner can do, at best, is to reproduce the signs of being cultured and educated without understanding or being able to criticize the foundations of these signs.

The Voice of Authority

This seems to me a grave disservice to the learner, but not an uncommon one. This type of presentation seems more likely to produce bafflement than illumination.

This kind of presentation is simply argument from authority: I know all this stuff, and I’m an expert–I’m at the head of the classroom, I’m lecturing, so clearly I’m the one who knows–take it from me.

There is no sense in this presentation–and here it lacks features which other academic lectures have–of:
  • an historical conversation,
  • a debate,
  • examining and adjudicating among differing viewpoints,
  • exploring standards of proof.
For instance:
  • Is Marlowe debating with Antiquity?
  • Is Auden's idea about Cinderella a response to anyone or anything?
  • Is "The Monkey's Paw" a response to Frankenstein?
  • Are all these perspectives the same? Or different?
There is only an expert, an authority, the voice of authority–and the stylistic and generic conventions which produce and support that voice. It’s not a question of blaming this professor. This voice is not a person. This voice is a rhetorical effect and an institutional privilege.

And now we come closer to the stylistic and organizational and sociological traits of the genre known as the academic lecture.

What the Learner Does Learn.

The message is clear.
  • You, dear learner, must discern what the topic is. It will play hide-and-seek. I will not name it. To name the topic is a vulgarism. If you cannot determine the topic, you must surely be unfit to listen to my discourse.
  • You may not gather the hidden principles which unite my pronouncements. You may not know what makes me right and others wrong. You must trust.
  • And you may not be given to understand why these sentences are meaningful and relevant–and others are not. You must hang on an expert’s wisdom until you learn. I will not tell you how long that is. I will not tell you how you can know if you have learned.
  • For all these things, you must remain dependent on me: the one who knows.
This does not seem to me an adequate basis for a democratic notion of learning: dependency, secrecy, discretion, authority, trust, guesswork.

The MOOC and the Lecture.

I wish I could say this lecture were unique. Alas, it is not. And my other Coursera MOOC experience–limited though it was to only a few such lectures before I gave up–was similar.
  • If this is the notion of learning that the MOOC will offer, I can see little hope that much learning could take place.
  • Browsing, perhaps. Disintered curiosity, maybe. Dependency and trust in authority–which we need altogether less of, yes.
  • But the concerted effort to grow, to change, to aquire new habits, skills or dispositions, critical attention, the ability to govern one’s own experience, to judge for oneself, to acquire the standards one wishes to acquire: these seem to me very unlikely outcomes indeed.
Not all academic lectures are exactly like this. Many lectures invite the learner to participate, to explore the principles at work, to question, to occupy disparate viewpoints, to test, to doubt, to make choices, to find her own path.

But many academic lectures follow exactly these rituals and gestures I’ve identified. And whether these lecture are in a classroom or online, I believe we need fewer such lectures, not more.

If this genre and ritual are to become the basis for widely-distributed educational content, we will find ourselves in an even sorrier state than we are now.

Who Do We Want To Be, Anyway?

Much academic discourse of this type seems consciously organized to maintain a cultural distinction between the expert and the neophyte: not to shrink the distance but to maintain and maximize it.

Yet some universities of international stature feel quite serene about putting their names on such lectures. Is it possible that many of those involved in higher learning are so immersed within its culture and values that they cannot see how very ineffective some of its most hallowed rituals and genres–such as the lecture–can be?

Mind you: we all have seen terrific ten-to-twenty-minute presentations.
  • Many of the TED talks are quite inspiring. They are tilted towards persuasion more than information. But they engage, can be followed and are more than lumps of unlabeled information and ideas.
  • Many online video demonstrations simply straightforwardly show some procedure–solving a certain kind of equation. That seems to me practical, useful and unobjectionable.
But the more universities open their doors, the more we see the internal reasons higher ed is in crisis: it’s not external enemies.

In the famous words of Pogo: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

–Edward R. O'Neill

What's a Lecture, Anyway? The Lecture and the MOOC.

As folks in higher ed discuss moving lectures outside the classroom, online, and into MOOC’s–massive open online courses–it is maybe a good idea to consider this genre we all so well: the academic lecture.

Know, sure: we are familiar with it. But should we perhaps know more and differently?
  • What are the academic lectures' features–its traits, properties?
  • How, were we so asked, could we produce one–on demand, that is?
  • Is this genre really well suited to helping people learn?
  • Or should we, perhaps, avoid this genre–somewhat or altogether?
An Example.

An inductive approach is reasonable, and a specimen lecture is not hard to find.
  1. Go to Coursera.org and sign up for their MOOC–massive open online course–on Fantasy and Science Fiction.
  2. Download the very first lecture–a pre-lecture, in fact, a lecture before the course starts in earnest.
  3. Watch, listen and see if you can parse the elements of this familiar kind of academic performance.
What the Lecture Says.

Certainly this lecture is interesting and skillful enough–highly skillful, in fact. The contents are not obscure to any degree. The presentation can be summarized handily.
  1. The lecturer asks what fantasy is, but doesn’t answer his own question.
  2. He points to fantasy literature, again without defining either term.
  3. He points more broadly to fantasy (still undefined) in: film, architecture, and design. And he associates fantasy with utopian thinking (which he does define).
  4. He gives several etymologies for the word “fantasy.”
  5. He points to a Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (without mentioning that it’s a play), to children playing with dolls, to fantasy as personal, as shared myth, as coping mechanism.
  6. He discusses Cinderella, Auden on detective stories–there’s no explanation of who Auden is–to the raising of Lazarus.
  7. He talks about a short story (“The Monkey’s Paw”) and Frankenstein, and he connects these to the fear of death, and to fears about science exceeding the bounds of morality. (He gives the dates for these works, but he doesn’t identify the latter as a novel, nor mention its author.)
  8. He quotes Alvin Toffler (again not saying who that is). And he says the course will focus primarily on science fiction literature as a place where we can see our hopes and fears about our future.
I’ve left out lots of detail, but a longer summary is here.

This all seems rich enough. There’s no lack of detail.

But since this presentation begins an online course, an important question arises. Namely:

Is the form of this presentation apt for learning?

I will say: not. And some stylistic features of this presentation can suggest why. (They’re not all discrete features: there’s some overlap. But I don’t think that’s fatal to my point.)

There’s a lack of parallelism.
  • Something about literature, architecture, design.
  • Something about linguistics.
  • A fable and an interpretation of it.
  • Something about dolls and psychology.
  • A story from the Bible.
  • A novel. A short story.
It is almost impossible to identify any relationship amongst these things. Yes, the word “fantasy” crops up here and there. It’s almost impossible to lay a sentence about dolls and a sentence about industrial design side by side and see any relationship. E.g.,
  • ‘Some industrial designs contain an element of fantasy.’
  • ‘Childrens’ play with dolls shows something about fantasy.'
Fantasy in the latter sense has something to do with an attempt to achieve mastery. Does this also apply to futuristic ‘airstream’ type designs? Presumably, the psychological fantasy gives actual benefits–but the design not so. Without paralellism, it is difficult to connect all the interesting tidbits.

No definitions are offered. 

The word “fantasy” is never defined. Various root meanings are named. The word is used in various contexts. No doubt an astute listener can infer various subtle threads and echoes: counter-factuality, psychological investment, images of power, whatnot. But:
  • Should the listener have to do this inferring?
  • Is the very topic of the course, fantasy, so subtle and multifarious that no initial working definition can be provided?
That seems to be the assumption.

The explanatory principles which old the discourse itself together are not explicit.

There are almost no transitions.
  • How do we get from one topic to another?
  • Is all this analysis “literary”?
  • Is the analysis “psychological”?
  • Certainly the organization is “topical”: it’s not chronological; it doesn’t seem to be the application of a rule or principle. Perhaps it’s various facets of a single phenomenon.
  • But ought the listener be required to guess how the topics are connected?
  • Is it really impossible to use any kind of transitions in this kind of presentation?
  • Are transitions for some reason somehow taboo?
Few markers are given as to what containers or categories are being used.
  • Is this a course in urban architecture?
  • In design? The history of language?
  • Bible studies? Psychology? Poetry? (Auden is mentioned.)
  • Futurism? (Toffler’s name comes up.)
Any number of disciplines are trotted out. But do the containers matter? What is the big box in which all these other boxes so freely mix? (Of course, we could answer “the humanities” or “literary studies,” but that wouldn’t tell us what we’d like to know about.)

Names and works are unevenly mentioned or contextualized.
  • Who are these authors?
  • Should I know them? What should I know about them?
  • Why is Toffler mentioned and quoted but not contextualized? (We see a photograph, so presumably he wasn’t a contemporary of Marlowe.)
  • Why does Mary Shelley not deserve to have her name mentioned?
  • Is Jesus an historical figure here? Or a literary character from the Bible?
There are more things than labels. 

Things have labels. The car parked outside my window is variously: a car, a Ford, a sedan, a mid-sized car, American, made in 2010, etc. The same thing has many labels.

In this lecture, we find many things–definitions, authors, fictions, places, historical events, outboard motors, theme parks–but not so many labels. Indeed, there seems to be a proliferation of things and a paucity of labels.
  • Frankenstein is a ‘story’–but not a novel.
  • Marlowe wrote a “tragical history.” Should we know that it’s a drama?
Inspiring peroration. 

Even and especially if all that preceded it lacked paralellism, definitions, transitions, containing categories, context and labels, the summation is worth waiting for. It’s elegant. It’s concise. It’s inspiring. And it somewhat spells out that which was missing before.
  • Fantasies condense hopes and fears. They are a form of mental experimentation–hypothetical thinking.
This works well enough for sci-fi. But does it apply to the Bible? Or to Doctor Faustus?

So this closure doesn’t bear scrutiny. It’s forced: a literary device rather than a logical conclusion.

Which must then lead one to ask: why?
  • Why, if the speaker can indeed name the topic and purpose, would he wait until the ending?
  • Is it that the claim that’s launched only at the close cannot actually be supported, neither by what came before, nor by any amount of additional talking?
  • Is the conclusion in fact more of a hypothesis or a wager, one the entire course will attempt to cash out?
A hypothesis would be fine, but the final remarks' status as a hypothesis is not stated, and its position as a peroration implies either an appeal or a logical conclusion.

If you just want to hear a jumble of interesting thoughts, this all seems fine.

But all of these things seem very confusing to someone who wants to learn–and I’ll say in my next blog post why this type of lecture seems very ill-suited to fostering learning.

–Edward R. O'Neill

Summary of First Lecture for Coursera Course on Fantasy & Science Fiction.

  1. The speaker identifies himself by name and title.
  2. He says his presentation will introduce the student to the course.
  3. The lecturer asks: “What is fantasy?” He doesn’t answer himself. He says the course will explore fantasy literature, without having said what fantasy is.
  4. But he says that fantasy is broader and exists in other media beyond literature. He mentions Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis and shows a single still image.
  5. He connects fantasy then, still more broadly, to the imagination, to visions of the future, and to utopian fantasies, as embodied in Disneyland and Epcot Center–never mentioning any dates.
  6. He says fantasy ideas pervade industrial design, and he gives an example.
  7. He lists the words to which the word “fantasy” can be traced: Ancient Greek words, words related to Christianity and other religions, Indo-European roots and contemporary words related thereto.
  8. He says fantasies can be personal, and he points to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (whose era he names), but he points that personal fantasies also refer to some mythic power. (He still hasn’t defined fantasy in any way. And he doesn’t mention that Doctor Faustus is a play.)
  9. He says children use fantasy to try out social roles. He recounts a personal anecdote about his daughter playing with dolls, and he claims his daughter used the fantasy as a therapy of sorts.
  10. He says fantasies help us in practical ways by embodying our hopes and fears. He points to the fairy tale “Cinderella” as a “myth of obedience.” He says this story is universal.
  11. He quotes someone named “W. H. Auden” (whom he does not identify) explaining detective stories as containing a “fantasy” that “hidden guilt will be revealed.” He says detective stories allow us to live in a fantasy world.
  12. He claims that a common human fear is the fear of death. He refers to Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus, and Jesus’s raising of him from the dead. (No dates or time frames are given.) He calls this either a “miracle” or a “fantasy.”
  13. He connects this fear of death to W. W. Jacob’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw” (whose date he gives). He recounts the story, and he explains its “point” as the human inability to control “fate.” And he says that fantasy may paint an image of a better world, or a more frightening one–contrasting the ‘fantasy’ of Lazarus and that of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
  14. He describes the story of Frankenstein (whose date he gives but whose author he doesn’t mention: he doesn’t mention that it’s a novel, either). He describes this story as an ancient fantasy of raising up the dead. And he describes the ‘story’ as showing the fear of science’s power separated from morality.
  15. He introduce science fiction as a genre (without saying if Frankenstein belongs to it or not), and he lumps this with detective fiction and fairy tales as “fantastic genres.” (No mention of whether the Bible fits here or not.)
  16. He summarizes a sci-fi short story that foresees the dangers of nuclear power. Then he reframes science fiction as a mode of imaginative understanding–like playing with dolls. He cites Alvin Toffler, without saying who that is or what he wrote.
  17. He identifies science fiction as a “fantastic genre” which poses questions about what science means for “us.” And he claims science fiction can help us to understand our wishes for the future.