In The Abstract


Before I started this post, I looked around to see if anyone else had posted on this week’s content yet. I wanted to see about linking to other content as we have been prompted to do. Well, as far as I can tell, no one has written on this week yet, so someone has to start. Maybe I can come back to this post later and revise based on the other thoughts that crop up.

Something that I touched on in one of my earlier posts is that I am not an abstract thinker. I deal better with the practical, on-the-ground, concrete aspects of work. Being that way is a strength in some cases. However, I also recognize the limitations. Once I began my professional life and worked with other librarians on committees, I started to realize that my bent is to do things the way they’ve always been done. Not to the degree that I would resist a change because I’m used to doing a task a certain way. More that I don’t “think outside the box” naturally or take the bird’s eye view of a problem. Can’t see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes. As with any challenge, awareness is the first step to overcoming it. So, since I noticed that strength/weakness of mine, I’ve periodically reminded myself to consider the bigger picture or what the end goal really is.

All that to say – I admire Doug Engelbart’s vision and his ability to think outside the box in what appears to be a natural way to think for him. I’m reminded of a test I took at work recently called the Strengths Finder test. The 34 strengths are split into 4 categories, one of which is Strategic Thinking. Needless to say, only one of my top 5 strengths fell into this category. I get the sense that more of Doug Engelbart’s strengths would fall into that category.

Though I don’t think I see Engelbart refer to Bush anywhere, it seems to me that his creation is an attempt to take Bush’s ideas and make them real. And now, we feel closer and closer to that reality all the time. I’m waiting for when I can manipulate information on floating screens with hand gestures, like you often see in science fiction shows/movies.

Bringing Engelbart’s talks down to something concrete for me… I appreciate his point in one of his speeches about how the technology that makes a task easier, and therefore enhances human capability, can sometimes be difficult to learn. Or it seems difficult to learn if you’re thoroughly entrenched in a very different way of achieving a task. Where my mind goes with this is students and their study/learning habits. My impression of K-12 school is that it is still very physical book driven. That impression could very well be wrong, so someone correct me if they know better. I think the Almighty Textbook still reigns all throughout school. I don’t know how, given what happens in K-12, higher education is supposed to make a dramatic shift in student learning/studying habits. Given Engelbart’s point about how shifts happen slowly because of the difficulty in switching methods, I don’t know that I’ll see big change in higher education until we have a whole new generation or two coming through that have different expectations for what learning looks like. Young people that have grown up in a very different educational environment. I stress educational because outside of education, many dramatic shifts have already occurred. I myself am probably considered a “digital native” who is more used to ubiquitous technology, finding it easy to use. I can’t remember not owning a computer or having access to the Internet. Embarrassingly for someone in their 20s, I’ve only had a smartphone for a few years. I finally got on the bandwagon with iPhone 5. However, my educational experience, in terms of the classroom materials and methods, was largely lecture and largely print textbooks.

So, to wrap all this up, change needs to happen in the K-12 arena (easier said than done) if we’re going to have students prepared for a radically different way of learning and studying. Or we’d need to build into higher education some way of easing students into new methods. Right now we’re probably just looking at particular classes taught by exploratory professors who are willing to test out new methods. It occurs to me that perhaps community colleges could be on the forefront in this, given that we are more teaching focused institutions. Something to mull over…



6 thoughts on “In The Abstract

  1. This is a truly wonderful post. I think Engelbart himself would have been pleased to read it. The writing is warm, imaginative, thoughtful, self-aware, and generous. It’s strongly conceptual as well as usefully practical.

    To use a word Engelbart used in conversation with me the one time we talked, you have “grokked” some of his central ideas. You’re also grokked some essential things about Doug himself. If you want to know more, take a look at the chapter on Doug in Howard Rheingold’s immortal Tools for Thought: it’s called “The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Thinker.

    Thanks for this post. It comes at a good time for me.


  2. Hi Erin,

    Thanks for your post and for getting us started this week. Regarding the relationship of Engelbart to Bush, I found this piece in the Atlantic, “The Hut Where the Internet Began,” written in 2013 after Engelbart’s death. ( There was certainly a direct connection and inspiration.

    I think your point about the connection between K-12 and higher ed is very important. I see this especially in working with the teacher training program at our college…we are struggling to equip our student teachers with the practices and opportunities for digital learning that are already more and more widely adopted at the elementary and secondary level. So in some places and contexts, at least, K-12 is driving higher ed to “think outside the box.”


    1. Thanks! Gardner also sent me to an article which indicates there was indeed a connection between the two, which makes perfect sense to me!
      Agreed on your comment on K-12 — in some ways, historically at least, they have been under more pressure to be innovative. But the resources are so limited, it must be quite the challenge. My husband substitute teaches and I have a few teacher friends. I get the feeling that many would like to do more but then there’s only so much available to you and only so much time in the day. Quite the challenge right now.


  3. Hi, Erin–

    As a classroom teacher (I teach a writing-in-and-about-the-disciplines class to mostly college juniors), your conclusion that we need a new approach to teaching resonates with me. However, I’m not sure I’d tie the problem to books vs. something else (digital artifacts of some kind?). Or at least I’d note that, as far as I can tell, many digital substitutes for textbooks (“course packages,” often ready for installation on an LMS) taken an even more structured/”closed” approach to learning than a traditional textbook. A truly different approach to teaching and learning would have students locating many if not all of their own materials (and of course librarians have a major role to play in that sort of inquiry-based learning).

    While I’m heartened by the progress Morris mentions above (and assume it involves more than substituting digital course packages for textbooks), I think there are some major obstacles to switching to more open, inquiry-based approaches to learning, at the K-12 level and increasingly in colleges as well. The biggest one is probably the culture of accountability and assessment. There’s a lot to be said for learning goals/outcomes; in fact, they’re an excellent way to assure that individual sections/classes that may take very different approaches teach common skills; that’s how the class I teach, offered in over a hundred small sections each semester, is organized, and it works very well. But the greater the focus on standardized assessments, especially standardized tests that revolve around multiple-choice questions with perhaps one essay question, the greater the temptation to “teach to the test,” including using standardized materials, methods of instruction, etc., etc. Digital course packages in particular are not only hard or impossible for an individual instructor to alter; they can also enable an extraordinary level of surveillance of both student and instructor behavior (and guidelines based on observation of what behaviors drive “success,” however defined, in a particular environment easily turn into rules, at which point following the rule often becomes an end in itself, complee with associated rewards and penalties, which often leads to perfunctory performance of the encouraged behavior, which turns out not to support learning as effectively as the original voluntary behavior, if at all). Among other things, that kind of surveillance discourages the kind of supplementation that often takes place with traditional textbooks (nobody knows, after all, if the students actually spent a certain amount of homework time, or a certain number of classroom periods, with chapter 3 open; they just know, based on whatever testing is done, whether the teacher somehow helped the students absorb the material and build the related skills).

    That’s a long way to say that I suspect there are structural issues that need to be addressed before choice of materials can make much difference (or truly become more open/free).

    By the way, we’re offered the Strengths Finder test at GMU, too. I took it sometime in the last year or two, with somewhat different results from yours: apparently I’m very much a strategic thinker. While there are some advantages to such a mindset, it can also get frustrating when one is not in a position that offers much room for strategic thinking (I’m a contingent faculty member, with no service included in my job). So maybe it’s a matter of suiting one’s choice of job to one’s strengths, and vice versa, as well as/as much as trying to work on weaker areas?


    1. Thanks, Cathy! I appreciate your thoughts. Also – agreed – this comes down to effective teaching and learning as a whole and there are a lot of components to that.
      I like your thoughts on the Strengths Finder test. I am in a lower-level, practical work type of job, so ultimately perhaps my strengths fit that.


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