learning, design, technology

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The Association

For the past month or so I’ve been playing Connections, a new daily word game on the NY Times Games site. It shares structural features with Wordle, in that a new puzzle is released once a day and you can share results in a color-coded format that shows how many tries it took you to reach the solution. The gameplay is pretty simple: you’re presented with a 4 x 4 matrix of words, and the challenge is to create four groups of four words that are connected in a distinct category. Sounds simple enough, but there are enough tricky misdirections, overlaps, and obscure connections to make solving a challenge. Besides being fun, the game prompted a few reflections for me about how we make sense of things and how the way the Web works mirrors how our brains work.

Here’a a recent game board (unsolved, for July 1) that I found a bit tricky. If you want to solve here first, just scroll down far enough to see the grid. At the bottom of this post I’ll reveal the solution and make a few comments about the solving process.unsolved game board for Connections puzzle, July 1, 223

In “How Our New Game, Connections, Is Put Together,” developer Wyna Liu describes the process of constructing the game boards. But the concept for the game is not new. It turns out that there is a British television game show, Only Connect, that has a segment called “Connecting Wall” with the identical format and gameplay. Many game critics and people connected to the UK quiz show, including the host, Victoria Cohen-Mitchell, have criticized the NYT for claiming to have created a unique and original game that seems to replicate, without attribution, a show that has been airing for fifteen years on the BBC. It’s likely that there are even earlier antecedents and other knock-offs as well, including the online game PuzzGrid, which features user-submitted boards (and which attributes Only Connect).

Boardgame aficionados are like familiar with Codenames (there’s also browser and app versions), which employs similar mechanisms to create its gameplay. Codenames also uses a grid (five x five) of words and terms among which players are challenged to find connections. But in this case, the connections are not preexisting; one player on a team (the “spymaster”) states a word, and team members identify words on the grid that connect with that word. So in that sense it’s the inverse of Connections and Only Connect; in Codenames, you’re given the category and then you have to find the members that belong to it.

There also happens to be a test that was developed some years back by cognitive scientists called the Remote Associates Test. This tool was originally developed “to assess a wider range of cognitive abilities thought to underline creative thinking,” although it seems to have fallen out of use more recently. The idea is that one is presented with a series of sets of three “stimulus words,” which, on the surface, do not immediately appear related (thus, they are “remote” from one another). The test-taker must then think of a fourth word that is somehow related to each of the first three words. For example, if given the words, “peppermint, dog, and tree,” the common associate might be “bark.” Proficiency in the remote associates test would serve one well not only as a solver but also as a constructor of word association games.

The underlying principle of all these games and tests seems to be the idea of “associative indexing” (hey, that abbreviates to AI … hmm). Associative indexing is a concept perhaps first proposed by the early web visionary Vannevar Bush in his 1945 article, “As We May Think,” an article widely recognized as foreshadowing the eventual emergence of hyperlinked information and the World Wide Web. Bush recognized a fundamental property of human thought, namely that it is “associative.” Any word, term, or concept presented to or generated in the brain evokes a network of associated words, which is relatively unique to each person. A sequence of  such connections forms what Bush termed an “associative trail.”

Bush recognized that our capacity to gain a thorough and comprehensive understanding of a given topic or issue often involves a series of explorations, each one prompted by the previous one, that, taken cumulatively, represents the composition of a framework of knowledge.  That’s how our brains seem to function … one thought or idea priming the next. The problem that Bush grappled with was information overload and the overwhelming accumulation of documented material, which was difficult and burdensome to sift through and search. What Bush envisioned with his idea of the “memex” was an external device and system by which the brain could move smoothly from one source, text, document, to other related sources in a series of moves (the “trail”). A half century later, Bush’s vision was largely realized with the advent of hyperlinks and the World Wide Web.

Perhaps the reason we (or at least I) enjoy games like Connections so much is that they exercise this fundamental aspect of our cognitive operations, namely, our capacity to group ideas and concepts according to relationships. There is perhaps much more that can be said as to what this reveals about how we think, and that might be the subject of another post someday. The “categories” that we attempt to discover in Connections or Only Connect invoke the ontological notions articulated, for example by Aristotle (in a more “objective” or metaphysical sense) and Kant (in a more “subjective” or epistemological sense). Admittedly, these sublime philosophical notions may be less in play when the categories presented in the games are “Title TV Doctors” or “Band Names Minus Numbers” (I mean, come on). But even pop culture topics can engage our innate capacity to group like things together.

Word games like Connections call to mind other subfields and concepts of philosophy, cognitive science, and language, such as taxonomy, polysemy, disambiguation, domain knowledge, and lateral thinking. Taxonomies involve systems of classification that organize objects according to similarities of properties, often in a hierarchical arrangement from the general to the specific. Like ontologies, taxonomies employ categories (e.g., animals, vertebrates, mammals, primates, etc.), though with perhaps less attention to the ultimate nature of what a thing is in itself (its ontology). Polysemy refers to the property of language by which words have multiple meanings, senses, or references, often only remotely related. This is just a guess, but it seems the English, among the major world languages, has a particularly high degree of polysemicity. This may be because modern English has absorbed vocabulary from so many distinct languages and culture over the last several hundred years. Polysemy is the basis for many types of word games such as Connections; the interest and challenge comes from disambiguating among the multiple possible senses of a word. Domain knowledge obviously comes in very handy for solving puzzles … I mean, most of the time, you either know something or you don’t, right? Granted, the domains in question for a particular puzzle might not be all that profound (“fictional pirates,” say, or “Monopoly squares”), but everything forms part of the background knowledge of our culture, maybe like the background radiation of the cosmos, perhaps faint but ever present. And solving puzzles prompts us to use lateral thinking in order to approach the unknown from indirect and unconventional paths of inquiry.

OK, now for that Connections puzzle from July 1. So, one thing to remember is that each puzzle should have a unique solution. That is a constraint that creates a clear expectation for the solver. The initial challenge of the puzzle is not that the words are particularly obscure; actually, a greater degree of ambiguity can be created with more common and unspecialized terms. Rather, a challenge that becomes obvious fairly quickly is that there are some legitimate groupings of more that four terms. Red herrings can flash their polysemy by being a candidate for two or more groups. For example, there are clearly five types of grain, five royal titles, and five movie directors in the grid. But we want groups of four. The first step is to nail down at least one category that can have four and only four members. After putting together those three groups of five, I was just left with the word “brown.” I needed to add one word from each of my three groups of five to go with “brown” … but which ones would they be, and what would be the connection among them?

I rearranged different combinations of words on my scratchpad, and came up short for the longest time. Finally though, as I ran through possible referents for “brown” and looked at the other words, I saw “duke” and “rice,” and the penny dropped. Colleges! Was there one more from the movie director list that could join them? Yes, “Howard” it was. So, they’re “universities” and not “colleges,” but whatever. The disambiguation process was complete, and I had my solution.

It’s worth pointing out that getting the category correctly described is a distinct step beyond identifying the four members that belong to it. In this case, for example, it was not just a group of well known film directors, but a specific group of “best director oscar winners.” It can happen that, after getting the first three groups, the game is basically over, because the contents of the fourth group are obvious. Yes, but it still may not be clear what is the connecting association among those four remaining terms. For example, in this morning’s puzzle (July 7), I was left with “blink, maroon, sum, u” as my final quartet. I had no clue; do you? This turned out to be the aforementioned “Band Names Minus Numbers.” Even after the reveal, I could only identify U2. Obviously not part of my background domain knowledge.

It would be fun to construct these puzzles as well as to solve them. Creating the appropriate level of difficulty for a given audience of solvers can itself be a tricky puzzle. I think as a rule the association among the words should be semantic, and not orthographic (they all contain the letter z!) or phonemic (they all rhyme!), or something like that. But this can be a judgment call. So to date, Connections puzzles have included categories like “Spices that start with ‘C’,” and “Words Spelled with Roman Numerals.” A particularly enjoyable type of category is when all the terms combine with another term in recognizable ways … like “Mr. __” (bean, clean, fox, peanut), or “Sound __” (asleep, barrier, bite, wave).

In case you’re wondering (though you likely aren’t) … there was a band called The Association, which the post title might have primed you to recall. Not just any band but, more specifically, a “sunshine pop” band. So if you ever see a word wall with “Sagittarius,”  “Eternity’s Children,” “Peppermint Rainbow,” and “The Left Banke,” you’ll know what you’re dealing with. And, to be sure … these are also all examples of band names that do not include a number.

Whence and Whither the Web: Some Thoughts on Reclaim Open

Last week I attended Reclaim Open, a gathering of folks to reconnect and rethink the World Wide Web at age thirty. Where have we come from, where are we, where are we going? And I think the emphasis is on the “we” of the “web” … the people who connect and share and learn across an infrastructure that is at once material, technological, conceptual, and social. We reminisced about our earliest forays into the open spaces of the Web, thought about the winding pathways that we have wandered down, and pondered the Web of the future. As you might imagine at a Reclaim gathering, there was a distinct theme of recovering and re-presenting, or making present again, the best of the Web … the sense of experimentation, possibility, openness, and pro-social connection. In the face of the corporatization of the Web, of surveillance, trolling, paywalling, gatekeeping, performativity, etc., etc. …  could we recover and reclaim this space as a place where genuine and authentic and human interaction can flourish?

The conference prompted me to retrace my pathway through almost thirty years of life on the Web, and I’ll recall some of those highlights soon enough, but first … the event itself was first and foremost about connecting and reconnecting with the stalwart band of folks who make up the Reclaim ed-tech community. To once again greet old friends and to meet new friends was to reclaim a form of presence that, for all its wonders, even the open Web itself cannot replicate. At the risk of leaving out by name many wonderful people, I’ll just mention a couple of those reconnections. Bryan Alexander was there to give the final keynote of the conference, and it happened that he and I twice together walked the thirty minutes or so from our hotel to the conference site at the UMW campus. Far from being incidental and interstitial times, these walks were delightful opportunities to chat with one of the most generous, kind, and productive persons in our field. And speaking of delightful … how good it was to see Laura Gibbs once again and to share tacos and ice cream on our last night in Fredericksburg. I could go on to give other highlights, but really, just go and watch for yourself the keynotes from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Rajiv Jhangiani, and Bryan, as well as many of the outstanding breakout sessions

The Web is old enough now to have layers of tradition, of practices and experiences that can be handed on, shared, built upon, but that can also become distorted and corrupted. And I recalled at one point the salience of some terms from my own background as a former full-time professor of theology, notably, the idea of anamnesis, which derives originally from a liturgical context and refers to “making present again,” or experiencing the meaning of past events as being fully present. Literally, it means” to not have amnesia,” and I think that’s one thing we were trying to do at Reclaim Open … to not have amnesia about the most formative and important elements of the Web. Mind you, this is not the same as “nostalgia,” although there were perhaps moments of that as well at our gathering. I think you can have both, in a way … you can look back wistfully at what was, while at the same time recommitting to making the best of the past present again.

When the Web emerged on the scene in the early to mid 1990s, I was teaching at a small seminary in southern Indiana, having lived in Washington DC the previous several years doing my graduate work in theology. So I had a life—even an adult life—before ever hearing of or experiencing the Web. And perhaps that’s not irrelevant when it comes to appreciating the sheer magic of the hyperlink. To this day I have not lost the sense of wonder about this marvelous invention. My first transport was that, though I had relocated to the rural midwest from DC, I could continue to read the Washington Post, which I had come to enjoy during my years in DC. It may not sound like a big deal today, but in 1995 I was thrilled that I could read the Post just as easily, and really, even more so, than I had before.

The platform of this magic carpet ride was Netscape Navigator. A browser, though I now wonder: how did the term “browser” come to designate that application through which we explore the Web? I mean, to “browse” means to look over casually or to skim … and (I didn’t know this), that’s actually a secondary sense of the term. To be sure, there was and is a fair amount of “casual skimming,” but the term may have some resonances that are less than fortunate … implying a lack of serious engagement, a skittering along the surface, an impermanence and ephemerality of contact and content. For me though, I thought of the web more as a great library that I could spend time in with deeper and longer forms of reading. 

Soon enough, as we moved into the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the landscape (or netscape, of course) continued to evolve, and I began to curate a small collection of websites to visit and to draw on for both personal and professional purposes. This was clearly the era of Web 1.0, the read-only Web, and at that point I did not really have a strong impetus to create my own sites. I was beginning to learn basic HTML and became familiar with tilde spaces, but, for various reasons, I did not yet aspire to make my own venture into digital self-publishing. The first round of the browser wars was heating up, and I watched with dismay as Navigator was eclipsed by Microsoft Explorer. I felt that the “right” browser, the more aesthetically elegant browser, the browser that represented the plucky inventiveness of higher ed, had lost out to the corporate behemoth that was already using its near-monopoly power to control the desktop. But as we would later realize, what goes around comes around … and around and around again.

By the early 2000s we were offering the first online courses at my school. At the time it felt daring and innovative. It happened that on several occasions, I offered the same course at the same time to two different sets of students, an in-the-classroom group of (mostly) seminarians, and an online group of lay degree students. My bright idea was to record my in-classroom lectures (yes, they were mostly lectures … I didn’t know any better at the time) and to post them on whatever learning management system we were using—goodness, I don’t even remember what it was. Then I created forums where students from both groups would discuss readings, topics, ideas, etc. It doesn’t sound revolutionary today, I know, but at the time it really was, because at our school there weren’t so many opportunities for seminarians and lay degree students to interact on a serious theological level. There were revelatory moments as I discovered, for example, just how clerical some of the priests-to-be already were in their thinking. That’s a topic for another day. In any event, even though this technically was not taking place on the fully “open Web,” it gave me a sense of what could be in that space. 

We were moving into Web 2.0, the “read-write” Web, though I was somewhat slow to embrace the “write” and “create” possibilities that new platforms and tools represented. All the same, my interest in academic technology continued to grow, and by the late oughts, I found myself beginning a transition toward a full-time career in ed-tech. I continued teaching theology part-time and picked up a master’s degree in Instructional Systems Technology (fully online) from Indiana University. I landed a gig as a “Digital Pedagogy Designer” at Austin College, a small liberal arts college not in Austin but in Sherman, TX, about an hour north of Dallas. I came as part of a Mellon-funded program, “Collaborative Pedagogies for a Digital Age,” and for three years got to do all the fun stuff … starting a blog, Digital Pedagogy @ Austin College, getting into the twittersphere, and supporting a bunch of cool faculty and student projects. 

This was a time, in the early to mid 2010s, that I started to develop a more robust conceptual framework for what was happening online and on the Web. I had, for example, learned about the notion of the “personal cyberinfrastructure” from Gardner Campbell and the idea of “thinking like the web” from Jon Udell. It all made so much sense. I remember as I started my position at AC I came across an article in EDUCAUSE Review from 2014, “Reclaiming Innovation,” by Jim Groom and Brian Lamb … I know I read that piece several times as I felt myself trying to catch up and figure out the fuller scope of where we had come with the web and where we were going.

That article from almost ten years ago sounded so many of the same themes that we talked about at Reclaim Open last week. In 2014 we were in the early wake of the post-MOOC era, and even then, the cry was, “What happened to the open web?” “What happened to the energy and promise that animated the early web, when colleges and university campuses were the epicenter of web culture, having designed and built the entire internet infrastructure from which the web emerged?” “Where are we, two decades later?” And now it’s three decades later, and the questions still press on us … “Where are we?” I could go on, but really, go back and read that piece from Jim and Brian (though unfortunately, the videos from the original piece are no longer available … link rot is a thing about the Web that makes “reclaiming” particularly challenging).

In the mid to late 2010s, I made more forays into the ed-tech conference world and took more chances to learn and think about how the web works. My first major conference was ET4 Online in 2015, which I blogged about here. In 2017, I attended Domains 17, the first of the now biennial gatherings of the Reclaim community, and blogged about that as well. I taught a course at AC called “How the Web Works,” and participated in an experimental online connectivist course, #OpenLearning17, organized by Gardner Campbell and colleagues, who led us through a series of readings and conversations around some of the fundamental texts and practices of the open Web … think about pioneers such as Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson, etc. That was a fruitful opportunity to explore and write about some key elements of the open Web, which I did in posts such as “Happy (Associative) Trails to You, Revisited,” “Augmented Intelligence: The True and Only AI,” and “Magical Combinations: Notes from a TED Talk.”

In 2017 I took up my current position as Director of Academic Technology at Grinnell College, and found myself the new administrator of our then fledgling Domains project, Sites @ Grinnell. So that’s taken me to the next level of enabling our campus community to discover the power of the open Web and the central place of digital literacies and networks in the liberal arts. Without unduly extending this already too-long post, I’ll just say that, after almost thirty years, it is a real treat to be in a position to be part of this community at Reclaim and to help folks at our campus claim and reclaim their space and voice on the open Web.

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