Seeding the Knowledge Garden Beta Lab: Developing a Cross-disciplinary course in Knowledge Design & Curation for George Brown College.
By Jim Kinney, Professor, School of Art & Design, George Brown College.
The number of web pages in existence today is estimated at anywhere from 25 billion to 1 Trillion and is moving towards an infinite value. Having the equivalent of all human knowledge a mere Google search away confers knowledge power on the average internet user that eclipses the wildest imaginations of our predecessors yet, in order to fully utilize this incredible resource, requires that we are able to harness this chaotic agglomeration by subjecting it to a process of refinement.
The rigour of computer science and library science has helped to make this infinite datascape easier to navigate, search and visualize. As more of our economic activity migrates to this space, productivity gains as well as new ways of interacting stimulate the emergence of novel economic patterns with new value propositions. These emerging values do not conform to the old paradigms of vertical, hierarchal organisation and functional specialization with their synchronized production of concrete artefacts.
Artefact production is an anachronism of an industrial age that we have been increasingly outsourcing and leaving behind. We have migrated to a new space where value lies not in things but in relationships and this new landscape has opened the door to a creative impulse that has not been experienced since the dawning of the renaissance.
The adept is one who can work outside the traditional constraints of space, time and function and who can assume a multiplicity of roles and adapt on the fly to rapidly changing environments. These participants in the new economy will, by necessity, be effective in team-based approaches and organizations will need to move to a rapid response or Just-In-Time operational model that can accommodate changes in the wind and allow for innovation.
In order to allow for the incubation, acceleration and commercialization of ideas organizations will need processes and infrastructure that allow for a design-centred approach that can quickly prototype, test and refine ideas for market. Part of an effective infrastructure will be a cultural apparatus that promotes multi-disciplinary collaborations that allow for the confluence of design thinking, new methods, materials and technologies to solve problems in a myriad of domains such as healthcare, service sectors, security, finance, etc.
Crucial to the success of this design-centred approach will be building the capacity to capture and curate process knowledge on the fly in order to build a powerful, searchable knowledge repository that can be drawn upon to inform other teams working on other projects. The ability to organize effective teams and capture their experiences, as it happens, and to use this intelligence in debriefs to inform standards of best practice will be an integral tool in the emerging economy. The ability to modularize the functionality of knowledge assets in order to enhance their accessibility and usefulness as well as an ability to re-configure and repurpose these assets for a variety of applications constitute an emerging skillset. See Appendix 1 (Knowledge Worker)
Participants in the emerging economy will require broad base of skills that can be adapted to a multitude of scenarios in order to collaboratively, co-create, curate, distribute and monetize digital assets and experiences. Whether you are a Chef working with a programmer to produce an interactive mobile menu application that will allow for people around the globe to participate in a cooking class from home or whether you are a Palliative Care practitioner who is documenting patient care and interactions on a tablet in consultation with a medical doctor, you will need to know how to work in a team in order to design workflows and applications that help you to optimize your outcomes. Given that these complex systems are rendered more usable through rich visual interfaces, at least a rudimentary knowledge of these processes would be critical to establishing a common framework of practice around how information in the moment is best captured and made usable. This forms the basis for a new class of participant in the emergent economy that we can call the knowledge holder/creator. The knowledge holder must be adept at working with programmers, engineers and designers to render their knowledge into assets and experiential opportunities that are more accessible and usable by a broader spectrum of clients. The knowledge holder will need to learn the skills of capturing and curating their know-how in ways that optimize this accessibility and usability.
The Knowledge Garden Project
This project used a team-based, distributed model of peer-to-peer learning that was designed as an adaptive response to pervasive, persistent and aggressive change in technology.
By reframing traditional classroom roles and empowering students as co-creators/designers of knowledge, over 150 individuals were soon doing the work that was done by only one. The ability to rapidly research, demonstrate, document, podcast, archive and curate a myriad of learning experiences across a broad spectrum delivered the power to generate know-how that was vastly superior in both quality and quantity to what could have been done by a professor alone.
The fact that subsequent teams of students would assume stewardship of this resource meant that an entirely new generation of stakeholders could work on updating and improving the resource by adding searchability, improved assets, better organization, etc. Even if a new release meant that over 30 hours of podcast instruction and hundreds of PDF manual pages were rendered obsolete, the new owners could cope with this. While this would represent an unmitigated disaster for a group of professors this was a relatively simple fact of life that could easily be remedied with another burst of creativity from its stakeholders. Individually, the task was leviathan, collectively—it was relatively easy.
In this model the professor took on the role of mentor providing research direction that best tied to the problems being tackled. Finally, the professor acted as a knowledge harvester—taking the best materials and promoting their use within a content system by the broader student population.
This new methodology combined with some software and hardware infrastructure paved the way for creating a Just In Time or RISK-based approach to learning (Rapid Integration of Skills and Knowledge).
Beta Lab (Knowledge Curation and Design Course)
While the provenance of this idea was borne in the context of teaching software to Graphic Design students it quickly became apparent that the real potential for innovation lay in bringing design practice, RISK methodology and Knowledge capture/curation infrastructure and know-how to non-traditional disciplines in order to widen the net of inclusion and to “push the envelope” as it were in disciplines that, traditionally, had not enjoyed the sort of knowledge/tech transfer that designers have enjoyed since the mid 1980’s. It occurred to me that a multi-disciplinary approach had the potential to float many more boats and provide a context for rich interdisciplinary collaborations that would address some of the key skills and competencies required by the communities that we serve—namely, the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively.
A workforce that has the knowledge skill and infrastructure to capture and reframe the intelligence of their respective fields delivers the capacity to transform those fields by making their know-how accessible, searchable, transferrable, comprehensible and highly mobile. These new modalities have the added capacity to generate revenue and promote great efficiencies while binding participants in the process to powerful new modes of interaction and providing them with direct participation at the epicentre of the new and emerging economy.
The Ground Covered
I have worked since 2003 on refining methods of peer-based collaboration within the context of design. My students have self-organized, self-taught, demonstrated and published a wealth of materials in the three primary areas of Photocomposition, Illustration and Page Layout/ Printing using Adobe’s industry standard toolsets. The learning was contextualized in solving three main problems: The production of highly realistic illustrations using the two-dimensional medium of Adobe Illustrator and the compilation of a manual that detailed the tools, tips and techniques necessary for accomplishing the task. Further explorations of Photoshop were required in order to produce a compelling piece of cover art for the manual and InDesign was used to publish the materials as a PDF book. Rather than learning being a series of seemingly disconnected factoids, each element eventually took its rightful place in a sequence whose sum resulted in expert and compelling works. All of the research presentation and publishing were co-ordinated and executed in a collective fashion while the Illustrations, naturally, provided an outlet for individual expression and grading. It was a blended form of learning that, while it allowed for a summative expression of individual abilities, could not have been made possible without a concerted commitment to a group-based approach to learning.
Initially, Students not only showcased their individual talents (some of whom won international design awards from Adobe) but they each shared the fruits of their collective efforts in the form of a beautifully designed and extremely informative manual covering key functions of three very key Adobe toolsets.
In 2009 I participated in a joint research project with Apple Computer and three other Canadian universities that allowed me to explore the potential for the creation and distribution of mobile learning assets for and by students. This opportunity resulted in the generation of a rich, searchable resource that could be configured and used both on an individual and a collective level. In addition to the usual production of illustrations, cover art and how-to manuals, over 200 podcasts were generated many employing closed captioning and several executed in other languages such as Spanish and Mandarin—effectively transforming what would normally be considered as a roadblock to learning into a terrific learning advantage. The racial and linguistic diversity of our large urban mosaic was changed from challenge to opportunity by leveraging this inherent capacity to speak to the world. On conclusion of the research, infrastructure was repatriated and, only recently, has it been re-established with the acquisition of a new podcast and wiki server. Ideally, it would have been helpful to acquire a third authentication and sign-on server but we are working on managing these resources in a very independent manner that allows us to minimize reliance on IT resources and maximize experimentation and innovation by way of this relative autonomy.
It occurred to me that the course should build incrementally in order to develop best practices, test infrastructure robustness and requirements and that early iterations should be limited to design students with proven capacity to work with these technologies and document their processes in a clear and usable manner. Later iterations should ideally reach out to include other departments within our school in order to allow them to explore untapped niches of opportunity in their own domains. Eventually, in the third phase the course would encourage community members NGOs/agencies and private companies to partner with the program in order to leverage our capacity for providing solutions to these problems. I envision a cross-disciplinary team that would involve second or senior year students from various departments in order to provide a broad base of skill sets, a variety of faculty consultants, an IT liaison, a community partner with a problem to solve and a technology provider who sees in the community partner an opportunity to explore untapped applications for their product. This ecosystem of stakeholders would then collectively define and deliver innovation in the sectors represented by our community partners. The college itself could be designated as its own community partner and derive benefit from the creation of a cutting-edge knowledge ecosystem that buoys up underserviced areas. For instance, the simple inclusion of closed captioning as part of any workflow by student researchers creates a direct benefit of inclusion for a broader swath of the community!
Just In Time
The benefits of access to pre-release (beta-level) engagement with toolsets are significant. Instead of reacting to change, participants would have a role in shaping the changes affecting them by occupying a seat at the table where decisions are being made. This ground-sourced form of participation is a trend that will continue to grow and be incorporated in the development and marketing strategies of most leading companies. Any institution that can incorporate this form of dialogue into its program cannot help but assume a leadership role in shaping future trends and, as a corollary of this approach, its students are given significant lead times that allow them to anticipate and prepare for the changes that will effect their respective industries in ways that are profitable to them and the organizations that they work for.
Already the wheels have been set in motion with Apple Computer and Adobe Systems with respect to high value strategic relationships that involve this sort of cutting edge research and curriculum. Eventually, I envision an evolution of the lab where a multi-disciplinary team of students works with faculty, IT, a community partner using pre-release technologies that are being tested on real world problems—moving from scenarios of theoretical use to actual case use. Students and faculty would not only gain experience in emerging technologies ahead of the curve, they would get to apply it in particular instances relative to a problem identified in the community. They would also capture and curate this know-how and report to the various stakeholders on progress. The beta providers would gain access to a team of researchers who would provide critical bench testing of their wares and access data relevant to contextual use scenarios as well as proof of use for new markets/customers. They also would share in the warehoused knowledge and make this public on the release date. The fact that the beta providers could then offer the know-how material that was produced to their traditional user base as well as to anticipated new markets is a powerful incentive to participate.
The college would have the advantage of having know-how embedded in its participants but also in the form of searchable podcasts that could then be distributed to the broader community on the release date. The students, too, would have established a leadership position vis-à-vis this know-how and would have developed valuable research and collaboration skills in the process.
An opportunity also exists to license and distribute this content to create an income stream through Knowledge channels such as Lynda.com, iTunes, etc.
Strategically, Knowledge Capture and its curation are highly significant in adapting to the skills and knowledge vacuum created by the wave of succession caused by the Boomer generation’s exit from the workforce. Implicit knowledge held by Boomers, is in danger of being lost if it is not expressed, captured and repurposed for a smaller, younger generation taking the reins. Much work needs to be done in helping organizations acquire and utilize the capacity to capture and re-purpose the strategically important knowledge that constitutes their intellectual capital and competitive advantage. It is entirely reasonable to promote this form of Knowledge design and curation as a standard business practice.
What We Need
The project has only tacit approval at this stage. The course outline has been submitted to both the Director, Luigi Ferrara and his Co-ordinator, Judith Gregory for approval. We will need:
Lab space: Room to accommodate 15-20 people with tables in the centre to facilitate face to face interactions. White boards around perimeter to allow dtailing of discussions and prototyping.
Podcast Server/WIKI server (already acquired)
Service contracts to guarantee QS. On system configuration and maintenance
10 new computers (preferably Mac)
High bandwidth Wireless connection to the internet
VPN clients for senior administrators
Pre-release Software/Hardware and reporting software
Cross-disciplinary liaison to assist with outreach and building connections to other departments.
Creation of cross-curricular (Gen Ed) Requirement or accreditation possibly incentivized by two credits.
Ability to extend tenure of particpants to more than one term.
Terms of Engagement Agreements/ NDA’s, etc.
Legal advise on streamlining a process for binding a diverse group of stakeholders to the obligations of a Non-disclosure agreement while upholding the rights of individuals or organizations bound by them.
The will and the vision to support the project.
The success of this enterprise is contingent on a number of factors. First, if the institution and its leaders fails to understand what is at stake and what the benefits are, it will be difficult to promote the risk-taking necessary to facilitate the acquisition of adequate resources and to experiment with new approaches in delivery. Cross-disciplinary approaches are difficult to co-ordinate with willing partners. A climate of risk mitigation will minimize participation in unproven territory and will default to a wait-and-see approach that is anathema to innovation—cultural acceptance of risk taking is necessary. Binding agreements between stakeholders need to be negotiated in order to ensure longer term viability. This will require signatories at the management level to give the project the endorsement it requires and to negotiate relationships that work to serve the interest of all parties involved. Other faculty and managers need to be educated on the significance of the approach and how it is validated through research and is consistent with emerging trends in experiential learning and is ideally suited as an adaptation and innovation methodology.
All stakeholders must perceive advantage in engaging with this approach and must be given a role in determining the contours of the engagement. Exclusion of any one party could result in a disconnection and a failure to “own” and promote the process towards excellence.
Given its marginal, off-grid approach adequate IT support for this project has been ad hoc in nature. Proper resourcing of IT support will be crucial to the success of any joint venture and care has to be taken to ensure clear and open channels of communication between our internal support and those of our technology providers. Failure to ensure that our technology partners and our internal IT partners are aligned in their respective tasks will result in technical impasses that will delay the move forward with project-based research.
NDAs are extremely important to partners providing pre-release opportunities and cultivating a climate of discretion and secrecy will be of the utmost importance. An interviewing process and the signing of binders by participants can help to lend weight to this necessity and the violation of these agreements would, understandably, do irreparable damage to the partner, the beta project and the reputation of the institution. The lab and the participants will be under wraps until the release date at which point we will be at liberty to share our successes and leverage any content/processes.
Non participation would effectively render the ambitions of this project to being moot and, so, proper promotion of its merits to the college community, managers, faculty, students and the broader community will be key to its long term success. Failure to promote the enterprise will result in its marginalization and eventual decline.
Keeping the initial offering limited to a small, select number of students will constitute budgetary pressure on the local level but will be necessary in order to ensure manageable success. The research-based focus may well present opportunities to attract research grants from government agencies, internal funding as well as our partners who will already be supplying in-kind investments of technology for our use but may well provide additional funding. Our community partners may best be able to provide an infusion of financial support given that we are helping them to solve a problem. The lab should be kept to a small group of 10-15 students and the professors involvement would require a release of two teaching blocks to accommodate proper oversight. As the lab culture matures we may be able to move to a staffing model where a student from a previous year is given the paying position of research lead and reducing the amount of direct involvement by the professor.
Debriefing sessions will be crucial to monitoring the health of a project and for instituting best-practices that will guide and inform future project participants. This will provide an opportunity to garner feedback/ratings from the various participants. A reporting structure will be necessary in order to share findings with the management layer and provide transparency and accountability on performance. Where NDAs allow, opportunities should be sought for presenting findings in the public domain through conferences, workshops etc. and victories and accomplishments should be celebrated in vehicles that are accessible to all of the parties (Trade Magazines, Symposia, Conferences, etc.).
This project represents over seven years of methodically acquiring resources, experimenting with methods and promoting its potential. I have every confidence that, with the proper support and dedication to its vision, it will help to place our college in a leadership position not only in innovation in teaching and learning but in providing new capacity to non “design-oriented” domains that will allow them to leverage the power of the knowledge that they hold and to migrate that knowledge into more contemporary domains that provide efficiencies as well as revenue-generating potiential.
I am excited to begin forging bold new partnerships and building something new and powerful that will serve our communities for years to come.