Using a Way-Finding Lens: Sense Making in The Second Self ✭

Photo by Jake Weirick on Unsplash


The following is a post from David Alsdorf,  an educator at a Boston area middle school. As part of the RemixEd project, we have been working with David to prototype digital environments to support students in expressing ideas, organizing their project work, and making their thinking visible to their peers and faculty.

In this post, David shares some reflections on his own experiences using one of the tools we've tested to organize his thinking - highlighting how an experiment in replacing a traditional Learning Management System (Google Classroom) and traditional expressive tools (Docs or Slides)  offers glimpses into what a more creative operating system might look like - and what work such a system might do for better supporting creating thinking and learning. 

Using a Way-Finding Lens: Sense Making in The Second Self ✭

“He was, however, captivated by a process whereby the reflecting mechanism which the machine sets off in the workman can be studied closely, as in a mirror, in the idler.” Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 176-177..

An elective class designed for middle school students on way finding — a combination of hands-on physical computing (e.g., prototyping robots that could turn toward and move North) and philosophy (e.g., analyzing landscape imagery in MLK’s mountaintop/promised land speech) — had a latecomer who joined us several weeks into the semester. The software Milanote was introduced after we had already begun collaborative design work, and also after we had started curating journals of our thoughts and reflections on provocations such as the question regarding MLK’s speech. Students were asked to recreate their journals in this new software. Soon after, a global pandemic closed our school’s campus, and we moved into a remote “habitus”, i.e., a disoriented, less familiar, and non-spatial environment, connected by video conference while distanced by vc’s parallax error, graininess, and lags. Milanote established some continuity in an otherwise disjointed and disrupted time. But what is it and how might it help you, or even, what does it do? In as few words as possible, here is what Milanote has done for me.

Through experience I have a sense of what software is suitable for a given task. Word processing is suited to creating or editing textual narrative, (often) a unilinear narrative form. Spreadsheets host tables and analyses of data in which narrative consists of both data and of the form/s imposed on those data. Presentation software such as Apple’s Keynote opens up wild new possibilities: it can host arrays of either of the other two narrative types (alpha-textual or cell-value/formula) plus images, plus iconography (such as arrows) often comprising the sinuous tissue of a presentation’s narrative, involving arrays of data, story, and imagery, and expositing relationships between them. Agile storytellers may deploy these different software types to create powerful narratives. What more could we want?

It turns out we want for much more. Presentation software supports neither “folders” nor folders-within-folders, such as those that  typically punctuate the landscape of a computer’s “desktop”. The arrangement of these folders, their spatial situated-ness on a plane, or nested and enveloping relationships (i.e., subfolders), disclose or reveal an architecture in which my self “relates its self to its self ~ in a relation” (Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death); they are my “second self” (Turkle) manifest in a web of file and folder pathways. (This could be paraphrased using the “structure/s of care” idiom I have described elsewhere: structures of care are both things toward which I exercise solicitude, and the architecture of that solicitude.)

But can I chart a course through this self that is in principle disclosed by a pathway directory? If a folder holds files of several different types as well as various sub-folders, and within these sub-folders are more files and sub-folders, and so on ad infinitum, a self will likely lose its sense of where files and folders are to be found; the cost of this dis-orientation is a deficit of self-knowledge. If I can’t establish “where I am” (that is, if I cannot find my orientation, way-finding’s first-step), then I can’t chart a course from one place to another. My second self becomes a stranger to me.

Milanote can solve these problems. I may approach the blank canvas of a Milanote workspace much as I would a blank slide in presentation software. However, I may also situate — anywhere on a canvas — a folder (called a “board”), and this folder will support sub-folders. In other words, I can create spatial relationships between text, data, and imagery, but also between folders, on a two dimensional plane; but, more significantly, I may  situate a folder within a folder (and may continue to do so, folders within folders ad infinitum); this allows me to move, or to direct a viewer to, as it were, follow me, not only left, right, up, or down on a two dimensional canvas, but also forwards and backwards through folders (boards) to other dimensions of networked ideas.

There is still more. At any point in this journey forwards or backwards through sub-folders/boards, I may create a new landscape — a canvas — in which I situate text, data, imagery, and folders, and I may construct as it were a landscape of these entities situated within the chosen subfolder. This empowers one to be the analogy of a landscape architect, working with different narrative and data types, here renderable as a navigable and mapped three-dimensional garden.

These affordances allow one to engage in sense-making or way-finding through the projects, resources, and commitments that (to the extent our computers host or mirror our very selves) constitute self-hood. Stated differently, these affordances make possible new architectures that are completely unique to each user. Milanote allows one to design the landscape, create a trail of bread-crumbs, and then navigate in a coherent manner the very landscape one created and which one is always in the process of refining as one works on the projects that comprise one’s commitments.

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