Friday, April 25, 2008

Why is this research needed?

Both because I have to do this for my thesis, and because I think about this a fair amount in any case, here is how I'm currently thinking about the rationale for the line of research I'm following.

More than ever before, society must deal with complex, "wicked" problems, where there are competing definitions of the nature of the issues, where people have divergent interests, ways of talking and listening, and modes of expression, where there are constraints and urgent considerations on many different levels, and where information is found, manipulated, and exchanged in many different media and representational forms.

To support these multifaceted needs, communication media and methods are required that can support people's ability to look at issues from many points of view, over time, from multiple perspectives, to make connections between ideas and arguments at many levels, and share them at different times and in different ways. This requires successful construction of, engagement with, and maintenance of clear, expressive, and coherent textual, visual, and aural representational artifacts that can serve these purposes. The events where groups of people create and work with such methods would ideally be characterized by flow, synergy, expressiveness, articulate dialogue, careful listening, and reflection, aided by representational artifacts that evolve in response to the unfolding conversation.

One family of artifacts that holds the potential to serve these needs is hypermedia knowledge maps, which can comprise many different representational forms and kinds of connections between ideas. One of the chief places such artifacts can and should be used are in real-time meetings of people, both face-to-face and online, where participants create and add to maps of ideas and connections as part of the way they talk about the issues they are confronting. I use the term "participatory hypermedia construction" to refer to use of this medium in meetings, especially when participants are directly engaged in the creation and modification of the knowledge maps.

Unfortunately, over the more than twenty years since software tools allowing the creation of participatory hypermedia artifacts started to become widely available, many research efforts and practical experiences have found it difficult to realize their potential. Keeping complex, interconnected hypermedia artifacts clear and coherent in real time has proven to require a high level of skill and flexibility with the tools and methods involved, so much so that the medium has been dismissed by many as unworkable or unnatural. However, small groups of researchers and practitioners continue to believe that its potential can be realized, that tools and methods will be developed that can transcend the limitations of other media used for discussion and issue exploration.

This research aims to move beyond both the utopian claims of early proponents (largely not borne out in practice), as well as the premature dismissals of the medium based on an inadequate understanding of the skills involved, by treating the medium itself as a given -- as an established form of practice that can be evaluated, interrogated, and considered from such viewpoints as aesthetics and ethics, just like other, more established forms of media practice are. By doing so, I hope to highlight areas where incremental improvements in training, tools, and methods can aid aspiring practitioners enhance their effectiveness in helping people get value from the medium.

I take the approach of looking closely at what does and doesn't work in actual participatory hypermedia construction sessions. I examine how practitioners of different skills and styles try (and sometimes fail) to keep the hypermedia artifacts useful, coherent, and engaging, especially in the moment-to-moment flow of events where actual practice unfolds.

I focus on the activity of shaping the maps during the sessions, especially at the moments where there is some kind of discontinuity or anomaly, looking at how practitioners and participants respond and recover from the breach in the expected flow of events. I'm particularly interested in the individual and collaborative sensemaking that occur at such moments, and at the ways these intersect, highlighting the types of human skills and practitioner moves that, either by their presence or their absence, make the difference in moving the sessions toward their intended outcomes.

By closely interrogating participatory hypermedia construction practice and highlighting the kinds of skills that need to be developed and supported, I hope to help practitioners and participants realize the unique potential of the medium, so that they can better use it to facilitate the kind of multidimensional communication that is so sorely needed.

1 comment:

Barbara Selvin said...

You and your cohort of researchers are paving the way for those yet to come. Unless this form of sensemaking turns out to be a blind alley, your intellectual descendants will hail you as the pioneers--though you may never receive their appreciation. And if participatory hypermedia construction remains an elusive goal, the work you've done will at least rule some things out. That's not nothing.