Indigenous Online Learning Software

The text on this particular page describes very specifically our work to develop online learning software. This project is still at such an early stage of process that we’re not assembling a team for it yet. The text here is intended to serve as something of a position paper that invites interested potential collaborators to look at what we’re trying to do and correspond with us to advance the work. So if you have ideas about what we’re trying to do we’d like to hear from you, whether you’re Indigenous or not. We’ve got a lot to learn and are particularly interested in talking to potential collaborators with expertise in cognitive science, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, learning theory, pedagogy, epistemology, and computer engineering fields including quantum computing. And if you’re an artist, filmmaker, musician, dancer, storyteller, teacher, yoga practitioner, or anyone else who feels your way of interacting with the world makes your gut or your heart respond to our page about this software idea, write and tell us about it. Diversity is what generates the power of emergent Knowledge.

But before you write us, please review these supporting documents first to get a better idea of what it is we’re trying to do.

1. What would learning software look like if it manifested Indigenous ways of knowing?

Indigenous ways of knowing and learning are different from those of the dominant culture in several key ways. Among the most important of these is that it uses and integrates many different ways knowing (e.g., intellectual, experiential, mythic, and spiritual), and is relational, reciprocal, and therefore highly contextual. Such learning is complex, in the sense of that term referring to complexity theory. Very simply, a key principle of complexity theory is that in a system where there are sufficient numbers of different items of some sort (such as information, stimuli, organisms, molecules, etc.), there is a point at which self-organizing properties cause spontaneous emergence of a new level of organization (of information, stimuli, organisms, molecules, etc.). Learning in the dominant culture, however, is generally perceived and modeled as a linear process. Some of these distinctions between complex Indigenous learning pedagogy and epistemology and linear Western learning pedagogy and epistemology are discussed in two papers co-authored by Tapestry Founder Dawn Hill Adams and Tapestry board member Shawn Wilson (with R. Heavy Head, E.G. Gordon, and F. Cram), here and in the book chapter cited on our Publications page (the first being available for free download, but not the second). These papers may serve as reference points for people wanting to understand what we’re trying to do so they can participate.

Another publication, that appears on this website as an Occasional Paper, Assessment as Acculturation: Procrustes in the Land Between the Mountain and the Sea (Adams, 2015), specifically addresses complexity in learning processes in humans as a whole. Neurological, sociological, and other research studies are increasingly documenting the fact that learning is a complex phenomenon in human experiences of all kinds, regardless of the linear ways it’s assumed to take place in standard educational systems. This suggests that although Indigenous cultures use complex learning systems and would benefit from the software we’re trying to develop, people of dominant cultures also inherently learn in complex ways and would benefit from a learning system that aligned better with their own neurological systems than do the linear systems to which they are usually exposed. A key portion of this cited publication is reproduced here so it can be easily accessed by potential collaborators in this project, although the entire paper is designed to illustrate complex learning by its very layout and should be explored by those interested in this subject.

—— (begin excerpt from Assessment as Acculturation: Procrustes in the Land Between the Mountain and the Sea, Adams 2015; references cited appear at the bottom of this web page) —

A Neurological Model for Integrated Knowing.

The late Francisco Varela was Fondation de France Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at Ecole Polytecnique; Director of Research at CNRS, Paris; and head of the Neurodynamics Unit at the Salpetrière Hospital, Paris. In one of his most famous studies, he used the image you see to the right. Take a look at it, wait a while, and you will recognize it. Then scroll down past the “spoiler space” I’ve inserted to find out why the image is so meaningful.

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You were probably able to perceive a face in the picture after a while: a woman’s face looking to our right, with a fairly sharp nose and her forehead, cheeks, and chin bathed in bright light. Because people are able to perceive the face after studying it for a while, Varela said this kind of image created a “perception condition” in the brain. And what he did was figure out the steps of what happened in your brain, just then, as you recognized that the black and white shapes made a face.

To do this, Varela gave people this and other images and told them to look at it, then push a button when they realized what it was. While subjects were looking at and trying to make sense of these images, EEG electrodes were measuring what happened in their brains. You can see the pattern of activity in the drawings of the image below, which show four stages: the moment the person first sees the image, the period of time during which the person is starting to recognize what the image is a picture of, the instant called “synchrony” when the person goes “Aha!” and understands what they are seeing, and the moment when they move their finger (motor response) to push the button that signals they now know what it is a picture of.

At the moment called “synchrony” you see what Varela calls a “scatter” pattern, which refers to the fact that suddenly neurons all over the brain fire at once. This is the instant of “aha” that you felt when you suddenly saw the face. To give you an idea of how rapidly this whole set of processes happens, msec here (in the image above) is milliseconds – one- one/thousandths of a second. Until this study (in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience in 2001), people thought the recognition process was linear, or that it happened in one part of the brain. But let me read you the words Varela himself used to explain what happens (11):

“When we perform a cognitive act – for example, we have a visual perception – the perception is not the simple fact of an image in the retina. There are many, many sites in the brain that come active. The big problem… is how these many, many active parts become coherent to form a unity. When I see you, the rest of my experience – my posture, my emotional tone – is all a unit. It is not dispersed, with perception here and movement there. . . How does that happen? Imagine that each one of the sites in the brain is like a musical note. It has a tone. Why a tone? Empirically, there is an oscillation. [Notice the term “empirically.” He means the oscillation is actual rather than metaphoric.] The neurons in the brain oscillate all over the place . . . different places in the brain oscillate, and these become harmonized. When you have a wave here and another there, from different parts of the brain, several become synchronized, so they oscillate together. When the brain sets into a pattern – to have a perception, or to make a movement – the phase of these oscillations becomes harmonized, what we call phase-locked. The waves oscillate together in synchrony. . . . Many patterns of oscillation in the brain spontaneously select each other to create melody, that is, the moment of experience. . . . So again, to understand the large-scale integration of the whole brain, the basic mechanism is the transitory formation of synchronous groups of neurons that are distributed widely. This was a beautiful discovery that gives us an account of how a moment of experience can arise.”

So now you see what happened as you, yourself, went through the recognition process. When you first saw the image, nothing happened. Then there was a moment of starting to see something, when you realized those were glasses or an eye and brow, or maybe you saw the nose shape first. And then BAM – all over the brain – and this is very important – in places all over the brain that are NOT directly connected, groups of neurons began to oscillate in synchrony. And THAT is the moment that you realized: “OH! It’s a woman’s face!” The term for this is “integrated cognition” because all kinds of things are apparently brought into play, from places all over the brain, for that aha moment to develop.

The same process of integrated cognition is being discovered to underlie many of the basic cognitive processes that matter to educators. One prestigious study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, documented in an MIT publication, should especially interest you (12). In it, researchers gave subjects pairs of words that were either related – table-chair – or unrelated – apple-money. Then they asked them to respond by pressing a button the moment they were able to recognize that the words were related. Sound familiar? Of course, this is a basic element of many standardized tests. It turned out that such word-pair recognition tasks depend on the preceding semantic context, engaging what the authors called a lexical integration process that is “concerned with entering the spoken or written word into a higher-order meaning representation of the entire discourse.” It’s integrated, in other words, rather than linear — just as is the process Varela described.

It turns out that emotion is integrated into the cognitive process as well. As just one example of the data on this, here’s a passage from a 2002 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (13): “Task-related neural activity in bilateral PreFrontalCortex showed . . . an Emotion – Stimulus crossover interaction . . . with activity predicting task performance. This highly specific result indicates that emotion and higher cognition can be truly integrated, i.e., at some point of processing, functional specialization is lost, and emotion and cognition conjointly and equally contribute to the control of thought and behavior.”

—— (end of excerpt from Assessment as Acculturation: Procrustes in the Land Between the Mountain and the Sea, Adams 2015; references cited appear at the bottom of this web page) —

Clearly, interested professionals in the fields of neurobiology, cognitive psychology, education, and philosophy (with its subdisciplines of epistemology and pedagogy) need to work together to formulate a model of complex learning that could be used to structure learning software that creates an inherently more useful online learning environment than any we have now. This is an area of conceptual work that needs to be expanded. It must be added that we are not suggesting the creation of an AI system, but of a tool that functions as something like a concept map or tag cloud (though it is neither of those things), or otherwise organizes content in a non-linear and more complex structure that helps learners more readily engage in the kinds of cognitive processes Varela describes above.

2. How would you go about actualizing such software? Could it be done with present technology?

While a group of scholars might be able to generate a conceptual answer to questions about what a complex learning environment might look like if it could be represented, however simply, in the structure of a software system, that’s only half the equation. The other half of the equation is turning those concepts into code. This requires the expertise of computer engineers and software designers. Because current computer software is linear, there’s concern that “we can’t get there from here” — meaning that we cannot use linear code to generate a complex learning environment.

It seems possible to say, as we’ve continued this work, that the linearity problem of software itself is not an inherent block. We have, nonetheless, briefly explored the idea of using quantum computing instead of standard computers (and relevant software) for this project. Explanatory text and videos (designed for elementary school students through professionals and worth exploring) on the IBM Q Computer website suggest several important ways that quantum computing might be applicable to our goals: its code is non-binary (does this make it non-linear? we do not know but suspect so, since flow charts are set up in a yes/no binary way), it’s applicable in educational environments and IBM is interested in exploring such application, and there are several Q computers in cloud-based servers that can [theoretically] be accessed by users everywhere, regardless of their physical proximity to one of these cutting-edge machines. On the other hand, quantum computing is an extremely new field of research, and applications such as ours may be beyond present capabilities. We simply don’t know enough to assess the real possibilities or potential here — and would appreciate input from people who do. Meanwhile, as stated earlier, we feel we have gone far enough in our initial explorations to feel reassured about the possibility of generating non-linear learning through the use of linear and binary software.

A number of projects worldwide have attempted to create Indigenous online learning systems. These are innovative and vitally important. Most of them deliver Indigenous content, with more complex Indigenous processes of learning being apparently much more difficult to integrate into design and/or software. Examples include projects such as Mukurtu, Indigital, and Twelve Canoes. This screengrab of a video on the Twelve Canoes site shows the more innovative structures they’ve integrated into their design. The progress play line typically shown on computerized video has been Indigenized into the shape of a circle. The menu selection areas of this site are also arranged in a less linear fashion than they are on many sites. (Tapestry’s own site organization is quite linear. We use extensive cross-linking of terms and concepts to try to weave back together the things that have been ensiloed by organizational headers. As you can see, organizational issues are not a small matter, for they are related to the ways content is perceived and understood. So the Twelve Canoes site solutions are meaningful — if not easily replicable elsewhere, such as on this site which is maintained through use of a low-cost template.) We are still learning about other efforts to generate Indigenous online environments that manifest epistemological and cognitive processes rather than content alone, and would be delighted to receive links with suggestions not listed here (though not all the sites and publications we know about are in this overview).

The circle on the Twelve Canoes video shown in the screengrab has made us wonder if linear software can be used to generate other non-linear structures. This led us to think about our own Circle model for the Ways of Knowing — and our frustration that the circle can be represented online only as a singular and entire graphic image, which was not the case when it was first designed in 1999 — and then about fractals. Fractals are of course repeating structures that manifest mathematical equations of a specific type in human-created environments, and that may be described by such equations in natural environments. These structures repeat at multiple levels from micro to macro. It is well-known that Indigenous story, art, and worldview employ or manifest a pattern of repetition — often at multiple levels from micro to macro — that is thought to mirror or manifest an authentic pattern inherent in reality itself. So perhaps a potential key lies in these areas of contemplation. For instance, what if instead of a linear or hierarchical (box-like or nested) organizational system, the organizational system of a site such as this one was set up as a fractal organizational system? Would it then manifest and/or reflect a key element of Indigenous epistemology (and therefore pedagogy)? And if so, how would such a structural system of information impact users’ experiences with the site and the information it contains?

Thinking through these matters, it seems essential to us that computer engineers be engaged in the conceptualization phase of the process from the beginning. We simply cannot expect to build a bridge that reaches out into the space over a river without knowing where the other bank is. Computer engineers have this information because that other shore of the river is where they live. We are going to have to reach across the river towards one another from both sides if we ever hope to meet in the middle in any meaningful way.

In Closing.

We wish to reiterate our call for collaborators, and for correspondents willing to talk with us at this early stage of the process: The project is still at such an early stage of process that we’re not assembling a research team for it yet. But if you have ideas about what we’re trying to do we’d like to hear from you, whether you’re Indigenous or not. We’ve got a lot to learn and are particularly interested in talking to potential collaborators with expertise in cognitive science, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, learning theory, pedagogy, epistemology, and computer engineering fields including quantum computing. And if you’re an artist, filmmaker, musician, dancer, storyteller, teacher, yoga practitioner, or anyone else who feels your way of interacting with the world makes your gut or your heart respond to our page about this software idea, write and tell us about it. Remember: diversity is what generates the power of emergent Knowledge.

We also wish to say we are well aware that this project is very large and complex. In that regard, you may need to know that we feel the idea of attempting the work did not originate with us as individuals. The idea came in the way that such things come from the Land, and was then advanced via a series of Dreams, all within a 24-hour period, that were given to three of the people involved in discussion about the topic and whether or not to pursue it. We initially thought of this project as being of particular use to Indigenous learners in schools and tribal outreach programs for adults. Since then, however, the coronavirus pandemic has driven children and adult learners of all cultures out of their classrooms and into eLearning software environments. While we all expect a return to something approaching classroom normalcy by fall [Note added mid-October 2020: it hasn’t happened yet], perhaps there are other reasons the world needs to have richer online learning systems that we cannot foresee. If so, the idea for this project represents a clear example of Indigenous Knowledge that has come from the Land to help people find new ways of dealing with problems they might not have even recognized yet.

References, Notes, and Media Credits for excerpt of Occasional Paper reprinted above:
11. Daniel Goleman. 2004. Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Bantam. page 316. Original research published in F. Varela, J.-P. Lachaux, E. Rodriguez, and J. Martinerie, “The Brainweb: Phase Synchronization and Large-Scale Integration.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 2 (2001): 229-39.
12. C. Brown and P. Hagoort. 1993. The processing nature of the N400: Evidence from masked priming. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 5(1):34-44.
13. Jeremy R. Gray, Todd S. Braver, and Marcus E. Raichle. 2002. Integration of emotion and cognition in the lateral prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99(6):4115-4120.
To cite this entire article: Adams, Dawn Hill. 2015. Assessment as Acculturation: Procrustes in the Land Between the Mountain and the Sea. Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, 1(2). The paper was originally presented as a keynote address to the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment meeting in Chicago, Illinois in September, 2014. Although this presentation was developed with that audience in mind, it describes ways of knowing and learning that are — as you will see — universal. The language and syntax of an oral presentation is retained in this text version, and it relies (as did the oral presentation) upon story, image, music, and ritual to illustrate and demonstrate the existence and efficacy of different ways of knowing and learning. It therefore uses images, scenes, and quotes from various media sources, all of which are cited in full. All images in the presentation and on this web page are used under Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107. Images on this page may not, therefore, be disseminated.