On Super Systems

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

This is not a post on strength or the ability to leap tall building, but conjectural guesswork on digital systems. In this post, I did a little bit on next-gen Storyspace but I’d like to keep this thought going. This morning, as I was thinking about some paperwork on course equivalencies, it struck me that our college systems (and most systems) still act like traditional systems of information distribution and access–.

We use a fairly complicated information management system, which integrates most distance learning facilities and intranet-like activity. For example, Banner imports students into WebCT/Blackboard and so faculty and students can get on with their work. In addition, registrations and other necessities happen routinely in Banner. But most students and faculty probably couldn’t tell you where Banner is in relation to the web. If you asked, what sort of system is Banner, most people would have to guess. “Some sort of database.” And there are other available systems. The library, for example, provides people access to research databases. Do these have relation to Banner or Blackboard?

We’ve been dabbling with eLumen for assessment practice at the college. But eLumen does not play well with our existing administrative facilities. We need ldap for authentication, but it’s not that easy to effectuate. And still there’s the question of how core information is entered. All relational databases must get their starter info from initial hand-cranked inputs (pardon the mixed metaphor), either with data entry or scanning.

So, I and my colleagues have been dreaming about the super system. The super system we imagine makes things easy, well, at least elegant in practical terms. It acts as a container in which all other needed systems talk to one another and learn about each other: assessment, learning, and administration. When a students takes a test in Blackboard, the results populate the admin and assessment system. When an ability is added to eLumen, a teacher can find that ability in Blackboard so that a quiz or a test can link to the ability. Such a system, in my view, is not “hypermedia” or “semantic” but something else. It’s organic, but I don’t know how. Yes, Nelson’s document management image still lives.

Models exist. Facebook, for example, is a proto super system. Users are able to organize work, manipulate objects, and it’s an environment for rudimentary applications and games, a sort of digital place or civitas with physical and conceptual real estate (nothing new here, I know). In many ways, Facebook is about “linking” and embedding. An OS is also a kind of proto super system, but of a different sort. Storyspace or Tinderbox are also proto super systems, or metaphors for them, as they create and contain, but Flash is not, Flash being a piece of a larger pattern of apps, a node along the way. I wouldn’t even know how to describe the criteria for a super system or even if super system is the proper word. I have a sense that the image works: it’s a container for apps, a place for people to share and think together, a sea of relations, and a tool that takes anomaly and makes sense of it.

One response to “On Super Systems”

  1. Brian says:

    I think your idea of a “super system” is not that far off at all or impractical. Like you mention there is already proto types out there in the wild. So this can be developed now.

    And I think this will become much more main stream in the future, looking at today’s trend. Computers are getting smaller and smaller, and being embedded into every thing. Since they are so small, they lack features of programmability/usability, therefore they need to have connectivity to a larger and more powerful computer mange them (aka super system). The key is connectivity, and smart manger. For example, you should be able to enter in a meeting time/date into your phone, that will sync up to your calendar, then have a program will be smart enough and self aware that your alarm clock needs to be set earlier.

    This also shows the idea of cloud computing, having your applications run on a remote server rather then a local device. This work’s well with the trend of the ultra light net books. Computers striped down to light Linux kernel, customized/perfected for internet communication. Since the computer does not have enough power or storage space to run/install MS office, you will open your browser, to yes either Google docs, or MS new cloud computing services and OS.

    As for an online school system like, blackboard/banner; I think the idea is right, just not fully implemented. As a user of it, I thought it would be really useful if it could be intergraded with-in my iGoogle page, that way I could visit one site, to read all my e-mails, check up on the latest news around the world, see recent post, and view my weekly planer. Is this possible? At first glance the system appears to be broken, For starters it would be nice if there was of some public feeds of some sort, rss and iCal. But luckily, there is an api for blackboard, so additional modules can be run inside. So will this happen? No, not enough demand nor resources. And the idea, of giving a 19 year old student access to a test server to test and develop Java module for the blackboard system, will give the Sys Admin a hart attack, conceding they are already paranoid enough not to have WiFi access on school campus.