Succession and the art of stretching a metaphor

Colonizing the beach - yellow ice plant

As Scott has blogged, he came to visit us in Cardiff recently, while staying at the OU for a month on a fellowship. We had a lot of great chats, and while I failed to convince him of the ways of atheist, reductionist rationalism, I did manage to convert him to my succession metaphor for technology adoption.

I used this in my VLE book a while back, and it goes something like this (from the book):

When there is a new environment, for example barren rock, a few pioneer
species, such as lichens begin to grow. The acid from these decomposes some
rock particles, and their own death creates a coarse soil. This is suitable for
mosses, which require little soil, and in turn these decompose to enrich and
deepen the soil, until it is suitable for some grasses to grow. The process
ends with the establishment of a stable, climax community.

In elearning terms,
VLEs, and in particular commercial VLEs have acted as the pioneer species,
moving in to the new environment and creating slight changes which make the
habitat suitable for secondary colonizers. These might be seen as open source
VLEs, or closely integrated systems such as portals and eportfolios. The kind
of environmental changes wrought by VLEs include general acceptance of the
elearning approach, integration with administrative systems, staff development,
recruitment of enthusiasts, changes in assessment practice, acknowledgement of
tools already used by students, and so on. Once these systems have been
established, then the environment would be more receptive to systems that
require more radical changes in practice, such as CMSs and PLEs.

The corollary of this metaphor is that there is a 'natural' progression. Now I think we should always treat nature metaphors with a bit of caution, but if one accepts that existing technologies change their environment, then this new environment becomes one in which new technologies can flourish. It may take time though – as with plant succession you can only jump from the barren environment to the climax community by a lot of intervention, for example bringing in lots of soil and species.

But I hadn't really taken the metaphor beyond this initial comparison, but in my conversation with Scott we began to explore it further. In particular, what are the conditions that prevent succession? It doesn't always occur in nature – for instance on a beach a big storm will wipe away some of the colonizing plants. If the barren environment is your patio for example, then human intervention by way of deweeding, will prevent the environmental changes required.

Finding a way

In terms of learning technology, what is the equivalent of the avid gardener, killing any weeds, grasses or mosses that threaten to grow on their patio? Because if we think that there may be a natural progression through technologies, then identifying these barriers helps the process continue. 

One such barrier might be the investment people and institutions have put into the existing system. This is like the succession getting to a certain level, and then the gardener maintaining it at precisely that state. When institutions deploy a VLE there is a good deal of investment in other systems which communicate with it, in staff development, and expertise. There are also people whose professional identity becomes allied to that system – they become the 'Blackboard guy' or whatever. There is thus a combination of personal and institutional forces which are acting to stop succession going further. In our analogy this is like we've trained a group of volunteers to do all the deweeding and clearing of an area, so to allow succession to happen would mean upsetting a lot of people.

A second, more insidious barrier is that of commercial interests. If succession is about the gradual replacement of one environment with another, then those with a commercial interest a particular environment will seek to maintain that. In our analogy it's like the council have signed a contract with the purveyors of weed killer – they don't want the succession model to flourish. In learning technology this can be achieved through software patents, vendor lock-in, long term contracts, and the general promotion of a 'we solve your problems' attitude.

A third barrier might be the emotional attachment people have to software. I commented once before that although we justify software choices in terms of rational decision making around features, it is often an emotional, irrational preference, much like supporting a particular football team. Like with football teams we can only be monoamorous with software. The problem here is that we often don't appreciate we are arguing from this emotional attachment stance and cloak it in other languages – around integration, access or features. In the analogy then this is like the enthusiast who wants to maintain the environment at a certain state (maybe there are some wild flowers they are particularly fond of) and so don't want to let it alter.

There may be more, but I think tugging at the seams of the metaphor as it were, has helped me think about these issues. My new motto: Let's stretch this metaphor till it snaps.

4 Comments

  1. There may be a barrier in differing opinions as to whether progression at an early opportunity is actually desireable, and users may feel they would prefer to more fully utilise the existing systems.
    The garden of a botanical scientist may be forever in a state of progression as he actively nurtures the plant life so that it can progress to the next stage.
    A butterfly fancier may see his garden in a different light, with the plant life a means to an end to attract, and provide nutrients for, butterflies. A constantly changing array of plant life may not be conducive to this end, and the gardener may not have the time to fully develop the methods of getting the most out of his plants, so he may seek to ease the rate of progression in what he sees as being in best interest of the butterflies. After all, in his opinion, that’s the only reason he has his garden in the first place.
    note: I have no actual idea of the needs, habits and preferences of butterflies, butterfly fanciers or indeed botantical scientists, but with my limited knowledge of horticulture a gardening metaphor was always going to be a tricky one for me.

  2. This is not a bad metaphor. But like many evolutionarily minded similes it ignores the very important fact of evolution – its lack of direction and value judgement. The survival of the fittest is a tautology because the only fitness the survivors can be said to have is the fitness to survive. This means that evolution is unpredictable. There are some interventions that can be made with confidence but their long-term repercussions are very much chaotic. In evolutionary terms there are no “barriers” the removal of which “helps the process continue” because everything in the ecosystem is a part of the process – including the gardener. What we’re doing is trying to pick a particular weed and anoint it as the starting node for our favoured branch of the metaphorical evolutionary tree. So in this sense, we are just competing gardeners rather than guardians of something natural from which preordained path we need to remove artificial obstacles.
    Perhaps the way we should take this metaphor is to examine our own attitudes towards change and openness and those who don’t share them. From their perspective we’re just the people who say why don’t you let the weeds grow in your perfectly groomed garden.
    I’ve started a new blog just for this kind of thinking on http://metaphorhacker.net (also @metaphorhacker) – I may address this there in more depth.

  3. @Steve – I doff my cap to your metaphor stretching abilities! I didn’t mean it as a gardening metaphor – succession is a natural process that occurs under certain conditions in any barren environment. Gardening would be seen as a way of altering or preventing the natural process.
    @Dominik – I don’t think it is an evolutionary metaphor. Evolution metaphors are focused on the subsequent generations and mutations of a species. In my metaphor the subsequent generations are by different species – the point is that succession is _entirely_ predictable. Given the right conditions we can say which species will colonise first and second, how long it will take, etc. This is all known. The issue is if something external (be it an event such as a fire or manmade intervention) stops this ‘natural’ process occurring.

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