Utopians, Survivalists, or Both? – A Response to Lisa Lane

My Twitter feed today has had quite a bit of buzz about Lisa Lane’s The Unhelpful Dichotomy.  Lisa suggests the beginning of a polarization between what she calls the “edu-techno-utopians” and the “cautious majority.”

Although I didn’t notice it on first reading, when I went back to make sure I was responding to what Lisa actually wrote instead of what I imagined she wrote, her choice of labels and their connotations grabbed my attention, and I wondered if she had framed the discussion in a fair way.

On the one hand, there’s “edu-techno-utopians”.   It’s hard for me to think of an example of calling someone a utopian that didn’t imply that they were not quite grounded.  Utopians are idealistic — to a fault.  They won’t let anything (human nature, the laws of physics, etc.) stand in the way of their vision.  At least that’s the way I often think of the word utopian.  Maybe it’s just me.

On the other hand, “cautious” is a word, as opposed to “recalcitrant” or “change-averse”, that has a generally positive connotation.  We want our bankers, police officers, and doctors to be cautious.  Who that you interact with regularly do you want to be a daredevil?  — maybe your interior designer, but the list is short.

Lisa explains why she thinks the cautious majority are cautious, and why the utopians are as they are, but I think there a couple of things she misses.  The zeal, and perhaps occasional stridency of the utopians has quite a bit to do with the fact that they realize what a minority they are.  When you’re travelling against the curent, you have to paddle  much harder.

In the last decade, we’ve seen information technology and the Internet bring sweeping disruption to the music, news, and publishing industries.  Most edu-techno-utopians I know believe the disruption tsunami is coming for higher ed.  Caution has been a mark of how education adapts to change.  While that caution has served education well for a long time, a concern of those on the more utopian side of the spectrum worry, that by the time traditional institutions acknowledge that change is needed, those less constrained by caution (Degreed, Udacity, etc.)  will have swept in and moved the center of the education universe away from nonprofit, largely public, institutions that focus on student needs and educating the whole person to for-profit entities that place investor return first,  alumni employment rates second, and don’t worry themselves overmuch about whether their students become well-rounded people and citizens.   In that sense, those who advocate for change might be as much edu-techno-survivalists as utopians.

A hundred years ago, the ability to drive a car was not a vital skill.  In 2012 in most places in the USA, those who try to be a functioning member of society without that ability are at a profound disadvantage.  Consider that, in the future, those who can’t manage their own digital identity will be at a similar disadvantage, but instead of taking a century to come to pass, it will take a generation, at most.

(If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m one of Lisa’s edu-techno-utopian-survivalists, and I have the shelf full of programming books to prove it.)

So, to turn the tables on Lisa’s last paragraph, I think the edu-techno-utopian-survivalsts are very willing to help people close their knowledge gaps, but are as frustrated by those who don’t want to close those gaps and believe we can continue to do things essentially the way we always have as the cautious majority are when their resident tech expert channels Nick Burns.



degreed.com – first reaction

I just saw today David Wiley’s week-old post announcing Degreed.   Under the tagline “Jailbreak the Degree” the site seeks to quantify and validate all sorts of learning and provide a real alternative for people seeking to  document it.  I haven’t tried it yet, and it may be a while, as it currently only supports login via Facebook.  Facebook knows enough about me already, and I am determined not to tell it more by linking my Facebook identity to other sites.

It looks as if Degreed hopes to be a Web 2.0 ‘platform’.  That’s scary, The amount of information you would have to give up to the site to create an effective dossier/portfolio would make what Facebook knows about you a jacket blurb compared to an authoritative biography. Here, with all due respect, is how Degreed ought to work.

1. Degreed should be open source software that you can install on a LAMP server.  Those who wish for the additional credibility of a portfolio at degreed.com can pay for hosting and support.  If they wish, they can hire degreed.com’s “trained squirrels” (as Wiley puts it) to verify their portfolio.

2.  You should be able, once you have degreed up and running somewhere,  to pay an institution you’ve attended to submit a digitally signed transcript to your degreed instance.

3.  Degreed promises to convert your learning into virtual degree equivalencies and “mastery points”.  I suspect , though I don’t know, that the algorithm which figures out how many mastery points your BA from Somewhere State U. is worth is a big part of the site’s secret sauce.  The algorithm , I believe, has to be made public for the calculation of degree equivalencies and mastery points to be credible.

Degreed brings into focus for me some of the concerns about edupreneurship.  I think what they are trying to do, provide a way for people to bring together, document , and measure all their learning, is a good one; but I can’t help but think that their need to protect the ‘trade secrets’ which are the foundation of their business model will prevent them from being transparent enough to be credible.


The Limits of Sensemaking

As I pondered this week’s task on design elements, I was drawn back to a post Jenny Mackness made last week on the science of teaching, or perhaps that should have been the science of teaching science.

Rather than my trying to summarize her summary of a conference presentation, I’ll give the x sentence tl;dr

  • Presenting/demonstrating is ineffective, especially when dealing with complex concepts.
  • Class time should instead be used for sense-making, where students are presented with situations and collaboratively create and discuss hypotheses about what will happen next.
  • Confusion is actually a good thing.

Eric Mazur, the Harvard physicist in question, describes the whole process as “teaching by questioning rather than by telling.” As I mentioned previously. I very much like the idea of a questioning centered classroom. However, Mazur’s work, which is centered around teaching science, raises another question. In a science lab (and here I’m talking about the lab component of an intro course as opposed to a research lab) what happens should be predictable. Whan you set up a scenario and ask a question, there is a right answer.

When you teach human systems (languages, arts, economics, etc.) you can create suce certainty by using very carefully chosen examples that “follow all the rules”. How well does that prepare students for the much less tidy real world?

On the other hand…..

Lisa linked to an Atlantic article, that served as the start point for a debate about teaching writing, contrasting the writer’s workshop approach with one that makes grammar and mechanics more explicit. My most interesting takeaway from this was a reminder of the importance of background knowledge. The students at New Dorp had internalized fewer rules of high-level language structure than had their peers, and teachers found more success when those rules were taught explicitly.

This is an issue that many of us who teach at community colleges face every day. Students don’t come to us with the background knowledge we hope they will have. If we are teaching a subject like art history or physics, which they may have never studied formally before, the gap between what they know and hat we wish they knew may be even larger. If these students are left to do much of their own sensemaking, they can become confused to a fault, not knowing what to do and suffering intellectual paralysis as they wait for someone to tell them. Sometimes they wait without asking or telling us they are lost.

Do we then go back to an instructional model full of explicit knowledge presentation? After all, it’s what many of our students are quite used to. How does that interface with the need for them to develop their own sense making skills, a goal which is probably more important that the material we strive to cover in our survey classes? Also, how does that sensemaking take place when the patterns you are trying to uncover are arbitrary by definition?

James Burke at dConstruct

The audio archives from this year’s dConstruct conference are now online, and I was particularly interested to learn that this years headliner was James Burke (hat tip to Debbie Chachra)  Burke is probably best known for two documentary series on the history of technology, Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. If you haven’t watched Burke, start with these rather than Connections 2 and 3.  The latter aired on The Learning Channel and, while they share the format  of the earlier programs (which aired on PBS), they lack, in my opinion, the sense of there being a larger point to the story,  which is quite pronounced in the first two series.

Burke, using some examples you’ll remember if you’ve seen Connections or The Day the Universe Changed, discusses how innovation happens, how we might foster it, and where, just maybe, that might lead. He mentions what he’s doing to foster innovation, and while he doesn’t mention  a URL during his speech, I’m pretty sure he’s referring to Knowledge Web.  In the final portion of his address, Burke ponders how nanotech might change everything.  This sounds farfetched, but , as he points out, so would a car or a cell phone to a 12th century peasant.

Course Design the Google Way

Today, Google announced the availability of Course Builder, an open source platform for delivering online courses. Among the wiki pages is an outline of Google’s course design process. As you read it, what pedagogical assumptions do you think it embodies? On a quick first glance, many of those assumptions seem to me to be implicit rather than explicit. How does this outline compare to the process of exploring our own pedagogical preferences we’re doing this week.

Week 2 – Gorgias via email?


flickr user Endemoniada CC

I worked through the survey and questionnaire this week, but the item that, for me, really framed things, was Robert Maxwell’s post, How do I Like to Teach?  It’s been quite a few years since I had a non-online class, but my recollection is that my preferred face to face teaching style is very Socratic.   I find this keeps the whole class engaged.  You never know when I might call on you.  More importantly, it helps both me  and the students understand their thought process, even though the multiple rounds of back and forth are initially off-putting (Is this class or am I being cross-examined?  Yes.)

Unfortunately this way of doing class is terribly unsuited to asynchronous online learning.  A chain of questions that might happen in the classroom in five minutes would take five days in an online discussion board.  So in some ways it was teaching online that nudged me towards a more student centered approach.  In the classroom it takes quite a bit of juggling to have different students doing different things at the same time — not so online.  In my online classes, I’ve moved towards giving students tasks to complete and a whole set of resources from which to choose as they figure out how to complete said tasks.

Moving to this way of thinking about my courses has opened up many new possibilities (contract grading and mastery learning, for example) However, many of the students I teach are unused to this level of autonomy.


Learner Agency and (non) MOOCs

The recent “division” of POTCERT reminded me of something. When I signed up for notifications about MechanicalMOOC,  I was asked, after I provided my email address, whether I was a learner who planned carefully, one whose first step was to seek help from others, or one who just plunged in and learned by trial and error.  It felt like a new kind of learning styles inventory. At the time, I pondered the question for a good minute before hesitantly declaring myself an experimenter.  Thinking back on how I edited my blog theme last night (lots of fits and starts, all in full public view) , I’m now much more certain that I answered the question accurately.

It occurs to me that the MOOCs I’ve participated in have very much been designed with the experimenter in mind.  This focus is perhaps most succinctly expressed by ds106’s tag line. “Make art, dammit.” It aligns well with current notions of formative assessment, and for people who don’t mind proclaiming (and often demonstrating– witness some of the bizarre font ,color, and background images that appeared on this blog last night) their lack of knowledge to the world, it works.

On the proverbial other hand,  I don’t want the nurse at the doctor’s office to learn how to safely give injections primarily by live trial and error.  Some learners who are more reserved may need a less public space in order to feel safe to try things.  Especially in large open classes, balancing the learning needs of the planners, the askers, and the experimenters may be a great as yet unmet challenge.

POTCERT12 is, to my knowledge,  the first attempt at this sort of subdivision. .  I’m particularly interested to see if both groups feel like they are part of a shared learning experience, or whether this ends up feeling more like two separate classes that happen to be using the same text and syllabus.

Of medieval games and 3D printing

Our family likes board games.  Since we like to limit the children’s screen time and we don’t have a game console, board games come out once or twice a week.  Often it’s an old standard like Risk or Monopoly, but I try to keep up with new games, even to the point of being a regular viewer of TableTop.

In the course of looking around for new games, I stumbled across a very old one, Rithmomachia. I was intrigued, since I am a fan of medieval music,architecture, and culture. Rithmomachia is sort of “chess with math”.  I found a kickstarter project to make a Rithmomachia set.  Unfortunately, the project had been funded already, so I looked for other possible sources for a set. As I did this I found boolean rIthmomachia, a reimagining of rithmomachia that replaced capture rules based on arithmetic with ones based on boolean operations.

It was immediately clear that one wasn’t going to be able to buy boolean rithmomachia pieces “off the shelf”.  Since I am neither a sculptor nor a woodworker, I thought about 3D printing.  I figured I’d get around to learning Blender in two or three years.  Then, thanks to wired, i found TinkerCAD.

TinkerCAD seeks to democratize 3D design and fabrication by allowing it’s users, via a WebGL browser plugin, to design objects by sticking together and modifying basic solids (cubes, spheres, pyramids, etc.) Users can then either download the file to send to their own 3D printer, or pay to send the design out for fabrication elsewhere. I logged in and tried a couple of tutorial lessons.  The interface is very similar to the build interface in Second Life, which I have some experience with, and it was easier than I thought to actually start designing my pieces.  Since the capture rules require applying boolean tests to each bit in the numbers on each piece, the numbers need to be represented in binary.  I decided to use raised square studs for 1’s and indentations for 0’s.

In one respect, my design is totally wrong. Most of the pieces, like in Othello /Reversi, switch colors when captured.  There is really no way to print in two colors of plastic on most 3D printers,and my design with studs means the pieces won’t sit flat. Maybe the easiest thing is to have two sets of pieces and swap out a piece for a matching one of the other color when a capture occurs.

It also occurs to me that a set of plain old rithmomachia pieces would have been much easier to do. Now to get working on those stacked gameboards

Where is POTCERT, exactly?

A discussion sprung up in the POTCERT pre-group on Facebook this morning. Since people often cross post notifications to Facebook or Twitter, where is the conversation actually supposed to happen?

The earliest MOOCs were intentionally centerless. CCK08 even had a cohort in Second Life. There was a blog roll but no aggregator, and it was a given that, even with google reader searches and the like, nobody, including the facilitators, would see everything. The existence of The Daily added a strong curation component to the conversation. On the other hand, since, apart from a handful of for credit participants (I remember Lisa Lane being one of them) there was no standard to meet or not meet, so if something was missed, it wasn’t a big deal.

Starting with I think, ds106, we got near real time aggregation of posts at a central site, which, to a significant extent replaced the active curation of the CCK08 Daily. This, I believe, created a cultural norm of posting to one’s blog notice of artifacts elsewhere. Things became “real” and “official” by being linked to in posts picked up by the aggregator.

There’s also the issue of audience (there’s that word again). Let me use myself as an example.

I use different social networks for different purposes. Until I joined the POTCERT Facebook group. I used Facebook to connect to those I knew socially and Twitter to connect with professional colleagues. My Facebook friends are unlikely to have much interest in what I post for POTCERT. My twitter followers, even those who aren’t participating in POTCERT , might. I imagine I will post to Twitter links to at least some of my POTCERT posts.

Would it be simpler to ask participants to post links to their aggregated blogs/tags for anything they do elsewhere? At least then everything would be discoverable via the aggregator.

One Way to Name a Blog

My name is Jason Green,  and I’m Director of Distance Learning at Pulaski Technical College in Arkansas.  I’ve been teaching French and music courses online since 2002. My primary reason for plunging into POTCERT  is that I’m on a team just starting to develop a similar program at Pulaski Tech.

And now for the really important question,  “What is that weird thing in the blog title?” Anyone reading the post on the POT aggregator will need to click through to the original site to see it.

While I’ve blogged on and off for a year or two,  POTCERT prodded me to move things to my own domain.  This brought me back to the first great challenge of blogging….choosing a name for your blog.

I had decided that this new blog would be general purpose, instead of specifically about POTCERT or online learning, so that meant no cute puns with ed- or -learn.

As I mentioned in Wednesday’s session, I prefer to think of a blog as what Cory Doctorow called an “outboard brain“.  However , the default word association with “outboard” is “motor” , and I was stuck with a vivid image of grey matter dangling over the stern of a speedboat.  It was time to try something else.

Over the last couple of years, several commentators have noticed the similarity between blogs and the commonplace books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The problem with this is that the meaning of  commonplace has shifted to something like a synonym for ordinary or frequently encountered, so new readers might misconstrue the title.

I wondered if there were other terms for similar collections of information. Wikipedia mentioned Greek Hypomnemata  (ὑπομνήματα),  which   sounds cool, but has been used to death in blog titles .  Harvard University Libraries has a page which referenced commonplace books in several languages , none of which were especially catchy.  There was even one in Icelandic,  which reminded me of something.

Icelandic uses þ and ð .  While I’ve never studied Icelandic , I did take a semester of Old English, which uses those characters.  One of the texts for that Old English  class was titled Word Hoard.

While word-hord didn’t mean dictionary, it is attested  in the Old English corpus, along with beah-hord “ring hoard” and wyrmhord “dragon hoard”.  That got me to thinking how a blog is sort of a thought hoard (þoht-hord) . Technically that should probably be þoht-hord* since it’s not attested. Hordcofa (treasure-chamber, used metaphorically to refer to the heart/mind) is found in the Wanderer.

What have I learned from the process?

* þ is ALT 0254 or rt alt-t
* The feed listing system alphabetizes þ last.
* It will be an interesting experiment to have a blog title which may be google unique, but which nobody will likely ever type.

Greetings to all, and away we go.