State of the Movement…

I’m taking “Introduction to Open Education” from David Wiley this semester. Incidentally, you can too! (love it when people practice what they preach) And I would highly recommend it. Our first “quest” (the course is an erratic spin-off of World of Warcraft) is to research and summarize the history of the Open Ed movement…briefly.

Like almost any revolution, OpenEd began in almost pristine idealism. Again typically, the idea germinated and finally erupted in several tight-knit enclaves almost simultaneously right around the turn of the century (still have trouble getting that term not to conjure up images like this). Wiley obsessed about reuse and learning objects and drafted his own open license. Downes evangelized connectivity and information access as a basic right. Creative Commons plotted mass expansion of remixable resources from audio to images to law briefs and drafted their own set of licenses. And MIT sent spasms of shock and awe through the higher education world when it announced plans to make all lecture notes, syllabi and course materials free and open to the public. Meanwhile, the giants of the Free and Open Software movement looked on with that wistful mixture of love and pity that only a group 10 years further down the road could understand.

Things have since gotten a bit messier. I’m not suggesting anything like the Reign of Terror at MIT or slaughtered innnocents at Rice’s Connexions hub, but (perhaps significantly in the twilight of multi-million dollar funding grants from giants like Hewlett and Gates) Open Education seems to have moved past the riot in the streets; “death to copyright–free education for all!” and on to the hunkered-down, brutal-facts strategizing, consolidating, and compromising that we all hope will move these rabble-rousing edupunks sustainably into the mainstream.

Today, nearly everyone seems to agree that sustainability is the issue–then again, nearly everyone today seems to agree that’s the issue. But whether they’re talking about incentive and reward structures for content creation, the current license compatibility issues that keep real content remixing part of the sales pitch rather than the lived experience, or the dark question haunting the server banks from Palo Alto to Houston to Logan–“will this thing survive once the funding dries up?”–the main voices in the arena seem to be doing a little less talking past each other.

So, while we are likely years if not decades away from the complete expulsion of copyright and other vestiges of colonial closed-ness, and there are still some minefields to be navigated, I’d say the open education rebels have won some signficant battles and at least educational content is well on its way to revolution.

Sensory Memories

I call them sensory memories because I don’t have any other word for them. They are moments engrained in me…not even memories really, because I don’t think about them…I don’t remember them. I smell them. I taste them. I hear them. They’re just irrevocably there–fixed on my senses like nuclear-etched shadows on the walls in Nagasaki.

I remember the first time I drove our three-wheeled ATV in 5th gear; pulling my lips in from an ear-to-ear grin over teeth that were suddenly dry…and cold, as created wind licked summer sweat from my hairline and the back of my neck, and knowing what it would feel like to fly.

I remember one crystal windchime of laughter that sort of shimmered in the air for stretched-out seconds after a piece of angel hair pasta had flicked my nose during dinner in a warm Italian restaurant…like that one magical laugh from the girl standing next to the white fireplace mantle at the beach house in All the King’s Men.

I also remember being smacked from behind by the explosive, wrenching, metallic scream of a minor fender-bender in our 15-passenger van—a sound utterly absent from the memory of an earlier accident that could have killed me.

I remember deep, un-crushable softness under my hands on my lap the first time I wore my velvet “baptism day” dress, and tiny needle-teeth squirming deep in the muscles of my right hand for days after the first (and only) time I disregarded Dad’s warning about fiberglass and gloves.

And I remember the taste of Mediterranean sea salt caramel gelato slipping over the different zones of my tongue the day we got Michael his first French-cuff shirt.

I’m intrigued that so few of these experiences are visual, tied to what I would consider my dominant sense. I’m puzzled that they can be so vivid, so visceral, without being connected to any particularly intense emotion. And I’m pleased that some of these memories are so recent—that my senses can still be stunned by bursts of wonder.

Those are a few of my sensory memories.
What are yours?

Education in Eden

Education that Pays for Itself (the annual conference sponsored by Teach a Man to Fish) nestled itself this year into the hills outside Cape Town, South Africa in a little town even the natives hadn’t heard of called Karatara. I spent the week surrounded by a couple hundred bright, compassionate, incisive people from all over Africa, South America, Australia, and several other former British colonies (my accent was a mess by the end of the week, even I couldn’t tell where I was from!) brainstorming, debating, reporting and planning…changing the world.


Karatara is home to a remarkable little school called Eden Campus…and not much else. The school is a long way from self-sufficiency, but they have some electrifying ideas about getting there. Here are a few of my favorites: Continue reading

“Made for Listening”

This one’s from Dewey:

“Just as the biologist can take a bone or two and reconstruct the whole animal, so, if we put before the mind’s eye the ordinay classroom, with its rows of ugly desks placed in geometrical order, crowded together so that there is as little moving room as possible…and add a table, some chairs, the bare walls with possibly a few pictures, we can reconstruct the only educational activity that can possibly go on in such a place. It is all made for listening.

I couldn’t agree more. Being in Paraguay this summer drove this home in a way I have never seen before–rows of students bent silently over notebooks transcribing the constant drone of a lecturer reading from a yellowing textbook. So, if such a classroom is made for listening, what then would my problem-based, amorphous, flexible, energetic, chaotic classroom be made for?

Perhaps this classroom is for discovering…asking questions and then searching out possible answers. Coming upon holes in understandings and working to fill them, form connections.

Perhaps this classroom is for building…or creating. Bringing together information, skills, perceptions and materials that combine to form new ideas, processes, products.

Perhaps this classroom is for solving…accepting and analyzing challenges and the moving forward [with or without a clear view of the end-goal] toward solving them.

Perhaps this classroom is fundamentally for inquiring.

I’m not sure what that classroom is really for. Perhaps part of the beauty of it is that it’s flexible enough to be for many things. At any rate, any of those things is bound to be more productive, more relevant, more useful, more…fruitful…than just listening.

Ugly Constructivism

Read an article for Learning Theory the other day that explored the “many faces of constructivism” — the classic good, bad and ugly. Perhaps tellingly, it was Phillips’ “ugly” face that stuck with me. He says:

“As in all living religions, constructivism has many sects–each of which harbors some distrust of its rivals. This descent into sectarianism, and the accompanying growth in distrust of nonbelievers, is probably the fate of all large-scale movements inspired by interesting ideas.”

Wow. No one could deny that large-scale movements inspired by interesting ideas do have a striking tendency to schism; feminism…environmentalism…the civil rights movement. And each of the resulting factions arguably believes itself to be the true guardian of the interesting idea, and the others to be [to some degree or another] apostate from it.

I guess my question is; what is the alternative? Continue reading

Measuring Skulls…

In many ways, modern psychology is indistinguishable from the biology and biochemistry of the nervous system. I love learning about the intricacies of neuro-transmitters. I love demonstrations of neural plasticity. I love the connections we can draw between culture, personality, even tastes and brain chemistry. But it makes me wonder…

Scientists in former centuries [not as far back as we’d like to think] took precise measurements of skull shape and dimensions to determine the mental capacity, the relative intelligence of individuals and races. Africans, they said, had larger occipital lobes, and therefore were clearly closely related to apes. Caucasians had larger frontal lobes, indicating a highly developed sense of self and acculturation, etc. These “findings” are repugnant now, but are some of the things we “learn” from neuroscience any less so? As Ellis and Hunt point out in their Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience; “much of contemporary research essentially has the same goal but the techniques are much more sophisticated.” Our explorations may already be over-simplified, over-generalized and over-stepping the bounds of what we can actually learn from what we measure.

Becoming Skinner

I’ve been thinking lately about the available roles in the intellectual community, and my relative capacity and inclination to fill the same. To put it more concisely, I’ve been debating whether or not I’d want to be a “Skinner.” In the short term, of course that’s exactly what you’d want to be—a leading researcher in the field, making discoveries, laying down theory, breaking ground and more than breaking even. But, though every Psychology of Learning class in every university in the country covers him, his pure mechanism approach to human behavior is all but laughed at today. So, in the long term being a Skinner looks like a decided disadvantage.

Yet as I flipped through the course packet while reviewing for the exam the other day, the case for being a Skinner got a little stronger: That infuriatingly arrogant article on “Why We Need Teaching Machines” had more underlines, more notes in the margin, more question marks and asterisks and cross-references than anything else we had read. I had arguably put more into reading that piece than any of the more measured arguments in the collection, and it had certainly spurred more questions, more thought, more debate.

And given that questions, thought and debate are exactly what’s most required to move a discipline forward, to induce change and foment rebellion, perhaps a “Skinner” is exactly what I want to be. Perhaps taking passionate, more-convicted-than-you-could-possibly-be stands that move the discipline forward is worth looking arrogant, short-sighted, and foolish several decades down the line…

Cognitive White-Space

I started this post several weeks ago. I didn’t have time to finish it then and I don’t really have time to finish it now, only the situation has become such that nothing else is really coherent at the moment, so if I’m going to do anything productive this afternoon, it’s going to have to be this first.

I spent a couple hours this morning “catching up” in my feed reader. Yes, I said hours. My classmates presented a dizzying array of intelligent Facebook applications, educational uses for Flikr, thoughts on the merits of video across domains from cooking to calculus, and critical commentary on the purported negative effects of social media on undergraduate intellectual life. They were thorough, sentient and clever, and I was … overwhelmed.

Lately, I feel as though I have been learning without thinking. Like I go directly from reading to writing because my schedule won’t allow for pause and sleep (and my body demands sleep.) There is so much out there—even just in my classmate’s blogs–that I sometimes feel there’s no room in my head, nor time in my day, for my own thoughts. As a designer, I am perhaps inordinately fond of white-space. I fight tooth and nail to preserve it, even at the expense of legibility, information hierarchy or any number of other lesser design virtues. White-space lets a design breathe, it creates balance, adds interest, and engages imagination.

In the current media landscape, “cognitive white-space” seems also to be something one has to carve out and protect. There is always something else, if not actively competing for our attention at least ready to slip in and occupy any moment not otherwise actively occupied.

The scriptures warn of those in the last days who would be “ever learning” yet never come to the knowledge of the truth. Is it possible that we could, in this new media age, be similarly ever “sharing,” ever “creating” and yet never come to know our Creator?

Relevance, Permanence, Social Discourse and Filtering …or… “If I Were a Middle School Teacher…”

Between the curriculum project for Teach a Man to Fish in my development class, sharing and social networking discussions (so often including references to “the younger generation” which I have been a little shocked—though not wholly disappointed—to discover I am no longer a part of) in the New Media course, and launching a blog this weekend for my Mom to record her experience teaching religion to 20 high-schoolers at 6:30am every school day (Mormons call that “seminary”) I’ve been thinking a lot about teenagers. Specifically, how to teach teenagers.
Continue reading

Take the Next Step

Kristen E. Cox [2008 Distinguished Alumni for the BYU School of Education] has been appointed to a national committee by President Bush, headed the Utah Department of Workforce Services and lost a gubernatorial election. She’s a vibrant, engaging woman—disarmingly confident in front of a crowd. She’s been an educator, a politician, an advocate and is currently raising both a teen and a toddler. Oh, yeah, and she’s blind.

She shared an experience this afternoon from her time in “Boot Camp for the Blind,” an intensive training program culminating with the participant being blindfolded [I know, seems a little like a moot point] dropped off at a random location in Baltimore and instructed to find their way home on foot, asking only one question along the way. In preparation for the “final,” she and her mentor were walking in a city park crisscrossed with a maze-like network of paths. Tired, frustrated and completely disoriented, she planted herself in the middle of the walkway, refusing to go another step. “This is ridiculous. I’m done.”
Her instructor’s response suggests some interesting implications for learning: “You’re not going to know any more than you know now,” he said, “until you take the next step.”

By implication, then, every “next step” we take results in our knowing more than we did before.

What’s fascinated me as I’ve thought through it [I had learning theory just after the lecture] is that this analogy can thread through each of the major theoretical approaches we’ve studied. For a behaviorist, that next step will trigger either reinforcement or punishment and we will “learn” to shape our behavior to increase or decrease the incidence of the stimulus. For a cognitivist, in that next step we attend to new information, and build those new observations into the experience we have already stored in memory, perhaps applying lessons already learned to the new context we encounter through transfer. For a social learning theorist, we take that next step because it has been modeled for us—we’ve seen others learn through this action and we have seen them be reinforced for it…or not, in which case perhaps we’d rather not know any more than we know now.

So, perhaps, even though in all the mainstream paradigms we refuse to name it thus, the eternal even self-evident truth that man is an agentive being simply is and runs beneath the surface of all this theorizing…and somehow we know, even when all of science and psychology and neurobiology tells us otherwise, that we’ll never know any more than we know now until we take the next step.