Romancing the Rosetta Stone, Love is Blind

Romancing the Rosetta Stone, Love is Blind


I’m taking a MOOC. I already said that, but, there’s homework . . . The gist of the class so far is about the advent of digital technology as a tool for growth – grow your brain, grow your network, grow your idea. Change your mind, change the world. We keep reading these essays from far-sighted people who were articulating a world of artificial intelligence and personal computers in the early days of Dick Tracy. Reading about these utopian uses of technology in the antiquated syntax of the 50s and 60s on my smart phone makes me feel like I’ve been transported to a galaxy far, far away. The 60s wasn’t really that long ago, but it seems like we’re behind the eight ball if we’re only now getting to their ideas about machine aided learning.

Why can’t we adapt more quickly to innovative concepts in education? What prevents the best ideas from bubbling to the surface in the service of the people? (And I do not believe corporations are people). If education were a capitalist system and human empowerment the currency, we’d see more varied solutions, more competition – a real race to the top. It’s easy to criticize capitalism for the way it pits the winners against the losers, but our school systems are doing just that without the benefit of incremental improvement that competition spawns.

This week’s reading assignment, Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines has some stinging commentary about how schools kill creativity (me thinks Sir Ken Robinson has read this).

The author argues for a technology designed as a creative process to be undertaken with the audience (users) in mind. He sees technology as our ecosystem, claiming we “live in media, as fish live in water.” This was written in 1974. Nelson argues that technology will allow people the right to explore at their own pace and whim and he believes that right outweighs any administrative advantages of creating and enforcing “subjects” and curriculum sequences. We’re beginning to believe him. The Kahn Academy broke one of our molds with the flipped classroom, recognizing that not all students are going to grasp a concept because it was presented in a classroom lecture once.

Here is a list pulled from the reading. It hurts me to hear some of these words, I am a teacher. It pains me to see how much of this still applies forty years later.

1. The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone or severely diminished when we leave school.

2. Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting. Schooling systematically ruins things for us, wiping out these interests; the last thing to be ruined determines your profession.

3. There are no “subjects.” The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative convenience.

4. There is no natural or necessary order of learning. Teaching sequences are arbitrary, explanatory hierarchies philosophically spurious. “Prerequisites” are a fiction spawned by the division of the world into “subjects;” and maintained by not providing summaries, introductions or orientational materials except to those arriving through a certain door.

5. Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources.

6. Most teachers mean well, but they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes and style of order that very little else can be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively.

What is the role of “the teacher” in this new information economy? How can we smooth the transition of this massive technological disruption so fewer teachers and support staff feel attacked instead of inspired? I welcome your ideas.

I’m taking a MOOC

I’m taking a MOOC


According to Wikipedia, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC; /mk/) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in distance education which began to emerge in 2012.

Distance learning, however, has been around since the 1890s in the form of correspondence courses. Over 4 million Americans – far more than attended traditional colleges – were enrolled in correspondence courses by the 1920s, covering hundreds of practical job-oriented topics. Their completion rate was under 3% – a reality that holds true for today’s MOOCs.

Widely seen as a major part of a larger disruptive innovation taking place in higher education, MOOCS allow for and at times demand an “unbundling” of services the traditional academy once owned, controlled, and delivered. These services include research, curriculum design, content generation (such as textbooks), teaching, assessment and certification (such as granting degrees). MOOCs threaten existing business models by potentially selling teaching, assessment, and/or placement separately from the current package of services.

There are arguments on both sides of this issue and the conversation has only just begun. I think it is safe to say that MOOCs are here to stay in one form or another because their benefits outweigh their risks and the environment for education has been irrevocably altered. Some of the benefits I see to Connectivist pedagogy that shapes many of today’s MOOCs is the remixing of materials created within the course with each other and with other materials; the re-purposing of aggregated and remixed materials to suit the goals of each participant; and the Feeding forward, or sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.

MOOCs can be accessed anywhere there is a web or wi-fi connection, in any language or multiple languages, they escape time zones and physical boundaries, peer-to-peer contact can trigger serendipitous learning, making it easier to cross disciplines and institutional barriers. Their contextualized content can be shared by all which enhances personal learning environments and improves lifelong learning. These are all good things in my book. A great thing is the potential to produce and deliver content in a short timeframe (e.g. for relief aid).

Drawbacks include the massive disruption they are causing the education landscape. Change can be healthy but massive and sudden change is unnerving. Enormous personal responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the learners in this setting and most of the course prep has to happen ahead of the class, which can be a heavy load for teachers. Digital literacy is necessary for both students and teachers and the socio-economic barriers for MOOCS are similar to those for other forms of education. A generation gap in skills for older teachers is also a very real barrier to adoption.

MOOCs are organic, which means they tend to take on their own trajectory. The sages on the stages do not like this model. Student participants create and curate content, also challenging the model of a professor at a lectern.

Grabbing the organic by the horns, a few creative and ambitious folks at Virginia Commonwealth University have designed a “digital engagement pilot titled “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds” as part of their summer program.


Loving a challenge and interested in bringing best practices in education to RBC, I signed up! The official name of the course is UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. Officially, we will be reading and working with five essays, learning new concepts that will help us build better questions, and creating better learning networks on-line.

In order to engage in the course, all participants need a blog with an RSS feed which allows comments to be aggregated on one site for tracking and commentary. Like most on-line classes, participation takes the form of posting comments and commenting on others’ posts, threaded discussions, and synchronist virtual meet-ups. My blog for this class is tarpaperpress if you have any interest in following along.

What’s particularly fun about this class is well captured in their catchphrase, thought vectors in concept space. Freeform prompts have been tossed our way and people are responding with pictures, quotes, and screenshots that represent their wandering around the internet. “Class” started on Monday with the prompt “How Do I Feel When I Think?” The screenshots of web browsers or reddit pages are fascinating archives of the modern mental process of inquiry. These thought vectors are jumping off points for further rumination and research. The mapping of these trails of thought is fascinating. As of this morning, Thought Vectors included 555 total post(s) syndicated for all 121 blogs on its site.

Keeping up with this is going to be difficult. Deciding whose trail to follow and taking the time to thoughtfully comment is going to be time consuming and demand concentration. Focusing in an environment of sprawl can be trying. But sprawl is our new world, our on-line world anyway. We are overrun with information. It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters what you do with what you know.  Focused inquiry is perhaps the most important skill an education can support. The world is changing; jobs are changing; our skill sets and the way we keep up with these changes have to change too.

A comment in this morning’s New York Times from an article about student debt struck this cord rather succinctly:

J. Rogers

San Jose 12 hours ago

“Most of these arguments dance around the fixed and unchallenged notion of a four-year college *degree* with a more or less fixed curriculum and flexible but cut-and-dried timeframe… “Degreeism” ignores the rapidly changing nature of knowledge and its utility, which fits uncomfortably with the fixed degree and leaves the diploma’s semi-educated owners only indifferently prepared to meet the challenges of work and other aspects of modernity. A redesigned set of mini-curricula that can be adapted to individual needs in an agile, recombinant fashion, more *certification* and less cap-and-gown formalism, would be more appropriate for today’s global economy. The indigestible bulk of the four- or even two-year degree is a huge fixed cost with rapidly diminishing benefits that is clearly burdening US society and its fiscal future for nearly two decades. It is long overdue to challenge at least to question conventional belief/practices on this matter.”

For more information and to see the scale of this Massive Open Online Course disruption, visit this “MOOC List”.

Pop-ups, Startups, and the Triple Bottom Line

Pop-ups, Startups, and the Triple Bottom Line


Entrepreneurialism is in the air, on the streets, and quickly becoming a mainstay for diverse programs across college campuses. America’s higher education institutions are engaged in a variety of exciting programs to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship as part of the education of their students, faculty and alumni, and as a tool to leverage their assets to create economic value in their communities.

An amazingly detailed report was issued recently by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University: Higher Education, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Focus has some very specific examples of programs across the country that are creating innovation ecosystems critical for the long-term success and quality of entrepreneurial activity on campus and off. There is a focus on a triple bottom line (environmental, social, and economic or “planet, people, and profit”), which encourages cross-curricular, interdepartmental collaboration. Today’s challenges are more complex than they have been in the past so the solutions need a diverse set of experts at the table or in the lab.

The dynamism and fluidity of current trends and those yet unimagined will continue to influence and shape higher education’s future.  How do we design a change process nimble enough to make significant widespread change at all levels? I heard some fantastic ideas from University of Michigan President, Mary Sue Coleman, who gave this year’s Atwell Lecture.  Sponsored by the American Council on Higher Education, her address, “Innovate, Disrupt, Repeat,” focused on the need for universities to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, using her own institution and state—which was hit early and hard by the 2008 recession—as an example of what can be done.

This kind of freeform energy channeled into a product or market-based solution reminds me of pop-up culture and guerrilla art. Often put together on a wing and a prayer or a whim and a couple of good friends, pop-ups can act as informal, unacknowledged market research projects to try out a new store location or a new product. Artists and musicians create pop-up spaces to release new work or just to engage with their community in a more intimate and direct way.

These “events” are a lot like Startups, there is a strong fascination with the temporary, the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow. This urgency can be the perfect energy to foster ideas and reactions, a place to test business models developed around new solutions.

How can we bring this dynamism to Richard Bland College? We’ve definitely been bitten by the innovation bug and we’ll see evidence of our creativity at the First Annual Student Expo on Friday, April 25th. Sponsored by the Friends of the Library, the Student Expo features students from across disciplines presenting their projects and research to the entire campus community.  Let’s build on this energy and initiative with more programs that foster innovation, interdisciplinary research, and that triple bottom line.