Pioneering Astronomer Vera Rubin on Science, Stereotypes, and Success


Vera Rubin – Berkeley commencement address

The Quantified Self – Hack your way to better health

The Quantified Self – Hack your way to better health







We are fortunate to live at a time when technology is enabling the exploration of solutions because of expanded connectivity. Digital technologies connect us to each other and to information at an ever increasing rate. One of the interesting fields that is gaining quick traction in this space is called the Quantified Self Movement. It is essentially self-knowledge through self-tracking.

This is not new. Benjamin Franklin famously tracked 13 personal virtues in a daily journal to push himself toward moral perfection. Not sure how well that worked, but our curiosity and capacity for self-scrutiny remains intact. If anything, our house of mirrors has gained momentum with new gadgets that make data collection cheaper and more convenient.

Big data and wearable tech allow us to quantify biometrics we never knew existed. Want to know your insulin or cortisol levels, or sequence your DNA, or learn what microbial cells inhabit your body? There’s an app for that. Apple’s app store’s medical category has more than 13,000 individual apps for download. The mobile health industry is estimated to be worth $400 million by 2016, according to ABI Research. Last year, mobile users downloaded 247 million health-related apps, according to market research company Research2Guidance.

Pew Research points out that about 69% of US adults track at least one health metric. Here are some of the more popular tools in use today:

  1. Want to lose weight? Keep a food log. Use MyFitnessPal, pen and paper, or just take a picture. Tracking your food intake will lead to interesting insights about your diet and health. A 2008 study also showed that the act of tracking food further facilitates weight loss.
  2. Searching for happiness? Track your mood. AskMeEvery tracks your mood for 3 months and might add insight to your personal and professional barometer readings. Other good apps include MercuryApp and TrackYourHappiness. We often are not mindful of our changing moods or the factors that affect them. Tracking them daily keeps us self-aware.
  3. Need to move more? Track your activity. There are tons of great tools including Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone UP, Basis, Omron, Moves, and more. Your iPhone can also track your activity.

Why do people go to the trouble of tracking health data for themselves or for loved ones? Some say they get results:

  • 46% of trackers say that this activity has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone for whom they provide care.
  • 40% of trackers say it has led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.
  • 34% of trackers say it has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.

Track your way to health and happiness? Beats wasting time looking at cute kitten videos on uTube . . .

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”.

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Letting Your Geek Flag Fly – The Creative Classroom is a Maker’s Space

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Letting Your Geek Flag Fly – The Creative Classroom is a Maker’s Space

As a maker, I am very excited to see so much attention being given to active learning. Creativity is a buzz word and appears in tandem with concepts that only a decade ago might have seemed counter intuitive – leadership, science, math, technology, and industry, to name a few. Of course, all fields are creative at their cusp – the freedom and disciplined inquiry of the creative process is the spark that allows for innovation and adaptation. Recognizing that creativity can foster growth in more things than art class is a major turning point for education and a great argument for supporting it throughout the curriculum.

There is tremendous energy around a mixed-use creativity model brought to us by the “Maker Movement”, representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture. Typical interests enjoyed by the maker subculture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. 

There is a growing trend on university campuses in which students are doing more content creation and design, across the spectrum of disciplines. More colleges, universities, and libraries are developing environments and facilitating opportunities to harness this creativity by building physical spaces where students can learn and create together, integrating content- and product centered activities as part of their instruction.

Learners in this environment are actively involved in project-based learning, problem solving, learning from failure, critical thinking, experiential learning, collaborative learning, inquiry-based learning, participatory learning, open educational resources, and more. To support and nurture these collaborative and interdisciplinary ecosystems, communities around the country are creating Maker Spaces.

Maker Spaces offer the tools and learning experiences needed to help people carry out their ideas. These best of these spaces support spontaneity, are perceived as low-risk and non-judgmental, have flexible boundaries to allow coming and going, support, reward, or foster collaborative activity, nurture self-directed, interest-driven activity, display relevant artifacts and provide performance platforms, create easy-access mechanisms for tinkering and making and doing, take advantage of natural draws, like technology that youth want to use, and incorporate mentoring from adults with the expertise to provide encouragement and feedback.

Learning- 21st century style is about tinkering and the prototype has become emblematic of the learning process itself. Often referred to as artifacts, these quick renditions can also serve as an opportunity for a deeper dive. We can prototype in many forms – we can make code, games, movies, music, objects, photos, stories, books, animations, and simulations with simple tools. Many of these tools are free and on-line or can easily be found at the neighborhood thrift store.

To supplement maker spaces for deeper dives, organizations are providing laptops, gaming consoles, recording equipment, video and traditional cameras, drawing pads, and more. At their best, these spaces foster hands-on participation, collaboration, and expanded interest in tools and techniques. A host of free apps is available that are perfectly suited to jump start a new generation of students, teachers, hackers, performers, engineers, and designers here.

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) published a study recently about the The Future of Making. It identified six drivers of change that foster the Maker Movement (social networking, eco-motivation, the rise of the professional amateurs, access to tools, open-source everything and a quest of authenticity) and six trends that will change how we design and produce things (desktop manufacturing, lightweight manufacturing, citizen R&D, networked artisans, grassroots economics and open innovation).

Today’s DIY or Maker Movement emphasizes customization over craft and is often identified as the “cult of the amateur” – allowing everyone a chance to engage in creating content, objects, and ideas. This shifts a new generation from consumers to producers and developers. Open source everything opens the door for newcomers and developers to evolve with the new technologies and modify existing systems. Rapid prototyping and small-scale production runs will become the norm, allowing us to re-imagine the objects we own. We can see our stuff as raw material for reuse or re-purpose and move from repair to replace. 

There is a very inspirational video here about a girl who grew up on a farm where she was taught to fix things when they broke because that was her only option – she brings this creativity and practicality to a modern world with an innovative that allows people to modify, repair, or build their own solutions. Watch Inventor Jane ni Dhulchaointigh‘s story and learn about the process of taking her idea to market. It really makes me believe that anything is possible and entrepreneurship can be part of everyone’s business plan.

Richard Bland College has a new Center for Strategic Initiatives and part of that strategy will include some form of Maker Space!