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ContactCon and conversations worth continuing

When I heard about ContactCon, I signed up almost immediately. The issues being raised have been of interest to me since I started using the Internet: how to make sure the net can be used for empowerment rather than oppression. The net is clearly useful for both, but the trend has been shifting in the wrong direction for years.

A corporation would have never made something like the Internet in the first place. When I was a kid, we still had The old AT&T and Bell Telephone network. You weren't allowed to own a telephone: you were required to rent one from the phone company. And everything was monetized. Now, I suspect that the most expensive thing about current cell-phone operations is the overhead necessary for administration, metering, and billing. And that's the direction we've been going: give users a dumbed-down box that only enables what the monetizers want you to be able to do.

There were a lot of interesting people at ContactCon most of whom I'd never met before. The demographic was mostly white, largely male, and somewhat younger than me. There were some folks my age or older, but we were the exception. Many were young entrepreneurs and freelancers looking to network to support their project. It reminded me of the luxury of my current circumstances: I have a steady job and don't need to spend half my time trying to market myself or bill people. I don't have to work on spec or limit what I do to what people are willing to pay for. I get to spend most of my time actually just working and being creative. I lament for this generation that is so circumscribed and limited in their choices -- and will probably end up permanently stunted by the economic conditions that have been imposed on us by the 1%. Or, if you prefer, that through my generation's lack of engagement, we have allowed ourselves to be disempowered.

I wore my "Official Red Hat" red hat and took my ubuntu netbook to demonstrate my free software street cred. I actually met the guy who'd ordered the stock of red hats when he worked at Red Hat in that time period. I had completely borked my install of Ubuntu a few days ago (or maybe the update from Easy Peasy never really worked right). In the event, I completely wiped the netbook the night before and re-installed everything. I've started using Dropbox to maintain the rough drafts of my writing, so it was easy to get my data back. I could have just taken my macbook, but it wouldn't have been as fun. In point of fact, I hardly used it, but it was nice to know it was there.

I met dozens of people, learned about many new projects, and also touched base with projects I've known about but haven't had time to explore. I've been interested in the Freedom Box since I first heard about it: it's consistent with my vision for people having their own server. And it's also the only way to have any assurance of privacy: you can't trust third parties not to reveal all of your private information to the government or corporations.

I organized a discussion about education and unschooling. It was a very receptive audience to the ideas and there were a number of people working on interesting things. The most interesting was probably Be You, but there were many, many others. ContactCon reminded me of what John Jungck used to say about the goals of BioQUEST: to begin conversations worth continuing. I suspect I will continue to interact with some of these people going forward.

Badges to Empower Students, Subversively Encourage Faculty, and Align Learning with Department Goals

A system for badges for life-long learning, based on previously-established Department Learning Goals, driven by student applications, and implemented in Drupal, could encourage students to align their own learning with the Goals. In addition, it could provide a much-needed impetus for building improved assessment of learning.

The Biology Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has fostered revolutionary pedagogy and pioneered team-based learning approaches in lab and in lecture. With funding from Howard Hughes, we built innovative introductory and upper-level biology laboratory courses. With support from the Pew-funded Program in Course Redesign, we developed on-line resources to support in-class small-group problem solving. With funding from NSF, we've developed cutting-edge model-based problem solving activities for use with clickers.

About ten years ago, the Biology Department adopted a forward-looking set of Learning Goals that has been influential in the redesign of existing classes and the design of new ones. Acknowledging that, while the curriculum defines the depth and breadth of disciplinary knowledge, the Learning Goals can establish a vision for the skills and perspectives that every Biology course should foster and develop in students. The Learning Goals in many ways encapsulate scientific literacy and an appreciation for life-long learning from a biological perspective.

While the Learning Goals have been influential, both in terms of curriculum and course design, the Department has not established assessments to monitor and evaluate student progress toward the goals in any centrally-reportable way. That's not to say that the assessments don't happen at all: they're simply embedded in courses with no mechanism for sharing them or their results. Finding ways to share the outcomes of assessments would help the department substantially, both by providing information about the Department's mission to help guide further efforts, but also to enable the department to communicate our mission to outside constituencies. It has been difficult, however, to build the necessary consensus among the faculty to accomplish the work. I believe a system based on badges could solve this dilemma.

I propose a slightly subversive mechanism to turn the problem on its head by enabling students to request badges through submission of an artifact from a course or experience (a project, paper, photograph, video, examination, etc) and writing a brief statement that explains why it merits receipt of the badge. By creating a student-driven system, the incentives for faculty could be inverted: the student requests will drive the system and provide the information about where the learning goals are already being assessed.

Badges will be aligned with the major learning goals and perspectives with four levels that students could potentially achieve for each badge (one for each year of study). Ideally, the instructor of the course and another faculty member would be required to certify that the work submitted represented progress above and beyond the level the student had previously achieved. In very large courses (some Department courses have more than a thousand students), this could be unrealistic, however, and course TAs might be needed to manage the requests.

By encouraging students to achieve the Leaning Goals directly, they will develop increased familiarity with the Goals and begin looking at their assignments and activities with an eye for how they could potentially meet Goal and earn badges. This will undoubtedly give students greater appreciation for how the Learning Goals articulate with class goals and with the Goals the faculty have for students in the major.

There are several places where the student badges could be used to confer privileges and opportunities to students. The website itself will offer a feed where new student badges are posted (at the discretion of the student). Another place where the badges could be leveraged is the Biology Undergraduate Research Apprenticeships application program where students already apply online and their badges could appear when their application is viewed. Changes to the Honors College will also necessitate the Department managing an admissions process for Honors students and the badges could appear when this determination is made.

Minimally, this system would provide a wealth of information to the Department regarding where the Learning Goals are being practiced and implemented effectively. One potential outcome of this system would be that faculty might begin redesigning their courses and assessments to facilitate student badge applications: faculty might feel some pressure to redesign their assessments if their classes yield few or no applications for badges.

I believe this can all be built with tools already available and in use in the Biology Department: We have extensive experience using Drupal and we've already started using the user_badges Drupal module (for Science Scouts badges). This module does not currently support the Mozilla Open Badges initiative, but I have already begun trying to organize a group to put in a subsequent proposal to extend the user_badges module to support it and it seems like a good platform to start with. Students would submit the material on-line and, via the workflow module, the faculty members would be notified to evaluate the submission, and assign the badge.

If other departments or entities on campus were interested in pursuing similar badges, it would be easy to replicate or centralize the infrastructure for the badge system. The General Education group and the new Integrative Experience program have similar kinds of learning goals that badges could be developed for.

For nearly ten years, I've been trying to convince the Biology Department to embark on a process to assess the Learning Goals we developed and adopted without success. If a system of badges could get students to start identifying where we're already doing these assessments and provide the mechanism for sharing the information centrally, it would be a transformative step in moving the department forward. But the biggest winners would be students taking greater control of aligning their education with the Department Goals.

Submitted as a proposal to the Digital Media Learning Badges for Life-long Learning Competition with Tom Hoogendyk & Coherent Bytes listed as a collaborator.

Why Twitter is Different

I started using Twitter and Facebook at almost the same time. When Google Plus became available, I signed up for that too, to give it a try. Twitter is different from the other two and it's been interesting to me to reflect on why.

Both Facebook and Google Plus encourage laziness and sloppiness. They encourage all kinds of mindless/thoughtless posts in your stream, like "Bob done Killed A Varmint!" Or a link stuck in to some other article, with an automatically generated thumbnail and teaser. Or just rambling posts carelessly written. It turns out that I really like the results of the tiny bit of additional structure that twitter enforces: when you make people actually craft a short message and hone it down to 140 characters, it's better.

I don't follow the many of the same people in Facebook and Twitter. I mostly only follow people in Twitter who take the time to craft short, interesting messages. People who post things that get truncated with a link get unfollowed pretty fast. The same with people who just post links without some informative comment. Or who only re-tweet other people's posts. Or who post too often. There's a sweet-spot there somewhere that results in a highly informative feed where I actually want to look at each one of the posts -- even if just for a moment. And the fact that they're short and complete is a critical part of that.

In Facebook, there's too much content: it's clear that I don't see a lot of what's there. And many of the posts are too long or too pointless to read carefully. And having a robot make decisions for me about what I want and don't want to see is not the solution.

I also enjoy the discipline myself to make me craft my message carefully: the 140 character limit makes a huge difference in the kinds of things I write for twitter. The necessity of choosing each word carefully helps me focus on what's important -- what I'm really trying to say.

That's not so say that everything about Facebook is bad or inferior. I enjoy the more extended side discussions you can have there. But having a feed of short and complete posts makes my experience with twitter uniquely satisfactory.

If there was one thing I could fix about twitter it would be to require real hyperlinks: let people link to stuff, but encourage people use links to the actual thing (not a URL shortening service) and to have hypertext, instead of clickable URLS. If people don't know how to write a hyperlink, have the system help them. And don't count the links toward the 140 character limit. It would have two positive effects: first, it would make the messages more concise, compelling and readable, but it would also reduce the ability of the system to be misused with links to spam sites. Being able to actually see the real URL has a lot of value, but having to stick it into the text is just stupid: solving that problem was one one of the key insights that made the World Wide Web so great.

Techie stuff

With the semester launched, I've had some time to work on technical things. I've set up one computer to try to start building a template for supporting Lion in the computer labs. I'm not sure when we'll switch, though: there are several pieces of software we use that won't run under Lion and, so far, I've not seen any compelling reasons to switch. And several reasons not to.

One thing that's a PITA is Apple's strategy for distributing Lion: through their obnoxious "App Store". At the University, they provided media that you can use to update Slow Neopard to Lion. Infuriatingly, however, there's no way to just install Lion and start clean with that. I googled around and found a guide that suggested you could wipe the partition with lion and then use the recovery partition to install clean from that. I tried it, but then it wanted me to log into the App Store with my AppleID (which hadn't purchased the license for Lion) and so it wouldn't let me install. So I ended up re-installing Slow Neopard and then updating to Lion.

It took me a while to remember how to set up LDAP authentication: I forgot you have to configure OpenLDAP manually before you use it in the Directory Assistant. Once I copied the key into place and referenced it in ldap.conf, everything worked just fine, although I still haven't figured out how to customize the directory template. This semester, I found where to set RealName = uid (instead of cn) so that when people want to print or mount a server share, it fills in their "username" field with their uid and not their Real Freakin' Name. Two steps forward, one step back.

In related news, I was hugely disappointed to see that Growl is only going to distribute via the App Store. I don't use the "official twitter client" because its only distributed via the App Store. Letting Apple become the sole channel for distributing software is a HUGE mistake. Yes, it's convenient and, yes, it makes it easy to monetize everything -- so easy, in fact, that people that wouldn't otherwise monetize stuff don't see the point in not monetizing it. But the App store does two really unfortunate things: First, it lets Apple choose which applications to let people run and, from there, it's just a small step to letting Apple be in control of what you can do with your computer. They already do that with the iPhone: why can't I write a tethering app so that I can share my Internet Connection with computer? Oh, that's right: an Apple Partner has that capability as part of their business plan. Even more simply, though, letting Apple gain a chokehold over the software ecosystem is as dangerous as it was for the music industry letting Apple control the supply of music. We'll all be better off if there's more competition.

So this morning, I updated my netbook with Ubuntu 11.04. All of the stuff that was problematic before just seems to work now: the ethernet card just works, the wireless just works, the camera just works. Oh, I had to twiddle some things to get the microphone to work in Skype. But it just works. It's not a bad little computer. I'll show it to the North Star kids when I see them next time: most of them have never seen a linux computer before. Maybe I should set up my macbook to dual boot. It may be time...

Science Scouts using user_badges in Drupal

I first saw Science Scouts a couple of years ago. At first, I thought the badges were just silly, but after I'd thought about it a little, I realized they had real potential to help students see faculty from a different perspective. I think students often have a hard time understanding what faculty do and that the badges could humanize faculty -- and help students appreciate their accomplishments. Especially the badges about publication, funding, etc. And they could show that faculty can have a sense of humor too -- something students are all too frequently in doubt about.

There is a module in Drupal called user_badges that allows people to associate badges with their user account. Today, I installed it at the Biology development website, configured it to use the Science Scouts badges, and modified the template for the Faculty page so faculty who want to show Science Scout badges could easily do so. I've set up my page on the Biology development site to show my badges. It's just on the development site, but I could easily migrate it to the production site.

The badges are at the bottom of the page -- mouse over them to see the titles. If you click on a badge, it will take you to the appropriate Science Scouts page.

It was easy to do. I had to make a handful of changes to the user_badges module to make it work: I had to increase the size of the name field in the database, because some of the badges have absurdly long names. I also decided to double the width of the field where you select user badges -- it seemed too small before. I also resized the graphics so that a bunch more badges can fit on a single row (although it looks fine to have them wrap.) If anyone wants my modified user_badges code and the file to import all the badges, I'm happy to provide it.

I've sent a note to the chair. I'm not sure if faculty will be willing to have this available on the actual Biology Department website. I think it's cool and it would be great to have it available for those who are willing. Not everyone will want to do it, but it would be neat to have it there.

We could also make them available to grad students too.


Since getting dumped as webmaster for Esperanto-USA, I'm realizing how much time I was spending on supporting/maintaining the website there. I was probably spending at least an hour a day to read everything, post a blog post or story, write a couple of comments, approve/reject comments, write a new poll, check logs, etc. And that's not counting the big efforts I would make periodically to update the software or roll out a new feature, which would cost five or ten hours.

Now, I'm trying to just not go and look. I did look a couple of times: there were dozens of unmoderated comments and evident signs of neglect. Sigh... Well, it's just not my problem anymore.

Instead, I'm using the time on other things: I have more time for stuff at work and more time for my North Star Class. And for my boys. And bicycling. I have to admit that my experience isn't encouraging me to spend my time on other Esperanto activity: I'm just doing less overall.

Since I'm not teaching this semester, I'm finally finding time to fix things that have been bugging me for a year or more. One of my key goals is to provide better oversight of the BCRC staff and provide the tools necessary for them to be fully engaged. I migrated the BCRC staff manual to a place where the staff can help update it. I added a block to reflect comments posted in my BCRC blog on the BCRC homepage. When we added the "Alumni" menu several months ago, it broke the navigation block in the footer. Today, I finally got around to finding and fixing the CSS rule that distributed those pieces of content so that they would all fit. I set up printing on the new advising computers. And while I was doing all of this, I began finally updating the 10.4 radmind image that has been gradually decaying for 2 years. Hopefully, if I can get the image up-to-snuff, we can actually make the old PowerPC machines we have sitting around actually useful again.

Facebook integration difficulties

About a day after I had set up the Facebook Integration stuff, they decided to give up trying to support Drupal 6 at all. They just pulled that whole tree of the module. So I switched to using the Facebook Connect module instead.

I've rarely found it to be worthwhile trying to track commercial software. Facebook provides an SDK, but stuff changes quickly and all of the modules that were written against the 2.0 SDK won't work as of Oct 1. In both cases, there were patches that theoretically made stuff work with the new SDK, but that's not particularly reassuring.

I was eventually able to get the Facebook Connect module working. I ended up having to go into the source and touch it at a couple of points. It wanted to have registrations open to create accounts, so I hacked that to not be so fussy. It also ended up pointing at a spot where you got an "access denied", so I set it to just go to the "dashboard" when it was done. It now seems to work reasonably well.

Remove Video in Open Atrium

Ha! I finally figured out how to remove that horrible video from the Welcome block without having to remove the whole block. I had gotten to used to the idea that when you do something in Drupal, the answer is nearly always some pointy-clicky thing. Instead you have to edit a text file: profiles/openatrium/modules/atrium_features/atrium/ and comment out the lines that begin "$video". Once you do that, you still have the helpful blocks with the links to create content, but no stupid video sucking up the whole screen. Sanktan Merdon! That took me hours to finally figure it out!

I've setup Open Atrium with Facebook Integration (I had to comment out the link in settings.php to include the -- none of the purl managed links seemed to work while that was included. I'm only really interested in the Facebook Connect stuff, but that *seems* to work pretty well, even without the url_rewritey thing. It's not thoroughly tested, yet, but what I've seen so far is quite encouraging.

I'm planning to use it for my North Star Teens class on Building a Computer. I asked them what they wanted to use and they were somewhat ambivalent -- they didn't want to do it directly in Facebook, but weren't sure if a blog or a wiki or what would be the right thing. I think Open Atrium will be great -- especially now that I've figured out how to get rid of that video! The video is cute, but you only need to see it once and, after that, it just takes up a lot of prime real-estate.

No longer webmaster for Esperanto-USA

On August 28th, I received an email from the new president of Esperanto-USA informing me that I was being replaced as webmaster. I was somewhat surprised at this turn of events, but have done what I can to help the new webmaster get up-to-speed with the website as it currently stands and to outline what I had identified as next steps.

My vision for the website has been to make it the repository for information about Esperanto-USA and its activity -- the primary goal being that people visiting the site see evidence that the organization is alive and active. For that reason, I have avoided creating "silos" where people go for different pieces of information that are disconnected from the main site (where the evidence of the other things going on would be absent).

I've also tried to prevent proliferation of individual sites so that most/all of the management of the site mostly is done through Drupal. I've avoided creating shell accounts for people and having to deal with managing file uploads, unix permission issues, etc -- not because they're necessarily any harder than doing it through drupal, but to avoid multiplying the amount of work that the sysadmin will have to do (ie manage drupal plus manage unix users and understand the potential interactions between the two -- or even worse, understand other CMSes). But note that there are a few, e.g. And, as I say, because I want people visiting our site(s) to be exposed to our current activity, and not just the silo that brought them there.

One of the most successful things we did was when Robert Read organized and hosted a "LAN party", where we got 6 or 7 people together in one place to work on the website for a whole weekend. That's how the old pages got migrated (however inexpertly) during one frantic weekend. It might be worth repeating that somehow, when you know what you want to do.

In 2011, I had proposed a thread of the Landa Kongreso to be about updating the website: basically, I envisioned (1) a talk/forum about the website and services available/needed, (2) training sessions on how to get involved and contribute, and (3) a room through the whole congress (staffed by me) with a few computers where people who wanted to work on things could sit together and actually get work done. Unfortunately, when the date of the LK was arbitrarily changed, I could no longer participate. Maybe someone will want to organize this at the next LK.

The key things that I thought that needed to be done were these:

(1) reorganize navigation (less flat, more deep). We have too many top level categories that aren't really parallel and each is only one level deep. We should probably have fewer top-level menus and make them two levels deep, so people can burrow down more quickly to what they're looking for.

(2) combine and update pages. We have too many pages, many of which are similar to one another -- and most are out of date. While updating the site, we should try to merge similar pages together into a single page, to simplify the site and make them easier to maintain/update.

(3) fix, extend taxonomy. The taxonomy system is turned on and allows people to enter terms. Unfortunately, most people don't understand how it works. But we have a big repository of terms that people have used. We should probably migrate those terms into a system where we have a fixed set of terms that people are required to select from when posting stuff. I think a better taxonomy system would make it easier for people to find information and navigate the site.

(4) create landing pages for each of the funds. These would probably be "views" in Drupal parlance, and would each have a summary of a fund, a way to submit requests from a fund, a "feed" of articles (stories and blog posts) that were tagged as being about the activity of a fund, and a link encouraging people to donate to a fund -- maybe even building a purchasing system into drupal so that people didn't have to leave drupal to donate. On the "estraro" side, we would ask fund administrators to post updates about each time the fund did anything -- maybe with an admonition that funds that do nothing for an entire year will be discontinued and rolled into the general fund. It's stupid that we have funds that don't do anything: we should get rid of those.

There are some other resources of which you should be aware. This URL: is a script I wrote that checks members one by one to see if they're a dues paying member and adds the "member" role to them in Drupal if they are. It doesn't remove members who are no longer dues-paying: we have no mechanism to do that.

There are also google adwords and google analytics accounts for Esperanto-USA. You probably need to ask Tim Westover to add you to those, if you're not already in there. We could do a lot more with both of those. Tim used to do a lot, but hasn't been active for a couple of years and no-one else has filled in.

There is also the "retpagxestroj" mailing list. This is a list maintained at dreamhost. You should add yourself to that. You can leave me on or take me off, as you like. The people who are on the list are all endowed with administrative access at the website. There are also a few more people who have administrative access: I was pretty liberal in giving it, thinking that more hands are better. Administrators can do pretty much anything at the site, though, and, although it hasn't been misused you might want to think about it because it's a bit risky -- you may be more risk-averse than me.

The bookstore is its own thing -- it was set up and is maintained by Bill Harris. There are really attractive skins for zen-cart -- the one we're using is pretty ugly and clunky looking. It might be worth spending a few hundred bucks to buy a prettier skin so that the bookstore looked more attractive. Attractive sells. The bookstore needs more reviews -- there's a mechanism for users to write and submit reviews, but there are hardly any reviews in the bookstore.

We're currently using Drupal 6, which is now the legacy release of Drupal. It will continue to be supported until Drupal 8 comes out -- probably sometime next year. When that happens, we ought to be ready with an upgrade plan -- or some kind of plan.

The New York office of UEA is interested in switching to Drupal. I had asked the board to consider whether we should host their website if they were willing to share the cost of hosting (for maybe $5/month). It is simple enough to to set up separate sites that use the same codebase (t.e. "multisite"). That question has not yet been answered.

For a long time, there's been discussed about whether we should translate at least some of our webpages into Esperanto. The majority are only in English. The i18n and l10n modules are installed, but we mostly aren't using them, In my opinion, we don't have enough human resources to keep the English pages up-to-date and it doesn't make sense to double the amount of work. If you want to use the system I've found that it works reasonably well, but it doesn't play nicely with the book module. You will want to move pages that you want to translate from book pages to regular pages.

Finally, the last item I covered when I did my talk at the LK in Washington -- and which I had warned the estraro about -- was that someone needed to be thinking about finding a replacement for me, since I was the only one who understood Drupal well enough to manage and support the site. Evidently, that problem now has been solved. :-)

To be summarily dismissed wasn't really how I was expecting things to turn out, but it was time -- past time -- that someone else took over. I'll enjoy watching from the sidelines.

Meaningful Activity

One thing I realized early on in teaching science was that it is misguided -- stupid even -- to invest a lot of energy trying to "teach" students things that they don't see any point in. Oh, you might be able to get them to remember stuff to pass a test -- if you structured the incentives that way and held a big stick over them. As a trick, you might get them to do it once, if by the end of the lesson they realized how wise you were in leading them down the path. Otherwise it's pointless: they'll forget it all as soon as they can, because there's rarely any point in merely knowing all that crap in the first place. You have to actually understand it, if it's going to be useful. And that requires real intention on the part of the students.

The idea of teaching people particular things has several bases, but none of them are valid any longer -- if they ever were. Modern public education was organized along the model of the assembly line, where students in cohorts move along a conveyer from one station to another having "information" added systematically along the way. It conceives of learning as laying courses of bricks and is grounded upon the assumption that students can't do anything interesting until they've assembled a critical mass of information to work with. Teaching has become a sterile activity where teachers use tricks to keep students "on task" doing drudgery that they generally see as pointless. These are all false, discredited models for how learning should be organized -- or should ever have been organized. And the testing paradigm, which is predicated on the notion that everyone must be taught the same things at the same time, has made this all much worse.

Educational testing is driven by the premise that finding questions that experts will answer differently than novices, and using those as an indicator of student performance, will allow measurement of student ability and teaching efficacy. This model is false for several reasons, but principally because expert performance is mainly due to how their knowledge is organized, rather than its quantity. Test questions rarely can address how knowledge is organized unless you can understand why someone selected the answer they did. This kind of testing, though possible, isn't cheap -- it generally requires trained people and individualized assessment.

The broad application of the testing paradigm has deprofessionalized K-12 teaching and shifted emphasis from what's important to what can be easily assessed. Teachers are becoming merely jailers who implement an instructional regime, created by bureaucrats, that's driven by assessments and bean counting. Students are rewarded for compliance, not for critical thought or challenging the establishment goals. Teachers are rewarded for avoiding schools with non-complying students. And Higher Education is now in the sights of the testing industry.

In higher education, I still have some freedom to try to deprogram the students that come into my classroom. I spend a great deal of effort trying to build in mechanisms for student activity to be driven by what makes sense to them. In different classes, I use different schedules for extracting myself from students' teacher-centered expectations about learning and seek ways to engage them with their own learning. Generally, I'm quite directive in the first few days (which is what college students depressingly expect) and then, little-by-little, I wean students off from seeking my approval to trying to satisfy themselves.

I am sometimes successful: in end-of-term reflective essays students often describe to me how they had experienced an epiphany at some point -- and its effect is evident in the subsequent work the student performed during the semester. What brings about the epiphany varies from student to student: sometimes it's seeing what peers are doing, sometimes it's something I say, and sometimes it just happens out of the blue.

I occasionally meet tremendous resistance from students. One student, after the first day, dropped my course saying that he could see that in the course students would have to think "outside-the-box". "I don't want to do that," he said. In another course, I had used the analogy of taking the students out to the middle of the ocean and asking them to pick a direction and swim. "I guarantee you'll get someplace interesting," I said. "But you have to pick a direction and swim. I'll try to make sure you don't sink and help you navigate the reefs and currents that you run into. But you have to swim." Some students just crossed their arms and refused: they were convinced that if they waited long enough, I would turn the assignment into a meaningless set of steps they can perform without choosing. In a chat-session with the students, one woman kept re-iterating reasons why she couldn't start her project until she received assurances that it was the right way to go until another student finally said, "Swim, Cynthia! Swim!"

It would be much better if students didn't need to wait until college to discover that learning works best when it's driven by self-interest and self-motivation -- and is self-directed. The internet, more than any one other single thing, now makes that possible. Not inevitable -- but possible in a way that has never been possible before.

The internet hasn't changed how students learn, but it has the potential to be an incredible source of student empowerment. Every student with a computing device and a network connection now has access to a greater library and source of information than any human being on earth has ever had. Much, much greater. Students don't really need textbooks. They don't really need teachers. What they need are reasons to delve into that stuff and take advantage of it. School -- most of our current formal educational structure -- is not good at providing those reasons. In fact, schools (and government) are generally afraid to let students have unfiltered access to the full world of information on the internet. Students that buy into the formal schooling program become rule-followers and get comparatively little real benefit from the "learning". What students need are engaging, authentic tasks that require learning -- and the freedom to pursue them.

Once students are liberated from the drudgery of menial schoolwork, they suddenly discover that the world is a fascinating place -- and there are whole communities of people who have been equally fascinated by it and have been trying to figure it out for ages. Instead of trying to drag students along by the nose, the teacher is liberated to help students accomplish their goals: they can become a genuine guide and mentor -- and not just a supervisor trying to trick students into learning stuff they have no interest in.

School -- and much of higher education -- as currently instantiated is a poor substitute for self-motivated learning. Most would get a lot farther fostering and pursuing their own interests. The tools for students and teachers to liberate themselves are there just waiting.


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