You are here

Steven D. Brewer's blog

Intro to networking

The parts have started to arrive for the North Star computer we're building. So far, we've only gotten the wireless card, but I expect the rest of the parts to arrive soon. The first thing the students want to work on is the connectivity in the building, so Step 1 will be to set up our own wireless access-point/NAT Gateway. So today we did an intro to networking.

We mainly looked at the output of ifconfig. We talked about packets and their structure (with a header containing address information and a payload) and about the differences between TCP and UDP and what an MTU is . We looked at hexidecimal digits and talked about translating between hex and base-10 and binary. We looked at the IP address, broadcast, and netmask and briefly discussed what they do. We talked about NAT and DHCP and why the 192.x.x.x address space is used inside and why you sometimes see 169.x.x.x addresses. We did some thought puzzles: why would adding one to the last octet still work and adding one to the first octet not work?

One bit I didn't think to talk about was to close the circle in terms of how processors load and manipulate data in registers and why netmasks work the way they do. That's not something I actually understand all that well myself -- just enough to wave my hand at it and say XOR or something. We can take that up next week, if we're not too busy actually putting parts together.

Engaging Tasks

In Phil's post about Children and Power, he describes a typical worksheet and the kind of mental trickery that these exercises often embody. The exercise he describes is a type example of tedious busy work: it's "make work" for students constructed in a particular style to make it easy to correct.

The biggest problem to good assessment is our society's assumptions that answers can be "right or wrong". This simpleminded attitude has nothing to do with learning or judgement and everything to do with making tasks that are cheap and simple to evaluate. There are no questions that have simple answers: even "What's 1+1?" can lead to a whole discussion about the nature of integers or the literary origin of using 1+1=3 to talk about emergence (the sum being more than the whole of its parts) -- and that's just scratching the surface.

The most evil outcome of this system, is giving machines the task of evaluating human productions. For meaningful learning, human productions need to be evaluated by humans that can appropriate a statement (ie, put into the context of the larger conversation) and then help the student see how their production fits -- or does not fit -- what the teacher had in mind. There was a school of thought in cybernetics called "Programmed Instruction" that tried to create systems that could do this, but it runs into the fact that domains cannot be fully specified. Programmed instruction went out with behaviorism, although you still see people every few years, ignorant of the history, who assume it should be easy to do.

I did some freelance work for a text book one time and one of the things they wanted desperately was for everything to have some kind of "assessment" associated with it. Every chapter, every section needed to have assessments. When they ran out of space in the book, and wanted to add these random grab-bags of facts online, they even wanted those to have assessments. And that was when I made the realization: when I pointed out that it was meaningless to have assessments of random collections of facts, which had no underlying conceptual dimension, they just hired someone who was desperate enough for the money to write a bunch of questions. That's the lowest common denominator here: these assessments get designed as cheaply as possible, no matter how meaningless and pointless they are.

For students to be engaged in tasks, the tasks need to have some purpose. They need to be things the students think are worth doing and part of a larger effort that's going somewhere interesting. Schoolwork that is pointless and a waste of time encourages students to be cynical about the whole enterprise and encourages cheating.

It's possible to have students to real work -- work that matters -- that requires the same kinds of skills. And there's no reason not to do this, except that it requires three things. It requires teachers have (1) the freedom to let students go in different directions, (2) the wherewithal in terms of time and imagination to not just grab the first worksheet that comes to hand and co-construct interesting tasks with students, and (3) the time to provide meaningful mentorship and evaluation to students as their projects develop. Unfortunately, as budgets are cut and teaching profession becomes increasingly deprofessionalized, none of these are likely to happen in public education anytime soon.

Children and Power

Governor Patrick released a set of new strategies to close persistent performance gaps in education as a summit at UMass Boston. Unfortunately, it represents more of the same fundamentally wrong-headed approach that education has increasingly adopted in our country: it treats students as the product of the system, rather than participants or partners. Our educational system has become a place where compliance is valued over creativity and passion. Worst of all, it fails to empower our children.

Few adults would tolerate being treated the way we treat children. Few adults would consent to this kind of regime: having their waking hours regulated by a series of bells, being required to ask permission to stand or use the bathroom, being given hours of tedious drudgery to perform every day -- drudgery that didn't really matter -- that will just be marked up with a red pen and then thrown in the trash. Why do children put up with that? Why do we tell them they should accept that? What does it teach them that these are the expectations we set for them?

Some people will say that there are developmental differences that require children to be treated in this way. Or that they need to be taught certain things before they can take charge of their own learning or do anything interesting. These are false -- and demonstrably false. Children that do take charge of their own learning can be remarkably successful: many entrepreneurs (most recently Steve Jobs) cite dropping out of school to pursue their own interests as providing the key insights that led to their success. How many children's gifts are wasted because they never realize the prison that is cunningly woven around then beginning with preschool and kindergarten.

I saw it most clearly when my second son started kindergarten -- and my older boy was in fourth grade. In kindergarten, we start teaching children to wear chains: to stand in line, to ask permission, to respond to authority. The chains aren't pulled tight, but children get used to hearing them jingle as they run. By fourth grade, the chains are pulled in tight, locking them into their chairs.

When my younger son was in fifth grade, we had a particularly clueless teacher. Even though the school day didn't start until 8:40, she required students that arrived before then, to sit in their seats and do worksheets. My son, having a clue, refused to arrive to arrive before 8:40. Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such a regime? And when he refused to do his homework, she kept him in from recess week after week, even though she admitted that he could easily pass the tests that the homework was supposedly practice for.

There are unquestionably developmental differences between children and adults, but the largest differences in our society are cultural: the fact that children are systematically disempowered by society. They are threatened with punitive actions for exercising power and are systematically discouraged from even learning about the power they have. Our society compels children to comply with a punitive regime of senseless drudgery and busy-work that destroys the potential for genuine human relationships between children and adults.

Some people really do have power over one another, but in most cases that power is conceded by one to another. We really only have power over ourselves. We can choose to act in compliance with the wishes of another or we can withhold our cooperation. They can choose to punish us, but rarely do they have the power to genuinely compel. Few adults help children understand that they have this power and can choose to exercise it.

One of the main causes of childishness and poor behavior on the part of children is that they don't believe they have any power and don't know how to effectively use what power they have. When children have a voice and recognize that what they do matters, the childishness tends to fall away. That isn't to say that children don't need protection from being preyed upon -- or from the consequences of serious mistakes. But we would all be better off if there were more genuine interactions between children and adults, rather than the artificiality produced by the dominance/subservience relationship demanded by our educational institutions.

Rather than trying to control children, we should be providing leadership: creating an environment that is fertile for students to choose to learn. Children so empowered could pursue their own agendas with supportive adults around them to provide guidance and mentorship. Children that are able to pursue their interests, have the potential to discover "work" as their life's calling -- and not just meaningless drudgery necessary to placate a faceless authority. Children who pursue meaningful work will find it necessary to learn reading and writing, math and science, history and literature. And by pursuing these things for themselves, it will actually mean something -- and not just be marks on a paper soon to be thrown in the trash.

We need to stop the madness.

North Star Comments

Last night, Alisa, Daniel, and I were invited to speak briefly at a dinner for the North Star Board to thank donors. After the dinner, the director selected people to speak. The first was a young woman who has been doing activism rather than high school: she spent a year at North Star, but has subsequently been doing internships and volunteer work, including spending a summer in Washington and winning a prestigious local award. Then it was Daniel's turn. Poor Daniel had to admit that he hadn't won any prestigious awards or gotten involved in important projects, but that he had been very unhappy in school and was much happier in North Star and much more confident that he was going in the right direction. Then it was my turn.

In the summer before 7th grade, Daniel talked to me about not wanting to continue with school and looking for other options. But since he'd only gone to a small elementary school, I suggested giving 7th grade a try to see how it was. And so he did. But the school really wasn't a good fit.
At the first parent teacher conference -- we got about 15 minutes with someone who was in a rush to tell us all the things he wanted to do to our child -- the first thing he said was, "We can see Daniel's going to be a tough nut to crack." We were horrified and I said, "But I don't want Daniel cracked. I want him to be engaged with his learning." The teacher, said, "No, no. That's not what I meant." But it was. That was exactly what he meant. The school really didn't know what to do with a kid like Daniel.
Our experience was that Daniel would get assigned about 3 hours of homework a night. And the work was not interesting or engaging -- it was almost entirely these mind-killing worksheets -- pure drudgery. When he got home from school, he would do anything to avoid thinking about school so when I got home from work at 6, I basically had a choice: I could stand over him with a stick to make him do his homework or not. I mostly chose not to do that.
When Daniel would go to school, the teachers would ask, "Where's your homework?" And Daniel would say, "I chose not to do it, because it didn't look like it was worth my time." And they really had no idea what to do with a kid like that. School was just not a good fit.
North Star has been wonderful for Daniel. His real passion is writing. Even in elementary school, Daniel started writing -- mostly fantasy -- and has written tens of thousands of words. And North Star gives him the support and flexibility to explore new ideas and focus on the things he really wants to do. We've been grateful for the opportunities that North Star provides.

The third speaker was a young woman who recently arrived from Washington State who loves art. She took one look at the high school and North Star and said, "That's where I want to go."
I'm genuinely impressed with the results that North Star produces with kids. Once you stop trying to be controlling and directive -- and give kids real choices and power, they rise to the occasion and become fully-fledged participants in the process -- and their own lives. I've known that and believed it for years, but it's wonderful to actually see it in action.

Sexual harrassment

The Boston Globe has suddenly discovered that teenagers use sexual slang and epithets to torment one another. Is this a surprise to anyone? Did they repress their own memories of being a teenager? The environment described in the article is the consistent with what I lived through 30 years ago.

Particularly striking to me is a statement by Fatima Goss Graves, a vice president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington (which may have been taken out of context, but probably not):

"Schools get too caught up in the label," she said. "If it's the sort of conduct that's interfering with a student's performance, it ought to be stopped."

Oh, right. It's not about doing what's right or ensuring that the people in our care aren't mistreated: it's all about their performance! God forbid those test scores would drop! Then we'd all be in trouble. Sheesh...

Selecting a Chancellor

The search committee for the UMass Amherst chancellor held forums yesterday and today for people to provide input into the process. I spoke briefly near the beginning. This isn't an exact transcript, but I hope it's close.

I hope you've all received a copy of the Chancellor Qualities document that the MSP prepared. I was one of the architects of that. We began with the Lazarre Report ten years ago and it was very interesting to go back and see where the campus was ten years ago, where we thought it was going, and where we've ended up. But I want to speak on something slightly different today.

Our society has come to fetishize numbers and measurement. Everything is supposed to be "data driven" these days. But much of what people call "measurement" really isn't. When you "measure" something, you have a unidimensional axis and a common set of units that everyone agrees upon. If you say one thing gets 10 miles per gallon and another 20, everyone can agree on what a mile is and understand what that means. But many of the things that people call measures really aren't. Like rankings. These kinds of things -- or constructs -- aggregate a bunch of things together that are assumed to covary with what you're really interested in and they may help you make some rough comparisons. But once you start trying to shift those measures, you can end up going the wrong way.

Does everyone remember melamine? People wanted to measure the quality of milk and were using a protein test as a measure of quality to decide how much to pay for milk. But people discovered that a cheap industrial chemical would cause the test to go up. But it was toxic. That's what can happen when you start looking for the cheapest way to make some score go up.

In college rankings, the same kind of thing happens. At Clemson, a high ranking official said the president had manipulated the rankings, for example, by placing an artificial cap on class sizes so that more classes would be under 20 seats, which resulted in students actually being in more larger classes. They didn't do it to improve the students' education -- it was because in the rankings "20" is a magic number -- and if you can improve the percentage of classes under that, you can improve your rank.

I've seen the same kind of thinking underlying the administration at UMass Amherst from the Board of Trustees on down. I particularly saw it with Steve Tocco, who had a kind of view from 60,000 feet where he wanted to "shift the parameters of UMass Amherst" so that they looked more like our "peer-aspirant institutions" -- that was how he talked about this stuff. But it was like if we discovered that Stanford had 15 light poles per square mile and we had 20, we should go cut down a bunch of light poles. And the current chancellor's Program for Excellence is full of this kind of thinking: every point is about how we rank and where could we make a targeted investment to improve the ranking. That approach may improve the "brand", but it doesn't necessarily make the institution better.

It isn't that rankings can't be useful, but many of the comparisons that they enable simply aren't useful or relevant. It's like comparing apples, oranges, billiard balls and planetoids. Yeah, they're all sorta round. We shouldn't spend all our time comparing ourselves to other institutions or being driven by those comparisons. We need to look inward at ourself and be the best that we can be.

What we need is someone to help identify the real problems we have on the campus; to prioritize and fix them. And to listen to the people who really understand how this place works and help their ideas and solutions emerge. That's how you make the institution better.

There was a lively discussion that followed with, Jean MacCormack (the President of UMass Dartmouth) pushing back a bit that the role of the chancellor requires a balance between looking inward and fixing problems and looking outward to represent the institution to external constituencies. I would certainly agree -- but it is a balance that I feel has not been well met during the 15 years that I've been here.

I was generally pleased with what I saw and heard. The committee is saying and doing the right things.

Drupal Camp NH, Blizzard, and Aftermath

Tom and I left early on Saturday and drove to Manchester for Drupal Camp NH. Tom and I met around the turn of the century when he worked for me in the BCRC supported by our Pew course redesign grant. Since then, he's gone onto graduate school, fatherhood, and other harrowing adventures. He does freelance web design work in the area, but is super busy with babies and work and life, so I don't get to see him very often. We were both looking forward to the drive to actually have some time to talk and reconnect, let alone to share the experience of Drupal Camp.

We arrived right on time and in good order. Check-in went smoothly. They provided a little card you could slip into your badgeholder with the morning schedule on one side and the afternoon schedule on the other -- that was a useful innovation, to not have to refer to some separate piece of paper.

Tom and I intentionally selected different talks to attend in order to get maximum coverage. The first I attended was about Drupal security Hack-proof your Drupal App by ebeyerent. It was fantastic. I'm reasonably familiar with security and Drupal security, but I still learned a lot. The biggest insight I got was to understand that Drupal doesn't vet user input. Although you have "input filters", Drupal generally saves user input directly into the database (with the exception of escaping meta-characters that might allow SQL injection) and then its the responsibility of the themer/programmer to ensure that they check user input on output before displaying it (and there are eight different functions for doing this in particular contexts: check_plain(), t(), l(), etc). Getting this insight alone was worth the trip.

Another great insight I had actually learned from Tom on the way down. We had begun talking about developing for the mobile platform (something I've been meaning to learn more about for a couple of years) and he mentioned that the keyword was "responsive design" and that the modern approach was to design first for mobile, which is generally the most limited platform. This helps focus on the key functionality that the website needs to provide and make sure that its accessible. Later, you can easily add-on a pretty, fancy skin for giant monitors. But getting people to focus on what's important is harder when the primary concern most people have in that context is aesthetics. With this preparation, I went to Jake Strawn's presentation on "Responsive Drupal Today" where he said all this again with many excellent examples drawn from his work on Omega.

In the third session, nothing grabbed me, so I went to the code-sprint room and spent some time trying to hack on the Nodewords module. With the guest wireless, I couldn't use ssh to get to a server so, instead, I spent most of my time installing apache, mysql, php, drupal, and nodewords and, at the end of the hour, had only gotten to the point of configuring the module and looking through the issue queue. I tried applying a user-submitted patch for one issue to hack on it a bit, but it didn't apply cleanly and I didn't have time to sort out what was wrong. It was unfortunate to not get any actual coding done, but still good use of my time.

Lunch was great: pizza, salad, etc. There was plenty of food and lots of snacks later. There wasn't any Coke Zero, which I would have preferred, but lots of bottles of water.

I went to Christina Inge's presentation on Analytics and Usability. The presentation was a little basic for me: too much time on why you should care about analytics, installing the google analytics module, and signing up for an account. I could have used more in-depth tricks on actually using the data. But I don't know how representative I was for the audience: the audience might have needed the more basic info.

The last presentation I attended was Why Drupal Projects Fail. This didn't really hold any surprises, but was a good reminder that the key issue is one of expectations. No matter if you think the project is a "success", if you violate the stakeholders expectations, the project will be perceived as a failure. Managing expectations requires good communication, transparency, and honesty. Good reminders.

Tom and I skipped the last presentation and tried to head home. We had been watching the forecast, but the storm was ahead of us. After a few miles, it became clear that the intelligent thing to do was to go back and find a hotel for the night. We got back to the conference in time for the closing plenary. We each won a prize in the raffle: I selected a copy of the Drupal 7 book and got the available authors to sign it.

On the way to the afterparty, we reserved a room at the Radisson and then spent a pleasant couple of hours at Milly's Tavern -- a great microbrew in Manchester. I tried the IPA and the Hopzilla: excellent bitter beer.

By the time we headed to the hotel, the snow was already several inches deep. As we approached the hotel, we found the roads barricaded by the police due to an event at the Arena that was across the street from the hotel. We drove all around the block looking for a way to get up to the hotel -- nearly getting stuck once or twice. Eventually get got in and spent a reasonably pleasant night in the hotel. I tried to check email and found that the servers were down. I was able to reach my home server, which helped me sleep a bit better.

The next morning, I foolishly decided not to breakfast before we left the hotel. I was eager to get going and didn't want a giant buffet breakfast, thinking that we could pick something up along the way. But it was clear once we got going that no place along the highway had power. Trees were smashed down everywhere. Tom thought we were driving through giant stands of birch trees, until we saw it was just wet snow coating the north-east sides of the tree trunks. Power was out along the Masspike too. At the second rest area, we found a McDonalds that had generator power -- they were only serving coffee and a few food items, but we got a bit to sustain us.

In Holyoke, we stopped at Tom's house. The snow looked to be around 1.5 feet deep, where it was in the shade. Many streets had downed branches and wires, but Tom's street was not too bad. We had to park on a side street, but we were able to get up to the house and touch base with Kirsten and the kids. They hadn't lost power. In a bit, we got back in the car and headed for Amherst.

There were no working traffic lights. Crazy people were driving right through them, rather than treating them as a 4-way stop. Insane. The power was off everywhere. A few business had generators, but whole the valley looked to be shut down.

At home, everyone was OK. The power had gone off around midnight, but there was no damage to the house or even to most of the trees. The cherry tree looked undamaged. Our azaleas were a bit smashed, but looked like they might recover. There was some water in the basement, but it hadn't yet gotten to the hot water heater (the first serious concern). Since then, we're just waiting for power.

After a long cold, night, we went for breakfast at Kelly's in shifts. Lucy and went first and confirmed that they were open and serving food. Alisa got the rest up and brought them a bit later. Afterwards, we headed for the BCRC to charge up our devices and get some connectivity. It's still going to be days before power is fully restored in Amherst, but we're not in some isolated cul-de-sac and we hope to get power back sooner rather than later. It's been quite an adventure.

So-called Class Capture is Stupid

I got an email from one of technical staff in another department wanting to consult with me about setting up a streaming server. When we met, he explained that the faculty in his department were doing "class capture" and wanted to set up a server to provide access to the video files. We mostly talked about the technical issues involved, although I couldn't resist at least mentioning the pedagogical underpinnings.

So-called "Class Capture" is stupid. If you're teaching in such a way that a video recording of the screen is useful, then you're doing it wrong. The time the students and faculty are together is incredibly special and can be used much more effectively than as a memory dump by one person. In particular, you can have students discuss problems in small groups and report out to the larger group: class capture doesn't work for that. You can have students work on group projects. You can have students actually do things and not just sit there. If you do anything interesting with the class time, class capture doesn't work: it would be pointless. To do class capture in an environment like that, you'd need a team of camera-persons and sound persons. And an editor to provide a comprehensible stream of footage. Class capture only makes "sense" if you have someone lecturing. Sigh...

I pointed out that I understood that the poor tech couldn't make faculty choose different pedagogy and that he needed to just make something that would work for them. I showed him an approach that I thought would work. I pointed out that you really only need a "streaming server" if you want to provide live feeds and that for posting files, you could probably get away with just posting video files (probably .flv, transcoded using ffmpeg) and a player like flowplayer. I pointed out that you could put a pretty front-end on it with Drupal, but he said that people just needed to embed their videos in their course websites, so that probably wouldn't be necessary.

We also talked a bit about hardware and OS: he suggested getting a tiny Dell computer and using Windows. I pointed out that you probably wanted more reliable hardware than that, but he said that his department was notoriously cheap. It turned out the only reason he was talking to me was that they'd looked at purchasing some kind of video streaming solution that cost $5000. If money hadn't been an issue, they'd have just bought it, I guess. Sigh...

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.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Steven D. Brewer's blog