Peer Critique: Learning to Code

Nathan’s computer science course looks great: it has a clean layout and adopts design conventions that make it easy to navigate and understand the various elements of the site. The format is essentially an online textbook organized into chapters. The relatively long paragraphs and chapters and the lack of images make the resource feel like they’re aimed at a scholastically inclined adult audience. Put another way, the appeal of the resource is in the conceptual content, not in its visual richness. The text tends to use precise (if basic) computer science language, which may better prepare the learner to interface with other explanations and documentation, but at the expense of a steeper learning curve that might discourage truly novice learners.

The resource best leverages the affordances of web technology in the interactive Python shells dispersed frequently throughout each chapter. These allow the user to review and manipulate pre-filled code, execute it, and observe the results. Thus learners can apply what they have just learned in the preceding text explanation. Often, these are accompanied by an exercise, where the learner can upload a solution in the form of a .py file. The resource automatically evaluates the submission, reporting the expected result, the actual result, and basic error reporting in the event of a discrepancy. This experience is quite a faithful simulation of a standard development workflow, in the sense that the user is required to deal with modular text files and learns to test and revise code. Again, this assumes a certain facility on the part of the learner to know their way around a computer, as well as some basic familiarity of the mathematics required to generate a solution (e.g. geometry). These are realistic expectations of anyone who will be practicing computer science, but it does add to the sense that the resource is aimed at adults, or at least adolescents.

Instructionally, the resource is very thoroughly structured, with an expanding cyclical pattern of learn a concept by reading, explore a concept by manipulating code, apply a set of concepts by generating a code solution. The learning experience might be enriched with other activities that are less concrete or easily assessed, but that help the learner practice the cognitive skills that are relevant to computer science. For example, it might prompt the learner to review a code sample and make a prediction, then execute the code, and evaluate the accuracy of their prediction. They might record their analysis of why or why not the code performed the way they had expected. Likewise, learners might be asked to debug flawed code, or improve an inefficient algorithm. It’s also important to note that this resource seems to teach concepts of computer science germane to coding, which is a narrow subset of the broader domain of computational thinking. While coding is a very practical and ubiquitous application of computational thinking, it might be helpful to depart from the practice of coding periodically and require the learner to apply the concepts of computational thinking to another domain. This might prove especially valuable to new learners who don’t identify themselves as coders or computer people.

Open Fire: Thoughts on Spreading Open Education

Prologue

In 2016 I took a class from David Wiley called Introduction to Open Educational Resources at Brigham Young University. Together, we read, wrote, and discussed a set of key issues surrounding OER. The following vignettes reflect my thinking along the way, sandwiched together here for your reading pleasure.

Education Ruined My Life. You’re Next.

Chapter the First. In which our hero laments the loss of youthful ignorance’s blossom and extols the pursuit of the rougher, hardy bloom of EDUCATION.

There’s some evidence that people are pre-disposed to feel contented (at least eventually) with the unfortunate things that have happened to them, especially when these seem beyond their power to change. Maybe ignorance is bliss after all.

 

Bliss or not, the opposite is certainly true. As the sage Lady Bracknell put it, “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” Indeed, when education supplants the tender vegetation of ignorance, it leaves deep furrows suitable only for weeds of curiosity, skepticism, humility, and disappointment. You can’t undo education. When you see the light, you can’t unsee it. It ruins your life, permanently.

 

In the garden of an educated mind, the sweet fruit of complacency is increasingly sparse. The gulls no longer confidently cry “Sure, sure, sure” (gulls are the most gullible of birds, by definition). Instead, dissonant woodpeckers dig relentlessly into the ramifications of each fresh idea, searching for its weak points. Plots of thought that once grew wild and free are bulldozed, leveled, and divided into well-defined parcels like so much manifest destiny.

 

Like viruses, invasive rational materials not only destroy a garden’s natural beauty, they refocus its resources toward propagation. Suddenly, thoughts that normally took years to develop spring up in a matter of days. What’s more, the spawn of an enlightened thought can thrive nearly anywhere. Personally, I find them cropping up in Sunday school, where rhetorical analysis crowds out well-intentioned but vague generalizations that used to offer inspiration. And radio tunes that were once catchy are now overshadowed by clumps of critical theory; they’ve withered into rows of clichéd chord progressions laden with misogynistic half-rhymes. I could have sworn that the grass on the other side of the fence was greener, too, but now it just seems needlessly wasteful. (Also, you realize it’s very unlikely that grass viewed at a distance seems greener, due to atmospheric perspective.)

 

Therein lies the true desolation of a garden ravaged by education—its owner becomes ungrounded. Uprooted and encumbered with fast-growing horizons, the educated are doomed to wander and critically evaluate gardens that don’t even belong to them. Discontent to be unhappy with their own lot in life, they seek dissatisfaction with the problems of others as well.

 

And then it all goes to seed. Like mad, kernels of truth begin to prevail in contexts and climates where they are neither invited nor permitted. In this condition, only the most carefully isolated gardens avoid infestation. As careful thinking and clear communication become increasingly pervasive, the remaining wild spaces of the world inevitably succumb to the disruption, until each one has surrendered to the battlecry of enlightenment’s master purpose: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

 

In English: “We must cultivate our garden.” It’s the final line uttered by the much-afflicted protagonist Candide, who determines that, though this world is full of suffering and certainly not the best one we can conceive of, we must nevertheless “cultivate our garden.”

 

Why must we cultivate our garden? It’s a uniquely human question—we’re the only gardeners on Earth who can answer the mandate (one of the oldest in the Judeo-Christian tradition). It’s a big deal. It gets hard, but we can help things grow. And we inevitably grow alongside them: our minds, our hearts, the light of our understanding.

 

Try it out, then try again. It’s better than never trying, says Candide.

 

And I agree.

Textbook Tactics: Side-stepping Material Costs

Chapter the Second. In which our hero, having concluded that education is most probably WORTH IT for people to have BETTER GARDENS and therefore BETTER LIVES, proceeds to examine scenarios in which adolescent pupils, stricken with poverty, deem education generally WORTH IT but taking more courses or buying their textbooks NOT WORTH IT, attributable most probably to their desire to eat FOOD.

For many students, textbooks are prohibitively expensive. Literally.

In the face of jaw-dropping tuition bills we might wonder whether textbooks are just another brick in the wall when it comes to looming student debt. No doubt that’s true for some, but you might be surprised to learn that for many students (particularly at community colleges), textbooks and similar course materials can comprise nearly half of their education expenses, and sometimes more.

What to do? At first blush, it might seem like students don’t have a choice. In one sense, they don’t—professors choose which books and editions to bake into their courses, whether to require them, and whether to actually use them if required.

Yet students have options. They run the gamut from buying used books to renting, borrowing, or pirating acquiring them via various ethically questionable means (e.g. BitTorrent). Such tactics vary in efficacy and moral dubiousness, but they’re all threatened by the push of established publishers to sell consumable content (worksheets, online practice sets, access codes) that can’t be reused, resold, or easily redistributed.

But even new-age non-renewables can’t counter some of the more serious measures that students are willing to take to avoid textbook costs. Consider these strategies, taken from a 2012 survey of higher-ed Florida students’ decisions in the face of textbook costs:

Just Don’t Try

textbook-1

If the books cost too much, just take fewer courses. Or don’t take the one with the pricey book. Nearly half of those surveyed reported doing just that.

Do Without

textbook-2

It’s a bold stroke, I’ll give you that. Besides, who needs books when you can have dinner?

Bail

textbook-3

Fortunately, Never performs a little better in this category, but I’m not exactly comforted by these results. Notwithstanding the merits of getting back up when life knocks you down, withdrawing from a course can exact an intangible toll on morale and momentum, in addition to concrete losses like scholarship and aid eligibility. Not to mention the tuition and hours of your life you spent on it.

Underperform or Fail

textbook-4

Granted, this stat is student-reported, so it probably includes some pin-the-fail-on-the-textbook (we millennials like externalize our shortcomings). But more than a quarter of the higher-ed students felt that the cost of their books had adversely affected their formally evaluated performance.

Would this fly in the “real world?” Picture a conversation between Rigby the CEO, and Eleanor the HR Director:

RIGBY: But new lighting is so expensive! And I can’t see how it could affect their work. They’re not artists or anything.

ELEANOR: Who cares how it affects their work! A quarter of them believe that it’s keeping them from doing their best work. Can we succeed with that many team members who feel forced to choose mediocrity?

RIGBY: But the cost. . .

ELEANOR: I know, I know. Why don’t we just open up some of the roof panels into skylights. After all, sunshine is free. . .

Now imagine a world where kids give up or avoid classes because they’re worried about paying for books. In the 21st century. That’s what I call a #lxfail.

How to Stick it to the Man

Chapter the Third. In which our hero, having agonised over the reckless actions of impoverished youths in failing to acquire their course materials, proposes a NIMBLE MANOEUVRE whereby such expenses might be obviated.

What would you do with an extra $90? Some ideas:

  • Get a year of ad-free music
  • Pay down student loans
  • Buy a circular saw

But let me back up. Where’d this $90 come from? Why, from textbooks savings, of course. The internet is replete with tips and tricks for whittling down the cost of books, from Ben Franklin classics like your local library to #OccupyTheBookstore, a Chrome extension that adds price comparisons to your school’s bookstore website (thanks, Trent Hamm).

Most of these strategies rely on price reduction available in a secondary market—buying used, renting, sharing, or selling books back. But here’s the rub: the publishers don’t get a cent of it. This explains in part why there are savings to be had, but also why publishers have raised the price of books around four times the rate of inflation in the last decade. They’ve also developed aggressive strategies to beat back secondary sales, from micro-updated editions to single-semester access codes.

This is understandable. These folks are acting rationally to compete in a lucrative market. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them the man.

So why not stick it to ’em? For those of us perched on well-padded privilege, the $90 per student per course we stand to gain may not seem worth the fight. But for students on the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, it can mean the difference between taking an extra course or not, finishing on time or not, and succeeding or not in a major way.

Besides, I never said we should fight.

Frankly, a head-on clash between students’ consumer cunning and publishers’ corporate wit is not promising. As I pointed out in Chapter the First, students who struggle are already adopting self-defeating behaviors in the face of high course material costs. On top of that, fast-growing internet tech is facilitating subscription models that affords publishers fine-grained control over who accesses their content and when. Barring Robin Hood-ish pirating ethically questionably acquisition and some mad technical chops, there isn’t a great way to beat them at their own game.

But educators—faculty and administrators—can side-step the game altogether, opting for high-quality open educational resources in place of commercial textbooks. This approach is especially impactful in high-volume entry-level courses, where content knowledge and media already abound.

It’s not an idealistic daydream; it’s a proven strategy adopted by scores of professors at many universities. In fact, adopting an open textbook can cost less than adopting a human child; universities in this study offered OER adoption grants to their faculty ranging from $1K-5K each. Spread over dozens of faculty, thousands of students, and multiple years, these modest investments have saved more than a million dollars so far at some institutions.

So let’s not get drawn into their kind of fight, a one-on-one, mano a mongo scramble for savings. With a little teamwork, we can win this in a way that keeps on winning for thousands of students to come. The world is taking notice, so why not come along for the ride?

You Literally Can’t Handle the Truth

Chapter the Fourth. In which our hero, having cleverly elucidated a KEY TACTIC in the reduction of academic expenditure, reflects on the legal mechanisms   to that liberal and enlightened set of behaviors, SHARING, manifested so plainly in content deemed by its creators as OPEN.

I really like Stack Overflow. I’m fascinated by their success at encouraging experts to share high-quality knowledge and even individualized tutoring for free.

Why do people do this?

I suspect that it has something to do with social capital. Maybe it’s prestige or the need to feel useful. Maybe it’s altruistic satisfaction at serving a neighbor in need. Obviously they get something out of it, because these folks posted 4.6 million answers to 3.7 million questions on the Stack Exchange network last year.

The internet also makes it easy to share. I didn’t pay postage to publish this post. I could quite feasibly create and post a new HD video every day of my life if I wanted to. And my potential audience would be counted in billions.

In such a situation, a bit of bewilderment is understandable. Typical human behavior doesn’t always map well onto a gargantuan global network. In fact, failures to calibrate to a web-sized world can bring serious fallout, from lost job opportunities to distributed mobs engulfed in social media witch hunts.

Still, this trend hasn’t emerged without warning. Think about radio—with its advent, a single person could suddenly transmit her voice to thousands of people who would all hear the same words as if from her own mouth. Talk about power!

Talk about problems. Broadcast broke the tie to the tangible world, and its mapping to the human market. Books are things, and you pay to possess them. But how do you handle paying for goods you can’t handle? How do you prevent them from being stolen*?

(*Ask David Wiley (@opencontent) sometime about whether you can “steal” ideas. Go ahead, I dare you.)

This conundrum accelerated the evolution of intellectual property law, which has since developed various incongruous appendages in the face of recording and distribution technology. As media have grown more accessible, the rift between what we can do technologically and what we’re permitted to do legally has widened even further.

Hence the distinction between free content and open content. Radio is free, but I’m not free to rig up an antenna and bounce a home-brewed Spanish translation of NPR around my neighborhood. By contrast, I can use this open calculus textbook as the libretto for an opera, immortalize it in a stone tablet, or mail a thousand print copies to North Korea—as long as I attribute the original authors.

This is great news for those of us who who gravitate toward the kind of non-competitive, snuggly collaboration that brought us much of the internet. As the gold standard for global sharing, Creative Commons licenses allow authors to share their content openly by deliberately granting specific permissions to the world—to say it’s OK (legally) to share, to remix, or even to commercialize their work. And they’re machine-readable, so you can filter web searches by license type.

Honestly, you probably like helping. And your ideas could use probably some help, too. So next time you put something awesome in the world, slap a CC on there. It just might become the next Spanish-Korean rock opera.

It Takes a Village

Chapter the Fifth. In which our hero, having expounded the merits and ease of OPEN LICENSING, undertakes an ALLEGORY wherein an IDEA is likened to a HUMAN CHILD. The proverbial wisdom of VILLAGES is invoked and the NON-MORTALITY OF IDEAS affirmed. A subtil CRITIQUE is offered of that AWKWARDNESS incidental to SOCIAL INSULATION, and a general call to SHARE IDEAS is sounded.

Have you ever had a “baby?”

Not literally. Have you ever invested such energy and emotion into a project that you felt proud and protective enough to call it your baby?

We get attached to our ideas. Consider that macaroni art your mom has kept safe for a few decades. You realize now (I hope) that it’s there because of her love, not because of your exceptional artistry. Ultimately, it was a symbolically sweet but pragmatically pointless pastiche of postmodern pasta. You were her real baby.

They have a saying about real babies. They say it takes a village.

Growing good humans requires the collaboration of a considerable crowd. As they protect, nourish, admonish, encourage, and teach in a billion tiny ways, our village helps us uncover what we are and aren’t, what we can and can’t, what we could, what we might. We can learn a lot from earth and sky, but we learn to be people from people.

Villagers don’t seek permission to help children; they just do it. Certainly there are norms and boundaries, but we recognize that grocery store clerks and people with dogs and that mail carrier lady are all playing a part to help little ones stay safe and make sense of the world. Just by existing, even miscreants and misanthropes serve as useful non-examples!

Ideas follow the same pattern. An only-child idea that doesn’t get out much can be awkward and unpersuasive. Conversely, ideas exposed to a weird, wide variety of familiars and strangers come away more resilient and refined. They grow into ideas you can put to work.

In fact, ideas are even better suited for free-range living than kids. Unlike children, ideas literally cannot be stolen—only copied. It’s also acceptable to trade your idea clones for money and goods, a practice generally frowned upon when it comes to kids, despite all these signs:

Dmitri Martin:
Dmitri Martin: “That sounds like a good trade.”

You might fear that if you give away your ideas like pretzels, then somebody might leverage one to make a million dollars. And they probably won’t duplicate and share copies of their earnings. Because that’d be a felony.

But frankly, the odds of that are small. People don’t tend to generate million-dollar ideas all on their own. Rather, like the many hands that make light work, many eyeballs make shallow bugs.

That sounds pretty trippy until you realize it’s Linus’s Law, the open-source phenomenon (named for Linus Torvalds and articulated by Eric Raymond) whereby a great number of collaborators can root out problems in software with vastly improved speed and accuracy. Just go read about it; it’s great.

“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Trust me, it makes sense. (Image: Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika Entertainment)

It applies beyond software, too. Candles aren’t meant to be hidden. The best ideas are meant to be shared. Diffusing them can concentrate them in surprisingly powerful ways.

So put your darlings out there. Let them play with others. They’ll grow up faster than you think.

How to Pick a Winner

Chapter the Sixth. In which our hero, having concluded his ALLEGORY, appeals to the passion of the populace by means of ELECTORAL ANGST. The admirable qualities of VIRUSES are enumerated, principal among them their propensity to PROPAGATE PROFUSELY. This property of viruses is compared to the MEMETIC NATURE OF IDEAS, most particularly of the idea that EDUCATION IS SHARING. Mention is made of various and right noble BENEFACTORS and ADVOCATES of the OPEN LICENSING OF EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES.

Everyone likes to pick a winner. There’s something smug and satisfying about prevailing in a heated contest. And we all know the dread of betting on the wrong horse.

In a time when many of us feel incapable of picking a winner for lack of options, I’d like to share a secret. If you want to back a real champion, side with a virus.

Viruses are interesting little things. They have no shame about appropriating the hardware of their host to propagate until the cows come home. They thrive on the structure of host organisms, protected in their cells, transported by their blood, powered by their fuel. The most prevalent viruses don’t kill us—they just encourage us to share abundantly. Mmm.

Most interestingly, viruses aren’t particularly protective of their source code. In fact, they thrive on chance mutations and inaccurate replicas that deviate so quickly that human antibodies fail to recognize them only a few weeks later.

This virus is worth spreading. (Mashup of "Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 4.0" by hitthatswitch CC-BY-NC-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)
This virus is worth spreading. (Derived from “Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 4.0” by hitthatswitch CC-BY-NC-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

Ideas can behave this way, too. Consider this one: education is sharing.

The idea is simple enough: Teaching = giving valuable things to others. Instruction = granting a gift. Education = sharing. It’s simple and small enough to enter just about any system and sit there, dormant, waiting for an opportunity to abruptly duplicate itself repeatedly ad nauseam.

To borrow a marvelous phrase from an old friend, viruses are ambitiously lazy. Big, complicated organs and bodies are difficult to change. They’re complicated. So why bother? Like microscopic judo masters, viruses side-step this mismatch, using their host’s strength against them. Their true excellence is in war, not in individual battles; their dominance is numbered in populations.

So too with this idea. It’s not going to change K-12, colleges, or universities with invasive surgery. It’s not going to radically overturn any critical system full of stability and storied history (at least not immediately). Rather, it will float along, quietly leveraging existing communication structures, naturally co-opting the mechanisms that tend to spread it around.

Eventually, they’ll end up in places like the lungs and throat; the launchpad for wide-scale diffusion. By becoming just strong enough, they’ll compel their host to project them like self-propagating rain, hoping to catch in other communities that are ready to reinforce them.

This is already starting to happen with E1S1 (“education is sharing” virus). It’s given rise to symptoms like Creative Commons licensing, which makes it easy to share abundantly at a tremendous scale. It’s been contracted by major players like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who are forcefully spewing resources for open ed around the globe that’s measured in the millions, and MIT, which became a major vector in 2001 by open-sourcing a lot of its courseware.

The prevalence of E1S1 will rise and fall in individual bodies, but remember: it’s not about the battles; it’s about the war. If you want to pick a winner, pick a virus.

This one’s worth spreading.

You Pay What You Get For.

Chapter the Seventh. In which our hero, having encountered some UNCERTAINTY in his opposition to the FALLACY that PRICE BE QUALITY, enlists the AID of a much-enthused SWEETBRO, wherewith he prevails over the FALSE NOTION that ONE ACQUIRES ONLY THAT FOR WHICH ONE PAYS by means of sundry PARADOXES and FACTS.

People say that you get what you pay for.

But truth be told, you pay what you get for.

When you really want something, the price you’re willing to pay isn’t determined by the thing you’re getting; it’s the what you’re getting it for.

Classic example: Dude wants to get ripped. What does he do? He shops around for a gym membership, looking for the right price. Mistake number one. From that point, brosef will view his training in terms of what he paid. “Is this worth $20 a month?”

Here’s another example: Young professor wants to help first-generation college kids. She figures if she can help them get a handle on college-level reading and math, they’ll have a springboard to launch them to success. Solid dream, lady.

But what does she do? She starts shopping, hoping passively for the invisible hand of the market to point her to her destiny. She assigns two $90 textbooks, because her students need solid resources. And you get what you pay for, right?

Wrong.

There are loads of freely available open textbooks and resources for entry-level college courses. Studies suggest that they typically perform at a comparable level to conventional textbooks (and sometimes better). Some educators feel that it adopting open educational resources even helps them innovate and reflect on their practice.

What’s more, the open licenses that make these resources available also guarantee the generative freedoms I discussed in Chapter the Fourth. If the ambition strikes her, this professor can remix these documents: she might add vocabulary aids for second-language learners, assign students to create derivative videos based on a chapter, insert practice problems throughout, or add an appendix of frequent pitfalls her class encounters.

That’s free in more ways than one. That’s open.

Ideas Don’t Have Rights. People Have Rights.

Chapter the Eighth. In which our hero, having observed the NATURAL CURIOSITY of children, reflects upon the utility of BOUNDARIES in preserving LIFE and HUMAN POTENTIAL. A comparison of HUMANS and their RIGHTS is made to IDEAS and their LACK THEREOF. Finding IDEAS to be IMPERVIOUS TO DESTRUCTION and THEFT, he concludes that LIMITS upon the capacity to SHARE LIBERALLY are the result of GOOD INTENT but are ultimately NOT WORTH IT. 

I recently had the chance to observe informal learning at the Museum of Natural Curiosity (MONC). Beyond the admirably imaginative design, another magical property of the place has stuck with me: in that space, “possible” and “permissible” are nearly synonymous.

It’s a refreshing contrast t0 the belt-barriers and corralled-in queues of movie theaters and amusement parks, conventions that establish order by making disorder inconvenient. They’re policy lines drawn in the sand of possibility, enforced first by laziness and last by social ire. I know firsthand how adamantly we insist that our canned entertainment be rationed out fairly—my own complaints once got a few miscreants kicked off a raft ride for cutting in line.

Granted, there are boundaries at the MONC, but most of them are literal boundaries—actual walls. And where there aren’t walls, there are robust possibilities. Worried that your water experiment will overflow? Don’t; the entire area is waterproof, and the excess gently flows between cracks in the floor. At the MONC, if it’s possible, it’s almost certainly permissible, which affords a new kind of safety to children. It’s safety to explore, share, experiment, and negotiate life with confidence, with minimal risk of being found inadvertently (and sometimes inexplicably) delinquent.

If only life itself were so idyllic. In life (as in children’s museums), we need boundaries to keep us safe. By definition, greater power brings greater consequences, whether for good or for ill.

So we limit power. We legislate against certain abilities for fear of their consequences, and our intent is just. We may disagree in the specifics—whether children should be allowed to run on a playground or climb on the rocks—but most of us agree that their lives are worth protecting. Bounding their world is worth mitigating the risk of harm, because it preserves their potential in other ways. The same idea applies to the checks and balances that limit our political leaders; we dam their power to protect our collective power as a nation.

But what about ideas? Are they worth protecting?

In a word, no.

Unlike children, minorities, or dissident journalists, ideas are quite difficult to harm. They spread almost effortlessly, flying across the globe, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point.” It’s not hard to kill an idea; it’s impossible. As Jefferson said, they are “incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

If ideas then, are immutable and irrepressible, the next best thing is to control their representation. If an idea goes unrecorded in a persistent medium, its ability to spread is greatly diminished. Early librarians and scholars felt this fully, as the prohibitive cost of hand-copying texts precluded all but the most revered texts from propagation. Printing technology greatly expanded the ability to quickly replicate text, and internet technologies have multiplied it as much again.

Today representations of ideas (copies in persistent media) spread nearly as virulently as the ideas themselves. We have before us a great world of possibility, of consequence.

Many of us abuse this power. We circumvent wishes, agreements, and relationships in an attempt to get something for nothing. We download, we share, we cheat. We harm each other.

Naturally, our reaction has been to limit that sharing power. We invent technological measures (effective or otherwise) that make disorder inconvenient. We draw lines of fairness in the lawless sands of cyberspace.

But is it worth it? Does bounding our power in this way preserve our potential in other ways?

Jefferson doesn’t seem to think so. And neither do I.

Derived from © 2014 Ebonezee. Licensed under CC-BY.
Derived from “no idea”
© 2014 Ebonezee. Licensed under CC-BY.

I’ve Got a New Way to Walk

Chapter the Ninth. In which our hero, having completed his SOJOURN OF INQUIRY into the curious phenomenon of OPENLY LICENSED EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES, rhapsodises on the FOIBLES OF MAN in using NOVEL TECHNOLOGIES after the manner of their METAPHORICAL ANTECEDENTS. Citing the notion of OPEN PEDAGOGY, he mourns the WIDESPREAD FAILURE of educators to harness the PEDAGOGICAL AFFORDANCES of OPENLY LICENSED EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES.

I sent another aggravating email last week. In this particular case, the provocation was a reminder to check on something important. The email was accompanied by detailed directions: log in to point A, go to thing B, find header C, click the link for report D.

I thanked the sender, and explained that more people might actually review their status given a more direct link, which I demonstrated in the email. (A truly direct link wasn’t possible, which dates the technology somewhat). The sender doesn’t seem convinced.

My struggle illustrates a problem emblematic of the Information Age—we let technology’s metaphorical antecedents constrain our thinking. We “navigate” the web, because physical movement is a helpful metaphor that grounds our experience with the new nature of the Internet. It’s natural to use the protocol for literal directions when you’re trying to help someone online.

But one of the hallmark capabilities of hypertext is that I can move from one document to another without traversing the space “in between” them. It’s text with a fourth dimension, a tesseract that shrinks the gap to virtually zero. If that doesn’t blow your mind, go repent and read A Wrinkle Time.

My millennial brain was still squishy when I started wrinkling time, so I don’t expect directions, I expect a portkey/wormhole/transporter, because I know that in the domain of internet content, that’s a reasonable expectation.

The same pattern led to this vintage 1998 beauty from Southwest Airlines, courtesy of archive.org’s Wayback Machine. (I first heard this example at the Front product/design conference in 2015):

18 years later, this design seems hilariously myopic, but it probably made sense at the time. It mapped new functions to familiar features of real-world experience. It made a complex new domain accessible to a lot of newcomers.

We’re equally shortsighted when it comes to learning materials. Here are three examples.

First, we cling to an ancient format. Why don’t academic articles incorporate more visuals? Because the page layout and printing is too costly. If only there were a technology robust enough to automate the arrangement and reproduction of arbitrary elements according to a simple set of customizable conventions. Alas.

Second, we’re stuck on antiquated business models. It used to be that if I had a textbook, you couldn’t have it, because there were only so many books in the world. Now we can throw a PDF online and literally anyone with a decent connection can have a copy without depriving anyone else the opportunity. Solution: create DRM to make these magically unfettered unbooks more like “real” books—because nothing drives progress like artificial scarcity.

Finally, even given rich educational media and legal permission to do tesseract-level magic with them (via open licensing), we tend to use them like normal textbooks. As my professor David Wiley puts it, this is like driving an airplane down the street. He advocates increased effort to pilot and study open pedagogy, defined as pedagogical techniques that like flight, are suddenly within reach through the wonders of open.

Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.
Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.

Naturally, we’ll struggle at first in the face of any domain that boasts a new dimension. Initially, our intuition will lead us astray. But if we’re willing to accept bumps and bruises, we can learn to move forward in qualitatively different and transcendently superior ways.

After all, that’s why we made the airplane.

Epilogue

Chapter the Last. In which our hero, notwithstanding his INSISTENT HABIT OF SILLINESS, bids the reader pay CAREFUL HEED to the IDEAS and FACTS expressed herein, finding such TRUTHS as may be found most GERMANE to the ABOLITION of POVERTY, IGNORANCE, and INEQUALITY in a world of tremendous PROMISE and also GREAT NEED.

You're a rock star.
Hey, now you’re a rock star. Thanks for reading!

I’ve Got a New Way to Walk

I sent another aggravating email last week. In this particular case, the provocation was a reminder to check on something important. The email was accompanied by detailed directions: log in to point A, go to thing B, find header C, click the link for report D.

I thanked the sender, and explained more people might actually review their status given a more direct link, which I demonstrated in the email. (A truly direct link wasn’t possible, which dates the technology somewhat). The sender doesn’t seem convinced.

My struggle illustrates a problem emblematic of the Information Age—we let technology’s metaphorical antecedents constrain our thinking. We “navigate” the web, because physical movement is a helpful metaphor that grounds our experience with the new nature of the Internet. It’s natural to use the protocol for literal directions when you’re trying to help someone online.

But one of the hallmark capabilities of hypertext is that I can move from one document to another without traversing the space “in between” them. It’s text with a fourth dimension, a tesseract that shrinks the gap to virtually zero. If that doesn’t blow your mind, go repent and read A Wrinkle Time.

My millennial brain was still squishy when I started wrinkling time, so I don’t expect directions, I expect a portkey/wormhole/transporter, because I know that in the domain of internet content, that’s a reasonable expectation.

The same pattern led to this vintage 1998 beauty from Southwest Airlines, courtesy of archive.org’s Wayback Machine. (I first heard this example at the Front product/design conference in 2015):

18 years later, this design seems hilariously myopic, but it probably made sense at the time. It mapped new functions to familiar features of real-world experience. It made a complex new domain accessible to a lot of newcomers.

We’re equally shortsighted when it comes to learning materials. Here are three examples.

First, we cling to an ancient format. Why don’t academic articles incorporate more visuals? Because the page layout and printing is too costly. If only there were a technology robust enough to automate the arrangement and reproduction of arbitrary elements according to a simple set of customizable conventions. Alas.

Second, we’re stuck on antiquated business models. It used to be that if I had a textbook, you couldn’t have it, because there were only so many books in the world. Now we can throw a PDF online and literally anyone with a decent connection can have a copy without depriving anyone else the opportunity. Solution: create DRM to make these magically unfettered unbooks more like “real” books—because nothing drives progress like artificial scarcity.

Finally, even given rich educational media and legal permission to do tesseract-level magic with them (via open licensing), we tend to use them like normal textbooks. As my professor David Wiley puts it, this is like driving an airplane down the street. He advocates increased effort to pilot and study open pedagogy, defined as pedagogical techniques that like flight, are suddenly within reach through the wonders of open.

Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.
Sometimes we use new tools in very old ways.

Naturally, we’ll struggle at first in the face of any domain that boasts a new dimension. Initially, our intuition will lead us astray. But if we’re willing to accept bumps and bruises, we can learn to move forward in qualitatively different and transcendently superior ways.

After all, that’s why we made the airplane.

People Have Rights, Not Ideas

I recently had the chance to observe informal learning at the Museum of Natural Curiosity. Beyond the admirably imaginative design, another magical property of the place has stuck with me: in that space, “possible” and “permissible” are nearly synonymous.

It’s a refreshing contrast t0 the belt-barriers and corralled-in queues  of movie theaters and amusement parks, conventions that establish order by making disorder inconvenient. They’re policy lines drawn in the sand of possibility, enforced first by laziness and last by social ire. I know firsthand how adamantly we insist that our canned entertainment be rationed out fairly—my own complaints once got a few miscreants kicked off a raft ride for cutting in line.

Granted, there are boundaries at the MONC, but most of them are literal boundaries—actual walls. And where there aren’t walls, there are robust possibilities. Worried that your water experiment will overflow? Don’t; the entire area is waterproof, and the excess gently flows between cracks in the floor. At the MONC, if it’s possible, it’s almost certainly permissible, which affords a new kind of safety to children. It’s safety to explore, share, experiment, and negotiate life with confidence, with minimal risk of being found inadvertently (and sometimes inexplicably) delinquent.

If only life itself were so idyllic. In life (as in children’s museums), we need boundaries to keep us safe. By definition, great power brings greater consequences, whether for good or for ill.

So we limit power. We legislate against certain abilities for fear of their consequences, and our intent is just. We may disagree in the specifics, whether children should be allowed to run on a playground or climb on the rocks, but most of us agree that their lives are worth protecting. Bounding their world is worth mitigating the risk of harm, because it preserves their potential in other ways. The same idea applies to the checks and balances that limit our political leaders; we dam their power to protect our collective power as a nation.

But what about ideas? Are they worth protecting?

In a word, no.

Unlike children, minorities, or dissident journalists, ideas are quite difficult to harm. They spread almost effortlessly, flying across the globe, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point.” It’s not hard to kill an idea; it’s impossible. As Jefferson said, they are “incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”

If ideas then, are immutable and irrepressible, the next best thing is to control their representation. If an idea goes unrecorded in a persistent medium, its ability to spread is greatly diminished. Early librarians and scholars felt this fully, as the prohibitive cost of hand-copying texts precluded all but the most revered texts from propagation. Printing technology greatly expanded the ability to quickly replicate text, and internet technologies have multiplied it as much again.

Today representations of ideas (copies in persistent media) today spread nearly as virulently as the ideas themselves. We have before us a great world of possibility, of consequence.

Many of us abuse this power. We circumvent wishes and agreements and relationships of others in an attempt to get something for nothing. We download, we share, we cheat. We harm each other.

Naturally, our reaction has been to limit that sharing power. We invent technological measures (effective or otherwise) that make disorder inconvenient. We draw lines of fairness in the lawless sands of cyberspace.

But is it worth it? Does bounding our power in this way preserve our potential in other ways?

I don’t think so.

Derived from © 2014 Ebonezee. Licensed under CC-BY.
Derived from “no idea”
© 2014 Ebonezee. Licensed under CC-BY.

 

You Could Save Thousands of Dollars with this One Weird Trick

Greatness can be as simple as changing the way you see the world.

Your friends and family will tell you that you get what you pay for.

I’m here to let you in on a little secret. It’s what gets Olympic athletes out of bed and Nobel laureates out of bed. It’s the secret sauce that differentiates the ambitious from the resultious.

The truth is, you don’t get what you pay for. You pay what you get for.

Don’t get it? Keep reading.

It’s like this: when you want to get for something, you pay for it: in time, money, sweat, and tears. When you really want something, the price you’re willing to pay isn’t determined by the thing you’re getting; it’s the what you’re getting it for.

Most people have it backwards. They thinking of the what they’re paying for and then try to go out and get it. But they should think of what they’re getting for and then go out and pay it.

Classic example: Dude wants to get ripped. What does he do? He shops around for a gym membership, looking for the right price. Mistake number one. From that point, brosef will view his training in terms of what he paid. “Is this worth $20 a month?” he’ll ask. I call this phenomenon #VASAllationTM. It’s tragic.

If you really want something, you’ve gotta pay what you get for.

Here’s another example: Young professor wants to help first-generation college kids. She figures if she can help them get a handle on college-level reading and math, they’ll have a springboard to launch them to success. Solid dream, lady-friend.

But what does she do? She starts shopping, hoping passively for the invisible hand of the market to point her to her destiny. She assigns two $90 textbooks, because her students need solid resources. And you get what you pay for, right?

Wrong. You pay what you get for.

What is this lady getting for? What is it that gets her out of bed?

She wants to change the world on an epic scale. She wants to make learning as accessible as air and customized to her students’ context, because she can. She wants her students to get out of bed like the Olympians and Nobelians they can become. That’s what she’s getting for.

So she should pay it. It will take time, sweat, and tears. It will take changing the way she thinks about the world.

But it won’t cost a lot of money. In her case, there are loads of freely available open textbooks and resources for entry-level college course. Studies suggest that they typically perform at a comparable level to conventional textbooks (and sometimes better). Some educators feel that it adopting open educational resources even helps them innovate and reflect on their practice.

Sorry, poor kids. Turns out $0 for the same thing is better than $90.

When you pay what you get for, that’s just common sense.

You don't get what you pay for; you pay what you get for.

How to Pick a Winner

Everyone likes to pick a winner. There’s something smug and satisfying about prevailing in a heated contest. And we all know the dread of betting on the wrong horse.

In a time when many of us feel incapable of picking a winner for lack of options, I’d like to share a secret. If you want to back a real champion, side with a virus.

Viruses are interesting little things. They have no shame about appropriating the hardware of their host to propagate until the cows come home. They thrive on the structure of host organisms, protected in their cells, transported by their blood, powered by their fuel. The most prevalent viruses don’t kill us—they just encourage us to share abundantly. Mmm.

Most interestingly, viruses aren’t particularly protective of their source code. In fact, they thrive on chance mutations and inaccurate replicas that deviate so quickly that human antibodies fail to recognize them only a few weeks later.

This virus is worth spreading. (Mashup of "Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 4.0" by hitthatswitch CC-BY-NC-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)
This virus is worth spreading. (Derived from “Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 4.0” by hitthatswitch CC-BY-NC-SA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

Ideas can behave this way, too. Consider this one: education is sharing.

The idea is simple enough: two nouns and an equals sign. Both seem like good things, ideals we were taught to value as kids. It’s simple and small enough to enter just about any system and sit there, dormant, waiting for an opportunity to abruptly duplicate itself repeatedly ad nauseam.

To borrow a marvelous phrase from an old missionary companion, viruses are ambitiously lazy. Big, complicated organs and bodies are difficult to change. They’re complicated. So why bother? Like microscopic judo masters, viruses side-step this mismatch, using their host’s strength against them. Their true excellence is in war, not in individual battles; their dominance is numbered in populations.

So too with this idea. It’s not going change K-12, colleges, or universities with invasive surgery. It’s not going radically overturn any critical system full of stability and storied history (at least not immediately). Rather, it will float along, quietly leveraging existing communication structures, naturally co-opting the mechanisms that tend to spread it around.

Eventually, they’ll end up in places like the lungs and throat; the launchpad for wide-scale diffusion. By becoming just strong enough, they’ll compel their host to project them like self-propagating rain around their world, hoping to catch in other communities that are ready to reinforce them.

This is already starting to happen with E1S1 (“education is sharing” virus). It’s given rise to symptoms like Creative Commons licensing, which makes it easy to share abundantly at a tremendous scale. It’s been contracted by major players like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who are forcefully spewing resources for open ed around the globe that’s measured in the millions, and MIT, which became a major vector in 2001 by open-sourcing a lot of its courseware.

The prevalence of E1S1 will rise and fall in individual bodies, but remember: it’s not about the battles; it’s about the war. If you want to pick a winner, pick a virus. This one’s worth spreading.

 

It Takes a Village

Have you ever had a “baby?”

Not literally. Have you ever invested such energy and emotion into a project that you felt proud and protective enough to call it your baby?

We get attached to our ideas. Consider that macaroni art your mom has kept safe for a few decades. You realize now (I hope) that it’s there because of her love, not because of your exceptional artistry. Ultimately, it was a symbolically sweet but pragmatically pointless pastiche of postmodern pasta. You were her real baby.

They have a saying about real babies. They say it takes a village.

Growing good humans requires the collaboration of a considerable crowd. As they protect, nourish, admonish, encourage, and teach in a billion tiny ways, our village helps us uncover what we are and aren’t, what we can and can’t, what we could, what we might. We can learn a lot from earth and sky, but we learn to be people from people.

Villagers don’t seek permission to help children; they just do it. Certainly there are norms and boundaries, but we recognize that grocery store clerks and people with dogs and that mail carrier lady are all playing a part to help little ones stay safe and make sense of the world. Just by existing, even miscreants and misanthropes serve as useful non-examples!

Ideas follow the same pattern. An only-child idea that doesn’t get out much can be awkward and unpersuasive. Conversely, ideas exposed to a weird, wide variety of familiars and strangers come away more resilient and refined. They grow into ideas you can put to work.

In fact, ideas are even better suited for free-range living than kids. Unlike children, ideas literally cannot be stolen—only copied. It’s also acceptable to trade your idea clones for money and goods, a practice generally frowned upon when it comes to kids, despite all these signs:

Dmitri Martin:
Dmitri Martin: “That sounds like a good trade.”

You might fear that if you give away your ideas like pretzels, then somebody might leverage one to make a million dollars. And they won’t copy and share their earnings. Because that’d be a felony.

But frankly, the odds of that are small. People don’t tend to generate million-dollar ideas all on their own. Rather, like the many hands that make light work, many eyeballs make shallow bugs.

That sounds pretty trippy until you realize it’s Linus’s Law, the open-source phenomenon (named for Linus Torvalds and articulated by Eric Raymond) whereby a great number of collaborators can root out problems in software with vastly improved speed and accuracy. Just go read about it; it’s great.

“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Trust me, it makes sense. (Image: Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika Entertainment)

It applies beyond software, too. Candles aren’t meant to be hidden. The best ideas are meant to be shared. Diffusing them can concentrate them in surprisingly powerful ways.

So put your darlings out there. Let them play with others. They’ll grow up faster than you think.

You Literally Can’t Handle the Truth

I really like Stack Overflow. I’m fascinated by their success at encouraging experts to share high-quality knowledge and even individualized tutoring for free.

Why do people do this?

I suspect that it has something to do with social capital. Maybe it’s prestige or the need to feel useful. Maybe it’s altruistic satisfaction at serving a neighbor in need. Obviously they get something out of it, because these folks posted 4.6 million answers to 3.7 million questions on the Stack Exchange network last year.

The internet also makes it easy to share. I didn’t pay postage to publish this post. I could quite feasibly create and post a new HD video every day of my life if I wanted to. And my potential audience would be counted in billions.

In such a situation, a bit of bewilderment is understandable. Typical human behavior doesn’t always map well onto a gargantuan global network. In fact, failures to calibrate to a web-sized world can bring serious fallout, from lost job opportunities to distributed mobs engulfed in social media witch hunts.

Still, this trend hasn’t emerged without warning. Think about radio—with its advent, a single person could suddenly transmit her voice to thousands of people who would all hear the same words as if from her own mouth. Talk about power!

Talk about problems. Broadcast broke the tie to the tangible world, and its mapping to the human market. Books are things, and you pay to possess them. But how do you handle paying for goods you can’t handle? How do you prevent them from being stolen*?

(*Ask David Wiley (@opencontent) sometime about whether you can “steal” ideas. Go ahead, I dare you.)

This conundrum accelerated the evolution of intellectual property law, which has since developed various incongruous appendages in the face of recording and distribution technology. As media have grown more accessible, the rift between what we can do technologically and what we’re permitted to do legally has widened even further.

Hence the distinction between free content and open content. Radio is free, but I’m not free to rig up an antenna and bounce a home-brewed Spanish translation of NPR around my neighborhood. By contrast, I can use this open calculus textbook as the libretto for an opera, immortalize it in a stone tablet, or mail a thousand print copies to North Korea—as long as I attribute the original authors.

This is great news for those of us who who gravitate toward the kind of non-competitive, snuggly collaboration that brought us much of the internet. As the gold standard for global sharing, Creative Commons licenses allow authors to share their content openly by deliberately granting specific permissions to the world—to say it’s OK (legally) to share, to remix, or even to commercialize their work. And they’re machine-readable, so you can filter web searches by license type.

Honestly, you probably like helping. And your ideas could use probably some help, too. So next time you put something awesome in the world, slap a CC on there. It just might become the next Spanish-Korean rock opera.

 

 

 

 

How To Stick it to the Man

What would you do with an extra $90? Some ideas:

  • Get a year of ad-free music
  • Pay down student loans
  • Buy a circular saw

But let me back up. Where’d this $90 come from? Why, from textbooks savings, of course. The internet is replete with tips and tricks for whittling down the cost of books, from Ben Franklin classics like your local library to #OccupyTheBookstore, a Chrome extension that adds price comparisons to your school’s bookstore website (thanks, Trent Hamm).

Most of these strategies rely on price reduction available in a secondary market—buying used, renting, sharing, or selling books back. But here’s the rub: the publishers don’t get a cent of it. This explains in part why there are savings to be had, but also why publishers have raised the price of books around four times the rate of inflation in the last decade. They’ve also developed aggressive strategies to beat back secondary sales, from micro-updated editions to single-semester access codes.

This is understandable. These folks are acting rationally to compete in a lucrative market. This doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them the man.

So why not stick it to ’em? For those of us perched on well-padded privilege, the $90 per student per course we stand to gain may not seem worth the fight. But for students on the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, it can mean the difference between taking an extra course or not, finishing on time or not, and succeeding or not in a major way.

Besides, I never said we should fight.

Frankly, a head-on clash between consumer cunning and corporate wit is not promising. As I pointed out last week, students who struggle are already adopting self-defeating behaviors in the face of high course material costs. On top of that, fast-growing internet tech is facilitating subscription models that affords publishers fine-grained control over who accesses their content and when. Barring Robin Hood-ish piracy and some mad technical chops, there isn’t a great way to beat them at their own game.

What we can do is side-step the game altogether, opting for high-quality open educational resources in place of commercial textbooks. This approach is especially impactful in high-volume entry-level courses, where content knowledge and media already abound.

It’s not an idealistic daydream; it’s a proven strategy adopted by scores of professors at many universities. In fact, adopting an open textbook can cost less than adopting a human child; universities in this study offered OER adoption grants to their faculty ranging from $1K-5K each. Spread over dozens of faculty, thousands of students, and multiple years, these modest investments have saved more than a million dollars so far in some instances.

So don’t let’s get drawn into their kind of fight, a one-on-one, mano a mongo scramble for savings. With a little teamwork, we can win this in a way that keeps on winning for thousands of students to come. The world is taking notice, so why not come along for the ride?

standard-custom-001

Textbook Tactics: Side-stepping Material Costs

For many students, textbooks are prohibitively expensive. Literally.

In the face of jaw-dropping tuition bills we might wonder whether textbooks are just another brick in the wall when it comes to looming student debt. No doubt that’s true for some, but you might be surprised to learn that for many students (particularly at community colleges), textbooks and similar course materials comprise nearly half of their education expenses, and sometimes more.

What to do? At first blush, it might seem like students don’t have a choice. In one sense, they don’t—professors choose which books and editions to bake into their courses, whether to require them, and whether to actually use them if required.

Yet students have options. They run the gamut from buying books used to renting, borrowing, or straight up pirating from BitTorrent. Such tactics vary in efficacy and moral dubiousness, but they’re all threatened by the push of established publishers to sell consumable content (worksheets, online practice sets, access codes) that can’t be reused, resold, or easily redistributed.

But even new-age non-renewables can’t counter some of the more serious measures that students are willing to take to avoid textbook costs. Consider these strategies, taken from a 2012 survey of higher-ed Florida students’ decisions in the face of textbook costs:

Just Don’t Try

textbook-1

If the books cost too much, just take fewer courses. Or don’t take the one with the pricey book. Nearly half of those surveyed reported doing just that.

Do Without

textbook-2

It’s a bold stroke, I’ll give you that. Besides, who needs books when you can have dinner?

Bail

textbook-3

Fortunately, Never performs a little better in this category, but I’m not exactly comforted by these results. Notwithstanding the merits of getting back up when life knocks you down, withdrawing from a course can exact an intangible toll on morale and momentum, in addition to concrete losses like scholarship and aid eligibility. Not to mention the tuition and hours of your life you spent on it.

Underperform or Fail

textbook-4

Granted, this stat is student-reported, so it probably includes some pin-the-fail-on-the-textbook (we millennials like externalize our shortcomings). But more than a quarter of the higher-ed students felt that the cost of their books had adversely affected their formally evaluated performance.

Would this fly in the “real world?” Picture a conversation between Rigby the CEO, and Eleanor the HR Director:

RIGBY: But new lighting is so expensive! And I can’t see how it could affect their work. They’re not artists or anything.

ELEANOR: Who cares how it affects their work! A quarter of them believe that it’s keeping them from doing their best work. Can we succeed with that many team members who feel forced to choose mediocrity?

RIGBY: But the cost. . .

ELEANOR: I know, I know. Why don’t we just open up some of the roof panels into skylights. After all, sunshine is free. . .

*             *             *

Now imagine a world where kids give up or avoid classes because they’re worried about paying for books. In the 21st century. That’s what I call a #lxfail.