Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Carl Sagan on the Magic of Books (TftD #22)

Thought for the Day:

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."

-- Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistance of Memory

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson - The Swinging Pendulum of Ed Reform

Recently, in the TAG Workplace Learning Society group on LinkedIn, there was a posting of the famous TED Talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave in mid-2006.  A question was posed about how much in the educational world had (not) changed in the 7 years that have passed, and how people generally felt about the talk, in hindsight (" you think Sir Kenneth Robinson is having an impact other than making smart people laugh?").

I recall viewing Sir Ken's TED Talk shortly after it was originally posted in mid-2006 and hurriedly passing the link on to just about everyone on my contact list.  It was a breath of fresh air and it caught my attention and imagination.  Given that it's been viewed 20.3 million times (on TED's site alone - likely several multiples higher when considering other hosts, like YouTube), I wasn't alone with the excitement I felt and hopes that it might be a tipping point of change.

As with most things, there is always a ying to one's yang, and since Robinson has become an Ed Reform poster child (man?) there have been a few critics that have emerged.  I always like to listen and consider alternative viewpoints so I don't fall into the modern trap of a confirmational echo chamber, so you may find something of interest in one/both of the following randomly selected blog entries:

I share these alternative views to promote healthy conversation and appreciation of the complexity and nuances of the issue at hand.  Educational reform is a politically, logistically, and emotionally charged topic that cannot be 'fixed' with a few tweaks and adjustments.  I still like Robinson's talk very much, but time has mellowed my thinking a bit...

Do I think the overall message Robinson has called attention to is on the mark?  Yes.  I don't think there are many defenders of the status quo in terms of today's educational practices.  Do I think the critics have some interestingly valid points? Again, yes.  But I'm not sure that's a bad thing....

I think that Robinson may be taking the same approach that the Head of my grad school program (The Institute for the Learning Sciences), Dr. Roger Schank, adopted.  That is - say some things that are a bit extreme but have enough truth in them to get people to pause and think.  It's only after you get people's attention with the exaggerated claims ("all schools should be burned down") that critical thought and consideration is evoked, which leads to what (I believe) his real goal is - serious thought about how we can do better in education.  He isn't actually seeking people to line up and agree with him lock/stock/barrel (he openly says even he doesn't agree with some of the things he's said!) - he is a catalyst who makes claims towards the extreme end of the spectrum in order to get people to engage in discussions that are more mainstream.

(You can get a feel for Schank's positions and personality via:
(1) a video intro ( to Engines for Education (, a free "hyperbook" that I help get on the Internet back in the dark ages of the Web, or
(2) his blog, Education Outrage (

I agree that change can feel frustratingly slow in these times of instant everything, but considering how long the current system has been in place and how many supporting structures have been created to prevent change, reform efforts may actually be moving at a faster rate than one might expect.  It's pretty amazing that there are currently several working examples of MOOCs (warts and all) available to the curious masses for free, when MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative was launched barely a decade ago.  Systems of higher education that were centuries in the making are now teetering on the edge of pretty dramatic change, largely because of advances in technology and the ability of the market to accelerate the pace of change with their wallets and feet.

The K-12 world is less 'market-driven' (for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint), so the pace of change lags a bit, but the options available to parents and children for alternative programs that 'foster creativity and independent thought' (as Leigh Anne Lankford said), focus on less common subjects, or allow for a competency-driven instead of age-driven path through curricula is astoundingly greater than just a few years ago.

Educational change is inevitable, but we should not/cannot rest on that undeniable truth.  Work remains.

As Sci-Fi author William Gibson said, "The future is already here - it's just not evenly distributed."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

TftD #21

The nature of an innovation is that it will arise at a fringe where it can afford to become prevalent enough to establish its usefulness without being overwhelmed by the inertia of the orthodox system.

-- Kevin Kelly, Co-Founder of  WIRED magazine

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

TftD #20

I am not worried if scientists go and explain everything. This is for a very simple reason: an impala sprinting across the Savannah can be reduced to biomechanics, and Bach can be reduced to counterpoint, yet that does not decrease one iota our ability to shiver as we experience impalas leaping or Bach thundering. We can only gain and grow with each discovery that there is structure underlying the most accessible levels of things that fill us with awe.

But there is an even stronger reason why I am not afraid that scientists will inadvertently go and explain everything — it will never happen. While in certain realms, it may prove to be the case that science can explain anything, it will never explain everything. As should be obvious after all these pages, as part of the scientific process, for every question answered, a dozen newer ones are generated. And they are usually far more puzzling, more challenging than the prior problems. This was stated wonderfully in a quote by a geneticist named Haldane earlier in the century: ‘Life is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.’ We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge.

The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.

-- Robert Sapolsky, The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (1998)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Idea: MOOC's Completion Problem and Loss Aversion

A few days ago, in the Instructional Design group on LinkedIn, Franciso Costa posted a thread about an upcoming MOOC on The Future of Storytelling. In a skimming rush, I misread the meaning behind the title, but it resulted in a 'happy accident' that triggered an idea....

One of the common criticisms of MOOCs is their generally low completion rate (most people who start a course do not finish it). Although it's arguable whether or not this actually IS a negative (different students have different goals, after all), if some future MOOC host does have the explicit goal of maximizing completion rates, I wonder if there might be an angle to play by exploiting most people's feelings about money and loss?

I'd originally misread the thread's title ("This course is for FREE with certificate") to mean that "if you complete the course and receive a certificate, it'll be free. Otherwise, (if you sign up but do NOT complete it), it'll cost you $X." 


This is clearly a knee-jerk idea that blossomed out of my reading haste and, thus, probably has some holes in it, but maybe there is something here.... Would this be a viable alternative approach to addressing the "completion problem" that might provide the extra 'umph' some learners need to stick with the course and see it through? Maybe it could be a sliding scale concept, where learners receive progressively larger discounts (starting at 0% and running up to 100%) with the number of sessions/modules/units they complete?

Does the whole psychological principle of "loss aversion" apply here?  Perhaps people will be more interested in NOT losing money than they are about gaining the (free!) knowledge/skills associated with the course's content (as sad a commentary as that may be)?

Thoughts? Thanks!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Future Has Arrived: Leap Motion

It was only a little over a decade ago that I went to the theater to see Minority Report with Tom Cruise and my jaw went slack over the computer UI of the future, based on gestures:

More recently, the theme returned in the Iron Man series:

Yesterday, the future arrived on my doorstep in the form of a small square box from Leap Motion Inc.

Although it's very clearly a cutting edge technology and the practical uses beyond novelty and games remains to be seen.... it's about the coolest thing I've played with in a while!  Sure, it has a few idiosyncrasies and takes a few moments to get acclimated to, but it is totally intuitive, it works, and it doesn't cost a ton (~$80).  I'm hoping the developer nation follows soon with some apps that take advantage of this advance, but until then, I'm going to enjoy being Tony Stark Jr.

Check it out:

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Irrelevance of Educational Horseless Carriages

A few weeks ago, a meme popped up within the Education community that put me a little on my heels, forcing me to reconsider the 'educational reform' question from an entirely different perspective.  I've been trying to noodle on my thoughts about it, but didn't want to postpone getting a posting up for too long, so...

The crux of the question/argument is grounded in the (quite common, these days) rant that the current (US) educational system is "broken" and the highest order attention should be invested in "fixing" it.

What if this perspective is well intended, but misguided?
What if the current educational system is actually awesome - arguably near perfect - at achieving its intended goals?
What if it'd be more productive to cease trying to "fix" it, but rather simply recognize what it was original designed to do and stop considering it to be some timeless 'silver bullet' to address society's ever changing needs?

What if the current educational systems isn't "broken" but is simply "irrelevant" (as Heather Hiles puts it)?

The current model was created for a variety of reasons, most of which were quasi-legitimate at the time (an Industrial Age demand for lots of similarly skilled/thinking workers to fuel the new demand for mass-produced goods may be the primary one.  See Roger Schank's "Making Minds Less Educated Than Our Own" for a deeper dig on why we are taught what we are taught).  But we are living in dramatically different times now, so wouldn't it naturally follow that the goals/objectives of a system of education from yesteryear may no longer apply?

When the car first came out, many had a predictably hard time getting their heads around what sort of change it represented.  According to a Microsoft whitepaper, it is said that banks held the position that "The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad." and that even automobile inventor Daimler predicted that the long-term market opportunity was limited to ~1 million cars due to their cost and the shortage of capable chauffeurs.  For a short period of time, people tried to "fix" horse-drawn carriages to accommodate for this new transportation development, even to the point of mounting horse whip holders on the sides of the new 'horseless carriages'.

Perhaps we are clinging to the old and familiar models of education simply because they are that - old and familiar?  With the advent of online learning, is there really any reason to move children through an age-based, cattle-call, lock-step process (treating them like widgets on an assembly line whose most important defining characteristic is their date of manufacture (nod to Sir Ken Robinson))?  Does the modern marketplace (primarily) require that schools produce millions of workers who are obedient, able to follow instruction, and not 'ask questions' because the answers have already been determined?  Are we still ruled by the supply and demand limitations of expert and novice ratios that prompted the 'efficiency' of the 'little red schoolhouse' (and its current day equivalents)?

Modern day demands and skills require modern day educational options and processes.  Our time, money, and intellectual/creative resources may be best leveraged by giving up on trying to 'band-aid' a philosophy that simply doesn't apply any longer and (re)focusing on new vistas of opportunity.

Are we creating the educational equivalent of rotary phones with touch-tone buttons or bluetooth earpieces for smartphones?