Getting Real: Renewable experiential & applied learning

One of the best parts about working with David Wiley (@opencontent) at Lumen Learning is how he inspires new thinking in me and others around him.

A series of conversations with David about what he introduced me to as disposable assignments—students hate doing them, you hate grading them—led us to start calling the alternative—assignments where students produce meaningful, public works—”renewable assignments”. David has expanded on this thinking, talking about the potential cognitive surplus that could be realized if all disposable assignments became renewable.

This line of thinking in turn led me to start imagining larger constellations of renewable educational activity. For example: imagine an EDU institution that has relationships with one or more local businesses, nonprofits or government organizations. Graduates from the institution are often employed by the organizations and/or organization workers often participate in professional development at the institution. These relationships exist all over and are a welcome sign of healthy community engagement and economic development.

Such relationships also sometimes (often?) include opportunities for the institution’s students to engage in experiential learning at the organization through programs like internships.

Take such a relationship one step further by adding renewable assignments to create a virtuous cycle of activity between the institution and organization. Students might begin their learning in the institution, taking classes that include renewable assignments to create learning resources specifically focused on knowledge and skills important to work happening at the partner organization. These assignments create an expanding body of works that become learning resources for future cohorts of students.

As students advance in their learning pathways, they might engage in experiential learning at the partner organization (eg, internships, employee professional development) where part of their assignment is to engage in experiential learning that produces work products for the organization, and part is collecting information and experience to produce and augment more learning materials their fellow and future students would use back at the institution in formal learning contexts. In short, advancing students would use both their formal and experiential learning to create and improve the “textbook” that future students would use in turn to advance their learning.

As students cycle from the institution, to internships, back to formal coursework, to graduation, to employment at the organization, and back to the institution again for professional development, they become the agents of a continuing, “renewable” learning cycle that generates highly relevant and current learning resources and deeper connections between the institution, organization and the community around both.

Faculty and organization workers become the guides, editors and mentors in this cycle, ensuring quality and continuity in learning activities and materials, as well as developing deeper relationships with each other and between their organizations.

Institutions demonstrate and ensure a deeper connection to their community, its economic health, and the relevancy of their educational programs, which attract and retain students.

Organizations ensure that the pipeline of new employees better fits their needs and has the opportunity to test out and help shape individuals in lower-stakes but still highly-relevant engagements before they become employees. Employee professional development is better able to evolve into meaningful learning rather than an empty requirement that just gets checked off.

It goes without saying that the open licensing of the work created in these renewable cycles ensures its frictionless participation in future cycles. Partner institutions can contribute and get credit for their sponsorship of these materials as an added benefit.

I’ve started to think of terms to describe this virtuous cycle of renewable learning:

Renewable experiential and applied learning (REAL)

Renewable economic development (RED)

Renewable community engagement (RCE)

More acronyms to come…

What difference does it make who is speaking?

Thanks to an ongoing discussion with @twigz that has now taken place over so many days and channels that I expect she’s ready to unfriend me (or worse), I’ve been thinking on the role of the author in networked digital culture and how it might be different from the established role of the author.

At the very end of his essay, What is an author?, Michel Foucault imagines a dramatic shift in the cultural role the author plays in the “modern” era that he so carefully lays out in the rest of the essay:

In saying this, I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author. It would be pure romanticism, however, to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure. Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive; a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence. I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still with a system of constraint – one that will no longer be the author but will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced [expérimenter].

While Foucault first delivered this essay in a lecture some time ago (in 1969), I’m here interested in updating “the historical modifications that are taking place” he mentions to be those of today, including those arising out of digital networked culture. I’m not sure what social changes Foucault was thinking about in 1969, but a lot of change has happened since then for sure.

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

So I’m starting to collect examples of discourse that might bear on the question of whether new roles for the author are in play. Is it starting to matter less who is speaking? And if so, what matters now? Is a new “system of restraint” emerging? What answers can we find to the other questions Foucault asks at the end of the essay?


Possible counter examples—the “modern” author lives on:

  • @jason published a fake letter from Twitter CEO @dick calling for verified accounts for all as a way to intervene in harassment on Twitter. A case of digital authorship being redoubled?
  • In the same vein, social credibility systems like those used in environments like eBay, Uber, Stack Exchange. Although interestingly, authorship and identity in some of these systems can be pseudonymous, and identity is established via authorial actions over time and social validation.


Possible examples that something is changing in the role of the author:

Mindset Middleware

After reading @mfeldstein’s EDUCAUSE NGDLE and an API of One’s Own and @holden’s LEGOs response, I’m inspired to also comment on what is fast becoming an encyclopedic conversation, so filled with ed-tech insider history and acronyms to be understandable only to very few, yet pertinent to so many.

I’m 100% behind the goals laid out in these posts, along with the questions and efforts they reference from the likes of @drtonybates and @jimgroom. But…reading it all up to @holden’s last part:

But until users can see the relationship between their app-adopting behavior and their larger situation I’m not sure I see solutions like this in the near future. I’ll continue to promote and work on such solutions, because that’s where the potential is. But it’s the cultural issue that needs solving, and I’m still working out how we overcome that.

I’m left realizing that the conversation here is still mostly about technologies, and solutions, mostly about new somethings that will make a healthy, lasting transformation.

I think the solutions called for here are good, but history is rife with new somethings that have healthy generative capacity and effects, from TCP/IP to representative democracy, and yet go on to become standardized LEGO kits. Today’s emergent generative potential becomes tomorrow’s dominant structure.

Maybe the cultural shift @holden seeks is for us to realize and start holding ourselves to the idea that there are no solutions. As awesome as LMOS, a domain of one’s own, or federated wiki may be, their lasting transformative value is not intrinsic, but in that they are manifestations of people enacting @amcollier‘s not-yetness. It is that attitude of not-yetness that we should work to persist, by whatever local, timely means work.

So when it comes to education (that interest links us right?), our goal is to instill lasting mindsets that seek to dismantle dominant LEGO sets and make new things, reforming the standard bits and adding unexpected parts. The solution is not a something (LMOS, domain, wiki, API), it’s the cultural practices that led to those somethings. Today, enabling a student via a federated wiki at their own domain may be empowering them mightily, but not if they or we believe our work is then done.

The minute we think our something is the solution, we’ve already started becoming the next standardized LEGO kit. The insoluble solution is that the solution is insoluble.

Breaking news: EdTech makes learning a priority!

EDUCAUSE Top-10 IT Issues 2014

EDUCAUSE interactive graphic tracking top-ten IT issues since 2000

I was taking a look at EDUCAUSE’s 2014 list of the top-ten IT issues facing higher education and was struck that—for the first time in this century—EDU IT’s top focus is on improving student learning!

1. Improving student outcomes through an institutional approach that strategically leverages technology

Too often technology is the shiny cart put before the horse of learning, when we should always be asking how technology’s cart can be changed to speed and free learning’s horse. At long last, this EDUCAUSE list says it’s time for us to focus first on learning and then on what technology can do to support it, rather than our all-too-familiar custom of focusing first on new technology and then betting it will support student success.

Books are heavy

EDU IT can work—and has worked—to improve student outcomes in a variety of ways: a lot of them revolving around infrastructure for the delivery and consumption of teaching and learning. EDU IT has done far less, however, to support innovation in content for learning. The majority of K12 and higher learning still hinges on book-based materials that haven’t seen a radical technical change since Gutenberg. Books are heavy, expensive, linear, material and finite.

Meanwhile outside our schools, innovation abounds in the development and delivery of content for learning. One of the most powerful ways EDU IT can improve student outcomes is to focus on supporting the adoption, adaptation and creation of post-book learning experiences that make it easier and cheaper for students to access materials and that track learning pathways and outcomes to help students, teachers, institutions and curricula continuously evolve to improve learning.

I love books—and I’d like to thank books for all they’ve done for all of us so far—but books ARE heavy. It’s time for EDU IT to support lighter, smarter learning materials.

Top 2-10 EDU IT Issues

Looking over the other items on the EDUCAUSE list, I see how each and every one of them can work to support that first priority. If nothing else, this year’s list says more than any other year’s that EDU IT should focus on aligning its work with the central mission of higher education and measuring that work against mission-driven outcomes.

  1. Establishing a partnership between IT leadership and institutional leadership to develop a collective understanding of what information technology can deliver
  2. Assisting faculty with the instructional integration of information technology
  3. Developing an IT staffing and organizational model to accommodate the changing IT environment and facilitate openness and agility
  4. Using analytics to help drive critical institutional outcomes
  5. Changing IT funding models to sustain core service, support innovation, and facilitate growth
  6. Addressing access demand and the wireless and device explosion
  7. Sourcing technologies and services at scale to reduce costs (via cloud, greater centralization of institutional IT services and systems, cross-institutional collaborations, and so forth)
  8. Determining the role of online learning and developing a strategy for that role
  9. Tie: Implementing risk management and information security practices to protect institutional IT resources/data and respond to regulatory compliance mandates and Developing an enterprise IT architecture that can respond to changing conditions and new opportunities

What is a Doorman? Opening doors from Little Bird to Lumen

Arbour Hill Gardens

Arbour Hill Gardens used under (cc) from William Murphey.

After more than a year working to help local Portland social intelligence startup Little Bird take flight, I’m excited to announce I’m moving on to work with a wider variety of projects. In short, I’m bringing the role I played at Little Bird as a “Doorman” to organizations of all sizes, from startups to large enterprises.

What’s a Doorman? A Doorman opens doors for people to connect, working at the intersection of growth, community and product.

I’m really excited about my first/next project as a Doorman: working with Lumen Learning, another amazing Portland startup that takes me back to my prior experience in education and technology. Lumen works to improve student learning and lower the cost of education by helping educational institutions adopt, adapt and build open educational resources. Lumen is taking the collaborative economy to school.

Lumen was founded by Kim Thanos and David Wiley, two highly experienced and connected leaders in the education and open content worlds. I’m honored to have the chance to collaborate with both of them again to help spread Lumen’s valuable and worthy intervention.

It’s a hard time to leave Little Bird when so many things there are really taking flight, from today’s announcement that Carmen Hill will join the team to lead marketing, to some great new customers and product enhancements, to closing a second round of seed funding and making key CTO and COO hires back in February. I’m proud to have worked with Marshall Kirkpatrick and the whole team to get Little Bird in flight.

Curious about Little Bird? I’m happy to talk with anyone about this awesome team and the powerful engine and services they provide to harness social intelligence for your business or project.

Want to hear more? Need to get in touch? Reach out to me at any time.

Opening Education: A First Walk through Campus

Dist 29 Schoolhouse

Dist 29 Schoolhouse used under (cc) from Lane Pearman.

A lot of change is happening in education these days that has me thinking about where it’s coming from and where it’s going. What have been the openings and closures that have shaped and are shaping the social machine of human education?  As I collect research and thoughts, I’ll be posting them here under the general category of Opening Education.

When I want to learn something beyond the obvious about a topic I know very little about, I like to pick a random entry point and just dive in. To start a new exploration on the history of education, I decided to dive in to learn about the built space of schools and after only a short time, I started to connect some rather interesting dots.

My first—admittedly quick and shallow—exploration of the history of K12 school design and building in the USA leads me to jump to the—perhaps rather obvious, but I think important—conclusion that school facilities in the USA have not been shaped primarily by educational goals, but by larger patterns in demographics and economics: Influxes of immigrants, civil rights being extended to or taken away from specific populations, bulges in birthrates, decreasing child mortality, and economic changes such as the move from primarily agrarian to primarily industrial and on to primarily service/knowledge economies.

For example, the nostalgic view of one-room schoolhouses one typically gets from Little House on the Prairie doesn’t touch on how the funding and construction of such schools was generated by government policies encouraging the westward settlement of the USA.

Or in the 19th Century, social changes including industrialization, immigration, urbanization, child labor laws, and compulsory education combined to generate larger school facilities in cities, designed as educational factories to process growing student populations.

There are many more examples of the close ties of school construction and social changes that suggest learning—as we might like to think of it—was not the primary driver of school design.

On the flip side: from Catherine Beecher, Horace Mann and Thomas Dewey’s work on educational reform to Richard Henry Pratt’s work on Native American education, I also found lots of examples of efforts to improve learning—and thereby society—that led directly to calls for changes in school design and construction. At turns well-meaning or self-interested, enlightened or benighted, these ideas and activities had widely varying impacts on actual educational realities, but none appear to have shaped actual schools as dramatically as more basic social forces.

In short: we don’t really design or build schools to better educate people. We design and build schools to process large numbers of people to fit into current socio-economic roles. Resources and efforts to design and build schools follow demographic and economic demands—not educational needs. Despite accompanying lofty rhetoric, most school design and construction seems to be driven primarily by reactive and shortsighted efforts to deal with current social and economic pressures, rather than our desires to have education shape and improve our cultural, social and economic future.

If that’s the pattern, what socioeconomic forces are shaping today’s educational initiatives? I’ll be exploring answers to that question and I welcome yours!