Education for the Public Good

A chance encounter led me to want to post about my evolving views on education as essential public infrastructure. Thanks to a tweet by Sara Goldrick-Rab, I was led to an article by someone I’d never read, Corey DeAngelis, Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute: “Is Public Schooling a Public Good? An Analysis of Schooling Externalities”. If I were not already thinking about education as public infrastructure, I probably would have walked away from this article given all its issues (which I’ll end up addressing, like it or not) and the futility of engaging such polemical works. Yet so much sprang out of my reading of DeAngelis and the other works it led me to that I feel compelled to write, if only to set out some thinking on education as public infrastructure to build on later.

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Opening Education: A First Walk Through Campus

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.

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A Little Bird Told Me

Little Bird logo

I’ve been working in educational technology for the last 14 years: first at OMSI, then at Portland State, and most recently at rSmart, focused on Sakai open source collaboration and learning technologies. As of February 2013, I have joined former data-journalist Marshall Kirkpatrick‘s startup, Little Bird, here in Portland, Oregon, as Doorman: leading marketing, sales, and support.

I’m profoundly excited by Little Bird. While it may seem like a dramatic departure from my edtech work, at its heart, Little Bird is ultimately a powerful tool for learning, bringing you directly to the leading people and most worthy content in any topic. Little Bird can help anyone do with purpose what I have done haphhazardly and organically: building my own understanding and relationships by connecting to people that matter, first online, but then also, almost always, offline as well. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be joining Little Bird if I hadn’t first learned from, and then met and developed a relationship with Marshall on Twitter. Now with Little Bird, we are working to enable everyone to learn and build relationships that can change their work and lives.

Little Bird’s team is an awsome collection of wildly unique individuals, who nevertheless share inspiring intelligence and worthy values. I’m honored to be able to work alongside Marshall, his Little Bird co-founders Mikalina Kirkpatrick and Tyler Gillies, and our growing team of folks including Danish AzizPeat BakkeDevin Gaffney, and Brennan Novak. As much as I have learned from and loved working with folks around the world in the Sakai community and at rSmart, it’s a like opening a present every day to spend time face-to-face with Little Bird’s team of smart, thoughtful people, deeply embedded in Portland’s welcoming, innovative tech and creative communities.

My connection to edtech remains: for as long as it makes sense (or until my term ends, which ever comes first), I still serve on the board of directors for the Apereo Foundation—the new organization formed in late 2012 by joining Sakai and Jasig. Maybe the new experience and viewpoints I gain from Little Bird can add some valuable perspective to Apereo. At the very least, I know I’ll be looking at education, and the technologies we hope to make serve it, with a new, avianette lens.

Looking back, I’d like to give my deepest thanks to the people that made my journey with Sakai and rSmart possible: first and foremost, Chris Coppola, who helped me start that journey and lead me forward with his thinking, drive, and values. Wende Garrison and Trish Harris, who put a lot of very smart wind and perspective in my sails and sailed along with me. Kim Thanos, who continues to advise and inspire me in so many wise ways large and small. The whole rSmart team, but most especially Brooke Biltimier, Brenda Chapman, Tom ChapmanDuffy Gillman, Paul HauserOrla MesterErik Mertz, and Lance Speelmon, who always seemed like close collaborators even though we were so often working at a distance. In the worldwide Sakai community there are too many to name who have been my brothers and sisters in the campaign to make education better: but I thank you all and hope to continue to serve you at Apereo and beyond.

Kindle Academic Publishing With Pronetos

The hype and opprobrium on Amazon’s Kindle is out. The verdict is in: usability AND content are king. Depending on who you read, the Kindle succeeds or fails on one or both counts.

As I type this out on my iPhone, I have to say: the Kindle must win on both usability and content to soar. But, Amazon’s strength is so heavily weighted to content, that is the place they should focus.

Enter Pronetos. Pronetos looks to be the iTunes of the academic coursepack. And if the iPod and Facebook/MySpace have proved anything, they have proved that kids alone can make a platform succeed if it has the content and/or connectivity they crave. They will even buy a second device if necessary.

Amazon: get academic publications on the Kindle now. Add the smart pen (ie, social networking) and the sky’s the limit.

I’ll integrate it all with my iPhone later ;)

Reporting = Aggregation

The funniest monkey and driving force behind DrupalEd, Bill Fitzgerald, just posted about a new feed aggregation demo via Drupal:
http://groups.drupal.org/node/7271

Bill’s post got me thinking about a problem I’ve been ruminating on from a related arena: the world of academic eportfolios. The issue: How to enable a high degree of independence for individuals in the stewardship of their eportfolios, but at the same time facilitate the use of material from those eportfolios for collective (aggregated) goals, such as academic course, career, program and/or institutional assessment?

Most systems that provide approaches to this issue err on the side of centralization. But one problem they face is scalability: How do you provide a good user interface to a centralized tool that reports on (aggregates) say, 25,000 user eportfolios? Another problem they face is standardization: The collectivity likes information in trees and boxes while the individual (and their learning pathways) often produce a much looser collection of stuff.

Bill’s demo started me thinking that the more elegant (only workable?) solution to this issue is a far looser coupling of the individual eportfolio and the central reporting (aggregating) function. Let the individual create willy-nilly, but when it matters, tag with care. Let the collectivity build more sophisticated aggregators of tagged user creations rather than trying to box and prune them from the outset.

The six hours Bill spent building his demo were enough to let me envision not so many hours more spent to extend his work to model a better solution to this eportfolio conundrum. A solution where the individual has their cake and the collectivity eats (aggregates) it too.

Nate Moves On

After 5 years as Portland State’s Director for Web Communications, I’ve moved on to work for The rSmart Group, a commercial provider of open source technologies working mostly in the education sector with Sakai, OSP and Kuali.

To extend my engagement at Portland State with open source communities like Sakai/OSP and Drupal, I’m looking forward to a fulltime focus on open source at rSmart, as well as the mandate to expand my thinking beyond local, institutional concerns.

With this move from public to private, I’m happy to still be connected to education. There’s much work to be done to help make open source technologies the obvious choice to support educational missions. rSmart’s definitely part of that work. And rSmart’s attitude toward its clients and open source communities aligns closely with my own. In many ways, my drive to do good feels more empowered in this for-profit company than it did in public education.

Although rSmart’s based in Phoenix, AZ, I’ll still be in Portland, OR. I’m not yet ready to trade the rain for the heat.

Look for much more activity here as I start to spread out in my new role.