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March 2012

Net Smart: a call for mindful engagement with technology

NetSmart-coverHoward Rheingold shared some highlights of what he's learned and taught about being "Net Smart" Monday night at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Acknowledging the growing chorus of criticism of the growing prominence of online media - and it propensity for distraction, diversion and delusion - he noted that critique is necessary, but not sufficient, in the cultivation of practices that enable us to successfully adopt and adapt to new technologies. To help fill this gap, Howard enumerated and explained what he calls the Five Fundamental Literacies that are essential to use technology intelligently, humanely and mindfully: attention, participation, collaboration, crap detection and network know-how. The book represents a carefully curated collection and distillation of wisdom from Howard and a broad array of other net luminaries, with over 500 end notes and an index that is over 30 pages long. I haven't actually read the book yet - it was just published this week, and Monday night was his first book talk - so the notes that follow are based primarily on Howard's presentation ... and biased by my own particular interests and interpretations.

Howard led off with the literacy of attention, a topic about which he and I have both learned a lot from Linda Stone. He described experimenting with attention probes during classes he teaches, ringing a chime at various times and asking students to report what they were thinking or where their mind was at during that moment, a form of what I might call experience sampling mindfulness (riffing on experience sampling method). Howard defined the term infotention, which I initially interpreted as a mashup of information and attention, but also suspect it involves intention, as he went on to say that the application of attention to intention is how the mind changes the brain (e.g., through the use of mandalas & mantras), and shared a pithy neuroscientific mantra to explain this connection: "neurons that fire together, wire together".

Moving on to the literacy of crap detection, or the "critical consumption of information", Howard showed that if you google "martin luther king", one of the top hits is to a site entitled "Martin Luther King, Jr. - A True Historical Examination". I was immediately reminded of Margaret Thatcher's insight:

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.

I don't want to make too much of a connection between being powerful and being truthful - in fact, I suspect they tend to be rather oppositional, e.g., speaking truth to power - but I suspect that many sites claiming to be about the "truth" of a matter are not actually about the truth of that matter. In investigating the truth behind the "true historical examination" of MLK, Howard demonstrated that conducting a simple "whois" search reveals that the registered site owner is Don Black, who is associated with the Stormfront White Nationalist / White Pride resource page.

Howard summarized his recommendations for effective crap detection

  • think like a detective, look for clues
  • search to learn (don't stop with first search, or the first page of results)
  • look for authors, search on their names
  • triangulate (find 3 different sources)

Expanding on the importance of consulting diverse sources, Howard also recommended including people and organizations with different perspective in your regular information network, because "if nobody in your network annoys you, you are in an echo chamber". Having long thought - and recently written - about the idea of the irritation-based innovation, I found myself ruminating about the value of irritation-based learning.

Howard is an inspiring innovator in the realm of learning. I believe he coined the term peeragogy, a mashup of "peer" + "pedagogy", which denotes a highly participatory form of learning (an example of which is The Independent Project I wrote about recently). I have been an intermittent participant in his Peeragogy Handbook Project, and strive to practice & facilitate - not just read (or write) about - more participatory student-centered learning in my own educational endeavors.

Speaking of such endeavors, I want to turn my attention toward my intention to prepare for next week's classes. One of the costs of teaching is that I rarely have time for any "outside" activities, such as attending book talks ... or writing about them afterward. Howard told me he rarely gives book talks any more, so I'm glad that we both took the time to converge on Elliott Bay Books this week. It was well worth the effort, not just to see and hear Howard, but also for the serendipitous opportunity to meet other co-learners and to learn more from their questions and comments. Several of them referenced other interesting books, which I've added to my list of future reads ... but those will have to wait until after "Net Smart".

The Independent Project: An Inspiring Experiment in Student-Designed Learning

The Independent Project is an experimental school within a school, designed and implemented by a group of students at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, MA. I recently wrote about Carl Rogers' ideas regarding student-centered learning, in which a professor (who in this case was also a therapist) plays the role of facilitator, while graduate or undergraduate college students design and implement the course. The Independent Project takes this a step further, empowering a small group of high school students to design and implement an entire curriculum with far less direct involvement of faculty.

I first read about the project in Let Kids Rule the School, a March 2011 NYTimes op-ed piece by Susan Engel, a psychology professor at nearby Williams College, in which she describes a participatory educational framework with minimal input by or supervision from any faculty or staff:

Their guidance counselor was their adviser, consulting with them when the group flagged in energy or encountered an obstacle. Though they sought advice from English, math and science teachers, they were responsible for monitoring one another’s work and giving one another feedback. There were no grades, but at the end of the semester, the students wrote evaluations of their classmates.

During a two-day workshop at the University of Washington Bothell this week on Reinventing University-Level Learning for the 21st Century, I mentioned The Independent Project during a breakout session and wondered whether and how this experiment might be carried out in the context of a university. I started composing a followup email with an annotated link ... and as the annotations grew longer I decided I'd move it over to a blog post (and expand it further).

Since my last visit to The Independent Project web site, a few things have been added:

  • a comprehensive 16-page white paper [PDF] offering more details about exactly how they proposed, sought approval and then designed and implemented the program
  • a map showing other schools that are purportedly experimenting with the program (surprisingly, only two: one in Ireland, another in Mexico)
  • a blog with entries spanning February through March 2012, suggesting they are in the midst of a second trial of the program (a post on logistics highlights the revisions from the first trial)

There is also an extremely well-produced and inspiring 15-minute video, which I will embed below, and then followup with a few highlights.

The video starts out with a quote often - though questionably - attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, (author of The Little Prince), while the voice-over ironically talks of the project as "rocking the boat":

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Another relevant and inspiring quote, by educational reformer Ted Sizer, is shown further on:

Inspiration, hunger: these are the qualities that drive good schools. The best we educational planners can do is to create the most likely conditions for them to flourish, and then get out of their way.

Throughout the video, a number of recurring themes are emphasized by students, faculty and administrators at the school (and the school within the school): independence, exploration, questions, initiative, creativity, curiosity, caring, sharing, confidence, mutual support, engagement, freedom, responsibility, excitement, agency, a thirst for knowledge.

According to Sam Levin, the Monument student who instigated the idea and wrote the white paper mentioned above, students would start each week converging on a set of questions and allocate responsibility for answering those questions among each other, then spend the rest of the week splitting their time between individual endeavors during the mornings and working on collective endeavors in the afternoons. They would gather together to teach each other what they learned each Friday.

Among the questions they asked were:

  • How do plant cells differ from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the mountain?
  • Why do we cry?
  • How does music affect the brain?
  • How do mice react to aromatherapy?
  • What causes innovation?
  • Why do we have art?
  • How does Pixar make a film?
  • How can we clean the Housatonic River?
  • What are the dimensions?
  • Are some infinities bigger than others?
  • Is there science behind old wives' tales?

Among the books they read were

  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
  • Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White
  • Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Tales of Weird, by Ralph Steadman
  • The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
  • Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
  • Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott

Among the individual endeavors they worked on were

  • a novel
  • a play
  • a compilation of short stories
  • a study of women's trauma and recovery
  • a short film
  • practicing culinary arts
  • learning the piano

Toward the end of the video, Levin summarizes the experience:

We learned how to learn, we learned how to teach, and we learned how to work.

We learned how to learn in the sense that we learned how to ask questions, and explore the answers using different methods like the scientific method or different or different resources.

We learned how to teach in the sense that we learned how to take what we learned and share it with other people, not just because we had to, because we had a presentation, but because it was our responsibility to make sure everyone else in the group benefited from our work.

We learned how to work in the sense that we learned how to use different resources, and go to different people, and use different methods, and push each other, and be pushed, and criticize and be criticized, to produce the best work, and learn as much as possible.

Susan Engel, who is also interviewed in the video, notes that "the potential for this is right there within the walls of every single school". I'm disappointed, though hardly surprised, that the program does not appear to have gone viral. While the potential for such student-designed learning may be present in any school, I suspect most students would not be sufficiently motivated to expend the energy to design and implement their own curriculum.

Even if a sufficient number of students were sufficiently motivated, there would still be the problem(s) of scale. One of the things I'm re-learning about academia - which is also being learned by participants in the Occupy movement - is that self-governance requires a considerable investment of time and energy ... and it's very difficult to avoid the imposition of structure (aka bureaucracy) as the size of the self-governing body expands.

With the growing array of online resources freely available for learning, including videos from the Khan Academy, massive online open courses from traditional universities as well as startups, and the Peeragogy Handbook Project (to name just a few), the potential for learning increasingly extends far beyond the walls of any single school. Indeed, this expanding potential, and the growing uncertainty about the role universities might play, is the motivation behind the UWB workshop this week.

One of the outcomes of the workshop was a commitment - at least among some of the participants - to undertake more experiments in our cultivation of learning opportunities ... some of which I'm hoping will incorporate the insights and experiences from The Independent Project.

Update: Sam Levin, who is now at University of Oxford, shared some updates with me during a Skype call, which I'll summarize below.

  • Sam has also helped instigate other experimental projects involving high school students, such as Project Sprout and The Future Project.
  • The Independent Project has been contacted by approximately 200 schools from around the world, many of which are implementing their own variations.
  • During the first experiment (in Fall 2010), the participating students were awarded up to 6.5 "public school credits" which counted toward graduation but did not count toward any of the individual distribution requirements (e.g., English or Math), so some students needed to double up in preceding or succeeding years to ensure they met all the requirements.
  • The second experiment is going on now (Spring 2012), and starting in the Fall of 2012, the school will make The Independent Project a permanent part of their program, offer it for a full year (vs. a single semester), and allow students to apply credits toward individual requirements.

Much to my surprise, Sam is not aware of any researchers who are evaluating the current or past instantiations of The Independent Project at MMRHS or any other schools. He suspects this may be due, in part, to the difficulty of assessment (in general, and specifically in the case of a program where students determine their own assessment paradigm). I may be wrong, but this seems like a HUGE opportunity for researchers interested in educational innovation.

Principle-centered Invention: Bret Victor on tools, skills, crafts and causes

I just watched an incredibly inspiring video of Bret Victor's CUSEC 2012 talk, Inventing on Principle. Bret's principle is

creators need an immediate connection to what they are creating.

He illustrates this principle during the first 35 minutes of the presentation, demonstrating some fabulously empowering "live coding" tools to enable programmers to manipulate and immediately see the impact of changes to their code when working with graphics (at the 2:30 mark), games (10:25), algorithms (16:45), circuits (23:15) and animations (29:20).


I've rarely heard an audience respond to a speaker at a technical conference - vs., say, a State of the Union address - with applause so many times throughout a talk, but the audience applauded each of Victor's feats of programming empowerment, leading me to think of live coding / visual programming [tools] as a form of performance art ... and political statement.

As amazing as these tools are, the most inspiring part of his talk - for me - starts just after the 35 minute mark, where Victor ties these all together as examples of inventing on [his] principle, arguing that these arose not as just problem solving opportunities, but as part of what he feels is his moral responsibility to make the world a better place, to free ideas from the unnecessary constraints imposed by poorly designed tools.

Victor goes on to offer other examples of principle-centered inventors, and how their principles enabled them to make extraordinary progress on righting a wrong not yet recognized by a culture:

  • Larry Tesler: no person should be trapped in a mode (e.g., early text editors such as vi)
  • Doug Engelbart: enable mankind to solve the world problems (empowering knowledge workers)
  • Alan Kay: amplify human reach and bring new ways of thinking to a faltering civilization that desperately needs it
  • Richard Stallman: software must be free

Victor then goes on to espouse his personal philosophy of principle-centered invention, and to contrast that with the more traditional paths for designers, engineers, researchers and even entrepreneurs that focus on building skills and/or solving open problems. While I believe he has construed both entrepreneurship and academic research a bit too narrowly - I know of several people in these roles who are principle-centered inventors (some of whom I mentioned in an earlier post on irritation-based innovation) - I do agree with his larger message that changing the world requires a larger vision beyond serially solving open problems, and that people can have far greater impact on the world if they are willing to pay attention to common threads that irritate and motivate them across a range of experiences, identify their guiding principle, and then act on that principle.

Rather than further paraphrasing his remarks, I'm going to include an approximate transcript of that last 5 minutes of his talk, in which he integrates ideas about identity, experience and insight into a compelling case for principle-centered invention (and, principle-centered living), in case it might motivate others like me who rarely take the time to watch a 54-minute video [this one was tweeted by Clay Shirky (@cshirky), who emits an extraordinarily high signal-to-noise ratio throughout all of his media streams]

Bret Victor - Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

The world will try to make you define yourself by a skill. That's why you have a major in college. That's why you have a job title. You are a software engineer. And you'll probably specialize to be a database engineer, or a front-end engineer, and you'll be given front ends and asked to engineer them. And that can be worthwhile, and valuable, And if you want to pursue your life pursuing excellence, and practicing a skill, you can do that. That is the path of a craftsman. That is the most common path.

The only other path you hear about much is the path of the problem solver. So I see entrepreneurship and academic research as kind of two sides of that coin. There's a field, there's a set of problems in that field, or needs in the market. You go and you choose one, and you work it and make your contribution. And a little bit later on, you choose another problem, work it, make a contribution there. Again, that can be worthwhile and valuable, and if that's what you want to do, you can take that path.


But I don't see Larry Tesler on either of those paths. I wouldn't say he was contributing to the field of user experience design, because there was no such thing. He didn't choose some open problem to solve, he came across a problem that only existed in his own head, that no one else even recognized. And certainly, he did not define himself by his craft, he defined himself by his cause, by the principle that he fought to uphold.

I'm sure that if you look at Wikipedia, it will say that he's a computer scientist, or a user experience something, but to me that's like saying Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a community organizer. No. Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the principle of woman's suffrage. That's who she was. That's the identity she chose. And Larry Tesler established the principle of modelessness. He had this vision, and he brought the world to that vision.

So, you can choose this life. Or maybe it will end up choosing you. And it might not happen right away. It can take time to find a principle, because finding a principle is a form of self-discovery; you're trying to figure out what your life is supposed to be about. What you want to stand for as a person. It took me like a decade; 10 years before any real understanding of my principles solidified. That was my 20s.


When I was young, I felt I had to live this way. I would get little glimmers of what mattered to me, but no big picture. It was really unclear. This was very distressing for me. What I had to do was just do a lot of things, make many things, make many types of things, study many things, experience many, many things, and use all of these experiences as ways to analyze myself. Taking all these experiences and saying "Does this resonate with me?" "Does this repel me?" "Do I not care?" Building up this corpus of experiences that I felt very strongly about for some reason. And trying to make sense of it, trying to figure out why, what is the secret ingredient to all these experiences that I'm reacting to so strongly?

Now I think everyone's different, and all those guys I talked about, they have their own origin stories, which you can read about. I will just say that confining ourselves to practicing a single skill can make it difficult to get that broad range of experience which seems to be so valuable for this sort of work.


And finally, if you choose to follow a principle, a principle can't be any old thing you believe in. You'll hear a lot of people say they want to make software easier to use, or they want to delight their users, or they want to make things simple. That's a really big one right now, everyone wants to make things simple. And those are nice thoughts, and maybe give you a direction to go in, but too vague to be directly actionable. Larry Tesler liked simplicity, but his principle was a specific nugget of insight: no person should be trapped in a mode. And that is a powerful principle, because it gave him a new way of seeing the world. It divided the world into right and wrong, in a fairly objective way. So, he could look at someone selecting text, and ask "Is this person in a mode? Yes or no?" If yes, he had to do something about that. And likewise, I believe that creators need powerful tools. It's a nice thought, but it doesn't really get me anywhere. My principle is that creators need this immediate connection, so I can watch you changing a line of code, and ask "Did you immediately see the effect of that change? Yes or no?" If no, I gotta do something about that. And again, all those demos that I showed you came out of me doing that, by following this principle, and letting it lead me to what I had to do.

So if your guiding principle embodies a specific insight, it will guide you, and you'll always know if what you're doing is right.

There are many ways to live your life. That's maybe the most important thing to realize in your life, that every aspect of your life is a choice. There are default choices. You can choose to sleepwalk through your life, and accept the path that is laid out for you. You can choose to accept the world as it is. But you don't have to. If there's something in the world that you feel is a wrong, and you have a vision for what a better world could be, you can find your guiding principle, and you can fight for a cause. So after this talk, I'd like you to take a little time, and think about what matters to you, what you believe in, and what you might fight for.