Yestermorrow Thoughts - After the First Week

Our Yestermorrow Design/Build class took a field trip to a Vermont hillside permaculture farm on Thursday. We had a fascinating tour of a 10 acre site that is being transformed from a typical heavily wooded white pine forest into a food producing and ecologically restorative plot of land.

At one point we went into the basement/shop of the farmer's house and I took the photo above. When looking for an image to convey my end-of-first-week thoughts this one seemed like a good choice.


I'm still somewhat in the dark regarding this new realm I've entered.

There are lots of elements to integrate and they can be quite confusing.

The patterns that organize information in this domain are not yet clear and everything seems a bit of a jumble.

There is lots of light streaming in from the instructors, from my classmates, and from the Yestermorrow environment.

So I'm off to a good start, paddling gingerly in the zone of proximal development, and looking forward to week two!

A Different Kind of School

I'm attending Yestermorrow, up in beautiful northern Vermont, for the next three weeks. Yestermorrow bills itself as a design build school; a place for interested amateurs to learn about designing and building sustainable structures. The course I'm taking, Ecological Design in the Built Environment, is focused very broadly on sustainable structures, not just buildings. I mean by this that the course is about cultural structures like agriculture and communities; and the focus is on how we can redesign these things to be more sustainable. There is not a lot of free time so I'll leave it at that for now, but hope to reflect much more in coming days.

A Triangulated Irregular Network (TIN) Toy

For many years I've been playing around with a building toy idea, using SketchUp to model designs. At one point I actually had a prototype made of a key part by sending in a CAD file to a rapid prototyping service.

A few weeks ago I ran across Quirky and decided to take the few minutes (and $10) needed to submit my building toy idea. I checked the site for a week or so and as nothing seemed to be happening kind of forgot about it.

Last Friday I received an email saying my idea had been selected for development. Here is a post on Quirky's blog about the selection process. This article in the New York Times gives a more general overview of how Quirky works.

I have no idea how far this will go but it is definitely cool that services are developing –like Quirky and KickStarter– that can help new "quirky" design ideas get some exposure. The power of Web 2.0 continues to surprise and delight.

Grid Costs

The end of summer has always been a difficult time for me. It involves reducing my time in the organic free-form patterns of nature and increasing my time in the grid-like patterns of human buildings and organizations. 

This year, for the first time in 28 years, I'll not be returning to an institution as a teacher/administrator. I'll be a student at the design/build school Yestermorrow, but that is, as they say, a whole different kettle of fish. I'll also be teaching an online course in computer programming. What I won't be doing is submitting myself to the grid as I have in the past, and for that I'm very grateful.

I'll miss my classes and the fun interactions that happen in face-to-face teaching. I'll also miss interacting with and learning from other teachers. I won't miss much else though, especially dealing with administrators.

I created the following piece, called Grid Costs, back in late August 2007. My need/desire to escape the grid has been building for quite some time.



The Inequality Blues

Inequality breaks down communication between different elements of a society. Different economic groups share fewer experiences and have less in common. We know from neuroscience that intelligence arises out of massive numbers of neurons being massively interconnected. If you start disrupting connections between different parts of a brain you are going to get much less intelligent behavior from that brain.

As different groups in society have less and less in common, communication between them is going to to break down and this decrease in connections will lead to the society acting less intelligently. This is not to say that individuals in the society are any more or less intelligent, rather that the collective behavior of the society will be less intelligent. Fewer connections, less information flowing between parts, less intelligence.

We are in a period of massive and growing inequality. Given this we should be seeing less intelligent behavior from our government, and in fact we are. Current policies on global warming, health care, transportation, education and taxes are mind-numbingly stupid.

As inequality grows our collective behavior will probably become even more feather brained. The needs and concerns of the less powerful are likely to be increasingly ignored, leading to decisions that antagonize and alienate large segments of the population. The summer of 2011 riots in the UK should serve as a wake up call but I suspect the powers that be will do everything within their extensive means to dismiss the warning signals.

Lack of communication from the wealthy with the poor also cuts the poor off from developing an understanding of the inevitable hard choices that those governing always need to make. In other words, inequality makes the collective decision making of both the wealthy and the poor less intelligent.

Communities that minimize inequality will have more connectivity between their citizens and therefore better communication and more intelligent behavior. In the long run these more intelligent communities will tend to do better than their stupid cousins, and evolutionary forces will work their magic.

If inequality can't be reduced through peaceful democratic means the future of wealthy elites is likely to turn out very badly. A little reading of history shows that when the inevitable major economic crises occur, elites who are not willing to give up their special status will not be treated kindly.

If you are interested in learning more about inequality, Larry Ferlazzo has provided a great set of links in a blog post here. I particularly recommend the video of Malcolm Gladwell having a conversation with Roger Martin about Capital vsTalent

Time, Precious Free Time

It is high summer here in Mamaroneck. The neighborhood is quiet because many are away on vacation. Our local pool, where Laurie and I swim laps almost every morning, often has only a few other people in it while we are swimming.

In the mornings I spend two or three hours following up on leads from my PLN (mostly via twitter) and posting my daily set of tweets. If I'm lucky one of those tweets will spark a conversation which will get me engaged and fired up for the rest of the morning. Most days the tweets just disappear off into the great tweet stream, rushing to join the vast ocean of tweets stored somewhere off in the cloud.

Yesterday I put together the video below (reload the page if it doesn't show) for my online computer science class. The whole thing was made on an iPad 2, which turns out to be a nice platform for producing short instructional videos.

I'm starting to think quite a bit about my coming time at Yestermorrow. It should be a great experience as in a way I've been preparing for it since I was in high school. This is a direction that under different circumstances I might very well have developed into a career. One of the goals of the adult gap year I'm taking is to see if perhaps this might be a second career opportunity.

My other major gap year goal is to do all I can to develop a strong expertise in online education. I've been making good progress in that area, largely through leads discovered as a result of my participation in eduMooc. I haven't made any progress with OPuS but I suspect that is a much longer term project.

Through the middle of August I'm going to try and make the most enjoyable possible use of every day, with lots of swimming, kayaking, reading and gardening. It is definitely a time of year to slow down and enjoy family, friends and flowers.

I hope your summer is going well.

Vectors of Change

For the past two weeks I've been spending long days in my social networks and the sites to which they've led me.

I'm trying to get a sense of the forces that are at play in the world of education. If I have any talent it is the ability to see the forest where most can see only the trees. I've been feeding information to my brain at the highest pace I can sustain in the hopes that it will identify some patterns... some emerging forests.

For a few days I've been feeling the need to write a post about the vectors of change I'm sort of seeing. They are still vague and undefined, but maybe I'll be able to tease some details out through writing. So here goes.

•Social networking is extremely powerful and is really just getting started. It is already disrupting hierarchies of power in the middle east and will eventually do so everywhere. We know from neuroscience that intelligence emerges from connectivity. The more connected we become via social networking the more we will collectively recognize social structures and practices that no longer make sense. For instance, virtually all non-democratic forms of governance are starting to seem archaic and will increasingly be questioned. This includes the current governance structures and practices of corporations, which in their own ways are often as corrupt as the Mubarek regime in Egypt was/is.

•In education we are starting to see the arguments for allowing access to social networks gain power. The resistance of the established order to this vector is likely to be formidable, but the benefits of social networking are becoming so powerful and clear, that objections will be eroded as easily as a rising tide sweeps away a massive sand castle. We know that intrinsic motivation is very powerful. We know that content to support individualized passion-based learning is being put on the Internet at a blistering pace. We know that Personal Learning Networks and Communities of Practice are some of the most effective learning environments available. We know teachers are spending more and more of their time in social networks and through immersion are becoming aware of their pedagogical power. Finally, we know that digital devices are just going to become more powerful, useful and prevalent in the years ahead. 

•Online learning will become an increasingly powerful force in education, but perhaps counter-intuitively, face-to-face interaction will also grow in importance. How is this possible? Where will the time be found. A few ways. There is no reason that online learning needs to be done from home. Ira Socol's post on this subject and this collection of images of inspiring offices both point in the same design direction. Open, flexible, comfortable and friendly user-modifiable spaces. It is also quite likely that more learning will occur from home. In any case, there will to be many more opportunities for those with different learning styles to find the environments that work best for them.

•We are going to need to do more moving of bits and less moving of atoms. Energy will cost more in the future, and it takes much more energy to move atoms than it does to move bits. We will need to live in more compact communities, but those communities will be much more richly textured and environmentally whole. Negative externalities -pollution of all kinds- need to reduced as much as possible. Positive externalities -environmental and cultural services- need to be increased as much as possible.

This is all sounding a bit utopian so I'll stop for now. I'll post it and then come back to it over the next few days to see how it holds up.


Tending to My PLN Garden

It seems this is the time of year when garden metaphors are a bit overused. I think it can't be helped. The parallels make the metaphor too attractive to leave alone.

I tend to be be minimalist in many things.

For instance, I like plants but am quite happy with a carefully tended small number. Some years we've had many potted plants on our deck, but I'm not sure that gave me more pleasure than the few we have this summer. In our front yard we've slowly increased the number and variety of plants, but only at the rate of one or two a year.

My personal learning network is much the same. I don't have a large number of people in my PLN, but I pay close attention to and appreciate greatly those who are there.

Since leaving my old place of employment in June I've been using my free time to tend to and expland my PLN. I've been following more folks on twitter, reading more edubloggers, and blogging more myself. I jumped into the deep end (or is it the shallow end) of online learning with eduMOOC -my first MOOCing experience- and hope through my participation in that strange new learning environment to expand my PLN into higher education, a bit.

Gardening at the level I do does not require great quantities of time, effort or attention. The gardens I help bring to life give me much pleasure but certainly wouldn't put our house on any garden tour. The same has been true of my PLN, but I want to try and take both up a level this summer. 

Any feedback on how to do either much appreciated.

The image above is from my high-tech vegetable garden. I grow tomatoes and basil in EarthBoxes on our deck. Once the soil in the boxes is prepared, and the plants put into the soil, the automatic watering system pretty much takes care of the rest. My younger son did a lot of the prep work this year, and he has shown a wonderful almost parental feeling towards "his" plants. I sense the beginning of a long and productive gardening career.

eduMOOC From a K-12 Perspective

I've been participating in eduMOOC for about a week and a half. It is a confusing environment but one that I'm enjoying. It's a bit like an unConference, but spread out over eight weeks instead of two days. Like an unConference it is up to each participant to not only make the most of the experience, but also create the experience.

One of the important functions a MOOC provides is an audience. It elevates my efforts, and I'm sure other participants' efforts, to know that there are hundreds of others paying attention to what is happening. There is the sense that if one is able to say something interesting then others may well comment on and build on that idea. This is definitely motivating.

I've also had the thought that MOOCs have similarities to subject-focused social networks, specifically Nings like ISENET (or perhaps even ListServs). Nings are also places where it is essential members participate in building the learning environment. Nings, in terms of length of existence, can be thought of as being on the opposite side of MOOCs from unConferences. So in unstructured learning environments we have unConferences for very short intense gatherings, MOOCs for medium term gatherings, and Ning like spaces for ongoing learning communities.

My current feeling is that it would be difficult to conduct a MOOC for 7-12 students because of the lack of structure in a MOOC. This plays into the Wiley/Siemens/Downes debate that erupted during the first week of eduMOOC. However, I think it might be very productive to conduct a MOOC for K-12 educators. I'll be playing around with this idea in the weeks ahead.

A few K-12 educators have started a study group for K-12 online learning on the eduMOOC wiki. We are off to a productive start and I hope we will continue to build on that foundation.

Finally, my small attempt to build some gamification into eduMOOC has not gained any traction. This is also something I'll be looking to work on over the next six weeks.

So far eduMOOC has been very engaging. My thanks go out Ray Schroeder and others who have organized this wonderful learning opportunity.

Filming the Stage (Not)

"Filming the Stage" is a metaphor for letting an old medium, the classroom in my case, limit your thinking about a new medium. Online learning is a new medium, and I think in too many cases we are letting our thinking about the old medium, the classroom, unnecessarily constrain our thinking about the affordances (seems to be the hot new pedagogical word) of the new medium of online learning.

In the next few years I hope to move most of my teaching to an online format. I'm really interested in exploring all the possibilities that this new medium affords. Participating in EduMooc, and following all the resources provided by that experience, is one of my exploratory paths. Another is playing around with iMovie for the iPad and literally taking the camera outside and moving it around while making instructional videos.