Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hacking education

What would it mean to hack education? According to the "official"  hacker jargon file, a hacker* is someone who:
  • enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities
  • programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) 
  • is an expert or enthusiast of any kind
  • is one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 
  • believes that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.
So, hacking can be can be summed up like this: Making things better by challenging the status quo and breaking through barriers for the sheer joy of it. And though I was inspired by's phenomenal trailer to learn some Python, I'm not looking to become a computer programmer. Instead, I want to hack education. According to philosopher Pekka Himanen, this hacker ethic applies outside the bounds of programming.

Of course, we've all seen the power of the hacker ethic in the world of computers. The original hackers included the likes of Tim Berners-Lee (a key architect of the internet), Marc Andreessen (Netscape), Steve Wozniak (Apple), and Linus Torvalds (Linux). Their philosophy has been the driving force behind innovations like the personal computer, Linux, Ubuntu, Wikipedia, and the internet itself (it is basically the the same philosophy that made science so powerful).

Many professors, teachers and administrators have always operated this way. I think of closet eduhackers like Ian Guch, who posts a profusion of chemistry worksheets and an online textbook for free use at his Cavalcade o' Chemistry website. I think of a former colleague of mine, Nicole Waicunas, who's passion for helping students and outside-the-box style is inspiring. And I think of Salman Khan and his game-changing website. Whether in their enthusiasm and passion, their out-of-the-box, unorthodox creativity, or their openness and generosity, they embody the hacker ethic. And then there are the big names, like Ken Robinson, Pekka Himanen, Pasi Sahlberg, and Andy Hargreaves--people trying to hack the whole system. And why not? Isn't that what the hacker ethic is all about--improving the system for the sheer joy of doing so for the benefit of all? "School" is just a system, not unlike a computer program--a system with all sorts of rules and procedures and traditions and habits and red tape and hierarchies and deeply ingrained beliefs.

We can argue about how well the system is doing, but one thing we can't argue about is this: it can be improved. In fact, it's due for a radical rewriting of the software. The hierarchical, factory model is woefully inadequate (if it ever was adequate) in today's headlong, digital, global, exponentially changing, "whitewater world." The hacker ethic demands that the educational system be hacked, and hackers may even have provided us with a model for the change.

The powerful open source model that hackers employ means anyone can tinker with the "code" and submit their improvements to the larger group. If people like it, it gets incorporated into the system. Interestingly, it implies  decentralized, rather than hierarchical organization, and empowers each individual equally. It's based on real, voluntary, social cooperation. Hacking education according to this model will mean making education more open, efficient, personalized, and decentralized. It will mean taking the Finnish Model and ideas like Elmore's distributed leadership model  further, replacing traditional hierarchies of State-district-school-administration-teacher with networks of teachers, administrators, students, parents, and schools. 

And technology will play a central role. I'm not just talking about online learning, MOOCs, open courses, Moodle (my favorite), Edmodo (another cool tool), BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies and flipped classrooms, as cool and equalizing as they are. I'm thinking of paradigm shifts in  the whole organization of the system, possibly through P2P (peer-to-peer) technologies that could help give every student, teacher, parent, and community member a voice and contribution to the whole. I'm thinking of something more sophisticated than a system of open observation, communication, feedback and voting, though that would be a good start.

 John Robb sees the same thing happening to government. In a recent interview with the Foundation for Economic Education, he said, "The technology is changing, and so will the methods of organizing life. Until recently, we've relied on 'bureaucracy' and 'markets' to manage and allocate resources (more or less depending on the ideology employed)." But, he added, "Our inability to go beyond markets and bureaucracy is stopping us from actually entering an information/creative economy that is as qualitatively better as democratic capitalism was an improvement over feudal agrarianism." How will this happen? "One of the 'new' organizational methods we see will likely be based on P2P (think in terms of BitTorrent and BitCoin)."

I'm convinced that the more power and autonomy you give to individuals, the more their potential will be released. But I'm also convinced that the more people cooperate, the more their potential will be enhanced. The hacker model does both, and the application of the hacker model to education it could go even further.  In his book, Pekka Himanen envisions schools entirely based on the open-source model of computer programming: 

We could also use this idea to create a generalized Net Academy, in which all study materials would be free for use, critique, and development by everyone. By improving existing material in new directions, the network would continuously produce better resources for the study of the subjects at hand. Members of the network would be driven by their passions for various subjects and by the peer recognition for their contributions.

Logically, the continued expansion and development of this material, as well as the discussion and examination of it, would also have to be the net Academy's only way to grant study credits; and, true to the spirit, the highest credits should be given for those accomplishments that prove the most valuable to the entire learning community...

In the Net Academy, every learning event would permanently enrich all other learners. Alone or in the company of others, the learner would add something to the shared material.

Whether it will be Himanen's model or something else, no one can tell. That's the nature of paradigm shifts. But one thing's for sure, it will change--and for the better. And wherever it leads, I want to go there, for the pure joy of the challenge and creative work, and the reward of seeing it improve and seeing students' lives improved. It's one of the benefits of living in a country (and soon, a world) where scarcity is giving way to abundance, and we sit atop Maslow's pyramid, with what earlier generations would have called superpowers, with the opportunity to use our minds and efforts to creatively hack life for our mutual benefit. And what better target for hacking than education. We all, each and every human being, have such tremendous and fascinating potential, and education is about unlocking that potential.

*A hacker is not to be confused with a computer cracker ("a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around"), but the kind of hacker who creates for the sheer joy of seeing people benefit from her work.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bitcoin for teens

Ever heard of bitcoin? It's the hip cryptocurrency that made headlines earlier this year when it's value jumped from $30 per BTC to $230 in about two months, before it crashed abruptly to $60 (as I write this it's at $116). Its price continues to be volatile, but that's no reason to shun it, especially for teenagers. It's their escape from financial adolescence.

Read more

Monday, March 4, 2013

Borg in the classroom

Reading Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity in Near, has been getting me thinking about how I can help my students go Borg--build technology into their lives, so they can be competitive in the marketplace of the future. I've been wondering why we don't take advantage of all the tools technology has to offer--why we keep using old methods when newer, faster ones could free us to pursue higher goals. So this past week I tried a little activity designed to whet their appetites and test my ideas about technology. I called it a Grok vs. Borg race, and the outcome was exciting.

I recently showed my students some online resources, like, that can balance equations and calculate masses of compounds--stuff they normally do with archaic tools like periodic tables and TI-83 calculators. Then I gave them a worksheet of chemical calculations--stoichiometry, to be exact, for all you chemists out there (and for those of you who have not blocked out your high school experience). I told them it was a "Grok vs. Borg" race ("Grok" being the name of Mark Sisson's hypothetical caveman). The worksheet is below. A handful of students with iPads or smartphones chose the "Borg" group. The rest of the class played the role of themselves--the traditional (caveman) chemistry students.

Though there was a bit of a learning curve for "the Borg" as they found their way around the websites, they edged out the cavemen in my first class, and won a decisive victory in the next. It was interesting to see the excitement and interest the activity generated, especially in the Borg team. The look on the winning student's face was precious: it was a look of confidence, power, and competence.

So what's my point? My point is resistance is futile. We all had better assimilate technology or be assimilated by it. Sure, students need a basic understanding of the principles behind the calculations, just like we (hopefully) all understand what a fraction means before we use a calculator for division, but it's time we moved on and took advantage of new tools, so we can go further. Just as Newton saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants, we expand human capability when we allow technology to replace old tasks so we can focus on new ones.

And actually, I'm not convinced we need the basic understanding before we can move on to the more advanced. First, much of the most currently important chemistry (quantum mechanics, for example) is independent of the bulk of our high school chemistry curriculum. To tell you the truth, I sometimes feel as if I'm teaching some ancient, lost (and obsolete) art. Secondly, it is often possible to "run before we can walk." I learned to speak long before I learned how to conjugate verbs, and I can use the internet without being able to build my own search engine (though I do want to learn that). There's no reason one of my students couldn't solve some great future problem in chemistry without ever knowing how to use the factor-label method.

And make no mistake about it: The factor label method will soon go way of the slide rule, and stoichiometry will find it's place among the lost arts of double-entry bookkeeping and celestial navigation. Maybe we'll do it just for fun, but we won't need to. And that means we'll have more time and energy to do something better--more exciting.And that's what tools do for us: they enable us to do things we couldn't do before, or do them better than before. They empower us.

And they can empower kids. What if a tech tool could enable a student who couldn't do math to become a great scientist? What if the poor reader could master Shakespeare and Dostoevsky? What if the blind could see and the lame walk? This is the promise and purpose of technology. And how better to stay relevant to these young people than to help them augment their abilities with cutting edge exciting technologies so they can study the really exciting things. They know that much of what they learn at school is decades out of date--that they're like cavechildren being forced to learn the finer points of stonecraft while outside their windows the iron forge glows. It's time we let them throw out their stone tools for iron, their pencils for keyboards, and their calculators and textbooks for whatever they can find. And then watch them soar.

Here's the worksheet:

Stoichiometry Race

Group A can use calculator, periodic table, notes, textbook, pencil, and paper. 
Group B can use all of the above, plus the internet, including websites such as Google and:

Consider the following reaction in which the chemical weapon, phosgene, reacts with ammonia:
COCl2 +     NH3   CO(NH2)2 +   NH4Cl

1. Balance it.
2. How many moles of phosgene are required to react with 0.33 moles of ammonia?
3. How many g of urea (CO(NH2)2 ) are produced when 0.100 g of phosgene reacts?
4. What is the percent composition of phosgene?

Consider the following reaction:
C2H6O2   +   O2    CO2 +   H2O

5. Balance it.
6. How many moles of O2 are required to burn 0.25 moles of ethylene glycol (C2H6O2)?
7. How many g of CO2 are produced when 1,000.0 g of ethylene glycol is burned?
8. What is the empirical (simplest) formula for ethylene glycol?
9. What is ethylene glycol used for?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Going Borg

We evolved staring down predators, not staring at computer screens. Our ancestors ate bone marrow, not donuts. Grok the caveman followed game, not twitter feeds. These kinds of "disconnects," between the primal lifestyle our genes evolved to expect and the digital lifestyles we live, stress us out. But here we are. And as I argued in Will humans become obsolete?, the exponential growth in technology means we will be forced to assimilate it or be out-competed by it in the labor market, just like Grok was forced to throw out his stone ax for iron. So how can we stay competitive and yet happy and healthy at the same time? Either we match the technology to our genes and/or we modify our genes to fit the technology. We can't genetically engineer ourselves yet, so here's my three step plan for staying on top of the food chain: 1) Identify technologies that can enhance my performance, 2) Assimilate them in such a way as to maintain or enhance my health and happiness, and 3) Repeat.

This is a twist on Mark Sisson's approach in Primal Blueprint, which is to identify the behaviors and environments that turn on ancestral genes and generate biological responses for health and happiness, and find ways to incorporate them into modern life. We can't hunt woolly mammoths like Grok, but we can eat mostly meats, fats, and vegetables, spend lots of time outdoors, and rise with the sun every morning. This is what folks mean by "going primal," and I can testify to it's effectiveness: The Primal Blueprint has made me fitter, trimmer, and happier for about a year now.

Here's my twist on the primal approach: I don't really want to go primal. I want to "go Borg" to as large an extent I can and as fast as I can while still retaining, or better yet, increasing the health and happiness of myself and others. We can't stop technological progress. Either we assimilate it, or it will assimilate us. Not that I want to stop it--it enhances our health and well being, but we need to assimilate it intentionally and carefully to avoid negative side effects. So here are the details of my two steps to assimilating technology while maintaining or enhancing my quality of life:

1) Identify new technologies that can do activities I need or want to do better or for less cost than my body and/or mind alone. I'll use the law of comparative advantage here: I may be able to cook burgers better than a robot, but if the robot can do it for me cheaply while I do something only I can do that's worth more to me, then I give the task to the robot.

2) Assimilate the new technologies in such a way that they do not adversely affect my health and well-being, and look for new activities that can replace the role these activities may have played in generating health and happiness in my life and. In his latest book, The Primal Connection, Mark Sisson shows how technology can substitute for the behaviors and environments that produced optimum health and happiness for our ancestors. One study found that simulated windows (digital screens with outdoors scenes) had a positive psychological effect on people. Likewise, I can testify that waking up to digital birds singing on my Android (Gentle Alarm) is much less stressful than being jolted by screaming beeps. There is probably a potential technological solution to every primal disconnect created by technology.

3) Repeat as often as possible to be the fastest, smartest, healthiest, happiest human possible, realizing that the definition of "human" may change somewhat along the way.

How about some examples, just ten to get us started. Please help me add more. The first one's easy: Step 1) The days of memorizing facts are over. My memory is easily expandable, through the internet, to all published "facts" in the world. The time it takes for me to type in a Google search is all the time it takes for me to "recall" a fact from my internet "memory." Step 2) I will try to replace rote memory tasks with the internet in order to free up mental resources for tasks that Google cannot replace (yet). Just as calculators allow me to spend less time calculating so I can solve more and harder problems, switching from organic memory to Google will allow me to spend less time memorizing and more time problem solving.

Are there some potential negative side effects of this? Does rote memorization have some beneficial effect in my brain that affects my health and well-being? I don't know, but I doubt it. In fact, I think it probably reduces stress not to have to worry about memorization. But I need to be on the look out for such negatives and address them. For example, while it seems like a no-brainer (pun intended) to replace rote memorization with Google. I want to be careful I don't let it think for me. And there is an obvious caution here: Don't get distracted from your task. The internet is a tremendously distraction-rich place. But hey, there are tech tools for staying focused as well.

Example #2: Step 1) Commuting stinks. It takes too much time and fuel, and increases the time I spend sitting on my rear end staring at asphalt and the backs of cars. It can be replaced by remote/online work. Meetings and classes can be attended remotely using Google Hangouts or Skype. As a teacher, I can collect assignments and deliver content through Moodle and Youtube. Drawbacks? While remote work may decrease face time with colleagues, it stands to increase face time with the people most important to me. Conclusion: Try to work remotely/online as much as possible.

Example #3: Replace paper planner with Google Calendar.  Reminders are awesome, aren't they?

Example #4: As an avid hiker, I like this one: Replace orienteering courses with GPS (but carry a compass just in case).

Example #5: This one's obvious, but I have room for improvement on this: Replace paper filing with scanning, online forms, digitial memory and DVD backup.

Example #6: Replace some reading with listening to audiobooks or lectures while commuting (yeah, I haven't implemented Example #2 yet). This has been my secret for years.

Example #7: Replace stores with online shopping. Be careful here. I'll lose face time with people and need to be sure to use some of the time saved to increase time with other humans in my life. But I don't mind trading time with strangers for time with loved ones. Another caution: Make sure you don't waste MORE time online than you would have in the store. Amazon is fantastic, but a potential black hole for your time.

Example #8: Online banking, automated bill pay, payroll, bookkeeping and billing. This is a work in progress for me.

Example #9: Texting, while not safe on the road, is quicker than the phone and a great way to keep in touch with real people in your life. My students keep in touch with parents like they never could before. In fact, despite all the whining to the contrary, I think Facebook and Twitter can draw us closer to real friends and family, especially distant ones, as long as we don't get distracted by all the extraneous "friends" (acquaintances) scrolling (and trolling) down our feeds.

Example #10: In school, why even bother with long division anymore? Why memorize derivatives and integrals? And let's not stop there. can do everything a calculator can do and much, much more, let's take advantage of it. Are we worried we'll lose basic math skills? So what, if we gain greater, more advanced skills? How many of us can do long-hand square roots, for goodness' sake? And how many kids knew what an integral was in high school 50 years ago?

Example #11: Your idea here. (Please add your ideas as comments.)

The future: I'm waiting for a Hyperion-style direct brain interface, so I don't have to type in Google searches and can run WolframAlpha in my head. That will be cool. And when I can write a blog post with my thoughts, that will be really cool, too. And of course, the Star Trek Transporter will be awesome (not to and so will Bones' scanner).

So my plan is to repeat the 3 steps as often as possible until I am as "borg" as I can happily and healthily be. Grok is great, but if he stays Grok, he won't last long. He'd better switch to Cybergrok if he wants to be happy and healthy in tomorrow's technological world. And to tell you the truth, the primal life is not really my "ideal" life. If I could avoid it and still be healthy, I'd rather not kill animals for food. If I could do so and still be healthy and happy, I'd eat donuts. I love donuts. As yet, we don't have a technology that will allow me to eat them healthily, but I will rapidly assimilate it when it comes.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Will humans become obsolete?

When I heard about the robot that made 360 burgers per hour, it got me wondering about technology. Will human labor become obsolete? Obsolescence overtook the blacksmith, the weaver and many other tradesmen of the past. It is overtaking the cashier, the printer, and soon the short order cook. Many of my teacher colleagues are worried about the growing online education movement, and accountants, stock brokers, managers, salespeople and other "white collar" workers would do well to watch online developments in their fields. If we extrapolate this trend into the future, it might seem as if the exponential explosion of technology will soon make all human labor (and consequently, humans themselves) obsolete. But technology doesn't eliminate labor, it only changes the kind of labor that's in demand. The question is, will we let our machines out-compete us in the labor market of the future, or will we join them.

Every new technology: printing press, steam engine, locomotive, plane, or computer, eliminates the need for some form of human labor. The mere invention of a stocking-making machine in the late 1800's put 50,000 stocking knitters out of work. And for a more extreme example, the work being done by steam engines in 1887 was equivalent to that of 1 billion men. And yet, every time, though there is an initial shock of unemployment in the affected industries, the long-term result is usually more jobs. As for the English stocking knitters, Hazlitt writes that "before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least 100 men for every man it employed at the beginning of the century." And obviously the steam engine did not displace 1 billion workers. There were only a third as many alive on the Earth at the time.

There are a few reasons technology doesn't drive employment to zero. Rising population creates increasing demand, and while technology saves labor in one area, it often requires new labor in another. Steam engines require people to build them and mine the iron and coal, for example. But more importantly, labor is a natural outgrowth of human creativity and desire. If it were about meeting the basic needs of a static population, technology could, it seems to me, eliminate the need for human labor. But though human needs may be static, human desires are not, and as new technologies eliminate the need for old vocations, humans find new things to do.

Human productivity is like a tree. A new idea is a new bud, sprouting from a branch as resources and labor are brought into play, drawn up from branches, trunk, and roots below to fill a new niche in the canopy of the tree. And each new twig, at first costing labor and resources, eventually becomes part of a greater foundation, supporting further growth and exploration of the undiscovered potential of the universe. And just as the twigs and leaves multiply to fill endless new niches and expand the canopy upwards and outwards to catch the sunlight, so the ideas of humankind multiply without end. And so there can be no end to labor, because the the world of ideas is infinite.

But the nature labor changes, and this may be cause for some concern. Demand for hands, shoulders and backs decreases, and demand for computer programming and creative ideas increases. It is an evolutionary process, and it seems clear where it's headed. Automation, even artificial intelligence, supports the expansion of human activities, but what happens when computers can do every part of the process, from initial idea, to invention, development, and production, when our technology begins to compete with us in the canopy of the tree of ideas?

This coincides with the technological singularity, a concept made popular by inventor Ray Kurzweil, who believes it is coming soon. He bases his belief on the demonstrably exponential growth of technology over the last few centuries. Kurzweil predicts machines will rapidly exceed human intelligence, since they will be able to build new machines unconstrained by the limits of the organic human brain. Sci-fi? Maybe. Maybe it is simply impossible to equal the human mind. But science fiction has often become reality. It was not long ago we watched Captain Kirk open his "flip phone" to communicate with the Enterprise. And how far is it, really, from cleverbot (if you haven't played with, do it now) to a "human" computer, especially considering Moore's Law?

It seems to me this event could bring about one of three things:

1) Humans are out-competed by machines, just as the lower branches of the tree die off for want of sunlight as the tree grows taller. (Perhaps the machines would keep us as nice pets, or maybe we'd just go extinct.)

2) We merge with the machines, as Kurzweil predicts.

3) We destroy the machines in a Dune-style Butlerian Jihad.

As much as I sometimes envy the simple life of my black lab, and as fun as option 3 might be, I'm leaning toward option 2, since it seems to me it's already taking place, and it's not so bad so far. Calculators have changed the way we do math, and Google may already be changing our brains.  What's the difference if the technology physically moves inside our skulls. I admit, the idea of being part computer is a bit discomfiting, but does being human require that you not try to improve yourself? I think we can augment ourselves while retaining the essence of what it means to be human. And if that's what we need to do to survive in the market of the (near) future, then we adapt or we die, just like our ancestors did when they abandoned sticks for chipped stones and stones for iron, horses for cars and pencils for calculators.

Either way, the tree of technology grows ever on and on, expanding the realm of possibility. The only question is, will we be a part of it or not. And while this may seem like sci-fi speculation, these changes could be right around the corner: 2045, according to Kurzweil. I'll be 73. And right now, every day, we are faced with similar choices regarding technology. Compete or merge. Recoil from burger-flipping robots and self-checkout isles, or figure out how to carefully assimilate them. Shun calculators, GPS, cell phones, Kindles and the internet, or use them to augment our intelligence, intentionally and effectively, until they become a part of the trunk of a thriving, more successful, effective and fulfilled life.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A more open classroom

Photo by David Niblack
It's more open in the sense that the students have more freedom to choose assignments and modes of learning. It's open in the sense that they don't have to ask me to use the bathroom. It's open in the sense that they're free to use their cell phones. It is open in the sense that it is open-ended: What they learn is up to them. Their grades are up to them. At least, that's the idea.

I started doing it as a classroom management technique. I knew I need to change something. Last year didn't go as I would have liked. I had a hard time controlling my standard-college-prep-level sophomores. Many of them simply didn't care about atoms, cellular respiration, and DNA, and trying to "teach" them was like force-feeding medicine to a baby. No, it was worse than that, because they were not babies, but young adults, and many of them simply wouldn't (or couldn't) swallow it.

And to tell you the truth, I didn't blame them. I'm not being forced to learn anything I'm not interested in, nor do I wish to be. Nor do I remember most of what I was forced to learn in my first twelve years of schooling. I learn best when I choose what to learn and how to learn. And so do they. So that's what I'm trying to do for them--give them more freedom of choice, more ownership of their learning. And I think it's working.

For most assignments, they have four choices: one is an artistic or writing approach, one is hands-on, one is online, and one is textbook reading with worksheets. And sometimes the classroom absolutely beautiful--everyone focused, asking thoughtful questions, and working hard on different activities. For example, for our ATP lesson, I started with a brief lecture about ATP to introduce the concept, then they got to choose between four options: make a poster about ATP, make a model of ATP, make an online animation of ATP, or read a section in their text and complete a worksheet packet. The results were amazing. The online animations were fantastic, and one group made a working model that blew me away.


In general, they all work diligently on the assignments. Though there is a fair amount of socializing at times, I don't worry too much about it. My philosophy is  if they are not getting their work done, it will show in their grades, and I tell them so. And they have responded well to this responsibility.

I have taken a similar approach with my cell phone policy. If they choose to text instead of work or listen, it will show in their grades. If they are able to learn the material well, then why does it matter if they text during class? On the other hand, if they choose to neglect their work, then they should bear the consequences. I will try to persuade them to work, and I will help them overcome whatever it is that is holding them back, but I will not coerce them. That would rob them of the chance to learn to control themselves.

At times, I admit, my classroom may appear as (barely) controlled chaos, but things are not always what they seem: It is never really under my control, and I don't want it to be. I often feel as if I am riding a wave that could crash around me at any moment, but it is, I hope, a wave made of students' freedom and growing sense of responsibility.

If you would like to have a look at our Moodle site, just send me an email and I'll get you guest access.