Nov 9 2010

Jim Shelton – Slate Evening on 21st Century Classrooms

At an event in DC last night put on by Slate, Hive, and Coca-Cola, Jim Shelton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, spoke on the opening panel.  One of the things he said was so striking to me I had to repost it in whole, as best I could reconstruct from my notes. This is my loose transcription, not his exact words, but the point remains just as strong, I hope:

“With or without schools, students are learning all the time.  They may not be learning what we want them to learn, but they are learning all the time and are very good at it.  They are establishing collaborative learning groups of their peers.  They are using a variety of learning formats, technology, and physical spaces.  They are taking on projects to develop their competencies.  They are establishing complex learning communities and hierarchies of expertise based on each individual’s areas of greatest interest.  Especially when it comes to using technology, they are already teaching each other and their teachers, much more than the other way around.

“The students that stick with the system do so because they understand that school is still the only place where they can get the one thing they believe they need, which is a credential.  If they can find a way to get a strong enough credential elsewhere for what they want to do in life, then you might see a lot more students checking out.”


Nov 8 2010

Drumbeat 2010, and the nature of education

In addition to all of the great individual interactions I had at the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival this week, there were also some themes that resonated throughout every conversation. I am still traveling for the moment, so a more detailed recap of the (amazing) conference is forthcoming.  In the meantime, consider these thoughts about the nature of education that are still buzzing in my head.  Do any of these connect with your experience?

1) Learning is about experiences, not just school!  We should recognize, nurture, and reward that.

2) Learning should be able to be represented in a universal way in order to highlight your experiences and competencies – whether they are accredited by someone else or not!  The dynamic value of each “badge” is based on the evidence/accreditor behind earning it, and the value placed on it by the eye of a particular beholder (potential employer, community, self, etc.).

3) Learning takes a fine balance between individual drive and social support/collaboration.  Let’s not forget the latter, in the push to build more technologically savvy tools for educating ourselves and others.

Social network wall

Photo by Samuel Huron


Nov 1 2010

Night Train heading to Barcelona for Drumbeat Festival!

Today, I head off on a great adventure to the land of los toros y jamón for a sure-to-be amazing conference called the Drumbeat Festival, put on by the great folks at Mozilla.

Alan and I have been working on developing a great new project for small group, face-to-face, peer-to-peer learning to help students develop core skills and knowledge for social innovation and changemaking, which is a project incubated by AshokaU (more).  So we are looking forward to meeting other participants, especially in the P2PU community, and getting to work on the following topics.

Open Learning Accreditation:

  • How to represent success…badges!
    • The festival has an entire “space” and series of sessions dedicated to creating, storing, and highlighting a person’s achievements through badges.  We plan to be there to help get these efforts off the ground and are particularly interested in discussing online badges that can be triggered by offline activities.
    • Of particular interest: Examining the history of badges, and what makes them work, in the session: “Badges, badges, everywhere!”, and helping start a badge framework for the open web in “Badges, learning and online identity” and “Who needs a degree, when you can have a drawer full of badges?!?”.
  • How to get schools and companies (en masse) interested in recognizing credentials from open learning:
    • Alan and I started the Living Transcript project because we felt that we needed to start building the platform that the next wave of open learners, past the first round of intrinsically motivated early adopters, will be motivated to use.  These learners are likely to be incentivized by clear mechanisms to use credential earned through open learning (e.g. merit badges and certificates) to open up immediate opportunities, such as getting into the right college, finding their next job, or winning funding for their projects or further education pursuits.
    • The Living Transcript tool is a badge/skill/experience platform, and job board, that addresses both a learner’s need to better manage their experiences and capabilities, and a company or school’s need to drill down deeper into an applicant’s skill set and competencies.  Since the tool is built with the open web and open accreditation in mind, it becomes easier to sell these ideas to both parties that may have initially signed up simply for the efficiencies offered.  In this sense, we see it as an Open Education Trojan horse.
    • We believe that once schools and organizations begin acknowledging the value of knowledge gained from non-traditional sources, learners will immediately become more incentivized to participate in these mediums.  We want to hear from companies/schools who are already accepting credentials from these sorts of courses, as well as organizations and people who are working on this problem from the same angle as us.
    • A few sessions of interest here: “Translating skills into badges” and “Storming the Grade Book”, though this general theme of how to pragmatically bring open education to the masses will be a theme that we bring up throughout the festival.

Local Learning Incubator:

  • The core intent of The Change School is to build an efficient and effective learning framework across the world that leverages world class open educational content through the use of local, small-group, peer-led study circles.  We want to see who else is working in the open web world that sees the benefits of these in-person, social interactions, how they’re doing, and where we can collaborate together.
    • One session in particular stands out in this area: “Citizen Identities and Neighborhood Literacies for Open Learning” which wants to put the focus on local engagement with open education.
  • Libraries – we all have fond memories, but in today’s digital world, many are being under-utilized.  We’re interested in transforming libraries from a “building with books” to a community gathering place focused on the needs of open learners and active citizens
    • “Rethink Reading and Remake Libraries” is a session that we hope hits on not only bringing digital materials into libraries, but also rethinking the framework and purpose of libraries as a whole.

Other Interests:

  • Hear about the future of the P2PU platform – we used it for our education class this Fall and although there were a few hiccups, we really believe in the vision they are pursuing.
  • Check in on the open content and open textbook world – Alan and I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this subject early on, but soon realized that there were a lot of people already doing a great job of increasing access to open learning materials.
    • It will be interesting to see what the open content folks view as their next big movement in the session “Content and then? The next big thing…”.
  • Get involved in one of the sessions in the Webcraft Toolshed – how to create a clear, engaging learning network for people interested in participating in the open web.
  • Stop by one of the open video sessions to learn about how educators are creating and using video.  We would be curious to see if anyone else is working on concepts like Digital Study Hall in other parts of the world.  This is an area for me that I’m particularly green behind the ears – but what would an education conference be without learning opportunities!
  • I have a soft spot in my heart for robots, gadgets, hacked-in-1-day web apps and the like and am looking forward to seeing what crazy inventions the guys and gals will be working on in the hackerspace!

These are just a few of the ideas and sessions that will be at the Drumbeat Festival.  I have a feeling that it will be one of those conferences where it’s literally impossible to make it to all the different things you’d like to see / be a part of.  I can’t wait to meet all the amazing people in the open education space that are paving the way for change, to hear about their innovative projects, and to brainstorm ways to collaborate with one another going forward.

If you’re at the conference, please say hello – I’ll be the guy in VFFs!  For everyone else, I’ll do my best to tweet updates of what I’m up to @jeffthink.

Hasta pronto!


Feb 22 2010

What did you learn today?

“You would do almost anything if you thought you could learn something from it, wouldn’t you?” someone once asked my father.  He recounts that question (which is really a statement) as one of his greatest complements ever.  And, for what it’s worth, he also raised me.  There could be no truer words to lead off the first blog post of Night Train Consulting.

The journey of Night Train Consulting from September 2009 through February 2010 has been about learning more than it has been about anything else.  It was certainly not about getting rich (it took us four months to become profitable).  In a famous slip of speech, Jeff once told Liz, his wife, “Alan and I decided our goal is to not make money.” (he meant to say that we decided that making money would not be our primary goal).  It was not even about getting work, either.  There were opportunities from which we walked away because the learning value was not as great as the contract value.  More than anything, the question which we asked of every potential opportunity was “how much do we expect to learn from this?”

This is partially selfish; Jeff and I really enjoy learning.  Our other main project at the moment is the Third Arena project, which, as it happens, is also all about learning.  It is more focused on what we are doing to help increase learning opportunities for others in their day-to-day lives.

But learning is also critical to our strategy for survival as a company.  We are not the same company we initially conceived on day one.  We will not be the same company six months from now that we are today.  And it is nearly impossible to imagine what kind of company we will be in six years.  For that reason alone, even if there were no others, we choose to put learning above all else.  This blog is about synthesizing that learning process for ourselves, and maybe passing on some useful tips to you as well.

We hope you will not treat our musings as knowledge for downloading, to be read and deposited into a bank account of information in your brain.  We are only offering seeds that might save you a bad experience (with a webhosting service such as, for example) or might inspire you to go off and have a great experience of your own.  It is only from those experiences, and from the conversations you have with people in and around them, from which true knowledge can be gained.

So what is the biggest lesson from the first four months?  There are many, but here is the most important one so far:

No matter how much you research a topic, you will never, ever, know everything happening in that area.  This is especially true for anyone attempting to be “innovative” “outside of the box” or “ahead of the curve.”  Assume that everything you slaved to uncover represents only a small fraction of what is actually out there.  Assume that your brilliant idea is being thought of by 10 other people right now.  And what are the odds that 1 of them is better funded, better connected, or better able to execute than you?  Go ahead and assume this is the case and adjust accordingly.  We’ll write more about what “adjust accordingly” means, but, mostly, this means that we think you should engage in lots of open conversation from the very beginning of your project, whenever you embark upon doing something which you imagine to be “innovative.”

I’ll leave you with a sufi poem which was read this weekend at the Ashoka Campus Changemakers Retreat by Edgar Cahn, founder of Time Bank, and so much else.  Like my dad’s favorite quote, it sums up nicely the first four months of Night Train Consulting, if not the lives of most people:

“I asked for widsom
And God gave me problems to solve

I asked for strength
And God gave me difficult situations to face

I asked for courage
And God gave me danger to overcome

I asked for love
And God gave me troubled people to help

I asked for favors
And God gave me opportunities to work hard

I received nothing I wanted.
I received everything I needed.

~ Swami Vivekananda