Learning in a wisdom economy

Elementary school robotics challenge
Elementary school robotics challenge, by Candace Wright

I have been involved with learning media for over 30 years, from promoting American public television programs, to producing learning resources for school districts and regional non-profit organizations, to communicating innovations in research and academics within higher education.

For me, this is the most exciting time of all to be working in this field, as creative technologies are beginning to allow students to pursue their interests, learn at their own pace, and connect with other learners, anywhere, anytime.

I am excited for my 9-year-old daughter, growing up in these fascinating times. For her, knowledge is at her fingertips, her interests are becoming a primary frame for learning both in school and out, and she is making connections between her everyday life and the generations of learners who have discovered these paths before us.

Like all parents and children, we are navigating through a new set of digital citizenship skills that are helping us thrive. With that opportunity, however, comes responsibility, and we are learning, and relearning, how to live in this new world safely, everyday.

Although we can now easily access knowledge and integrate it into our lives, what really matters is how we make choices based on that knowledge. We’ve moved from an information- and knowledge-based economy toward a wisdom economy, where every decision, small and large, is based on a deeper awareness of connections between people, places, and ideas.

Life itself is the ultimate interdisciplinary classroom.

Reflecting on the tapestry of small-town life

Some years back, Julia Alarez wrote an ode to living in small towns and to the sorrow of losing acquaintances: neighbors, friends, storekeepers, doctors.

In a small town … we don’t just make quick, specialized appearances in each other’s lives. For better or worse, we get to know people in a fuller way. The owner of the orchard where we pick apples is also our doctor, and the local bartender fixes our bicycle chain when it slips out on a country road.

This is good for all our characters, I think, for the flawed person we see in one situation can suddenly surprise us by a small act of kindness or thoughtfulness in another encounter. Small towns give us second chances, and third and fourth ones, too. [Source]

Once or twice a week, I spend early mornings in our town’s natural-food-and-free-wireless coffee shop working on project planning and correspondence. Over the months, I’ve gotten to know a few regulars — folks who work nearby, retired professors, college students — and listened to bits of stories about their lives and what’s important to them.

Over the past month, I’ve been busy on a project and haven’t gotten into town very often, so this morning, when I noticed I hadn’t seen one of the regulars, I asked where he was. “Oh, Gustavo. I’m sorry to let you know he died in his sleep several weeks ago.”

All of my thoughts — about what needed to get done this morning, about my pending deadlines, about the beautiful day I was looking forward to — evaporated completely. Someone I’d known, not as a friend, but certainly well enough to know his life story and what had brought him here … he was gone.

How could I not have known? I read the local paper every day. How did I miss his obituary? Have I been that busy? Did he mean more to me that I’d thought? Had I taken his presence for granted?

I found the obituary and tributes online — please read about this good man — and there they were, in black and white: the stories he’d told us. I haven’t wept in public for a long time. This morning, I did.

I could write about the art collection he curated at home and the beloved pieces he chose to sell at Cabot Antiques. I could share his frustration with the insulated, disconnected culture of middle-America, and its affect on our children as well as people around the world. I could tell you about his continuing struggle to get treatment for his asthma and sinus infections as a person dependent on the threadbare safety net for our elders. I could tell about his plans to sign up for yet another trip to some corner of the world that would be new to him.

Instead, I’ll quote this passage about his engagement with the world, both nearby and far beyond us.

made the coffee shop in the Tontine Mall his own Madrid cafe and met there nearly every day with a circle of friends, exchanging ideas and arguing issues. He supported various causes, local, national and international. But he was also a man who loved exploration away from Maine.

His youthful energy belied his advancing years. He was full of curiosity about life and interested in what was going on in the world. His friends and family followed his world travels to China, South American and Europe through post cards and pictures. [Source]

I sit, looking around the cafe, imagining the loss of any of those with whom I’ve chatted, no matter how briefly, or of those with whom I’ve shared just a warm smile and hello. As I return to my daily routine, I vow to consider each and every one of those moments with more respect, deserving of my full attention, with both friends and with strangers.

I’ll hope I can carry that feeling with me. I think all I’ll need to do is remember Gustavo.

A month inside walled gardens

For some time, I’ve been concerned about the loss of creative work inside corporate social networks, so I’ve avoided posting unique text or images into Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

I didn’t want to give away my rights — give away a part of myself — every time I posted in a walled garden. Besides, the manic  stream of trivia whizzes by without much opportunity for contemplation. That’s not social media, it’s oversocial media.

Of course, simply autoposting my microblog content on those services missed opportunities for interaction. So I thought I’d see if thoughtful conversation was possible inside the walled gardens, and whether I could archive those discussions outside on the open Web. About a month ago, I decided to conduct an experiment.

Starting October 22, I began carefully reading the streams, looking for opportunities for meaningful discussion. I checked my TMI filter at the door. I came across some pretty spectacular emotional train wrecks and a few too many updates about cats-in-boxes.

However, I did find people who were willing to take time to craft thoughtful responses and sustain conversation threads. I soon got into some interesting discussions about the election, education, and politics (a few excerpts will follow), and it was really fun and stimulating.

Since I spent a good bit of time crafting well-considered prose, I tried to find software that would capture and preserve my words outside the corporate walls. I didn’t have much luck, except with one attempt: after Twitter deleted 3 years of my entries — and then brought them back (which I discovered was not uncommon) — I did find a PHP script to archive my tweets. However, for Facebook, I had to go old-school: I copied and pasted my comments into Open Office.

Now the month is over. I’m glad Facebook and Twitter sparked my interest in threaded discussions, and I enjoyed participating. However, that content would have been lost — locked up forever in a space where I could not protect it — if I hadn’t worked to save it.

At the beginning of my experiment, I responded to Wired’s debate about the open Web and the closed Web, and, last week, I read Tim Berners-Lee’s case for openness and transparency. I know that the proprietary world of Apple apps and the preferred-bandwidth model of commercial ISPs is more lucrative. I know the pendulum spirals between “information wants to be free” and “information want to be expensive” and I think we come out at a more expansive level most of the time. It’s just that the exclusionary approach makes me nervous.

There was, however, an important side effect from my experiment. While paying more attention to the social media stream, I fully reorganized my Twitter lists to capture my recent research on the idea and experience of learning.

I know the pendulum spirals between “information wants to be free” and “information want to be expensive” and I think we come out at a more expansive level most of the time. It’s just that the exclusionary approach makes me nervous. It still does.

I’d been asking: What is learning, really? What are the powerful ideas and approaches that inspire teachers and students? What can I, myself, learn to bring into my role as a father and as a volunteer in a 2nd-grade public school classroom … a classroom of students who will soon enough be part of the high school class of 2020 and the Elderhostel cohort of 2070? (Or, as Stewart Brand would have it, 02070.)

I followed the tweets of Maine’s first TEDxDirigo held in early October. Through the event’s lead organizer, Adam Burk, I found a multiple-author blog about learning and education called Cooperative Catalyst. I read the passionate posts of  people who have been developing and testing and reconsidering their approaches to learning and education for years. They are mentors, teachers, and learners in the best sense.

So, this was actually the highlight of my experiment. Twitter helped me find an organic collective of caring, intelligent people posting and commenting on a WordPress blog. The stream still works best as a pointing mechanism, but I found the meaningful, valuable space … elsewhere.

Now … I wonder what next month will bring.

Excerpts from the experiment

So, here’s some of what I wrote last month inside the walled gardens. (Just so I don’t lose it.) Unfortunately, I do not have the right to republish both sides of these conversations … and perhaps, really, not my own, either! Let’s just say I’m saving this writing for scholarly research.

Facebook – October 22

Twentieth-century marketing used fear — reinforced insecurity and fear of “others” — and mixed it with a deliberate obfuscation of true risk assessment to get attention to sell product, and 24-hour news programming only exists to fill the space between the commercials.

One sign of hope is that programmed-TV-channel viewership continues to go down for younger people. Do you think college students have more tuned hype filters these days? Are they more skeptical? Looking for research …

Facebook – October 22

I’m starting to feel as if I am in a parallel universe: by the time I learn about the scream-of-the-day (from the echo-chamber land of mass media), the hubbub has already died down.

On the one hand, I am relieved to not waste my energy on unimportant trivia. On the other hand, I feel as if I’ve missed out on something: those water-cooler moments. In the old days, they called it the lowest-common-denominator.

With no programmed TV service (broadcast, cable, satellite) in our house, though, I still feel connected, especially with Hulu and Netflix. But am I experiencing the world in a different way than the breaking-news afficianados? From a civic point of view, is this positive or negative?

Incidentally, I also began an experiment one month ago to participate more in the walled gardens of Facebook and Twitter — in conversations like this one — to see if such dialog was possible, and what I was losing by committing my words to proprietary, corporate social media.

I’m writing a summary, and posting what I wrote in a blog entry, and I hope you’ll give me permission to post both sides of this one…

Chronicle of Higher Education – November 4

Of course, education is more than just a commodity or service relationship.

However, if business and marketing are evolving to focus on all types of mutually-satisfactory exchanges between people, then we need more sophisticated ways to evaluate success in the exchange of knowledge and experience between our schools and our students.

Are we creating valuable, meaningful, and authentic experiences through our whole offering? Experiences that will resonate for a lifetime? Experiences worth the cost of admission?

I think Gilmore & Pine on Authenticity is worth a look …

Facebook – November 4

Evolution continues to crush black-and-white perspectives. They just can’t be sustained, and the last gasp of a failing world view is the loudest just before dying away. “Do not go gentle into that good night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The world is becoming more complex and interrelated, and fear of the unknown devolves to binary thinking: “you’re with us or agin’ us”, “you were born in some other country”, “it’s all a conspiracy,” “they’re out to control us.” We saw such thinking on all sides this time, including vilification of the “Tea Party.”

But evolution continues to crush black-and-white perspectives. They just can’t be sustained, and the last gasp of a failing world view is the loudest just before dying away. “Do not go gentle into that good night. … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Thomas Frank’s book focused on the midwest, one of the most recent regions to succumb to the fear of “otherness.” If we seek to understand and recognize that fear, we can avoid the same hell.

On Cooperative Catalyst – November 3

Thanks to you and your partners, Adam, for bringing TEDxDirigo to life. I agree that introductions to great ideas, coming from the thinkers themselves, can be a significant addition to education at all levels.

Last summer, Fast Company ran an interesting article on that topic by Anya Kamenetz, author of D.I.Y.U.

The responses were informative. I was especially taken with a comment from Open Culture — which I consider to be one of the best curators of free educational videos from around the Web.

They wrote: “Will watching 18 minute lectures – ones that barely scratch the surface of an expert’s knowledge – really teach you much? And when the 18 minutes are over, will the experts stick around and help you become a critical thinker, which is the main undertaking of the modern university after all?”

That gets back to your proposal, as well as the Innovation Lab in Loveland, Colorado. Once a mind is sparked by video presentations of engaging insights, how do we turn that enthusiasm into sustained critical thinking? How do we teach and model techniques for discarding 99% of the trivial information that crosses the oversocial media threshold and for selecting the most meaningful interactions, virtual and in person?

You are right: it’s not about quantitative standards. But effective lifelong learning certainly does require teachers, mentors, task-masters to show us how to develop and use discriminating reason to pay attention to what’s worthwhile.

Fred Sheahan – November 9

The fields of traditional education and online learning are on a collision course, and I think you’re right: one of the greatest sources of friction is the different pace of each.

Although titles are valuable in providing a context for the work, in a field that is changing as quickly as ours, the responsibilities and the titles will change rapidly, too. At the same time, the slower pace of structural change in educational institutions can prevent the nimble decision-making required in this new environment.

The governance process for online communications at a school — from marketing and engagement, to learning and business processes — is an excellent indicator of whether the school is ready to seize the opportunities.

Find out how institutional strategy and online communications are aligned, and how decisions are made, short-term and long-term. Who are the executive sponsors? To what degree are advisors able to advocate for their own constituencies and also understand and support the overall institutional values and identity.

But don’t worry much about the titles themselves. They’ll be different in 6 months.

Fred Sheahan – November 19

Regardless of whether we are “digital natives” or “digital immigrants,” some people are more comfortable with exposing their self-identities publicly than others. I don’t think age matters that much.

I’d like to suggest that we are hard-wired to be social to some degree and hard-wired to be solo to some degree, depending on the individual and the influence of the surrounding culture. Regardless of whether we are “digital natives” or “digital immigrants,” some people are more comfortable with exposing their self-identities publicly than others. (Some prefer contemplation in life over amassing Twitter followers.) I don’t think age matters that much; these traits are, I believe, deeper personality-based preferences.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote about that dance between public and private spaces in New York.  Just as we benefit from those clear distinctions in the real world, so, too, are such boundaries important in our virtual lives. For example, I think the presence of a private virtual space right next to a public space is an apt application of the “creepy treehouse” effect.

However, having grown up in a medium-sized town where you were always seen and being seen, I can certainly remember feeling like I was in a fishbowl and wanting the freedom of urban anonymity. After that exploration, though, I realized what was missing, and chose to return to small city life and the expectation of responsibility that comes along with being seen by people you know all the time. (A friend of my uncle described that experience in an article she wrote about him some time back.)

With the Internet, we have made effortless the ability to try out new identities online without having to go urban, and such virtual promiscuity comes with little cost. Trustworthiness cannot be easily judged. Even “real-name” profiles can’t always be evaluated: “Is that person really who s/he says?” Multiple identities are easily juggled. I think the only real way to verify that an online profile matches a real person is to meet them in meatspace.

I’m not sure that online services are really ready to provide a real small-town experience. Imagine this: a social network that brings together people with very different beliefs, forces them to interact randomly, imposes severe consequences when they behave outside the norm, and makes it very difficult to leave. Some would choose to participate. Many would grow into stronger, yet more compassionate people. Unfortunately, I suspect most would prefer the online echo chambers of self-selected beliefs and believers. Much easier.

But, they might watch for the vicarious thrill.

Into the liminal: an ode to autumn

This afternoon, the wind whipped the leaves into wispy funnels that danced out around the woodpile and up the back hill, inviting us to come out.

L. and I loaded the wood stove for our return, and then went up behind the house to start wrapping up the past year. L. picked up the bamboo shoots she’d harvested with E. to make a fort under the lilac bushes. I put away the slip-n-slide sprinkler and hose from our big August party, and collected the croquet hoops from the girls’ game day last month. (The badminton net stays for a few more late-autumn matches, though.)

I’d already selected two saplings — an oak and an aspen — up on Friendship Hill to transplant to the side hill, which we’ve stopped mowing. Even though they’d lost many of their leaves, there was evidence of a new year in buds hidden away on the branches. The sun appeared through the dark clouds for just a couple of minutes as I tucked the tap roots down into the new soil I’d prepared for them.

I’ve always felt comfortable in the liminal, at the edge between fall and winter, between loss and renewal, as life flows back underground awaiting the next growing season.

I’ve always felt comfortable in the liminal, at the edge between fall and winter, between loss and renewal, as life flows back underground awaiting the next growing season. It’s my season — the season I was born in — and I thrive in what others feel is an empty space. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I recently enjoyed watching a drama celebrating the natural ebb and flow in a small island community a ferry-ride away from Seoul. “Thank You” starts with the end of one life and the last scene, after 20 hours of narrative, hints at something important just emerging. The entire series is about the space between. Here in the U.S., we seem to avoid endings — even avoid thinking about them! — so natural re-emergence gets stuck in the muck. It felt good to see three generations, urban and rural, navigate through death and life.

The first time L. saw something that had died was during kindergarten. A blue jay, recently deceased, was lying in the grass. She asked about it, and asked me to bury it with her. We brought it back to the pine woods up on the esker and, moving aside the soft needles, found a resting place for it. L. said she didn’t want to forget where it was, so we made a small sign, “Thank you for being part of our woods,” which still marks the place where we’ve buried the birds and mice that have made brief appearances in our lives. She’d learned, from us and at school, that everything eventually returns to the soil.

As I was refilling the empty holes up on the hill, thinking of the saplings adjusting to their new homes, I realized I’d also been reading about the liminal lately: William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives (thank you Art and Polly), Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, Krishnamurti’s Think on These Things. I’ve always found myself between what has been and what could better be — on both sides of that unnatural boundary between avocation and vocation — but I feel less lonely in that role now than I did 20 years ago. Indeed, the wave of change is now well tended and the next phase already moving toward the mainstream.

But it is still challenging to embrace the season of evaluation, discriminating between which ideas should be nurtured and which left behind. After each outward arc of exploration and possibility, this is a season of judgement, and in a culture of innovation and collaboration, embracing creative destruction and opposing consumerism is certainly not mainstream. I don’t have to stake my new claim yet, though. It’s just too soon to know which of these ideas will thrive; they still have to get through the short days of a New England winter.  I’ll nurture them and keep them safe from predators for a few more months.

As I was finishing my transplanting and pruning, I went inside, and L. had already started baking her favorite sponge cake with fruit icing. Now that she is able to cook herself, she only asked for some help putting the pan into the oven. I had to let go of that wonderful feeling of working together through every step: she’s now a 7-year-old, and proud to do it herself, thank you.

But she does notice my sorrow at losing the little girl, even as I’m excited about the new self that is emerging every day. She looks at me and asks, “Daddy are you crying?” I say yes, and let her know how I can be happy and sad at the same time, as today becomes yesterday and then yesterday becomes history. Later, she gives me a big piece of paper, with big letters, “Daddy, this is how much I love you,” and a heart that stretches to every corner of the page.

This was a year of many such losses, small and large, yet the most healthy buds of next year’s healthy growth are right there, ready to emerge, just waiting.

What will be the killer app for curation?

From Jer Thorp via Flickr Creative Commons

The process of curation — sifting through the abundance of knowledge about a topic and making decisions about what is most meaningful — is rapidly becoming a core skill, whether one is in Academia or not.

Just as Web 1.0 (publishing) and Web 2.0 (connecting) reached a threshold where they became part of the basic online experience, so too can curation. Web 1.0 had Blogger, Web 2.0 had Facebook. Web 3.0 has had “Liking” on Facebook and WordPress (and the Google Buzz concept), I wonder where the killer app that pushes curation into the cultural mainstream will come from.

The Web is dead, long live the webs

By Dimitry B. via Flickr Creative Commons

In response to N.J. Smythe’s insightful commentary: If The Web is Really Dead, What Have We Lost?

My view of evolution is that we circle round the extremes and return at a more expansive, inclusive space, integrating what came before. This goes for the evolution of media, too.

In television, we may have 500 channels, but several programs are still water-cooler experiences, albeit of a higher-common-demoninator than the top 10 of 1970. The same goes with magazines. Just as diversity divides without common ground and unity becomes uniformity without multiple perspectives, so, too, will new online ecosystems — open and proprietary — facilitate the very experiences we need as humans.

So, while we may have moved beyond the first-generation excitement of the Wild, Wild Web, the social needs it satisfied will still push online experiences forward.

I believe the next Web — Web 3.0, the “Live” Web — will still provide open spaces where we will be challenged with new ideas, because that’s what human learning and development demand. It will also provide the echo chambers we choose when we want to be validated by others with our own opinions.

Some define the Web as “www” and “http.” I think the Web is more like the noosphere that Teilhard de Chardin envisioned 50 years ago: a place where our collective knowledge and insight (and, I’d add, natural systems captured through sensors) will live organically all around us.

The One and the Many drive media evolution. Those with the ability to tell the universal story — and also ground it in the personal and individual — will dance across boundaries and make meaning that resonates throughout our communities.