Learning in hallways (with APIs)

November 18, 2012 | 4 comments

I can’t let Clay Shirky’s piece, Napster, Udacity and the Academy, go un-commented-on:

Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

You can – and should – read the whole piece here.

I completely agree with it, and I think that startups like Udacity will broadly be a good thing for the world. (Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this is a movement that OpenCourseWare started a long time ago.) Having said this, there are a few important tenets about learning that I think aren’t necessarily captured by the Udacity model.

  • There are different kinds of learners.
  • Learning with your peers is important to some people – and learning alone is important to others.
  • A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when it comes to education.

I went to public (state-funded) schools, and a public university. I can’t claim to have experienced the one-on-one education that you might receive at Harvard, for example. But it’s nonetheless true that education has traditionally been, at least a little bit, tailored; you could always go to your Director of Studies if you had a problem, or talk to your professor about substituting work or taking a different focus.

In the modern web age, by which I mean from about the iPhone onwards, we’re used to cookie-cuttering users. Everyone gets the same interface, in the same design, with the same content types, because that design is good, it’s efficient, and don’t you love good design anyway? We’re all supposed to write a certain way, consume a certain way, look a certain way.

Applying this principle to education will be disastrous.

There’s a lot wrong with education right now, particularly in countries like the United States and Britain, where class systems are enforced through high fees and barriers to entry. But in a knowledge economy, we should be emphasizing creativity and individual strengths, rather than attempting to make learners fit an ever more rigid, dehumanizing template. (We should be doing that with users of our applications too, of course.)

But as I said at the beginning, I don’t think this is a bad trend. It’s also an inevitable one. Educational content will be open, it will be delivered en masse, and you will be able to access it from anywhere in the world. It will be a great thing.

The trick is how you consume it.

You can use Udacity’s interface, if you like. But just as I have the freedom to take three classmates to the pub (I went to university in Britain, remember?) and talk over our notes there, I should have the freedom to take some of my classmates and discuss on Facebook, or a collaborative Google Drive space, or on some other custom platform.

And that’s where the technology focus becomes really interesting. Web applications have APIs: Application Programming Interfaces that let other applications talk to them programmatically. The same API approaches that allow people to build third-party Twitter apps or to sync Instagram with Facebook could allow people to take streams of learning from the learning service – let’s say Udacity – and pull them into the platforms of their choice. Other commercial applications, or freely-available open source projects, could take that learning and allow you to interact with it individually or in a group. And then you can use the app or method of your choice to submit your work back to be evaluated. And if everyone’s using the same APIs, then everyone benefits: learners get to pick and choose their courses, and the educational providers get to participate in an open marketplace that’s as big as the web.

In this model, the raw course is always the same. But suddenly there are a hundred thousand lenses that you can apply to it, so if you’re a visual learner, or a group learner, or a solitary text-based scholar, you can find the interaction method that appeals to you, pull in relevant third-party information and conversation to augment your learning, perhaps even talk to third-party tutors in other countries (or next door), and have a much deeper, richer, more personalized experience than you could ever have had before.

My worry with the new educational startups is that they’ll try and lock themselves down, in the way that Twitter and Facebook have locked themselves down. If, on the other hand, they can open up and embrace what the web really is, there’s the potential for a real revolution.

Access to free courses is a freedom of speech issue

October 19, 2012 | Leave a comment

ClassroomThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the State of Minnesota is requiring any degree-granting educational institution providing an online course to pay a registration fee:

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota. She said she did not know specifically whether letters had been sent to other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity, and officials there did not immediately respond to questions from The Chronicle.

Slate adds more detail about the purpose of the law:

State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it’s Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

This seems counter-intuitive to me. Accreditation is important; there are plenty of non-accredited degree scams out there. But banning a free course that carries no degree credits? I’m not a lawyer, but that appears to be a First Amendment violation. After all, that’s all a free course really is: expression. A sensible requirement might be for the courses to clearly say they don’t carry credit, in order to protect consumers, but an outright ban is fundamentally counter-productive.

Of course, there is likely to be a time when the Internet disrupts the institutional accreditation process, just as it’s disrupted many other gatekeeper processes. That will raise some serious issues: I think accreditation really is important to protect both students and employers, and I think it’s fair to say that many online course startups are positioning themselves in readiness for this change. Finding a way to protect the job market, students and educators will be important. But restricting access to information is never the answer – and particularly not here, where knowledge from traditionally expensive institutions is being made available to everybody.

Update: the Minnesotan Office of Higher Education has responded to the furore:

“When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances,” said Pogemiller [director of the Office]. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

There’s more over at the Washington Post.

Mission: Explore puts the fun back into checking in

April 16, 2012 | Leave a comment

For the past few years, my friend Helen Steer has been working with the Geography Collective on Mission: Explore, a new way to promote exploration and curiosity:

Mission:Explore is a game, but not as you know it. There are two aims to the game. One is to collect points and unlock rewards. The other is to experience the world in new ways by doing vitally important random and warped challenges. The more missions you do the more rewards you’ll unlock and the more fun you’ll have during your stay on planet Earth.

Mission: Explore’s web application is an inventive take on the geo-gamification meme we’ve seen for years with the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla. Rather than checking in with brands and getting offers, participants are encouraged to travel 100 metres without being seen or put on a show for a security camera controller. And of course, they get rewards and an endorphin rush for doing so.

Because the site’s mostly aimed at kids, there’s less community or real-time interaction than there could be – what if one of the missions was to join up with six other people and solve a puzzle or make a shape? – but I love the humanity of the intention behind it. And the execution is great, although I find myself wondering what it could be with Geoloqi‘s geofencing.

Mission: Explore offers bespoke challenges for private groups, as well as a dead tree version. It’s all been done with a lot of love, and is great fun – to the extent that I wish more adult geo-apps would take a leaf from its book. If I had kids I’d be all over it.

“What it means to be a school is now up for grabs.”

September 20, 2011 | Leave a comment


Education, for me, is still the most exciting field that open source is opening up. It’s a vital part of any civilized society, and so it seems right that the software that helps participants teach and learn should be open. I have no qualms about charging private institutions like Stanford, say, the six figure license fees that some educational software platforms demand – but for tax-funded institutions, these costs and restrictions are unethical. Even for moneyed institutions like Stanford, open source software has built-in feature advantages that commercial or SaaS packages can’t match.

The Tyee, a site covering British Columbia, discovers the movement:

It comes down to how we define public education. Open source advocates might say that all of the educational materials paid for by the public should be available to the public. Some, such as Stephen Downes might go as far as to say that all users of public education, including teachers, students and their parents, should be the ones in control of the entire network.

Well, quite. Education isn’t just another enterprise market. It’s one that all of our economies, livelihoods and lifestyles depend on. Far too important for a significant aspect of the process to be handed over to any one company and locked away in a proprietary system (particularly one that actively sues other vendors, doesn’t fix its own bugs in a timely fashion and charges dramatically over-the-odds fees for its services).

There’s still some work to be done on open source business models for education. People who write software need it to pay their bills for it to be a sustainable endeavor, and most teachers are too overworked to be building software themselves on the side. I think some upcoming server-side products will go some way towards fixing that, and make life easier for educators in the process.