Learning Tech

I learned electronics as a kid by messing around with old radios that were easy to tamper with because they were designed to be fixed.

Lee Felsesnsteinin The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

The story I tell about how I ended up working in information technology is about having a computer all my life as a child, breaking it, and most importantly knowing that I had to fix it before my parents found that I had. The typical takeaway is that I was intelligent, talented, etc. But, really that reveals the wrong assumption.

More correct takeaway is by this point in computer history, people designed computers to be fixed. The above quote suggests radios were initially custom built, which made them expensive to fix. To accomplish mass production, modular components make it easier to assemble but also as a side benefit easy to swap failed parts. Computers followed the same path but not only on the hardware side but the also software. Modularity to software is how we can patch, install new software, change settings, etc to fix issues.

Even today, I see people look appalled that smartphones can be successfully sold without an easy way for the owner to replace the battery or a microSD slot to add storage. We like to be able to fix our stuff. Maybe it is our Do-It-Yourself cultural biases at play.

Making things fixable lowers the bar to tinker with it. Tinkerability makes something more accessible to learn where, when, how, why it behaves the way it does. Those experiences in turn make a user self-taught into a power user and eventually into a computer administrator who really is just a power user given the keys to offlimits parts.

TED Talk: What we’re learning from online education

MOOCs are still the buzz in 2013. The best quote I have heard about them is that they replace an in-person class like Facebook replaces a social life. Of course, Facebook is my main social life….

I do sense a hope that MOOCs will replace a whole education or at least credits (think AP courses).

If the video below does not work, then try Daphne Koller: What we’re learning from online education.

Alternative to Blowing Up Schools

Bror Saxberg is a thought leader in the field of learning science, cognitive science and artificial intelligence. As the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, Inc., Bror is responsible for the research and development of innovative learning strategies, technologies and products across the Company’s full range of educational services offerings. He also oversees future developments and adoptions of innovative learning technologies and maintains consistent academic standards for Kaplan’s products and courses.

Saxberg goes through various myths about expert minds.

    1. You are the voice in your head. Most of “you” cannot talk–but it is very busy.
    2. Experts just know more “stuff”. Experts become pre-wired to process “stuff” fast.
    3. Talent drives success. Work drives “talent”; work drives success.

Experts subconsciously process vast amounts of data and quickly throw away the chaff. Only people incredibly passionate willing the spend the tedious amount of time to become an expert. “The question you have to ask is: why do you not have the passion to devote 10,000 hours to this?”

Building a better learning environment:

What if we did it better?

Better system characteristics:

    • Competency-based, not time based
    • One level’s success drives the next
    • Flexible schedules match complex lives
    • On-line and off-line tools in synch
    • At-home and in-school matching work
    • Practice and assessments merged
    • Data analytics and reports in place
    • Ties from researchers  to practitioners

I was really impressed he said practice is more important than assessment. Practice is how one refines skills.


Underground Back Channels

During first couple years at my first real job post-college, a friend of a friend would IM me questions about how to solve computer problems for which he could not figure out the answers. These requests started as me doing the work for him with dubious promises of doing the same for me. (I knew he’d gotten a job over his head and making 2.3x more than me. I also knew he did not know anything about my work and could not help me.) When I did not bite to do this, he shifted to giving him the answers and settled for all that I was willing to do: point him in the right direction. Having worked in a library, pointing patrons and friends in the right direction was something I was used to doing.

This conversation was not officially sanctioned by either of our employers. Neither of us told our bosses about these conversations. Was I leaking the intellectual capital of my employer? Was this friend of a friend leaking his employer’s intellectual capital to me? In any case, it would probably be considered an underground interaction. My boss at the time encouraged my professional participation on web technology email lists as helping others with my knowledge and experience gave me access to others who could do the same. The difference was the lists were sanctioned while the friend of a friend was not no matter how similar.

The Learning Black Market suggests students today use Facebook as a private back channel to classmates for pointers in the right direction on how to work on class assignments. They also secretly use Wikipedia despite it being forbidden as a source. When I was a student, the same sort of back channel activity for pointers would happen but face-to-face in the hallway was the preferred place not Facebook. Instead of Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica was the preferred first source. (Gosh, I am old.) Just like students today are told Wikipedia is not an allowable reference and not to ever use it yet they do anyway, EB was not an allowable reference and yet I saw my classmates using it to figure out terms that would help them find allowable references. Students today sometimes use Wikipedia for the same reason.

Educators want the students to take their time and deliberately work through the assignments the hard way so they learn the most through the process. Students want to get the assignment done in the least amount of time while still making a good grade. Educators lack the oversight to force students to behave except to detect plagiarism or cheating in the produced artifacts.

Because students are engaging in forbidden activity these conversations are underground. Well, the smart ones. Some are having these conversations on Twitter where one party of the conversation is not private and anyone (like a nosy DBA like myself) can see it. If they are used to quasi-cheating, does real cheating become easier? That might explain much of what I see.