DIYbio and Authentic Learning

“Kay’s dad has got recessive gene that she may have, she doesn’t know if she has it has it, so she is genotyping that gene in herself in her closet, and she’s going to figure out if she has it….”

If you are thinking of doing some authentic instruction in biology, you MUST, repeat, MUST watch this video on DIYbio and the biohacking movement.

The DIYbio Community – Presented at Ignite Boston 5 (2009) from mac cowell on Vimeo.

I cannot imagine a more compelling way to engage the future biologists of the world than to show them this video and to encourage them to come up with their own projects (or to join up with someone else’s project). The “standard” approach to biology (first, memorize some stuff, then do some lab work that has been done one million times before and check your results against the key, then maybe by senior year do some original research) weeds out many of the exact people biology needs — hackers, creative types, problem solvers. While it might seem that biohacking and institutional education are incompatible, this is by design, not definition. And we can change the design. After all, that’s what hackers do, right?

On a related note I came across this while putting together the instructional design sourcebook. I’ll talk about the sourcebook more later — it’s a project based on my belief that teachers need a browsable resource that ties networked learning pedagogies to specific classes, organized by discipline (I know for us that might sound ridiculous, but thee is some discipline tunnel vision holding us back, we can either deny it or address it, and denying it is not working). I am desperately in need of some innovative instructors in the sciences who can provide me with syllabi of innovative courses, or descriptions of unique net-enabled, student centered processes or techniques they are using. Please mail me at mcaulfield at keene dot edu. I’d be including them in this beast I am assembling for our faculty.

Cooperation, not Collaboration

Downes makes the point repeatedly that we talk too much about collaboration (which is something new technology allows us to do better) and not enough about cooperation (which is something the network allows us to do for the first time on this unprecedented scale).

The neat thing about cooperation is that if you can structure a solution to a problem as a cooperative one rather than a collaborative one you can solve very big problems in a very short amount of time — because at it’s best, cooperation requires simply that you do what you normally do, but in a way that allows cooperation. Which is why I will be watching this project closely:

If you’re a lawyer, and you use the crazy-outmoded PACER system to access federal court documents, check out the new RECAP system launched today by Tim Lee, Harlan Yu, and Steve Schultze with the help of Princeton’s CITP. If you use PACER, you know it’s difficult to use. It also charges citizens to access what are nominally public documents, something that makes little sense online. This combination has resulted in a multi-million dollar surplus for the judiciary’s IT department, and lousy access to data that would be useful not just to lawyers and litigants, but to bloggers, librarians, reporters, and scholars.

Schultze, Lee, and Yu’s scheme to free the documents on PACER is an ingenious one. They have built a Firefox plugin called RECAP that attorneys and other regular users of PACER can install on their computers. When a user downloads a document from PACER, the plugin sends a copy to RECAP’s server, where it is made publicly available. If enough PACER users install RECAP, it will only be a matter of time before the entire database is liberated. Why would lawyers participate? When they search for a document, the plugin first checks the RECAP database to see if a copy has already been liberated. If it has, then the lawyer can retreive it without paying PACER. Like I said: ingenious.

I think we have to teach our students to think about problems in this way. It’s a shame that the one area where students have solved problems in this cooperative way, through music file-sharing, has been criminalized. But that just makes it more urgent that we introduce kids to the legitimacy of the cooperative approach.

We are still just at the beginning of understanding what can be accomplished in cooperative frameworks. So one question for any instructional designer has to be whether we not only encourage students to develop collaborative frameworks, but cooperative ones as well. That starts with defaulting to open solutions, providing RSS, using open licensing, etc., but as the above example shows one can go even further in designing such approaches. And the potential impact graduating hundreds of thousands of students who understand how to think in this way — well, it’s huge. It’s the sort of thinking that could likely solve global warming, famine, income disparities — you name it.

(Side note: Is it just me, or is it enraging to think that the actions of the record companies are likely reducing our ability to solve problems that are core to the continued existence of our species — just because Billy Ray Cyrus needs his royalties for Achy Breaky Heart?)

If anyone has any good examples of encouraging cooperative thinking in a project-based class (beyond a general predilection to openness), please let me know, either through the comments or email to caulfield dot mike at gmail.

Blood of Tyrants

We scoff at the ancestor worship of other cultures, and consider divine right and kingship and all that stuff to be anti-American. So can someone explain to me why we will endure any kind of nuttery if it is tied to something one of our Founding Fathers once said?

Case in point — at the town hall Obama will be at in New Hampshire today, there is a right-wing freak with a pistol strapped by his side and a big sign that references the Jefferson quote “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This quote he is so endeared with is not a public statement of Jefferson — it’s a comment on the Shay’s Rebellion made in a letter to a friend in 1787. From a pre-Reign of Terror Jefferson.

In other words, take away the Founding Fathers as Gods myth, and it’s just something some guy said to a friend, something that he may not have even believed a couple years later.

And once you realize that, guess what? It turns out you’re guy bringing a pistol to an Obama event with a sign that seems to be calling for Obama’s assassination. That doesn’t make you a hero, and at best it makes you a dick. At best.

Productivity As Quality As Well As Quantity

Just a short follow up to the last post — when we talk about efficiency or productivity in education, I know that eyes roll and someone usually starts composing a rant about how kids aren’t items on an assembly line and the point isn’t to push out twice as many in half the time.

This misses the point that productivity is value neutral. It’s an increase in capacity that can be used to do more things at the same level of quality, or do the same amount of things at a higher level of quality.

Given the current funding constraints on higher education, you can’t be for quality education and against looking for ways to increase productivity, at least productivity in the sense of finding more efficient uses of limited time and physical resources. If I read the cost disease theory right (and I may not be), without productivity gains a product is either going to have to cost more over time or be produced at a lesser level of quality. And the time where we could continuously charge more for our product is about to end.

Colleges and Bloat

I couldn’t get at the Chronicle article “College Administrations Are Too Bloated? Compared With What?” from home (no login here),  so I read the paper it looks like it may have been based on instead.

It’s well worth a look — it articulates what I think many of us knew but could not express — that college is expensive because it is structured as a service industry, and the rise of college prices relative to the rest of the economy is actually in line with how all other labor-intensive service industries have tracked. And it introduces an explanation which is apparently well-known to economists, but is new to me — cost disease theory. In cost disease theory, gains in productivity in industries benefiting from technological and process enhancements adversely affect costs in service industries, where there are no such gains — both types of industries compete for the same pool of workers, and the rising wages in the industries experiencing productivity gains force wages in the service industries upward — even in the absence of productivity gains.

There’s really only two solutions to this, according to the authors. The first is not really a solution per se — it is to see the situation rather like a haircut or a musical concert — you cannot significantly increase productivity associated with the delivery of the service. You’re just going to have to lump the costs. The second is to reconfigure the process of delivery and achieve productivity gains.

But the key point here is that if you do not achieve productivity gains, costs will not remain stable — they will rise.

[One interesting note — I probably could have written this in half the time if I could have blockquoted some text from the paper to explain the above concept. But the PDF is locked against copy and paste. If you want to explain why higher education is doomed when it comes to productivity, closed processes like that might make a good start.]

Techno-Utopians Please Take Note

Please discard from your pitch:

  • Tom Friedman world-is-flatism
  • Kurzweilian Singularities
  • Prenskyan Digital Nativism
  • Dot-commer “Marginal cost of zero” talk

And please replace it all with this simple observation by Tom Hoffman:

I don’t understand why “computers can make it easier to do the difficult, sophisticated things we’ve been trying to do for years” is a less appealing, or at least less used, argument than “New! Disruptive! Etc.”

(Feel free to suggest additions to the discard list).

To promote the progress of science and useful arts

There’s a great post over at Zeroday — a project to have a mob of us ask, politely, via twitter, what the artists cited in the Sony v. Tenebaum decision think of it. In other words, there are 17 bands or so Joel Tenenbaum was cited for downloading. The plan is to get a comment from each band on what they think of the $675,000 fine.

As part of that activity he’s posted a spreadsheet of the bands Joel was sued over. And excuse me if I don’t get a whiff of must off of it:

Nine Inch Nails
Green Day
Janis Joplin
The Rolling Stones
Pink Floyd
Simon & Garfunkel
Elliot Smith
The Kinks
Unity Reggae Band
Creedence Clearwater Revival

Put aside the irony that Reznor released his last work for free, and the most idiotic thing about the list is how old the works must have been (assuming Joel wasn’t listening to that hot new CCR record).

Most of this music has to be thirty to forty years old. A lot of the people that made it are dead. (How long do the record companies feel they are entitled to make a living off of Janis Joplin & Elliot Smith?)

In other words, the list tells us the same thing that crappy radio does — the plan of the record companies has always been to make a living off the short-tail back catalog, first by forcing everyone to rebuy old albums on CD, and then hopefully by selling more of it to a whole new generation.