A Reminder: What Your Students Do Is Hard

The most important thing I do as an edtecher is try to teach myself things outside my comfort zone. When you get into your thirties and forties (assuming you’re out of your PhD program) you get pretty ensconced in a discipline, and are able to leverage previous knowledge to acquire new related knowledge. This is a very different process from what novices go through, and it can warp your vision of what education should look like.

So this weekend I decided I wanted to take a few hours to understand cell division. So I got me a textbook, and here is a relatively random paragraph from the cell division chapter:

The key to progress past the restriction point is a protein called RB (retinoblastoma protein, named for a childhood cancer in which it was first discovered). RB normally inhibits the cell cycle. But when RB is phosphorylated by a protein kinase, it becomes inactive and no longer blocks the restriction point, and the cell progresses past G1 into S phase (Note the double negative here—a cell function happens because an inhibitor is inhibited! This phenomenon is rather common in the control of cellular metabolism.) The enzymes that catalyze RB phosphorylation are Cdk4 and Cdk2. So what is needed for a cell to pass the restriction point is the synthesis of cyclins D and E, which activate Cdk 4 and 2, which phosphorylate RB, which becomes inactivated.

This is an introductory textbook for a college class. If you are a biologist, that paragraph probably looks like this one does to edtech folks:

According to Anderson and Dron (2011), during this time, theories of learning have shifted from ‘cognitive-behaviourist’ to ‘social constructivist’ to ‘connectivist’ pedagogical models. A cognitive-behaviourist model sees learning as something that is ‘acquired’ through a sequence of linear stages leading to a predefined goal, with periodic reinforcement of learned constructs, knowledge and behaviour. Social constructivist models view learning that is directly affected by the student’s social environment, context and relationships (Greenhow et al, 2009). Students do not merely passively consume knowledge in an isolated manner; instead, students actively create and integrate this new knowledge with their existing knowledge.

And vice-versa for the biologist I suppose (though honestly the biologist would probably have an easier time).  We start to think that learning feels like it does in our discipline, when really it feels like reading a sentence like:

The enzymes that catalyze RB phosphorylation are Cdk4 and Cdk2. So what is needed for a cell to pass the restriction point is the synthesis of cyclins D and E, which activate Cdk 4 and 2, which phosphorylate RB, which becomes inactivated.

What are some mistakes we make based on this? The biggest one is we underestimate how important it is to know facts. You can’t read this sentence above because you didn’t read (or pay attention while reading) the earlier chapters, which talked about cyclins and phosphorylates.  And this issue — bootstrapping knowledge — is one of the pressing reasons why we need textbooks, references, and sequenced material.

When people say ludicrous things like “we don’t need to remember things any more because we have Google!” you can assume they haven’t tried to learn anything outside their domain for a long time.

The other thing this reminds me of is what I discussed yesterday — you need a frame of reference for this to be anything but goobledygook. But the problem with students (as opposed to experts) is they don’t really have a library of framing contexts to make this meaningful. This is one of the reasons why projects or thematic threads can really help comprehension. Again, using my interest in cancer, we look at a line like

The enzymes that catalyze RB phosphorylation are Cdk4 and Cdk2. So what is needed for a cell to pass the restriction point is the synthesis of cyclins D and E, which activate Cdk 4 and 2, which phosphorylate RB, which becomes inactivated.

And think huh, so does cancer involve increased Cdk4 and Cdk2? The thing about that question is maybe it does, and maybe they doesn’t, but the process of formulating that question and answering it gives me a frame in which the knowledge becomes sticky, and in which I’m pushed towards a deeper understanding.

In any case, this is really meant to encourage people who study learning to keep pushing yourself out of comfort zones. It’s only be remembering what it is like to struggle that you are going to be able to build environments that address that struggle.

Prism: A Proposal for a Choral Approach to OER

If you’ve read Choral Explanations, you know that I’ve proposed a new (well, as much as anything is ever new) approach to OER use and production that is based on trends in both wiki and question and answer sites. (If  you haven’t read Choral Explanations, you can read it here).

In the time since I wrote that piece, I’ve kept coming back to it. And the more I look at it, the more I see a simple yet powerful idea at the center of it. I could be wrong, but I’m starting to feel there’s a huge opportunity here that is ripe for the taking. And unlike other stuff I’ve worked on (Wikity, federated wiki) it’s not that hard to build software around it. This post is going to attempt to outline how such software might work, and how it could dramatically change how we approach OER.

Grandiose enough? 😉

Choral Explanations

Those who have not read Choral Explanations should go read it; this article assumes you have. But for those who have already read it (and those who will ignore this warning anyway) here’s the quick review of what I proposed in that piece.

In general, the way we often think of resources in a class is that we want to select the perfect piece to explain a concept to our students. So an OER provisioning process looks something like:

  • Identify course goals, objectives, assessments
  • Use course goals etc., to determine necessary content
  • Find best piece of open content for each content need
  • Sew these OER together in LMS or other software, sand down rough edges, publish.

What this misses is that people are often helped by having multiple explanations of concepts and issues available to them. The trend, for example, in question and answer sites over the last six years has been towards something I call (with a nod to Ward Cunningham) “the chorus”. These modern Q&A sites are based on the idea that there may be better and worse answers for individuals but we benefit when we have access to a wide range of explanations and examples, because the explanation that may work for someone else may not work for someone else. (I cover this issue explicitly in my e-Literate piece We Have Personalization Backwards).

Again, this is meant only as a recap. Please read Choral Explanations for more detail on this. (In particular, you’ll need to understand what separates choral approaches from traditional forum approaches).

OER and the Chorus

I have an expansive, mind-bending idea of where these efforts could go. But I want to tone it down to show you how simple Choral OER could be. Because really, it wouldn’t be hard at all. (Thanks to Lumen’s Bracken Mosbacker, who talked with me over Twitter DM last night, for talking me down in scale).

So imagine we create a Q&A style website that is designed around some simple question types:

  • What are some reasons why understanding Thing X is important?
  • What are some examples of Thing X in action?
  • What problems does Thing X solve?
  • What are some Y’s associated with Thing X?
  • What do we still not know about Thing X?

So given something like “unconscious bias” in a sociology of race module:

  • What are some of the reasons understanding unconscious bias is important?
  • What are some prominent or common examples of unconscious bias having negative effects?
  • What do we still not know about unconscious bias?

Multiple teachers take a stab at these, and they use the “choral” pattern we discusssed in Choral Explanations. So “what are some examples” might have five short posts under it, where a variety of teachers describe examples:

  • One discusses recent findings in hiring patterns.
  • Another describes a situation in Iowa schools where 98% of teachers are white, and white teachers are found to push black students less forcefully to excel.
  • A third recalls a story in the Gladwell book “Blink” where a cop makes a split second decision and shoots an unarmed man. It’s later shown that cops think a fraction of a second less before pulling the trigger on black suspects than they do on whites — even if the officer is black herself.

You can link directly to these questions from your course, or spend a fun day answering them (I’m not being sarcastic — these sorts of things are fun if you like the subject; much more fun than writing a textbook!).

In my dream world, sites like this start becoming the protoplasm out of which OER gets made, by both students and teachers. But here’s where Bracken thoughtfully slows me down — how could we leverage existing OER to build this community in a smaller way?

Choral Sidebars

Here’s a simpler case.

Take a textbook on Biology. Let’s take a chapter on mitosis, since I realized yesterday I know stunningly little about mitosis, and tried to learn a bit more. Here’s a textbook page from Lumen’s online version of OpenStax’s Introductory Biology text:


OK, lets mock this up a bit. Let’s replace the media link with something we’ll call “Insights and Perspectives”, which links to our imaginary software product “Prism”:


When you click one of these links as a student, you get the choral explanation. Each explanation is a different route to understanding, complete in itself, but along with the other explanations forms a sort of 360 degree view of the question.

For instance, here’s some entries on Why Mitosis Matters, which I’ve mocked up based on a simplified version of Quora’s design, shamelessly rebranded (we’re just going for general effect here).


This is a quick mockup, but you see how it works. Instuctors (and perhaps students eventually as well) answer these questions, but not in wiki form. Instead, the array of answers provides multiple ways into the material for the student.

These explanations are rated up by other answer authors (for accuracy) and by students (for usefulness). The ideal answer is accurate and useful to students, but the rating there only changes the position of the question in the scroll.

I think this example, although contrived, starts to show the sort of areas this approach could excel. While I was trying to learn mitosis yesterday night, I was just zoning out as I read it (much like a student). I didn’t have a route in, a way to connect previous knowledge to new knowledge to make the slog easier or more engaging.

I found these two examples gave me a way in. Chemotherapy, because I lost my father to cancer a number of years back now, and I remember what those drugs did to him, and I couldn’t stop wondering why they couldn’t make a drug that didn’t make you nauseous or lose your hair, and make you such a shell of your former self in your last days. And it turns out the answer is not quite “Oh, well the drug is poisoning you but poisoning the cancer faster.” which is what everybody tells you. It turns out a much more precise answer deals with mitosis.

So one reason why we want to understand mitosis better is we could make drugs that work better or make people suffer less.

Another thing I found engaging was the issue of Alzheimer’s. I actually don’t have personal experience with Alzhiemer’s, apart from a great aunt who died when I was young. But I’m a bit of a political junkie, and I remember the whole stem cell debate and its relation to abortion. And I remember Nancy Reagan, based on Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease, came out for supporting stem cell research.

Well, why is that so important for Alzheimer’s?  It turns out that nerve cells are “amitotic”: they don’t undergo mitosis. And they don’t even have the machinery to do so — they are missing the centrioles that would begin the process of pulling a single cell into two cells. So when your neurons get damaged, whether as part of a mental disease such as Alzheimer’s or an injury that takes away the feeling in your hand, nerves don’t grow back. This is different from when you cut your finger and you get new skin, for example.

Stem cells are important because they can divide, multiply and turn into new nerve cells. That fact connects into my previous political interest and knowledge.

So these two examples are perfect for me, but the idea would be there would be a dozen other examples that might not be. I just look through them as a student until I find the one that really sticks.

There’s little things here we could borrow from Quora and other Q&A sites. Real names. Micro-biographies that attempt to answer the question “Why should you trust me?” View counts to remind contributors of how much their answer has helped students or been reused by professors in their courses.

Instructor/Author View

Instructor/Author view would be a bit different. Here’s how it might work.

The instructor gets the book with these links in it. They click through to the link and look at the examples. But because they have an account, if they don’t like the examples or have a better one they are asked to contribute it:


If you want to add your answer, you click there and add it.


This starts to get instructors and students contributing to open textbooks without having to edit the main narrative of the text. When editing the main narrative of the text, the many voices can sound incoherent, with Prism, the many voices and perspectives becomes a strength. And with the process of supplementing the text in this way made this easy, we might finally begin to up the rates of profs extending and remixing OER.

Sustainability Model?

Sustainability with projects that are about fostering a commons is always hard. They don’t call it “The Tragedy of the Commons” for nothing. So what I propose here is meant to be a pass at how this might be sustained, and I’m hoping people might have better ideas as well.

To my way of thinking, the instructor piece gives us a possible business model. All text on Prism would be CC-BY. Use of Prism would be free.

But instructors might want to write answers that they don’t share with the general public, but just with their class. Or they might want to customize the answers their students see. Or perhaps they’d want to see the answers that their particular students found most helpful. A small per class charge for these features, even if it was paid for by only a fraction of those using it, could finance the operation of the central site, just as those on GitHub wishing for private repositories subsidize the activities of those using open repositories.

You’d probably also have to put some poison pills in the architecture, functionality, or governance of the site so that you’d be sure the company or foundation running it would not pull a Flat World Knowledge on everybody. But if you could make sure that the content on it would always be free and forkable, it could eventually also become the OER protoplasm site I dream of, where you say “What are the questions we need to answer with content in this course?”, upload them to the site, and watch as hundreds of teachers and students from across the country slowly build your course for you.

Failing that?

You could try to do this through a consortium/association, such as AASCU or AAU. I haven’t seen this  sort of thing work yet, but one could try.

Another approach might be for a university to build and maintain this, with enough grant funding or consortial support that people would believe that the project would be safe from the vicissitudes of university budgeting.

Finally, why not a state government in the U.S. (or a country or province elsewhere)? There are actually a number of funded OER initiatives that could attempt to pin a service like this on. There’s the freeloader problem, but it’s probably far cheaper to open your doors and let the world write your textbooks than fund them yourself. In a recent study of WSU we found that eliminating textbooks from our top 7 freshmen-enrolled classes would save our students something like $1 million a semester. Across all of Washington, of course, the savings would be much higher. Surely even a sliver of this money could support such a site?

But for now, we don’t even need a huge plan or a huge site. We need a relatively simple site, plugged into existing OER, and managed by a government, non-profit or ethical corporation, just to see if this can work. Can we all build this please?






Superpowers Take Time


So I’ve been doing this Wikity thing for a while now. I use it as a personal learning environment.

When I learn something new, I try to capture it and connect it. This usually comes in stages. First, I’ll just capture some text, usually with the Wik-it bookmark (but sometimes with “Share to WordPress” when I’m on my phone).

Here’s something I was reading at lunch about salt, arguing that low salt diets were as bad for you as high salt diets.


So I think of a name. The name is just a handle, like a variable name for an idea. Importantly, it’s not the name of the article I pull it from, but the name of the idea I’m pulling. (Multiple ideas might come from a single article).

The idea here, or the pattern, is this response curve to salt. If you eat barely any salt, you have an increased risk of coronary issues. But if you eat a lot of salt, your risk increases too. Statistical patterns like this are often called “J-curves” because when they are plotted on line graphs, they often make a “leaning J”, like so.


I call this “Salt J-Curve” and post it to Wikity.

There’s a lot to just that process, in terms of learning. I’ve found the right paragraphs (I choose ones here that are less opinionated than the conclusion), I’ve given it a name. It takes maybe 30 seconds, but it’s an engaged thirty seconds.

I decide to improve the article. I add the graph and an introductory line. “Both low-salt and high-salt diets are correlated with increased mortality.”

Again, a small one minute thing, but the process of summarizing what the excerpt says in a sentence further solidifies my understanding. I hit back space a number of times before I get it right.


Finally, it’s connection time. As people familiar with the process know, rather than writing a judgment on the card, you try to find connections you can make to other cards.

Here’s a mockup I made of the card format a while ago: at the bottom you show connections to other cards (and explain the connection). I used to call these “references” but the point is the same. You must connect your new knowledge to your existing knowledge web.


Anatomy of a Wikity Card: Title, Abstract, Treatment, Related Cards and Pages

So back to salt. I need some references, and I know that J-curves are also associated with alcohol consumption. A drink a night is correlated with benefit, whereas both many drinks and no drinks tend to co-occur with bad health effects. I search on alcohol, with a vague memory of a card I wrote on those curves. (UPDATE: Responding to Kate’s comment, a lot of time I have no memory of any cards, in which case I just plug in related terms and see what comes up).

So I search “alcohol”.


Hmmm. So here’s an issue.

I’ll see if I can explain it to you here. My “Abstainer Bias” alcohol card reminds me that the J-curve in alcohol is thought (by some) to be a result of the fact that abstainers are a very different population than infrequent drinkers. If you take a population that has a drink a week and one that has a drink a night they are going to be roughly comparable population. But _zero_ drinks, now that’s a special number. People doing zero drinks in our culture are generally doing zero drinks for a reason. It might be religious reasons. It might be health reasons. It might be they’re a former alcoholic. It might be that at an advanced age, they don’t handle it well any more.

So that curve in alcohol is likely not a cause-effect curve telling you to drink “just the right amount of alcohol” to get in the alcohol Goldilocks zone, it’s probably a normal dose-response curve where each bit of more alcohol = just slightly more death, no matter how much you drink. We know this, because if we take out people that abstain from alcohol entirely, the J-curve goes away.

This happens in my head in about three seconds, by the way. “Oh, right, abstainer bias!”

So if I want to make a link from Salt J-Curve to Abstainer Bias, what would it say? Can salt have an abstainer bias too? Let’s look at the chart again.


This is just a guess, or the fragment of an idea, but where would you expect people with high blood pressure to be? Well, I’d expect them to be two places on this graph. I’d expect the people with very high sodium intake to be have a lot of cases based on cause/effect.


But I’d also expect a lot of people with heart conditions and high blood pressure to be abstaining from salt, and would assume they cluster at the bottom.

So I write up a link at the bottom. “The J-curve here may be just another example of [[Abstainer Bias]]” and link to the card.

This process, beginning to end takes about 3-5 minutes. I’ve done it hundreds of times since November, and now have a library of stuff which produces neat connections about half the time I use it. It took a long time to get here, a lot of work, but I am not kidding when I say it’s a superpower. Or as I said to David Wiley a while back, “My main pitch for this thing is this — it’s made me smarter. A *lot* smarter.”

It does that by forcing me to suspend my reaction to things until I’ve summarized them and connected them to previous knowledge. It forces me to confront contradictions between new knowledge and previous knowledge, and see unexpected parallels across multiple domains. It forces me to constantly review, rehearse, revise, and update old knowledge.

What do other social media solutions do? They allow you to comment on it, to share it. They ask you to react immediately, preferably with a quick opinion. They push you to always look at the new — never connect or revisit the old. They treat your reaction — your feelings about the thing — as the center of your media universe.

Can any of this be good for learning? For empathy? For innovation?

Of course, doing it this Wikity way takes time. The more you put in your library, the more useful it gets, the more it feels — honestly– like a superpower. But I don’t know how to market that to a culture used to gratification on day one, I really don’t. And I don’t know how to explain the benefits of a product that generates insights that are complex, not simple. It’s a puzzle.

What I do know is that it continually teaches me surprising things, and forces me to question my judgment. As long as it’s doing that, I guess I have to keep trying to explain it.