My journey as a self-directed learner

At age 6 I learned to read. I read about dinosaurs from a set of children’s science and nature books. A small story about T-Rex was the first one I read all by myself. After that a steady flow of childhood interests varying from dinosaurs and astronomy to Egyptology ended up on my dedicated notebooks with drawings and notes.waldorfwork

Waldorf -high school really catered to any self directed learner in all classes and also in the final projects, that students could organize based on their interests. The projects can vary from building a rowboat,  to writing and printing a collection of poems. My final project ended up being a small study on literature on inheritable diseases and a mapping of the potential inheritable diseases in my family tree. During undergraduate studies self-directed learning as a habit was helpful as lectures were not always the most informative.

My development into a self directed learner was supported by my parents. They provided trips to museums once it became clear that amusement parks did not entice me or my brother. My dad even brought me a mummified field mouse he found and allowed me to study fox sperm under microscope at the fox farm. Taking into account student’s own interests and providing support for those interests in Waldorf -school really cultivated self-directed learning.

During Connected Courses -seminars the importance of mentors and modeling co-learning to students comes up often. To me this is the value higher education can give today and in the future. It is not about knowing the right people and being in the right place. It should be about being in a place that is right for you and with people who can support you, be it live or online. Educators will be balancing with giving the students support but also avoiding being the “camp counselors”.  The question now is, how do I support students, who have not had the support to become self directed, but have had all the encouragement to fit in a box labeled “admission to college”?


Gender equality in science

Originally from

Science is evaluated by it’s quality. At least that is the ideal. In reality, there are a lot of biases and inequalities in play. While exploring the topic in Connected Courses I stumbled upon a recent report on women in academic science. This report by Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams highlights the early educational experiences for girls in mathematical subjects as a cause for smaller number of women ending up in math intensive careers. Their researched showed very little or no bias in academic career paths like getting tenure between male and female applicants. And this prompted other scientists to critique their research methods. Ceci’s and Williams’ conclusions were questioned and the use of observational correlation data critiqued as it opposed other data collected in controlled experiments and cannot directly point to causes.

According to Ceci and Williams it seems that the skewing of academic workforce in mathematical fields starts very early. And according to other research, the attitudes towards women and girls in these fields has not been as supportive as it could be. This can be seen clearly in the case of Ben Barres. After his sex change, others attitudes changed drastically.

“By far,” Barres wrote, “the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect” than when he was a woman. “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.” (Washington Post, 2006)

Should women still work a little bit harder against the public opinion and social pressures to become engineers or mathematicians, if they so desire? I think not. While Ceci’s and Williams’ research show some decrease in discrimination based on sex in academia, I think they are quite right to point towards the earlier experiences as an opportunity for improvement. Together with improving working conditions and satisfaction of women at their math intense jobs, the general opinion of women’s abilities and suitability to these careers can become more welcoming.






Tools matter – daily drawing challenge

DC_ball I took part in doodling my way through the Connected Courses: Daily Connect art challenge. I chose power point as my tool and noted that it really affected what I chose to draw. I tended to use much more repetition than in physical drawing, but also explored the colors more. Despite the tools of the program including shapes, I actually used the free drawing tool the most. It seems to me, that use of computer chained me artistically.

NervesMaybe using drawing tablets with pen control are the way to go, to improve the creativity and range of artistry in my case. Still there is something to be said about having a physical product to hang on a wall after all your trouble. Maybe that is why my own appreciation of the doodles I made is not very high. I probably would have cared more about the art if it was in a physical form. When classes and projects move towards digitization and online products, we should keep in mind the importance of physical objects we create. It is a proof that we were there, we made something, and it takes space in the universe in a more solid way than a blog post, or a picture on line.




Do I really need a smart phone?

My phone is not smart. It is entirely functional. It is small and has the battery lasts for a week at a time. I can call, text, and take photos intermediate quality.

Hailing from Finland, the 90’s Nokia phones are the standard I compare all my phones. And I am not alone in this. While the drawbacks like short battery life, breakable screen, and high cost still deter me from investing in a smartphone, I am starting to feel that I should get one. Just to get by in the society.

Ability to constantly check work e-mails, take photos for your insurance claim, record video for a class project, and to fact check claims on-line would make life a bit more convenient. It would make the web more accessible to my every day life. While reading snippets from “War on Learning” by Liz Losh, I was relieved to see the third guideline for developing pedagogy in the digital world. Not forgetting the old technologies like paper and pen, glue, and markers as valuable and sometimes vital tools is an idea I like. I really cannot afford to buy a smartphone.

This dilemma with my finances in connection to smartphones always makes me think about the assumed privileges of the students. Can we really assume they all have fast internet access when they are at home? Does everyone have a smartphone? Does everyone have their own computer to install programs on? Are they comfortable or allowed to use the family data plan to research controversial issues?

The economic divide can wreak havoc on a student’s class performance. Even if there are ways to work around the lack of a smartphone, the advantage gained by having one can be tremendous. Setting students in unequal positions from the start is harmful for the whole learning community. If I was required to use a smartphone in one of my classes, I would drop it. No matter how interesting it could have been. Loss of students from a class this way limits diversity effectively. And this concept illustrates to me how discrimination, even the subtle kind, has huge effect on any class from the start.


Inclusiveness statements on organizations websites always seem so philosophical and poetic. Like a interior decorators plan designed to look pretty. Today’s inclusiveness and diversity statements should be something more serious. They should be more than just a standard slapped on a website.  Everyone should be able to take part in higher education despite not having the same privileges some of us have. Or indeed – smartphones.



The platform of web belongs to the people

After watching the documentary “Aaron Swartz Internet’s own boy” it seemed to me that the people in high power positions and in charge of law lag behind on the current internet culture. And it is not only internet culture, it is the whole atmosphere in society. For a while the interest of young people in politics and society was relatively low. As a young person it did not seem important at all to me. But today citizen activism is increasing in the form of organized protests and petitions online. Leaking of information and revealing government secrets in the public domain of the web, brought political activism to the living rooms and laptops of everyone.

It doesn’t matter if I think it is right or wrong to reveal those secrets. The world is changing drastically. Take for example the TV industry. Netflix will continue to affect the viewing habits of people. Even You Tube is making waves with community produced material and devoted following.Some highly successful innovators and entertainers with marketable products choose not to move their products to TV. Music business has also changed from selling full albums to dealing in single hit songs.

This new environment is sometimes unpredictable. To keep the web functioning and to keep the online community open, we need to understand how the web works. And hackers are experts in this. Framing all hacking as a negative and criminal action closes of valuable sources for learning. And the positive hacking needs to be open culture for everyone.

Information technology related fields are hugely male dominated and the visible hacker culture is saturated with powerful male operators. This got me interested in the women, who are experts and have the skills and drive to hack the web and the new technology platforms. My “make” for this week’s connected courses is a collection of texts and videos on women and hacking.

Web as a basic human right should have a built in responsibility of curation

Is web and access to web a basic human right like freedom from torture or the right to a fair trial? People seem to think so.  And my home country Finland was the first country to include it in the law in 2009. It does make a lot of sense when we consider the basic human right of freedom of speech. A special difference is the requirement of technology to achieve this right to be part of the web.

The screen capture above from BBC news is lovely, even if out of date, depiction of the spread of the internet. It shows how there is inequality in achievement of this human right. Joshua Goldstein addresses this gap in his blog post earlier this year. He referred to The Affordability Report by Alliance for Affordable Internet he co authored while writing about the access trap related to internet. The following quote really surprised me:

[ the majority of people for whom broadband is unaffordable live not in the poorest countries, but in larger (lower) middle-income countries with high income inequality]

To somewhat separate the issue of internet accessibility from raw country wide economics to internal economics and balances of the society, opens up discussion of inequality as a contributor to lack of human rights. If access to web is a human right, is the participation in the web communities a human right also?

This leads to us having a global civic duty to contribute and take part in the creation and curating on the web. And as a follow up of this we have a responsibility to curate with integrity. As journalists of our global human knowledge base , the web, we need to have integrity and kindness as Kim Jaxon underlined in this week’s Connected Courses webinar.

This is where the “nuggets” from larger texts or products come in. Delving into specific phrases of someone’s text and deriving more and/or different meaning out of the words is a form of curating and adding to the human knowledge and archive of the human experience. To do this well, increases connectedness and makes the web more interesting and informative place. Case in point for me was a “nugget” made by a fellow Connected Courses contributor. This little contribution by Brooke Lester turned out a large wake-up call and eye opener for me. It showed the massive potential connectedness of our contributions on the web.

The mentality of quality over quantity applies to web contributions and along with kindness in our actions could steer the web to a truly collaborative innovation space.

Nugget: Illusion of well-oiled machines and predictable serenity

We live in a world that works well if the pieces are stable and have predictable effects on one another. We think of complex institutions and organizations as being like well-oiled machines that work reliably and almost serenely so long as their subordinate pieces perform their designated tasks. –2002 David Weinberger “Small pieces loosely joined” preface

How world doesn't work - WORLD WORKS IF ALL IT'S LITTLE PARTS ARE STABLE AND PREDICTABLE LET ME GIVE YOU A WORLD FULL OF NO  Grumpy CatThis passage from Weinberg’s “Small pieces loosely joined” preface rubs me personally the wrong way. Our world is not predictable with stable pieces. And it would work awfully if it was.

This world is absolutely built on mistakes and cock-ups. It’s whole existence relies on the little things and big things that are inherently unstable and behave like drug addicts in a corn maze. There was never a time when all the pieces perfectly fit together. Your DNA is a fair example of this. Guess how evolution works? Mutations, mistakes in the genome, are the epitome of unpredictability.  Working “well” equals to serene nothingness and we are in fact entirely based on some well timed “oops..” and poorly managed biological processes. lungfish

And any organization depicted working serenely and perfectly is an illusion their marketing department want’s to project. Burrowing from Sean Plott’s duck metaphor: Secretly the whole operation is like a duck. On the surface of the pond the majestic animal glides forward. Under the water one of the legs is broken and farts power the forward motion. If everything worked perfectly, there would be nothing new invented again.

The beauty of the web is the incompleteness of it. It is never ready, there are parts that don’t work, unnecessary things cluttering servers, and people work on these problems in complete lack of structure and with non-standardized backgrounds. And together they make a magnificent creature that is a picture of our world: a bit of oops…, some wow!, and a bunch of fumbling people. And to me the web is a platypus still evolving to new directions due to a bit of a cock-up someone made. Let’s embrace the failures and mistakes as they are at the core of learning and evolving.



Can I really protect learners online? Or should they do it for themselves?

After reading Jonathan Worth’s “does my data show in this” and listening to the IT security expert Ben talk about our data being used for less charitable purposes by companies and individuals, I freaked out for a good while. How much responsibility am I really taking on when moving my class online? What is the real extent of my responsibility on student online behavior in the scope of the class?

I keep wondering if the prompts I could give for blogs, or the products of projects, like videos, are a safe way for the learners to express their enthusiasm or interest online. At first, I though my topic of immunology is quite safe to academically explore and apply to larger society problems without harming the learners. Then the worst case scenario popped to my mind as I was trying to figure out a Threat and Risk Assessment Matrix for a potential online student.

A learner from a family or social group strongly against modern medicine. A person who lives in an area where medications are worth ones life, or life of someone else. Learner who misunderstands key issues in their posts or videos and still wants to be a doctor. Suddenly the stakes are much higher. Would the online material be read by disapproving relatives, who start shunning the learner, who is now viewed as rebel and trouble maker? Will someone think the under privileged person has the medications they are talking about, and proceeds to violently rob them? Will the future doctor be denied a job, because 14 years ago they did not know how vaccination worked?

The truth is that I don’t know. Somehow allowing children to use internet and make permanent marks of themselves without any supervision, is not something all parents frown upon. It seems like allowing a 13-year-old to get a tattoo. Some are smart about it and leave a small mark. Sadly the few who go in with both feet and without their sense, can end up with a rude word on their forehead.

Just like teaching manners for offline world, manners for online world need to be emphasized. I find teacher’s responsibility increases in online world compared to the in-class teaching as anything learners produce is permanent on some level. The guardians and parents are in key position, as internet usage starts earlier than I ever expected in ones life. Especially when the personal dangers to individual learners can’t be fully known by teachers, it becomes important to increase awareness of the dangers at home and in the society at large, in addition to schools and universities.

Personally I lean towards creating a positive online presence and being very aware of the content we create, opposed to closing myself off from social media for example. However I can understand how one could perceive this as reckless behavior. To make everyone feel welcome in my classes, I need to find ways to keep students anonymous to an extent. Also spending time on online security in the beginning should pay off in the long run. Just mentioning, that posts online are forever and be smart, is not enough. We need proper examples and “right-here-right-now” advice on the technicalities of online security.

I would be very interested to hear how teachers can effectively make students aware of the dangers without it sounding like preaching…. Maybe some nifty activity could drive the point home most efficiently? Figuring this out is just too important for me to ignore.

Your life is not a scantron sheet

Last week I listened in on the online seminar by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the writers of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift. After reading Excellent sheep by William Deresiewicz, these books are a breath of sensibility. While Excellent Sheep is entertaining, it lacks the data driven conclusions Arum and Roksa are able to use. It was encouraging to hear, that academic rigor pays off in critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that are carried out to work life. But the lack of rigor in undergraduate education largely makes it a privilege of few. Educators are at the key positions to make academic rigor everyone’s right. The university as an institution should wholeheartedly support this.



Changes in assessment are one aspect we can change along with connecting education to life again. I don’t know how Scranton based systems would support this kind of rigor. I first encountered these mysterious coloring sheets as an exchange student and again when preparing to take the GRE. I did not learn anything from those exams unlike essay based exams I was used to.

Filling ones life like a Scantron sheet with shades of gray within strict lines is not an option anymore. Information is available to almost everyone with an internet connection. Possessing that same data inside ones head in pretty packages is nothing special or even useful. It is the creative application and the potential for going beyond what we already know, which are valuable. Changing the culture of institutions to favor rigor and offer more learners the privilege of understanding and thinking a better future, should be our priority in education.



Why do I want to teach?


When I thought about the reasons for teaching, learning, and working; I came to a surprising self discovery. All of my “whys” grows from my love for science. The attention to detail, diamond-like shapes of protein crystals (see above), the beauty of single molecules, and rhythm of biological processes. But the esthetics is not why I chose to stay with science. Despite a 6-year-long dry spell in publishable data and countless sleepless nights over failed experiments, it is the community of scientists and the impact scientific research can have on choices we make every day. Do I get the flu vaccine this year? Should I eat the yogurt with or with out active cultures? Should I go and see the doctor right now or wait and see?

The standard marketing speech to promote science courses and careers in science usually includes references to innovation and economy. Those are important reasons to support science in society. But for learners they are a tad impersonal. The justification to teach science in higher education, especially to learners leaning towards non-science majors, should be very personal. It should offer connections to their life right now. It is beyond me, why the connection has not been emphasized, as it was outlined by Alfred North Whitehead already in 1929…

My scientific life snap shots

My scientific life snap shots

I am training currently in the field of immunology. But my primary training is in biochemistry and protein biology. I have worked in structural biology to visualize proteins on atomic level. I have dabbled with virology. I prefer not to cage myself under a narrow field description. And any class I teach should not be caged that way either. That is why I have designed a class I would love to teach in the future. A class that combines biological sciences, journalism, and English. The class is called “Immunology and Society”. To put it extremely bluntly… Why learners should take this course and why this course was spawned in the first place, is to prevent anyone swallowing half truths and believing bull**** spouted at them.

So many choices today have huge impact on ourselves as well as on everyone surrounding us. There are several interest groups with their own agenda giving information and information from media sources can be confusing and contradictory. Understanding the connections between science and the choices, gives confidence in ones decisions. And confidence based on truth makes us brave. When we take fear out from learners, they can truly reach their potential in real life. I think this is what happened in Dr. Laude’s students, who were offered extra mentoring and support to help them fit into their university community, as reported in New York Times.

I want to free the learners from any major or society defined cages to make an impact of their own. Communicating learners discoveries in the “Immunology and Society” -class in the form of blogs, news letters, and tweets opens the connections learners have made to a larger audience. The lines between majors can be blurred even with simple tools like e-mail inquiries from learners to professors of majors not their own and video interviews made by students on the researchers on a campus or health care professionals in the area. To make this rewarding, a system for feedback is required and I am trying to figure out the best way to do that. The distribution of learners products via YouTube, blogs, and Twitter does lend itself for immediate feedback, given a public interest in the topics is strong enough.



Drawing yourself in a neat box as a human will hurt you. And letting other peoples ambitions to paint the walls of that box is just plain unhealthy. This concept was easy to understand in relation to choosing my style, my hobbies, and the people I connect with. With education the avoidance of boxes is still a struggle. When I chose to study biochemistry, I let the surrounding society affect me. The hype of bio business surged, and teachers and I agreed I was good at biology. So it was easy to follow the path.

Later the doubts kicked in. The bleak job market and increasing demands on academic researchers to finance their labs and function as secretaries and bank managers on top of research did a number on me. The re-evaluation of my why’s has been a long process. And it turned out my whys were just buried under stress. The idea of scientific community and impact it can have on choices society makes, were brewing as I experimented with dad’s crop samples and interviewed relatives for inheritable diseases study during high school.

Finding the personal why has guided me to graduate school and to connected courses. Making a difference by teaching in addition to research makes more of an impact for me, than either of them alone. The why of training scientists should not be only to boost a given country’s or person’s economy, or even make new innovations that lift the innovators to a pedestal for all to admire. This mindset can effectively separate scientists from surrounding society and further put different branches of science in their dreaded silos. Changing the way we dish out higher education can help prevent this.