Monthly Archives: March 2013

Maybe “Recursive” isn’t a bad word after all

So I nearly wrote an entry last week wondering whether recursive worked relative to anything at all other than tricks on the order of animated gifs. Because, really, does anything ever really coincide with itself like that? Whenever you get back to where you started, neither you nor the start are the same. A bit like Heraclitus (you can’t step in the same river twice, he said, supposedly).

But then when we were asked to come up with a Metaphor of our Own (you’ve read that Forster novel, right?), mine was Dream Machine. It was an immedia machine which means that there would be no media mediating between brainwave and Dream Machine (DM) simulation of the brilliant poem, scherzo, or water color in my head. So a species of immediatism, just in case you’re a fan of early Hakim Bey. Unlike the dynabook and the iPad where you’re always putzing around with some plastic and glass and software algorithms to translate your conception into their midwifed birthing of a not-quite-your-conception.

Which means I recursed upon our earlier reading by Ted Nelson by coinciding (ok, well, stealing) with his book title. Though I was dreaming something different than his Xanadu of parallel textfaces. So while not recursion, exactly, or is that properly, perhaps it was a recursing of the perennial human tendency to project our frustrations onto a machine that would relieve them by fulfilling their thwarted desires.

Which would suggest that our fascination for what’s normally meant by "recursion" may be in fact an attempt to coincide with ourselves rather than drift forever in Heraclitian, Derridean self-difference. File under fool’s errands.

Truth is, I don’t want my kind of Dream Machine. It would be too much like a hypercompetitive parent or older brother who did all your ideas better than you could. Who needs that kind of grief, especially at my age?

Give me a pretty interface and a program that doesn’t crash and does maybe 60% of what I want it to. That’s about right for a midweek evening.

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Personal Dynamic Media

The assigned reading for today’s New Media Seminar is entitled “Personal Dynamic Media,” written by Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg in 1977 (two years after I was born). In this article, Kay and Goldberg look to the future and describe with remarkable accuracy the various components and capabilities of the modern day personal computer, including several ideas that have yet to be fully realized. After reading the article, I visited the Innovation Space at VT to find a quiet place to write this entry (only to find it was buzzing with activity in a good way) and to see if I could be inspired to think about what “future” new media might look like. It’s always surprising how a new environment can provide inspiration.

In parallel with this week’s seminar, I am hosting several colleagues from IITK, who are visiting VT for the second meeting of the IITK-VT partnership. A primary objective of our week-long meeting is to identify transformative research opportunities around the notion of sustainable infrastructure systems.


VT and IITK faculty in VT’s School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in Alexandria

As I think in the Innovation Space, the worlds of the New Media Seminar and the IITK-VT partnership begin to collide. One question that emerges is what would a future technology platform look like that enables the design of sustainable infrastructure services in the US and India? What would be transformative about this platform from a technological and social perspective? I’m also left wondering how communities (including children) could be enabled by the technology platform rather than excluded from the learning process. I have several ideas about how to address these questions, but they need a little more finessing before being discussed here.

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Intuition: Use, Agency, Invitation

You’ve seen the ad copy. I have too. The hard sell for the soft, gentle learning curve promised for a new device is that the device is “intuitive.” That is, the device is easy to use because you can make the device do what you want because the interface design helpfully indicates how to operate the device. You want to save a file? Click on the icon. Of course, in MS Word (and MS Office generally) the icon is a floppy disk. One used to save files on floppy disks. They used to look like that, too–the 3.5 inch not-floppy diskette. Yes, this is getting complicated already. Let’s stop the cascade by admitting that “intuitive” means “familiar,” and that “familiar” itself is more of a moving target than we’d like to think. And there’s a Gordian knot for another time. (Recommended reading: “The Paradox of the Active User,” a major addition to my intellectual armamentarium courtesy of Ben Hanrahan, a wonderful student in last year’s “Cognition, Learning, and the Internet” course.)

So let’s move on. “Intuition” (home of the intuitive) can mean something much deeper than “I bet that’s how I can do that.” It can mean “I bet this device ought to be able to do that.” In “Personal Dynamic Media,” Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg tell the story of one such intuitionist:

One young girl, who had never programmed before, decided that a pointing device ought to let her draw on the [computer] screen.

This kind of intuition is a creative intuition that isn’t about “ease of use” or “I bet I already know how to do that.” It’s an educated guess, a contextual surmise, and a leap of faith. Note the fascinating language in this description. She decided (moment of agency and commitment) that a pointing device ought to let her. This kind of intuition is something like the belief in “Mathgod” that Douglas Hofstadter describes so winsomely in Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. It’s also (no coincidence) what Jon Udell keeps talking about when he talks about how people “don’t have intuitions” about the World Wide Web. To connect Kay-Goldberg with Udell, to have intuitions about the Web would be to decide that the Web (and the Internet that supports it) ought to let one do this or that–meaning, “given what this system is and what it supports, this thing I imagine or invent should be possible.” Note that you have to know something about what kind of a thing, or network, or web you’re working with. Indeed. But note also that the paranoia, hebephrenia, or catatonia induced by the many double-binds that formal schooling presents to learners are responses that pretty much guarantee that such intuitions will simply not develop. Try to imagine an entering class vigorously discussing among themselves “given the mission statement of our university, this thing I imagine or would like to invent with regard to my own learning ought to be possible. Feel your brain cramping in both hemispheres? Do students read mission statements? If they did, would they seek to shape their learning in terms of it? Do the structures we build to support what we say we intend, we value, we desire, actually stimulate any such activity? Exactly. Learners in formal schooling are not very likely, most of the time, to decide that school ought to let one do this or that related to learning. And if they try to make such a decision, based on such an intuition, they are often hammered back into line. Not always, but often. And any such repression is too much.

But here’s the third level, and it comes next in “Personal Dynamic Media”

She then built a sketching tool without ever seeing ours…. She constantly embellished it with new features including a menu for brushes selected by pointing. She later wrote a program for building tangram designs.

This level of intuition is the invitationist level. This intuition is an intuition not so much about the device per se but about the learning context, an ecosystem of device, peers, teachers, etc. Kay and Goldberg praise the young girl for building her own sketching tool “without ever seeing ours.” Another teacher might have said “did you do your homework? Did you consult the manual? Did you follow directions?” These are often important questions, but they miss the most powerful intuition engine of all: the invitation.

In “The Loss of the Creature,” an essay that articulates the paradox of the active learner with haunting precision, Walker Percy writes about the recovery of being, by which he means the recovery of the person as well as the recovery of the person’s experience. He believes both person and experience to be lost to “packages” which we simply “consume” with an ever-increasing anxiety that our consumption be certified as genuine by others. Worse yet, we become increasingly numb to our consumption, unaware that our souls are rotting from the inside out. As Kierkegaard observes and Percy reminds us, the worst despair is not even to know one is living without hope. No surface receiving our “cognition prints.” No mark of our learning or inquiry or existence left behind. We do not even think to ask.

Toward the end of the essay, Percy tells a story about two modes of experience, a story of music and being:

One remembers the scene in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter where the girl hides in the bushes to hear the Capehart in the big house play Beethoven. Perhaps she was the lucky one after all. Think of the unhappy souls inside, who see the record, worry about scratches, and most of all worry about whether they are getting it, whether they are bona fide music lovers. What is the best way to hear Beethoven: sitting in a proper silence around the Capehart or eavesdropping from an azalea bush?

However it may come about, we notice two traits of the second situation: (1) an openness of the thing before one–instead of being an exercise to be learned according to an approved mode, it is a garden of delight which beckons to one; (2) a sovereignty of the knower–instead of being a consumer of a prepared experience, I am a sovereign wayfarer, a wanderer in the neighborhood of being who stumbles into the garden.

A big house with a Capehart that looks like a casket ready for an embalmed Beethoven and his embalmed listeners. Or: a sovereign wayfarer in the neighborhood of being, and a garden of delight which beckons to one.

We need to work on our beckoning. Beckoning is what Bakhtin calls addressivity: the quality of turning to someone. From design to cohort to community and everywhere in between, especially in the schools that face our present times and equip us to invent our futures: how can we work on our invitations?

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Has the power of digital processing made us boring?

In the reading Personal Dynamic Media, two things struck me: 1)  “Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea.” and 2) “If medium is the message, then the message of low-band-width timesharing is blah”.  With the latter comment in the context of engaging children, I thought of the current generation of college students and wondered if this might be the reason so many things that I think are wonderous and important elicit a “boredom response” from students.

Is it because they were raised on the nectar of manipulation of content and limitless imagination and that their vision could be immediately be made not only “real”, a manifestation of their vision, but also beautiful and obviously professional?  By the time they are five, they “feel accomplished” and their development is continuously fed by the speedy and “easy” results.  Here, I think of their perceptions…The tasks students engage in and the interests they pursue are not necessary fast or easy, but the technology engages them in a way that feeds their perceptions of ease, keeping them engaged for longer.  It is my methods -> talking and sharing interests, discoveries, and ideas and -> listening to their ideas and what they have discovered that they can’t connect to…Is it my responsibility to meet them where they are, adapting the message to their digitally rich world?  I think the answer is YES…that is if I care to engage them, to shift their perceptions, to help them connect to people and ideas.

How I can manage to retrain myself, I have no idea!  Time and brain power!

How can I manage to get students to train me, thus learning more about how to connect in the old fashioned way :)



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The text from my daughter was; “Why does Dad call it the idiot light?” I knew exactly what she meant, it was a reference to the light on the car dashboard that indicates that the gas tank is almost empty.

Our daughter moved to Ohio last year after graduating from college, to take a job. Her colleague and friend was confused and perplexed by the idiot light comment, thereby prompting the text. While my daughter and I have fun comparing the linguistic and regional differences between southwest Virginia and Northeast Ohio, this was a family-ism. She used this term without thinking much about it, and assumed that it was widely known. However, I suppose it says more about my husband’s view of this particular technology and its relationship with the user than any cultural distinction.

I wonder if anyone else uses this term? And I wonder what interesting terms others might use for computer related objects or actions?

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Dynamic Media: it’s cool, but is it better?

I found Alan Kay’s and Adele Goldberg’s Dynabook article easier to consume than the earlier ones we read.  I especially liked their designs to empower children to design.  There was so much overhead to produce input and output that it reminded me once again of version 1.0 of the Blacksburg Electronic Village diskette in which a user would have to fill out paperwork for five separate accounts, install packet drivers, hook up a modem, wait for the screeching tones, and then–what?  What could we possibly do that we couldn’t do with a telephone, video tape, or even pen, paper, and a postage stamp?  There was the novelty of communicating with people one would never meet in real life, like at the library in Aberystwyth, but was it really worth the trouble?  It still surprises me that people are willing to use the early versions of “labor saving” devices when they clearly haven’t been tested for usability.  Has anyone used Hokie Mart for purchasing?  Or Scholar to manage your course?   Or Windows 8 for anything at all?

The first cool thing I remember seeing using the B.E.V. software was the dinosaur exhibit at Honolulu Community College.  It was just a set of pictures and explanations of dinosaurs, but it was in full color on my computer screen, and I could see it any time I wanted.  I tried to look up that site this morning, and here is what I found:



It’s cool, but not what I was looking for.  I think this is a sign that I am a hopelessly outdated member of the boomer generation.  Check out this graphic explaining the impact of technology across the years of my life:



I like the thoughts of finding, collaborating, and learning throughout our lives, and I’m going to get a smart phone to help with that real soon now.  But I’m still going to play vinyl records and write letters on paper.

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The Case of the Provincial Nostalgic

Nostalgia is a peculiar filter designed for emotional gratification. It works by reinventing the past as a dreamworld unconsciously designed to fend off the present or to generate some sense of security in one’s own sensorium. The nineteenth century, particularly in its later decades, was notorious for its invention of culture worlds that were awesomely wonderful alternatives to the ruthless industrialization that fretted the age’s gentler thinkers.

Provincial is another filter, also gratifying, that represses the Other, variously conceived in terms of region, era, ethnicity, or sensibility. It allows someone to reorient the world and all of humanity around the self, as the self…

When you put the two together, it gets either scary or annoying, depending upon what’s at stake. All of which is an elaborate sigh of exasperation with our editors’ commentary upon a piece by Kay & Goldberg presenting their dynabook. Their breathless page is the case of the Provincial Nostalgic in my title: they admire these two for all the wrong reasons in a way that is offensive to others at the time and demeaning, really, of Kay & Goldberg.

Having whacked the hornet’s nest with my baseball bat, let me explain the offense(s) taken:

  1. O, please: does anyone really think that in 1977, date of original publication, no one had ever thought of a handheld device that would do everything and be connected to the mother ship of data? That is the least commendable achievement of the piece. Scifi is littered with versions of the iPad going back for decades. Star Trek televised in beginning in 1967. The next year, any American with a tomorrowland kind of pulse watched Dave and Frank use their 2001 Kubrick edition of the iPad. Stanislav Lem, Isaac Asimov, and many others did the imagineering for which the editors so awkwardly laud Kay & Goldberg. They started giving patents on tablet machines for pen input in 1888. So, really, to praise them for thinking of all the things a handheld computer could do is nonsensical. If they really did “conceive the computer from a radically different perspective,” the question might be different from whom? Certainly not from an enormous host of people who could imagine a computer doing such things. Which insight takes us to point number two, now that a vast swath of the past has been restored to visibility.
  2. Different from… What we ought to laud Kay & Goldberg for is figuring out how to make a functioning prototype. That, really, is harder than just imagining the device itself. How do you make parts small enough, capable enough, and fast enough? There wasn’t much on the shelf that you could use, though the idea of miniaturization had been around a while: transistor radios were demonstrated in 1954 and sold in the billions in the 1960s and 70s. The noteworthy factor here is that Kay and Goldberg presided over a team that figured out the software/hardware designs and the marriage of the two. That takes some doing. Their designer-selves drove part of the process in terms of ease and speed of use, their engineer-selves drove the concern with capacities and procedures, their entrepreneur-selves drove imagining it from the point of view of mass users wanting a “multimodal” device and children being able to use it.

It takes engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs to make real things that real people can use, Apple Computing being a case in point. All three do imagineering, each contributing a key piece of the vision, and if you lack any one of the three, you don’t get there (see android tablet culture and Surface un-design for useful warnings). What’s remarkable is that the Xerox team had a synergy going among the three legs of the technology stool.

Not that they conceived the idea of a handheld, not after all the reruns of tricorders and communicators and universal translators. But that they made a functioning device out of stuff that could barely do it, and that they won the battle that Microsoft’s Courier team lost to the spreadsheet and floppy drive guys. No doubt the editors want to imagine Kay and Goldberg as versions of their artistic digitalizing creative selves. But, really, the Xerox team was knee-deep in wires, busted circuit boards, and usability testers going wild with Smalltalk.

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My first “Dynabook”??

Okay, this reading was a bit surreal…  Having grown up in the era in which much of this theoretical thinking was coming to fruition – and in some cases had arrived – reading about the imagining of it is beyond interesting to me.  Much of what was written in Kay/Goldberg’s Personal Dynamic Media has made its way into modern personal computing.  Some of it is still a bit “out there”, but also still has intriguing potential.

RFP Apple IIcI got my first personal computer (my own, personally, not a family computer) when I was in the 6th grade… the year was 1984.  I went halfsies with my dad on it… an Apple IIc.  Check it out – it bears an amazing resemblance to the Dynabook mockup displayed in the writing.  It truly was a laptop computer, less than 2 inches thick, and portable (it even had a built-in carrying handle!), though it did require an external screen.  It allowed me to explore personal productivity and creativity in a whole new way.  It also better incorporated a graphic user interface and set the stage for the ever-evolving intuitive Mac OS interfaces…

Speaking of intuitive… that’s what Kay and Adele were getting at, right?  A platform that works more seamlessly with the way we think, explore, create, revise, build…?  That’s why systems, programs, interfaces that are intuitive resonate with us today.  In order for the machines to “serve” us well, they should work the way we’re wired to think and produce (whatever it is we’re producing, and the writers do a great job of exploring across a range of disciplines, which I appreciate immensely).  While some are nerdy like me and enjoyed the “art” of learning hex code to program colors, or the precision and expertise required for a programming approach to early CAD programs… who can argue with the ease with which we can select a font/background/fill color with point-and-click from a menu in a place that makes sense and is easy to find, as we do today?

Beyond intuitive interfaces, they were also getting at a range of user-specified or defined customization.  A concept that much interactive media is finally coming to explore and leverage.  Customizable web page layouts, news feeds, menu and file structures… these are all examples of ways in which interfaces have been designed to allow users to further “design” or at least create custom definitions so that their system presents in the way most useful to them.

In terms of opportunities for furthering education… I found myself pondering the possibilities here.  As we think about systems that are designed to work in terms of how we think – either broadly as human beings, or more narrowly (customized) as individuals…  how might we also leverage this technological design flexibility to encourage dynamic approaches to thought, or stretching to new ways of thinking – in ourselves and our students?  Can we design and utilize interfaces to function in different ways – to be utilized as a type of simulation – thus forcing us out of our comfort zones into thinking and problem solving in different ways?  I could see this being both excruciatingly frustrating and immensely transformative (in the end!)…

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As a physics teacher, I was immediately struck by their foresight of utilizing animations  and simulations for education. I’m currently doing my best to use these in my large lecture class (it’s difficult with a common course that needs to be okayed by multiple instructors and faculty) by incorporating physics simulations as pre-lecture assignments. I’m hoping that by encouraging students to play in a virtual world, we can elicit both a greater curiosity (and thus motivation) as well as a deeper understanding of the underlying physics.

With sims, students can perform experiments before they learn the “correct” physics. Sims also open up the opportunity to do experiments that are impossible on Earth. What would happen if we tried this on the moon? What would happen if there really were no friction (an assumption that we physicists think makes problems easier but sometimes results in students being confused because the predictions made by our models don’t correspond to their real life experiences). By letting students experiment with changing the
parameters of the experiment, they can CREATE and test their OWN physical models instead of just adopting the ones told to them by an “expert”.

If you’d like to play with some science and math sims (do it!), one of my favorite resources is PHeT!

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There is no spoon…

Sorry for the length, this is what happens when I get excited!

In my other life as a researcher, I've spent a lot of time lately working with 3D Printers. These amazing devices can literally put a bit of material wherever you ask them to in three-dimensional space (including when you ask for something not so smart, take a walk past the DreamVendor sometime and watch the students learning from their mistakes). 

There are a number of reasons that the scientific/manufacturing communities are abuzz with excitement over 3D printers:

  1. You can RAPIDLY turn out a prototype (sometimes 3D printers are called "Rapid Prototyping" machines) of a part you are designing, taking it from the computer screen and placing it in your hands to inspect.
  2. As materials capabilities improve, 3D printers can manufacture actual parts. We can now print in a variety of plastics, bio materials, and metals at high resolution (thousandths of an inch). In cases where special material properties are needed, we can 3D print a mold, and cast the part out of any material.
  3. 3D printing is essentially a zero-lost-material manufacturing technique. Manufacturers can save lots by eliminating virtually all scrap in their production processes. 
  4. Complex tooling and machining processes required to make parts typically lead to an economy of scale. Making a one-of-a-kind part requires a custom machine shop to produce it, usually at large expense. With 3D printing, one part costs as much as 100 of them (per part of course). 
  5. 3D printers can revolutionize the replacement parts industry. Imagine a world in which everything you purchase comes with the part files for printing replacement parts. "The washing machine broke and we need a new <insert name of a washing machine part here>." No problem, print it out and install it.

None of these exciting possibilities come close to the true power of 3D printing.

When I started working with 3D Printers, the parts I designed looked like parts that could be made using traditional methods.

(Original 3D printed concept, could have been made with traditional machining)

This was an interesting realization for me. We've all been brought up in a world in which we make things by starting with a hunk of material and hacking away at it until we have what we really want. I'm not much for metaphor and symbol, but isn't it interesting how destructive our creation of a new thing really is?

More down to earth, the processes of design and manufacture have always been tightly coupled. A designer that draws parts that cannot be made with machinists' tools wouldn't have a job as a designer for long. The job of sculptors and engineers has been to envision a thing trapped within a larger block of material, and to set about "freeing it". This way of thinking is deeply ingrained in most engineers' minds.

After getting my hands on a 3D printer, I started designing and printing parts that looked like parts made using traditional methods, even though I was not limited by my tooling to do so (and I am certainly not alone in this). These design decisions were largely subconscious.

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."
Abraham H. Maslow
The Psychology of Science, 1966 

Manufacturing constraints can and have kill(ed) creativity.

The real magic of a 3D printer is freedom of design. We are freed from the requirement to design parts that we can make using the machining capabilities available to us. We no longer need to design parts so that we can machine them from a solid block. Rather than designing for manufacture, we can truly optimize the part for its function.

It's taken a very concentrated effort for me to start scratching the surface of this new world of possibilities. Buried so deeply in my mind that I don't even know it's there is a thought process limiting my ideas to something I can turn out in a machine shop. We don't know how to think in a world of 3D printers that can literally put a bit of material anywhere you want it. We can't get out of our own way!

In an effort to correct this ingrained "thinking shortcoming", we have taken a new direction in my lab. We are letting the computer do the design work for us! Our creative contribution is in what we ask the computer to design and what rules we give the computer to design it. In retrospect, it fits well with what Vannevar Bush was saying in "As We May Think."

"... every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine."
 Vannevar Bush
As We May Think, 1945

I think that Bush was getting at the idea of using computers to save time; freeing us up to think about more important things than repetitive data manipulation. However, "computer augmented thinking" goes much further than this. The truth is that the parts we are designing in my lab can only be optimized for their purpose by considering an extremely large number of variables and fundamental physical principles. We are simply not capable of considering the entire complexity of the problem. Enter the man-computer symbiotic thinking. As Englebart said:
"By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems... [leading to] more rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble.
... developing the new methods of thinking and working that allow the human to capitalize upon the computer's help."
Douglas Englebart
Augmenting Human Intellect, 1962

The largely automated design routine we have created is currently spitting out designs that we could have never pictured.

(Sample of what a 3D printer can do that traditional machining cannot)

(New 3D printed concept for the same purpose as above)
(Kudos to Kevin Hoopes)

And they cannot be made (easily) with traditional machining methods. And they work better than anything we've come up with "on our own." Thanks to 3D printers, the constraints on our thinking have been relaxed. I'm very excited to see where this will take us, and I am also excited to see how we might learn to think in a world of 3D printers.

What constrains us?

It's no secret that we live in a world governed by constraints. Some of these constraints are physical, enforced by the universe: "Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time." "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Other constraints are largely man made and I think that 3D printing can serve as a bit of a metaphor for life.

How many times each day are we guilty of doing something a particular way because "that's how we've always done it"? What man made constraints are governing the way that we think? Are these constraints valid or are they holding us back from thinking creatively and reaching better solutions? 

No More Teachers' Dirty Looks

Our educational system is built on an industrial model. We have a large number of people that we want to educate, and so we have created a system that attempts to streamline this process and crank out students at a high rate.

If the industrial manufacturing constraints limit our ability to think creatively in terms of designing physical parts, I wonder what the industrial model of education is doing to our ability to think creatively about anything.

"... we are coming to recognize that schools are we know them appear designed at every level to sabotage the supposed goals of education. A child arrives at school bright and early in his life. By drabness we deprive him of interests. By fixed curriculum and sequence we rob him of his orientation, initiative and motivation, and by testing and scoring we subvert his natural intelligence.
Schools as we know them all run on the same principles: iron all subjects flat and then proceed, in groups, at a forced march across the flattened plain. Material is dumped on the students and their responses calibrated; their interaction and involvements with the material is not encouraged nor taken into consideration, but their dutifulness of response is carefully monitored.
...It is not that students are unmotivated, but motivated askew... We know virtually nothing of human abilities except as they have been pickled and boxed in schools.
... The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone or severely diminished when we leave school.
... Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting... Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources."
Theodor H. Nelson
No More Teachers' Dirty Looks, 1974

3D Printing a Curriculum

The power of a 3D printer is that it gives the designer the ability to put physical material anywhere in a physical space to build a custom part. The only constraints on the designer are his own creativity, and the condition that the part must be able to support itself (i.e. we can't have floating material, yet). Within this fairly open framework, the designer has an extremely large design space to explore.

Imagine an educational system based on a similar framework. We could "3D print" an educational curriculum, allowing the designer to place course material anywhere in an educational space to build a custom curriculum. 

Starting to flesh out the framework...

The magic would come when we empower the student to be the designer. We actually do this now, to some extent. Students are able to choose majors, double majors, and minors. Within those majors and minors, students have a finer level of control afforded to them through student-selected elective courses. Students can choose elective courses to build a specialization that interests them or meets their career goals.

For those who choose to attend graduate school, the freedom is expanded. Under the guidance of an academic advisor and some department-imposed guidelines, graduate students are able to choose all of the courses that build their curriculum.

3D printers enable a whole new realm of possibilities in custom, one-of-a-kind design. In the same way, students could design an educational curriculum that literally builds a new degree, custom to them, based on the concepts and ideas that speak to their goals and interests.
"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Howard Thurman
In  Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled, 1996

Imagine a world in which a person could explore the inner workings of electrical engineering, augmented by studies in technological philosophy, and come out an expert not only in the design of electrical systems, but also a philosophy that guides what they design for the betterment of mankind.

Imagine a student that combines a love of music and engineering, studying both, to design completely new instruments that we've never heard of.

I'd love to meet a person who studied literature, sculpture, thermodynamics, and number theory.

These ideas, much like the parts I first made with a 3D printer, are barely scratching the surface. Once again, I (we) don't know how to think following this paradigm, yet.

Improving Resolution

One of the main trends in improving 3D printers over the years has been the fineness or resolution to which a part can be printed:

(Coarse resolution part)

(Extremely fine part, on the scale of a human hair)

Following the same trend, we can incrementally improve the resolution at which students have control over the custom design of their curriculum:

  • Majors
    • Electives
      • Courses
        • Units
          • Topics
            • Concepts

Starting with majors, we expand the freedom to choose elective courses within those majors. Moving from elective courses, we could expand the freedom to choosing all of the courses. Improving further, we could expand the freedom within a course to the selection of different units that apply. Moving to a still finer resolution, we could expand the freedom to selecting the topics and concepts within a specific unit of a specific course. Perhaps we could get to the point where we rid ourselves of the idea of a "course" altogether. After all, "subjects" are artificial:
"There are no "subjects." The division of the universe into "subjects" for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative convenience."
 Theodor H. Nelson
No More Teachers' Dirty Looks, 1974

Messy Education

When designing a part, we start with the overall objective, and select the components that comprise it, and then the fine details of each component. Along the way, we change our minds, swap out components, alter details, etc. The design process is usually very messy, and the final part is usually only distantly related to the initial prototype.

I opened by poking a little fun at the failures students encounter when working with 3D printers. We rarely get what we were asking for the first time. We rarely design things right the first time. Will the same be true in a framework that allows students to "3D print" their own educational experience? YES! Will it be messy? Absolutely! I argue that it is through these failed conceptions, misprints, and design changes that we learn the most about how the thing works, and where we gain the most power over our designs. We must build a system that encourages experimenting and embraces changing our minds.

"Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."
C. S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950

3D Printers that Print 3D Printers

Another interesting feature of a 3D printer is its capability to self-replicate. This recursive concept can make your head hurt, but it also points out a neat aspect of these devices: they may be the only self-replicating machine that exists.

In the same way, I believe we could use the 3D printing framework at a school to "3D print" another school, which would of course be capable of "3D printing" another school, and so on. Maybe this is just a way of saying that if an idea or method is good, it will spread. What I really intend to say is that we could change the way we do education, drastically.

There is always resistance to tearing down a system that "works." If one student who was able to design his own curriculum in this way chose to do so with a "focus" on teaching and learning, he could apply this method to his teaching and learning. Following a generational model, it wouldn't be very long until we were all thinking and learning this way.

"Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth."

"What truth?"

"There is no spoon."

"There is no spoon?"

"Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."

Free y(our) mind(s).

More to come, comments welcome!

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