This day didn’t turn out as I had planned, but though that was hugely disappointing (more on this below), what did happen was, it turned out, very important. I wish there’d been some way to have it all, but then I always wish that. Someone has to wish that. Otherwise, we don’t get as much as we might. Or so the story goes (i.e., the one I’m sticking to).
Session One: FIX COLLEGE, led by Allen Downey of Olin College. I’d seen Allen at several of the sessions I’d attended. I was curious to see what his session would be like. Like the Academic Research debate the day before (Allen also attended that one), this session was very lively and quickly got to some core issues, which of course was a very good thing. Allen listed “what needs fixing” on one board as the audience contributed a long and familiar list of candidates: cost, access, curriculum, narrow vision, lack of intellectual integration, etc. I contributed “absence of creative participation in Internet culture,” which for once, I’m happy to say, actually made sense to a group of discussants. Most higher ed people have little or no idea what I’m talking about when I say “creative participation in Internet culture,” I’m sorry to say, because most of them do not creatively participate in Internet culture themselves. Several people in this group actually help define current Internet culture–Nerdfighter/SciShow maestro Hank Green was sitting right in front of me–so they grokked what I was saying immediately. In fact, someone piped up right away to say, “yes, though many universities seem to believe they are actually ‘using technology’ in their teaching and learning strategies–the term “Internet culture” demonstrates what they aren’t doing.” As I look back on FOO Camp, that moment was one of the true highlights for me, one time when I felt that a true, deep grokking had happened that typically eludes me in other contexts. I will also say, here and now, again, that without creative participation in Internet culture, colleges and universities are fooling themselves with regard to their strategies for progress in the age of online learning. The nightmare scenario, of course, is that colleges and universities will not only fool themselves but turn us all into (bigger) fools as well, as they’ve shown themselves to be completely capable of doing with the industrial models of education and “learning management” they’ve perpetuated in what should have been a Golden Age of digital learning comparable to the Golden Age of the early days of networked, interactive computing itself. The next stage, of course, will be to find ways to use analytics and flipped classrooms and climbing walls and big-time athletics and whatever else comes over the transom to make learning manageable (and profitable) (and effective at creating tractable, non-disruptive “citizens” out of free democratic agents). Then we’ll have what we have now, but even more commodified, and probably cheaper too, except for the finishing boutiques available to those who can still pay the stiff tuition and/or endure the crippling debt.
But I digress. (I delivered a burst-screed not unlike the above at the session and elicited the response “tell us what you really think,” to which I responded “well, the play was terrible, too.” Hey now, hey now.)
One of the participants (I think it was Hank Green) pointed out that graduates are likely to be expected to know how to blog, but of course universities aren’t doing much of this. (I’m proud to be an exception and to be helping more VT colleagues move in that direction; I’m also proud to have had a hand in the BIg Exception led by the exceptional folks at the University of Mary Washington.) Instead, it’s still term papers all the way down. Right. This is a tough needle to thread. I don’t want students to be blogging because that’s something General Electric wants them to be able to do. On the other hand, blogging has such a wonderful potential for disruption (if it’s really blogging and not just PR by other means) that I do want a generation of graduates able to practice their potential disruption–and its twin, innovation–on company time. Oh yes.
Lots of lively discussion in this session, with a closing emphasis on “what can we do?” Allen shared his proposal for mini- or even micro-colleges that would have few students, a completely set shared curriculum, no classrooms (only co-working space), no classes (all studio-style learning, with direct instruction mingled with coaching, mentoring, apprenticeship, etc.), no dormitories (students find places to live in the community), and a huge emphasis on having the students work within the community, and share their learning with the community. Kind of an “embedded studenthood.” There’d be next to no student services. The students would provide their own extracurriculars. An entire layer of administrators and support personnel could be eliminated. The resulting cost savings would mean about 10K per year per student in tuition.
This is a wonderfully audacious vision and there’s a lot to like about it. Fact is, I’d love to work at a college like that. The biggest downside, as one participant noted, is that students would have to have decided not only on a college but on a particular curriculum before they’d even enrolled. Allen agreed this was a problem, but pointed out that the cost of switching would be low. Some folks responded (I among them) that the larger goals of intellectual development and the acquisition of a cultural toolkit that could be used to change the culture might also be lost in this plan. Allen conceded these were difficult and important questions. But I remain intrigued by the idea of a network of minicolleges, learners embedded in their communities, curriculum and learning vastly reimagined. Intrigued, and inspired, and grateful to Allen for convening the session. We ended by nominating “weird schools” for ambitious students and wise parents to consider. I gave a loud plug for Hampshire College. Another person gave a shout-out to Warren Wilson, which her parents had attended. Everyone pointed out the value of internships and (especially) study abroad. And at one point, someone proposed a survey of who among us had graduated from a “top 50” undergraduate college. Fewer than half of us said “yes.” Fascinating.
Session Two: O’Reilly.edu. This session never really started, as the facilitator didn’t make it in to start it. So four of us sat around and talked for awhile, which is itself a good outcome, even though it wasn’t the one I had anticipated. The best part of the talking for me was a very intense and passionate conversation with a professional skateboarder named Rodney Mullen. This was the most direct, electric connection I felt with anyone during the camp. It deserves a blog post all its own. Suffice it to say that Rodney listened with astonishing energy; when he focused on what you were saying, the focus was of such high quality, so generous, that the saying took on a life of its own. I found myself near tears as I tried to articulate my own practice and ambitions as a teacher and a learner. We went from New Media to Milton and back again within two minutes of blazingly intense exchange. I didn’t feel his commitment to our conversation waver at all, even for a nanosecond. And he was equally generous in the way he talked about his own work, his own life’s journey, and his own struggles with imposter syndrome. I was floored, gobsmacked, humbled, inspired. It was a great gift and the one moment during the entire experience where I felt a complete high-bandwidth connection with another person, where I felt my need to be understood and my drive to understand were in perfect synchrony, mutually reinforcing, and making their way to another land. My thanks to Rodney for those thirty minutes. They made all the difference.
Session Three: I had signed up to lead a discussion on “Helping Faculty UNCLENCH About Computers.” I had struggled with the title, at first calling it “Bring Me A Higher Love (for participatory culture),” but then thought that would be way too abstract, or perhaps even coals to Newcastle in this setting. What I really wanted to talk about was my ongoing (and distressingly desultory) work with the New Media Faculty-Staff Development Seminar.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter what I called it, as no one showed up.
I sat there for fifteen minutes or so. I spent a few minutes wondering what the heck I thought I was doing and who was I fooling anyway? I watched Ted Nelson’s very strange little video entitled “Silicon Valley Preview 1.3,” which I’d been dying to see since Anil Dash brought it up in the very first session. Then I decided to pack up and head for Bret Victor’s session, “Stop Drawing Dead Fish.” As you can imagine, I was pretty crestfallen (ok, maybe even crushed) that my session drew zero interest. On the other hand, I had wanted to see Bret’s session anyway, and was disappointed when we turned out to have selected the same slot on Sunday.
So as it further turned out, it was a good thing to have seen Bret’s session. A very good thing indeed. I’ll try to explain why in part two of my write-up on FOO Camp, Day Three.