Back to basics

I have a special love for this kitschy phrase (incidentally, Christina Aguilera’s first album title) and the strangely thematic past weeks that I’ve had. Anecdotes and encounters from different sections of my life have been converging to remind me of what’s important as I forge ahead with my adventures in education and technology. The lesson is a simple one: to remember that humans and learning have been around far longer than computers, and to place enough faith in that.

I have been following Modpo on Coursera with a diligence unprecedented in my participation of any other MOOC’s. Besides the fact that it makes me miss Penn and Philly in a way that I’ve never thought possible, it has been the most rewarding online class that I’ve tried taking part in (with heavy emphasis on “tried”), not just on Coursera but across a great spectrum of online learning. Not only am I not falling behind, I am actively ahead in my video lectures (take that, all you MOOC delinquents!). This enthusiasm stems from the poetry-shaped hole in my heart; but more important, I find myself unexpectedly moved by the liveliness of the video format and content. Unlike other Coursera classes, the video lectures in Modpo do not consist of a professor talking into the camera by him/herself in an excruciating monologue that really marks a backward step in education, instead, they feature group discussions. The most gratifying is the tangible, vivid energy that comes through the camera lens; it’s the first time that I’ve felt the classroom experience close to being replicated in a virtual realm. Yet when you get down to what makes the whole thing tick, it’s so shockingly simple. It’s not some slick virtual whiteboard or super intelligent auto-grader or syntactically well-groomed forum: it’s just the dynamic, messy energy of real people sitting around a table, looking at their pieces of paper, circling words and hurtling more words in an attempt to make meaning and feeling. It is, very simply, an affirmation of the humans on the other side of this virtual medium.

Around the same time, I heard a great story by a father that we interviewed for the education startup that I am working with in my UX class. We talked about his children’s after school interets and pursuits, and one of the things that came up was his son’s total, unmitigated devotion to Minecraft. The dad had no problem with Minecraft, he thought it was creative and encouraged his son to play it; the only rule that the he imposed on his son was that while playing, he must talk to his friends that he played with on Skype using voice, and not just chat with them via text. He wanted to make sure that the son understood the importance of being the same person that he is offline as he is online, and to force him to have interaction that was more personal, closer to real-life. I was so impressed by this stroke of pragmatic brilliance—this clever ruse of sneaking in the human element in his digital life without making him relinquish the virtual world. Shortly after this encounter, I was reminded again of the power of personal interaction and the inexplicable process of building empathy at a user research panel involving the likes of Facebook and AirBnb. One of the researchers talked about how important it was to bring in the relevant stakeholders early on for them to sit in and watch the interviews. Somehow, this always managed to create and internalize an empathy for the subject that could never be done through videos. It made the person real.

This emphasis on the human element is something that comes up ad nauseam in UX design, but it’s something that I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for the first time through my class. Many people accept “human-centered design” as a politically correct ideology, but very few really stop to think about what this means and calibrate their intentions and actions according to it. I have seen one too many entrepreneurs, including those of edtech, impose their world view on others through their product/solution— without even being aware of so, they seek fragments of validation in their conversations with others and don’t really see the human on the other end of the exchange. I am also at fault for this all too often; I have to remind myself that other people don’t exist as a projection of my thoughts and wishes and learn to encounter them as they are.

Yet the trickier part of all of this human centeredness is to realize that the human is also fallible and misleading to decipher at face value. Being human-centered means accounting for people’s irrationalities. One of the most important things that I have learned so far is to learn to hear what people are not saying, either through their own inconsistencies or other aspects of the behavior. This is an especially interesting proposition because the inconsistency in question doesn’t always just apply to your subject, but also yourself. It is unsettling to have to admit to ourselves our own hints of irrationality and the conflicts in our motivations, but they inevitably exist. In learning to not take what others’ claim they are wholly for granted, we have to also learn that we are not always who we claim to be.

I wanted to talk about this in the context of education technology because I am not sure if we are all that good at remembering the human in this context: the rational, the irrational, and everything in between as it exists. I am increasingly of the belief that the role of technology is to elevate the human, and to surface our humanness even more than what is apparent otherwise. I always go back to Modpo on this example, but in this case even though the sound infrastructure is what enabled this beautiful exchange across oceans, the magic at the core of it has little to do with technology and everything to do with the rawness of human energy. In fact, when it is done so well you forget that the technology is there and you take the transposed humanness for granted.

I wonder, too, if we are taking enough time to examine our underlying assumptions about what technology can or cannot do, should or should not do. I especially loved this recent essay in the Atlantic on The Writing Revolution, which talked about how a faltering high school’s decision to focus on analytic writing and expression of critical thoughts yielded surprising positive results across students’ performance. It reminded me of the importance of restoring the power of expression and creation back to the human, and our converse inability to recognize that at times against other fancier solutions and our own ego. All too often we are so busy advocating what we believe to be the solution that we forget to even truly observe what we need to solve without any preoccupation. In doing that, we fail to see the human in its real context, we fail to see their irrationalities that may be an integral part of what we need to solve, and we fail to see our own assumptions that may be coloring our judgment.

I want to ask all the edtech entrepreneurs out there: how closely have you worked with the people that you are solving the problem for? And do you know what they are not telling you as soundly as what they are telling you? Have you gone out into the field to observe what other solutions they have been applying to the problem? Are you aware of the role of your own assumptions and ego? Are you really capable of seeing the humans, including yourself, involved? Because that is all that great technology should come down to: surfacing our humanness, especially the already brilliant parts of it, so effortlessly.


What I am up to these days

What I set out to do and what I ended up doing was quite different— opportunities have been popping up everywhere and it’s in all honesty harder to choose what not to do than what to do. Overall, I am trying to gain more experiences in person and not over the internet— see real people, duel out ideas in real life rather than as personas over the internet, get into the messiness of life.

I moved to SF just 2 months ago, and prior to this I was located in Taiwan where there weren’t as many of these opportunities, so I was getting my fix via MOOC’s and the online flurries via Twitter, blogs, etc. But I realized quite quickly that I had trouble with spending so much time on the computer; luckily I came into an environment where there are a lot of chances to do so in person. (Of course, my own craving for in-person interaction gets me to think about what we need for online learning to succeed).

  • Taking an UX Design class with General Assembly. My project team is (serendipitously, coincidentally) working on designing a product for an education startup that focuses on the search of after-school programs for parents.
  • Preparing for my application for master’s in designing education technology.
  • Continuing my programming pursuits. I am just about done with CS 106B and will be finally moving into Ruby on Rails. I will also be doing some front-end development to pair with the UX design prototyping process for class, and for my own projects
  • Continuing blogging, consuming relevant ideas in the space
  • Battling with MOOC’s. I sign up for (too) many and quickly realize what sustain my attention and what do not. Modpo is the only one that I am capable of sitting through the videos for; I try to keep up with it for extracurricular interest (like reading an interactive book!) Other MOOC’s: I decided Machine Learning was after all not my learning priority at the moment and ds 106 turned out to be different from what I imagined it would be. EdStartup has been valuable but is lacking coherence in narrative (it’s quite a collection of voices to keep up with). I am going to really try to participate in Stanford Venture Lab’s Designing for a New Learning Environment; this is something right on topic for me. PS. I am open to getting some project mates before the course starts, let me know if you might be interested!
  • Writing a short-story. I will be participating in a public reading as part of the Lit Crawl in SF in October.
  • Contemplating standardized tests: GRE (not required for my programs), CBEST, CSET, etc…

So— there’s a lot going on. If by any chance your path intersects with mine, drop me a note! I’d love a work or study buddy, esp if you are in San Francisco.

What is the value of homework?

I ran into two much more challenging situations today at 826 Valencia, compared to the last time that I was there. One kid, I’ll call him C, had a short attention span and had trouble reading and writing at his grade level. He wanted to finish his homework as soon as possible but couldn’t keep his eyes on the page for much longer than 10 seconds at a time. It took us about one and a half hours to go through his reading packet (which we didn’t actually finish every page of in the end) and complete six sample sentences based on the vocabulary in the reading. Each sentence was a bargaining process for him to write less words than more. But at least this kid wanted to finish his homework, even if it was with minimal effort so that he could go home. The other kid, let’s call him J, was maybe one or two grades younger and simply refused to do his homework. Two bananas and two peanut-butter jelly sandwiches at snack time later, he sat at the desk coloring his drawing and refused to make eye contact. I asked him why he didn’t want to do his homework, he said, quite plainly, that it was “boring.”

I can imagine. I looked at the “homework packets” that they had, and most of them were drills based on contrived and simplistic problems— the same that I have gone through maybe twenty years ago. In an effort to try to get him “more interested,” another tutor and I tried drawing out one of the math problems: 12 squirrels sat on a tree branch, 7 of them fell off, how many are left? As I was drawing the 12 blue-fur-balls-passing-as-squirrels, I realized: when is the last time that you have ever seen 12 squirrels sitting on a tree branch? This is a completely unrealistic scenario made up for children’s supposed entertainment; except they can see right through it. I suspect that these problems are not only childish in our eyes, but also theirs.

In an ideal situation, I would have been able to teach J this arithmetic in some form that is more engaging, or at least has relevance in the real world. If it were my kids, someday, I would want to teach them by taking them grocery shopping— you get the idea. But in this context, the problem might not even be the mastery of skills. It was first and foremost about the value of completing homework. Maybe J didn’t want to do his homework because he felt like he was bad at it and it frustrated him; or maybe he didn’t want to do it because he was doing alright and he found the problems boring. In the former, the homework content was ineffective at teaching him; in the latter, it was not stimulating/challenging enough.

Most of all, I realize how easy it would’ve been to try to coerce him into doing it— carrot/stick style, or with the age-old platitude “you gotta do your homework so you can get good grades!”  But I couldn’t do it because I didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that a student has to do something because of authority or for the sake of meeting the requirements of some mysterious social engineering mechanisms. Practice is valuable when we are convinced that what we have set out to learn is valuable. Arithmetic is valuable, but only when we understand its context and purpose. A few photocopies about landforms of mountains and valleys— well, harder to say, really. Does the practice always have to come in the form of homework? Most homework that I have experienced, firsthand or otherwise, is just so terribly divorced from reality. Sometimes I admire a kid all the more for admitting his boredom; I want to rather optimistically see it as a sign of intelligence— for questioning why they should obey simply for the sake of obeying.

An after-school program is a peculiar place where you lack the continuity and authority of parents and teachers. You are a band-aid, basically, who does not (usually) get the benefit of an uninterrupted narrative with a student. To bring out the value of learning or of a particular subject is even more challenging in this context, but I appreciate it. It reminds me that truly great teaching is hard. As it should be, and not to ever be taken for granted. In the end, J won his silent battle and got to go home with only two, not three (as instructed by his mom), pages of his homework completed. Tomorrow, he will go back with the same packet, and it will be a another day.

Random musings

  • Most edtech startups focus on helping the teacher or rely on the teacher for product discovery, can we turn it around? Presumably edtech co’s for K-12 (or even at higher education) don’t target students directly because purchasing power is limited and/or more learning is not their top extracurricular priority. Can we build stuff that rethinks the relationship/model of learning, that students don’t even notice it’s for learning? What does this look like—I think it depends on the subject. Kindergarten & elementary school kids will probably be hard, but maybe middle school/high school?
  • Ed Startup 101 is full of voices. I try to read many of the posts but it’s difficult to digest all of them. Why isn’t there a voting system to see which posts have gained traction? People are not always ready to dole out likes but votes imply something different.
  • I appreciate many of these voices (above). They are genuine and terribly human. I have never been a fan of corporate-speak.
  • I asked myself what exactly is my goal in education technology. What do I hope to create or see it from it ultimately? I realize then that my interest is not confined to technology but to design more effective learning experiences with the incorporation of such. The fact is digital media in the rest of the world is evolving so quickly, it doesn’t make sense that the classroom is not. But this doesn’t mean throwing iPads or eBooks at it. This means rethinking our learning environments holistically, entirely.
  • I am starting to get a better sense of what type of education tech I’d like to get involved with eventually. I am not so interested in products that drill skills or specific sets of knowledge. I am interested in technologies that help learners discover new learning possibilities (new ideas, more effectiveness in their learning) as well as technologies that help them create. I am interested in technologies that allow learners to take control of their learning processes— rather than a top-down dictation of what to learn.
  • The e-textbook gets a bad name, but there is still something to be said about using an interactive medium. Perhaps they are just the start, or the stepping stone, to some grander experiments that we’ll eventually embark on (hopefully before students are forced to buy access codes en masse). The fundamental problem with textbooks is that it is still trying to teach from a position of rigid, constricted authority— okay, I get it, there is a need for standards / material / etc. But textbooks might be the number one culprit that teach our children that knowledge exists without context and is dictated by authority, that it is a set of summarized points to be tested in an exam. How can we recreate the textbook so that it still passes on knowledge, but does not dictate invisible constraints?
  • When I get to build my own product/company (someday!), I want to incorporate sound cognitive science research.

But will it make money? (Week 3, Ed Startup)

I took a quick look at the startup ideas on Ed Startup this week, and found that many of them are in truth more like non-profit projects or programs than businesses. Maybe it’s the nature of those that are in a service-oriented sector to begin with— I think most people that have an interest in education have a stronger instinct to serve ideals than to make money. God knows I also have a penchant for tons of non-profit ideas that do not lend themselves to sensible business models.

I am incredibly thankful for the role that non-profits have played in this world, they serve much neglected niches and give our societies incredible, dynamic energy. I want to be clear, also, that I believe that a non-profit is just as much a startup as a for-profit business. Regardless of where funds come from, I think it is imperative that we ask ourselves the difficult questions of sustainability when we set out to do something. It benefits both ourselves and the society (should our idea turn out to truly serve a need) that we execute our vision with sufficient understanding of the resources required. It gives the much needed rigor to our “startup idea” to push it one step closer to reality. It is also for the benefit of the education sector that entrepreneurs who truly care about education can thrive and sustain their operations.

I have also struggled with the business economics of my idea. What I have come up with may be a bit ambitious, but here it goes!

The idea

Create a membership-based co-working space/community that brings together K-12 educators and edtech startups. The community will be reputation-based, that is, membership will be vetted and restricted only to educators and companies who are of quality. Edtech companies will have to apply for a fee, while educators will be invited for free. The community will coordinate product feedback sessions, hackathons, networking, and other events to facilitate communication between the two communities.

The problem

There is a gap between the tech community and the educators community. There are too many products floating around that cannot find suitable markets, and teachers do not have the time to juggle all the new technologies. Many edtech companies build products that are not truly suitable for educators or fail to gain sufficient traction for their product. This is either because they have not conducted proper user studies with their target segment, or because of their limited network reach. For educators, there are simply too many products available to understand which ones are worth their time and money— and often they do not have enough time to give new products a good try, let alone have time to participate in user research beforehand.

The fix

Bring together the two, in real-time!

Teachers will be invited based on their reputation/teaching track-record (though they can also actively apply) and can be members for free. The incentive for them is that it will come with free tech-training workshops, possible stipends to supplement their classroom settings, other possible freebies/fellowship, and the opportunity to network with other extremely capable educators/techies. Not to mention, of course, they will have a much better idea of what’s good tech to use for their classroom since they will be exposed only to the best ideas. In order to join they must also commit firmly to a certain amount of time giving feedback/interacting with tech startups.

Edtech startups will have to apply and be vetted based on their quality. There will be an annual fee involved, and it should be something in the range of what it’d take for them to hire one additional community manager who will have to start their outreach from scratch. The incentive for startups is to have ready access to educators— both as a product research user-base and potential market after launch, and to have a community that helps them organize these product panels/networking with educators.

The community will be funded by edtech co’s membership fees, events fees, and possible other tech corporate sponsorships. Even though it seems a bit ludicrous to ask tech co’s to pay a fee, this is mitigated by the fact that it will reduce their other labor/research costs in community management. If there is sufficient interest/space, the idea could even be extended into a full-time coworking space for some edtech startups— many of them have to pay rent at other coworking space anyway! The primary costs of this startup will be rent/utilities and some administrative personnel.


There is not simply enough interaction, understanding, and collaboration between the two communities right now. Most efforts are sporadic rather than systemic. Educational technology is unique in that most end-users do not have the spare time or money to explore new technologies unless it really hits the nail on the head; hopefully this will help produce technologies that are really needed in the classrooms, and thereby help products find sustainable markets.

Certification in MOOC’s (Week 2, Ed Startup 101)

Not that I am not aware that we are already on Week 3 of Ed Startup 101; clearly I have some catching up to do! I missed the introduction as well, so I will take a brief stab at it here. My story is a simple one: four years out of college and one mistaken career path in investment banking later, I have decided to pursue my passion in education and all the possibilities that come with the digital medium.

The ed-startup trend (or problem, really) that I want to discuss a bit more is certification for online/electronic learning, including the concept of badges and the recent debate over certification for the MOOC’s from prestigious universities. Many feel that online learning cannot truly be taken seriously until this is resolved. All of these systems struggle to come up with a way to certify, prove, or at least signal, the learning you have done through online and non-institutional sources. The current solutions fall into four camps:

1. As-is “virtual” certification (badges, Coursera’s certificates of completion)
2. Institution-affiliated certification (MITx, which indirectly borrows the name of MIT, even if it’s made clear that it’s not an MIT credit)
3. Proctored-exam certification (edX in recent announcement of partnership with Pearson)
4. Community-instituted certification (Udacity’s course accepted as transfer credit in Colorado State)

Despite the seeming variety of “solutions,” it’s clear that none of these are perfectly adequately nor imaginative. All of these solutions are merely virtual extensions of how we conduct grading in real life, but should this be how we think about it at all, given that we have the potential to create a different learning model? 

Solutions 1 to 3 are all still virtual extensions of how we approach grading in ” real life,” but in the last solution we encounter a bit more creativity and a glimpse into how things could be approached differently. Community-instituted credit, such as that given by Colorado State to Udacity’s CS101, highlights the potential to partner non-traditional avenues with traditional institutions. There is a lot more that can be done with that— the likes of Udacity could have teams dedicated to lobbying community colleges or other universities to accept their classes as credit. For Udacity to have the proper incentive to do this, perhaps a fee could be involved in obtaining the certification that would allow for such transfer of credit.

In the above, the credit is still given by an institution that grades and has “credits” in the first place. But could this not be extended to other partner institutions, such as corporates or community programs that might appreciate the relevant skill set? Could a “credit” given not be an academic credit but some form of testament by professional organizations? Trusted partners that believe in the rigor and content-worthiness of what one gets out of an Udacity course do not need to be academic institutions. We can involve many more local groups to help us validate and harness the communities of learners that have popped up. What exact shape or form this would look like is still a question to be explored.

We could be much more imaginative about how we validate and exemplify our learning. I love the Udacity High School Challenge, for example. Even though there is no formal academic credit involved, I am sure that many of the high school students who took such initiatives impressed the people around them. It is through the doing, not the grading, that they are able to exemplify their learning. Could we possibly re-imagine our process by encouraging people to build up a digital portfolio that is self-evident, rather than rely on third-party certification? Perhaps we can have local demo days that showcase what people have built throughout their courses. Perhaps we can have an online journal that publishes the essays written— with the vetting done by the community of peers. Or, perhaps, we can set up a mentoring system that involves people who have taken the course before; they say that the best way to test your learning is through teaching, and there could be a mentor evaluation by the students. The possibilities are endless if we are willing to retire our attempt to mimic the old classroom model.

Why do we still insist on imposing our old model of learning, when clearly what we are facing is a brave new world?

poetry, programming

A (long) (self-indulgent) discursion on possibility and discipline in art

Not too long ago, I tutored creative writing for the first time at 826 Valencia. I was a nervous wreck; even though I had tutored before, it was my first time teaching high school students and my first time offering creative writing feedback to kids that were not native speakers. Moments before the workshop, I was overcome by a fear that I would somehow horribly and irrevocably misguide these children. Forever.

But I had a beautiful time. I worked with a girl named Karen who spoke Spanish and greatly fluid, though unsure, English—much more than she gave herself credit for. She had wanted to write a poem about her life, and had a few lines laid out on her page, each beginning with “Everyday…” I asked her what was the story she wanted to tell and where did she see it going. She told me then, “I want to write something… big and deep, you know, something deep about how I feel. Growing up. I want to write something that you read and you just feel l it. I don’t know English very well but I want to use the more difficult words. Can you help me?”

Those were not her words exactly, but I try to retell it now for the right feeling—which was a raw authenticity with no moment of self-consciousness. I understood her well because this was also the kind of teenager that I was, drawn to gravity and the belief in a complex adulthood. What I forget now though was the sincerity I had for all of these big emotions; the utter faith without irony in the sanctity of growing up and the mystical burden of messier, heavier lives. I look back and I critically conclude that I was wrought with melodrama, then laugh; yet when I listened to Karen’s attempt to communicate her feeling and need for meaning, I realized at once that this adult hindsight had no place in the purity of growing up.

She reminded me of my own journey with writing. I was once an aspiring Creative Writing major in college but I never wrote a single new poem or story again after my first poetry workshop in freshmen year. This is a difficult story to explain even now—looking back I suppose it was a ballooning, destructive fear of syntax and construction. Even though at the end of the workshop I felt uplifted by the professor’s email telling me  that I had produced one of the best poems he had ever received from a student, it was also the first time that I became “artistically aware” of the difficulty in writing exactly what you mean, the necessity of restraint, and the delicate balance of pace and flow. Overcame by the discipline it demanded and the inevitable sense of inadequacy that accompanied, I retreated instead of worked harder.

Then suddenly at the beginning of this year I started writing poems again, triggered by no great catalyst other than the enough passing of time (and okay, the practical bonus of new found time on my hands). It was more of a reckoning of my long procrastination than anything else grand or mysterious. Around the same time, I started learning programming.

What started out as a pragmatic desire to learn a new life skill unexpectedly became the most giving metaphor of poetry in my life. More than a metaphor and perhaps even a paradigm-shift. The beginning of programming was titillating—computer scientists and software engineers all over the world probably want to shoot me dead right now for using that word, but that was how I felt about it. I instantly fell in love with the problem solving and the practical and philosophical concerns on the mental model behind the code. The layers of abstraction and strive for elegance drew me in. But most of all, I was dizzied by its immense creative potential.To my surprise I found that writing code reminded me of writing poems. In the act of creation, you encounter the same tension of raw, boundless possibility against disciplined construction.

More than a parellel, programming began to change my way of looking at poetry. I encountered a greater exactness in thought that I had not previously really cared for, and I became much more patient in dealing with syntax and construction. Unlike a piece of writing, a program simply would not work if it had bugs—and a program would often crash and burn at the first attempt of running. The premise of programming did not rest on godly inspiration or quickness of talent; it rested on hard work. It taught me to look at poems with scientific precision rather as shapeless sentiments. It took away the burdening belief of talent and divine alignment. It reinforced in me, after all these years, the importance of discipline in your craft.

The two share philosophical tendencies but for certain they are also different in many respects—I am not going to carry this metaphor too far. Still a shift had happened—and I think what happened was that the syntax of programming had worked its way into the syntax of my poetry; not directly but through the rest of life.

In Why Read?, Mark Edmundson writes:

A language, Wittgenstein thought, is a way of life. A new language, whether we learn it from a historian, a poet, a painter, or a composer of music, is potentially a new way to live.

via “Sentence to Ponder” from Knowing and Doing

And of course that includes programming.

On the day that I met Karen my mind came full circle to the first impulse of creation, before any of this rigor and restraint in craft. The excitement. The velocity. The faith. The possibility. She reminded me of how we got here and why we stay here—of why we are driven to hone our craft, and of how ultimately little that means without the pulsing desire and bravery to create—to pass belief to meaning.

(In the middle of writing this post, I came across this, also a similar analogy but with slightly different nuance in emphasis, and with far more eloquence. A beautiful worthwhile read.)