Take a Holiday Break and Pay It Forward

Google Santa Tracker village

I'll be taking a break from Serendipity35 until 2017 as the university closes up for the holidays. The kids all finished their exams and are tucking in for a winter nap until the new semester starts in January. Though that semester is called "spring," it will be quite cold when we return to educating here in New Jersey.

In the meantime, you can use the Google Santa Tracker or the old reliable NORAD Tracks Santa websites to play and follow Mr. Claus on his global travels. Pay it forward is an expression for describing the act that when you are the beneficiary of a good deed, you repay it to others (forward) rather than back to the person who did you the good deed. A lot of people learned about it via the book or the movie with that title, but the concept is much old, and owes something to Lily Hardy Hammond's book In the Garden of Delight.

Here are some charities I can recommend if this reminds you at year's end about those with greater needs than our own and less resources to deal with those needs. 

Smile Train is an organization whose site can break your heart with photos of kids with cleft lip and palate issues in developing countries. They cannot eat or speak properly, won't be allowed to attend school or hold a job and face very difficult lives. A donation of any amount is appreciated and $250 provides for the 45 minute medical procedure that will change a child's life.

One year I chose providing clean water as my focus. It's something we really take for granted in the U.S. More than 1 in 6 people in the world don't have access to safe drinking water and 1 out of every 4 deaths under the age of 5 worldwide is due to a water-related disease. There are a number of organizations that work to provide clean water for people and can even fund a well for an entire village. Here are 3 groups that you can consider: http://www.charitywater.org , http://watercharity.org/ and http://thewaterproject.org

Another year I decided to support charities that help our service members and their families.

Get Involved with Joining Forces

OurMilitary.mil: Community Support for our Military

United We Serve

National Resource Directory   


My wife selected the Michael J. Fox Foundation several years ago when two friends of ours were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. This foundation has an aggressively funded research agenda for ensuring the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson's today.





From myself and Brother Tim at Serendipity35, we wish you a very happy and healthy launch into your dance around the Sun in 2017!


The Future Is Farther Away Than Expected



This is the time when I tire of seeing end of the year wrap-ups and best-of-the-year lists. I particularly find predictions about the year(s) to come annoying. I'm tired of hearing people ask "Where are the things I saw on The Jetsons and in movies about the future?"

Another popular year-end news story is to look back on some past prediction about our present and see if they got anything correct. For example, Brian Williams did a 2-minute story on NBC way back in 2007 about the futuristic year 2017. Watching it, I thought that even when they got things right, the results just feel wrong. Not wrong as in "incorrect" but in the sense of illicit or reprehensible.



They got some predictions correct, but their focus is a kind of technological, biometric nightmare of ubiquitous facial recognition, microchip ID implants (more common on pets than people in 2016), that build upon iris scans and fingerprint ID (as on your phone) that were becoming viable in 2007.

Like most predictions, the writers almost always think change will happen faster than it really does occur.

Have you found really easy hospital patient identification to be a reality? My doctor is still trying to scan my old records as PDF files. Are you free of needing your wallet and keys? Yes, some (not the majority) people use their phones to pay and have a car without a key, but change comes slower than we expect. That is not so much because we can't create the new technology. It is about adoption.

The smartphone is a good example of a technology that had a rapid adoption rate. It was accepted and purchased much faster than other technologies.

Are you still thinking that a drone will deliver your pizza and Amazon order in 2017? When will the roads be filled my almost all driverless cars?

Relax, you have plenty of time.



(This post also appeared on my One-Page Schoolhouse website)

Animating Hair Is a Lesson in STEAM

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I am a proponent of the concept of teaching in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) framework that goes across disciplines. I have seen many attempts to use science and math in teaching art - some successful, some not.

A new project that does this in an engaging way is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy that is sponsored by Disney. Called "Pixar in a Box," it gives a look behind-the-scenes at how artists at Pixar need to use STEM to make art.

To make balls bounce, leaves in trees move in the wind, fireworks explode or realistic rippling water takes more than drawing skills. It requires computer skills and considerations of math, science such as physics and digital humanities.



In this learning series of videos on simulations, the Pixar artists use hair as an example of an animation problem that needed to be solved. Using examples from their films, such as the character Merida in Brave with her bouncy and curly hair, you learn how millions of hairs can be simulated if you think of them as being a huge system of springs.

As the lessons progress, you can learn about animation roles and will discover what a technical director does in the animation process.

The lessons are appropriate for grades 5 and up - though I can see many adults and younger kids interested in animation from a technical or artistic side enjoying the free series.


LinkedIn's Economic Graph

I wrote earlier about LinkedIn Learning, a new effort by the company to market online training. I said then that I did not think this would displace higher education any more than MOOCs or online education. If successful, it will be disruptive and perhaps push higher education to adapt sooner.

LinkedIn’s vision is to build what it calls the Economic Graph. That graph will be created using profiles for every member of the work force, every company, and "every job and every skill required to obtain those jobs."

That concept reminded me immediately of Facebook's Social Graph. Facebook introduced the term in 2007 as a way to explain how the then new Facebook Platform would take advantage of the relationships between individuals to offer a richer online experience. The term is used in a broader sense now to refer to a social graph of all Internet users.

social graph



LinkedIn Learning is seen as a service that connects user, skills, companies and jobs. LinkedIn acknowledges that even with about 9,000 courses on their Lynda.com platform they don't have enough content to accomplish that yet.

They are not going to turn to colleges for more content. They want to use the Economic Graph to determine the skills that they need content to provide based on corporate or local needs. That is not really a model that colleges use to develop most new courses. 

But Lynda.com content are not "courses" as we think of a course in higher ed. The training is based on short video segments and short multiple-choice quizzes. Enterprise customers can create playlists of content modules to create something course-like.

One critic of LinkedIn Learning said that this was an effort to be a "Netflix of education." That doesn't sound so bad to me. Applying data science to provide "just in time" knowledge and skills is something we have heard in education, but it has never been used in any broad or truly effective way.

The goal is to deliver the right knowledge at the right time to the right person.

One connection for higher ed is that the company says it is launching a LinkedIn Economic Graph Challenge "to encourage researchers, academics, and data-driven thinkers to propose how they would use data from LinkedIn to generate insights that may ultimately lead to new economic opportunities."

Opportunities for whom? LinkedIn or the university?

This path is similar in some ways to instances of adaptive-learning software that responds to the needs of individual students. I do like that LinkedIn Learning also is looking to "create" skills in order to fulfill perceived needs. Is there a need for training in biometric computing? Then, create training for it.

You can try https://www.linkedin.com/learning/. When I went there, it knew that I was a university professor and showed me "trending" courses such as "How to Teach with Desire2Learn," "Social Media in the Classroom" and  "How to Increase Learner Engagement." Surely, the more data I give them about my work and teaching, the more specific my recommendations will become.


LinkedIn Learning

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Back at the start of the new school year in September, LinkedIn announced on their blog the launch of LinkedIn Learning, an online learning platform. I first heard about it via some panic posts about it being something colleges should fear. 

With goals of "enabling individuals and organizations to discover and develop the skills through a personalized, data-driven learning experience," schools should welcome the help. Correct?

LinkedIn Learning is really an extension of what the company did when they acquired content from Lynda.com. Combining that content with LinkedIn’s professional data and network gives them 450 million member profiles. If you use that big data, you can view how people, jobs, industries, organizations and even skills evolve over time.

LinkedIn Learning provides a dashboard that someone can use to identify the skills someone might need and then deliver "courses." I never viewed Lynda.com as a threat to the university. My school subscribed and we used it for a time as a way to bring students and faculty up to speed on specific software.

I don't see their new platform as a threat to the college degree either. In fact, I would guess that professionals out in the working world (and probably already with at least an undergraduate degree), job seekers and corporate trainers would be be the main audience.

The platform could be more of a threat to the MOOC approach to learning. So, why would I choose to pay for a course at LinkedIn rather than take a free course from a MOOC provider? As with any online course, the anytime, anywhere convenience is appealing. I might do it if the courses were smaller in enrollment and therefore more personalized. I would find some kind of certification or other way to use successful completion towards advancement in my organization. I would want a reasonable price. The ability to tie together a sequence of related courses into a concentration would also be appealing.

I saw this expansion of their lynda.com purchase described by those panicked and critical educators as a recommendation engine to courses or even a "Netflix for learning." I get that, but I could also compare it with Amazon's recommendations and those of many other websites that use AI to mine users to see trends. That is not a bad thing, and it is not something college allow or do very well now.

LinkedIn has of 9,000+ digital courses, most taught by industry experts. They cover a wide range of business, creative and technical topics, from leadership “soft skills” to design principles to programming. They claim that they add at least 25 courses a week. They offer courses in German, Spanish, Japanese and French.

I suppose it is the data-driven personalization that really interests me. Imagine a college where your personal "guidance" was better designed, but also where the department, majors and degrees were better designed. Do you know how long and how much time and work would be required to add 25 courses to a college catalog?

What LinkedIn Learning has on its side is that their recommendations are positioned within a familiar online space where employees and employers already feel comfortable.

This will not displace higher education any more than MOOCs or online education. Like those trends, it will disrupt, if it is successful. And perhaps higher education will be forced to adapt sooner than later. I think LinkedIn will view higher education as a secondary market.


A New Kind of Core

apple coreNicholas Lemann, in the December 2, 2016 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about what he is calling "a new kind of core curriculum." Lemann is a professor of journalism and dean emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Perhaps more importantly here, he is a member of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It seems that he first formed this idea while being dean at a professional-school where they needed to teach the specific content of an education in a field. Though he is not proposing a trade school approach to undergraduate education that is designed to get you a specific job at graduation, one of his premises is that "if you want to practice a profession, there is a body of material you must master, at least in the early part of your education."

Like many faculty, he is not fond of seeing the liberal arts gradually slip away, and he thinks the way to reverse the decline is to move in the direction of a core curriculum.

Of course, the "core curriculum" has not exactly had a lot of cheerleaders lately either. His proposal is for a methods-based, rather than a canon-based, curriculum. He has "arbitrarily limited my core curriculum to eight one-semester courses, which would amount to no more than half of an undergraduate education, so it would not eliminate the ability to have a major or to choose elective courses."

Lemann notes that the six-year graduation rates now are still at a poor 60 percent rate. He believes that is at least partly because too many entering students aren’t prepared to navigate the world of college-level work. He is not suggesting a change in secondary education though. And he is not a fan of elective systems. 

His new core has courses with names such as "Information Acquisition," "Cause and Effect," "Interpretation," "Numeracy," "Perspective," "The Language of Form," "Thinking in Time," and "Argument" sound new but their descriptions harken back to fairly traditional offerings. 

Take as an example "Argument" which he describes in this way: "Back in the 19th century, when undergraduate core curricula were the rule rather than the exception, practically everybody had to take a course in rhetoric or oratory. The requirement often had roots in the colleges’ original mission of training ministers, and it usually vanished with the advent of the elective system. This course would aim to revive the tradition by teaching students how to make a compelling and analytically sound argument, both written and spoken (and probably also, inevitably, in PowerPoint). It is an endeavor with centuries of interesting thought behind it, so one can imagine the course drawing on philosophy, law, theology, even drama — with the opportunity to consider exemplary arguments from the past. It should be obvious that the assignments would ask students to practice the skills the course is teaching them, in writing and in performance."

For all the Education 2.0 and new approaches being tried in higher education, the lifetime-earnings premium of having a college degree is still substantial enough that some students will continue to show up on campus. Keeping them there and moving them through at a reasonable pace and preparing them for life after academia is far more important than admissions.