Presenting the Present State of Writing Statements

Our statements on diversity and inclusion focus too intently on the past and the future while neglecting the present moment completely. What I really want to know is what an educator is doing here and now, day by day, minute to minute, and second to second; to question and improve his or her own attitude toward diversity. I want to see more awareness of and challenge to the innate biases, the hidden prejudices that plague us all blindly and chronically taint the lens through which we see the world. What I have written below is the present tense version of Berkeley’s “Guidelines for Applicants Writing Statements” .

I have nothing against UC Berkeley. I was actually at Berkeley this past weekend while out in the Bay area for a conference and I have to say it is one of the most forward thinking, progressive campuses I have ever visited. There is an overwhelming sense of pride in acceptance of diversity and you can outwardly sense it not just in the students and the faculty but also in the youth that grow up in the area. Diversity is boldly embraced and exalted all around. But the intro of the statement shared in the schedule for this week mentions the past and the future and planning five times without referring to the present moment even once. It is a reflection of how these types of statements are written and reviewed not just at Berkeley but at universities across the country and the world. They encourage the have done’s and will do’s much more than the grounded, active am doing’s of potential candidates.

 

“The Contributions to Diversity Statement should describe your past experience and activities, and future plans to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, in alignment with UC Berkeley’s mission to reflect the diversity of California and to meet the educational needs and interests of its diverse population. Some faculty candidates may not have substantial past activities. If that is the case, we recommend focusing on future plans in your statement. A more developed and substantial plan is expected for senior candidates.”

My statement would look more like this:

Present Experience:
In each moment when teaching a class I remain as aware as possible of each individual student’s needs. This is why smaller class sizes are so crucial. The ability to dynamically cater to different learning styles and different backgrounds is what I find to be both the most difficult and the most rewarding element of teaching. I believe there is a certain improvisation required in good education. I know that classes rarely go according to the scheduled syllabus, and I pride myself on my ability to adapt in the moment. Though I recognize the potential distraction that computers constantly pose to students, I also believe that they can be used intentionally as powerful tools to assist human ingenuity. Much like chess masters consult computers and merge with them to become “centaurs”, or doctors use electronic medical records (EMRs) to distinguish each patient’s unique medical history, I believe electronic educational records (EERs) can give teachers a more constant awareness of student learning preference, educational history, and active, real-time, engagement in any given course material. Computers also connect us with people all over the world- making education accessible for billions of the world’s poor and breeding a new opportunity to empathize with different cultures and customs. The key is that students meditate on each task- serial mono-tasking rather than distractedly multitasking- and only engage with their screens when it is appropriate to do so.

  • Research Activities: I research the meditative mind in an effort to better understand consciousness and the physiological processes of learning and emotion. A person sitting in meditation becomes the perfect research subject. Static and still, meditators can often use newer mobile sensing techniques without generating too much noise. Global Vitals, for example, offers a respiration rate tracker that works by using a smart phone’s accelerometer to track the rising and falling motion of the abdomen. It would be nearly impossible to capture this data cleanly on a moving subject, but the steadiness of the meditation allows for these less intrusive methods of data capture. Since Yoga Nidra, or yogic sleep, is typically done in a lying down position, it can be recreated in a functional MRI scanner (fMRI) without fundamentally altering the experience for the participant. This allows me to capture detailed 3D images of the brain as a fly on the wall, without the documentation itself significantly altering the practice and therefore the physiological state of the subject. The main hypothesis of this research is to prove the possibility of learning and retaining information when in the deeply focused, subconscious state of yogic sleep.
  • Other Activities: I am the active founder of an immersive mindfulness collective whose mission it is to make the benefits of meditation more accessible to those that need it most. Transp0.se works with inner city youth from Southeast Washington DC and other unprivileged areas to take real ambient sounds and turn them into soundtracks for guided meditations. We travel to different cities to exchange creative energy and experience, connecting people from different places together in the present moment. We use social media and technology as both an educational tool for STEM programming as well as for connective empathy generation. We are actually in the middle of an event as I speak on the National Mall- and we always stream our sessions live to increase immediate accessibility. See video from the experience below.

 

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ENGAGING Definitions of Critical Pedagogy from Six Different Disciplines

VT Engage is a department at Tech that encourages participating in service through a collaborative manner. Volunteering sometimes does more harm than good because we go into communities with an almost white savior complex and ‘fix’ problems that were not there. Then we leave as volunteers, happy that we did service, while the community still has problems. VT Engage however, directly works with communities in a collaborative way that allows them to identify the problems. We then work with communities on problems that matter to them. This allows us to learn from them and how to work together to reach their need based goals, not ours. This makes us aware of their realities and needs, in addition to making them the subjects instead of objects. This is an example and extension of critical pedagogy and how it may be applied. Below are definitions of critical pedagogy from the perspective of our respective disciplines:

Higher Education

Critical pedagogy can be thought of as focusing on the student. This is in line with what Paolo Freire talked about when he wished for us to consider students as subjects and owners of their own learning experiences. Higher education looks at student learning through a holistic perspective and this is an extension of critical pedagogy.

An example: The education field, and especially higher education understands the importance of critical pedagogy. However, this message is not easily transferable to our colleagues in the university that are interested in the bottom line. For example, an advisor might not understand why a student is unable to decide what major to choose. The advisor has heard their advisee talk about doing Finance or Environmental Law. The ‘clear’ choice is finance because it makes more money and the student is on a full scholarship at VT. However, if the advisor adopted a more critical perspective or pedagogy and looked at the student through a holistic point of view, they would see that there are other salient things to consider other than what degree will reap the most benefit or money.

History

As a historian, my understanding of critical pedagogy begins with using Freire to amplify the tenets of liberal learning that form the foundation for historical inquiry: identifying the sources from which historical meaning is constructed and situating those sources in context. Or, put more simply: analyzing material to create an interpretation or perspective on how things change over time. Critical thinking 101. The critical pedagogy piece manifests when the discovery process (learning) provokes students to think about their own historical context, leading to a new awareness that inspires them to work for constructive change. That awareness brings with it the potential for self-actualization, fulfillment, and learning that expands beyond the classroom and after the end of the semester. The learning community formed when teachers and students make themselves available to each other is essential to the success of this project, and this where I lean on bell hooks’ concept of engaged pedagogy:

“Engaged pedagogy establishes a mutual relationship between teacher and students that nurtures the growth of both parties, creating an atmosphere of trust and commitment that is always present when genuine learning happens.” (Teaching Critical Thinking. Practical Wisdom, p. 22)

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Environmental Engineering 

Critical pedagogy in environmental engineering field should focus more on letting students deal with real environmental issues in our daily life and fight air/water/solid waste pollution around ourselves. As environmental engineers, we learn lots of remediation knowledge and techniques via textbooks and classic examples. This passive learning process treats students as “banking accounts” (concept proposed by Paulo Freire). However, in critical learning, or problem-based learning experience, students are encouraged by teacher to first identify environmental problems (air/water/noise/waste) around us, for example near your apartment, around campus, or in a specific community. This process strengthens the connection between student and our mother nature, and give students a chance to improve their living environment for real. With a clear identified environment problem, students are encouraged to propose a detailed remediation plan. These draft plans will be open for discussion through the semester by teacher, industrial people, and most importantly among the peers regarding creativity, feasibility, performance, environmental friendliness, and cost-effectiveness. More problems will be discovered, and students are actively engaged in the learning process to polish their remediation plan under effective communication and solid team work. Promising plans can be converted to a prototype or small-scale treatment system with the help of teacher before being implemented to address source issue. Trial for practical application provides both teacher and students valuable hands-on experience and continuous feedback via periodical maintenance. Critical learning, eventually, establishes student’s confidence as an environmental engineers to build a better and greener environment.

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Figure: To Think Like An Engineer
Link: http://discovermagazine.com/2013/dec/15-e-is-for-engineering

Transportation Engineering

From a transportation engineer’s point of view, the definition of critical pedagogy is two fold: be ready to embrace the future and dare to deny the results from formulas for the sake of social equity.


Transportation was never a static area. Not only because its subjects always moving (which is in the definition of transportation), but also because of its high dependency on the technologies. Connected/automated vehicles were not in the context when most of the textbooks were written. The dynamics of a transportation systems will be different from the existing models. The methods to predict the trips are also changing with the social media data (e.g., steam from Facebook, twitter) become available. Future engineers need to revisit and be able to adapt the basics in transportation theory. They need to be able to dare to challenge the authorities and existing framework to make better trips for people.


Transportation is a social asset that should be able to access by anyone equally. As is stated in Bell Hook’s introduction of “Teaching Critical Thinking,” a good education should “encourage an ongoing commitment to social justice.” The current development of transportation facilities hurt the wellbeing of the poor and do the favor towards the rich class. The goal in highway design usually includes minimizing the cost which is related to the cost of the land and maximize the benefits. These thoughts usually lead to the situation where highways are constructed in a low income place. Although the highways physically lay in those area, the residents could not access the highway thus cannot benefit from the government funds. Moreover, the highway passing their area caused noise and air pollution. Although a large amount of government funds goes to transportation sector in the US, only a small part of it goes to public transit, which is accessible by the poor. With richer data available, the future engineer should keep in mind that their “optimal” design may not be fair to a certain social class.

Social Theory 

Even though social theory should by definition be explicitly engaged with the world beyond the classroom, this is often not the case. My field tends to suffer from a sort of academic myopia — especially in the more philosophically oriented courses. Making the connection between what we learn and teach in the classroom and the realities of non-academic life is essential to critical pedagogy in both social theory (which I study in the ASPECT program) and arts and humanities (which I teach in the Religion and Culture department).

In her writings on democracy and pedagogy, bell hooks discusses the divide between theory and practice. Her reflections on life as a Black female scholar exemplify a situation many of us in the humanities and social sciences are unfortunately all to familiar with: the case of the instructor who believes their intellectual engagement with progressive ideas is a substitute for practice. I have personally been in a few classes with seemingly forward-thinking — sometimes self-identified “radical” — professors who, after class, demonstrate very clear sexism and bias against students from certain backgrounds (particularly students from rural areas or with more mainstream ideals). So one goal of critical pedagogy in the humanities and social sciences should be to emphasize practice as much as theory. The hurt of sexism and other forms of bias — including racism, which I do not experience, but have observed secondhand all too often — is compounded by hypocrisy.

One way we can combat this is to emphasize self-reflexivity a bit more. I would like to see instructors be more transparent about their own bias and background, especially those who seem to feel very comfortable in their positions. The best humanities / social science instructors I have had were open about how they came to form their opinions, and even what led them to this career. In fields that deal primarily with subjective content, where interpretation and meaning-construction is key, critical pedagogy should help us resist the urge to present our course content as objective fact. Discussing how the course material evolved to become what it is today will offer students a good lesson in intellectual history and social epistemology — and, perhaps more importantly, establish instructors as human beings who are open to learning more, as well.

Environmental Design & Planning

The definition of critical pedagogy from a planning perspective is to embrace the complexity that comes with diverse learning environments and leverage it to question the knowledge we exchange with students through unique lenses of experience.  Just like our cities, our classrooms live and die with this complexity. When we try to simplify our cities with urban planning, placing communities and uses into well defined boxes (or zones or neighborhoods), we tend to lose the cultural intricacies that create vibrancy. This is what Jane Jacobs begins to chronicle in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Similarly, as Joe L. Kinchloe explains in The Critical Pedagogy Primer, our schools and our classrooms need complexity to thrive. His concept of Critical Complexity combines critical pedagogy with organizational complexity theory and is a convincing argument against the standardization and oversimplification of assessing academic performance.

Einstein

Kinchloe mentions in his chapter “Moving To Critical Complexity” that Albert Einstein would have been considered a problem child and a nuisance in many classrooms of his day. His relentless questioning and assigning lessons from one domain to another would have frustrated many teachers who were trained to teach by the book. But as always, Einstein gets the last word. He is quoted to have said “Everything must be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Einstein understands and embraces the need to complicate theories in order to better represent our complex reality, but striking a balance between manageable simplicity and critical complexity is key.

In conclusion, the strategy of VT Engage in service work and philanthropy is similar to what Christine Labuski mentioned in her follow up to last week’s discussion regarding Universal Precautions: we must move away from notions of savior neo-colonialism and assume that the people from troubled communities understand their problems best and therefore must be an integral part of the solution. In the context of teaching and critical pedagogy, no educator can possibly understand the wealth of experience and learning that brings each student to the doorstep of the classroom, and this student must be engaged in his or her own education enough to help decide what is best for their academic evolution. Different students learn in different ways; they see things through the varied lenses of the diverse lives they have lead. Teachers and students, writers of text books and journals and leaders of conferences all have biases that must be identified. Together we can be more critical and learn from a larger, shared perspective. We must embrace diversity and its ability to help us all constructively question the information placed along our path and apply it boldly in the direction of our dreams.


The Racist Highway

Of all the metaphors I have heard attempting to describe institutional racism, there is one that has always stuck out in my mind: Racism is like riding a bike on the highway. It is not necessarily that the cars are out to get you, or actively trying to push you off the road. It is simply that the infrastructure was not designed for bicycles. It was designed for cars- and just by using the roads as they were meant to be used, the cars impose on the bike riders and make it very difficult (not to mention incredibly stressful) to arrive safely at their destination.

The main idea here is that not all whites or other majorities are pro-actively racist. Very few actually are, and these are the ones that are easiest to notice and dismiss. It is the mass majority driving unassumingly down the road of privilege that is most dangerous. They do not feel racist, and often they even embrace diversity, but just by being born with the keys in their hand and taking their right of way they perpetuate racial and ethnic inequality.

The solution requires an active donation of privilege. Driving slower (maybe even below the speed limit) or waiting before passing a bike to make sure there is enough room on the shoulder are merely modest beginnings. Maybe you could drive a little less and make use of other modes of transportation. Better yet- give your car to your poorest neighbor and get a bicycle. See what the ride is like from the other side.

This is what Christine Labuski is getting at with the “gender studies perspective” she asks her classes to take and her “Universal Precautions” (UPs) approach. Developing sincere empathy for another person or group’s experience/condition, and assuming that everyone you talk to could be a member of that group, is crucial. While some conditions (like sexual orientation or infection) are not immediately obvious, race nearly always is. As Shankar Vedantam argues in “The Hidden Brain”, we must be more aware of the subconscious judgments we associate with race, all the stereotypes and preconditioned behaviors instilled in us through constant societal cues. We must work even harder to combat our racist “autopilot” reactions by treating everyone with a level of open and equal respect.

Our schools, just like our roads and our society, are designed for the majority. It is not that you cannot make it through the educational system as a minority, but it is often much more difficult to do so. The odds are stacked against you. While children from racial majorities coast through with the support and the resources they need to succeed always readily accessible- minorities can often struggle. The minority student has to significantly outperform his or her majority competition even to be considered. I have friends who have changed their ethnic sounding names and noticed significantly higher rates of acceptance for interviews and applications. The difficulties of cultural and linguistic fluency compound these challenges, especially for immigrant children.

At the end of the day it will be on us as educators to design our classrooms as havens of equal opportunity. But in order to do so we must proactively seek to see through our own prejudices and preconceptions as well as those imposed upon us by the institutions we are a part of. We must proactively strive to provide any curious, motivated student an opportunity to thrive and to learn. It will ultimately be our duty as teachers to make sure the road to educational success is designed for all types of students, regardless of race or background or the vehicle they use to get to class. (I leave it to the civil engineer majority of our class to make sure our roads are more bike friendly for those who wish to commute by bike).

 


On Being a Bird of Space

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts; And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. … For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

~Khalil Gibran

When I read these words for the first time from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran my mind exploded. It simultaneously made me question the act of reading and my ability to express literary insights through my own written words. It amazed me that Gibran could use the same methods he condemns to so poetically criticize the foundations of our educational system. This quote first came to mind while reading Seymour Papert’s “Yearners and Schoolers” from The Children’s Machine when he mentions his coining of the term ‘letteracy’.

Thought, and therefore knowledge too, is a bird of space. When it comes to educating future generations I have to agree with Papert that words written and read on a page will not be nearly enough to continue to educationally engage our children and our children’s children. Not in the immersive multi-media world we are rapidly inventing and enveloping them in. If anything it will be letteracy in the languages of computing and code- learning the words and syntax that computers can understand too-  that will surpass standard alphabetical literacy in importance. But I believe that there will also be strides taken towards Papert’s so-called “Knowledge Machine” that will make reading and writing much less relevant for learning. I have already experienced incredible advances towards educational virtual reality- where you learn Egyptian history by walking through the Great Pyramids or travel along the synapses in the human brain to learn about neuroscience. This virtual, experiential learning offers unprecedented opportunities to transcend typical word-based pedagogies and encourage the auditory, exploratory learning of toddlers for learners of all ages through their lifetimes.

But there is something else earlier in this Khalil Gibran quote that really resonates with the idea of finding your authentic teaching self: “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts: And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart…”. It is the true understanding of self through self-compassion and self-love- that must precede the discovery of your true inner teacher. We must really get to know ourselves before we can interact and educate others. Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” really gets at this idea. It wasn’t until she embraced her earnest intensity and her detail-oriented uncoolness that she became authentic and therefore effective in the eyes of her students. The more you accept yourself for who you are, the more you can be at peace with your thoughts and the direction of your heart, the more of yourself you can actually bring into the classroom and share with your pupils, the more you breathe your whole being into your teaching- the more your students will leave your classroom truly inspired, transformed, and ready to take on the world.

Even these confident, self-assured, impassioned lessons would be limiting in the mind of Gibran- he is getting at the insufficiency of any words, spoken or written, to articulately convey our thoughts. But Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills” reinforces that there are wordless ways to best project the voice that we have in communicating lessons to our students. In fact she claims only “10% of effective communication happens through what a presenter does with the words (including the actual words used)”. The other 90% is through body language and expression; through stage presence; through making the body into an instrument that can effectively convey the passion and the energy that a good teacher brings to the classroom every single day.

And so know that words are just the very beginning. I challenge you to break through their cage and let your thoughts fly through the use of other media and means of expression. I challenge you to educate and inspire on the basis of being a bird of space.


Learning on a Steep Curb | Mobile Education and Mindfulness in Myanmar

I met Tim Aye-Hardy while living in Yangon, Myanmar in 2015. He is a native Burmese man who fled the country after his participation in the student protests in 1988 led to military persecution, and proceeded to spend the next two decades studying and working in America. Upon returning to his homeland he started Myanmar Mobile Education Project (MyME), a social enterprise that educates young tea-shop employees on the back of retrofitted, antique Hino buses (see below).  In Myanmar, many children from the countryside are sent by their parents to work at these tea-shops and collect a little extra money for their families. They are essentially swept up into a type of modern indentured servitude- sold to tea-shop owners as cheap labor and stripped of any fundamental access to education.

 

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A classic Hino bus still used for public transportation in Yangon, Myanmar. MyME is now retrofitting these buses into mobile classrooms. See video documentation here.

It is amazing that a country so intensely mindful in its religious practice of Buddhism can be so mindless when it comes to primary education and stripping this basic right for millions of their youth. Not only that, tea-shops literally represent the cultural center of communities in Myanmar. They are the setting for eating and drinking at breakfast lunch and dinner, studying, conversing, debating, catching up, having discussions, watching news, viewing sports, etc. – the essential pulse of social life in Yangon. Yet the kids who run them are being dreadfully denied access to the learning they will need to keep the country vibrantly progressing out of poverty for generations to come.

 

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A girl working at the tea-shop next to my office near the South Dagon industrial zone of Yangon. Employed children like her are often forced to work 12+ hour days and get paid next to nothing. 

Of course this is not the only controversy surrounding Myanmar at the moment. Their beloved leader Aung San Suu Kyi has neglected to intervene with the atrocious military treatment of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in the northeastern part of the country. Recently the burning of villages have sent thousands of additional refugees flooding over the border into Bangladesh. Though many speculate that Suu Kyi is in a very precarious political situation and is essentially powerless in controlling the military’s actions in the region, the strong current of seemingly radical Buddhism seems to uphold peace and justice if and only if you are also Buddhist. The majority in Myanmar tends to blame all Muslims for the terrorism of the select few that radicalize toward violence. They don’t understand that the word Islam in Arabic actually derives from the root Salaam meaning peace. Muslims literally greet one another with this same peaceful salutation. Yet the violence and the racism and the misunderstandings persist. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeaux plans to bring the Rohingya crisis up as his main point on Tuesday’s UN council meeting in New York City.

Learning anything in the context of this social, economic, and political turmoil is an enormous challenge. Tea-shop kids have the same situational stress plus 10-14 hours of work a day.  So for Tim Aye-Hardy and MyME to succeed they knew they must go a step further and get very creative with their approach. They have already incorporated many of the gamification principles that we discussed last week into their courses. But there might be more to learn from their country’s strong Theravada Buddhist tradition when it comes to integrating principles of mindful learning into their mobile classrooms.

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Two Burmese monks walk past my corner tea-shop near Shwedagon Pagoda where I lived during my time in Yangon. The server in the background was a twelve year old boy nick-named “Ja Bao” or baby tiger. He had no access to formal education.

In his teachings, Buddha often talked about mindfulness and single pointed focus. Recognizing distractions and coming back to the subject at hand is something that could be invaluable to many students and modern day professionals alike. Just replace the focus on the breath in meditation with focus on the next task on your long list of to-do’s. Buddha also insists on complete personal detachment from the subject- an objective, non-biased perspective that many scientists strive toward for their entire career. Of course the end goal of these teachings in the Buddhist context is not a diploma or a career path with socio-economic security, it is a spiritual path toward Nirvana or enlightenment. If only some of these tenets of the religious culture in Myanmar could be applied to their education system. It could quickly become a baseline for deeply mindful education worldwide.

I learned a lot about mindfulness and Vippassana meditation while I was in Myanmar. I sat face to face with many monks struggling to understand the practice and learning what I could through hand gestures and broken Burmese. I taught my first ever yoga class at Yangon Yoga House and went on to start a collective called Transp0se while I was living in Washington D.C. We integrated lessons from Nada Yoga (the yoga of music) and Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) with technology and mixed media as a way to make mindfulness more approachable for the masses. Our programs were also geared towards teaching mindfulness techniques rather than general education but we identified many amazing overlaps. Yoga Nidra, for example, is especially interesting in its ability to enable subjects to subconsciously absorb and retain information. Imagine being able to learn a language or study for an exam in your sleep! In his famous book on the subject Swami Satyananda Saraswati echos warnings from both Buddha and Ellen Langer alike- “Be mindful (especially) of mindlessness”. We need to be aware of not just what we learn but how we learn as well.

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Luke and I in a Transp0se meditation circle in Upstate New York this past summer. Everything comes full circle.

I met Luke Namer at The Fresh Air Collective gathering in upstate New York this past summer. We went to undergrad together at Cornell but never met in Ithaca. Transp0se was hosting a meditation session there and Luke organized the event. A couple of days ago I got an email from Luke and his friend/collaborator Daniel who started a social-impact educational tourism platform called Edventurists. They were hosting screenings of a couple new short films from Luke’s production company Redefined. One of the films was called Steep Education, a 20 minute documentary on Tim Aye-Hardy and the Myanmar Mobile Education Project. They asked if I could help organize a screening on September 27th, without the faintest clue that I had met Tim in 2015 and was currently studying this exact topic in Contemporary Pedagogy.

If anyone would be interested in trying to screen the film during our class please comment! I plan to pitch the idea to Dr. Nelson immediately after submitting this post. A sudden change in the curriculum might be just what we need to drive home this idea of mindful learning and teaching right here at home.


Places & Spaces | Seeing Beyond the Book

For decades textbooks have defined the way we teach. Assigning readings and questions chapter by chapter has become so rote that even the teachers must be becoming bored. When meaningless lectures repeat material that can be found in the book, students (understandably) stop going to class. They lose interest and they fall behind. It is not that I have anything against textbooks or books in general, in fact I have enormous respect for the time, discipline and knowledge that goes into aggregating expertise in a given field and presenting it effectively in a couple hundred pages. My issue is with “teaching by the book” and teachers fooling themselves into thinking that, even before the digital age, this was an effective means for “information transfer” (Robert Talbert alludes to this in his post). This pedagogical strategy cannot possibly keep up with the eruption of new information that has come with the internet. There are now too many dynamic connections and ideas hidden between the lines for educators to cling to the static chapters in a text.

Here on campus we have some amazing resources, and among them Newman Library may be the most impressive. Of the 2 million volumes now available across the various branches there is certainly something there for every motivated learner. The problem is that not every learner is motivated enough to go out and find the right resource. And even the most motivated among us might not have the time or the energy to trace the connections between resources. I wrote this post in Newman and as I was walking through the stacks searching for inspiration I noticed myself looking at my cell phone more often than at the bindings of the books. Even in the education section I found nothing of interest. It wasn’t until I saw past the stacks and stumbled upon a more modern means of information transfer that I finally found what I was looking for.

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The Places & Spaces exhibit in Newman Library is an amazing example of interactive, imaginative learning. Geophysical and temporal mapping and data visualization literally help you transcend space and time and trace connections between diverse ideas and trends. There are macroscopes (defined by the curating organization as “software tools that help us focus on patterns in the data that are too large or complex to see with the naked eye”) that trace the history of science and the language patterns that have evolved in global academic research across millennia. They are interactive and turn the learning experience into an inquisitive game, just like Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown advocate in A New Culture of Learning. Other visualizations delve deeply into the connections in the human brain, the sequenced genomes of 191 species, and the evolution and structure of science itself. They range from purely analytical to abstractly creative and aesthetic- catering to many different styles of learning and capturing the attention of visitors interested in vastly different things.

Books are no longer nearly enough to engage the imagination of digital learners. We need to visualize the incredible connections enabled in a networked world and present them in ways that are not just digestible but also inspirational for students of our technological age. If you have not yet checked out the Places & Spaces exhibit in Newman Library, I would strongly recommend you do so. Walk right through the stacks and find something a bit more awe-inspiring on the other side. It is an amazing example of how modern educators can stop teaching by the book and instead start using new tools and technologies to help students see beyond the book.


Bumper to Bumper Learning

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A computer read me the essays for this week’s post while stuck in bumper to bumper traffic in the middle of Manhattan. A friend’s wedding took me nearly 500 miles from Blacksburg and I knew I would have to multi-task a bit to stay caught up with my coursework.  I discovered an app called VoxDox that takes article URLs and dictates them with a robotic voice reminiscent of Kraftwerk albums from the mid 1970’s. When a big build up at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel stopped me dead in my tracks I just pressed play, turned up the volume, and listened to a tinny rendition of Gardner Campbell’s “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” (2016) drown out the honking horns of far too many aggressive New York City drivers.

At first it felt incredible. While most people may have lost their cool in the two hours it took me to drive from Brooklyn to Jersey City, I had an enormous smile on my face the whole time. I was beating the system. I was getting work done while driving. Multi-tasking and simultaneously mastering the 21st century educational system. But as I swerved to avoid a massive bus that had to weave at weird angles through a grid-locked intersection, I realized my situation was not so ideal. I was distracted. I was absorbing about every other sentence at best. And I was about 90 minutes late for the rehearsal dinner.

And so I came to the conclusion that just like George Kuh had warned against in his monologue mentioned in the first paragraph of Campbell’s post, I had alienated myself from my own education. In my case it was not due to a desire to meet minimum syllabus requirements or to the university’s focus on developing core competencies. My alienation was due to the extreme accessibility of technology and an irreverence to the importance of contextual learning. I am continually amazed that we now have nearly unlimited and unrestricted access to information. But sometimes there is just too much of it and when we find it in the wrong places at the wrong times it can be very counterproductive. This is the crux of procrastination and the danger in distracted learning. It was also remarkably similar to my situation in traffic. Too many cars on insufficient roadways, ill-prepared to handle the flow of traffic.

I love the idea of networked learning. You can learn absolutely anything. You can learn it absolutely anywhere.  You can gain insights from brilliant minds regardless of physical proximity. It has the potential to transform access to knowledge and the collaborative creation of truth. It’s miraculous. But we all need to keep asking ourselves how much bandwidth we really have. When and where are we best suited to learn? In what ways can we best tap into these seemingly infinite wells of information? Every person has their preference and every person is different. The more we ask and probe the better chance we will have to design the next generation of adaptive platforms for networked learning that organize and present the material in more manageable, personalized ways.

How many uncoordinated honking cars can you really shove down the throat of the Holland Tunnel? But once those cars are connected and correlated, aware of the space around them and the best collective way to get to their respective destinations, there’s no slowing them down. The same goes for learning. Once we perfect networked learning and give it more awareness and intuition, there’s no bottleneck. Give it contextual awareness and make sure it is delivered in an appropriate place and an appropriate way for each individual and suddenly there’s no more concerns with bandwidth. There is just an awe-inpspiring capacity to drive forward the collective intelligence of the human race.

\\ For the record I had to re-read the essays before writing this post and I did indeed make it across the Hudson River in time for the wedding. //


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