Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Get Your Free Online Education

For those of us rethinking education, more and more tools are becoming available for advancing our learning. Coursera and Udacity are just two examples of how online courses are making higher education available to all, for free. Further, anyone taking these free courses who can demonstrate mastery, can get a certificate of completion. (Fast Company, How Coursera, A Free Online Education Service, Will School Us All, by Anya Kamanetz, August 8, 2012)
Starting with MIT's OpenCourseware in 2001, universities have increasingly seen the provision of such resources as an essential part of their public mission. Indeed, hundreds of millions of people have viewed lectures from top universities for free online in the past 10 years. But until now, these resources have been passive, like Wikipedia. They haven't been organized and sequenced for active learning or paired with social media tools. More crucially, they haven't been offered with certification. That's beginning to change, says Chow, as for the first time traditional universities offering online courses will certify that students have mastered the contents.

For unschoolers or non-schoolers, life-learners and autodidacts, and those seeking to un-college, this is a very big deal. These courses have the potential to provide huge opportunities in learning, skill-building and mastery. With or without certification, the experiences these courses can provide can make all the difference when seeking career opportunities as employers increasingly embrace competency-based learning in a constantly changing, technologically innovative world.
"In my job interview, I don't think it was, 'Oh, you took the class, you get the job.' It was more that I'd learned enough to have a conversation and seem like I knew what I was talking about." - Fast Company

Free Online Courses

The Minerva Project

Monday, November 7, 2011

Now, Honey

Our treasure lies in the beehive of our knowledge. We are perpetually on the way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind. - Friedrich Nietzsche

the bees

We discuss the benefits and health of bees fairly frequently, and now that grandparents are adding yet another hive, we should be well-supplied with our favorite rich, dark amber, raw honey. Which is why my nose crinkled in disgust when I read this article, Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn't Honey. (And if we hope to either help with or have our own hives someday, we should take a class.)

Tigger, your loss, man. I mean cat.

A word about honey's expiration date: it lasts a very long time. Apparently centuries, as long as it is not contaminated with water or other particles. I tried researching more about honey found in tombs, and nothing I found was very reliable or current, (some were disturbing), but it's fairly clear that people have had a long history bee keeping and collecting honey.

As for that phrase the bee's knees, have a look at its possible origins.

Perhaps you've wondered if honey badgers do indeed eat honey? According to this, what they are mostly eating is bee brood, or larva, and are less interested in the honey.

And since we're on the topic of honey vs. adulterated honey, let's just agree now that we'll never have this on our pancakes. As with honey, maple syrup faces similar legal and consumer issues.

Hmm, a cup of tea with honey sounds good, right about now. I'm just glad ours is the sort that contains actual bee's knees, aren't you?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Digital Learning: The Key To Knowing

With annoying regularity, articles like Lanier's Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? surface, replete with short-sightedness and much tsk-tsking, to the point where we can see the author chewing their lips and wagging fingers while muttering about newfangled machines and kids these days. Never mind that such articles rarely address We, Of The Non-Institutional Learning. In the limited vision of these articles, all learning must be dissected and transmitted by the teacher to the student, in a classroom, but of course.

Always too, there's much lamenting about how so few of us actually understand the technology we are using (meaning, I suppose, that we didn't design, build or otherwise produce said technology) so therefore, the reasoning goes, technology is immediately rendered heartless and cold, while being imbued with magical qualities. This reasoning leads me to think that either I and my family, (my friends, my acquaintances, the shopkeepers...) must be existing in some woefully ignorant and skill-less alternative universe, or, conversely, (and I think I might have something here) most of us don't know how most things work, let alone know how to build them. Unless of course, I'm wrong and indeed, everyone outside my social circle knows how their home's plumbing works or how to make an edible loaf of bread from milled flour or regularly build expansion bridges.

The reasoning in Lanier's article goes on to say that having these technologies figured out for us by an oddball few, destroys the mind, heart and soul, of we, the technology user, because we didn't come by the information ourselves.

This way of seeing is becoming ever more common as people have experiences with computers. While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.

Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it?

Funny he mentions missing the point. Before the likes of Pandora or any other algorithmic-based music program, my options for curating a very personal music library were limited. It's a little like needing to know how to spell a word and looking it up in the dictionary, without knowing how to spell the word. That's a problem. If I've never been exposed to a variety of music because I'm limited by what the DJ (or more accurately, the media giant like Clear Channel) plays, how do I know what exists? Oh, I suppose, I could purchase every item of music available to me and sort through all of it in the hopes of distilling what I liked. At this point, of course, I risk becoming the singularly focused oddball Lanier accuses Silicon Valley types of being, but hey, at least music isn't chosen for me. Lanier misses the point completely here. Never before was it so easy and rewarding and life-enhancing to build a music library. Never before have people been able to access music they had no idea existed! With Pandora, for instance, one song, one artist, becomes the key that unlocks limitless other music for me.

Ah, but also according to Lanier, I (and in his example, students) come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure. He argues that there is only this relay-effect, but no actual critical thinking is happening on the student's part. (This is particularly perplexing to me, since I read Lanier's article, published on-line, aloud in the car to my family as I read from my smartphone via a link someone shared via Twitter, which then led to an hour long dissection of his points by my two teens). And here, we revisit my analogy about dictionaries and mystery words, when he says:

The artifacts of our past accomplishments can become so engrossing in digital form that it can be harder to notice all we don’t know and all we haven’t done. While technology has generally been the engine that propels us into unknowable changes, it might now lull us into hypnotic complacency.

He says it can be harder to notice all we don't know and all we haven't done. Yes, it's very difficult to look up words we don't know how to spell, or indeed, find music we don't know. Using technology to learn doesn't make us passive digital relays. Instead, we're using technology to explore things that before was previously unknown to us (and in most cases, we did it without knowing the word we were looking for). If Lanier would spend a week on Tumblr, for instance, and witness the intelligent sharing information and social activism that exists there; if he watched more movies made by young people featuring special-effect-edited sequences enhanced by the music of Carl Orff, he just might be convinced that those spaceships he'd like to see built, are, and in many cases, especially, I argue, among the self-directed learners, have already taken off and landed many times. And perhaps, like Douglas Thomas, author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination For A World Of Constant Change, says,

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.

Of course, perhaps Lanier can't be blamed for not seeing the word he doesn't know how to spell.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer Begins: Exploring Memorial Day

Memorial Day Weekend is here. In our beach town, this signals the return of the summer people, the amusement park and board walk open and yard sale signs flutter from every corner telephone pole. On Monday, the traditional date for Memorial Day, our town holds a parade, commemorating the service and sacrifice of our military, (but will also include older adult men, riding tiny cars, and other such parade goofiness.)

Memorial Day when I was a kid, way back when in the 1970s, living in a small, coastal village downeast, meant we woke early to decorate our bikes in red, white and blue crepe paper. We then rode our bikes to the town cemetery where a solemn ceremony was held, with flags, pipes and drums and folks dressed in uniforms of wars gone by. (This blog has photos of that town's Memorial Day ceremonies, which look just the same now as they did 35 years ago.) We also decorated with tissue paper poppies, some we made and others were bought for .25 at the market, from a veteran. Poppies have long been a symbol of remembrance.

Today, many people still celebrate Memorial Day by decorating grave sites with flags and flowers, attending parades, firework displays and pops concerts. Others still, simply gather with family and friends, have cookouts, or head to the beach or lake.(Still others shop the big sales that have somehow become associated with this holiday.)

There are some interesting ways to view Memorial Day (and similar holidays, like Independence Day and Labor Day). Is it truly just a day for remembrance or is it an example of something known as American civil religion, which is the idea that, "Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion?" This theory talks about how a new country relied on civil ceremony during times of social crisis (the Revolutionary War, Civil War and Vietnam War) to define, unite and direct the country. This process has close ties to the idea of American exceptionalism. This idea was originally used to mean that America was unique in it's democratic foundation. Eventually however, especially during the Cold War, between the US and USSR, American exceptionalism became the idea that America was uniquely moral, right, justified, strong, worthy and chosen by God to assert its values on the world. Through that lens, Memorial Day can be seen as a celebration of America's God-given directive. While honoring the memory of those who served, we participate in an act of civic nationalism, designed to profess our loyalty to the myth of America, Better Than All The Rest, (not to mention white and Christian.*)

So, what do you think? Do you think it hurts to participate in Memorial Day activities, this civil religion? Does it bring communities together, forge a common identity as a nation? Is it just about remembering the loss of so many during times or war, or is it about giving American a big whoop-whoop? Is it possible to both recognize America's unique-it's exceptional, place in the world, while also being able to recognize America's faults or overreach? Or has Memorial Day become so far removed from its origin, that it is only about barbecues and car sales?

*For a good read on what it means to have a white culture, read this.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Civil War: 150 Years Later And How We Remember

Because today marks the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War, not only will we resume our viewing of Civil War, we will also examine and scrutinize how the Civil War is being remembered 150 years later. Is there national agreement on what the cause(s) of the war? Just how is the Civil War being remembered; with somber ceremonies or celebration? Is the war glorified at all? Does the 150th anniversary mean different things to people? What might some of those differences be? How do you think the Civil War should be remembered?

Let's look at that first question: is there national agreement on what the cause(s) of the war? It's telling, I think, that in my link research for this post, so often the main reasons given for the Civil War (slavery, economics, culture, state vs. federal rights, and President Lincoln's politics) slavery, the actual buying and selling of human beings is disregarded. Slavery is often discussed only as it pertains to the North vs. South and their respective cultures (city vs. plantation) or framed as abolitionists vs. slave owners. Rarely are the moral and ethical ramifications of human trafficking discussed as a direct cause of the war.

Certainly all those other reasons had their role in the cause of the Civil War, but here we are 150 years later and still ignoring the giant elephant in the room, and it's that half of the Union owned other people. To argue that the war was fought over states' rights, is disingenuous, as the very right being fought for was the states' right to own people; to continue the slavery. To say otherwise is inaccurate. This blog, US Slave, contains many resource links.

Let's note too, that just 50 years ago, the 100 year (or centennial) anniversary of the Civil War coincided with the civil rights movement, when most of the South was still segregated. It was hardly the case that the war resulted in all peoples being free and equal and despite the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves (not all slaves and those only in the states that had seceded), people still suffered the cruelty of segregation for another hundred years. Listen to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Okay, so that was 50 years ago. What about today, does national agreement exist today? If battlefield plaques don't even mention slavery or some state governments continue to fly the Confederate flag or designate one month as Confederate History Month (as Virgina did, April 2010, only to retract that proclamation later), can it be said that the entire nation has reconciled its history of slavery with that of the Civil War? Some states are seeking tourism dollars and a boost in their economies by marketing certain war artifacts, battle grounds and museums. Additionally, in some states the commemoration of the Civil War takes on a celebratory tone, replete with parades and beauty contests and battle re-enactments. In Montgomery, Alabama, (the seat of the civil rights movement) one organizer of the 150th anniversary festivities there said, "while civil rights activist Rosa Parks is revered by many for moving from the back of the bus to the front, the "people of the Confederacy have been forced to the back of the bus." This viewpoint differs hugely with that of other community leaders who see the events another way. "It's almost like celebrating the Holocaust," said Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Our rights were taken away and we were treated as less than human beings. To relive that in a celebratory way I don't think is right."

Obviously holocaust is a strong word and sensitivity is required when choosing to use it, so let's take a moment to examine whether holocaust, as used above, applies to slavery. First, holocaust can be defined as any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life. So let's look at the facts.

approximately 10,700,000 Africans were displaced when they were brought on slave ships during the Middle Passage (the journey over the Atlantic) to America.

approximately 1,800,000 Africans died en route, their bodies thrown overboard.

current estimates for the number of Africans forced into the slave trade: 12,500,000, the largest forced migration in modern history. Here is another excellent source on the forced migration.

the 1860 census numbers the amount of U.S. slaves at just under 4 million.

total military casualties of Civil War: 625,000

The Civil War was brutal and resulted in terrible losses and of course it should be commemorated. To do so, however, without acknowledging the holocaust that slavery was, and one that lasted for over 300 years, and one that led to war that nearly destroyed a young country and her democracy, is not honoring the past with honesty and accuracy. To celebrate rather than remember what was lost by so, so many, is abhorrent. What should be historical remembrance, somber and respectful, becomes glorified and hateful and perpetuates the divisiveness and racism of 150 years ago.

By no means is this post exhaustive. To further read about history spanning the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, this is a good place to start.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Like A Box Of Chocolates

This post is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

What's a Scenester? Do you recognize any apple store indies, perhaps? Do you think it's fair to generalize about others based on fashion, or do you think the portraits are largely accurate? Do you recognize yourself in any of the scenesters? Is there a point where seeking individualism simply becomes a uniform; is it possible to be the non-conforming conformist? And if indivdualism is the goal, to be outside the collective interest, how is adopting a fashion trend, emo, for instance, contrary to this goal--or is it? Can you think of examples where individual expression morphed into a fad?

In fascinating science news, did you know it was possible to help make a reef out of old subway cars? It's happening along the east coast (USA) and these subway reefs are teeming with life, in areas that were once practically ocean deserts. Why are reefs so important? Though the practice has been discontinued primarily, it's only because the subway cars are being built differently and it's not financially beneficial or necessary to dispose of old cars this way. Environmentally it seemed to be a winning solution. Watch a short video here.

In creepy science news, the newly discovered zombie-ant fungus ZOMBIE- ANT FUNGUS, surely takes the cake. (What the heck does the phrase take the cake mean, anyway?)

Because yesterday was International Women's Day and Josephine Baker came up in conversation, read more about her. I think we all found her heroic work with the French Resistance during WWII to be the most intriguing, but by no means is this her bravest act. (You can read all about it here, under the heading Rise To Fame. *There is one bare-breasted photo of Josephine.) It's important to understand, as you read about Ms. Baker, that every ounce of her life was impacted by racism. While she left the US for France and Europe to escape the Jim Crow Laws in the US, her ready acceptance and fame in France was very much due in part to France's then-colonization of Africa (the height of which occurred in the 1920s-1930s, when Ms. Baker arrived in France). African art, images and yes, people were embraced for consumption by the whites, and African-descent people were objectified, so it's important to read about her life, her career and mutual admiration of her and the French people in this context. For another look at her life, view this six-part video of Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

State Of The Union

With our eyes and ears focused on Wisconsin and other state legislators as collective union bargaining power is increasingly threatened, let's revisit unions and their role in democracy. A year ago you both read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
"And, for this, at the end of the week, he will carry home three dollars to his family, being his pay at the rate of five cents per hour-just about his proper share of the million and three quarters of children who are now engaged in earning their livings in the United States." Chapter 6

"To Jurgis the packers had been equivalent to fate; Ostrinski showed him that they were the Beef Trust. They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people." Chapter 29

Also, read about the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911. Do you think labor unions are as important today as they were in reforming the factory at the start of the Industrial Revolution? What about the protests in WI indicates that unions are still considered necessary? Why do you think so many have chosen to protest?

In the coming weeks, as we watch the political events unfold in the state governments, consider any parallels between today's politics, labor disputes, political philosophies, debates, etc, between today's events and what we learn about the Civil War.

Don't worry, we'll have lots of discussion about these topics and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
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