Introduction

I

I remember visiting Dr. Lanze’s office throughout a few crisp fall mornings. The colorful orange and red leaves provided a nice contrast to the ‘colonial blue’ two-story office they surrounded. Here I was, twenty years old, visiting a psychiatrist for the first time. I wondered what the office staff and doctor thought of me; this couldn’t have been an ordinary request. The nurse gave me a nod and showed me into a room after I told her my name. I sat down in a comfortable chair in a room straight out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s seventies-era design, complete with chunky teak chairs with orange upholstering. There was a knock at the door and a timid, White, middle-aged man wearing glasses entered the room. “Hi Leah, I’m Dr. Lanze. I’m going to be working with you today. Can you tell me why you are here?” 

I felt as if I’ve already told this story a few times over the past few weeks- to advisors, my parents, and possibly the same nurse that showed me where this room was. “Yes. I’ve failed every math class I’ve ever taken in college and they tell me I can’t graduate unless I can prove I have a problem. I believe I have a problem, but I am here to find the proof.” There was no giggle in my voice, in fact, I was very serious, like six thousand dollars serious- roughly the amount I had spent on the mathematics classes I failed in college. Yes, that is how I found myself in a slightly awkward conversation with a man trying to classify me, as some sort of specimen. Math became incomprehensible toward the end of middle school. The occasional ‘lightbulbs’ that went off before that point now left me alone in the dark. When I entered the classroom, I felt as if I was in a foreign country trying to learn a new language. I would have been better off trying to learn Icelandic. 

Dr. Lanze preceded, “Wonderful. Here’s what we are going to do. First, we’re going to put you through a series of mathematics exercises. On your second visit, we’ll put you through a series of exercises from other subject areas. Finally, on your last visit, we’ll report back on our findings and discuss your results. Shall we get started?” When the copay dollar signs dissipated from my eyes, I gave a decisive nod to confirm. As I worked through each exercise, I wondered if other people actually got this stuff. Word problems, number puzzles, and math equations- did Dr. Lanze even get this stuff? I was still alone in the dark, just in a different country. On my second visit, “Abraham Lincoln”, “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, “the Periodic Table”, and other answers confidently rolled off my tongue. Finally, a language I was familiar with! On my last visit, Dr. Lanze illustrated my results on a bell curve- one that made me feel stupid and confident at the same time. “There you are at the end of the curve,” he said “while everyone else is in the middle. Where on this other chart, you join your friends in the middle.” Basically, he was telling me what I already knew. Where I rank average in other subject areas, I can officially say I have a math disability.

II

See the problem always was, and still is, how I remember information. I remember information, all information, in pictures. I know I’m not alone hanging off the edge of the math bell curve, but I find most people don’t remember information the way I do. Although I love science, technology, and history, I’ve always done poorly when it comes to numbers of any kind (equations, dates, binary code, etc.). And while there may be some people out there who think this is a bunch of horse poop, I can guarantee them that there are things that I can do that they can’t because of this ‘special’ brain I have. That is not me being boastful, just illustrating that everyone is different. (Did you see the picture of horse poop I just drew for you in my head?)

My university did finally accept the diagnosis and allowed me to take another class pass/fail. In fact that final class was on Buffalo’s beloved Frank Lloyd Wright, leader of the Prairie House movement and creator of the ‘Usonian’ home and I did, indeed, pass. I was able to graduate and receive my Bachelor’s degree. Upon graduation, I started my own successful business. I went on to receive my Master’s degree and am now going for my Ph.D. My little problems with numbers almost limited me from pursuing further education, which has helped to get me to where I am today. 

I wanted to share my story with you because school can be a real hardship for many families. If a student isn’t doing well, the frustration affects the entire family. My parents were at a loss many times when I was failing at school. Sympathy turned into frustration, frustration turned into anger, and anger turned into strained relationships. Though they helped when they could and asked the teachers to help, no one ever had the time to or thought to explain the information in a way that involved pictures or concepts. The answer was so simple: give me other options to learn the information; provide me with multiple ways to access the content. Technology has advanced well beyond what it was in the ‘1980s’. We have the means to prevent my and my family’s hardships in other families with just an Internet connection. We must change our way of thinking about learning in order to prevent frustrating learning experiences and costly mistakes.  

Autodidacts

I

It was about ‘3:20’ in the afternoon when I heard the door to my office area slam. It was a big metal door, clearly built in the 1960’s to keep the riots at bay. Thanks to our facility workers, we even had a sign on the front of that heavy door, sort of. Clearly a creative endeavor on their end, they didn’t just order us an ordinary sign. No, the Facilities Office went all out and hand-painted ‘FacTS’ (which stood for Faculty Technology Services) on the front of the door below the small window. That was the only window in the office, in fact, in the dank, dark, locker-room smelly basement office fit for an ‘IT’ team like ours. You might have had to turn your head slightly sideways to align the letters on our creative sign in your mind, but nevertheless, you couldn’t miss us. 

Linda was always early coming to see me. Like many professors who taught at Canisius, her resume was admirable. She was a principal for over thirty years in a few elementary schools across the area, she consulted with many of the local public and charter schools to help out with reform, and she taught one to two classes a semester at Canisius. When I came on board a few years ago, she was unsure of how or if she could convert her course to online delivery. A true friendship grew, despite our age difference of over thirty years. 

“Hello Leah. I know I’m early.” She would always pause after entering the door to wait for me to lean out of my cubicle. There she was, smiling with her dark bob haircut, red lipstick, black attire, and long red winter coat out of one of those modern Western catalogs, except Linda wasn’t Western. Linda was Italian, but her inner-culture was definitely Asian, specifically Burmese. She had visited pretty much every area south of Burma (now Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and she loves to show me pictures of her and Chris’ travels. Chris, her husband, is equally as fun and also looks forward to these trips his wife so diligently plans.

“That’s alright.”, I said. This was about the fiftieth time Linda had come to see me and she had been early all fifty times. “I’ll be right out.” Today we were working on some small updates for the coming semester. Like always, she took out her MacBook and quickly opened up the notepad on her screen. Linda peered at me through her thick rimmed black glasses, “Now, I tried to get as much done as I could by myself,” I had come to appreciate her organization and her tenacity to learn the technology on her own. Teaching online was definitely not the same as teaching in person. She not only realized that, she had come to embrace it. “But there were some things I just couldn’t figure out.” 

II

I  sometimes find it slightly ironic that I am teaching teachers at a school I would have never have been able to get into myself as a seventeen year old prospective undergraduate. I hold a nice position at my college that allows me to sit on committees, train Ph.D.s to teach online, and work on enriching events. But based on the way they assess student potential and knowledge, chances are slim that I would be accepted even today at thirty years old. I represent a different population of students who don’t necessarily rank on SAT scores or grade summaries, but who still appreciate good conversations about political philosophy, string theory, and education reform. We are ‘autodidacts’ (“autodidacts”, 2012), self-taught individuals, continuously learning in our own preferences and ways. My informal education interests are what gave me the skills to teach my faculty who teach in a formal educational setting how to teach online. 

This kind of informal learning I’ve been describing is transforming how people learn around the world. No longer does one have to be privileged to learn from ‘experts’ in the classroom. The World Wide Web brings individuals a nearly free education. Anything a person could want to know can be answered in a YouTube video, an open online course, or one of the twenty million free books now found online (Howard, 2012). Any individual, regardless of age, gender, income, disability, or race can access a plethora of information by simply ‘logging on’. As Howard Rheingold (2012) tells us, advanced technologies are democratizing access to knowledge, but “knowing that you have a printing press, broadcasting station, community hall, marketplace, school, and a library of all knowledge in your pocket -and knowing how to use it for your own benefit-is what makes the difference between a consumer of electronic gadgets and an empowered citizen” (p. 18). Even teachers, like Linda, are able to find answers to their technology questions, new technology tools, and best practices in teaching and learning, when they need it. 

The beauty is that this open access to resources is also changing learning in the classroom. Best practices have been developed to help young ‘autodidacts’ discover learning in their own way and save their scores from sinking. Universal Design for Learning, “is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn” (CAST, 2012) is widely encouraged in schools, accommodating not only students with disabilities, but also those who prefer to learn in certain ways. Similarly, Howard Gardner’s eight learning styles are influencing schools like The Coombes County Infant School in the United Kingdom. ‘The Coombes’ provides a combined indoor/outdoor experience for children ages 3-7 in an effort to “plan for and teach for all types of intelligence in order for the children and adults to be able to live life well” (Rowe & Humphries, 2012, p. 18). Children care for gardens of plants and vegetables, animals, and their tiny consciousness in a curriculum that focuses on inner-wellness, as much as it does academic skills. My personal favorite feature is the use of a labyrinth, which provides a unique experience compared to the other group activities, where “nothing is required of the children and the adults except a respect for the privacy of every walker” (Rowe & Humphries, 2012, p. 75).

‘Autodidacts’ like me would flourish in a school like ‘The Coombes’ and in classrooms that implement Universal Design for Learning. Be that as it may, recent advancements in technology now offer similar experiences for those with different minds like mine. Technology has completely altered the landscape of learning and self-learning, to be specific. This kind of self-learning is also known as self-regulation in formal education, or a “students’ ability to monitor and control their cognition, motivation, behavior, context, and emotion in a dynamic manner over the course of learning” (Azevedo, et al., 2011, p. 107). Through their preferred methods of learning, ‘autodidacts’ are able to research classroom assignments and topics by exploring differentiated media on the Web and engaging in the dialogue with complete strangers who teach others on the Web for fun. New media not only offers hope for the many who face similar struggles in their formal education, but also many benefits for those who rely on education to help them when no one else will. In some parts of the world, students are taught by overburdened teachers, teachers who refuse to differentiate instruction to accommodate learning styles, or no teacher at all. Individuals, young and old, are now empowered by the wealth of information now at their fingertips thanks to those ‘others’ who teach on the Web for fun. This learning revolution has spawned a wider community that not only consumes the content, but also helps to give back.

We Can All Learn

I

When we think of learning and education, we usually think of modern-day schools- the formal setting of a teacher in front of the room teaching children neatly tucked under their bite-size desks, eager to raise their hands at a moment’s notice. It is this familiar image that has also limited individuals for generations. For those who can’t keep up, who are bored, or who can’t sit still, ‘it’s to the principal’s office with you’. Right now, there is only one way to earn credit for our learning: ‘playing school well’.

Employers and institutions are bound by a system of learning that is custom-made for the ‘Industrial Age’. We are decades into the ‘Information Age’ and on our way out to the ‘Conceptual Age’, ages that have given us the Internet, mobile devices, and artificial intelligence at our fingertips (Pink, 2006, p. 48- 49). Access to knowledge and ways in which we can learn has completely altered the way in which we live our lives. Yet, we still continue to follow the same learning practices.

In 2008, the term ‘edupunk’ was coined by Jim Groom in a blog post (Groom, 2008) to create a term that represents those instructors who rebel against the ‘sage on the stage’ norm and persist for a progressive and personalized classroom with a ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) teaching style. Groom’s definition of ‘edupunk’ sparked a conversation and many more ideas were born about evolving education. One of the movements that grew out of these conversations involve those ‘others’ who teach on the Web for fun that were mentioned earlier. 

Over the past few years, a new form of educators has sprouted- those who volunteer their time not only to develop courses for free, but also to teach and mentor others. I like to call them ‘eduteers’. Because of their dedication, millions of people all over the world, not just in our backyard of the United States, have gained access to knowledge that has only been available to those who meet a certain ‘IQ’ and income requirements. These endeavors include massive open online courses (MOOCs), open courseware, free lectures, open universities, open learning systems, freeware, Web site repositories, video tutorials, open textbooks, and open learning materials (Watters, 2011). Not only are these products free, they include many benefits regular classroom materials do not, such as up-to-date information and a network of learners from all over the world.

‘Eduteers’ have taken it in their hands to solve one of the world’s greatest crises- lack of quality educational experiences. Not only does this access answer the crisis listed above, it also provides another answer for those who can’t keep up, who are bored, who can’t sit still, or who don’t ‘play school well’. Imagine a student who is having trouble picturing a historical timeline, figuring out an equation, or reading the words on the page. ‘Eduteers’ are creating a variety of deliveries, approaches, and content that can be used by educators, organizations, and individuals who want to learn in their preferred style and teach others who may not conceptualize the content as others do. Even ‘edupunk’ educators in K-12 classrooms can utilize these free materials, which include collaboration activities, interactive modules, and real-world recordings of experts, to teach in their own classrooms.

II

I  was simply energized after my car ride into work. Like most days, I was listening to NPR. A broadcast came on when I was halfway in, right as I passed ECMC hospital while I was on the 33. The traffic was stop-and-go because of the ‘Buffalonians who forgot to drive on the day of the first snowfall of the winter season’, but I didn’t care. A piece had just come on Morning Edition about alternative forms of credit. I tried to focus on the unnecessary braking in front of me as I felt my heart starting to race and trying to pull my mind away. “This is it. This is how we flip the system.” I thought. 

Education, and specifically ‘how people learn’, had been a passion of mine for a few years. I had traveled around as a ‘fly on the wall’ in different education circles- reform in K-12, online learning, and finally, informal learning. I had been stuck on this last topic for a while. There is something about breaking out of the confining situations schools put us in and being empowered to learn on our own that really gets me. Perhaps I understand. I know what it’s like to want to learn something so badly, and to have that crushed in front of you because you don’t learn the same way others do. I know how impossible it is to try and convince a teacher that you did study and you do want to learn, as they shake their head and hand you back a test that you failed. And I know how heartbreaking it can be to try and convince your parents that you really were paying attention and really are trying. I felt crushed every time these situations happened to me. I was a curious kid and I really did love to learn, I just didn’t prove it like everyone else did. 

I hurriedly parked my car in our school parking ramp, agonizingly walked a block to my building in the blustering Buffalo snow, and hoped that people didn’t think I was ignoring them as I rushed past the ‘hellos’ and ‘good mornings’. I was on a mission, though I didn’t know what that mission was yet. I ran to my office and sat down at my desk. I quickly began to Google everything I could about this innovative concept. “What are alternative forms of credit?”, “How can alternative credit be used?”, and “What can be considered alternative forms of credit?” were all searches until I stumbled upon ‘it’. Yes, ‘it’. What I had been anxiously waiting for in my days as a fly. ‘Open badges’.

I couldn’t wait to learn more. I needed to do something. I needed to first learn more, but then I needed to do something. Regular blog posting about my upcoming learning experience just wouldn’t do. Naturally, this required something more. I wanted to spark a conversation about what ‘open badges’ were and how they could help ‘autodidacts’ like me. As I sat there staring at my screen, an email popped up. I had recently enrolled in a free online course. It was being ran by a volunteer on a Web site that offered free courses to anyone. At that moment, an idea popped in my head like a balloon annoyingly popped in your ear by a pesky little sibling. I quickly began drafting what would become “Open Badges 101”, an open group offered on “Peer-to-Peer University” that became a big hit, widely joined by people who shared my passion for informal learning. Who would have known someone with a math disability who didn’t ‘play school well’ would be teaching teachers how to teach online or leading a learning experience for others around the world?

Looking to the Future

Even with all the great technology advances, there are still many issues to sort out, particularly when it comes to accessing the resources mentioned in this essay.  Access to the Internet is crucial. Currently, over two billion (“Internet users,” 2011) people have access to the the Internet around the world. In most cases, these are individuals who can afford it. We need to support and encourage free city-wide wireless movements, such as the kind being sponsored by Google Fiber, Google’s effort to deliver free wireless Internet access. Similarly, we need to ensure individuals have access to low-cost devices in order to access the Internet.

Efforts by ‘eduteers’ over the past few years have helped to create free, online learning opportunities. Though we should be appreciative, we should also be concerned about the quality assurance issues. Consistent effort is needed to vet the quality of these resources and provide feedback for improvement to their creators. 

One of the last stories told in this essay mentioned alternative forms of credit known as ‘open badges’. ‘Open badges’ are one way in which individuals can show credit for informal learning. Though these badges contain everything an employer or institution might need to know about what an individual had to do to earn that badge, forms of standard evaluation are still needed to assist human resources and admissions offices in consistently translating this form of credit to degrees. Ideally, a guidebook would be useful for human resources and admissions representatives who will no doubt see alternative forms of credit like open badges pass their desks in years to come.

I have always loved to learn, particularly about history, technology, and science. These are subjects, however, that I did not do well in when I was a student, but managed still to keep an interest in. Some of the students around me lost their love of learning because they became jaded by the system of assessment that told them “you’re wrong and we’re right”. My frustration translated, instead, into a passion to change what education had become, “a crusher of lovers of learning”. For those who share my passion, we must look to the future and encourage endeavors that support ‘autodidacts’ like us.

References

  • autodidact. (n.d.). Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved October 05, 2012, from Dictionary.com website:http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/autodidact
  • Azevedo, R., Greene, J. A., & Moos, D. C. (2011). Self-regulation of learning with computer-based learning environments. Self-regulated learning, San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • Bembenutty, H. (2011). Self-regulated learning. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • CAST. (2012). About udl. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/udl/
  • Howard, J. (2012, March 09). Google begins to scale back its scanning of books from university libraries. The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Google-Begins-to-Scale-Back/131109/
  • Internet users. (2011). Retrieved from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER/countries?display=graph
  • Groom, J. (2008, May 25). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://bavatuesdays.com/the-glass-bees/
  • Pink, D. H. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Riverhead Books.
  • Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Watters, A. (2011, May 05). 10 open education resources you may not know about (but should). Mind/Shift: how we will learn, Retrieved from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2011/05/10-open-education-resources-you-may-not-know-about-but-should/

Resources