Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Economics of Ideas- What Makes Your Voice Worthy of Consideration?

I am really interested in the whole idea of what makes someone “worthy” of expressing opinion on the internet, and the issue of credibility of sources. Here are a couple incidents from the past few days that bring this issue up in different contexts, but they all share the same common denominator- what makes your voice worthy of consideration?

(And let me say this before you get all upset-I think every voice not only counts, but should be heard in any way or with any medium they choose to share it.)


My friend Chris Brogan, blogged about the differences between bloggers and journalists and why we (should) care. Journalists tend to have editors and codes of ethics to follow- they have someone to answer to, where bloggers have none of this, on the whole. So who gives any of us bloggers the right to express any old opinion? And why should anyone care what we have to say?

At Educon 2.0 this past weekend, I attended a great session by Sylvia Martinez. Sylvia writes at the Gen Yes blog, all about empowering students with technology, and she presented a session on Student Voice that also brought up the question about who can speak and to what in a school setting. Should students have meaningful input on what teachers are hired in a school? Why or why not? Where is the “license” or where do the qualifications come from to talk about subjects? Do we often talk about giving students a voice in schools, but does it end up being token? Do we really trust the judgment of young people to have a say in how their education is “delivered” to them?

This topic was also featured on a recent Canadian Podcast Buffet episode, where my friend Mark Blevis talked about the hate mail he gets from time to time for his wonderful podcast, Just One More Book. Apparently, some people think he and his wife, Andrea, are not “qualified” to discuss what children’s books they like and the books their daughters enjoy, because they do not have an advanced degree in critical literature or children’s literature.

Long tail of Ideas and Filters- the economics of ideas

In the old days, to widely spread your ideas, you needed to go through a series of filters. You could get asked to speak at a conference. You could write for a magazine, or try your hand at freelance work. You could become a broadcast journalist, or write for a newspaper. You could write a book. You could teach at a college.

All of these “venues” allowed you to voice your opinion to others, but most everyone else was stuck whining to their friends at the water cooler, convinced their voice and opinion, even if unique or insightful, was unlikely to have a wide enough impact to change hearts and minds. To get access to bigger venues, you had to go through filters or gatekeepers, people who passed judgment on the quality of your work, demanded research, fact checking and the like. The gatekeepers used their own tastes and a list of rules to determine what ideas were worthy and which were not.

Now, along comes the internet. Now everyone can have an opinion and a viewpoint. Everyone can broadcast their point of view for the world to hear. It makes the world a much noiser place, but at the same time, the marketplace of good ideas has gone from a place selling a limited number of brands to The marketplace for ideas now has a long tail.

This long tail for ideas means that there is an ebay-like perfect balance between a supply of ideas and the market demand for them, balanced by the search engines and your ability to tag effectively. This means your ideas will achieve an audience that is interested, especially if you are good at telling them where to find your ideas through good tagging.

Walls or Membranes?

So this gets back to the ideas put forth in the Cult of the Amateur book- is the lack of filters on the ‘net for worthiness or validity of ideas and opinions a good thing or a bad thing? Can you look at it in this black and white dichotomy way at all?

The walls that kept people from having their voice heard and valued haven’t been destroyed, so much as having become a permiable membrane. The wall has dissolved away so that it resembles those hippy, beaded curtains where you can’t always see what’s on the other side, but you know something’s there. You can’t test its form and shape until you get to the other side, but what’s over there is intriguing. In this tortured analogy, opinions and voices can be heard through this barrier, but you can’t always see and judge the people who are talking.

This in and of itself has positive points and negative ones. People are being valued for the quality of their ideas and who they are, rather than by how they look, or if they are charismatic in person. So the ideas speak for themselves, disembodied.

You can’t sum up a person just by their writing, you can’t know them completely. And unless they take pains to tell you about themselves, or you ask questions or look to find out more about them, you have no idea of the biases, training, education, experience or anything else about the voice you hear. The validity of their assertions, determining truth from fiction, becomes a rather fluid thing.

Bloggers aren’t journalists, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to add to the conversation. Parents aren’t teachers, but they can have valid opinions on education schools should listen to. Kids may not have lots of experience, but they have valid opinions and voices about who they want to work with, and their voices should be heard and considered. And people have opinions all the time on the things they like and don’t like, and it’s up to you to decide if your values align enough to use them as your personal filter for information.

Worthiness is no longer a checklist to go over. It’s a wide open, personal filter, and remember, you are always free to make the choice to stop reading, stop engaging and walk away, just like with any other message in your life. Including this one.



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Using Technology in the Classroom

One of the takeaways from this past weekend at Educon 2.0 has been that there are lots of cool tech tools available, but not every tool is right for every job.

The tools, the availability of almost any and all information at your fingertips means you can use almost infinite examples in the classroom.  It also means kids can use shortcuts like Sparknotes to short cut assignments.  Teachers can try to control this, and run papers through websites like to look for plagarism, but this isn’t the answer.  The answer is to re-engineer assignments so they require original thought, and don’t require regurgitated responses.

But this also requires teaching beyond the script, and doing some hard work to generate new, thought provoking work and assessment of student knowledge. The technology and the connectedness is not a problem per se- the problem is teaching kids to use the tools, for teachers to use the tools as another way to communicate.  One of the teachers at SLA, for example, requires kids to think about broader, essential questions to compare books they’ve read, for example, such as how does the environment affect the actions of characters and how does this relate to your experiences?

I was excited to hear teachers at SLA talk about feeling compelled to use all this tech, but learning quickly how to turn it off, too.  They are learning a balance, and which tools work best for which assignments.  They are learning that they need to teach kids skills such as how to do a great presentation, before judging and grading them on presentation.  The kids need to understand the content, and express it, but the “test” and assessment needs to be about the material, not the mastery of the tools themselves.

The tech is not good or bad- it’s there.  And rather than being pro or con, we have to look at it  as a fact of life, and teach kids and teachers to use these tools effectively, for education, entertainment, and the mashup of the two.

The biggest obstacle to change is “I can’t” and the internal limitations we place in our own way.  We can’t blame tech, or students for a situation.  Instead, we have to look at what we can do to be the change we want to see in the world, as cliche as that may be.

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Rethinking (and executing) on Education

Educon 2.0 is an education unconference being held in Philadelphia this weekend, at the Science Leadership Academy (SLA). SLA is a progressive, public, magnet school for highschool students, and everything we think about high school has been re- engineered.

Classes are based on project based learning. Every child and teacher has a laptop, but all the tech toy have found their place not as gadgets, but as tools. There is some inevitable goofing off that goes on, but the kid and almost uniformly engaged in their education, in ways I could have only dreamed of before seeing it in action.

I sometimes look at different tools like Facebook and say “So what? I do like being in touch with my friends in this more casual way, but what good is it long term? SLA Knows.

One of the spanish teachers yesterday showed us her Facebook account. She took down her account from college, and placed restrictions on it so it wasn’t accessible and opened up another one to be used in conjunction with her class. She poses questions to her students in spanish, they answer back in spanish; they’ll ask what’s for homework, and the teacher has felt this has been another good way to create relationships with her students that extend beyond the classroom.

The relationships that are forming between teachers and kids are NOT peer to peer. But they are wonderful mentoring relationships, and the classes seem like what I envision all learning should be- explorations, guided by a leader, someone who knows the ropes and the path, and wants you to experience all the wonders for yourself.

It’s clear that the teachers are passionate about their jobs, and amazed at how well the concept is working in practice. The students have done things from create their own biodiesel and look at how efficient it is in engines, to creating their own podcasts and videos, as it fits in as a way to demonstrate their mastery of material.

All of the things Rick LaVoie and Dr. Bob Brooks talk about being essential for learning turn out to be core principals in this school. Learning is cooperative, not competitive. Faculty are cooperative, not competitive. Discipline is needed from time to time, but more often than not, the consequences fit the crime, and because the students can do an assignment not in one set way, but in a way that makes sense to them , there are few hard and fast rules to rebel against.

Rick LaVoie talks about kids having great BS detectors and knowing when assigments are “busy work.” This is a school where empowering the students means they speak up when they think something is BS. One of the teachers yesterday, Mr Kay said, “One of the beautiful things about this schools is we’ve empowered the students. One of the difficult things is we’ve empowered the students. ‘Because I said so’ just isn’t good enough here, and I have to be willing and able to justify myself. It makes me take a closer look at the work I am assigning and what I expect them to get out of it.” I can never imagine this happening in any of the schools I attended, and they were the poorer for it.

I know attending unconferences has made going to traditional conferences very difficult for me. I want to hear what other people have to say. I don’t want a pitch. I want to be able to ask questions. Likewise, I think after you see a school like this, everything changes, because you know what you dream of is not a dream, it’s possible.

How can school and education ever be the same once you know what is possible?

Now I will admit about wondering whether this model will work with younger children. I can see it working well starting in middle school, but I can see that it might have some issues in elementary school, just because kids don’t yet have the neural hardware to handle the responsibility this type of education requires. Kids at SLA have projects they need to do all the time, and portfolios to prepare, so there are no lack of standards, but it’s also perfectly clear to me that they are learning that they get out of an experience what they put into it. This is a powerful life message that many adults don’t understand, but it will be part of the educational DNA of these kids.

It would never occur to an o these children not to talk to an adult. They clearly feel nutured and supported by the faculty- the kids regularly come to school early and leave late. They have to kind of sweep the kids out of the school at about 6 pm when they lock up for the day. The faculty says they are still trying to figure out why the kids won’t leave after classes end, but I know why- it’s the same reason why I never want to go to sleep while I’m at podcamp- there is just too much interesting stuff happening, and you don’t want to miss a second of it.

If there was a mecca of education and cognitive activation, it’s this school.

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Mobile post sent by WhitneyHoffman using Utterz Replies.  mp3

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Mobile post sent by WhitneyHoffman using Utterz Replies.  mp3

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Autism in China- Making a Difference

In our first day of fundraising, we’ve raised $505 towards our goal of $10,000 for Ma Chen and her Carnation Children’s Rehabilitation center, to help them buy a farm so the children have a place to go after their schooling finishes.  China’s One child per couple policy has meant that these children won’t have siblings or other family support for the long term.  Likewise,  China’s version of elder care is a tradition of children caring for their aging parents.  For parents of autistic children, this won’t be an option for them either, or their children.

Please consider making a donation of any size- for the price of a latte, we can all pitch in together and make a difference for these children.   You can click on the link above to be taken directly to the Chipin page- and be assured that 100% of your donation will go directly to Ma Chen and her foundation.

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Rant Day

This is one of those days that has been really productive, but a couple things are driving me crazy, so here’s the brain dump:

1. Tax rebates.  The latest word appears to indicate that Congress may approve tax rebates for everyone, to try to get us to spend our way out of a possible recession.  I , for one, believe a recession is already here.   Tax rebates will only raise the deficit, drill some more holes in the foundation of our economy, and not do much for overall consumer spending.  Besides, with recession looming, if I get a check in the mail, I am not going out to spend it all on some new gadget.  I would pay down any outstanding debt on credit cards, or save/invest it.  If you are one of the unlucky people caught up in the mortgage crisis, then the money you get from the Feds will go to try to keep your house out of foreclosure, not for a new washing machine.  This is a silly, showboat political trick in an election year that will cost us huge down the line.

2. Tax Cuts and Making Them Permanent.  Here’s another harebrained Washington reactionary plan- make sure all the Bush tax cuts are permanent.   Everyone hates to pay taxes, but guess what?  We all really like having governmental infrastructure around, going to the Smithsonian for free, and making sure the National Guard/Army is around when we need them.  I am more than happy to pay taxes , as long as I have some small assurance the money isn’t really an elaborate Ponzi scheme to keep governmental contractors wealthy.  I want honesty and integrity and a measure of self- control with funding the silly stuff from Congress.  But don’t give me a tax rebate or reduction if you need the money.  We have serious fiscal problems- keep the budget in balance.

Thank you for your time and attention.

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