Your phone is not a book

Thinking about data

Last Wednesday I was preparing to meet with the Open-Source Learning Academy online. I wanted to get everyone thinking about data, and I had a question to start the conversation: Is a song the same song whether it’s performed live, played on vinyl (78, 45, 33 1/3), 8-track tape, cassette tape, CD, or streamed as an .mp3 or other digital format? Is it the same song when it’s played aloud in shared company, or experienced alone in a car, or a shower, or on headphones or earbuds?

In other words: Does the medium change the message? Is my idea the same when it occurs in my head as when I type it into a blog post, or on Word, or in Google Docs? Or does the way I communicate the idea change it – for me or anyone else?

Is your face the same on Zoom, or Meet, or in a picture frame, or inches from mine?

When we read a book, does the physical artifact change the way we experience the information in it? The feel of the cover, the smell of the pages, the knowledge that it’s ours and no one can sneak into our room and change it without us knowing or giving permission? Or is the text in a book the same by any other format – even more convenient, more portable, more immediate?

Spoiler: your phone is not a book. You may think that reading this sentence is the same as reading this sentence on a piece of paper. It’s not. This sentence looks like English, but it’s not – what you see is just a skin. Want proof? Copy and paste this paragraph into your favorite word processor or blogging platform and change the size, font, color, or language. These word-looking, human-friendly illusions are costumes for the underlying code, the ones and zeroes that form the backbone of programming languages and protocols that most of us don’t understand.

This post isn’t about some imaginary contest between phones and books. Phones and books are both wonderful, for very different reasons. Books are amazing in ways phones can’t touch. For their part, phones can do so much to connect and empower us, using books and many other resources. We need to learn how to use them both more effectively.

This post is about the information that makes both books and phones important and some ways we can share that information to create connection and value.

The Big Picture: Why we need to think about data

Before I get to the super cool story of how learners connected with an author online to engage with ideas and curate their thoughts, it’s worth asking why this all matters. I’ve been thinking about this with learners for a long time, and now it’s more important for everyone to understand than ever.

We are not operating in a vacuum. In our society and economy, we do specific things for specific reasons. The DNA of software is intention – computers do what we tell them to do.

Video conferencing and file-sharing applications can appear to function the same. However, if one version is built for exclusive, high-quality access, and another is built for privacy and sovereign identity, there will be some pretty significant differences under the hood.

Students’ data in a closed system managed by a private equity portfolio company is not the same as students’ data owned and shared by students in an open system.

Data creates value. Someone leverages that value. Cui bono?

We have been in the “Information Age” for decades and schools are still generally blowing it. Students and graduates become “Users” who blindly, routinely accept online terms of agreement against their best interests. Why? Because in school they were trained to point and click and follow orders, without learning about the nature of digital tools, online culture, or the economics of the internet. Without reading closely or thinking critically, or – heaven forbid – occasionally marshaling evidence and saying, “Are you kidding? No WAY!”

Schools require students to create content on platforms that companies design for profit. For example, students in my school district who are not enrolled in the Open-Source Learning Academy are required to use Canvas. Canvas is a branded product of a company called Instructure Holdings. According to Instructure’s website, “The Instructure Learning Platform makes edtech more personal and student success more equitable.”

A few months ago, Instructure held an IPO that valued the company at nearly $3 billion. The majority of Instructure’s board of directors are executives from Thoma Bravo, a private equity investment firm that took Instructure private just over a year earlier for about $2 billion. To my knowledge, not a single student or teacher who is required to use Canvas gets compensated in shares or cash payments for their contributions to the platform’s success. Students and teachers are not the beneficiaries of corporate or investor interests. According to the Thoma Bravo website: “Our mission is to deliver superior value to our investors and companies.”

Student success cannot be equitable when content creators are intellectual sharecroppers. Student success will be more equitable when students are empowered to choose the manner in which they create and share content. Selecting the right digital tools for the job requires us to understand the internet well enough to make decisions that help us own and manage our online identities and our data.

To help young people understand how to leverage digital information to their advantage, we have to empower them and do the work with them. We can’t afford to keep building private profit, calling it public good, raising intellectual veal, and then pretend to be surprised when people don’t research the issues before they decide whether to vote or get a vaccine.

Connecting over data

This brings us back to last Wednesday. Two minutes before I opened the Open-Source Learning Academy video conference to talk about what digital data is and how it can create value, I ran across this tweet from science and technology journalist Clive Thompson:

Perfect. War & Peace is a book that billions of people over the years have been taught to admire, even though most of them haven’t read it.  Tolstoy’s classic is intimidating to adults and brutal to consider teaching in today’s high school.

To paraphrase Professor Faber from Fahrenheit 451, is it the book itself or what’s in the book that we admire? Would the history and the philosophical ideas in the book come through if it were presented in a different medium? Would the digital version be the same or different? I devoured Clive’s article and reflected on how his first-person account brought these issues to life.

At its best, Open-Source Learning connects people and ideas in ways that spark understanding and create value. When we reach out and invite others into the conversation, everything changes. Peers, experts, and people who care about us all influence the way we think and the things we think about. Plus, it’s cool to talk with the author of a text or the director of a movie. Experts are awesome. I’ve connected students with authors who are experts on everything from Shakespeare (check out author Fredrik DeBoer’s surprise appearance in the comments) to science fiction (with gratitude to Cory Doctorow).

In Clive’s tweet I saw an opportunity to share a resource from an informed, thoughtful expert. So I tweeted to Clive and we started a conversation:


Our exchange would have provided significant value even if it ended there. Students would learn from a near real-time artifact created by a leading thinker in the field, curated by a knowledgeable guide who would help them connect the dots between their phones, books, and one of the most revered pieces of literature ever written.

Creating opportunities through data

Clive and I also modeled the sort of civility and generosity that happens all the time on the internet and IRL, and gets exactly zero headlines. We live in a culture increasingly shaped by conflict, we need a TED talk to teach us the art of asking and letting people help, and most of us don’t learn anything about intellectual property in school.

Asking Clive’s permission to share his article created three important outcomes. First, I communicated that I saw value in his thinking worth sharing. Second, I acknowledged his ownership of his work. Third, by sharing an idea of my own, I invited him to reciprocate.

Clive replied by sharing another article he’d written for the Smithsonian magazine, that was exactly on point with the song-related idea I’d considered in the first place!

When the Open-Source Learning meeting began, students and I practiced mindfulness and wrote in our journals as usual. Then I hijacked my own agenda by introducing Clive’s article and asking if we could have a discussion about it. I showed everyone the exchange on Twitter and I asked if I could live-tweet our conversation. Students agreed, and you can see the thread here.

Now, instead of merely consuming War & Peace or Clive’s article, the students are contributing value of their own. First, in group feedback to Clive on his article, and then, under their own names on their own blogs, with their own ideas on the topic.

What you can do next

First, remember that a phone is not a book – AND YOU ARE MORE POWERFUL AND THOUGHTFUL THAN BOTH. Celebrate tools for what they are – ways of sharing ideas/ information/ data. Investigate all the  communication tools you can find. Experiment with digital whiteboards, word clouds, images, animations, .gifs, videos, music, markdown language, and anything else you can think of – sharing what you find useful (and not) along the way is a valuable contribution.

If you are a learner, reach out to the people you respect and ask a question. Share an idea and ask for feedback. Offer something. Do this online and offline. The world will suddenly become more giving and generous.

If you are an employer or an educator, encourage the members of your network/s to connect and contribute. Be the person you know who is preparing yourself and others to thrive in virtual community. These practices are better than the new normal. They are the new awesome.

Curating personally meaningful learning will redefine how we live and work. I remember talking about this stuff with Doc Searls almost 20 years ago. Seems like a long time ago, but not really. Back then, Searls’ Cluetrain Manifesto – the book explaining how individuals sharing personally relevant ideas in their own authentic voices could somehow enrich social systems and markets – was considered a wild idea. Kind of like encouraging students to use the public internet.

Just in case you’re thinking, “Yeah, but still… young people need to sustain concentration and differentiate fact from fiction, so they should read books instead of the internet,” remember that previous social commentators – even authors themselves! – worried that reading novels would be just as bad for us.

Our world works better when people connect in systems and contribute value by sharing personally relevant ideas. Even when we disagree – especially when we disagree – communicating with each other forms bonds that lead to deeper understanding and more value. We are way beyond “keep your eyes on your own paper.” We face complicated problems that require collaboration and community to solve. Schools must adapt and prepare young people to thrive in an interdependent, interdisciplinary, interconnected world.

You can start right now. Please drop me a line on the Contact page to let me know what you think. Thanks for reading.








(Endless) Summer Reading: 5 ways you can choose better learning software

This is part of a series of articles about how we can reimagine learning for next year and beyond. To get the next article delivered automatically to your inbox, click HERE.

Software defined

I searched the term “software definition” on duckduckgo and here’s what came up: “The programs, routines, and symbolic languages that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.”

By that definition, our opinions, habits, morning routines, and the language we use are all software. These mental maps influence our decisions, drive our actions and behaviors, and create patterns – which in turn reinforce our mental maps.

Good news! We can change our mental maps. Neuroplasticity enables us to change our minds, adapt, and improve everything from our skills to our quality of life. That’s learning.


NOTE: If you’re a TL;DR type who wants the microwave version of a gourmet 5-course blog post, you can skip the context and get right to the 5 steps by clicking here:

  1. Clarify your purpose
  2. Locate your power
  3. Own your ID & data
  4. Make it easy
  5. Evaluate the costs


Selecting computer software to fit our internal software

People often select computer software – tools that amplify and accelerate our mental maps – based on feature sets and monetary costs. This is a perfectly reasonable, understandable mistake.

Organizations make the same mistake in selecting people to help achieve goals. Great candidates are often bad fits. The results are expensive and unpleasant for everyone.

Knowing what we know about organizational development and performance, we should be focused on fit. First, we’re going to need a mirror. What are candidates and software fitting in with? Ask:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • Do we need software to do it?
  • How will our organizational culture and working processes going to use the software to align with our vision and accomplish our mission?

Honest self-assessment is hard work. And you’ll be glad you did it.


Vince Lombardi was an insightful observer of people. In Coach Lombardi’s words, “Winning is a habit. Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”

In other words: Neurons that fire together, wire together.

Since school is the institution that is charged with helping people think, neuroplasticity should be baked into every policy and operational decision. Whether it’s held in-person or online, school should be a community where everyone practices mindfulness and observes their own patterns of thinking and behavior.

This is the environment that software should support. Neuroplasticity helps us understand new concepts and build skills. Neuroplasticity also highlights the value of our meta learning – i.e., what we learn about our learning. Often, the most valuable information is what’s not in the syllabus.

The Meta

Students’ meta learning may include:

  • how to navigate the personality of the instructor
  • the dynamics of interacting with classmates
  • how feedback gets provided and how performance/work is evaluated
  • a sense of workflow that supports getting things done

Students absorb this information in ways that change their minds. They use what they learn in ways they think will help them succeed. Their neurons fire together, and wire together, depending on the information they process and the patterns they establish.

Augmenting With Technology

This is our software: “programs, routines, and symbolic languages that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.”

We have to update our own learning software. Analyzing and evaluating our experiences helps us learn more effectively.

Selecting digital software comes down to identifying the external tools that accelerate and amplify our learning.

Here are five ways to evaluate whether external software is a fit:

1. Clarify your purpose

On the screen in front of you is the greatest informational workshop in the history of the world. Every tool you could possibly need to conduct research and create content is right there in front of you. How will you select the best tools if you don’t know what you’re trying to build?

When a student wanted us to learn about environmentally sustainable engineering, she took us to it.

When a student wanted to fly, he got in a plane.

Even when the environment is harsh, we are better off when we know why we’re there and what we want to do.

What is your vision of success? What are you trying to accomplish? What story do you want to tell about it?

Your vision is essential to your success. As Jim Collins and others have shown, vision is the quality that distinguishes the excellent from the merely very good. Personal growth experts, management consultants, and hall of fame sports coaches like Mike Krzyzewski all cite personal and shared visions as foundational keys to achievement.

Clarify your purpose. Articulate your vision.

When you know the job, it’s easier to find the right tool for the job.

2. Find your power

Here’s how software selection works in most schools:

(Actually, hardly anyone knows for sure. And no one has any idea what the average LMS costs. Go ahead. Ask around.)

Here’s how software adoption works in most schools:

You don’t adopt the software. The software adopts you.

  • Someone in the district office buys a software license.
  • The district hosts a training. Or it doesn’t.
  • Campus administrators direct faculty to use the software.
  • Faculty direct students to use the software.

No one gets to say, “No thank you.” “Nope.” “Nuh uh.” “Not me.” “NO.”

As hard as this may seem, if you’re going to have any control over the way in which technology influences your learning, you need to become that person. Now. You’re not doing anything insubordinate or wrong. Your school’s vision statement probably says some very nice things about safety, learning, the future and success. It doesn’t say “We demand that everyone use the software we paid for under penalty of law.” Get your Nancy Reagan on and JUST SAY NO. This will make your “yes” more meaningful.

Setting a boundary is the first indicator that you have the power to choose.

3. Own your ID and data

Today’s students and teachers create a ton of content. Cui bono?

To preserve the value of their efforts, creators have to assert their rights of ownership. This is why Black creators on Tik Tok went on strike they are “tired of constant cultural and intellectual theft.”

Stealing from creators isn’t unique to the internet. However, digital technology has evolved faster than intellectual property law, so many people are confused about the ethics of practices such as remixing, sampling, fan fiction, and licensing.

Education software is uniquely positioned to prey on creators. Students don’t have a choice in the matter. They don’t get to go on strike. The school environment itself is a mandate: in loco parentis. Software developers profit from that mandate.

Think of how much data the average student creates on a learning management system. All of the responsive assignments. Research. Personal information. Original creations.

None of the data associated with a person-as-student actually belongs to her – not even her online identity. She logs into school email and the LMS using her student ID number, which is issued by the school.

What happens when the student graduates or leaves the school? She no longer has a valid student ID (read: identification). *Poof!* – she is locked out of seeing, using, sharing, or deleting the data associated with that ID.

Therefore, it is inaccurate to call that data “hers.” She owns neither the space nor the fruits of her labor that were created and saved in that space. She is an intellectual sharecropper. The value she creates accrues to the owners of the LMS, the textbook publishers, the testing companies, and the schools who contract with these vendors.

Social media may not require payment in currency, but they’re not free. Value is being created and monetized. Every “free” CMS has to be sustainable – someone is making money. And that someone isn’t you.

4. Make it easy

Many educators panicked when the coronavirus closed campuses. Suddenly, everyone had to master tools they hadn’t been trained to use.

These tools are logical. Most are simple. Software can actually be fun to learn or debug, if we have time, space, and/or understanding from other people.

However, school culture is built on pressure.

In a pressurized environment, where people are constantly hustling to have meetings and make reports and sit here and take attendance there and do whatever else David Graeber called Bullshit Jobs, it’s hard to think.

Software can be easy. Don’t use what you don’t need. Select only those tools that make your life easier. Here are some things software can help you do:

  • automate a function
  • organize and/or curate information
  • facilitate collaboration
  • visualize data

Pro tip: If you can’t easily learn the software during a few passing periods, or – worse – if the software necessitates the creation and full-time attention of bullshit job titles like “tech tosa” (Teacher on Special Assignment), it’s the wrong software.

5. Evaluate costs

Spoiler: this isn’t just about money.

It’s partly about money. Do you need to pay a fee or an annual/monthly subscription? Will your employer pay for it? What ROI do you anticipate?

More importantly, what are the hidden costs?

Your software is extracting value from you somewhere.

Do you know how the software makes its money?

What are you contributing to the software? Data? Metadata?

What else is required of you? How much time will you need to learn, maintain, and use the software?



EOF is early-days software shorthand for “End of File.” You don’t need to be an expert to choose software. But it helps to know a little about the symbolic languages that create programs to help us with our routines.

Taking a hard look at our purpose, managing our own data in ways that assert our ownership and align with our purpose, giving ourselves space and time to integrate software, and investing our resources wisely give us a better chance to avoid the panic game and support learning.


Back to School Not

I’m not going back to school. No one should. At least, not back to the way school used to be. We need to move forward. We need to do better than whatever we thought school was before the pandemic.

In 2004, I started leading traditional high school and university courses as Open-Source Learning networks. Participants co-created interdisciplinary experiences in which they integrated the information, people, and tools they needed to succeed.

It was challenging in all the best ways.

The Open-Source Learning experience is very different than the school experience. OSL participants consider their identities, their roles in the learning community, their goals, and their desired outcomes. Their choices inform the design process.

Students, explored the limits of their understanding. I explored the limits of the schooling organization’s capacity to do something new.

From Students to Learners

By the time they get to high school, students have a decade of experience in school. Anyone with ten years of experience at anything is considered a veteran.  

In that time, students are trained to:

  • Conduct themselves obediently and passively.
  • Seek rewards and avoid punishment.
  • Hide their phones behind textbooks and slink down in the back row so as to be invisible.

The problem of student passivity as a function of powerlessness was well-defined before the pandemic. In his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire called this dynamic “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.”

In school, it’s “eyes on your own paper” and “ask permission before you speak.” But in the world after graduation, people want to know: “Why you can’t you be a better team player?” and “Why can’t you try solving that problem for yourself?”

In addition to preparing for a complex and uncertain future, young people will now have to learn how to work virtually. Many organizations that went virtual or hybrid during the pandemic have concluded that it’s less expensive and more productive to work remotely. They’re not going back to HQ.

Open-Source Learning prepares people for this world. There is no back row on the internet. Whether you contribute or not is clear for all to see. Right now we need active engagement more than ever. Our democracy, our economy, and our mental health depend on it.

Before the pandemic OSL was an oasis. A happy outlier. The exception that proved the rule. The rest of the school day reinforced institutional authority and traditional approaches. Students still had to navigate to get where they really wanted to go, but at least they had a quiet corner where they could breathe. And hack.

The Open-Source Learning Academy

When the pandemic closed campuses in March 2020, I presented the Open-Source Learning Academy (OSLA) to the superintendents of the California public high school district where I taught. In our first conversation I compared the Open-Source Learning Academy to Skunk Works.

Open-Source Learning is more than a clever way to deliver traditional classroom curriculum. Open-Source Learning delivers Freire’s solution to the social justice problem in traditional schooling:

“The oppressed are regarded as the pathology of the healthy society, which are therefore adjust these ‘incompetent and lazy’ folk to its own patterns by changing their mentality. These marginals need to be ‘integrated,’ ‘incorporated’ into the healthy society that they have ‘forsaken.’

“The truth is, however, that the oppressed are not ‘marginals,’ are not people living ‘outside’ society. They have always been ‘inside’ – inside the structure which made them ‘beings for others.’ The solution is not to ‘integrate’ them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become ‘beings for themselves.'”

(Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p.55)

OSLA is fully virtual and completely learner-centered. The purpose is for each participant to move from passive student to active learner. Students go through an onboarding process in which they get a briefing and make a personal decision/commitment to join:

Whether your learning community is ready to get past the senseless debate over learning face-to-face versus online, or if you want to create an Open-Source Learning course based on the classroom experience, the ideas are yours to adapt as you see fit for your learning community. Please feel free to Contact Me with any questions or suggestions.

A student’s first impression of Open-Source Learning

Remember your first day of class? The teacher was so enthusiastic! It really seemed like things were going to be different— right up until they weren’t.

The first day of Open-Source Learning is just like the first day of every other course—until it isn’t.

On your first day in Open-Source Learning, you receive some information and an invitation. You have options and you’re asked to choose a course of action. Actually, you’re forced to choose. Or come up with a better idea.

At that point, if I’m the lead learner, I leave.

That’s right. I walk out of the room and close the door behind me. This has to be your call.

Look around at the other students you’re not learners yet, are you? See their raised eyebrows raised as you all share the WTF moment. You’re in what Tuckman would call the forming stage of group development.

Finally someone speaks up. Maybe someone answers or makes a joke. Eventually the vocal members decide and validate what the group seems to want.  Everyone agrees that they don’t want school-as-usual, so the entire process takes about four minutes.

Someone comes outside to get me. Later in the day, you read the following post on the course blog. Now – for the first time in your entire experience as a student – you’re in the driver’s seat. It’s time to stand and be counted.

The defining characteristic of Open Source Learning is that there is no chief; all of us are members of a network that is constantly evolving.


Will this blog see tomorrow?

[NOTE: The following post is an example of what I published for students on campus to read in the afternoon, after they got home from campus on the first day of school.]

It’s an open question. Think about today’s in-class discussion. Ask yourself what you really want out of this semester. Then, comment to this post with your decision and at least one reason for it. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “We all hang together or we all hang separately.” We won’t move forward unless all of us participate.

I’ve created an approach to learning in which students use 2.0 tools to create their online identities, express themselves, and demonstrate what they can do.

I call the model Open-Source Learning. I define it with a mouthful: “A guided learning process that combines timeless best practices with today’s tools in a way that empowers learners to create interdisciplinary paths of inquiry, communities of interest and critique, and a portfolio of knowledge capital that is directly transferable to the marketplace.”

Students use Open-Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals, Big Questions, Collaborative Working Groups, and online portfolios of work that they can use for personal curiosity, self-improvement, or as a competitive advantage in applying for jobs, scholarships, and admission to colleges and universities. We’ve been at this a long time. You can see a sample course blog here and some personal member blogs here.

Several members of one of the first Open-Source Learning cohorts made this video about the experience:

In an era when it seems like all you hear about school is how much it sucks, it’s nice to see student achievement make positive waves.  Check out this Open-Source Learning interview with students and Howard Rheingold, the man who literally wrote the book on The Virtual Community 20 years ago.

The defining characteristic of Open-Source Learning is that there is no chief; all of us are members of a network that is constantly evolving. Another key element is transparency. What we learn and how well we learn it, how we respond to setbacks, and even some of our favorite inspirations and habits of mind are right out there in public for everyone to see. Readers will rightly perceive what we curate as the best we have to offer.

OPEN-Source Learning

And all this is Open. In thermodynamics, an open system exchanges substance, not just light and heat. To us, the important idea is that the network can change in composition and purpose. Every time you meet someone new and exchange ideas, you’re not only enriching each other, you’re changing your minds and contributing opportunities for others to do the same. In other words, you’re learning and teaching* (*one of the most effective ways to learn).

Open-SOURCE Learning

We’re not limited to one source for curriculum or instruction. We have a full slate of online conferences scheduled this year including authors, authorities on the Internet and social media, entrepreneurs, and others. Learners create unexpectedly fun and interesting adventures all the time. Last year a mother/daughter team presented a lesson on class distinctions in Dickens & Dr. Seuss online (I’d post & link if I hadn’t forgotten to click ‘Record’ that day).  Ricky Luna invited a champion drummer to talk with students online about music and its connections to literature and life.

If we read something that makes an impression we can reach out to the author—and if the author isn’t around anymore, we can reach out to the author’s estate, family, leading authorities, and others. As we consider the core curriculum we can look around at other communities to see what they do differently—the Internet gives us an easy, free way to get our hands on something better if it’s out there.

No matter what we do in class, every single one of us won’t always get equally optimal benefit out of what happens in a 50-minute period. Some of us get it one way, some of us get it another. In two clicks you can have your choice of 79,248 strategies, tactics, and resources.

As you get the hang of this you’ll come up with your own ideas. Testing them will give you a better sense of how to use the experience to your greatest advantage.

Students use Open Source Learning to create a wild variety of personal goals.

Why use the Internet to customize our conversations instead of Big Data to standardize them? Because no one knows how learning actually works–what IS that little voice that tells you what you should’ve said 15 minutes after you should’ve said it? How does a subneuronal lightning storm somehow account for our experience of being alive?

Open-Source LEARNING

We are not sure how to account for the individual experience and demonstration of learning. We are also not sure what exactly the individual should be learning about at a time when factoids are a search click away and the economy, the environment, and the future are all increasingly complex and uncertain.

We’re better off when we understand how we think. After all, how we think is a powerful influence on how we act.  If you think of your blog work as a list of traditional school assignments/chores, you will treat it that way and it will show. Your friends will miss your posts and worry that you’ve moved to The House Beyond the Internet– or that you’re still at your place but trapped under something heavy. At any rate you’ll be missed, and you’ll be missing out.

Get Connected

This work should help you connect the dots between the interests that drive you, an academic course that derives its title from words hardly anyone uses in casual conversation, and practical tasks like applying for scholarships and college admissions. 

The general idea is for you to do your best at something personally meaningful, learn about how you and others learn while you’re in the act, and fine-tune your life accordingly. In addition to mastering the core curriculum, improving your own mind is the highest form of success in this course of study.

As you well know (Put that phone away or I’ll confiscate it!), many people are worried about the use of technology in education. They are rightly concerned about safety, propriety, and focus: will learners benefit or will they put themselves at risk? The only way to conclusively prove that the benefits far outweigh the risks is to establish your identities and show yourselves great, both online and in meatspace.

As we move forward you will learn how the Internet works, how you can be an effective online citizen, and how you can use 2.0 and 3.0 tools to achieve your personal and professional goals. You’ll also learn a lot about writing and the habits of mind that make readers and writers successful communicators.

As Benjamin Franklin famously observed, “We all hang together or we all hang separately.”

Because Open Source Learning is a team sport, this is all your call. You have to decide if you want to pursue this new direction, or if you want to invent another possibility with or without social media, or if you prefer the familiarity of the traditional approach. There is admittedly something comforting about the smell of an old book, even if it’s a thirty-pound textbook that spent the summer in a pile of lost-and-found P.E. clothes.

My perspective may be obvious but I’m just one voice. Please add yours with a comment below.

[Originally published at Dr. Preston’s English Literature & Composition 2014-2015. It’s worth a click to read the learners’ comments.]

[Header Image: Student Lesley Aguilar becomes the master Open-Source Learner. Image: David Preston]

Hack to School Night


Back to School Night usually sucks. It’s the product of conversations [“Hola mijo, how was your day at school?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” “Who did you eat lunch with?” “No one.” “What did you learn?” “Nothing.”] that can turn parents into detectives and teachers into tattletales.

Rather than speak for passive students, I want to help active learners speak for themselves.

I’ve been facilitating student-led conferences since 2004. The basic idea is for students to prepare answers to specific questions about their learning. Then they provide those answers in response to the people who care about them enough to ask. Students get more confidence and trust from parents, guardians, and others when they articulately and enthusiastically describe their learning experience. The student becomes an expert and advocate. Supporters have peace of mind. Everyone wins.

Six or seven years ago, I had car trouble on the way to Back to School Night. But it didn’t matter. Because everyone was prepared, the conversations took place as planned and everyone had a great time. Since then, I’ve called our practice “Hack to School Night.”

This year I’m leading the all-virtual Open-Source Learning Academy. I wondered whether anyone would want to participate in yet another zoom. In true Open-Source Learning style, since I didn’t know, I asked.


Here is the post that I used to present the idea:


(my t-shirt from OSCON)

To be clear: the word hack has been associated with several definitions (“sharp cough, “cut with unskillful blows,” & “illegal/unauthorized computer access,” e.g.) that do not describe what we do.

We make connections and facilitate conversations that help people learn.   We build, analyze,  evaluate and modify tools and working conditions to make them better.

You know how they say, “[So’n’so] just can’t hack it?” Well, maybe [So’n’so] can’t.  We can.

So, at Back– er, Hack to School night, we are at it again. Get here whenever you can. [UPDATE: 5:00 – 6:00 PM on Thursday, September 2] Bring whoever you want. Offer them the benefit of what you know and find a way to learn from them too. Share new ideas about technology and how you can use it to get ahead in life.

Here is the program:
1. Learner-led conference (see below)
2. Periodic “Intro to OSL” presentations
3. Sign-ups for “friend of the course” events and “digital drop-in” nights

Here is the process:
1. Think about these questions and your answers to them;
2. Bring someone who cares to Hack to School Night;
3. Have them ask you these questions, be suitably brilliant in your replies, and demand that they take notes so that you know they’re paying attention;
4. Turn in their notes to me [UPDATE: scan and post them to your blog], get your extra credit, listen to me brag about you briefly;
5. Go home [UPDATE: here in 2021, you’re already there!] and finish your homework.

Here are the questions:
1. What is OSLA about?
2. What is the easiest part of OSLA?
3. What is the hardest part of OSLA?
4. What have you learned so far?
5. What is your Big Question/ key interest?


It turned out that quite a few learners and parents wanted to hang out. As a result of experiences like this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public debates between face to face learning and virtual environments don’t tell the whole story.

The next day, I posted a recap.

(If a picture is worth a thousand words, that is “smile smile smile” 8000 times right there.)


Thank you to everyone who joined our Hack to School Night yesterday. I enjoyed spending time with you and your families, answering questions, and thinking out loud about our goals.


Sometimes life cracks me up. Remember that moment toward the end, when we all heard the ice cream truck outside Zoe’s house, and I told you about Celia, my neighborhood ice cream truck driver? She must have heard me. Not five minutes after we ended the Zoom call I heard the music down the street… it was a sweet end to a sweet event. Thanks again.


Bam! The level of comfort, openness, and humanity that we maintained in our conversation for nearly an hour as people came and went was so far beyond anything I’ve ever seen when parents trudge around campus or the gym on a bell schedule. I was able to listen, get to know each individual a little, and answer specific questions – even better, students and families exchanged ideas with each other!

Given all of the division and isolation in our world today, it’s more important than ever for us to connect. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Long live Hack to School Night.