webinar guest: chris carfi

Last fall, my good friend Chris Carfi came up with a terrific idea. “David,” he said, “I have a Web3 idea that I’d like to turn into an Open-Source Learning journey.”
Over the next few months, Chris did a deep dive into:
  • NFTs
  • DAOs
  • Ways in which Web3 might be able to transcend the “rich-get-richer” legacies of 1.0 and 2.0.

The jury is still out and the question matters more than ever.

Next Tuesday at noon (Pacific Standard Time), Chris – who is now Head of Marketing at Unlock Protocol – will join me for a webinar to share what he’s learned and take us on a tour of Web3 as it exists today, so that we – as entrepreneurs, content creators, educators, parents, students – can decide what it should do for us tomorrow.
Here’s more about Chris:
Christopher Carfi is a community-builder, marketer & technologist exploring the intersection between creators, community, and business models related to NFTs, DAOs, and web3. Chris is Head of Marketing for Unlock Protocol, and helps creators build their membership communities.
During the course of his 20+ year career, Chris was at GoDaddy for nearly six years and headed up content and community efforts globally, has worked in startups and big companies, and has developed marketing, customer community and evangelist programs for a number of brands you’ve heard of. He currently lives in the Bay Area with his family.

You can’t win if you don’t learn to read

Re/Connecting People, the Written Word, and the Delight of Discovery.

Everyone must learn to read. You can’t get anywhere in this world if you can’t read. Whatever else you do in life, you will have to navigate a world of contracts, warranties, and user agreements.

Reading is essential to surviving and thriving in today’s world.

“Learn to read” is different than “go to school” or “do your homework.” To read well, you have to love to read.  To do anything really well, you have to love it at least enough to keep going when it gets difficult. This is why I so often refer to the idea of “Passionate Craft.”

Sadly, for many students, learning to read is too much pain and too little pleasure.  Their only experience is choking down force-fed texts that they associate with the boring, difficult job of going to school.

Learning to read is more than the beautiful journey of fiction, or the boundless possibilities of poetry. When we learn to read, we come home to our own minds. A person with no remembered dreams sparked by bedtime stories is missing out on an entire region of their consciousness. She will be less likely to associate books with imagination, escape, or possibility. Where, then, is hope?

Please read books you love.

Enter Open Source Learning and the importance of agency.  Each one of us must discover what we are willing to dedicate ourselves to in order to learn.  To do that, we have to rekindle the curiosity and the passion that drives us to explore our world in the first place.  The desire to explore transforms reading from the Obstacle to the Way.

That’s just the selfish part.  Whether or not you read is important to the rest of us, too.  In Ray Bradbury’s words, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture.  You just have to get people to stop reading them.”

In one high school course I started the conversation with students like this:



It stands to reason that anyone who isn’t a professional reader (teacher/professor/editor/literary critic, e.g.) is an amateur.  One connotation of the word amateur is a person who doesn’t get paid for a particular talent.  In a culture that overwhelmingly–and often erroneously–associates value with money, an amateur is often considered less proficient than a professional who gets paid for doing the same thing.

But it’s the second connotation of amateur that makes something worth doing and life worth living.  The word comes from a French derivation of the Latin verb for “love.”  Amateurs love what they do.  In fact, amateurism is often defined as, “the philosophy that elevates things done without self-interest above things done for pay.”  In this sense, although I have been paid for teaching, consulting, researching, and writing about learning for nearly 25 years, I am a proud amateur.

I’m thinking about this now because of some recent discussions with students about reading.  I understand how important it is to read what you love and to think about the text in your own way.  When I read for pleasure I want to suspend my disbelief and lose myself in the story.  I imagine the characters so intensely that sometimes when I turn the last page I actually miss them a little.

The furthest thing from my mind is whether I can write an essay explaining the author’s tone or theme with a thoughtful analysis of genre or techniques like anaphora or synecdoche.  In fact, analyzing a text in that way distracts me from most of what makes me want to pick up a book in the first place.

We are not alone in thinking this sort of analysis can make a person fall out of love with reading:



However, it’s easier to portray that idea in a movie. Characters are Schopenhauer‘s pure intellect, free of any worldly agenda. In the real-world classroom, we constantly feel the pressures of life.

But whatever stress we feel about grades and tests only makes it more important to account for our understanding of the tools and techniques authors use to convey their ideas.  So, in addition to seeing a novel or poem as a work of art that speaks to the human condition, you will also need to analyze technical elements of composition to form arguments based on your understanding of academic principles of writing.

Now, you may or may not be interested to know that Leonardo Da Vinci used over 30 layers of paint to add only about half a hair’s depth to a painting that looks like it has no brushstrokes.  But millions of people (including me) have stood just feet away from the painting, gawked in amazement, and wondered how Da Vinci did it.

For centuries Da Vinci’s technique was considered a mystery of genius.  Finally, scientists applied specialized training and tools (flourescence spectrometry & emissiograph, among others) to reveal the technique: sfumato.

In literature, perceptual discoveries about authors’ techniques are more subjective, and therefore require more explanation than, “Whoa, just look at that emissiograph!”

The techniques that Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, and others used to create their works are the coursework of literature.

The question before us is this: How can we preserve and grow a love of reading while simultaneously mastering the seemingly cold, objective business of analyzing a text in ways that demonstrate understanding to scholars in the field?


First: Please read books you love. Go beyond the course syllabus. If you actually exhaust every title and still don’t find something that appeals to you, er… well, you’ll be the first.

Second: Seek to better understand the books you don’t love.  Someone more experienced and knowledgeable than you thought they were worth reading, and it’s your job to understand why.  Turning up your nose isn’t an option unless you want to look like that spoiled kid in a great seafood restaurant who only eats fish sticks.  Sushi isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have any business saying “ugh” unless you can (a) recognize the qualities of truly excellent sushi and (b) explain why the mouthful you just spit out isn’t it.  The the value of our opinions is a function of evidence and logic, not an inalienable right that others are obligated to accept because we are “entitled.” Learn to read – to appreciate – the texts that don’t automatically jump out at you.

Third: Reconsider how you define the word read.  When you were younger, reading in school probably suggested demonstrating basic skills, like sounding out words you didn’t recognize or remembering facts that proved you opened the book.  You were responsible for demonstrating what you saw on the page.  That’s a good first step, but it’s only the starting point of a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to construct or derive meaning.  At this point we are using abstract concepts like literary techniques and connections between works to interpret what isn’t spelled out on the page. When I say “learn to read,” I’m also saying, “learn to think.”


This may be easier to illustrate with something that isn’t literature.  Once my daughter and I made picture frames out of popsicle sticks and glued drawings inside them.  While we chatted about Curious George I absent-mindedly drew some geometric designs on my popsicle sticks and glued them together.

Then I looked at them again and imagined what they might symbolize.  It turns out you can see the whole story of evolution and the rise and fall of civilization in these popsicle sticks.  Do you see it? Go clockwise from the bottom: the green primordial ooze; the rising oceans; the buildings of civilization; and the fragmented incompleteness of whatever comes next.

Did I intend this?  Don’t be ridiculous.  The only things going through my mind as I drew were thoughts like, “My kid is cute” and “This tiny, hard chair is putting my butt to sleep.”  Many of the authors we read didn’t intend for their work to be analyzed the way we do it in this course.  But since most of them are dead and we can’t ask them what they mean, we use culturally established tools to gain insight into what they wrote.  In the end, whatever tools authors use, readers construct meaning – I “read” the colors and shapes of my picture frame in such a way that they tell a story.


If I can meaningfully contextualize that argument, and present it logically and articulately, I can expand what you see when you look at the same text.  And I don’t have to resort to pop psychology or persuasive appeals that reek of because I said so.

Even though a reading sort of jumped out at me, though, it’s superficial and undeveloped.  I haven’t really discussed the symbology of each shape and color, and I don’t even know the technical terms experts would use.  I loved art history when I was a student, but I’m not an expert on art or the techniques that experts use to “read” paintings or sculptures.

Although you can use textual examples to support and illustrate your interpretations, the meat of your arguments should depend on your understanding. We want to know what you think, not a summary of text we can read for ourselves.

As Mike Tyson put it, “It’s good to know how to read, but it’s dangerous to know how to read and not how to interpret what you’re reading.”

So, Fourth: Stop looking for the answers on the page and start developing the expertise and the confidence that will enable you to find them in yourselves.


This is a short life.  You have too many demands and too little time.  Read. Love. Understand.  Share. Exams and school papers should be opportunities to show what you know, not performances to rehearse. There is simply no substitute for reading and discussing great literature.

Every year, students dedicate themselves to the study of multiple choice instead of loving literature. What difference does getting an ‘A’ make if you can’t tell the difference between a restaurant menu and a suicide note? If you really learn to read, you can sustain your momentum on your own. Magic happens over time. Readers surprise themselves and everyone else with their deep and sudden insights. They don’t focus on outcomes. They pursue what they loved to the best of their abilities.  It happens all the time.

Stop looking for the answers on the page. Start developing the expertise and the confidence that will enable you to find them in yourselves.

Loving learning and reading is a lifelong opportunity. Gaining insight and achieving your potential is infinitely more important than any test or grade.  To paraphrase the Chinese proverb: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.  Don’t let technical analysis interfere with your love of reading.  Use it as a lens.

Long live the Amateur. Learn to read.

Sapere Aude.


[Originally published on Dr. Preston’s English Literature & Composition 2014-2015]

What’s your big question?

This week I’m dipping into the archives. When I taught, I took time with each new class to discuss the power of asking questions, so that learners could identify their own Big Question and launch an original interdisciplinary exploration. The following post was originally published at Dr. Preston’s English Literature & Composition 2013-2014. The original is still there, and it’s worth a click to read the students’ Big Questions in the comments. Enjoy. And please feel free to Contact Me with questions of your own. -dp

The single most powerful motivator for learning is an open question.  What’s yours?

Traditional models of schooling are based on top-down instruction.  The teacher delivers single-subject curriculum that is organized into component parts such as chapters, units, and lessons.  Students respond via assignments, quizzes, tests, essays, and projects.

Open-Source Learning invites us to create meaningful experiences WITH people instead of FOR them. We all begin our lives insatiably curious about the world around us, so what can we do to reawaken that sense of delight in wondering?  For years I began the conversation with students by re-imagining the power of the question and asking them to consider one of their own.  And even though I originally wrote the post below for high school seniors, you don’t have to be a student to have a Big Question; some of my favorites come from adults in leadership positions who give themselves permission to pause and wonder out loud about something they’ve always wanted to know.  So, wherever you are in life:


Our minds are naturally inclined toward associative and interdisciplinary thinking.  We connect the dots in all sorts of ways, often when we don’t fully comprehend the experience (and sometimes even when there aren’t any dots).

We have questions about the nature of the world: our experience of it, our place in it, our relationship to it, what lies beyond it… When we’re young we ask questions all the time. We are insatiably curious. It’s like somehow we intuitively understand that the more we learn the better we get at everything – especially learning.

You’re a natural

No one is born with test anxiety. When we’re young, we test and challenge ourselves all the time. As we age, we learn to assess risk and we make better decisions. It’s important to keep our edge. Often the factor that distinguishes successful people is their willingness to risk and fail.  It’s always somebody else who’s saying, “Hey, come down from there, you’re going to get hurt!”* [*Often, they’re right.  In any case they’re probably more experienced in estimating the odds of that was fun didn’t hurt vs. itchy leg cast for a month outcomes.  But sometimes you just KNOW you can do it and it’s frustrating to be told you can’t. Pushing the edge is what learning is all about.** {**As a teacher/responsible adult I must explicitly remind you to do this (i.e., learn/push the edge/create new neural pathways in your brain that actually change your mind) in ways that will not break laws or harm any sentient beings– most especially you– or offend, irritate, annoy, upset, or anger your loved ones.***} <***If you think this is a lot of footnotes, or whatever we’re calling the blogger’s equivalent, you should read David Foster Wallace (especially Infinite Jest).  In fact, this is a good time for you to consider his commencement speech (which doesn’t contain footnotes, but does contain the sort of wisdom that more people should attend to while there’s still time to do something about it.> At any rate, if you’re still following this sentence you’ll do fine in this course.>}]  Not only do we love climbing learning limbs when we’re young, we know it’s what we’re best at.  Many of us learn whole languages best between the ages of 5-12.  [Or earlier.] Our amazing brains manage the torrential inflow by creating schema.

You have been trained in captivity

We need to accelerate and amplify our learning. Our future is complex and uncertain. Those in the know will thrive. Learning helps our brains develop. In fact, scientists are investigating whether the lack of new neuron formation is a cause for depression or an interfering factor in recovery.

Learning is trapped in school. By definition, individualism and divergent thinking don’t regress to the mean or conform to a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Even the smartest and most successful learners fear punishment or embarrassment, so they surrender and play the game.

Learning that starves for opportunity dies the same death as a fire that starves for oxygen.

The authors of “The Creativity Crisis” say we ask about 100 questions a day as preschoolers– and we quit asking altogether by middle school.

In his (wonderful!) book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie describes visiting schools to show students how artists sculpt steel into animals:

“I always began with the same introduction: ‘Hi My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist… How many of you are artists?’

The pattern of responses never failed.

First grade: En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling.  Every child was an artist.

Second grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher.  The raised hands were still.

Third grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand.  Tentatively.  Self-consciously. 

And so on up through the grades.  The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands.  By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes dancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a ‘closet artist.’”

You have the key

Richard Saul Werman (the man who created the TED conference) said, In school we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question.” School and the way it works was designed back when things were very different and oriented around mass production; that’s not the way the world works any more. Learning should be more than preparation for a job that may not even be around by the time you graduate. And in the age of the search engine, there is no real point in learning facts for their own sake, especially since so many of them eventually turn out not to be facts after all.

You have to develop the critical thinking and collaborative skills that will enable you to identify opportunities, solve problems, and CREATE a role for yourself in the new economy.  (And don’t worry – if you’re not interested in being an entrepreneur, these abilities will help you do whatever else you want to do more effectively.)

When we’re young we ask questions all the time.  We are insatiably curious.  It’s like somehow we intuitively understand that the more we learn the better we get at everything–including learning.

So, our first mission is to reclaim the power of the question.  Everything you ask has an interdisciplinary answer.  Show me a cup of tea and I’ll show you botany, ceramics, and the history of colonialism (for starters).  Wondering why your girlfriend doesn’t love you any more?  Psychology, poetry, probability… you get the idea.  And no matter what the question or the answers, you’re going to have to sort the signal from the noise and determine how best to share the sense you make.

What’s your Big Question?  

I have some questions for you. What:

  • have you always wanted to know?
  • are you thinking about now?
  • information would make a difference in your life, or in the community, or in the world?
  • do you wish you could invent?
  • problem do you want to solve?

This is not a trick and there are no limits.  Please comment to this post with your question and post it to your course blog (title: MY BIG QUESTION).  You can always change your question or ask another.  If you need some inspiration, check out this year’s Eng 3 Big Questions here.

[Originally published at Dr. Preston’s English Literature & Composition 2013-2014. It’s worth a click to read the students’ Big Questions in the comments.]

Making the cut

“You Don’t Get It”

The single biggest problem in America today is our lack of understanding. We are not going to solve the environment, the economy, the government, or anything else unless we can comprehend, communicate, analyze, evaluate, and act on big ideas.

A lot of ink has been spilled about empathy – there’s even a section about it in this very post – but the bigger issue is our inability to think. We are way too focused on feeling, and believing, and our capacity for abstraction is painfully underdeveloped.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. -William Shakespeare

There is a world of conceptual awareness beyond the stuff we can count or program that influences everything we can account for through direct experience. Learners would be much more successful in all fields if we addressed this directly and early.

We want to get our heads around ideas. Ignorance pisses us off. Toddlers get frustrated and angry because they don’t yet have the concepts or language to express themselves and feel understood – that’s the “terrible twos.” Adults get frustrated and angry because things happen they don’t understand, and they don’t trust information or logic – that’s the January 6 insurrection and protests against vaccinations and wearing masks.

Are You Bad at Math – Or Mad at Math?

A few years ago I was cleaning out my parents’ garage and I found a copy of my junior high school transcripts.

I always thought I was bad at math. Math always felt like a slog to me. I figured I just didn’t have a talent for it and I stopped taking math courses as soon as I had the chance.

Imagine my surprise when I read those transcripts. On every standardized test, I scored higher in math than I did in English. By a lot. Enough to make this author/ journalist/ blogger/ former English teacher wonder what else I might have done with my life.

Where did I get the idea that I was bad at math? It started with an impression – I didn’t like math. But why should that be? I’ve always pretty quick with arithmetic. My kids love it when I tell them “super speedster” problems like the ones my fifth grade teacher Mr. Friedman (who also worked as an auctioneer) used to rattle off at us for extra credit.

Then it hit me. I remembered the exact moment when I learned to hate math.

It was lunchtime on a bright, crisp winter day during my seventh grade year at Francisco Sepulveda Junior High School. I was the only student in my pre-algebra class who had to retake the chapter test. Mrs. Faught sat on her stool in front of the room next to the overhead projector, writing problems on a plastic sheet. The projector glass was covered by a white piece of paper so I couldn’t see the problems on the screen. She finished writing and looked up at me, still standing in the doorway.

Showing Our Work

“David, do you know why you’re here?”

(Yes, I thought. I am here because you are a jerk.)

“You didn’t show your work on the test problems, and you got them all right. So now you have to prove that you weren’t cheating.”

She made me put all my things down on the floor in the back of the room. She handed me a piece of paper and a pencil. Then, with dramatic flair, she removed the white piece of paper, revealing the problems she’d written just for me.

I finished in five minutes and I did not show my work. Mrs. Faught graded the paper and said, “Well, you got the right answers. But you didn’t show your work. You didn’t follow instructions.” She handed it back to me with a red “F” on top.

Math Is Not the Problem – It’s Us

Later in life, I would come to understand mathematics as a way to understand the world and  solve problems, a language that provides glimpses into the true nature and even splendor of physical reality. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Mathematics rightly viewed possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.”

But to many students, math is a bathroom pass of the mind, a tool that teachers use not only to control what students think about, but how they have to think about it. Demanding that you process information according to my steps – Think how I tell you to think – is oppression.

What is the point of teaching math? Are we helping each other discover truth and beauty as expressed in mathematical terms, or are we exerting our will and forcing people to think as we direct?

Our society can’t afford to graduate another generation of learners who believe – rightly or wrongly – that they are bad at math, or that learning is painful, or that abstract concepts are beyond our understanding.

We should start by understanding how we think about math.

The Count

Many young people do just fine with arithmetic because it’s concrete. If you see the symbol “1” or the word “one” you can pick up a physical object and assign the term: you are holding ONE of it. Put another thing next to that first thing – “add” it – and bathe in the sublime pleasure of “2.” Now you’re counting and operating. You have a foundation for the language you need to do arithmetical operations with real numbers.

After you master addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, you’ll be ready for fractions and percentages. Apart from using the same terms as basic arithmetic, these operations have practical referents and applications in popular culture: sale prices, sports statistics, and pizza slices.

X Marks the Spot

Algebra is a whole ‘nother ballgame. We go from nice, whole numbers to variables. {x} stands for numbers, or sets of numbers, or possibilities.

Equations can be intimidating, especially when they’re used in applications such as engineering or philosophy. How is it that so many people, decade after decade, can count stuff in the world and then completely fall apart when the math becomes conceptual?

In their paper “Solving Equations: The Transition From Arithmetic to Algebra,” researchers Teresa Rojano and Eugenio Filloy describe “Conceptual and/or symbolic changes which mark a difference between arithmetical and algabraic thought in the individual.”

This is a big deal.

The Didactic Cut

“One of these cuts,” write Rojano and Filloy, “is particularly interesting for the theme of problem solving…”

It turns out that arithmetical skill isn’t the right mental foundation or frame for algebra. It’s not even the right language. Telling students to practice more arithmetic to prepare for algebra is like telling them to read more Spanish so they can understand Russian.

We literally have to learn a different language to understand algebra. According to Rojano and Filloy, “It is necessary to construct, or acquire, some elements of an algebraic syntax… The construction of these syntactic elements is based on arithmetical knowledge which has worked well up to a certain point, but it must also break with certain arithmetical notions – hence the presence of a cut.”

It’s easy to confuse algebra with arithmetic, so consider the following two equations. First:

Ax+ B = C

That’s easy to solve using arithmetic; if you know C, you can use the concept of equality to “unwind” the operations and deduce the value of x.

However, things get trickier in an equation like this:

Ax+ B = Cx + D

Now we need operations drawn from outside the domain of arithmetic – what Rojano and Filloy call “operations on the unknown.”

Making this sort of operation meaningful to the learner requires redefining the concepts of equation and equality in numbers. According to Rojano and Filloy, “the learner must at least understand that the expressions on both sides of the equals sign are of the same nature (or structure), and that there are actions which give meaning to the equality of the expressions (for instance, the action of substituting a numerical value for the unknown).”


What would have happened if Mrs. Faught would have simply asked me to explain my thought process in solving problems? It would at least have given us the chance to better understand each other. I imagine that I would have had to slow down, and – in essence – show my work. I like to imagine that she would have learned something too.

Learners take many different paths to understanding. It is presumptuous to assume that any one methodology will suit them all. Especially when we’re actually introducing a new subject, and not merely a higher level of the same subject.

The Larger Point

As Lakoff and Johnson wrote in Metaphors We Live By, “Most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts.”

That word: partially. For decades, educators have relied on Skinner and Hunter to “scaffold” content-based learning on previously acquired skills and/or lived experiences. But developing different ways of thinking is just as important.

Knowing arithmetic helps us learn the arithmetical elements of algebra. That’s effective as far as it goes – and that’s as far as it goes.

The same is true for any topic or field that expands into abstraction when it transcends what we can know with our senses:

  • Biology –> How to treat a cold –> Epidemiology/ Covid-19 policy
  • Money –> Sale price –> Macrofinance/ Cryptocurrency
  • Big –> Ocean big –> Astronomy
  • Small –> Molecule small –> Quantum mechanics
  • Voting –> Representative democracy –> Today’s zeitgeist

Operant conditioning isn’t enough when there is nothing in our immediate environment to operate on. We have to build confidence in our capacity for reason. We have to be able to distinguish logic and the scientific method from nonsense.

“See the North Star? Yes. You’re pointing at the right dot. But that’s actually not happening right now. The light you’re looking at is three or four hundred years old. I know! Weird. But also cool, but also weird… right?” And now we’re learning about light years.

Understanding abstraction takes training that involves discipline, yes, but also kindness, patience, and communication about schema and language.

We’re going to have to think our way through this.


As we begin 2022, let’s keep the conversation going. What’s your least favorite subject? When did you realize that learning and school were two different things? Contact me and share your story.








Learning on web3

Happy New Year!

2022 promises to be a(nother) dynamic year in education. Our environment, our culture, and the coronavirus continue to evolve, and we must adapt. Open-Source Learning is based on systemic interaction between us as individuals, our immediate network, and our surroundings – what is happening out there that may enrich our experience?

Learners are creating more value than ever.

As the Open-Source Learning Academy launches its spring season, I’m looking at Web3.

Blockchains and distributed ledgers have been on my mind for a while. In 2018 I traveled (oh, those were the days!) to M.I.T. and spoke at the Connected Learning Summit about the applications of the blockchain in education. Here is some of what I said:

“Over the past few years, blockchain technology and cryptocurrency have commanded an increasing amount of speculative attention and investment that got us thinking about banking, money, and record keeping in general. Where does the blockchain provide value in educational records? Imagine the job interview candidate in 2027: ‘Thanks for seeing me today. Everything I’ve ever done is in the ledger: See for yourself. It’s been verified. Those institutions and mentors are rock solid. But those aren’t badges. That’s not Sony’s platform. I own my data. It’s my learning record. I may be a recent graduate, and you may not trust me any further than you can throw my résumé, but I don’t take offense. People stopped trusting a long time ago. But I can do this job. Look at my grades trapped in digital amber. You don’t have to trust me. But you will have to pay me.'”

Back to the Future

Since that talk I’ve focused on launching the first Open-Source Learning Academy in a public high school district in the middle of a pandemic and developing open source software for learning communities who want to use the public internet to create value without being fleeced by Big Tech.

Now is a good time to go back to the future. These days, more people are talking about NFTs, DAOs, Web3, and (whatever they mean when they use the word) meta. But there is much more to the technology than “learn to earn.” In fact, it seems that the louder someone touts Web3, the more they’re angling to make money without thinking about the consequences.

The best way I’ve found to test the performance and ethics of software is to engage with it. I want to wade into the surf and swim with Web3 before it becomes just another entrepreneurial wave that crashes over learning and extracts value as it recedes. And, if the current iteration of Web3 doesn’t fulfill its promise to help learners, I’ll provide a use case for that too.

The real value in education

K-12 teachers and college professors know that many students weren’t attending classes even before the pandemic – at least not from the neck up. A young person who has 120,000,000 Apollo missions worth of computing power in their pocket does not need a textbook.

School is a toxic brand that does not make a meaningful value proposition to its constituents. If people didn’t have to go, they wouldn’t. Sometimes they don’t anyway –  teachers continue to resign and students drop out to get away from free, comprehensive services that were designed at great expense to improve their lives.

Higher education is next level. Financial products disguised as prizes have created a $1.5T student loan crisis. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars for a degree, when you can take every M.I.T. course online for free?

Learning, on the other hand, is the most valuable thing we do. Learning is directly responsible for every good thing in our lives. So let’s consider where we create value through learning so that we can leverage it more effectively.

That’s the artifact, Jack

Learners are creating more value than ever.

When I was in school, I’d write an essay or take a test on paper. An audience of one (the teacher) would evaluate my work, scrawl a letter or score on it with a comment or two, and pass it back to me after entering a grade in the roll book. I would promptly stuff the pages in my notebook or backpack, where eventually they would migrate to the garbage and be lost to history.

For more than 15 years, however, Open-Source Learning students have curated their work on the public internet. Millions of blog posts, comments, page views, and other discrete artifacts testify to their production each year. These artifacts: attract attention, support, and constructive critique; create a sense of digital identity; and every once in a while, a third party offers payment for access and use.

The problem is that learners are being ripped off.

Why ed tech is so rich and schools are so poor

The school district where I launched the first Open-Source Learning Academy uses Canvas as a Learning Management System for their other online and hybrid programs. So does my daughter’s school, and many others. Canvas is a brand of Instructure Holdings, a Utah-based corporation.

The system’s set up so almost nobody gets paid.

On March 24, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo reported acquiring Instructure at a valuation of approximately $2B. In July of 2021, Instructure announced an initial public offering that valued the company at approximately $2.9B. Today, the valuation of Instructure Holdings is estimated at $3.95B.

What does this have to do with learning and Web3?

Education technology companies are profiting off the hard work that educators and learners are doing during a time of crisis. Schools are staying poor, even as we ask them to do more than ever.

The centralized system in which both schools and education technology companies operate favors a few people at the expense of many. School isolates us even when we’re together: Sit still and be quiet. Business facilitates and monetizes relationships based on collaboration and shared or complementary interests: Be a team player. Business is increasingly agile and entrepreneurs are now taught to “pivot” – school is agonizingly slow to change.

As a result, ed tech companies have moved to develop tools for record keeping, analytics, media, and curation.

The relationship between students who create data, schools, and the ed tech companies who profit brings to mind Courtney Love’s description of the music industry: “The system’s set up so almost nobody gets paid.”

Forcing people to use proprietary software that creates value for corporate executives and shareholders is unethical.

Learners and educators deserve to own the value of what they create online. Further, they deserve to own their own identities and likenesses.

“This will go on your permanent record”

The centralization of education data and the concentration of wealth seem analogous to economic and banking conditions that made cryptocurrency appealing in the first place.

But I get concerned when I see Gavin Wood of Ethereum, the original promoter of Web3, say “I think trust in itself is just a bad thing all around.”

If we’re not going to trust, let’s take a more cynical view of Web3. Will learners will be “locked in” to one network or centralized blockchain? Will this just be another locus of concentration of power over their stuff? Who will help if there is a problem? If we’re not going to trust, where is the regulation that will determine what will happen when things go wrong?

Web3 offers learners and educators ways to authenticate and evaluate the artifacts they create. What if every lecture or composition were an NFT? The creator could trace and participate the transactional value for the life of the artifact. Once upon a time, if you were a painter, and you sold the painting, that was it. Now, if you sell the NFT, you get paid, and you get paid again when it sells the next time, and so on… Check out the market on OpenSea, the Ebay of NFTs.

Again, however, since technology evolves faster than law, I don’t know whether NFTs are just emblems and signals, or whether they actually constitute legal, intellectual property. I also don’t know the auction rules well enough to understand how these transactions transparently account for previous ownership stakes, or what’s left for creators if the value of the NFT stays flat or goes down.

Apart from any monetary value (I don’t know who’ll buy your paragraphs on the theme of The Great Gatsby), that artifact is undeniably yours as you created it in that moment of time.* (*At least according to the ledger you chose. So choose your ledger wisely.) As a practical matter, though, there would be no more need for keeping a grade book.

Add in smart contracts with educators and/or content experts, and now you’re looking at the longitudinal development of a person who is learning ideas and developing skills, as validated by (a) people with credible credentials of their own, and (b) the artifacts themselves.


People thrive in connection. Social models of learning (see Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Krashen’s input hypothesis, and code-switching, for example) have shown how our relationships can influence and accelerate our learning. Loneliness is bad for brains.

But developing and maintaining healthy relationships doesn’t necessarily depend on physical presence. It’s true that we derive a great deal of meaning and benefit from nonverbal cues and touch. We also have successful models for creating and sustaining healthy relationships online. Consider The WELL, whose YOYOW community guidelines inspired Howard Rheingold to coin the phrase and write the book Virtual Community nearly 30 years ago.

Open-Source Learning gives learners opportunities to connecting with each other, peers, and content experts around the world. The internet enables learners to instantly transcend institutional and geographic boundaries to connect with other online content creators.

Web3 claims to expand our ability to connect directly and add layers to enrich our connections. Consider Friends With Benefits, a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) of creators who join a “digital city” by applying, buying tokens, and participating in both profit and decision-making. Then again, FWB also introduces a layer of artificial scarcity that has caused the value of its token to appreciate steeply in a short time, attracting rich investors and effectively slamming the door on artists who can no longer afford to join.

Whether that sort of wealth-building and exclusivity is an intended or unintended consequence of Web3, it would be a deal-breaker for me.

Howard Rheingold, who wrote the foreword for Academy of One, has described technology for decades in terms of mind amplifiers. Can Web3 technologies help us integrate specialties and collectively apply what we know in real time to solve problems and value our contributions?

The Ingenesist Project uses the blockchain to “unify the global engineering and scientific disciplines by incentivizing individual practitioners to form knowledge asset networks among each other by producing claims and validations related to observable and measurable events.”

There are emerging tools for everything. You can use the Unlock Protocol to manage NFTs and Web3 communities by locking content and granting access across platforms, or the Interledger Protocol to accept payment across different networks, or Open Collective to transparently accept donations and sponsorships.

Moving forward

This is way beyond getting paid for homework.

The hype and proliferation of tools around Web3 invite inquiry. School can do much more to help learners leverage technology and create value. Sticking our heads in the sand is not an option. Neither is desperately embracing a tech panacea. Or blindly trusting people who are telling us not to trust.

In 2012 I gave a talk at UCLA in which I said: “This isn’t about apps or tools. If Enzo Ferrari, God forbid, had focused on a screwdriver the way today’s educators and policy makers focus on tools, we never would have gotten the car.”

Considering Web3 – or any new technology – is an opportunity to reconnect with our purpose, our vision, and our humanity. We need to focus on the Ferrari.

As we begin 2022, let’s keep the conversation going. Is your learning community Web3 ready? Contact me and share your story.