OLDaily, by Stephen Downes

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by Stephen Downes
February 19, 2014

Competency-Based Degrees: Coming Soon to a Campus Near You
Joel Shapiro, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19, 2014

The Chronicle's take on competency-based learning is, not surprisingly, negative. "Traditional educators often find competency programs alarming—and understandably so," writes Joel Shapiro. "In fact, traditional educators should be alarmed." According to Shapiro, competency-based learning can only be as good as the assessment mechanisms they employ. But no assessment mechanism is a proxy for deep learning. "Great education isn’t just about content. It challenges students to consider others’ viewpoints, provides conflicting information, and forces students to reconcile, set priorities, and choose." Maybe. But on the face of it, both statements are demonstrably false. First, competency-based learning is about the learning that takes place before the assessment, and this learning can be (and typically is) significantly greater than the assessment. And second, the assessment even in great traditional learning rarely evaluates anything more (and far often less) than that of competency-based learning. You can get a degree from Harvard or Princeton or wherever without ever once considering others' viewpoints or reconciling and setting priorities. I've met many such graduates.

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Metacademy: a package manager for knowledge
Roger Grosse, Machine Learning (Theory), February 18, 2014


OK, so the good news here is that some computer science professors (Roger Grosse and Colorado Reed) have determined that course design should reflect more the structure of the discipline rather than a linear model of subjects arranged in the order a professor deems best. Hence, "Metacademy, an open-source project ... built around an interconnected web of concepts, each one annotated with a short description, a set of learning goals, a (very rough) time estimate, and pointers to learning resources." However, since "the concepts are arranged in a prerequisite graph, which is used to generate a learning plan," the 'web of concepts' they've constructed is logically equivalent to a flow chart, not a web or network (because all the connections are unidirectional). But I shouldn't be critical; this project will connect with others and over time form part of the much wider web of knowledge.

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Leveling the higher ed playing field with free educational content
Lynn Russo Whylly, University Business, February 18, 2014

Short interview with Rice University's Richard G. Baraniuk, now Rice’s director of the Connexions and OpenStax initiatives. Rice hasn't been in the press much recently in this era of massive open online learning, but the Rice projects played an imporetant early role in the provision of open learning resources, and its authoring system was a significant step forward enabling the development of these resources (in my own mind, I place it alongside Simon Fraser University's Public Knowledge Project, which created open journal, open conference, and open harvesting systems. Connexions dates from 1999, hence long predating MOOCs and even predating MIT's OpenCourseWare project, which was announced in 2002. (You can find dozens of references to Connexions dating back to 2002 in OLDaily.)

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A Personal Learning Framework
Doug Johnson, Blue Skunk Blog, February 18, 2014

I'm one of those people who tests off-the-chart for creativity (it doesn't mean I'm good, it just means that, if there's a box, my thinking can be found not only outside that box, but down the road, hitchhiking to some other city). Yet I don't think educators "fear" creativity as suggested in this post. I think creativity is actually valued! But it's true that people don't really know how to deal with it.

  • Johnson says educators fear change, and that creativity changes relationships. I think they crave change, but fear the changes proposed will never work, and that no change will result.
  • Johnson says creativity offends sensibilities. But what offends, I find, are the efforts of people trying to be creative but lacking the vocabulary (see my thoughts on offensive language, below)
  • Johnson says it makes people feel inferior and pressures them to be creative themselves. But I think that that creativity undermines the ability of people to make others feel inferior
  • Johnson says it undermines our efforts. But what creativity does is make clear where our efforts are actually leading, and suggests unsettling alternatives.
  • Johnson says it's hard to measure. But most things are hard to measure (see 'counting', below). What creativity shows is that the things we value aren't the things we're measuring.

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Sorting Isn’t Always Simple
Alfred Thompson, Computer Science Teacher, February 18, 2014


Nice little lesson in sorting in computing science taken from the Olympic games, namely, that for any data set, there is any number of ways to sort. For my own part, I have always maintained that the really had thing is counting (this, btw, is why most quantitative analysis is fiction). Take Olympic medals, for example. We count each medal won once, right? Well, not so fast. When the four-man bobsled team wins gold, they hand out four gold medals. So why does that count as only one in the standings? And how is it that a speed skater could potentially win half a dozen medals at a single Olymic games while a figure skater could only possibkly earn one? If figure skating were like speed skating, there would be a separate medal for figures (which would still exist), short program, and long program (with an additional competition on a different type of ice surface). No, counting is fraught with difficulties. Pure mathematics can avoid the question of what counts as 'one', but no applied mathematics can evade the question.

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We Don’t Sell Saddles Here
Stewart Butterfield, Medium.com, February 18, 2014

I think this software development manifesto. Take the time to read the whole thing. "Just as much as our job is to build something genuinely useful, something which really does make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive, our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms." Stewart Butterfield is attributed but the actual author is someone at Slack. Minor language warning.

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How many software developers would it take to change a lightbulb?
Tom Morris, tommorris.org, February 18, 2014

This would be funnier if it weren't so close to being true. Major language warning; if you don't like bad langauge, don't click on this link.  My favourite bit? "A couple of venture capitalists who are wearing suit jackets but not ties so they can look modern saying things like 'these lightbulbs seem like a neat hack but how exactly do you plan to monetize this?' and 'what’s your exit strategy?'" (And for the record, in my view, the constant repetition of offensive words reflects only a lack of vocabulary with which to express yourself.)

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Let's Unbundle
Josh Wymore, Inside Higher Ed, February 18, 2014

Someone should get the writers at Inside Higher Ed outside the bubble. The 'unbundling' of the educator's function has been talked about for years, maybe decades. It's not necessarily (or even mostly) a consequence or precursor to corporatism. My own contribution to the discussion can be found from four years ago, and in that paper there are numerous references to additional considerations of the concept.

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Copyright 2010 Stephen Downes Contact: stephen@downes.ca

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