Writing in Education and Plain Text Flow

As a hacker and writer, I spend a lot of time in text editors. Almost everything I write starts in my favorite text editor. A text editor is my thinking space. It is a place for moving around blocks and tinkering with parts. It is a place to explore my mind and write it the way I want it to read. Iteration and ideation happen in my editor. My notes are not just a record of my thinking process, they are my thinking process. Text editors are extensions of mind that facilitate thinking.

All of this happens in beautiful, wonderful plain text.

I love that with plain text the focus is on the words, not the formatting. I love that it’s portable and can be used anywhere and everywhere, in any piece of software that edits or displays words. I love how easy it is to create beautifully formatted documents when needed. Most of all, I love how fast it is. I simply work more efficiently since switching to plain text.

Source: Removing the Word shackles: getting started with plain text

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Writing this post in fullscreen mode in the Ulysses app, a plain text editor for macOS and iOS

At my company, we say “communication is oxygen”. Most of that oxygen is writing. So far this week, we’ve written 99,786 Slack messages, 1,749 P2 posts, and 5,070 P2 comments using our three level communication flow.

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We iterate, we communicate, we make people happy.
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793 Slack channels, 441 P2 blogs, 4,628 Zoom video chats

In the age of distributed collaboration, we are constantly writing. Equip students with the writing tools and flow popular with hackers, writers, scientists, and screenwritersplain text & Markdown. Let’s infect education with the love of plain text. It’s portable, durable, flexible, ubiquitous, and humane. It is indie ed-tech that is not captive to an ed-tech business model or the whim of shareholders.

With blogs, plain text editors, and team chat, we have a wide selection of often free tools that enable the cultivation of authentic writing for authentic audiences. Instead of ELA rubrics that kill the joy of writing with remediation and formulaic prescriptions, students can write about what they care about and share that writing collaboratively with real audiences. Relax control over the writing process. Encourage revision and tinkering without the red ink of assessment. Don’t define and model students into the stilted, joyless unreadability typical of rubric writing. Get out of the way, let kids write, and write alongside them. Let them write not for grades, but to share their lived experience, share their passions, and affect their worlds.

Keyboards, spellcheckers, and assistive tech encourage writing and editing. Let students fill their toolbelts and start writing without shackles.

Below are selections on writing in education, writing for authentic audiences, writing for empathy, writing for English language learners, and writing as a means of accommodating neurodiveristy. At the end are selections on plain text and markdown flow. Plain text + Markdown is my favorite flow, but the important part is writing, collaboration, and connecting with audiences, no matter the tools.

Writing in Education

“I’ve had a fair number of kids that were traditionally disengaged— The most common complaint: ‘I don’t like to write, so I don’t like school.’ When I said, ‘Well, you can type it. You don’t have to write; you can type. And you can use the spell checker, and you can look up words.’ All of the sudden they say, ‘Oh, OK. I’ll do that.’”

“If you’re not a good writer, sitting and writing on a piece of paper is hard. But when they have a computer that can help with spelling, and with grammar, and they can go online and look up words and the pronunciation, and they can hear how it’s said, and they can write it down correctly. Now they feel good about themselves because they’re not getting a paper back with a thousand red marks all over it, correcting grammar and spelling that they don’t necessarily understand in the first place.”

High school students are often reluctant writers, especially when assigned to produce work that is uninteresting and unrelated to their personal lives. However, writing is a vital part of the help desk. Apprentices, both on and off the Communication Team, regularly craft articles for the support blog. My team offers starter ideas, but the apprentices select most topics based on their interests and the support needs of their peers. In this setting, writing feels less stilted, less pedantic, and more authentic. Writing for a real-world audience is vastly different from a traditional school writing assignment where a single teacher is a sole spectator.

Reisinger, Charlie (2016-09-29). The Open Schoolhouse: Building a Technology Program to Transform Learning and Empower Students. Kindle Edition.

Literacy in North America has historically been focused on reading, not writing; consumption, not production.

while many parents worked hard to ensure their children were regular readers, they rarely pushed them to become regular writers.

We are now a global culture of avid writers.

As Brandt notes, reading and writing have become blended: “People read in order to generate writing; we read from the posture of the writer; we write to other people who write.” Or as Francesca Coppa, a professor who studies the enormous fan fiction community, explains to me, “It’s like the Bloomsbury Group in the early twentieth century, where everybody is a writer and everybody is an audience. They were all writers who were reading each other’s stuff, and then writing about that, too.”

So how is all this writing changing our cognitive behavior?

• • • For one, it can help clarify our thinking. Professional writers have long described the way that the act of writing forces them to distill their vague notions into clear ideas. By putting half-formed thoughts on the page, we externalize them and are able to evaluate them much more objectively. This is why writers often find that it’s only when they start writing that they figure out what they want to say.

Poets famously report this sensation. “I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind,” Cecil Day-Lewis wrote of his poetic compositions. “If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. . . . We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”

Culturally, we revere the Rodin ideal— the belief that genius breakthroughs come from our gray matter alone. The physicist Richard Feynman once got into an argument about this with the historian Charles Weiner. Feynman understood the extended mind; he knew that writing his equations and ideas on paper was crucial to his thought. But when Weiner looked over a pile of Feynman’s notebooks, he called them a wonderful “record of his day-to-day work.” No, no, Feynman replied testily. They weren’t a record of his thinking process. They were his thinking process.

Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college.

The explosion of online writing has a second aspect that is even more important than the first, though: it’s almost always done for an audience.

When you write something online— whether it’s a one-sentence status update, a comment on someone’s photo, or a thousand-word post— you’re doing it with the expectation that someone might read it, even if you’re doing it anonymously. Audiences clarify the mind even more.

Blogging forces you to write down your arguments and assumptions. This is the single biggest reason to do it, and I think it alone makes it worth it. You have a lot of opinions. I’m sure some of them you hold strongly.

When you move from your head to “paper,” a lot of the hand-waveyness goes away and you are left to really defend your position to yourself.

But studies have found that particularly when it comes to analytic or critical thought, the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to think more precisely, make deeper connections, and learn more.

When asked to write for a real audience of students in another country, students write essays that are substantially longer and have better organization and content than when they’re writing for their teacher. When asked to contribute to a wiki— a space that’s highly public and where the audience can respond by deleting or changing your words— college students snap to attention, writing more formally and including more sources to back up their work.

“Often they’re handing in these short essays without any citations, but with Wikipedia they suddenly were staying up to two a.m. honing and rewriting the entries and carefully sourcing everything,” she tells me. The reason, the students explained to her, was that their audience— the Wikipedia community— was quite gimlet eyed and critical.

Once thinking is public, connections take over.

Source: Thompson, Clive (2013-09-12). Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better (p. 50). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

We asked our building leadership teams, and we asked those Principals and Assistant Principals to ask their teachers, to experience a bit of “writing for empathy.” Medical educators have discovered that when doctors write from the point of view of their patients, empathy increases and the quality of care increases. We thought it might be worth seeing if this applied to our educators as well.

So we began, and told them not to be limited by structure – choose any writing mode you’d like – or grammar or spelling or where or how to write – on the floor, standing up, on paper, on phone, on computer – to just find the emotional path and write.

We so often stop our students from writing… we tell them that everything from how they sit to how they spell is more important than communication… and we thus raise children who hate writing.

This became powerful. People not only chose every and any place to write, every and any device to write on, they chose modes from poetry to an email exchange between high school students in class, from narrative to internal monologue to dialogue in the corridor. From tweet and text to song.

It is remarkable what happens when you stop telling people how to write and start encouraging them to write.

“Our kindergartners and first graders are natural writers,” one principal said, “and then we tell them to stop and worry about handwriting and spelling and punctuation, and they never really write again.”

And then we asked these leaders to share with another, and it became magical. The excitement of reading to each other, of listening, of wondering. People leaned into each other, with genuine smiles – smiles of recognition – and heard. The room was filled with the kind of excitement that – yeah – is mighty rare at Principal Meetings, that is – sadly – often rare in Language Arts classes.

Source: SpeEdChange: Writing for Empathy

First, students need to be writing constantly. Learning to write well, like any other skill, takes many, many hours of practice. Second, students need to write for a real audience and to receive regular, structured feedback from their audiences. Other than looking at the grade on the front of the paper, students are usually totally indifferent to the teacher’s opinions of their work. But when they are writing for or presenting to an authentic audience, which has been asked to assess the work being presented— whether it is their peers or someone outside of school— they work much harder to polish their work, and they seek and pay attention to feedback. Writing for a real audience, and writing about things they know and care about, are central to students’ development of an authentic voice in their work.

The problem with the way writing is currently taught, then, is the same problem that we have described throughout this book. Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time teaching the mechanics of writing— parts of speech, grammar, spelling, punctuation— without giving students any reason whatsoever to want to write, because that’s the way we have done it since 1893. And in the last ten years teachers have spent less and less time assigning and grading students’ writing because they must prepare students for meaningless tests that tell us absolutely nothing about the competencies that matter most.

What little writing that gets done in high schools today is almost always practicing short answers to test prompts and memorizing the mechanics of the standard five-paragraph essay, and nothing else. We are told that the new Common Core tests will require more writing, but it will only be more of the same kind of writing.

Computational resources are now affecting aspects of English classes in significant ways. Students type or dictate essays and benefit from embedded spelling and grammar tools. Granted, autocorrect software has a mind of its own. But when it’s almost impossible to write a word like receive, the days of memorizing rhymes like “i before e, except after c, or when sounded like a, as in neighbor and weigh” are over.

In many ways, the story of dyslexics— in school and life— is the story of U.S. education. Driven by standardized tests, schools focus on low-level capabilities (e.g., memorizing the proper spelling of words). High-potential kids (e.g., dyslexics, smart creative types, rebels) get “down-graded” and left behind. Advances in automation shine light on the fact that these low-level tasks (e.g., spelling receive correctly) are incidental to, not essential to, a person’s life prospects.

Source: Wagner, Tony; Dintersmith, Ted (2015-08-18). Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. Scribner. Kindle Edition.

He was a slow typist. A painfully slow typist. And yet, his typing was about three times as fast as his handwriting, and, in the end there was a perfectly completed job application.

Source: SpeEdChange: Toolbelt Theory for Everyone

 I wrote this book to help you remedy problems that many young writers face when they confront empty screens and pages. These writers experience frustration and even defeat as they strain against contrived procedures with intangible tools. Over time, these tensions propagate a quiet trauma: Children begin to believe that they can’t write, and then they stop trying. How many adults might be able to advocate for themselves or for justice in their communities if negative early experiences with writing hadn’t silenced them? Many children and adults will tell you that writing is beyond their grasp. They can’t wrap their hands around their ideas, and since they learn best by tinkering with things physically, writing remains literally out of their reach. Maybe the problem isn’t the writer. Maybe it’s the way we’re defining and teaching writing.

Many writers need to move, and they need their writing to move as well. They need to write while out of their seats and on their feet, spreading their ideas across whiteboards and tables, lifting pieces up with their hands, cutting them apart, randomizing them, and tacking them into new and completely unpredictable forms. These writers need access to diverse tools and resources— far more than paper, laptops, and iPads. They build their stories using blocks and boards. They blend plot lines using sticky notes and grids. It’s not enough for these writers to study mentor texts. They need to tear them apart— physically. They need to use their hands to play with text in order to become adept.

Making writing requires dynamic spaces, collaborative cultures, specialized tools, and a commitment to using our words to make a meaningful difference for others.

To teach effectively, we must pay attention to how individuals write and respond to what we observe rather than allowing our personal passions, expertise, and assumptions to drive instruction.

Give writers the permission they need to explore writing using diverse tools and processes. Help them discover how they write. Making is an invitation, not an expectation.

Given similar tools and conditions, I’ve noticed that most adept writers will happily tinker with their writing in the same way people tinker inside maker spaces.

Too many have been taught that everything they need to know will be defined and modeled for them.

Source: Make Writing: 5 Teaching Strategies That Turn Writer’s Workshop Into a Maker Space

We spent thousands dollars, thousands of hours on trying to fix one trait, frankly, perhaps the most irrelevant trait in the world in the 21st century, and that is spelling. God bless spellchecker.

The energy gone into fixing spelling, to worrying about spelling, it’s staggering.

All week we invested time, money, and relationship capital on fixing that irrelevant trait.

We’re not doing the spelling test today. We’re ditching school and going to the zoo.

Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

Ultimately our diagnoses and the subsequent attempts at intervention allowed people to blame us, two powerless kids, for our failure instead of turning a critical eye toward the environment. It took us fifteen years of personal and academic struggle to stop blaming ourselves, to stop believing that we are inherently defective like “they” thought, and to come to realize how profound an effect the environment had on our inability to succeed. Only as time went on did simple interventions like the ability to get up out of our seats, the use of a spell checker, and progressive ideas like project-based learning and other modifications to the learning environment allow the pathology to slip into irrelevance and enable us to be successful. Our hard wiring is a simple cognitive difference. We all have them. But an oppressive educational environment that blames children for their failures caused us to grow up with the stigma of pathology.

Source: Mooney, Jonathan; Cole, David (2014-07-01). Learning Outside The Lines: Two Ivy League Students With Learning Disabilities And Adhd Give You The Tools F. Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

He starts by asking students to “think about writing a paper around a question that they really want to find an answer to.” Elliott teaches that first step in constructing a semester-long paper is “gathering information about a question you are passionate about.” He adds: “I usually do the research and writing right along with them. They see that I’m doing the same thing they are doing. That’s an old schoolteacher tool — one of the best I’ve run across for sharing power with students.”

Source: The Power of Digital Writing and Connected Learning – DML Central

We are not usually so obvious in our stated biases, but every day in schools I see students punished for their voices, punished for their culturally ingrained reading styles, punished for refusing to over-simplify, because we teach reading and writing in the same way the English like to teach tea drinking.

And so I wonder, (a) where does my communication fit into your school? your Common Core? your library? your classroom? and (b) where does that democracy of voice fit in? How do we embrace that and not squash it?

The world is a place of constant reinvention. If we all follow the rules, the paths, nothing changes. There is a reason the books of the colonials so often fill the Booker Prize shortlists, there is a reason Irish fiction and poetry are prized so much more highly than that of the English or Americans.The rules have never fully taken root away from “the Queen’s English,” and the paths begin in very different places, and it is the uncommon, not the common, which has extraordinary value.

Source: SpeEdChange: Why do we read? Why do we write?

Likely the sole act of sitting in a classroom writing an assignment for a teacher is not going to inspire a unique and developed voice for any student. It lacks meaning and urgency. If they don’t understand the purpose, the writing will mirror the effort.

With today’s society shifting to technology, writing and publishing has become immediate and public. Students don’t have to only write for an audience of one. From their phones they can write whole blog posts to share with an authentic global audience whenever they want from wherever they want. Our job now needs to be to hone their unique voices and inspire deep levels of reflection on their terms, not ours.

There are many platforms that are free and easy to use and made age appropriate for all levels of students. Whether using a Google account with Blogger or starting with Edmodo or Edublogger, teachers can use the right platform to help students express thoughts publicly.

Publishing is no longer just for scholars and established authors. We can all be authors and encouraging a public space to develop the subtle intricacies of writing makes even the novice writer empowered.

If our end goal is to get students writing more, then we need to allow for some of that writing to be less structured. The mere act of thinking and communicating in writing, often, improves the way we think, even if the writing isn’t terribly good at first. More importantly, writing becomes a habit of mind, one that students enjoy doing as they manipulate their blogs and real people share feedback and comments about their thoughts. It’s less about the correctness and more about connection.

Teachers can model good blogging behaviors by writing their own blogs and using them as a tool to share with students. The more authentic we can be in what we teach, the more likely students will be to hear us. Create a space that is truly yours to share ideas, reflections, experiences and then experience the power of an audience to validate them all. Blogging connects us in a way writing in a classroom never can and that’s why we need to be using it.

Source: For Students, Blogging Doesn’t Feel Like Work – Work in Progress – Education Week Teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digital Writing for English Language Learners

Blogging is a way to document, reflect, and share pedagogical strategies and teaching tools used in the classroom. With the benefits of blogging as a reflective teaching tool, why not use this tool with our students in the classroom? Teachers are integrating blogging as a communicative storytelling mode for students to share stories, thoughts, ideas, responses, discussions, and many other types of communication in the classroom.

Blogging is limitless in terms of structure. As a result, a blog can be an image or video with a thought-provoking caption. It can be a beautiful quote with thoughts strung to it. It can also be a digital story that moves the reader to think, reflect, and feel. A study conducted by Advanced Placement and The National Writing Project found that three-quarters of teachers believe the use of Internet and digital tools has an “overall positive impact” on students’ research habits and communication skills (Purcell et al. 2012). Another study on the impact of digital tools on students’ writing also found that “96% agree that digital technologies ‘allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience’” (Purcell, Buchanan, and Friedrich 2013). Clearly, exposing students to different modes of technologies can play a huge factor in developing and shaping their thoughts and ideas. By providing the opportunity for students to communicate in a framework of multiliteracies, we can even begin to see improvement in their research, writing, and critical thinking skills (Purcell, Buchanan, and Friedrich 2013). Blogging needs to be seen as a “formal” mode of writing because it provides an opportunity for students to engage in reading and writing and in turn to strengthen communication skills. Digital writing for English language learners (ELL) can provide students the platform, space, and opportunity for social, cultural, and communicative support.

Digital writing—including blogging, microblogging, writing on social media platforms, and tweeting—also allows students to gain access and control of their own learning. Students who communicate their learning online can see the wide opportunities that are available to them, and in turn, they start to value those opportunities. Research suggests that allowing students to write digitally empowers them by providing them a choice.

Blogging helps students to see that the language is a tool to communicate with other people in social settings. It can also help them to recognize that their writing is a form of interaction in the digital world. This realization will help them in the long run when building their professional learning portfolio online. By using blogging as a communicative tool, students are embracing digital communication, which in turn opens different pathways and opportunities for them.

How often do we tell students not to use I or me in writing? We tend to steer them clear of first-person pronouns in writing for many reasons: It takes away from the strength of their arguments, it makes a statement subject, it does not sound professional, and many other reasons. However, when it comes to blogging and English language learners, encourage them to use the I pronoun. This will help them with the flow of their ideas. For example, many students feel comfortable starting a sentence with “I think” or “I believe” or “In my opinion.” It is perfectly fine for them to do that because blogging is a self-reflective mode of writing.

Communicative practices have a real-life purpose, and as a result, when assigning blogs, make sure that they have a purpose and a connection to communication practices that we do in the real world.

Social and cultural support for English language learners can come in many forms, and digital writing can help with this. Blogging, specifically, opens pathways for students to learn about one another’s social and cultural norms, and more importantly, students end up connecting with one another. The big question remains: How do we leverage blogging as a tool to connect the teacher and students socially and culturally? As previously stated, blogging helps students to develop an understanding and appreciation of each other’s social and cultural practices. It also helps to break down barriers between different cultural beliefs, and even more so, it helps to shatter stereotypes that we often have about different societies and cultures.

When students blog about their learning, they also inherently discuss their takes on the lesson and what went on in the classroom that day. This helps the teacher to see and identify areas to help students meet their individual learning needs. More importantly, this feedback is vital to improve the teacher’s pedagogy. By seeing how students benefited or didn’t benefit from the lesson, the teacher can implement changes in her teaching style and methodology in the next lesson, ensuring that each student’s learning needs are being met with personalized pedagogy. Blogging can bridge the communication gap between the teacher and students. Many students, especially English language learners, have a hard time sharing their learning progress or lesson reflection with the teacher. Blogging can also merge face-to-face communication with digital communication. If a student is not comfortable having a face-to-face conversation because of a lack of confidence in his or her oral skills, shyness, or cultural barriers, then the teacher can encourage him or her to write a blog post to reflect on how the lesson went.

This standard supports digital writing for English language learners, as collaboration is also one of the key practices that helps English language learners to learn better. Ferlazzo (2016) states that “collaborative writing has been found to be particularly helpful (PDF) to English-language learners (ELLs) in lowering anxiety and increasing self-confidence and motivation.”

“Blogging is immensely valuable for ELLs. While we can expect it to produce significant writing gains, blogging also helps learners grow their listening, reading and speaking skills when incorporated with other activities. Blogging involves a great deal of reflective thought, enabling students to develop thinking skills in English. Furthermore, blogging gives them a voice, validating and celebrating their place in this world. The most rewarding aspect of blogging, however, is when students read their older posts and are able to see their growth.”—Anabel Gonzalez, who has been teaching since 1996.

Source: Digital Writing for English Language Learners

 

 

 

 

 

Backchannels and Neurodiversity

Ditch That Textbook provides examples of how to use blogs and team chat in the classroom. Chapter 3, Use Technology to Defeat Insecurity, offers good insight into the neurodiversity friendliness of backchannels, something familiar to tech workers. Written communication is a great equalizer and an important part of our culture.

A backchannel is a separate, often text-based, discussion students engage in while they’re receiving information via a lecture, a movie, a television show, or a PowerPoint presentation. Students use a digital device to participate in a behind-the-scenes chat so as not to disturb others trying to listen.

Backchannels provide the perfect outlet for students who have something to say but refuse to open up in class discussions. When everyone participates in the conversation, no one feels singled out. As a result, inhibitions about sharing decrease and the courage to speak up increases. Plus, when everyone types at once, the teacher spends less time calling on students one by one.

Source: Ditch That Textbook Ditch That Textbook: Free Your Teaching and Revolutionize Your Classroom

 I personally believe that the backchannel is the greatest unharnessed resource that we as educators have available to us. It does not threaten me nor bother me that you learned as much if not more from the backchannel the other night — in fact, it makes me feel great that I facilitated the connection.

Source: Cool Cat Teacher Blog: Backchannels and Microblogging Streams

And that’s not even touching on the ways this kind of technology supports the shy user, the user with speech issues, the user having trouble with the English Language, the user who’d rather be able to think through and even edit a statement or question before asking it.

Source: SpeEdChange: Bringing the “Back Channel” Forward

Written communication is the great social equalizer.

Remember this if you start to fear your Autistic child is spending too much time interacting with others online and not enough time interacting with others face-to-face.  Online communication is a valid accommodation for the social disability that comes with being Autistic.  We need online interaction and this meta-study demonstrates exactly why that is the case.

I couldn’t help wondering, since the study showed the durability of first impressions and the positive response to the written words of Autistics, with all visual and auditory cues removed, could we mitigate childhood bullying in any way by having a class of students meet first online, in text, and form their first impressions of one another in that format before ever meeting face-to-face?

Getting online was revolutionary and may have saved my life.

But when I got online, no one could see (or smell) that about me. All they could see was my words and ideas, and that was what people judged me by. For the first time in my life, I was not found lacking. I made friends of all ages. I was respected and liked. The difference between offline and online communication could not have been more dramatic.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: Autism and the Burden of Social Reciprocity

Plain Text and Markdown

A big part of the problem is that we’re often using the wrong default tool to create our words. When ready to write, the majority of computer users will open a word processor like Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages rather than a text editor like Notepad on Windows or Text Edit on the Mac. We do this even if we’re simply drafting an email or jotting down notes to ourselves. The problem actually lies in the name. A word processor, while capable of being used for the creation of words, is actually optimized for formatting text in order to be printed or read. Whereas a text editor is more focused the creation and editing of your words.

Source: A Plain Text Primer

Where a graphical Word processor might boast that “what you see is what you get,” a text editor can boast “what you see is what is there.” Nothing is hidden.

For this reason, plain text documents are much more stable and sustainable through the process of composition and revision than word processor documents. That doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with word processors. What it does mean is that word processors are the right tools for the job when the job is formatting and processing complex documents, and not necessarily the right tools for the job when the job is writing.

The basic idea behind a plain-text workflow is that you do your composing with a text editor in a sustainable, universal format, and then, only when your text is ready to send somewhere–say, to a journal for publication–do you worry about formatting.

Text editors are tiny pieces of software compared to word processors, so they start instantaneously, load documents almost instantly, and run like lightning even on old hardware. Nothing gets between you and your words.

Source: Writing in Plain Text: A Tutorial for the Non-Techy Writer | surfingedges

Plain text writing (and marking up text elements for later formatting) is simple. If you’ve been socialized in Word (like me), you may disagree at first. But I believe that if you try plain text writing, you’re likely to change your mind and come to enjoy its purity and simplicity. As for myself, I think now that text processors are actually cumbersome, and many writers just got so used to this fact that they don’t question it anymore.

So writing plain text means to separate writing from formatting for the sake of productivity. The essential structural elements of a text are marked up while writing: You can write headings of various levels, add emphasis, add lists and more. What you can’t do: Tweak margins, or choose your first order headings to be 24 pt, and red-colored. All the layout tasks that have nothing to do with the content you’re trying to compose. Take care of layout later. This first instance should be about writing, and writing only.

If you want to publish your text more than once, but in different formats, plain text is very effective – thanks to the use of markup, you can easily convert it. Ulysses, as an example, can use one and the same text to create a formatted PDF, an e-book or standard HTML – with just a few clicks.

Source: Why Plain Text Will Boost Your Productivity as a Writer | Ulysses Blog

Once you start working with plain text documents, you realize the power of their infinite portability and compatibility. You can edit them anywhere, on just about any device, and never break anything. It’s addicting.

The popular Markdown syntax is valuable for text editing because it allows you to add formatting while maintaining this portability and compatibility. You might think that formatting text by typing special characters is nerdy and distracting. Nerdy maybe, but in practice it’s quite the opposite of distracting. Markdown keeps your hands on the keys. It keeps you typing. Screenwriters know the value of this. It’s the butt in the chair that gets the words on the page.

Source: Fountain FAQ – Fountain | A markup language for screenwriting.

Unlike cumbersome word processing applications, text written in Markdown can be easily shared between computers, mobile phones, and people. It’s quickly becoming the writing standard for academics, scientists, writers, and many more. Websites like GitHub and reddit use Markdown to style their comments.

Formatting text in Markdown has a very gentle learning curve. It doesn’t do anything fancy like change the font size, color, or type. All you have control over is the display of the text-stuff like making things bold, creating headers, and organizing lists.

If you have ten minutes, you can learn Markdown!

Source: Markdown Tutorial | Lesson 1

Plain text doesn’t change. Fifty years from now, you’ll still be able to open a plain text file. Until we all have squiggly tentacles on our faces and communicate telepathically, plain text will be a thing.

What about conversion software? Let’s say a tiny black hole swallows up every Markdown converter on the planet. You still have nice, clean plain text.

Source: Why I Use Markdown, & You Should Too – Portent

With Markdown, you don’t entrust your writing to 50,000 corporate shareholders, the companies they control and whatever features they “sunset” or add.

You control your destiny because, yes, you guessed it: It’s plain text.

Source: Why I Use Markdown, & You Should Too – Portent

Walk into a room of coders and ask what the best tools of their trade are—keyboards, text editing software, etc,—and you’re bound to start a war.

But in a world where programmers are fanatically divided, advocating fiercely for their favorite window managers and text editors, there’s one thing many engineers agree on. It’s called Solarized, and for four years, it’s reigned supreme as the color scheme of choice for many coders and the text they have to stare at all day.

After all, coders have, well, rather extreme thoughts about things like color schemes and text editors.

“This is close to people’s hearts,” Yale Spector, a senior developer for WeWork, told the Observer. “People take this shit real seriously.”

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why, why do these people care so much about the most minute details?” It’s because coders, who are also just very particular in nature, have no other tools of their trade but their computer and their mind.

“Text editors are where we live, where we spend so many hours in our day,” Mr. Spector said. “It’s so personal to us, it’s our home. When you get a house, you spend time making it comfortable, because you’re going to be there a long time.”

And, as Mr. Brocken puts it, it’s not just hot rodding—or tricking out your equipment for the sake of ostentatiousness. No, this is about building the perfect tool.

Developers may be overly opinionated, but they are also, by virtue of their work, obsessed with efficiency. For programmers who are building programs and designs right from their imagination, every additional advantage in their work environment is one less barrier between their mind and the machine.

“It may looks ridiculous to the outside observer, but it’s about eliminating that invisible barrier between you and the tool that you’re using,” Mr. Schoonover said. “It’s the carpenter making his own work bench.”

Source: Meet the Man Behind ‘Solarized,’ the Most Important Color Scheme in Computer History

Briefly, plain text is a great format to use because (1) it can be read by any computer or device; (2) it’s future proof, since computers will always be able to read it; (3) it can be synced to all your devices; (4) it can be converted to virtually any format.

Source: Markdown: The Syntax You (Probably) Already Know – ProfHacker – Blogs – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Plain text is ubiquitous. It works on every operating system, and on every mobile device, regardless of who makes it. A wide variety of apps can read it. You’ll never run into file compatibility errors. You can take what you write from one app to another without a thought.

This matters because the tech industry likes to remind us that nothing lasts forever. We see apps shut down all the time. They add in a subscription fee. They lock that one feature you want behind a paywall. It’s annoying, and if you’re invested in an app, whether it’s a notes app or a to-do app, you’re often forced to pay out the nose for a bunch of features you don’t want. Plain text doesn’t suffer this problem because it’s universally readable across platforms, not to mention a bedrock of well, computing as we know it.

Likewise, plain text will never change. Where an app might get updated with new features and a new user interface, plain text is pretty much always plain text. I will never open up an app to find a new design that I hate, or a new user experience I have to learn. Text editors may change, but there’ll always be another, and they’ll never all go subscription-only. This is really important to me. I use plain text every single day for simple tasks. I don’t need anything getting in the way of me capturing text as quickly as possible.

Source: I Still Use Plain Text for Everything, and I Love It

I love that with plain text the focus is on the words, not the formatting. I love that it’s portable and can be used anywhere and everywhere, in any piece of software that edits or displays words. I love how easy it is to create beautifully formatted documents when needed. Most of all, I love how fast it is. I simply work more efficiently since switching to plain text.

Source: Removing the Word shackles: getting started with plain text

Authors and writers of all stripes can learn a lot about creating and managing words from computer programmers, beginning with an appreciation for the simple, durable efficiencies of plain text. Anybody running Unix, Linux, or BSD already knows all about text, because it’s the third prong of the Unix Tools Philosophy:

  1. Write programs that do one thing and do it well;
  2. Write programs that work together;
  3. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.

The geeks who made Unix nearly 40 years ago made plain text the universal interface because they believed in economy, simplicity, and reliability.

If Unix is the geek Gilgamesh epic, it’s a tale told in plain text.

Source: Plain Text For Authors & Writers – Richard Dooling

Since its introduction in 2004, Markdown has enjoyed remarkable success. Markdown works for users for three key reasons. First, the markup instructions (in text) look similar to the markup that they represent; therefore, the cognitive burden to learn the syntax is low. Second, the primary arbiter of the syntax’s success is running code. The tool that converts the Markdown to a presentable format, and not a series of formal pronouncements by a standards body, is the basis for whether syntactic elements matter. Third, Markdown has become something of an Internet meme, in that Markdown gets received, reinterpreted, and reworked as additional communities encounter it. There are communities that are using Markdown for scholarly writing, for screenplays, and even for mathematical formulae. Clearly, a screenwriter has no use for specialized Markdown syntax for mathematicians; likewise, mathematicians do not need to identify characters or props in common ways. The overall gist is that all of these communities can take the common elements of Markdown (which are rooted in the common elements of HTML circa 2004) and build on them in ways that best fit their needs.”

Source: RFC 7764 – Guidance on Markdown: Design Philosophies, Stability Strategies, and Select Registrations

Find Your Flow

I like and advocate plain text, but choose the tools that fit your flow. Many of my favorite authors use word processors.

Others prefer Scrivener.

George R.R. Martin famously uses WordStar 4.0 on DOS.

The important part is writing. Find your flow.

Letter to My Representatives on AHCA and Medicaid #2

In the neurodiversity and disability communities, we are sharing stories of how the ACA and Medicaid have helped us and saved us. We’re sharing stories of the dark days before the ACA. The AHCA will return us to those dark days. The ACA, though flawed, works. Medicaid works. Lives depend on them. Improve them. Give them more funding.

Note that there are no stories of how the ACA has hurt people. Sure, premiums could be lower and choice could be greater, especially in states that refused the Medicaid expansion. So fix that. Make a good faith effort to improve policy that has helped so many. Listen to the disability communities. They know our healthcare systems better than anyone. We are full time case workers for ourselves and our families. We know these systems.

The AHCA is theft. It is a transfer of wealth from the most vulnerable to the least. It is cronyism and kleptocracy drafted in a secretive manner defiant of all norms. That the GOP is going forth with it despite its massive unpopularity suggests confidence in the voter suppression that has disenfranchised so many.

What is the future for my neurodivergent, disabled kids in a structurally ableist society that has been stripped of resources by kleptocrats and dominionists, by oligarchs, autocrats and wild notions of providentialism? This dread alliance has declared war on public education. It has declared war on healthcare. It has declared war on IDEA and the ADA. It is intent on dismantling education and our safety nets. And then what?

I don’t feel safe in this post-fact country led by crooks and haters who have seized the levers of power through racialized social control and voter suppression. No marginalized person feels safe right now. The GOP has aspirations of one party rule, and that party is actively intolerant of diversity, inclusion, and a secular society that works for the benefit of all.

My family keeps a copy of historian Timothy Snyder’s book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” at hand. These lessons are important civics that we should learn for ourselves and teach our kids. They are necessary literacy all too applicable to these times of cultish compliance and burgeoning autocracy and one party rule. I suggest thumbing through this slim, accessible volume and facing the lessons therein.

Letter to My Representatives on AHCA and Medicaid #1

Please do not cut Medicaid. Medicaid is a lifeline for neurodivergent and disabled families. Mediciad funds community-based supports that keep us in our homes and out of abusive institutions that fail the “midnight burrito test” (if you can’t get up at midnight to microwave a burrito, you are not free).

Medicaid also supports special education. Special education in Texas has many problems, as documented by the Houston Chronicle in their “Denied” series. My neurodivergent kids with developmental disabilities have IEPs. Their education relies, in part, on Medicaid funding. It relies also on respect for IDEA and the ADA, which are being threatened along with Medicaid. Is neurodivergence a pre-existing condition that precludes an education?

Life is hard enough for families with disabilities. The AHCA and the President’s budget are life threatening and future limiting. My family is bracing for the possibility of a society without any support or safety net for our most vulnerable kids. We’re standing at the edge of a cliff, and the Republican Party seems eager to push us over.

Neurodiversity and disability communities oppose the AHCA. Every special education family in our peer groups oppose it. These policies were conceived and iterated behind closed doors without our input or representation. They seem eugenicist in intent. They will certainly be eugenicist in outcome.

Created Serendipity: Idea Scouting, Idea Connecting, Coworking, Distributed Collaboration, and Intersectional Bricolage

The gospel of the new economy is the transformative power of a diverse, genuine network.

Inclusive collaboration in the commons improves our heuristics and creates serendipity. Bricolage in the intersections, build your personal learning network, and participate in global created serendipity. Expose yourself to new perspectives, and listen in solidarity.

Twitter is a way to build a learning network that transcends traditional understandings of knowledge and ideas, of connecting learners and ideas. The democratization of information and knowledge requires our engagement or it will happen without us.

There is now an imperative to contribute, not simply for the sake of it, but because there is an obligation to model digital literacy. And what does this really mean? It means that learners openly and actively engage in the learning process and that leaders lead the way. We live in a post-consumer era: how do we empower our students to thrive here, to contribute and create? If we are not open-minded, literate learners and contributors ourselves, how can we expect our students to be?

The digital landscape is now open. It’s time for our schools to be the same.

Source: The Trouble With Twitter in Education – Medium

I am a big believer in “created serendipity“; the more connected you are, the more ideas seem to find you, not the other way around.

Source: 3 Obvious Ways Twitter Promotes Literacy – The Principal of Change

Yet these seemingly serendipitous events, are also based on our willingness to create connections and be in the space, and to put in the effort in the first place.

I often tell people that if you start connecting with others in online spaces, you won’t just find great ideas, but the  great ideas will find you.

Source: Created Serendipity – The Principal of Change

You, each of you, have some special wild cards. Play with them. Find out what makes you different and better. Because it is there, if only you can find it. And once you do, you’ll be able to contribute answers to others and others will be willing to contribute back to you. In short, synthetic serendipity doesn’t just happen. By golly, you must create it.

Source: Synthetic Serendipity – IEEE Spectrum and Vinge, Vernor (2007-04-03). Rainbows End (p. 52). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

If in a traditional organization nothing is free and everything has a defined role in some grand scheme, in a stream, everything tends steadily towards free as in both beer and speech.

Unlike organizations defined by boundaries, streams are what Acemoglu and Robinson call pluralist institutions. These are the opposite of extractive: they are open, inclusive and capable of creating wealth in non-zero-sum ways.

What makes streams ideal contexts for open-ended innovation through tinkering is that they constantly present unrelated people, ideas and resources in unexpected juxtapositions. This happens because streams emerge as the intersection of multiple networks.

As a result of such unexpected juxtapositions, you might “solve” problems you didn’t realize existed and do things that nobody realized were worth doing. For example, seeing a particular college friend and a particular coworker in the same stream might suggest a possibility for a high-value introduction: a small act of social bricolage. Because you are seen by many others from different perspectives, you might find people solving problems for you without any effort on your part.

The developers of every agile software product in perpetual beta inhabit a stream of unexpected uses discovered by tinkering users.

Slack turns the internal life of a corporation into a stream.

When streams work well on the other hand, reality becomes increasingly intertwingled (a portmanteau of intertwined and tangled), as Ted Nelson evocatively labeled the phenomenon. People, ideas and things can have multiple, fluid meanings depending on what else appears in juxtaposition with them. Creative possibilities rapidly multiply, with every new network feeding into the stream. The most interesting place to be is usually the very edge, rather than the innermost sanctums. In the United States, being a young and talented person in Silicon Valley can be more valuable and interesting than being a senior staffer in the White House. Being the founder of the fastest growing startup may offer more actual leverage than being President of the United States.

Source: The Serendipity of Streams

The result is a virtuous cycle of increasing serendipity, driven by widespread lifestyle adaptation and cascades of self-improving innovation. Surplus and spillover creating more surplus and spillover. Brad deLong’s slouching towards utopia for consumers and Edmund Phelps’ mass flourishing for producers. And when the virtuous cycle is powered by a soft, world-eating technology, the steady, cumulative impact is immense.

When the allure of pastoralist visions is resisted, and the virtuous cycle is allowed to work, we get Promethean progress. This is unpredictable evolution in the direction of maximal societal impact, unencumbered by limiting deterministic visions. Just as the principle of rough consensus and running code creates great software, consumer surplus and spillover effects create great societies.  Just as pragmatic and purist development models lead to serendipity and zemblanity in engineering respectively, Promethean and pastoral models lead to serendipity and zemblanity at the level of entire societies.

Source: Prometheans and Pastoralists

The surplus in the case of working agile processes is the source of many pleasant surprises: serendipity. The deficit in the case of waterfall models is the source of what William Boyd called zemblanity: “unpleasant unsurprises.”

In software, waterfall processes fail in predictable ways, like classic Greek tragedies. Agile processes on the other hand, can lead to snowballing serendipity, getting luckier and luckier, and succeeding in unexpected ways. The reason is simple: waterfall plans constrain the freedom of future participants, leading them to resent and rebel against the grand plan in predictable ways. By contrast, agile models empower future participants in a project, catalyzing creativity and unpredictable new value.

The engineering term for the serendipitous, empowering gap between running code and governing vision has now made it into popular culture in the form of a much-misunderstood idea: perpetual beta.

Source: Rough Consensus and Maximal Interestingness

In particular, two activities emerged as being significantly correlated with increasing individual absorptive capacity and personal innovation: “idea scouting” and “idea connecting.” In an earlier paper that two of us coauthored, we defined an idea scout as an employee who looks outside the organization to bring in new ideas. An idea connector, meanwhile, is someone who can assimilate the external ideas and find opportunities within the organization to implement these new concepts.

Jobs believed that serendipitous exchanges fueled innovation.

The more diverse a person’s social network, the more likely that person is to be innovative. A diverse network provides exposure to people from different fields who behave and think differently. Good ideas emerge when the new information received is combined with what a person already knows. But in today’s digitally connected world, many relationships are formed and maintained online through public social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Increasingly, employees are using such platforms for work-related purposes.

This means that if you are a Twitter user with the goal of improving your innovation performance, you need to maintain a diverse network while also developing your information assimilation and exploitation skills.

Source: How Twitter Users Can Generate Better Ideas

We envision a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th/20th century economy.

Coworking is redefining the way we do work. Inspired by the participatory culture of the open source movement and the empowering nature of IT, we are building a more sustainable future. We are a group of connected individuals and small businesses creating an economy of innovation and creativity in our communities and worldwide. We envision a new economic engine composed of collaboration and community, in contrast to the silos and secrecy of the 19th/20th century economy.

We have the talent. We just need to work together. Different environments need to overlap, to connect and to interact in order to transform our culture. In order to create a sustainable community based on trust, we value:

  • collaboration over competition
  • community over agendas
  • participation over observation
  • doing over saying
  • friendship over formality
  • boldness over assurance
  • learning over expertise
  • people over personalities
  • “value ecosystem” over “value chain”

This new economy cannot thrive without engaging the larger business, creative, entrepreneurial, governmental, non governmental and technical communities together.

Source: Coworking wiki / Coworking Manifesto (global – for the world)

The explosion of coworking spaces is a physical symbol of the renewed belief in the security that comes from having a really broad and diverse network—what sociologist Mark S. Granovetter calls “the strength of weak ties.” Particularly for those in the information-based economy, job opportunities—like good ideas, as documented extensively at MIT’s Building 20—happen by bumping up against people and seeing where serendipity leads. Genuine friendships, it turns out, are the seed of a lot of the most fulfilling jobs of the 21st century.

In a sense, freelancers are scraping the parts of company life that sucked the life out of them—toxic culture, compulsory collaboration, unnecessary busy work, rigid business hours—and rebuilding the parts that fed them in friendlier, more flexible form. And it’s working.

They found that there were a wide variety of reasons for coworking happiness, but the most central were communities characterized by authenticity, autonomy, and diversity. They write: “Unlike a traditional office, coworking spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies, ventures, and projects. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, they don’t feel they have to put on a work persona to fit in.”

The gospel of the new economy is the transformative power of a diverse, genuine network.

You have to bump into enough people that you eventually latch right on to your ideal collaborator.

We all crave community—both on and off the proverbial clock—but we want community born of bottom-up serendipity, not top-down mandates. We want to collaborate with people who work in fields and mediums totally unlike ours, people with different styles and backgrounds, people who push us to grow, not because they’re anticipating that quarterly evaluation, but because they want to do impactful work in the world. That’s the sort of social cohesion that a company picnic once a year simply can’t create, no matter how good the hot dogs.

Source: Courtney E. Martin on the Coworking Revolution | Design.blog

In our Tale of Two Computers, the parent is a four-century-old computer whose basic architecture was laid down in the zero-sum mercantile age. It runs on paperware, credentialism, and exhaustive territorial claims that completely carve up the world with strongly regulated boundaries. Its structure is based on hierarchically arranged container-like organizations, ranging from families to nations. In this order of things, there is no natural place for a free frontier. Ideally, there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. It is a computer designed for stability, within which innovation is a bug rather than a feature.

We’ll call this planet-scale computer the geographic world.

The child is a young, half-century old computer whose basic architecture was laid down during the Cold War. It runs on software, the hacker ethos, and soft networks that wire up the planet in ever-richer, non-exclusive, non-zero-sum ways. Its structure is based on streams like Twitter: open, non-hierarchical flows of real-time information from multiple overlapping networks. In this order of things, everything from banal household gadgets to space probes becomes part of a frontier for ceaseless innovation through bricolage. It is a computer designed for rapid, disorderly and serendipitous evolution, within which innovation, far from being a bug, is the primary feature.

We’ll call this planet-scale computer the networked world.

The networked world is not new. It is at least as old as the oldest trade routes, which have been spreading subversive ideas alongside valuable commodities throughout history. What is new is its growing ability to dominate the geographic world. The story of software eating the world is the also the story of networks eating geography.

There are two major subplots to this story. The first subplot is about bits dominating atoms. The second subplot is about the rise of a new culture of problem-solving.

Source: A Tale of Two Computers

“Twitter helps to establish an authentic audience for my students. My students actively tweet their classroom learning, thoughts and inspirations daily. In addition, they post quality work to the feed, which fosters a greater sense of pride and ownership in their work. My ELL students are motivated to construct meaningful, fluent texts so that their message may be easily related to the reader. Students are also excited to receive live, constructive feedback from other students and teachers, globally. Involvement in Twitter enables global connections, a community of sharing and a receptive, broad audience to my students.”— Laurie Azzi, an elementary school teacher with the Ottawa Catholic School Board.

Source: Digital Writing for English Language Learners

Selected Tweets, May 2017: Diversity, Inclusion, Neurodiversity, Disability, Evangelicalism, Tech Ethics, Education, Voter Suppression, Addiction, Drug War, Bodily Autonomy

I’m experimenting with using moments to curate favorite tweets in several categories. I review them at the end of the month to reflect and suss the zeitgeist.

Diversity, Inclusion, and the Social Model for Minds and Bodies

Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and Christofascism

Humane Tech and Tech Ethics

Education and Ed-Tech

Voter Suppression

Addiction, Dependence, Rehab, and Harm Reduction

Drug War

Bodily Autonomy

#BodilyAutonomy

Masha Gessen and Sarah Kendzior: Similarities between Trump and Putin, Defending Truth, Surviving Autocracy

Masha Gessen and Sarah Kendzior discuss defending truth. Gessen opens with nine similarities between Tump and Putin.

  1. The way they lie. They lie in order to assert power. I have the right to say whatever I want whenever I want.
  2. They govern by gesture. It’s a way of promoting the brand. It’s not continuous. It’s not part of a policy strategy.
  3. They have interests rather than priorities.
  4. Disdain for government. They think government is rotten to the core, needs to be dismantled, needs to be destroyed. Blaming the predecessor is blaming the entire system they’re here to destroy. It’s why Trump continues to campaign. He’s campaigning against the government.
  5. Disdain for public sphere. Anything that is not transactional should not exist.
  6. Disdain for the media. They view the media as a mirror. Putin has been watching Putin TV for 16 years. Trump found a bubble he wants to live in. There’s a fairly healthy public sphere from about the center right to about the center left. That’s not a bubble. Breitbart is a bubble.
  7. Disdain for moral authority. It’s something autocrats can’t capture. Moral authority can organize by speaking. Ex: John Lewis.
  8. Disdain for excellence. Basic lack of understanding of how government works and the expertise needed to keep it running.
  9. Belief that they are chosen ones. They come to believe they have a mission, that they’re special. This belief blurs the boundaries between their individual selves and the government. When they are criticized, they believe they are being criticized by the enemies of the people.

Kendzior then joins to discuss #TrumpRussia, truth, and their experiences observing autocracy.

On defending truth:

  • Don’t tolerate squishy reality or squishy language.
  • Language is the only thing we have for protecting truth and communicating our shared reality.
  • Call lies lies.
  • The more precise we are with language, the better our chances are of holding onto reality.
  • Follow Merriam-Webster and their commitment to reality and precise language.

They mention Gessen’s piece on surviving autocracy.

  1. Believe the autocrat.
  2. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.
  3. Institutions will not save you.
  4. Be outraged.
  5. Don’t make compromises.
  6. Remember the future.

Source: Autocracy: Rules for Survival | by Masha Gessen | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

The deficit model is a business model, and ed-tech is a monster.

The deficit model is a business model. The assessment and ed-tech industries will not easily let it go. This business model prevents public education from changing. It turns charter schools into hyper-capitalist deficit model shrines enthralled with data collected for and viewed through their business model—losing sight of humanity and kids. Inclusive pedagogy based on personal strengths, agency, collaboration, passion, play, projects, and self-directed learning is a lot cheaper, which is a threat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ed-tech is built on the deficit model, compliance culture, and greed. Extend our vision beyond deficit ideology toward a school culture built on the social model—where communication is oxygen and inclusion is the normal.

I’m an autistic engineer working in the intersection of tech and publishing. Along with people from all over the world, I contributed to the creation of a global open source community and one of the first distributed companies. We’re iterating the future of work and collaboration and making it inclusive.

Communication is oxygen, inclusion is the new normal, and the social model for minds and bodies are how we aspire to run our companies and communities. They’re how we design and build software for and with humans. We’re continuously learning and iterating. We’re continuously actualizing the aspiration and sharing what we learn with other creative communities as we all contribute to the shared, open heart of the internet—the heart to which companies offer their intellectual crown jewels as open source.

Learn and iterate with us. Education needs to join in. What we’ve learned building creative, inclusive, psychologically safe communities and workplaces for adult creatives applies also to kids. Teachers and tech workers should be collaborating. Instead of buying cronyware from ed-tech corporations—contributing into the pockets of those destroying public education—use the tools and techniques of the rank and file tech workers building open communities. Tech has many malignancies (see Uber and most of Silicon Valley), but behind the scenes are many workers making collaboration, teams, technology, and the world more inclusive, ethical, and humane. Skip what ed-tech sells. Use what communities and tech workers use. Let’s collaborate. Let’s go indie. Let’s bring together the best of public education, unschooling, and hacker cultures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The LMS is our major record label. Prepackaged software. A prepackaged sound.

Pre-packaged sound. Pre-packaged courses. Pre-packaged students.

If we don’t like ‘the system’ of ed-tech, we should create one of our own.

“Indie ed-tech” offers a model whereby students, faculty, staff, and independent scholars alike can use the “real-world” tools of the Web — not simply those built for and sanctioned by and then siloed off by schools or departments — through initiatives like Davidson Domains, enabling them to be part of online communities of scholars, artists, scientists, citizens.

Source: ‘I Love My Label’: Resisting the Pre-Packaged Sound in Ed-Tech

Start with communication. Use tech not for remediation, surveillance, and assessment, but to empower voice and facilitate collaboration. Unbridle the voices of  teachers and students. Let them collaborate. Let them engage with the digital commons. Connect them with their tribes and affinity groups. This is how systemic change happens, with voices collaborating, with teams self-organizing. Without communication and agency to collaborate, we will remain in the deficit model script—assessed into despondency and squandering mis-prioritized resources.

The self-advocacy of voice doesn’t change much without the agency to implement.

When people talk about giving students a voice, what they’re really doing — whether they realize or not (and to their credit, I suspect they don’t) —  is finding a band-aid solution to a big problem that really needs surgery. “Student voice” is cushy and comfortable because it doesn’t actually require serious, deep-rooted change. We do need to give students something, but it’s not a voice.

I know, because I’m a student. I’m in my final year at university. I also know because four years ago, in my junior year of high school, I designed an alternative school, one that was run by students, and I implemented it as a school-within-a-school at my public high school in Western Massachusetts. As you can imagine, it was a hard sell. Convincing an entire faculty and an elected school board to allow a student led school to run for a whole semester took a lot of legwork. But, in the end, they approved it, and what happened next was pretty cool.

Source: Students don’t need a ‘voice.’ Here’s what they really need. – The Washington Post

Communicate, collaborate, iterate, and launch. Communicate is first—from it the others cascade. With our voices collaborating in cultures of agency, we can fight the ed-tech and deficit model monsters.

There are monsters because there is a lack of care and an absence of justice in the work we do in education and education technology.

Source: The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology

There is no path toward educational justice that contains convenient detours around direct confrontations with injustice.”  Social model inclusion in our schools and institutions requires confrontation with the deficit model and with structural racism, sexism, ableism, and childism.

I enjoy Audrey Watters’ annual reviews of the year in ed-tech. I recommend all ten parts of the 2016 ed-tech review. They offer important insights into the monsters we face.

  1. Wishful Thinking
  2. The Politics of Education Technology
  3. The Business of Education Technology
  4. ”Free” and “Open”
  5. For-Profit Higher Education
  6. The “New Economy”
  7. Credentialing
  8. Data Insecurity
  9. Personalization
  10. Inequality

These ten parts provide a structural, systemic view of ed-tech. I excerpt from parts 1, 2, and 3 below. Read these excerpts, read the entire review, read Communication is Oxygen, and think about how we can give rise to voice and agency with a collaboration infrastructure and open-by-default culture that avoids snake oil and cargo cult shrinkwrap.

 

 

 

 

 

Expertise in an Age of Post-Truth

And here we are. A loss of faith in governments, governance, globalization, pluralism, polling, pundits, public institutions, private institutions, markets, science, research, journalism, democracy, each other.

“If the experts as a whole are discredited,” Hayes cautions, “we are faced with an inexhaustible supply of quackery.”

Education technology faces an inexhaustible supply of quackery.

Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Quackery

Education technology has faced an inexhaustible supply of quackery for quite some time – those selling snake oil, magic pills, and enchanted talismans and promising disruption, efficiency, and higher test scores. The quackery in 2016 wasn’t new, in other words, but it was notable. It is certainly connected to the discrediting of “expertise,” whether that’s teachers-as-experts or researchers-as-experts. (Students, of course, have rarely been recognized as experts – unless they fit the model of “roaming autodidacts” that society so readily lauds.)

What do we believe about education? About learning? How do we know, and who knows “knowing” in a world where expertise is debunked?

There’s little evidence of how these products or practices will improve teaching or learning. But there’s a ton of snake oil. And a lot of wishful thinking.

Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Wishful Thinking

The promise of education technology, like it or not, is mostly wishful thinking. Proponents of ed-tech insist that ed-tech is necessary; that without ed-tech, schools are outmoded and irrelevant; that “the future” demands it. But as I argued in a talk I gave at VCU in November, “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.” That is, the steady drumbeat of marketing surrounding the necessity of education technology largely serves to further ideologies of neoliberalism, individualism, late-stage capitalism, outsourcing, surveillance, speed, and commodity fetishism.

Grief and Loss and Education Technology

Perhaps it’s time to ask why – why this is the ritual and the story that education continues to turn to? It has, after all, for at least one hundred years: the promise of teaching machines. What is the loss that we are suffering? What are we grieving? Why are we in this fog of educational make-believe? Why are we so wrapped up in the magical thinking and wishful thinking of education technology? What do we hope the practices of ed-tech will deliver, will relieve? What are we hoping to preserve? What are we hoping to absolve? What might we afraid to admit has died? Why is wishful thinking, in and through and with education technology, a balm for so many of us?

At what point should we just let go…

Source: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016: Wishful Thinking

The Politics of Education Technology

The business of education technology overlaps with the politics of ed-tech. The politics overlap with privacy. Privacy overlaps with “personalization,” and surveillance overlaps with data collection and analytics and algorithmic decision-making. Coding bootcamps are related to for-profit higher ed, which is connected to credentialing which is connected to accreditation, which is connected to politics. Challenges to accreditation and certification and the steady drumbeat of “everyone should learn to code” are connected to politics as well as to the business of ed-tech.

Then there’s the question: what counts as “ed-tech”? One of the flaws, I think, of much of the reporting on education technology is that it treats “ed-tech” as a product without a politics and without a practice. It also treats “ed-tech” primarily as a product built by engineers, not for example, constructed through the practices of educators or students themselves – problems with education are, in this framework, engineering problems. This reporting treats “ed-tech” as a product built in and by Silicon Valley, not as something built in and by public institutions around the world. It treats “ed-tech” as the result of markets and industry and “innovation,” and not as the result of policy or history. The reporting often isolates education technology from other developments in the computer technology sector and tends to isolate education technology from education politics and policies more broadly (unless, of course, those policies dovetail with the political interests of ed-tech and ed-reform, which they often do).

There is No Technology Industry (There is Only Ideology)

There is no ‘technology industry’,” technology writer and entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote in August.

Put simply, every industry and every sector of society is powered by technology today, and being transformed by the choices made by technologists. Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world,” but it’s far more accurate to say that the neoliberal values of software tycoons are eating the world.

Every industry uses computers, software, and internet services. If that’s what “technology” means, then every company is in the technology business – a useless distinction. But it’s more likely that “technology” has become so overused, and so carelessly associated with Silicon Valley-style computer software and hardware startups, that the term has lost all meaning. Perhaps finance has exacerbated the problem by insisting on the generic industrial term “technology” as a synonym for computing.

…There are companies that are firmly planted in the computing sector. Microsoft and Apple are two. Intel is another – it makes computer parts for other computer makers. But it’s also time to recognize that some companies – Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook among them – aren’t primarily in the computing business anyway. And that’s no slight, either. The most interesting thing about companies like Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are not (computing) technology companies. Instead, they are using computing infrastructure to build new – and enormous – businesses in other sectors. If anything, that’s a fair take on what “technology” might mean as a generic term: manipulating one set of basic materials to realize goals that exceed those materials.

When I write – here and elsewhere – about the politics of education technology, I am interested in these very things: organizations, practices, relationships, ideologies. The politics of education technology shape and are shaped by, as Franklin argues, our ideas of power. And as Bogost and Dash both caution, it’s a mistake to fetishize the tech as product – in ed-tech and elsewhere – especially at the expense of scrutinizing technology in its ubiquity and as ideology.

“Tech” and the Presidential Election

Facebook will appear again and again in this year-end series. Facebook and wishful thinking. Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s education investments. Facebook and personalization. Facebook and algorithmic discrimination. It is one of the most powerful (and frightening) companies – and it has its eyes on “disrupting” education.

President-Elect Donald J. Trump

This isn’t simply a matter of subverting the value of education as a public good. It’s about attacking education as a vehicle for social justice. Some speculate that Trump might dismantle the Office for Civil Rights, for starters, which enforces the compliance for Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and other federal civil rights laws.

The Obama Administration (in Its Final Year) and Education

I’ll write about the Obama Administration and for-profit higher ed in a subsequent post in this series. (And don’t think for a minute I won’t talk about Trump University in all its gruesome details.) I’ll also cover the various efforts to address college affordability in another post, in part through issuing a “scorecard” to help prospective college students decide which school to attend. And in another post, I will look at the administration’s efforts to promote STEM and CS education via the Computer Science For All initiative launched in January; in yet another I’ll look at its efforts to encourage schools use open educational resources via the GoOpen initiative which it launched last year. I also plan to talk about the administration’s support for charter schools (and how charter school chains act as test-beds for software companies, as well as how their missions dovetail with a push for “personalization”). I’ll talk more elsewhere about how testing, about how testing has and hasn’t changed (and might and not changed) – under Obama and thanks to the “opt-out” movement and because of the re-authorization of ESEA (now known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” rather than “No Child Left Behind”).

See? It’s all interconnected.

Accessibility and Technology (and the Role of Governments and Corporations)

Access to the Internet – at home and at school – has, obviously, been key to education technology initiatives. Bandwidth is necessary, and schools still struggle to provide it, particularly in rural areas.

Certainly access to the Internet for the purposes of education isn’t just about access at school.

In February, CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking, called broadband access outside of school a “civil right” for students.

Education Technology and Political Corruption

The word “kleptocracy” is already being used to describe the incoming administration. And I guess we’ll have to wait-and-see how technology companies and education technology companies will try to benefit from an era of backroom deals and deregulation.

Or, we could look at a couple of dealings – pre-Trump – that occurred this year to see how some in ed-tech operate.

Yes, Epipens count as “ed-tech.” And yes, this is how the politics of the business of ed-tech works. If anything, the privatization and profiteering that Trump’s election portends is just a difference of speed and degree.

Ed-tech, Civil Rights, and Academic Freedom

Who stands in the way of education’s horrors?

Well, students for starters.

Education technology has become inextricable from education reform in recent years – from efforts to improve test scores and bust unions and built charter schools to those that reframe the civic responsibility of education as an individual, “personalized” product.

Who benefits? Who benefits when public education is dismantled and “disrupted”? And who benefits when entrepreneurs and investors get to define “equity”? Who do their policies and who do their rhetoric really serve?

At the end of 2016, the most pressing question is not, as a recent Edsurge headline asked, “Who Thinks Tech Makes Learning More Fun?” Let me suggest some better ones: what role does education technology play in spreading hate and harassment? What role does education technology play in undermining equity and democracy? Can education technology play any role in resistance?

Source: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016: The Politics of Education Technology

What Do Venture Capitalists Want?

Some of these areas that are popular for investment do coincide with the popular narratives about “the future of education” – “everyone should learn to code,” for example. But some of them, like the explosion in startups offering private student loans, suggest something is happening quite contrary to the narratives of “free and open,” not to mention to a tradition of publicly funded education or the policies of federal financial aid.

Glaring in its absence from this list: “personalization,” one of the most trumpeted technology “solutions” this year. … Even without funding data to underscore its importance, “personalization” can’t be dismissed.

The word is a crystallization of ed-tech ideology: through technology, teaching will become radically individualized as learners’ lessons are reduced to the smallest possible piece of content, then presented to them algorithmically. Moreover, per this ideology, without the aid of algorithms and “personalization” technology, human educators and traditional institutions have historically failed to meet the needs of individuals as individuals. The responsibility for education therefore must shift to technology, away from the institution, to the individual, away from the public or civic.

The ideological and financial shift from public to private is exemplified by venture philanthropy – that is, venture capital investments framed as charity.

Wealthy individuals often assume that philanthropic donations should be received in gratitude, Reich said, because it’s better for the public than purchasing another house or another boat. “That’s just false to me,” he said. “It’s an exercise of power aimed at the public, and in a democratic society, power deserves attention and scrutiny, not gratitude.”

The Elephants in the Ed-Tech Room

For the last five or six years, education technology has been largely talked about in terms of “startups,” something that helps position the industry as an outsider and an underdog. Of course, most of ed-tech is neither. It’s built and sold by giant corporations.

These are the companies that sell the textbooks; these are the companies that sell the tests.

In response to all these ongoing problems with testing, the Obama Administration said in April it would “take action” in order to “ensure fewer and better tests for students.” “Taking action,” in this case, meant releasing some case studies and posting a notice on the Federal Register about how a competitive grant program could provide a more “innovative” way to build assessments.

Everything’s a business opportunity.

But this notion of an “OS War” shouldn’t be too quickly dismissed. “Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google Are Fighting a War for the Classroom,” Edutechnica wrote in June, with a look at how many colleges have adopted their competing “pseudo-LMSes.” The “war” extends beyond the productivity suite of tech tools and it extends beyond operating system in the classroom. It’s about building brand allegiance with students and/as workers, and it’s about building data profiles to sell ads and other products.

The LMS, of course, needn’t be a permanent line item in schools’ budgets. And its supposed primacy might actually overlook that there’s a great deal of “shadow” technology utilized by instructors who eschew the official LMS for something they find better suited to their classroom needs and goals.

The Procurement Problem

The learning management system is a piece of “enterprise” software after all. That is, it’s built and bought to satisfy the needs of the institution rather than the needs of individual. Purchasing an LMS – or more correctly, signing a contract to license an LMS – requires its own enterprise-level bureaucracy.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the process, no doubt. For starters, the hefty RFP requirements almost by design tilt purchasing decisions towards big companies and incumbent players. The folks who make the decisions about what to buy typically aren’t the people who are using the products in the classroom.

There’s not a lot of transparency in the procurement process; nor is it easy to find out afterwards which products schools bought or use – although that’s not something you hear companies moan about, funnily enough. You’re just supposed to trust them when they brag they’re used in 90% of schools. (USC professor Morgan Polikoff’s research on textbook adoption, for example, has made this painfully clear. He’s sent FOIA requests to school districts, and in many cases they have been unwilling or unable to share their textbook data. And when they do, the data is often a mess.)

But by and large, procurement issues are a problem identified by companies that companies decide they will “fix” in turn: “Try Before You Buy,” Edsurge reported in June. “Clever’s ‘Co-Pilot’ Aims to Help Schools Pilot and Purchase.” Indeed, an increasingly popular service offered by ed-tech companies and ed-tech investors is “research” into how to buy ed-tech and into which ed-tech products are best, which “work” (whatever that means).

(These companies almost all share the same investors too. And the beat goes on.)

One of the ways in which ed-tech startups have found success in getting their products widely adopted is to sell to charter schools, particularly charter school chains. (Again, they often share the same investors.) Charter school chains, in turn, have started to license their products and franchise their models to others. As such, it’s difficult to separate “the business of education technology” from “the business of charter schools” – and why it’s difficult, as I noted in the previous article in this series, “the politics of education technology” from “the politics of education reform.”

Disrupting the Culture of Public Education

I’ve argued elsewhere that education technology serves as a “Trojan horse” of sorts, carrying with it into public institutions the practices, politics, and a culture of private business and the ideology of Silicon Valley. This is evident in the ways in which you hear many investors and entrepreneurs talk about what needs to happen to schools – that they need to become more efficient; they need to be more like “lean startups” and redesign themselves as a “minimum viable product”; they need to “unbundle,” “unbundle,” “unbundle”; they need to rename job titles and rethink job roles – “learning engineers” or “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” for example; they need to turn to markets, not politics or publics, for solutions.

If you’re looking for a quick read – one that’s hilariously awful – about the culture of startups in order to convince yourself this is the last thing we should bring to public education, I recommend Dan Lyon’s book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, published this spring.

What VC Spells for Sesame Street

In February, Sesame Workshop, the maker of Sesame Street, announced it was launching a venture capital arm in order to invest in startups because everything is terrible. It’s first startup investment – a tutoring app. It also invested $53 million in a VC fund run by Reach Capital, formerly NewSchools Venture Fund.

Sesame Workshop has also partnered with IBM, to extract data from preschoolers in the name of “research” into the “personalization” of early childhood education.

Of course, what drives the programming on Sesame Street now isn’t education research; it’s market research. It isn’t “equity” as in social justice; it’s “equity” as in the financial stake a VC takes in a company.

And that’s what “the business of education technology” gets us.

Source: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016: The Business of Education Technology

Marketing the Mindsets

Intertwined with the push for “personalization” in education are arguments for embracing a “growth mindset.” The phrase, coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, appears frequently alongside talk of “personalized learning” as students are encouraged to see their skills and competencies as flexible rather than fixed. (Adaptive teaching software. Adaptive students.)

The marketing of mindsets was everywhere this year: “How to Develop Mindsets for Compassion and Caring in Students.” “Building A Tinkering Mindset In Young Students Through Making.” “6 Must-Haves for Developing a Maker Mindset.” The college president mindset. Help wanted: must have an entrepreneurial mindset. The project-based learning mindset. (There’s also Gorilla Mindset, a book written by alt-right meme-maker Mike Cernovich, just to show how terrible the concept can get.)

“Mindset” joins “grit” as a concept that’s quickly jumped from the psychology department to (TED Talk to) product. Indeed, Angela Duckworth, who popularized the latter (and had a new book out this year on grit), now offers an app to measure “character growth.” “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit,” she wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. But there are now calls that students should be tested – and in turn, of course, schools graded – on “social emotional skills.”

Promising to measure and develop these skills are, of course, ed-tech companies. Pearson even has a product called GRIT™. But it’s probably ClassDojo, a behavior tracking app, that’s been most effective in marketing itself as a “mindset” product, even partnering with Carol Dweck’s research center at Stanford.

Ben Williamson argues that ClassDojo exemplifies the particularly Silicon Valley bent of “mindset” management:

The emphasis … is on fixing people, rather than fixing social structures. It prioritizes the design of interventions that seek to modify behaviours to make people perform as optimally as possible according to new behavioural and psychological norms. Within this mix, new technologies of psychological measurement and behaviour management such as ClassDojo have a significant role to play in schools that are under pressure to demonstrate their performance according to such norms.

In doing so, ClassDojo – and other initiatives and products – are enmeshed both in the technocratic project of making people innovative and entrepreneurial, and in the controversial governmental agenda of psychological measurement. ClassDojo is situated in this context as a vehicle for promoting the kind of growth mindsets and character qualities that are seen as desirable behavioural norms by Silicon Valley and government alike.

ClassDojo is, Williamson argues, “prototypical of how education is being reshaped in a ‘platform society.’”

Personalization in a Platform Society

Far from being neutral platforms for everyone, social media have changed the conditions and rules of social interaction.” In this new social order – “the platform society” – “social, economic and interpersonal traffic is largely channeled by an (overwhelmingly corporate) global online infrastructure that is driven by algorithms and fueled by data.”

We readily recognize Facebook and Twitter as these sorts of platforms; but I’d argue that they’re more pervasive and more insidious, particularly in education. There, platforms include the learning management systems and student information systems, which fundamentally define how teachers and students and administrators interact. They define how we conceive of “learning”. They define what “counts” and what’s important.

They do so, in part, through this promise of “personalization.” Platforms insist that, through data mining and analytics, they offer an improvement over existing practices, existing institutions, existing social and political mechanisms. This has profound implications for public education in a democratic society. More accurately perhaps, the “platform society” offers merely an entrenchment of surveillance capitalism, and education technologies, along with the ideology of “personalization”, work to normalize and rationalize that.

Source: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016: Education Technology and the Ideology of “Personalization”