Planning for educational change : what is education for?

In the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of projects that impact both education as a system and challenge some people’s conceptions of what learning is and might be for. The latter is compelling, and projects like #rhizo14 and #rhizo15 have led to some amazing conversations, some interesting papers, and, more importantly for me, have broadened my network of good educators to work with. While I am interested in this work, and plan to potentially host another one this fall, I think of these projects as an exploration space to think about what learning is for. They are not ‘the change’ they are more the ways in which we consider what might be possible… what learning could be for.

Education vs. learning
I’ve been making this distinction for years, but I’m not really sure if I made it up or if I stole it from someone. For me ‘education’ is the system that we have in place as a society to allow us to ‘educate’ most people in our society. Education is by its nature normative, meaning that it has a particular perspective on what a society is and enforces that perspective in curriculum, in classroom structure, in assessment as well as across the social contract among teachers, students and administrators.

Learning is something that can happen in an education system. Frankly, it pretty much necessarily happens in an education system, but more because humans are learning machines and will learn from any situation. What they might learn… now that’s a bit more individual. I, for instance, believe that high stakes testing leads people to believe that there are ‘answers’ to important questions and makes it more difficult for them to deal with complex situations later in their lives. Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?”

What learning can be for?
Learning can be for a tonne of different things. Sometimes we want to learn something to accomplish a specific task. I, for instance, am a proponent of spatchcocking turkeys. This article from the excellent, does a good job explaining the technical skills required for the process. What I like about the article, is that it also provides the rationale for doing it that way. That may or may not be something you want to learn. I learn a bunch of other things from serious eats. I learn about taking my cooking seriously. About the value of questioning established orthodoxy. Just in time learning. Clear end goal. Clear pathways to getting there. I have a pile of literacies I’ve acquired over the years that allow me to get there. I can read. My parents taught me to question the status quo. I’ve been cooking since I was ten. Now I cut the backbone out of my turkey and cook it flat. And, maybe most importantly, i can afford a turkey.

Learning is also something we want each of our kids to do. We want them to learn how to keep themselves safe. We want them to learn to be creative. We want them to learn how to be happy. Maybe their Timestables. Maybe some chemistry. Maybe writing. The pathway for each of these kids, though, is not as clear. I figure that I’ve got decent odds of teaching any individual person something at any individual time. Most teachers, i think, probably feel the same way. How does it scale? How do we contribute to a system that chooses good things for them to learn. Or, maybe more importantly, a system that embodies things that we want them to learn. What should that education system be for? Can we have an education system that embodies happiness or wellbeing? Should math be the hidden curriculum and self-respect what is actually studied?

What is education for?
Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for.

That’s not to say that we don’t teach ethics, or that most of us haven’t combed through our history books to try and find ways to address issues of race and gender… we have. But for every attempt to address complex societal issue there has been another (another 10) addressing basic skills. Cross reference that with provincial, national and international standards testing and you’ve got yourself a nice complex problem. Bring it to, say, the university level, or lifelong learning or pre-k and with all the added power structures… you’ve got yourself a really interesting ecosystem to think about.

What’s it for? What does success look like? Who does that success serve?

Thinking about change in Education
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Leadership Roundtable on Academic Transformation, Digital Learning, and Design at Georgetown University earlier this year (excellently hosted by Eddie Maloney, Josh Kim and Peter Stokes). It was a gathering of folks interested in change (mostly related to edtech). Lots of excellent debate. While this was mostly a conversation amongst people in Higher Education (who’s voices are not likely to be marginalised given their place of employment, race etc…), the themes I saw emerge there are similar to those I have seen before and since in these discussions around the world. The discordance (to my ears) between the words change and innovation. A challenge to differentiate between change from (this terrible thing is happening and it needs to stop) and change to (there’s this thing we’d really like to have happen, lets figure out how to do it). The multiple perspectives on the value proposition of higher education. Are we doing basic skills? Are we preparing students for jobs? Are we the last bastion of the mid-nineteenth century vision of a better society?

All of these things could be true. Most of them could be true at the same time. This is what, i think, makes the field of education so compelling right now. What I’ve become most interested in is how we can make change stick, at least partially. Part of that I think, like any other complex project, is to keep a constant conversation going around what the goals ACTUALLY are. I think goals on complex problems need to be expressed, yes, but they are a journey of becoming. You can say you want an education system that emancipates a society, but what is that going to mean when you’re choosing curriculum? When you’re doing teacher training? When you’re talking to parents about the possibility of changing what it means to succeed? How many times are you going to come to understand what emancipation REALLY means and develop a shared language with everyone in the system.

Are we ready to commit to change that could take a generation… with constantly renegotiated change? Can we even do that?

I’m interested.

A last thought about learning
Learning is going to happen. I might learn to write a good sentence. I might learn I’m too dumb to write a good sentence. I might learn that writing a grammatically correct sentence is more important than writing an interesting one. I will learn.

Learning will happen. The question is… what learning do we want our education system to be for?

New Student Orientation – Orienting, Not Informing

* This is a crosspost of Orienting, Not Informing, posted on Michael Rutter’s Higher Ed Gamma on Inside Higher Education. *

For the past few years, I’ve been working on making changes within our institution’s New Student Orientation (NSO) process. For some institutions orientation is about level setting, about placement inside a program. For the elite, where students have been heavily filtered, it can be purely about creating a sense of belonging to a brand. For most of us in Higher Ed, it’s a time of great temptation. Do we academically remediate? Do we explain what university is? Do we tell them how to find their classes? Is it the final step in the recruitment process?

While the current obsession is to focus on how well institutions prepare their students for the job market and other ROIs, we do have to ensure that students get to the finish line (graduation), learn soft skills (employers like those too), and, one hopes, have a good experience in the process.

The problem is our ideas tend to drift off in the direction of broadcasting important information you need to know once we try to scale passed about 100 people or so. Lets put that online! And – while I may be to blame for introducing the words “Massive Open Online Course” into the current higher ed lexicon (sorry) – I don’t believe institutions ought to be trying to MOOC our way out of orientation with mass online orientation experiences. Or rather, I don’t think online orientation can be the sole approach we take, if our goals include retention and – at the core of retention – belonging.

When what you do is promote change in education, via communities and digital platforms, it surprises people when you start talking about orientation and the first week of school.
But what makes the process of change interesting to me is that it forces you to examine first principles: what is this thing that you are trying to do? Why would someone do it? Who are the people you are trying to do this with? If you can envision yourself jumping for joy six months from now, what just happened to make you jump?

The transition from high school to university is just that kind of compelling challenge. At an institution like ours, close to a fifth of our student body can turn over every year… more than 800 new undergraduate students will join us this week. Whether they stay – whether our institution becomes a part of how they see themselves – is partly on us and how we respond to those first principle questions.

Each one of our students arrives with some cultural understanding of what a university is. Some may be gleaned from movies or TV, some from guidance counsellors, teachers, parents, siblings, literature. There is no one ‘university’ that corresponds to these disparate visions. The contemporary university (for most of us) has to be a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.

The temptation in addressing this challenge is to try and make your university ‘A Thing’ and then tell people about it.

When looked at from this perspective, it sounds like an awesome idea for an online course. A big one. A course you might even call ‘massive’.

At first glance this could seem (and seemed to me the three times we tried it) to be the easiest way to address challenges that students were having when they came to university. Online, we could give them an introduction to their science courses. We could give them information about parking, about student life, about the way that our Registrar’s Office works. We built our first MOOC-style orientation course in 2009, well before the word was in common usage outside of Canadian connectivist circles.

The problem with taking a MOOC-like approach to orientation, however, is that it ignores the complexity of the change you are trying to make in orienting learners to higher ed. The students coming to our universities are coming from a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. They need a variety of information. Many, in fact, are coming to the university to gain the very literacies that are REQUIRED in order to be able to learn online. If the very cadre of students you are trying reach are the ones most likely to populate MOOC attrition rates, then orienting them online as part of a huge group is not likely to leave you jumping for joy six months from now. If the intricacies of Student Support or higher education administrivia are beyond many new students’ zone of proximal development, offering them optional videos is not going to scaffold the critical learning experience required.

I am not suggesting that online learning is the problem either. Students are not necessarily more prepared to internalize this information face-to-face. My view of NSO was changed forever in the midst of a discussion with a focus group of student leaders, wherein one of them looked at me and said, “look Dave, you’re not going to teach anyone anything new in four days. If I don’t have a place to put this information going in…I’m not going to know it all coming out… you’re wasting your time with these training sessions.”
Point. While information can be handy, information doesn’t create change by itself.
What I was hoping for in designing this year’s process of orientation is an experience that starts students on the journey to believing that they can. That they can learn. That they can find help/information when they need it. That they can confront the challenges that emerge at university. That they can use their networks to offer the support they need to do whatever it is they want to do.

In our local context, that approach has been framed under the label “resilience,” though not in the simplistic, neoliberal “grit” sense that the word’s taken on in US education of late.

Rather, we developed a resiliency model that spoke to us, and committed ourselves to the idea of ‘healthy connections’ as our objective for orientation. We’re trying to create experiences that enable students to make healthy connections to each other, to their student mentors, to faculty and staff, and to our local community, all in their first few days on campus.

Each day of NSO this week is led off by a mentor-led dialogue (in small groups: 2 mentors for every 15 first-years) that addresses the issues that are going to be taken up that day. We’re looking at issues like “choosing to build community: how,” “adulting,” and “getting through your first two weeks of classes.” These mostly involve fishbowl-style discussions and other activities aimed at helping students develop language with each other, make connections with other, and understand a few of the options they have, rather than at getting them ‘the’ answer to any of these issues.

You can’t tell people to believe they can do things any more than you can sit people in a classroom and tell them to make healthy connections with each other. It’s an experiential process. Deep down, I think we’ve known this for years. If you look at the hazing rituals that are so a big part of what many of us may remember orientation or frosh week being years ago, it was about providing a shared experience that sometimes allowed people to find people they could rely on. Unfortunately for many, those shared experiences often happened at the bottom of a bottle, or in any number of dangerous and damaging circumstances. Change – a huge culture change – was needed.

So if we’re jumping for joy six months from now it will be because we’re seeing our student mentors having difficult discussions with the first year students they mentored this week. It’ll be because those mentors built trust enough to become the conduits through which first year (and other!) students connect to the supports they need when they need them.
We hope, like anyone else does, that this leads to higher retention rates, but by far my bigger hope is that it leads to more students feeling they belong here, and that they can make university work for them, in their own ways. No amount of information is ever going to make that happen.

Content is a print concept

I’ve been saying annoying things like “I don’t believe in content” and “what do you mean course ‘content?’ I don’t even know who’s going to be there” for a number of years now. There’s a part of me, as George Station will attest, that just likes the sound of certain words put together.

The bigger part of me has always struggled with the word.

There are fundamental claims made, I think, when we use the word content. We have decided what someone ‘needs to know.’ I always think back to the forklift driver’s course that I took when I worked at the lead/silver refinery. They taught us the ‘correct’ way to drive a forklift – a driving method I’d never seen anyone use before…nor have I seen it since. While there are good legal reasons for teaching us the government approved approach… I’d probably be fired if I tried to ‘thoroughly look over my forklift’ every single time I was about to use it. Those lessons were the content that needed to be covered, though. To what end, I wonder… and when exactly did we start thinking of courses as having ‘content?’

I have this idea (totally unverifiable) that our current educational use of ‘content’ came to us from print – that it is a concept that only makes sense when arguments are, as Socrates would say, ‘no longer able to defend themselves.’ When they are written down. I might use the word ‘content’ when talking about a conversation I had with someone, but I, at least, would never use it to describe what was going to happen BEFORE the conversation had happened. A conversation, ideally, is the coming together of two or more people’s ideas. What comes out of that conversation is to some degree always going to be a surprise.

Why don’t I say writing, you might ask, instead of print? I think of writing as being partially to blame, but not the real culprit.

When Europe starting peeking its way through the veil of the dark ages, one of the first things we hear about learning comes from the court of Charlemagne. Turns out the large majority of priests in his day couldn’t really speak Latin. This did not stop them from ‘saying’ Latin phrases. Those phrases did things like make marriages official and make sure babies didn’t go to hell… so they were important phrases… but the priests were speaking them from memory. Turns out Charlemagne thought God could only speak Latin, and figured that if they said the phrases wrong the wouldn’t work. So… he figured he would take a shot at fixing that.

You can totally see why he wanted to make sure people did EXACTLY as they were supposed to. I mean, if you believed as he believed, there were people GOING TO HELL because they were mis-speaking Latin phrases. So he released the ‘Charter of Modern Thought’ that led to all kinds of things, including better education for bishops, enforced education for priests and, eventually, schools to be opened at monasteries for kids. We don’t know exactly what happened at those schools…but there is one slightly terrifying story of one pupil who burned down the monastery to avoid being disciplined for a now forgotten crime. In almost every case, however, they’re all still learning about things God said and things other people (Boethius, Plato, Augustine) said.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, we see the vague beginnings of the modern university. We see, at almost the same time, the birth of thought control at universities. There is one school of historical thought that sees the birth of universities as directly tied to the desire for thought control. In their version, the church/local rulers encouraged their formation to avoid the tedious problem of local smart people educating people at random and causing trouble (see Peter Abelard). Aristotle’s Physics were banned at Paris, for instance, because they taught an origin story that conflicted with church teachings.

The desire to repeat things exactly and the desire to control what people learned met their perfect weapon in the printing press. Not only did it mean we were now not going to get those irritating errors that keep cropping up when one (sometimes illiterate) person tries to copy someone else’s copy of a copy of 20 or 50 thousand words, it also meant you could create bunches and bunches of them. It also meant that things less important than Augustine and less important than the Bible could get turned into a book.

We take up our incredibly brief history of content in 1798 with my favourite educator, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He had a dream… and what a dream. He wanted to teach the entirety of Switzerland to read (and rite and do rithmatic). Tricky problem… he didn’t have any teachers to work with. In his book “How Gertrude teaches her children” he talks about his crazy solution. Imagine, he says, if we took all the things that people needed to know and broke them into small pieces. Pieces so simply defined that ANYONE, whether they understood what they were doing or not, could teach someone else how to do something. Lets just go ahead and call it a ‘textbook’.

We’ve gone from
‘oh my god they better just memorize it so no one goes to hell’


‘lets make sure we figure out what they’re teaching so people don’t get funny ideas’


‘lets dumb this down to the point that anyone can understand it’

From there we have the splintering of learning into different disciplines, and an ever increasing % of the population learning. We move from people talking about things as learning – a discourse (our boy Socrates) to learning being an accomplishment of specific predefined tasks. Tasks that could only be defined in this way because they could be written down. Tasks that form the ‘content’ of learning designed in a schoolbook that as Pestalozzi would say “is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one].”

So… here’s the think piece.

Content is a print concept. It requires replication in the form of the printing press. It requires authority/power in the form of a government/agency/publisher deciding what is ‘required’ to learn. It is a standardization engine for learning, both to allow for spreading of authorized messaging and to allow for ‘uninstructed teachers to teach almost as well as an experienced one.’

I can certainly see where it’s useful. Particularly when you are only invested in surface level understanding of something. I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it. Our current connectivity allows us to actually engage in discussions at scale… can that replace content?

Rhizo14 – The MOOC that community built

This discussion paper was originally posted in the “International Journal for Innovation and Quality in Learning” which is now not on the internet. With the “learning resilience” Open course starting up in a few weeks (you can sign up at that link if you like), I thought it might be interesting to repost this and see how it sounds 2 years later.

Key message
By creating an event like a MOOC we are potentially radically redefining what it means to be an educator. We are very much at the beginning stages of our learning how to create the space required for community to develop and grow in an open course. These field notes speak to the my own journey in the design of ‘Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum’. They are, in effect, a journey towards planned obsolescence.

KEYWORDS: rhizo14, rhizomatic learning, MOOC,

Oscar is my almost-eight year old son. He’s been blogging since he was four, has played around a little on twitter and has generally grown up in a house where his parents have made a fair chunk of their career out of blogging and working online. It is with this as a backdrop that he walks into the room yesterday and asks

Are you in charge of ALL of rhizo14, i mean, all around the world?

You see I received a box in the mail yesterday that had a card, 4 t-shirts and a magnet that said #rhizo14 on it. The artwork, the hashtag and the tagline “A communal network of knowmads” come from a Open Course that I started in January of 2014 now called #rhizo14. The package Oscar was looking over had a stamp from Brazil on it which I explained came from Clarissa, an educator who participated in Rhizo14. She sent everyone in the family a t-shirt with the rhizo14 logo on it.

From Clarissa Bezerra

So… are you in charge of it? My son not being accustomed to me being lost for words, was confused by my lack of response. In that simple question lies much of what I have struggled to explain about the event that is/was #rhizo14. What does it mean to be ‘in charge’ of a MOOC? What was my role in something that was very much a participant driven process?

If I am ‘in charge’ what does that mean in terms of my responsibility towards the quality of the experience people have as part of rhizo14?

What was the course now called Rhizo14
I say “now called” because the original title of the course was “Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum” but the people who are still participating refer to it by the hashtag. It was a six week open course hosted on the P2PU platform from January 14 to February 25th. The topic of the course was to be about my years long blabbing about rhizomatic learning. I wanted to invite a bunch of people to a conversation about my work to see if they could help me make it better. Somewhere in the vicinity of 500 people either signed up or joined one of the community groups.

What I was hoping for
Fundamentally i was hoping that 40 or 50 people would show up to the course and that by the end there would still be a handful of people interested in the discussion. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to gather the work that I had done and make it better than it was before. I find the pressure of having an audience is very helpful in convincing me to get things together. I was not precisely hoping that we would get enough people for the course to have MOOC like characteristics, and I certainly didn’t put the time into advertising it in a way that was likely to lead to that. I was hoping that after 6 weeks I would have a better grasp on my own work, and that a few participants would have had a good quality experience.

In the more macro sense, I’m always hoping that a course that I’m working on leads to some sort of community. My work since 2005 has focused on ways to encourage people to see ‘the community as the curriculum’. I’m always hoping to organize an ecosystem where people form affinity connections in such a way that when the course ends, and I walk away, the conversations and the learning continues. I think of this as one of the true measurements of quality in any learning experience – does it continue.

How the course was designed
I made three different attempts at designing rhizo14.

The first was around my own collection of blog posts about rhizomatic learning. This was, essentially, the content of 7 years of thinking about the rhizome in education, broken into six week. In retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that I was considering so instructivist an approach, but it is very much following previous models of open courses I have been involved with. I think that this course design was prompted by my concern that people would be unfamiliar with the use of the rhizome in education and would need structure to support their journey with the idea. If you have content to present, you can ensure a certain minimum quality experience. It was also easy to just use the stuff I already had :).

Two days later, I had almost completely discarded this model for a new one that was more focused on the process of learning and connecting in an open course. The idea in model two was to ‘unravel’ the course from a fairly structured beginning to a more open and project based conclusion. This design was meant address my concerns about new participants to open/online courses. Over the years we’ve seen many complaints about the shock of a distributed course and, I’ve always thought, we didn’t see the vast majority of the complaints of participants who just couldn’t get their feet under them and didn’t complain publicly. Here I was trying to ensure quality from a process perspective.

Two days before the course started, I threw that out the window as well. In discussions with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli from P2PU she suggested that I focus the course around challenging questions. It occurred to me that if i took my content and my finely crafted ‘unravelling’ out of the way I might just get the kind of engagement that could encourage the formation of community. The topic I chose for week 1 mirrored the opening content i was going to suggest but with no readings offered. I gave the participants “Cheating as Learning” as a topic, a challenge to see the concept of cheating as a way of deconstructing learning, and a five minute introductory video. This is the format that I kept for the rest of the course, choosing the weekly topics based on what I thought would forward the conversation. Here the quality of the experience is left up to the participant to control.

■ Week 1 – Cheating as Learning (Jan 14-21)
■ Week 2 – Enforcing Independence (Jan 21-28)
■ Week 3 – Embracing Uncertainty (Jan 28-Feb 4)
■ Week 4 – Is Books Making Us Stupid? (Feb 4-Feb 11)
■ Week 5 – Community As Curriculum (Feb 11-Feb 18)
■ Week 6 – Planned Obsolescence (Feb 18-?)

What happened during the course
Saying that I lost control of the discussion creates the false premise that I ever had control of it. From the get go, participants took my vague ‘cheating’ prompt and interpreted it in a dozen different ways. There were several strands of ethical debates regarding cheating. There were folks who decided to discuss testing. Others focused on how learning could be defined in a world of abundance. Still more took issue with the design of the question and focused on this. There was a varying degree of depth in these discussions, and, frankly, a certain amount of debate on what qualified as valid discussion.

My response was to (as i had promised) write a blog post explaining my intention with the question and surveying what people had written. This was the only week that I did this. As the course developed, and new challenges emerged, it became clear that these review posts were being created without my help. They were, in essence, me trying to hold on to my position as the instructor of the course. A position I had not really had from day 1. By the end, I only formally participated as instructor in posting the weekly challenges with a short video and by hosting a weekly live discussion on unhangout. The community has become its own rhizome, in the sense that it had created space for multiple viewpoints to coexist at varying levels of discussion.
What happened after the course

My ‘planned’ course finished on the 25th of February. On the 26th of February, week 7 of the course showed up on the Facebook group and the P2PU course page. This week entitled “The lunatics are taking over the asylum” was the first of many weeks created by the former ‘participants’ in the course. This new thing, which it is now safe to call #rhizo14, is currently in week 11 of its existence. In week eight, the community chose a blog post that I wrote several years ago as a topic of discussion. Week 11 is addressing the concern of allowing all voices to be acknowledge (a discussion that was very much present during the first six weeks) in an open environment.

As they began so they continued. The vast majority of the people who participated are now only distantly connected to the course if at all. A core of 50 or so people remain in the discussions, however, and are now identify themselves as ‘part of rhizo14′. For now, at least, there is a community of people who I am happy to number myself a member of. When I consider my responsibility as a ‘leader’ in this sort of community, it makes me wonder whether ‘educator’ is even the right word for it.

So Oscar… am I in charge of Rhizo14
Uh… no. I don’t think I ever was. An amazing group of people from around the world decided to spend some of their time learning with me for six weeks. A fair number of those seem to be forming into a community of learners that are planning new work and sharing important parts of their lives with each other. We are creating together. And it can’t be up to me to decide what good means for any of them.
My son, by this point of the conversation, would doubtlessly already be asleep.

In search of a new resilience for learning

Sometimes ideas come from unexpected places.

A recent paper entitled “The rhizome: A problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC” caught my attention. It critiques Rhizomatic learning and the rhizo MOOC #rhizo14 in particular. It wasn’t easy to read, but one point about vulnerability stuck out for me, and resonated as something that needs thinking through in all learning contexts.

“I think we do need to notice that a new sort of resilience needs to be nurtured.”

It stuck with me. I’ve kind of taken it as an injunction. I wish I knew who had said it, because I have a pile of thanks to offer that person. We DO need to notice it. I’ve written two posts earlier this year dealing with the idea of resilience as it relates to two different educational contexts – students moving from one educational context to another and my own attempts to learn new things. I will sidestep (for now) the question of whether the resilience required is ‘new’ or not, but I’ve been playing with a model of what that internal narrative of resilience could look like for someone learning on the web. I was going to say ‘open web’ but the near ubiquity of spaces like Facebook, which are distinctly not open, require their inclusion as the vast majority of people who will be learning online will at some point end up in one of these corporate learning spaces.

What I’ve been working with so far
In 2010 George Siemens, Bonnie Stewart, Sandy MacAuley and I did a SSHRC funded research grant on the (at that time) new concepts emerging around MOOCs. One of the central questions we had asked ourselves was about the patterns that we could find that lead to success in a MOOC.

Six years later I’m still broadly comfortable with this as the external process by which someone starts to learn and succeed online. Whether someone goes ahead and makes it all the way to focus/outcomes part of this process is up to them and the process need not really be this linear. Overall, though, I’m still happy with it. We need to Orient ourselves, get a sense of what is going on, what the general rules of engagement are. We need to Declare who we are, need to have a place for our identity to stand. We need to Network with others. We need to find people who we can work with and Cluster with them. Then we can, if we wish, Focus on some sort of outcome, though i feel less strongly about this as a necessity.

What this doesn’t account for
But that’s all external. That’s what it looks like while/after it’s being done. How do we, as Kate so elegantly puts it – “support students to propose their own narrative of purpose”?

As our injunction dictates, we need to account for the resilience required to confront the learning process without the safe structures and comforting space of a ‘learning objective’ or a teacher telling you you’ve done it right. We need to acknowledge that learning in a network/community/wild space means that sometimes there will be uncontrollable interactions. You will be confronted by what a colleague today referred to as ‘aggressive academic hectoring’. There is privilege always. How do we maintain the advantages of rhizomatic space and still give people the tools to be resilient?

A new model
In my last post, I presented a model for how we can talk about resilience for a student in terms of how they might fit in a university. The model is meant to be both an emotional guidepost for students new and old and a reminder to those of us supporting them of what our goals are.

It’s occurred to me that the same thinking process might be useful here. If we translate some of the language closer to what we’ve been exploring with regards to learning in a world of abundance, we might get something like this. The idea of ‘purpose’ matches up for me with ‘learning subjectives‘ which we were exploring last year – Designing for when you don’t know where you’re going. The sense of place feels very comfortable as community. The third one is interesting… every student examplar we’ve found for resilience and much of the research suggests that ‘a person of somekind’ (as opposed to lots of people) is super-important.

I’m still just mulling this over, so I’m not going to go to far with this. The learning subjective is the thought, idea, need… the thing that got you started into this and your constantly reassessed perspective on it. It’s different from an outcome/objective in that you don’t know where it’s going. More importantly, no hierarchically approved agent has decided that it is the the ‘thing you need to know’. The community is the place where thinking resides. There are healthy communities and unhealthy communities. It’s not a perfect situation… it’s the discourse on the thing that you are interested in. The big difference now is that this discourse can be had with living people instead of the thoughts of living/dead people printed on dead paper. The narrowed perspective and finalized thoughts of the text are replaced with the uncertainty of the community space. The key nodes are thoughts/people/things that you start to see as guideposts along the road. They are ideas/people that you can turn to for direction, for help, to find out where help is.

Process of resilience
In accord with the Viv Rolfe quote in the last post, we want to think of resilience as a process rather than some innate quality that people have. This model then, is a suggested process that might help folks who are trying to engage in learning when there are an indefinite number of options/connections/approaches/solutions to the things they are interested in. When that thing they are involved in is simple (like a location on a map) or complicated (like a recipe) this is not such a big issue. If they are engaged in learning something complex this sense of resilience becomes more important.

Moving forward with a model
Is it useful to have a model like this? What questions should be in the circles? How can we introduce people to the process of re-examining their own subjectives, the community of learning (the curriculum) they are approaching and the key people and concepts in it? Resilience in the sense of enduring adversity successfully only works when we know what ‘success’ looks like. In a world of abundance, the learner needs to constantly evaluate what they want, what knowing looks like (the community) and reassess their touch points.

Resilience and transitioning students to university

This year I want to focus on resilience.

In my day job, I’ve been working with or around transitions to university for 8 or 9 years now. At UPEI, we’ve developed and tried out a number of projects in that time, including program specific transitions courses, a couple of MOOCs (The 2013 Facebook edition is still live) – lots of good work done that we’re proud of. This is my second full year responsible for New Student Orientation and through conversations with students, teachers, faculty, counsellors, lots of staff – even PEI’s Minister of Education – we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that resilience is the approach we want to take to supporting transitions this year. How can we help students continue to feel like they belong when they face adversity? How do we support and model resilience from day 1?

What resilience isn’t
I am not talking about the kind of resilience that is touted by arch-conservatives as the way people used to be ‘in their day’. I am not suggesting that students have gotten soft, that they need to harden, or that somehow we, as an institution, are responsible for being the crucible through which we mint ourselves some toughened students. That’s hazing and it’s gatekeeping.

I am also not talking about the kind of resilience warned of by Viv Rolfe in which she worries that we encourage resilience instead of making our spaces better places to thrive.

What we mean by resilience
Rolfe suggests “A better way of thinking should be to consider resilience as a process and not a personality trait.” It is this process that we are seeking to model and embody in our orientation this year. The current state of our conversation is that resilience for us involves working on goal setting (both micro and macro), creating a sense of place for students to belong, and having point people available to help students find the help they need.

One the one hand, students need to be able to understand their role, work towards understanding their own goals, finding places and people to work with and learn from. We, as an institution, need to be a place where they can work towards their goals, where a sense of place is available to them and where we encourage others – students, staff and faculty – to be the point person for people to learn from and through which they can find help…even when paths to help are complex or not directly visible.

Student Needs

So this is our first draft at what that looks like as an initial model for what we’re hoping new UPEI students – and the rest of us, maybe – will learn at NSO.

Responsibility as a campus
I think of the goal setting part of this, the ‘purpose,’ as tricky business for a campus. My sense of the strength of higher education is in the diversity of ways students encounter goal setting… and the multiplicity of ways in which success can be viewed. I’d like to encourage people to talk about this to students and to work with them, but would certainly not want to be prescriptive.

As someone who’s been thinking about community in education… obviously a sense of place is something that is important to me. We have the infrastructure in place to provide that sense of place, both on and off campus, but we need to come up with ways to offer people ways of belonging from day 1. We’re working on this. Not everybody wants to belong in the same ways, so again, this can’t be prescriptive and needs to remain in Snowden’s complex domain.

For the ‘point person’ idea to work, we need to be transparent about who can help whom and for what. If we see our student volunteers as the primary point person for new students, we need to be very clear with our them about how they can help students get help. The idea is to scaffold new students into the systems and networks of the institution, not just pass them along the channels of the institutional hierarchy. This will require point people – and the point people’s point people all along the line – to act as identities with connections and individual knowledge, not just within the bounds of their roles. Work to do here… but we have some plans in place.

Responsibility of our student volunteers
I can’t really say enough about the volunteers we have in place for orientation. At last count we have 102 volunteers who have committed their time to helping make the transition to UPEI a valuable experience for everyone. The trick here, I think, is for these students to become comfortable with using the model themselves. They need to understand it, understand their own strengths and weaknesses with it, and refer to it during the whole planning process.

We also need to be clear about what we mean by encouraging them to be ‘point people’. A point person is someone who is just ahead of you, someone who can point you in the right direction if you need help or guidance. That person can share their own experience… but are NOT a professional who should be offering advice in critical points of struggle. We’re going to need to work towards that.

The responsibility of the new student
Obviously a pile of responsibility lies with the student as well. They need to struggle towards understanding their goals. They need to work to belong to spaces that are valuable to them. They need to find key point people and use them effectively. BUT… and this is a big but, they can’t be expected to know that before they come. I do not believe that students are under any cultural imperative to understand what they need to do before they come. It’s our job to work with them to help them get there.

We’re hoping that we can grow this model into something that can help us grow towards a campus that supports resilient students. Would love your feedback on our first draft.

A look at the UPEI Academic Plan

A little over a year ago, I was asked to leave the work I was doing with the Recruitment and First Year advisement team (partially rolling out a CRM) and go help with student engagement/retention and getting our university’s first academic plan written. A committee of 22 administrators, faculty, staff and students was assembled to craft the next four years of the academic – and to some degree research – direction of UPEI. We spent a year working on it, starting first with our campus Strategic Plan and then through various feedback approaches. We crafted the 28 page Academic Plan that was endorsed by the Board of Governors after having been approved by our Senate. The content of the plan came out of the vision of our Strat Plan and the needs and ideas of campus, but my role was to direct structure and build consensus. I had to develop an iterative vision and process around core questions: What does a good Academic Plan look like? What should it do? What does ours need to do?

What is an Academic Plan anyway?
The term means lots of different things to different people. For some, it is a Strat plan for an entire campus. For some, it is the direction that they will take with regards to programming. For UPEI, the Academic Plan is:

  1. Our method of enacting the UPEI Strategic Plan on the academic/research end of the house.
  2. An attempt to give us some of the tools that we need to be more effective in getting good ideas up and running
  3. A way to respond to academic/research related possibilities/challenges on campus

Data Gathering/Research method
We did web based surveys, world cafe style sessions, and had an open door policy for people who wanted to come in and share ideas/concerns. We used a provisional coding strategy with an initial set of codes from the UPEI Strat plan. We then went through individual and program based feedback and adjusted the code as we went along. Those codes eventually morphed into the 35 initiatives that appear in the final draft of the Academic Plan. We very much took an iterative approach, returning to the committee with the results, the adaptation in the code, and the ways in which those codes translated to initiatives. Lots of good discussion.

What is an initiative?
I spent a fair amount of time wringing my hands over this one. We wanted each initiative to have a goal and objectives, to be assigned to people… to be clear. We also wanted to create a scenario where our subject matter experts would have the latitude to innovate in the ways in which they responded to the challenges. If we waited for that innovation to happen before we wrote the document, we’d be finishing the projects before they’d even been approved. We decided on a middle ground that reflected the codes and responses from campus as best we could, but still allowed the groups that would be running those initiatives the chance to do new and interesting things without being committed to our initial thoughts on the matter. Here’s a nice clean example – Initiative 29 – Student Employment on Campus

Goal: Use our employment of students as a training ground for job search skills
Description: Each year, over 500 students work on the UPEI campus supporting the mission of the University. This provides an ideal opportunity to create supports to help shape their future career skills. This project will provide supports to student applicants before, during, and after their work time here at UPEI.
Responsibility: Office of Skills Development and Learning
Success measures: Baseline of student applicants and successful applicants; new communications procedures and follow-up (including mentorship); number of students supported by providing job hunting, résumé building, and interview skills

Project management on an initiative
Having the initiatives detailed in a document is one thing, figuring out how we’re going to go about getting them done is something else. We have a campus full of smart people who are already working on projects. The challenge for us from a project management perspective was to find an approach that would allow 35 initiatives to all get planned out and completed but still allow people to have a window into the process.

initiative charter
The first step for an initiative is to create a charter. A charter basically sets the high level milestones, sets broad timelines for those milestones, assigns the tasks to specific individuals, has a discussion of scope (in and out), and has a common sense section where we can talk about what success looks like. Think of it as an internal contract with ourselves, where we promise what we’re going to do and commit to actually getting it done. The initiative charters are shared google docs that have a rich history of discussion attached to them. These charters will go to Senate for approval and then will get posted on the academic planning website. We have 7 charters going to Senate this month. Fingers crossed.

project plan
This document gets down to the details. I’ve created a streamlined project management approach that has a google sheet for each project stitched together to a central dashboard giving us a sense of the health of all the the initiatives that we are running. Google lacks some of the fancy features of the pro-style project management software, but everyone can use it, assigning view/comment/edit rights is super easy inside our organization and ‘importrange’ is easy for my caveman mind to use to build a dashboard.

The project plan has what you’d expect. A place for general status of the project. A place to talk about what the challenges might be and what possible resolutions could look like. A breakdown of each milestone into tasks, delivered outcomes, due dates etc… Its one spreadsheet that will get used by all project members and where key details get centralized for efficient obstacle removal. I’m trying to make this an email-less project if possible.

What I hope the Academic Plan will mean
There are a number of individual initiatives and specific outcomes in the plan that I care a great deal about. Higher ed is in a very interesting place right now. Our ability to understand things like networked participatory scholarship, the impact of the new focus on ‘career skills’ and the need for good mentorship doesn’t actually need to conflict with maintaining the things that make a university a university (autonomy, academic freedom, research etc…). We can have both of these things, I think. We just need to find effective ways to work on the things that we care about – to get the job done while still being who we are. If we managed to do anything in this project… that’s what I hope we did.

The Marco Rubio Disaster, rote learning and getting the answer right

The ‘Marco Rubio Disaster‘ is, in my mind, the most amazing 5 minutes of political debate in my lifetime. It exposes, on the surface, the degree of preparation (training/brainwashing) that goes into preparing a candidate for a debate. It also reminds me personally of that feeling that happens to me occasionally in the middle of a talk where I can’t quite pull my thoughts together. I mean… Rubio just totally brain locked. A monumental momentary breakdown. Potentially, spun right, the end of his viability as a political candidate. But that’s all spin. We obviously shouldn’t judge a person on one flaw in one moment. The real interest for me is how it exposes a political teams desire to present us with certainty… and also where that can go wrong.

What happened
On February 6 2016, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie were debating Rubio’s lack of executive experience. In the middle of critiquing Christie’s record as Governor, Rubio entered into 30 second monologue about how Obama was trying to ‘change’ the country. Christie called Rubio on the prepared speech. And then rubio responded by repeating the speech, again. In almost the exact same words. Christie called him on it. Then Rubio did it AGAIN. His brain totally skipped on him. He tried to attack Christie to regain power in the discussion, but Christie had done too good a job of exposing the repetition. The crowd turned against Rubio.

talking point to truth
For years now, we’ve taken it for granted that our politicians, senior corporate executives and that guy in your home town who bosses people around are going to repeat things over and over again until we believe them. We have taken it for granted that they are in a position to ‘make truth’ by being louder, by being more persistent and being more authoritative than the next guy.

My father often talks about a guy in our home town who was the Oracle of the Possible (my expression, not dad’s). If he said you could fish a certain way, or build your house in a certain place, it was possible. If he disagreed, people figured it wasn’t possible. He was persistent. People laughed at people who disagreed with him.

In a corporation we call them brand statements. They are expressions and feelings that people want us to associate with a particular company. In many corporations employees are trained to mimic these behaviours and expressions in order to deliver on the ‘brand promise’. Some of these things are great… a brand that commits to ‘things not breaking’ and finds a way to deliver on this promise is probably contributing to a positive process. Sadly many of these promises are of the ‘we’re fun’ or ‘we’re edgy’ variety that try to get people to attach their personal aspirations to the clothes they wear. I signal I’m edgy by wearing X brand. I’ll grant you that it is a form of communication… and we certainly need ways to communicate with new people, but it’d be nice if we didn’t have the baggage that goes with it.

I remember about 10 years ago a politician in British Columbia was talking about a law that held political candidates accountable for the promises they made. The discussion was mostly met with confusion. On the one hand there are obvious problems with locking people down to one perspective on an issue when we could learn something and realize we have to change our minds. On the other hand, it would further contribute to people talking and not actually saying anything. We live in a political climate where politicians are criticized for being ‘too intellectual’. Too smart to be president… i mean… what does that even mean?

Rubio’s brain fart is a fascinating combination of the hometown despot, the brand manager and the politician. His message in that little 30 second snapshot (which we heard 3 times…) is that these other guys, they want to change things, and that’s bad by definition. The things I want to change are not ‘change’ they are things that need to be fixed. He needs to manage his brand in this way, because his perceived weakness (as pundit-ed) is a lack of executive experience. The brand response is to control truth making, as it always is. As a political brand statement, he is looking to return to the greatness of the past, the classic simulacra of American the beautiful, of the perfectland before the evil Obama.

In each of the three cases, it was a correct brand response. The problem, of course, is that they were in the same conversation 2 minutes apart. What Rubio did happens all the time – it happens with the guy down the street, it happens with corporate brands and it happens with politicians. The big question is –

Why do we care that a politician is repeating his talking points as non-sequitur when s/he does it in a row and not when s/he does it 100 times over an election period.

The art of repetition and rote
The first answer, I think, is that we’re trained to it. We actively train our society to respond to ‘the truth’ being made as an authoritative claim by people in positions of authority. Our entire school system is a training ground for this. The teacher is correct. They have prepared what you ‘need to know’. You are going to be tested on whether you have ‘remembered’ what you ‘need to know’. The question of whether you need to know it (How am I ever going to use this in real life?) and whether it’s actually true are not part of the system – though certainly there are some teachers that include it on their own.

Politicians have always recognized that they can do this. Look no further than the record of speeches from the Roman Republic to recognize that we didn’t make this up as an extension of corporate branding. The problem, i think, is that our corporations recognized this about a 100 years ago, and the training that was put into our education system to encourage people to listen to politicians and listen to their bosses in the factories are now also part of the consumerism of our culture. We are told, enough times, that a given thing reflects our personal aspirations and so we decide we need it. Repetition for truth.

Stop getting the answer right
I believe that our education system is a society building machine. I believe that the way we build it, the practices we foster, the underlying concepts in it make citizens a certain way. I totally understand that people want our schools to be accountable, but the choices we have made for accountability have created a society where people believe that repetition is true. We believe that there are correct answers to all questions. That’s how tests work isn’t it? Don’t we represent power in our classrooms through teachers who present and test for correct answers?

It is MUCH easier to check and see if a teacher is doing their work if ‘doing their work’ is the same as getting students to deliver the right answer. We’ve always recognized this. We turn to ‘project based learning’ to give people a chance to do explore, to deal with uncertainty, to make their own answers. Super inconvenient though, PBL. I mean, the students have 6 hours to get something done so… it’s much easier to provide some structure so that they can get there in that time. Teachers change, people start to realize that that structure is way easier to measure than the random things that students think… and then we start to measure the structure.

I’ve come to realize that rhizomatic learning (and many other, similar projects – see connectivism, heutagogy etc…) is about creating a different kind of citizen in our little society building machine. I’m hoping to encourage citizens who can, among other things, see what Rubio is doing not just when he so majestically did it in a five minute span, but when he repeats for truth over the course of a campaign. I would love to be part of encouraging citizens who get MORE suspicious as things are repeated rather than less. To destabilize the brand message so that it was less effective. To make it so that we did not look for TRUTH but rather negotiated truths that included more people.

I think certainty in schools is a key battleground. We need to stop getting the answer right.

Science education, resilience, the workforce, Arduino and rhizomatic learning

This is a ‘first-thoughts’ post. I’d love to hear from others on this.

It’s been a very humbling month of learning at Casa Villa here in Charlottetown. I have been teaching myself the difference between a resistor and a capacitor, the value of a good voltmeter and the wonders of enticing little sensors for the arduino platform. Every day the list of things i don’t know gets longer.

I have a number of reasons for having started down the arduino path. I’m both interested and a little worried about the internet of things. I’m fascinated by the possibilities of building fit for purpose items. I think it’s profoundly important that my children understand these things. I think my little girl needs to see a future in math/engineering as just as relevant as her future as a princess. Lots of reasons. The big driver for me, though, is that I’m interested in the confluence of science and self-directed learning in general, and rhizomatic learning in particular.

That’s not how we do it in Science
I am often told that students simply have to memorize things in order to start learning. One of the more lucid discussions (read this as: a discussion where dave didn’t end up jumping up and down) that i have taken part in on the subject surrounded the idea that in the humanities, being about humans, all humans have something built in to say on the matter. We bring our humanity to the subject. In the sciences, for many, the subject is almost entirely new. As this is the case, students simply have to cram their brains full of definitions and concepts in order to understand anything. Take the first step. Master the words. Master the concepts. Then you can science things.

I’m sorry. I have a hard time accepting that taking in words out of context is the best way to learn anything. so…

Why this is bad for resilience
I’m always suspicious of any test that checks for exactly the thing that is asked for. The multiple choice tests that check for the ‘word mastery’ are nasty little beasts. They create a system where students are all rewarded for doing exactly the same thing. I see hundreds of students, little cue cards in their hands, desperately trying to memorize the things they were told to memorize. While I will certainly agree that it helps work on their obedience, and, potentially, their willingness to repeatedly do a disconnected task (excellent factory skills) it does not support the ‘adapt to stress’ resiliency that is so critical to our society.

In order to adapt we need to be challenged by the unknown, we need to be confronted by uncertainty. We need to learn how to find an answer (not the answer) to our problem and react accordingly. Try solutions, improve, create…

What this looks like in the workforce
Ok. Lets face it. We can either hide from the workforce discussion as it relates to schools or we can face it head on. I FIRMLY believe that resiliency is one of the, if not THE, most important workforce skill there is. It is not achieved by teaching people to ‘workforce’ or to use a cash register. I have actually heard, several times, employers complain that ‘kids these days’ can’t even use a cash register. The solution to this seems to be to get them train them to actually use a cash register. Um… no. That’s like eating baking soda because you have too much lactic acid in your muscles. The mind, like the body, is a complex system. It’s not a direct pipe.

We need to teach for resilience. To be unflustered by a reluctant cash register. We teach for memory. In a ‘teach for memory’ world people need to be told exactly what to do so that they can perform that task in the future. Does this sound like the world that we are expecting?

Enter the Arduino
So… in an attempt to put my money (and my poor brain) where my mouth is I’ve started a new project. I want to design a rhizomatic learning inspired approach to learning Arduino. I can’t think of anything more ‘step by step’ mastery-like to approach. There’s tons of insider language (today i ran into Pulse Width Modulation) much of it describing critical phenomenons that will either burn up my chip or simply make it so that it wont work. Here are some project links i’ve been collecting… I’m sure i’m supposed to memorize Ohms law before I use it.

I think the Arduino and the projects that can now be done with them are perfect development spaces for resilience if we take this approach. If we make them a struggle… with a possibility for success. If we can make them a place for experimentation and exploration, not memorization and repetition.

First steps
Rhizomatic learning is a complex approach to the learning process. As such, I always try to reduce any other complexity when i’m trying to design something. In the process of accumulating scads of little tiny wired things, I’ve come across what I believe will be the first step in the learning process – failing/succeeding with the ATTINY85. It’s a tiny little chip that takes next to no power, and can only do one or two things at a time. Here’s an excellent article of some of the possibilities.

So. I have a software platform (ArduinoIDE) and I have a chip (attiny85) and I have a couple of leads (it seems that the tiny85 will run a transmitter)… now i need to figure out a way to allow learners to play with those, to use them to discover the depth meaning in electronics in a way that allows them to make their own meaning from it. If I get near to what I’m looking for, they should leave the ‘course’ not only seeing how a chip connects to a capacitor, but seeing the world around as one of limitless connective possibilities…

So far… so fun.

Afterthought: I recognize that the maker movement has been on about this for a long time. 🙂

Arduino with Kids – Getting started: notes from week 1

I got my two kids (7 & 9) an arduino starter kit for Christmas. I have this crazy idea that among the literacies my kids will need is some understanding of how our world is built up of little sensors tellings us everything. I have this hope that they’ll want to be part of it and try and build crazy little things around the house with these sensors. We’ve been playing for 4-5 days now and if we keep things up I’m sure I’m going to forget all the frustrations/victories that happened when we first started off. If you’re interested in getting started… this is what we’ve learned so far.

What you need to know before getting started
The code
I have a basic understanding of coding. I broadly understand basic coding concepts and am fairly proficient when it comes to understanding how this blog works for instance. So, before you begin

You should understand what code IS

As I understand it, Arduino uses a simplified version of C++. I can tell you that when i look at it, I can workout the majority of what is going on from the context clues and the notes that other nice people have entered into the code. If you’ve never looked at code in your life, you might want to find a friend to help you.

The software
‘arduino’ is also a piece of software that you need to download and put on your computer. It’s where you put your code (they often call it a ‘sketch’)and then upload it to your Arduino through a USB cable. There are tons and tons of sketches available online that you can use and the arduino software comes with a pile of examples. The examples by themselves are not really enough to get started as they don’t contain the things you need to do on the hardware to make things happen.

blink sketch in arduino

This is probably the simplest sketch you can do. It sends power to pin 13. Then it turns pin 13 on and off at 3 second intervals. You can go to your Arduino and put a LED bulb in pin 13 and the ground that is right next to it. Long leg of the LED is the ‘+’ and it goes in pin 13. Short leg of the LED is the ‘-‘ and goes in the ground. (I didn’t know what these things meant before i started)

Trust me, it's blinking

  1. Connect Uno via USB cable to your computer
  2. Go to Tools -> Board -> choose your board (mine is an Uno)
  3. Go to Tools -> Port -> Choose your board (mine was there with ‘Arduino uno’)
  4. Go to File -> Examples -> Blink
  5. Click the ‘upload’ button on the arduino software
  6. Shove the long leg of the LED in pin 13 and the short leg in the ground (GND) slot
  7. Watch the incredible blinking

If these instructions make sense to you… you can probably work on an arduino.

This is diagram software that shows you how things attach in the arduino. It’s a donate for download. I’m still working through it. I figure it will continue to become more important as I understand more things.

The hardware
This is the stuff you have to buy. There are a million different combinations of this on the internet, so I’m going to list some of some of the things that you’ll need and I’ll include my fledgling understanding of what they are for.

The board
There are tons of different ones, but I chose the Arduino Uno. Uno is more of a standard than it is a brand. My particular arduino was made by Sunfounder. I really don’t know if it’s a ‘good one’ or not. It’s done everything its supposed to so far. The board is the home base. That picture up above is my Uno. I kinda like it 🙂

There are tons and tons of sensors that you can buy. They can sense light, sound weather things… pretty much anything you can imagine. They cost somewhere between $1 and $50 depending on what you’re buying and where.

Sound Sensor – We used this to build this project that makes the lights turn on and off when it hears music. Here’s the demo from my kids.

My kit had a bunch of others (humidity, light, RFID, etc) I’m happy with having just bought a pile in my introductory set and buying new ones as i need them. $2 free shipping on ebay.

Displays and motors
I got my little LCD display to work using a bit of code I found out there. The trick is to find the model number of the piece you have and search for arduino sketches that match it. It takes some time, but i find that everytime i do it, i learn a bit more about the overall package.

Wires and bits of things
The Arduino approach is solderless. The wires all plug into the board and attach to the sensors. I bought a ‘breadboard’ which is basically a little connector that allows you to work out all the circuits. You need a breadboard. You need a pile of wires.
You also need resistors. I’m not 100% sure what these do yet, other than that they control the way electricity goes in and out of things. I’m still researching this bit. Just attach them like they show you in the designs.
You’ll probably want a passive buzzer, some buttons and LEDs.

Other things you might need
I’m using an old fishing tackle box to keep all my stuff in. Works great.
Get a good digital multimeter (i bought this one). It will help tell you things about voltage, amperage and Ohms that I currently don’t understand but have it under good authority are super important. They will at least help you tell your resistors apart – which is some crazy arcane bit of business.

Overall… get some hardware and get what else you might need later. Don’t sweat it. Just get started.

We have three projects that we’ve been talking about getting to once we understand enough things. We’re currently just connecting wires to sensors and trying to make them work. I’m hoping to get the these three projects done some time in 2016

The robot car

I’m mean… seriously. Am i right? I have this kit on order… and am hoping i have the other things I need. Not really sure yet 🙂

Weather station/tweeting plant
Oscar, for whatever reason, has decided that the other two projects he’s interested in is making a weather station and a plant that tweets when it wants to be watered. Not sure how these are going to get built yet. One project at a time.

Should I do arduino?
I’m happy I started. I can see my kids getting their minds around it. I think they’ll find whatever knowing we achieve to be useful… If you have about $100 and are willing to figure some things out, I think most people who use the internet should be able to make a light blink on an arduino 🙂

Let me know if you give it a try.