Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

A Waterloo for Publishing or for the University?

June 25, 2010

Cathy Davidson raised a series of issues in her reaction to a lawsuit known as Cambridge University Press, et al. v. Patton et al.

“My larger point?  We are in a confusing and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t moment for publishing.  Scholarly publishing loses money.  Scholars who do not publish (at present) lose careers.  How do we balance these complex and intertwined issues in a sane way?  That is our question.”

Jim Groom has some thoughts on one aspect of this question — the issue of credit, or reputation, generated by journal publication:

“And, often times, but not always, that class [of author] is accompanied by three letters after their name and a long list of publications in similar journals which often, but not always, gives them entrè into the journal in the first place. Is this necessarily bad? No. Does it help certain ideas circulate to a particular audience? Yes. Are we putting too much power in the hands of these journals by reacting this way to the idea of credit? Absolutely.”

And as a result of highly valuing publishing in journals, we have created a system that is producing an avalanche of low-quality research.

Cathy’s question makes me think of the work of physicist A. Garrett Lisi, who is working outside the traditional academe system and who’s practice gave me insight to understand other ways of thinking about credit/reputation and also about gathering feedback for learning from a community:

“Lisi is developing social and intellectual capital by his strategy of working in public, and has posted a “pre-print” of some of his work in the highly visible High Energy Physics – Theory section of arXiv entitled ‘An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.’

“The Wikipedia entry on Lisi’s paper gives a picture of how the work has generated social capital and become a focus of theoretical debate. The paper has been accumulating peer reviews (in the form of blog posts) and a number of citations including in refereed Physics journals as well as comments on the social news website”

So, I think Cathy is pointing us to a multi-faced conversation about moving beyond the University (see John Seely Brown or Charles Ledbetter or Clay Shirkey) each of whom is exploring forces that I think will probably address Cathy’s “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t moment” by rendering traditional publishers in academe irrelevant.

In her post Cathy says

“Shouldn’t we be teaching the genre [scholarly monograph] to our undergraduates (because we believe it is intrinsically worthy enough to determine someone’s career in the academy) as an estimable form? … [If we] require at least one scholarly monograph in every English class, … we show respect to the genre we say that we live by and we give back something to the publishers who, right now, are expected to publish our work but who experience abysmal sales of it.”

Here, I think Cathy’s comment brings academic publishing into the national conversation about university accountability to stakeholders (the students and those investing in them). Molly Corbett Broad wrote in the Chronicle about the political landscape for accreditation and accountability “The administration has already indicated a willingness to take action when it believes that higher-education institutions are not adequately serving students’ interests.” (alas it is “premium content” that you may not be able to access) I think Corbett and Shirkey are talking about forces that may render more than just traditional academic publishing irrelevant.

It strikes me that the scholarly monograph, as a discipline for the mind, could be useful, but it might not be a form “worth studying in every English class.” It might be more useful for students to be developing skills in peer-to-peer pedagogies, based in forms like blogs and wikis, that operate in a context of information abundance rather than to be studying a form based on information scarcity and expensive publication; a form that will not be used by most students in their future careers.

Why do I focus on credit/reputation and legitimate peripheral participation rather than the academic monograph in a conversation about accountability for learning outcomes? Because, I think discovering conversations, contributing and getting feedback are important aspects of peer-to-peer learning beyond the university. Good feedback is a tool for growth, both for the author and for the community of lurkers (see John Seely Brown on legitimate peripheral participation.)

As to Cambridge University Press, et al. v. Patton et al., I think it will be a passing blip, swept away by much larger forces transforming learning.

PS. And thinking about feedback and peer-to-peer learning is why I’m posting this in my blog  (  )  and then cross-posting it as a comment in Cathy’s blog at HASTAC. HASTAC’s blogs do not appear to support Trackback, so  I can’t comment to Cathy in my blog, and consequently I need to post a comment in hers. Which means I need to create a HASTAC identity (see these objections to creating accounts everywhere). Further, a HASTAC comment does not track back to the people I cite – making it even harder for them to discover and join the conversation.

I’m in the clouds

April 14, 2010

Moving from a laptop to the iPad is moving me into the cloud. The iPad is not a local storage device, so I don’t create documents there. I create them here, on the web, which means I’m naturally more focused on creating for the web.

This realization, and a conversation today about how to organize our office study group (aka Design Circle) has me re-reading my previous post (a manifesto) for changing our unit’s web strategy.

Our study group met today to look at Gary’s summary of the three broad strands of the curriculum we invented for ourselves two weeks ago. Gary suggested that we each might study within the three strands differently, or with different emphasis.  In addition to the topical strands, we discussed a “course question” We didn’t nail down one question today. Perhaps with more time we can, or perhaps we should not, preferring instead to have personal questions that overlap, much as our roles and interests are personal but overlapping. And with our course questions in hand, what products do we anticipate creating as evidence of our learning accomplishments? Again, these are likely to be individual or small team. For example, Gary and I need to create a presentation for a conference April 28. And how will we assess our evidence of learning?

Thinking about our study group, and the different member’s differing needs/desires/strategies for storing and sharing documents, I concluded that we are (or need to be) embarking on creating our Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) rather than a singular unit resource.

But that makes a new problem, if we are a group of individuals, how do we do something as a collective unit? We probably also need a unit resource where we post to the web our various learning products.

A common store could hold our work products, but what about our reading lists and recommended readings. We already have a group in Diigo for sharing bookmarks. I get a digest from there of what others have bookmarked, but have not gotten systematic at re-Diigo-ing the items that ring my chimes. The result is I’ve read something, but I can’t find it, so I can’t recommend and share it.

But I could re-Diigo (like Re-Tweet) the links I read and value, and that would have an interesting effect, we’d know when several people valued the same item:

A Diigo Bookmark

This is the information about a bookmark in Diigo. Note that 3 people have saved this link.

This way we can find our own stuff, organized the way we want to tag it, but we can also learn of one another and our overlapping reading interests:

Three people bookmarked and tagged this linkWho is George? I might want to follow him, or look at other things he tags as “Teaching Innovation.”

I also am guessing that we could combine the RSS from several Diigo users so that the common items (those with more than one “vote”) come through a filter. This would make a means to vote on the most important readings and a way to “de-clutter” the recommended readings that we are collectively sharing out.

Reimagining both learning & learning institutions

March 21, 2010

Over the course of the 2008-09 school year, colleagues and I at WSU were thinking about institution-based vs community-based learning models. A strong sample of that work is in our AAC&U presentation from April 2009. There are two charts that are important to our thinking, Learning Spectrum and Four Strategies. We think that changing to a community-based model will have an impact on how the university is organized.

This year we got involved with the MacArthur Foundation/HASTAC Digital Media and Learning Competition as a result of looking for colleagues interested in ideas that could transform the university (and the Land Grant mission) in line with the thinking above (see our DML entry).

Yesterday I ran into two related ideas that bring me back to thinking about these topics.

Chris Hughes (co-founder of Facebook) is launching Jumo, The site says:

“There are no magic solutions to the challenges our world faces. But there are millions of people around the globe who work each day to improve the lives of others. Unfortunately, there are millions more who don’t know how to meaningfully help [emphasis mine].

Jumo brings together everyday individuals and organizations to speed the pace of global change.”

Perhaps thinking along parallel lines, Jane McGonigal’s TED talk: “Gaming can make a better world explored the idea that some of the traits gamers exhibit, including collaboration and a passion for the quest, could be tapped to work on some of the world’s problems. She ended by pointing to a game called Evoke that is trying to explore that hypothesis.

Evoke encourages players to develop these skills: collaboration, courage, creativity, entrepreneurship, local insight, knowledge share, resourcefulness, sustainability and vision. Its a list that has more in common with ideas of Daniel Pink or the 21st century media literacies of Howard Rheingold than 20th century efforts like WSU’s Critical Thinking Rubric (not to fault it, but it comes from a Learning 1.0 context). I recognize Evoke’s list of skills in our thinking above about a transformed university.

Those ideas are even more interesting in light of Tom Vander Ark‘s comments in November 2009 on How Social Networking Will Transform Learning:

I’m betting on social learning platforms as a lever for improvement at scale in education. Instead of a classroom as the primary organizing principle, social networks will become the primary building block of learning communities (both formal and informal). Smart recommendation engines will queue personalized content. Tutoring, training, and collaboration tools will be applications that run on social networks. New schools will be formed around these capabilities. Teachers in existing schools will adopt free tools yielding viral, bureaucracy-cutting productivity improvement.”

Vander Ark was Executive Director at the Gates Foundation and now he’s a partner in a private equity fund focused on innovative learning tools and formats. At the Gates Foundation he undoubtedly had a role in funding Gates’ bets on improving education, including strategies he lists based on people, schools, policy and community. Now he says he’s betting on a different strategy,  one that seems to align with the projects and ideas outlined above.

For awhile I’ve been stuck thinking about how these community-based learning could advance without leadership, or at least cooperation, from the university. I thought the university was a key player because it holds the ability to credential higher learning. And that credentialing power seemed to lock it into a dominant place in the marketplace.

Recently, I came across an argument that some learners may not care about  earning university credentials. The example was a person who owns a business and wants some business training (accounting, management, etc). For this person, the knowledge may be valuable, but the credential inconsequential.

That opened me up to see other alternatives to credentialing. The Evoke game promises to identify top players, based on the skills they demonstrate. For this week Evoke says: “Your LEARN mission this week is to figure out: Who else is inventing creative, sustainable ways to power our everyday lives? Find someone working on a creative electricity project, or a sustainable energy project — and tell the network about their big idea.”

This is all building toward the 10th week when participants will submit an “Evocation” (think of this as a thesis proposal): “Based on the Evokation you submit, and your overall participation in the Evoke network missions, quests, and discussions, we will choose a number of you to continue the journey with us and change the world in unimaginable ways. Selection includes winning a $1000 investment in the project among other “credentialling.”

Evoke’s funding comes from the World Bank. Another funding model might be micro-lending. Kushal Chakrabarti, CEO, Vittana recently posted about Vittana’s new venture into micro-lending for student education loans.

Could these ideas be combined? Could they offer a different path to education for some learners, bypassing the university’s credentialing?

All images thanks to Jayme Jacobson

Who is preparing us for the Grand Challenges

March 16, 2010

This post is in response to a post by Cathy Davidson on HASTAC 2010:  Grand Challenges and Global Innovations coming up April 15-17.  She says ‘David and I are thinking ahead to our address on “The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.”   We will have a bicoastal conversation, and then a live chat, still in the planning stages.   So we’d love you to send us questions that might form the basis of that conversation on any aspect of our educational futures.’

This is a long preamble that ends in a question for Cathy and David in the last paragraph:

On March 5, 2010 the US Dept of Education released the National Educational Technology Plan 2010 (NETP) which says on page 4:

What and How People Need to Learn

Whether the domain is English Language arts, mathematics, sciences, social studies, history, art, or music, 21st century competencies and expertise such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration, and multimedia communication (emphasis added) should be woven into all content areas. These competencies are necessary to become expert learners, which we all must be if we are to adapt to our rapidly changing world over the course of our lives…

This NETP plan is titled “Learning Powered by Technology” but this list of learning goals does not depend on technology (except perhaps the multimedia) and none of the list depends (or acknowledges) the growing hyperconnectivity of the Internet or the shift from an information scarcity economy to one of information abundance.

Nearly simultaneously, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) opened to comment its proposal for K-12 standards. The CCSSI standards purport to be getting students ready for college and the workplace.

In the Writing Standards for History/Social Studies and Science grades 11-12, I find, “6.   Demonstrate command of technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update work in response to ongoing feedback, including fresh arguments or new information.”  Which is interesting, especially when taken with this sidebar: “New technologies have broadened and expanded the role that speaking and listening play in acquiring and sharing knowledge and have tightened their link to other forms of communication. The Internet has accelerated the speed at which connections between speaking, listening, reading, and writing can be made, requiring that students be ready to use these modalities nearly simultaneously. (emphasis added) Technology itself is changing quickly, creating a new urgency for students to be adaptable in response to change.”

“Collaboration” is mentioned along with “comprehension,” in terms of social manners (good listening skills) but not in terms of skills in finding collaborators or learning communities on the Internet. “Social” is only mentioned in terms of “social studies,” and “community” does not appear in the document.

While its not surprising that CCSSI does not endorse learning using the Internet, except as mediated by public schools, it does not seem to recognize the wealth of resources, skills, and social capital that  learners potentially are bringing into the school setting.

Its interesting to contrast the NETP list, or the CCSSI with Howard Rhiengold’s 21’st century media literacy skills, or John Seely Brown’s thoughts on Learning 2.0 and communities of practice, or Cathy Davidson’s ideas of ‘collaboration by difference.’ Recently, David Gelernter, in Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously said:

“Modern search engines combine the functions of libraries and business directories on a global scale, in a flash: a lightning bolt of brilliant engineering. These search engines are indispensable — just like word processors. But they solve an easy problem. It has always been harder to find the right person than the right fact. Human experience and expertise are the most valuable resources on the Internet — if we could find them. Using a search engine to find (or be found by) the right person is a harder, more subtle problem than ordinary Internet search


“The traditional web site is static, but the Internet specializes in flowing, changing information. The ‘velocity of information’ is important — not just the facts but their rate and direction of flow. Today’s typical website is like a stained glass window, many small panels leaded together. There is no good way to change stained glass, and no one expects it to change. So it’s not surprising that the Internet is now being overtaken by a different kind of cyberstructure.


“The structure called a cyberstream or lifestream is better suited to the Internet than a conventional website because it shows information-in-motion, a rushing flow of fresh information instead of a stagnant pool.”

Under “search” CCSSI says: “[Students will be able to] tailor their searches online to acquire useful information efficiently, and they integrate what they learn
using technology with what they learn offline,” which is a far cry from Gelernter’s  “the Internet specializes in flowing, changing information. The ‘velocity of information’ is important — not just the facts but their rate and direction of flow.”

Contemporaneous with the publication of NETP 2010 and the CCSSI, posted responses to its Question 2010: “How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?”

David Dalrymple, MIT, says:

“Filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill for those who use the Internet.

“I see today’s Internet as having three primary, broad consequences: 1) information is no longer stored and retrieved by people, but is managed externally, by the Internet, 2) it is increasingly challenging and important for people to maintain their focus in a world where distractions are available anywhere, and 3) the Internet enables us to talk to and hear from people around the world effortlessly.”

What David does not say, that I think is also important, is 4) the self generation of online systems for managing personal knowledge.  As a blogger, wiki contributor, and social bookmarker. I am building a digital footprint and a personal exosomatic memory!  I sometimes refer to the traces I have left to see what I was personally up to. Rarely, now, but as our productivity and capacity expands, we must be becoming more dependent on this exosomatic system. (I keep saying that, exosomatic because I use my website as a auto or personal blog of notes to myself, my memory displaced from my body.)

There seems to be a large disconnect between the NETP & CCSSI and the latter conversations.

Who will lead the transformation from our current institutions, K-20, to institutions that would support 21st century learning implied by a highly networked, information rich and information producing society facing global problems on an unprecedented scale?

I missed the bus – thoughts on indirect assessment

March 9, 2010

I missed the bus to work today. I knew time was tight as I was going out the door. As I went along, I gained confidence I would make it, because I saw one of the school buses that I usually meet. And some kids waiting for another school bus (I usually see two school buses). And I saw the city buses at the bus transfer point (but I could not see my bus meeting them).

ALAS, none of that indirect evidence measured where my bus was on its route. As I rounded the Kibbie Dome I saw my bus picking up a rider at my stop and heading away.

I’m noting this as part of the conversation I’m part of about direct and indirect evidence of student learning outcomes. This is an example of the failure of relying on indirect evidence.

Learning in a Community of Angels

October 30, 2009
Prepared for presentation to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse
November 1, 2009

I want to start by thanking Jayme Jacobson and Eric Wegner for collaborating with me to create this service.

Today I’m going to share a personal reflection that weaves together two stories in my life. One story is the process to charter and open Palouse Prairie School. The other story is from the work I do at WSU, exploring how technology is impacting learning.

There is a place at the end of the program today for your response, but, in keeping with my WSU explorations, the text of my talk is also posted in my blog where you can comment. I’ll get back to why I blog.

The title today comes from a comment made by one of the Charter School Commissioners after Palouse Prairie’s first visit to the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, in April 2007. The Commission had sent us away to work on our facility and budget plans. This Commissioner took me aside at a break and said, “You need an angel.”

Driving back from Boise, I realized that I had failed to ask him what an angel was, and more importantly, how to get one.

I think I know now what he meant by angel, in the sense of a financial angel or venture capitalist. Someone who would sweep in and solve the school’s financial problems. Such a person may yet exist for Palouse Prairie School, but in 2007 I didn’t know how to find an angel and so I needed to solve the school’s problem another way. What I found is a community of angels.

The opposite of a community of angels is the story of the little red hen. Wikipedia summarizes the story as: Hen wants to make some bread and she asks the animals which of them will help sow the seed. At each stage, sowing, harvesting, threshing, grinding and baking the other animals decline to help Hen. In the end Hen does not share the bread with the farm animals.

The story is used to teach the virtues of the work ethic and personal initiative. As you will see, I don’t think Hen lives in a community as I value it.

The virtue I would teach children is that of a participatory gift economy, a community created of gift giving.

Wikipedia again. “A gift economy … is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists)….[R]ecurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within the community.”

Another aspect of the Hen story, that I’ve only recently considered, is that Hen knows how to solve her problem. Its a well-defined problem that just requires executing a series of steps.

Despite the three inch manual from the Idaho Department of Education, starting a Charter school is not just executing a series of steps.

Solving the School’s problem brings me to the other thread in this story. Solving a problem is the context for learning.

Teachers know this, which is why they set problems for students. Some problems have answers in the back of the book, other problems are more ill-defined and set in larger contexts. For example, we see university students working on class projects in our community: designing, analyzing, planning.

Expeditionary Learning would call these challenging problems an exploration into an unknown territory, where the challenge of traversing the territory becomes the teacher.

What I have come to appreciate is the role of community in giving gifts needed to help solve ill-defined problems. Some of these gifts are monetary, but importantly, many are not. Some are skills. Some are enthusiasm and joining into the collective doing. Some are gifts of teaching and learning.

I am calling the people who give these gifts the “small angels” who continue to help Palouse Prairie School.

My title today is “Learning in a Community of Angels” because my joy comes from discovering a personal understanding of a community willing to contribute to my learning (our learning) along the road to solving a problem. This goes beyond my previous experience with community, the joy that comes from communal effort toward a common task.  I’ve shared that joy with some of you at a barn raising.

Styer Barn Raising (mid-lift)

I now see Community is a learning resource. The angels (and there are many) are the people who make up the community.

They have gifts to share, if you can learn to frame or re-frame your problem in ways that they can contribute.

Rather than finding a big angel to solve the school’s problem, what I am learning is to value the gifts from small angels.

But working with small angels requires setting up contexts in which gifts can be given. It involves working on your problem in public, telling your story, and then listening for the (sometimes unexpected) gifts. The gifts often come as teaching. It may be the introduction to another person and some hidden talent they have, or an introduction to a idea and its application. The key is to be open, and to accept a variety of help — to participate in what Cathy Davidson calls Collaboration by Difference — and let the community find the answer. We (not I) started Palouse Prairie School, and we, a collaborative community, are learning to make it thrive.

I cited Wikipedia above. Wikipedia is an example of the work of many small angels. Jimmy Wales had the idea of getting an encyclopedia into the hands of every person on earth. To do so, he needed one that was very cheap. He needed volunteer experts to write it. Today Wikipedia has 1.74 billion words in 9.25 million articles in about 250 languages; 25 times the size of Britannica and growing. But size, or arguments about quality, are not my point here, rather, Wikipedia cleverly presents an invitation for small angels, with different purposes, knowledge, and goals, to collaborate toward a grand vision (even if they do not know or share the vision). Wikipedia is a Collaboration by Difference.

Above, I said that I have blogged this sermon. I blog because of what I learned from George Hotz, the teenager who hacked the Apple iPhone. Hotz had a problem that required he defeat the corporate goals of Apple and AT&T to use his iPhone on the Sprint network. He blogged daily his steps in the process. Not in a vain-glorious way, but to elicit help from angels around the world. And the angels came, and commented in his blog, and provided money and other resources. Hotz’s strategy to work in public and learn from a community enabled him to solve his chosen problem.

I welcome your comments today (or in my blog) in the same spirit, as gifts toward our shared learning.

The joy I am sharing with you is one of community. Community created by a gift economy.

Able to learn.  Able to take collective action.

In the opening words for today, by John Seely Brown, “We participate, therefore we are.” I want to encourage your giving, your learning, your collaboration, your making of our community.

Months ago, when I proposed the topic of this talk, I had no thought that it would land in the middle of the UUCP pledge process. But I am happy that it does.

I want to encourage you to join me in your willingness to give, monetary and otherwise, that creates this community of shared religious dialog. I want to encourage your giving that creates this community of Moscow.

I am sharing my joy of experiencing and coming to understand that community is built not of our co-location, but of our gifts to one another.

Gifts of sustenance or succor.

Gifts of cooperation.

Gifts of collective action and gifts of learning.

Reverence for Wood

October 5, 2009

A talk delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, Mar 20, 2005.
Title borrowed from Eric Sloane’s great little book

This was first posted on PBJ, WSU’s first blog tool, now retired. I rescued it here as part of preparations for another talk I’m giving at the church.


Good morning.

I’m going to tell you stories from my passion as a timber framer.

My stories are of engagement, of connection, of joining. With ecosystems, with people, with life.

Today you have permission to stare at the floor as I talk. Let me tell you about the ecology I see below your feet. The wood is red, or Douglas, fir.

As firs get taller, and crowd one another, the lower limbs drop off. Eventually, new rings of growth close over the wounds. Pretty soon the rings are uniform. Look around for the wavy grain characteristic of wood near knots. No waves, no knots, means tall straight trees.

Think of a tree stump, showing circles of growth rings. Imagine cutting it like a pie. Your cuts are at right angles to the rings, you see the rings edge on, as in this floor. We call this quarter sawn. Imagine cutting tangent to the rings, you see wide wavy patterns, the side views of the rings, typical of modern boards and especially of plywood.

Each ring is a year. Each ring on this floor is maybe 1/16 inch wide. Since these boards are quarter sawn, one edge was toward the center of the tree, the other toward the bark. 2 1/4 inches equates to 38 years. 38 years with no knots, 38 years after the the limbs had dropped and the wounds had grown over.

Look around and you’ll see some yellow edges in a few boards. This is the sap wood, the youngest wood, closest to the bark. Its not as hard, so the mill culled it. I’ve spotted sap wood in this floor that might be an inch wide — so the sap wood represents 15-20 years of growth after the rings  of these boards were lain down.

Let’s assume it takes a red fir 40 years to grow big enough to be limb free on its lower 20 feet. Another 38 years to lay down 2 1/4” of the boards you see, and 15-20 years in the sap wood outside that. The trees in this floor were at least 100 years old.

Given the age of the church, they were saplings when Lewis and Clark visited. The trees that grew up after these trees were harvested could just be reaching a size where new wood of this quality might be harvested. Of course, the forest is not being managed to produce wood like this anymore.

Your homework is to visit Idler’s Rest. The stand of trees along the creek will give you an impression of the forest where this floor grew. These boards lived in a cathedral.

Wood connects me to ecosystems and to time.

Lodgepole pine is a pioneer species after a forest fire. The lodge pole seeds are released from their cones by the heat of a fire, the trees live about 100 years, and as they die, other species of pine and fir succeed them. When mature, the trees are small — 12-14” on the stump, but very tall.

In the summer of 1994 I got a chance to work in a climax lodge pole woods, outside Elk City, gathering the wood for my first timber frame, which now serves as our woodshed. The structure has hand hewn 8×8 timbers of lodge pole, spruce, and cedar.

Hewing, or squaring up a log into a timber, is done with two axes: a felling ax and a broad ax. The felling ax is the long handled ax you know for chopping down trees. To hew a log, you stand on it, and every 18 inches, use the felling ax to chop a notch to touch what will be the plane of your finished timber. Wear heavy boots, you are chopping between your toes. Then, using a sideways swing, you hit into one notch, splitting off an 18” long chunk, called a juggle. Repeat on the second side. Roll the log and do the remaining two sides. You now have a very roughly square timber.

The broad ax has a short handle and a wide blade, sharpened from one side. You stand beside the timber and swing down along the vertical plane, shaving off the high spots left from juggling. If you are good, you end up with a straight, square timber with only tool marks left by the swing of the broad ax.

The best part of hewing in a climax forest, is resting (which I did frequently) and looking at the diversity of little plants that cover the forest floor. The juggles that you have cut off are good firewood, that both warm you and remind you of time spent in the woods.

The other thing about hewing is it teaches you how skillful work should look, and teaches you to read a timber for the marks left by its maker. Having learned to watch for tool marks, and from them to read the skill of the worker, I was delighted to get the scarf joint on display as today’s art, on my left.

Dan Schmidt had this joint on the end of a timber he’d rescued. If you happened to see the cover of the Daily News Friday, there is a photo taken inside the Potlatch mill. In that photo, the beams (top plates) that recede into the distance (maybe 400 feet) were probably joined, end to end, with a joint like this one.

Examine this piece after the service to see the tool marks left by a carpenter who sawed that long flat plane with a hand saw. He did it in a single cut, without wavering or wandering, or needing to plane to clean up his work. There was a time when artisans understood their tools, and wood, and were able to make things like this piece, or to the hew smooth flat timbers.

Working wood connects me to other people who teach me through the marks they leave.

Birch does not show annual rings. Its as strong as red fir, but most engineering tables don’t list it, typically, an asterisk says “used for cabinetry.” Its texture is very uniform. It splits and carves well. Yesterday I was cutting sections from the birch Bill Styer and Jerry Gzerbielski removed behind the yellow house to make into pegs.

The birch tree in our former minister, Lynn Unger’s, front yard, now spans the center of my barn.  It unwittingly turned me into an urban hardwood forester.

From Lynn’s birch, I went on to ash, box elder, chestnut, cherry, elm, linden, locust, maple, Russian olive and walnut. These woods, because of their interesting color, often enhanced by disease that caused their removal, and because of their large limbs that create large knots and interesting grain, brought me together with wood turners, who have gladly taken pieces I could not use and turned them into art.

Urban trees opened my interest in the knowledge our forefathers had of the eastern hardwood forest, and made me aware of the diverse strengths of its many species.

Hardwoods have joined me into a circle of giving among wood workers.

I built a fire this morning: pine and ash, with birch and walnut for kindling.

Every day, from mid-September to early May, (250 times/year) I light a fire. This is the other end of wood’s life cycle in my hands.

I’ve built a fire, 250 times a year, for 10 years. As I was writing this talk I could hear our stove, the soft pinging of a waning fire. I’m aware of the sounds of the stove. I listen for them. They tell me when its working well, when it needs attention. They remind me I am connected. Connected to trees, whose by products I burn. Connected to people whose skills with wood and with tools I’ve admired and emulated.

Its been suggested to me that I should prefer to burn red fir in my stove, its optimal. Its also the kind of thinking that leads to mono-crop agriculture and single species planting in forests. And, we’ve seen with the blight on Moscow Mountain, what single species forestry brings.

I think our forefathers were closer to right. They preferred each tree for its best qualities. Oak or red fir makes a hard floor or a strong beam. Locust makes a rot resistant fence post. Ash and hickory make good tool handles. Cedar makes a good roof or keeps moths from your woolens. Fruit wood makes good smoke for preserving food.

My sister asks why I don’t get a pellet stove. She thinks it would be easier than gathering wood, splitting it,  stacking it, then moving it to the porch, and tending it in a fire.

As if easier is better.

In this case, easier is disconnected.

… from the trees, from knowing that locust is best on a night in the teens, pine is fine for taking off the chill in the early fall. Disconnected

…from the process, both the work which I’ve never begrudged, and the meditation of watching a fire.   Disconnected

… from the history of people who have worked with, and heated with wood. Disconnected

…from the ecologic cost of my own consumption.


How do you decide differently when you are connected to (vs. disconnected from)  the ecologic consequences, aware of (vs. indifferent to) diverse strengths, engaged with (vs. separated from) the human participants and consequences?

For me, a decade after raising my first timber frame, the whole activity is less about building and more about engaging, joining, connecting.

The process, and the materials, have become my teachers, helping me to be more in tune, more connected, more reverent.

The trees and I have an arrangement.

H1N1 Flu Pandemic Preparations at Washington State University

September 10, 2009

Two years ago Washington State University was doing pandemic flu planning for the Avian Flu. The University was considering if it could respond to a closure mandated by the Governor by moving online. I wrote this piece looking at the potential single points of failure of the university’s technology and how Web 2.0 strategies might prove more versatile.

Now we are watching a rapid rise in H1N1 cases, which fortunately are mild, but it points to the issue that it would be hard to know when to devote the necessary resources to moving all courses online (if it were possible using traditional models) and that the time available to make the decision to move might be very short.

I would now amend those posts from 2007 with this information from Adam Green about AlertRank. Applying the techniques he suggests for tracking Swine Flu with Google Alerts and Twitter to the university classes would further extend and simplify the management of student groups during a Flu Pandemic Diaspora.

Creating it is not enough

August 7, 2009

I just got an email from a colleague with a diagram documenting a design that was developed on one of our whiteboards.

Fine. But its not linkable. I can’t reference it in another document. Its got no metadata. I can’t tweet it. I will need this eventually. Hope I can find it in my deleted email box.

And while we are on the topic, I got a Diigo from a colleague. Just the link and a tag. No highlight, no comment. Should I follow the link or hit delete?

These observations are helping me develop assessment criteria for 21st century communication skills.

Blog as ePortfolio

July 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking about blogs as ePortfolios for quite awhile, in a WSU blog system (now defunct) and here, here and here on the Educause blog site in posts going back as far as Feb 15, 2005.

In the earliest of those I reported on Washington State University blogging experiment:

We (CTLT) began hosting a university blogging tool last August. Because we had an [OSPI] ePortfolio initiative underway at the same time, I tried to keep our smaller blogging project out of the ePortfolio space, but I came to understand that was not possible. A blog is, at minimum, a presentation of a repository of journal entries. But since those entries can be selectively reflect on other posts, the blog can occupy the entire eportfolio space.

Yesterday I was reminded of how nice it is to have a blog of the work I’m doing at WSU. We were giving a webinar on our Harvesting Gradebook ideas and I could answer questions in the chat by pasting URLs of past blog posts.

In a conversation with colleagues after the webinar we were recognizing that the blog is our ePortfolio and when combined with the Harvesting ideas we are exploring, it may well be a totally adequate and perfectly simple solution to the ePortfolio problem.

My, how it takes time to fully recognize the obvious.

[Addendum Sept 28, 2009]
I just wrote some feedback to a writer working on a story about ePortfolios. It got me thinking that for me my several blogs are a portfolio, (several blogs concurrently and several blogs over time), but I’m not advocating blogs as everyone’s portfolio. What is valuable for me is the ability to find many of my pieces of work (which may actually be stored in other places) and to be able to quickly direct a person to my latest thinking. When my thinking updates, or I get asked a question for which there is not already a blog posted answer, then its time to write a new post. None of this is to say that, from a practical standpoint, my comments in the link above about Google being my portfolio are invalid. Google is the de facto tool that would be used by someone looking for me, so its representation of me is my (most public) portfolio. Managing that (and to the extent possible, being in control of key resources so that I can manage it) are my ongoing challenge.