A New Educational Model

Salman Khan has received global acclaim for his videos on Khan Academy which have kicked off a discussion about how to leverage online learning within education. However, most of the press I see misunderstands his philosophy which is laid out in his new book "The One World School House: Education Reimagined." While technology plays a key role in attaining global reach, this is just a small part of his vision for the future.

He understands the difficulty of changing large systems and so he hasn't written a manifesto. Rather, the book is a mixture of personal anecdotes, a history lesson, and some very detailed ideas for change that are breathtaking in their scope. Since those are not getting enough attention, I want to paraphrase a few below.

Eliminate scaled evaluations (A,B,C) and demand mastery.

Kids either understand a concept or they don't. It is a disservice to allow advancement when certain core concepts are not understood, because they usually build on one another. Kids do not advance unless they can demonstrate mastery (like answering 10 questions in a row correctly).

Allow mixed ages to learn together.

Rather than trying to teach assembly-line style, provide the resources for kids to pursue knowledge at their own. This means allowing kids of mixed ages to coexist and help each other. Older kids learn responsibility, younger kids learn from the older ones and everyone acts more mature.

Remove boundaries between subjects.

Since knowledge is naturally connected and kids have different gifts, let them explore at their own pace and see how things connect when they are ready. Some may want to go deep into a technical subject, while others may pursue open-ended thinking and creativity.

Invert the place of lecture and homework.

Allow students to watch lectures at home, or on their own time. Then they can bring their questions and "homework" into the classroom to work through problems with their peers and teachers.

Manage environments by teams of teachers.

Since various separate classrooms have been combined in this model, teachers too can combine and help one another in a physical classroom and via the web around the world. This takes advantage of various strengths to address this multifaceted job. Further, they would act more like coaches helping them win (rather than a gatekeeper).

Use Summer rather than waste it.

A three month vacation every year robs students of momentum and causes unlearning. Instead, save vacations for when an individual needs one (like adults take). They can't "miss class" because they are working at their own pace. And the multi-age-no-grade thing would remove any stigma. Breaks can happen without shutting down the entire system.

Redefine transcripts.

Add things that measure individuals in qualitative ways:

  • A portfolio of creative work to see what students do on their own.
  • A multi-year narrative of what the student learned and how.
  • A record of their ability and willingness to help others.

Make internships a critical component.

Develop relationships with local establishments so that kids can experience how knowledge gets used in the real world and even taking on more challenging problems. If the students were actually developing valuable skills, paid internships might even address the growing problem of educational cost.

Decouple teaching and credentialing.

Learning happens independent of a university’s ability to give a degree. If a student has received a great education, it shouldn't matter where it came from. The removal of name-brand credentialing would level the playing field and help address rising costs.

What I love about these examples is how they combine wisdom and skill. Rather than treating them as mutually exclusive goals, he outlines how wisdom can be attained through skill. In his conclusion, he also addresses the question of "creativity, can it be taught?" He does not pretend to have that answer, but believes this open-ended approach would more effectively allow it to thrive.

Mr. Khan acknowledges the problems of a one-size-fits-all model, particularly globally. So, his proposals are mainly to help us realize that education can happen in a very different way.

Next Story — Verifiable Credentials on the Blockchain
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Verifiable Credentials on the Blockchain

The world needs a new system to record, house, curate, secure, and distribute evidence of learning. That new storage system is the global blockchain and every individual is a lifelong registrar.

The MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine have been working on a collaborative project for issuing official credentials, also known as certificates, onto the Bitcoin blockchain. We’ve just open-sourced the first version of that project. It allows education providers, employers, and others to issue official certificates that supply proof of membership, completion, or achievement. These certificates can be collected by individuals and shared directly with anyone who requires official documents. The Bitcoin blockchain is currently being used as the secure anchor of trust to ensure that each certificate is authentic, unchanged, and still valid. If another open, immutable data store is proven reliable — for example, Ethereum’s public blockchain — issuing to those resources can easily be included.

Our goal is to help create an entirely new environment where individuals are the custodians of their official records and can easily share those records with others.

The example below was created to illustrate how the verification process works. Ultimately this verification process wouldn’t only be a button on the certificate display, but also verifiable through independent service providers.

Official documents can be shared peer-to-peer and verified as authentic. The live example of MIT’s Media Lab certificate can be found here. All certificates are compliant with the Open Badge Initiative.


The purpose of this initial open-source release is to gain feedback from a wider community of developers and researchers. The MIT Media Lab posted a detailed description of that intent here. We’re already hard at work on better approaches for future releases later this Summer. These subsequent releases will make it more useful for real-world adoption: certificate versioning, revocation, cohort issuance, cost reduction, and other practical concerns. Later versions will also add privacy considerations for encrypting documents that contain highly private information, like transcripts.

Convenience and Necessity

The current system for sharing official records is slow, complicated, expensive, and broken for everyone in a myriad of ways. Here are just a few examples:

  • Students don’t have easy access to their official records and typically have to pay money to have them shared with others.
  • Lifelong learners have no meaningful way to insert the wider array of experiences and achievements into their official academic record.
  • Displaced peoples (refugees) can lose their history and have no way of proving who they are (i.e. doctors or lawyers).
  • Employers have given up asking for transcripts to be sent (too difficult, slow, and increasingly less relevant).
  • Colleges and Universities wait too long for official documents to arrive during admissions and spend too much effort trying to connect them with the right application.

All of these problems are solved when individuals are empowered to be their own record keepers and when the database (the blockchain) is not owned by any company or government.

The concept of a comprehensive single identity is replaced by a more flexible system to confirm the relevant attributes about a person which they have chosen to share.

Lifelong Learning

The first generation of students to grow up entirely during the Internet age have started applying for college, and many admissions officers can share stories about applicants trying to text photos of their academic records. The expectation, while seemingly humorous, conveys an honest impression about the way things should work. It should be that easy for people to share certified records directly with others and have them trusted as authentic. The primary reason students aren’t trusted to handle their own official credentials is fear of fraud. However, we now have the technical infrastructure to ensure that official documents are tamper proof and therefore shareable.

Of course, learning doesn’t stop at college. People continue to learn through their life experiences, their work, and professional training. Accruing evidence of those learning experiences is just as important as tracking formal education. To help flesh out that idea, we issued every Learning Machine employee a certificate of employment.

Learning Machine certificate of employment for demonstration. Live version is here.

Lifting the Ecosystem

No company owns this technology. The public blockchain is a global and open resource that cryptographically creates permanence, certainty, and trust. Schools, employers, vendors, and other service providers have already begun adopting and expanding this technology to create mutual convenience for everyone involved. Early adopters can download the code from Github and begin testing it. Programmers can expand the codebase with additional functionality. Software companies can integrate blockchain certification into their products to make it more usable. Imagine if all student information systems issued transcripts directly to graduates so they could use them when applying for college or employment. We’ve already started work on the first commercial integration of this technology into the Learning Machine CRM, which will make it easier to create, manage, issue, and track the use of digital credentials.

We believe this future is inevitable and have already begun thinking through the second-order effects, particularly in regard to traditional administration. For instance, in a fractured world of proliferating micro-credentials, how are equivalencies established? What role does standardization play? How are clusters of achievements measured? Arthur Levine, President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, offered a suggestion within his Keynote address at Parchment’s 2016 Summit. Just as psychiatry has a manual for defining disabilities, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), education needs a living manual that defines capabilities, along with methods to arrive at a “diagnosis.” This is a rich topic and we have already begun a series of posts that explore it further.

Next Story — The Evolution of Education
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Arthur Levine by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

The Evolution of Education

Arthur Levine is the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College and current president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which supports scholarship and public service in a variety of fields. Below is a transcript from his keynote address at Parchment’s 2016 Summit in Washington DC on 2/17/2016.

Now, what I want to do is put what we have been talking about all day into historical perspective. Is that interesting or what? While important and forward looking, nothing we have discussed today is unusual, radical, or unprecedented in the history of higher education.

Innovation in credentialing is a normal, periodic, even predictable event. Higher education follows changes in the nation. The more profound the changes of the nation, the more dramatic the changes in higher education that occur in it’s wake.

Today, all of our social institutions lag behind those changes in society. Whether it’s government or media or healthcare or finance. What happens is not-for-profits tend to change by repair — or reform of the existing organizations — and are slower to move than for profits that change by replacement.

Let me show you what I mean. I’m going to take you back two centuries to illustrate what I am talking about. I’m going to take you back to the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time when America is making a transition from a local agrarian economy to a national industrial economy. As this starts in the first decades of the 19th century. America’s colleges haven’t changed a heck of a lot since the first one opened it’s doors in 1636. They are offering an education designed for sectarian agricultural society. The curriculum is rooted in the Trivium Quadrivium of the middle ages. Students studied Bible … the languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, Rhetoric, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, History, and the Nature of Plants. There were no courses. Students studied one subject a day from 8 AM in the morning until 5 PM at night, Monday through Friday, and a half of day Saturday. Friday was not a party night. For that matter, neither was Saturday. The methods of instruction were recitation — and there what you did was repeat orally, verbatim, lessons that had been assigned — and disputation, which formulate debates using Aristotelian syllogisms on themes such as “we sin while we sleep.”

Then came the Industrial Revolution.

In the decades before the Civil War, we saw rise of canals, steam boats, water-powered factories. The first factory opens in 1790. By 1860, there are 140,000. Railroads, mechanized farms, and the telegraph: what these changes in transportation and communication and production cause is this mass production of population. People move from farms to cities. People move from the east to the west. People come from abroad. What do they do? They knit this country of localities into regions, and from regions into a fledgling nation. For the most part, while this is going on, dramatic change. Rip Van Winkle is said to be intended as a metaphor for the era. You go to bed one night, when you wake up, the next day is as if 20 years have passed. That’s how fast change is occurring.

Most colleges in the face of this dramatic change hold tight to their classroom curriculum’s and reject the calls for reform.

In fact, after years, years of criticizing Yale for the irrelevance of it’s curriculum, the state of Connecticut cut off funding. Yale responded as colleges do when they’re in trouble, they formed a committee. In 1828 Yale issued a report which surprisingly has come to be called the “Yale Report of 1828.” It defended the classical curriculum for providing students with discipline and furniture of the mind. That is, how to think and what to think about. It dismissed vocationalism, abbreviated courses of studying, and practical education as lessor forms of education, mere training. Gee, how things have changed.

None the less, there were experiments in reform. Some succeeded, most failed. Union College took the radical step of offering a program written in science, engineering, and modern language. For this, they were rewarded with enrollments twice the size of Harvard and Yale. What happened was, enrollments declined. The president of Brown who looked into the situation lamented, “We can’t even give this stuff away.”

In the years after the Civil War, the pace and scope of the industrial revolution accelerated. And this time, it’s driven by oil and steel and booming railroads and cities … the invention of the electric lines, the telephone, and all the other things that are familiar to us today. America became an industrial giant and higher education changed dramatically — powered to a great extent by new institutions.

Instead of those colonial colleges, radical things were created. One of them was universities. John’s Hopkins brought the first graduate school to America. Cornell promised any person any study. Chicago stole all of these ideas and created it’s own university. What these places offered was advance studies, professional education in industrial fields like engineering and business. They engaged in research on real problems. And they organized universities as we organize businesses — by specialization. We also developed some schools that focused on industrial technologies, like MIT. We created land grant colleges. And their job is to straddle both periods, somewhere between agriculture and technology and industrial issues. We created 2-year colleges so we could offer higher education more locally.

The curriculum changed to reflect both. Changes to reflect the times and it changed to reflect the new institutions. This new era brought courses, specialized majors, advanced studies beyond the baccalaureate, academic departments, and electives. In 1869, there was 1 elective course at Harvard. In 1909, there were 2 required courses at Harvard. Things change fast.

Think about the implications of these innovations for just a second. If you can offer courses, what this requires is a breaking the curriculum into smaller units that the colonial college had. It can offer majors. What that requires is specialized studies, hierarchies among courses, and variation between students, and terms of what they’re studying. If you can offer electives, that makes it even worse. You’re offering students choice and individualizing course selection for everyone of them.

This required some changes. Some major changes that gets to the heart of our discussion today. It necessitated new degrees. They created an associates degree. They created a raft of baccalaureate degrees, including the Bachelor of Science. They created the first earned graduate degrees, which became a slew of masters degrees, a slew of doctorate degrees.

There was also a need to change assessment. You need mechanisms for assessments that are tied to courses which didn’t exist before.

So in 1878, Harvard introduces this radical new grading system for each course … “A” through “E,” (E became F). Instead of a fixed number of courses for graduation, lots of grading systems were tried. Colleges all over the country tried different grading systems. Finally, the accrediting association said, “Look, we need to agree on one system.” There has got to be some system of academic accounting. How do you know what a course is? How do you measure a course? The credit system was introduced in the 1870’s after experimentation of colleges trying a whole bunch of different schemas for courses and credits. Any number of initiatives of standardization followed.

In 1906, The Carnegie Foundation created the new norm, The Carnegie Unit: A time and course-based accounting system which defines a unit as 15 recitations per week in a single subject for a year. Fourteen high school units are to be required for college admissions. Seat time, became a currency of academe. Using the new degrees, the new assessments, the new accounting systems, a new model of education was established and it was based in one of the dominant and most successful technologies of the industrial era. I’m serious … the assembly line.

Education would entail 12 years of schooling, 180 days year, 4 to 5 major courses, for periods of time prescribed by The Carnegie Foundation. College graduation would be tied to the accumulation of the required number of courses for credits. The modern industrial era system of higher education was established. It’s what we have been talking about all day.

So let’s jump to the present.

Once again, the United States is undergoing an economic transformation — the second in our history. This time the shift is from a national analog industrial economy to a global digital information economy. The difference between the two is this. Industrial economies focus on common processes. Time and process are fixed, outcomes are variable. In contrast, information economies focus on outcomes. Process and time are variables. In terms of education, what that means is the industrial system focuses on teaching, seat time. The information economy’s system focused on learning. Times are variable, mastery is the key. That’s a revolutionary change. Of all the reforms going on in education right now, and there are a gazillion, none is larger than that or as greater implications.

What it means is that the current degrees, assessments, and accounting systems don’t work anymore. Despite their extraordinary success for more than a century, they’ve become obsolete.

In a 2015 report, The Carnegie Foundation put it this way:

“The Carnegie unit sought to standardize student exposure to subject matter by insuring they received consistent amounts of instructional time. It was never, intended to function as a measure of what students learned.”

That puts us in exactly the same place as our industrial predecessors. We’re inventing a new model. We’re inventing a new model of credentialing, certifications, degrees, something else … badges, micro-credentials, a new assessment system, and we need a new accounting system. I really believe these things are going to occur. I believe in them so strongly that as Matt said, Woodrow Wilson is in the process, with MIT, of creating a new graduate school of education which will be competency based, time variable, and which will award micro-credentials in addition to degrees.

We can expect the process we’re going to go through to resemble the process we’ve been through in the past. It’s not going to be real different. What we’re going to see first, is continued embrace of the current model by most colleges and universities, and reject the need to reform. Why should they? This has worked in the past. Why shouldn’t it continue to work into the future? Why? Remember the future happens behind your back, not in front of your face. They were busy working and the world changed. They didn’t see it.

What we will see is experimentation, first small, then increasingly wide-spread — both inside and outside of higher education. We’ll see the establishment of new models. We’ve talked about a whole bunch of them today. There are institutions like Western Governors, Southern New Hampshire, Alverno … and those institutions are going to grow stronger and stronger through successful approximations or be replaced by institutions, which have taken what they’ve done to the next step.

Elite institutions will keep coming up in the kind of change we are talking about. Elite institutions serve as validators and legitimizers. They don’t do the invention. There are exceptions like MIT. They don’t do the inventions, they let others do the inventions and they put their stamp on those that work.

We’re going to see the establishment of a multiplicity of different practices for outcomes, assessments, and accounting. We’re going to see debate and discussion in every stage. Finally, we’re going to see something that has come up in most every session I’ve been to, standardization.

Where do we stand today? We have continued to embrace of current practice. Rejection leads to change for many institutions. Experimentation is on going. This room is full of experimenters. New models are being created. Debate and discussion are everywhere. Not only meetings like this, they’re in all the trade makers. They’re in the popular media. This is everywhere.

And we are also witnessing something that is unfortunate. We are witnessing the simultaneous imposition of both models on our schools. What we’re asking them to do is take fixed time and fixed process from the industrial model and combine that with fixed outcomes from the information model. You can’t do all those things at once.

So, as we move to an information economy model of credentialing, here’s what I think we need to do. We need to go beyond words like competencies and outcomes which are learning based units comparable to industrial courses and credits. We really need to do is achieve common definitions of those competencies. What we really have to do is create the equivalent of the DSM in psychiatry ... the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It offers a common language and standard criteria for classifying mental illnesses. We need that for competencies. When we talk about competencies, we have to be talking about the same thing or it’s just another buzz word.

We have to develop assessments that measure student progress and attainment of the standards, or the outcomes, and help us prescribe to students what it is they need to do in order to achieve those competencies. Now this the question. Over time, we really need to build those assessments on analytics and student learning, which are growing so big. We need to embed them in the assessment of curriculum — to function a lot like a GPS — discovering student misunderstandings in real time and getting them back on track.

If you look at today’s testing, our high-stakes testing, it comes too late. The problem with it is, it lets us know who has failed to achieve what it is we’re testing. Imagine if your GPS worked that way? You can’t. You would get readings once an hour. When you started you were 20 miles away from where you were going. An hour later you’re 70 miles away from where you’re going. You’re going in the wrong direction, recalculating. That’s not real useful and neither is testing. It needs to function the same way as our GPS’s do.

We need to create common credentials, micro-credentials, and badges to recognize student mastery and competencies and learning outcomes.

Degrees are insufficient for this purpose. They’re macro-credentials. They’re rooted in the package of diverse, disconnected programs and courses. They’re rooted in the philosophy of just-in-case learning — we’re going to give you these 4 years, just in case you need them.

Today we’re increasingly going to see a demand for just-in-time learning in more specialized areas and those that came through experience, self instruction, formal and informal education, offered by a host of providers — Universities and non universities. The museum down the block from me is offering a Doctorate in Astrophysics.

I went to visit a publisher and I was looking around the guy’s entry room. One of my greatest weaknesses is books. The guy comes out and says, “You know, we’re not in the book business anymore.” He says “we’re in the knowledge business.” I think he saw me roll my eyes. He said, “Let me give you an example, we are now in 45,000 schools.” Maybe it was 25,000 schools? It was a large number of schools. It was more than 12. He now has my full attention. He says, “There is no university in the United States, no ed provider outside of universities that has that kind of penetration.” I looked at him and I thought I still had the upper hand. I said, “Where are you getting your content from,” knowing he had to come to me as president of a teacher’s college. He said, “We hire full time content providers.”

I thought about that for a minute. I don’t have any friends who are full time content providers. My parents didn’t have any friends who were full time content providers. Even my neighbors aren’t full time content providers. I asked him, “What do you mean? What is a full time content provider?” He told me and I realized we just had different names for them. I call them professors and he called them content providers.

I thought I still had him. I said, “What about degrees and credentials?” He said, “We’re still working on that.” They’re not anymore, the got degree granting authority. The fact of the matter is more providers are going to offer more education for different length of time 24/7 and it’s going to be incumbent upon us to find the mechanism to discover what they have learned as a consequence of all that education.

That will occur throughout their lifetimes and that’s going to necessitate a lifetime transcript to record all of those competencies. And we need an organization. We need an institution to house, curate, secure, and distribute — to serve as a life long registrar. Perhaps that begins here in this summit?

I don’t pretend this is an easy assignment. It’s going to take a coalition involving government, federal and state educational institutions, traditional and non traditional, professional associations, and other stake holders to accomplish. A lot of you are in this room today. I don’t see why it shouldn’t begin here.

One closing thought, shifting education from teaching to learning doesn’t mean vocationalizing, diluting, or diminishing it. And that was true too of the industrial universities. They did not diminish the quality of agrarian colleges. What they did was … they revitalized them and enriched them.

Higher education succeeds best when it has one foot in the library, our heritage, and one foot in the street — the realities of the world are in which we live. In times of dramatic change, higher education tends to lose it’s hold on the street. Today we are talking about is re-establishing that foot. In doing so, we shouldn’t abandon the library. Those functions and activities should be cherished and preserved. We shouldn’t un-bundle everything. Keep only the most lucrative items and throw out casually other items that don’t give a return.

I want to salute you. I want to salute you for being here today. I want to salute you for taking time away from very, very busy schedules. I want to salute Parchment for making this day possible. The question we have to ask ourselves as we go forth is actually a question that comes fro the Yale Report. They asked this, “Should colleges change fast or slow. Should they change a lot or a little? They are the wrong questions,” they said. The correct question is, “What’s the purpose of college? What’s the purpose of an education for other organizations that are offering as well?” That remains the right question today.

In truth, the assignment before us is huge. It’s daunting. But there is no generation that’s had a greater opportunity to puts stamp on the future of higher education than we have today. That is one extraordinary opportunity and one extraordinary challenge. It’s imperative that we succeed because the future depends upon it. Thank you all very much.

Next Story — Technical Creativity
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Pattern by Jonathan Howell

Technical Creativity

Assembling the building blocks of thought into patterns that expand our world.

When Sabrina Pasterski was applying for undergraduate admissions, she was rejected by Harvard and waitlisted by MIT, until they saw a video of her building an airplane. Due to Sabrina’s persistence, this video was eventually seen by Professors Allen Haggerty and Earll Murman who strongly advocated for her. “Our mouths were hanging open after we looked at it,” Haggerty said. “Her potential is off the charts.” She was ultimately accepted by MIT, and later graduated with a perfect GPA of 5.0. Sabrina is now earning her PhD at Harvard, earning major grants, and creating waves in the physics community. The recent profile titled “This Millennial Might be the Next Einstein” wonderfully summarizes her rocket-like launch.

While Sabrina’s story may be an extreme example, it perfectly highlights the limitations of legacy practices for detecting aptitude and potential. While standardized testing is useful for measuring basic thresholds, seeing what a person actually makes provides a unique view into how they think, their level of commitment, and what type of skills they possess.

Since Sabrina’s application, leading schools such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, and Yale have created an option to include STEM portfolios as part of their admissions process. However, most admissions departments have not. Education still suffers a huge divide between classroom-side enthusiasm for making and the administrative-side’s penchant for testing, particularly within admissions. Why is that? Is it the legacy momentum of a STEM culture still oriented around test scores? Or perhaps it’s a fear of not knowing how to practically evaluate portfolios at scale? If so, art schools provide a big clue. The arts have a heritage of using portfolios as a meaningful part of the selection process. They use tools like SlideRoom to receive images, videos, code, 3d models, narratives, and other media that can each highlight different aspects of an applicant’s portfolio. And digital credentials, like the one from Credly below, can play a helpful role in stitching together a story about various skills and achievements.

SlideRoom showing Credly badge and Github Gist

The New York Times story on “The Minecraft Generation” shares several inspiring stories of children going through this entire learning cycle of tinkering, discovery, and presentation within a game called Minecraft — an environment that rewards players for solving open-ended problems by playing with materials that use logic. Simple levers and switches — essentially and/or gates — allow for shockingly complex machines to be assembled out of trees, cows, rocks, stone, and other earthly elements. Players often visually record their activities while narrating what they’re doing. “Minecraft” is currently the second-­most-­searched term on YouTube after “music.” And most of those 70-million videos are tutorials, popular for their effectiveness in conveying how to build within this block-based world.

The tradition of block-play goes back a long time:

Friedrich Froebel — often called the inventor of kindergarten — developed block-­based toys that he claimed would illustrate the spiritual connectedness of all things. Children would start with simple blocks, build up to more complex patterns, then begin to see these patterns in the world around them. Educators like Maria Montessori picked up on this concept and pioneered the teaching of math through wooden devices.

Concepts are the building blocks of thought. As we grow more sophisticated, these simple blocks come to embody subjects, skills, and knowledge — an interconnected system for engaging the world. This depends on interacting with materials — outside of ourselves — that have their own rules and reasons for being. Making is scary because it contains risk. Materials push back, asking makers to respond, debug, and improvise. Solving those problems, of course, is where the real learning happens. Being dynamically coupled with an environment and continually adjusting to new realities is the dance that leads to discovery.

The magic of cognition comes from it’s ability to expand the space of possibility beyond the apparent limitations of an environment. How does that work? While understanding cognition is humanity’s ongoing project, it does seem that interacting with a responsive medium is critical for growth and invention. Creatures learn to see their environment as a set of possible combinations. A sensorimotor loop enables the internal rehearsal of performing an action and seeing it’s consequences, causing previously hidden spaces of possibility to be disclosed. The environment becomes a place of affordances, holding discoverable truths within the combinatorial space of actions and outcomes. Finding novel ways to blend knowledge with new perceptions increases the repertoire of imaginative skill and allows new vistas to be explored and more knowledge to be gained.

Every field has similar ways of talking about invention, each containing structures for the mind to grab and use to predict outcomes. In mathematics and computer science specifically, combinatorial sets are ubiquitous. These are structures that can be arranged many ways based on a set of precise rules. Many breakthroughs have happened when new ways of thinking allow unexpected connections to emerge. For instance, in the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” we learn the true story of an indian youth named Ramanujan who mysteriously was able to arrive at previously unsolvable mathematical truths. Stephen Wolfram wonderfully recounts the story and even attempts to discuss how these leaps might have occurred. One possibility describes Ramanujan as having an “aesthetic sense of which seemingly random facts would turn out to fit together and have deeper significance.” Wolfram’s own experiences of wading through complexity give real weight to that argument.

Creativity arrives in technical terms because thought is always attached to something. The structure of that thing allows us to effectively imagine, to propose the problematic, and invent our way to unexpected places. When we engage a material of any kind, we build a library of knowledge about what that material affords. And through the life of a project, we create new situations that perpetually generate new trees of combinatorial possibility. Technical knowledge is a set of known combinations that circumscribe a space. Technical creativity explores new combinations and coalitions that expand knowledge and reveal new futures to explore.

Learning is a process of discovery, a structured improvisation that struggles to create new models from a world of concealed possibilities. And it is the struggle itself, more than any polished product, that is the essence of learning and the point of any meaningful education.

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” — Feynman
Next Story — When Makers Apply to College
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The Krebs Cycle of Creativity, by Neri Oxman, MIT Media Lab, January 2016

When Makers Apply to College

MIT’s culture of making continues to expose how real-world projects seldom live within one distinct domain of knowledge. The practice of moving between disciplines and shifting perspectives creates new kinds of creative momentum — a learning ability MIT is looking for within their admissions process.

The growth of project-based learning — particularly in STEM fields — is changing how people think of portfolios. No longer just for the arts, engineers are expected to be able to convey their projects visually, to tell a story, and get others excited about their work. This portfolio is a self-curated collection important artifacts from any field — or across fields — that communicate personal interests, skill-level, curiosity, and commitment.

In August 2013, MIT made news by adding Maker Portfolios as an option within undergraduate application to help identify “technical creativity and skill.” A little over two years later, they published a report, co-authored by Chris Peterson and Hal Abelson, discussing the data gathered during that time period:

“In many respects, the Maker Portfolio has been a resounding success. Over the last two years, more than 2000 students have used it to show us the things they make, from surfboards to solar cells, code to cosplay, prosthetics to particle accelerators. We believe the Maker Portfolio has improved our assessment of these applicants and offers us a competitive advantage over our peers who have not developed the processes to identify and evaluate this kind of talent.”

In a separate survey cited in their public letter to the President Obama, 78% of their undergraduate population reported that MIT’s reputation for being maker-friendly made them more likely to enroll.

In addition to this success, the report goes on share the current gender imbalances they are seeking to improve. MIT’s rigor and openness are a perfect model for how schools can help each other through publicly sharing data and openness with an ongoing thought process.

Various academic associations like AAEEBL and AAC&U are blossoming in their promotion of integrated learning through projects. And the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is helping to institute President Obama’s rally cry to grow a generation of students who are “makers of things, not just consumers of things.” They recommended more universities and colleges consider implementing a Maker Portfolio for admissions as part of a larger effort to expand opportunities for “making” within school campuses. Over 150 schools issued a joint letter to the President committing to this initiative in various ways.

History is full of polymaths who pulled from equally many fields, using each one to fuel the other. A portfolio allows the complete story to be told which is a critical activity for the educational process itself.

Are Portfolios Practical?

In 2013, when MIT announced the maker portfolio, Dr. Dawn Wendell anticipated a common fear among administrators. How practical is it to review portfolios from thousands of applicants? She addressed this question by sharing some of their own numbers. MIT receives about 20,000 applications a year and they budget about 15 minutes per application. They frame the portfolio prompt to be optional and intended for students with exceptional skill. This removes pressure for everyone to submit something, which would just create noise. Of those who submit a portfolio, about 3 minutes is allocated for review — any combination of images, video, code-samples, and narrative to summarize the Maker project. MIT isn’t looking to inspect all the details, but rather a see curated summary of one important project. She likens this to an elevator pitch. If clearly presented, it provides a remarkably efficient summary of that person’s passions and what makes them unique.

Further, technology has enabled this kind of review process to operate efficiently at a large scale. Reviewing thousands of CDs or websites scattered around the web just isn’t feasible. SlideRoom has provided the online system that makes it easy for everyone involved. Applicants can curate a portfolio from a variety of places on the web and schools get a secure online account for quickly reviewing portfolios in a consistent format. SlideRoom is also integrated with larger campus systems, so all data and evaluations can be mapped where needed.

Certainly, looking at a portfolio of someone’s work requires more effort than mechanically organizing them by test score. But if we’re sincerely looking to discover hidden potential for success and encourage new kinds of diversity, portfolios provide a new way forward.

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