Image from chicago sunday tribune, February 1, 1959


A Proposal for the Future of Learning Content

Timothy Freeman Cook
35 min readOct 15, 2013


I am writing this four-part essay for a number of reasons. Foremost in my mind is a series of conversations with Pittsburgh students I had as part of a fellowship with the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning initiative. Students yearn for the ability to take charge of their own education. There is an urgent need for an expansive platform that lets students visualize and engage with the entire scope of their life’s learning: archives for the past, resources for the present, and planning for the future.

In my work at the Saxifrage School, we are doing everything we can to develop models that refocus on the strengths of in-person, expert-taught learning. As we have worked to lower costs, re-think campus communities, and reconcile disciplines, we have been frustrated by the difficult nature of online content. This essay is a thought experiment on how to meet the needs we see for our work and the needs of the students we have spoken with.

Part I, “Beyond the MOOC, Beyond the Library”, defines the limits of online learning so that we can play to the strengths of new technology as we work to create the digital learning platforms of the future.

Part II, “The New Library”, introduces a concept for a new online learning platform that, in many ways, is the evolution of the ideal library.

Part III, “The Trees and Branches”, describes a lot of the detail behind this “Askr” project. For me, a lot of the excitement behind a project like this lie in these technical capabilities.

Part IV, “Addressing Limits with Integration”, discusses the role of embodied learning experiences in collaboration with a platform like “Askr”. Here we come full circle and see the roles and opportunities for schools, librarians, and teachers when we recognize the limits and strengths of digital and embodied learning.

More than anything, my hope is that this starts a serious conversation. Talk to me about it in the comments or write

Part I: Beyond the MOOC , Beyond the Library

A few months ago, Anya Kamenetz asked the right question: “Can We Move Beyond the MOOC to Reclaim Open Learning?” Continuing to invest so exclusively in current MOOC platforms is short-sighted. The MOOC, despite its claims of disruptive innovation, is handicapped by the baggage of the traditional course format. In many ways, it just offers a lonelier version of the regimented, lecture-and-test model. By holding fast to the Course, the MOOC idea does not utilize the incredible potential the web has to assemble a diverse, scaleable, sortable library of learning content. In moving beyond the MOOC, we will begin to recognize both the potential and the limitations of online learning. When we do this, we will build a much greater online learning tool: an expansive and curated knowledge map. Just as the libraries of the past found their mission in organizing,preserving, and sharing knowledge, so will the open education platforms of the future do the same.

The Limits

To start, I must be clear: I do not want to critique the MOOC as much as I want to define the limits of its potential so that we can rightly value its place in the work of higher education reform. The news cycles have already spun past the “MOOCs will save us all!” phase to the “MOOCs are Dead” phase. I want to write about neither of those. Instead, I hope to discuss, first, what online learning cannot do well and then propose a way in which the energy behind online learning resources could focus on a more productive, long-term open education project. A project that begins by recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of online platforms and moves beyond problems in higher education to consider the problem of higher education.

Currently, MOOCs are seeing understandable attrition rates north of 90%. Using rhetoric like “drop-out” and “enrollment” to discuss these figures assumes they ought to be proper “courses” in the first place: most students in MOOCs are not looking to take an entire course. Instead of shrugging off the 90% of lost students as “just people checking it out”, what if we developed higher education content that aimed to serve and engage that 90%. This supermajority of learners (especially those with short online attention spans) is made up of people looking to learn something, just often not the entire course.

The MOOC assumes the right-sized package to transfer knowledge is in 6-12 week schedules. If we are going to put forth so much effort to capture the expertise of our nation’s best educators, we need to do so in a way in which we can catalog and share that coursed content. The value of this perspective is understood and perfectly exemplified in the work of the Khan Academy. By offering content only within a single course, it limits that content from being utilized individually or as part of another, different course. What if the MOOC professor had 2 excellent lectures that should be captured for posterity, but the rest of their course was mediocre? Even the most MOOC-friendly reviewer admits to utilizing just portions of the overall content.

The Short List of The Limits of Online Learning

Beyond the unfortunate adherence to the traditional Course rhetoric and structure, the MOOC faces the limitations of online learning. There are certain elements of education where the web really excels: content storage and querying, collaboration, and progress-tracking. Below is a list of areas where the web does not excel. There are partial exceptions to these limitations, but, generally speaking, these hold true. (An example of one such exception: when students learn to build the web from web developers on the web.) Again, remember that the hope here is to clarify exactly what online learning is great at and what embodied learning is great at. There are enough people espousing the benefits of the online, so here is a brief list of its limits. These limits, of course, point to the qualities of embodied learning.

  1. Mentors. Often we have a problem we just cannot get, or are in tears wallowing in our lack of confidence. We need encouragement, criticism, a tempered vision, and inspiration. As the writer/farmer Wendell Berry speaks of his mentor Wallace Stegner:

“He had a way of emitting a kind of aura about himself and if you got into that and you weren’t working as hard as you could, you got embarrassed. You knew he was working as hard as he could.”

Many students talk seriously about their “professor crushes” as people who completely changed the course of their intellectual development. Our ignorance and lack of discipline is challenged in these relationships. We need expert mentors to put us in our place, make us re-write that essay a third time, and give us a vision for what mastery looks like. Those of us who need mentors rarely seek them out (which the internet would require).

The best mentors are given to us by force, proximity, or happy accident. The separateness provided by the medium makes it far too easy to ignore. The same anonymity that lets us berate one another as we play online games, or post ridiculous comments, limits the effectiveness of e-mentorship. In talking of “mentoring”, I define it not just as career-advice-giving or a wiser discussion partner, or critic-from-afar, but as something more whole. The word itself is, in fact, the name of one of Odysseus’ closest friends, to which he entrusted the upbringing of his son. While off fighting the Trojan war (and struggling to return home) he trusted Mentor to father his son. To Mentor is to foster our wards not just in knowledge and skill but in courage and conviction. This requires deep trust and deep care that is impossible without a literal closeness. It requires that we look into each other’s eyes; that we look into each other’s souls. I recognize that this depth of relation is rare for most of us, including myself, but its potential is not to be ignored.

While the web can serve as a communication medium for mentoring, it is not a total solution. Online relationships can provide things that are mentor-ish and are better than no mentoring, but it is not the ideal. Again, the point I hope to dig at is not what can be done with technology, but what ought to be done. Especially in our citied-world, let us use online tools to humanize the mentoring experience by easily fostering connections between local mentors/mentees. In-person relationships provide a level of connection, fun, and accountability that is unmatched. We, as a people, require relationships that are “not merely texted, but storied” (to use Keith Martel’s phrase); relationships that occur genuinely without the express purpose of “mentoring”. To spur us to care for that which is not already personal, requires that we are, to use Berry’s words again “motivated by affection”, an affection that requires a relationship in place. The success of mentoring is not based on the act of knowledge transfer, but on a relationship of care.

2. Without Students. As someone who has taken online courses both now and in the dark ages of 1996 (Windows NetMeeting anyone?) I can speak to the difficulty of building an academic community on the web. For those who have tried to have conversations on the web, I remind you of the cynical but all-too-true adage: don’t read the comments. As hard as it is to foster good academic community in person, it is even harder to have a serious, consistently relational learning community online. The good online communities that do exist primarily consist, I would argue, of the already-inspired.

I must commend the value of twitter for shrinking the world in a way that lets us follow, or even engage, in the discussions of experts around the world. However, it’s a lot easier to find friends (or find true love, or find a co-founder) with your study partners, than with an anonymous MOOC forum poster or anonymous re-tweeter. The powerful acts of in-person friendship, accountability, and collaboration are not to be underestimated. People want to learn and build the world together.

3. Without Place. Beyond a lack of connection to people, online learning has no meaningful context. As Bunker Roy discusses in his work on the Barefoot Colleges, there is great importance in offering teaching in skills that are relevant to an exact place and the needs and aptitudes of its people. He powerfully states that “you are certified by the community you serve” and that, too often, he has seen that those who earn certified degrees use them to leave their homes and seek personal fortune, rather than investing in the fortune of their community.

Not only does a lack of place and context limit the relevance of learning, it hinders this idea of, what Wes Jackson calls, “education for homecoming.” The grand universal solutions offered by massive online learning fail to grasp the varied nature of local ecologies and cultures and is, inherently, anti-native in its approach. Jackson goes on:

“Our task is to build cultural fortresses to protect our emerging nativeness. They must be strong enough to hold at bay the powers of consumerism, the powers of greed and envy and pride. One of the most effective ways for this to come about would be for our universities to assume the awesome responsibility to both validate and educate those who want to be homecomers — not necessarily to go home but to go someplace and dig in and begin the long search and experiment to become native.”

4. Without Application. This point, like the others, is very much related to the one before. The lack of place seriously limits the potential application or value of one’s work in an online education. With the exception of web development (learning on the web, in this case, is native to a sort of place) MOOCs fail to delve into meaningful project-based learning. The recent Mapping/GIS course, for instance, merely let you play with pre-existing maps, not make a map of your own places. As much as traditional classes ask students to engage in token creation (the quintessential essay written, graded, and then immediately forgotten), the online course feels even more like pretending. Or, as Thoreau says, “merely studying” and “playing at life” when we yearn to “live earnestly”.

For many of us, our learning styles require this sort of application for effective instruction. For all of us, it is necessary that we make something that someone cares to have made.

5. Without Inspiration. Without mentors, without friends, without places, and without application, why do we even want to learn? Our vision, as students, for the point and purpose of our work becomes incredibly abstract, even debilitating. Again, online learning can be well-suited to the already-inspired, but it is detrimental for a student who struggled in high school and has yet to find agency or passion for school. During the recent Pittsburgh Forum hosted by the Saxifrage School, our guest Sean Purcell helped us get to the heart of our question for the weekend by asking us to describe our most powerful learning experiences. All of the stories had to do with specific places, events, and people, not with content or a “schooled” experience, let alone content enframed (to use Heidigger’s word) in an online learning platform. The discussion then centered on Albert Borgmann’s concept of “focal experiences” from his book Technology and the Character of the Modern Life. Here, Borgmann digs into the word “focus” which, in latin, referred to the hearth, “a gathering and radiating force” which was “the center of warmth, light, and daily practice.”

These elements of life—the mentors, the friends, the places, the projects, and the habits that surround them—provide us with focused purpose and memorable learning experiences that not only instruct, but transform us. Criticism, of course, is also a form of inspiration.We find inspiration in camaraderie, in challenges before us, in unburying our lives, and in digging into a project that addresses problems in our own community. Learning is best when it gets away from that which feels like a copy of a copy of a copy due to multiple acts of enframing or abstracting.

The Library

All technology has the capacity to create, destroy, or waste a lot of people’s time, often all three at once. In developing the next generation of educational tools online, we must be careful to not misspend effort. Recognizing its limits, there are some truly excellent things about the MOOC, but there is a more important project awaiting our effort: the future of the library.

Libraries continue their slow decline as they struggle to maintain relevance as slow providers of old mediums in a world of fast and free content. While continuing to draw crowds and serve the community with the addition of free internet, creative student programs, and video game stations (!?), libraries today rarely have a chance to actively fulfill their historical purpose. This purpose is an ancient one involving monks struggling to preserve ancient manuscripts in the dark ages (like the wonderful story captured in The Secret of Kells). The early librarians were truly the preservers of knowledge. They kept us from losing or forgetting texts and, just as importantly, curated content.

Many librarians call for a restoration of this noble purpose of the library, but, without radical re-invention, it seems unlikely. There is a sense of obstinence when Patricia Schroeder, President of the
Association of American Publishers, defensively refers to the rise of the web as the “Internet rage”, but she has a point:

“Those who declared librarians obsolete when the Internet
rage first appeared are now red-faced. We need them more than
ever. The Internet is full of ‘stuff’ but its value and readability is
often questionable. ‘Stuff’ doesn’t give you a competitive edge,
high-quality related information does.”

The internet, for as grand as it has become, is still terrible at curation, especially when it comes to educational content. When I ask Google, “How to write a poem”, two top choices include somewhat comical offerings from wikihow and Oprah. Are they really the best we have to offer? The last word on the subject?

Google’s Director of Technology, Craig Silverstein admits these limitations:

“My guess is about 300 years until computers are as good as, say, your local reference library in doing search, but we can make slow and steady progress, and maybe one day we’ll get there.”

We need today’s librarians not to work as functional administrators of content, but as creative curators who define what is best and help to define and sort the complex relationships of resources. They have to do the powerful acts that Google cannot (and will never fully be able to do?). Just as the dark age monks before them, we desperately need librarians to protect, curate and hold aloft worthwhile knowledge. In the face of the barbarian hoards they were necessary because of the dearth of texts. Today it is the opposite. We need librarians as lighthouses amidst the floods of available information.

Now, in speaking of librarians, I mean the word in broader terms. The folks at the Khan Academy, for instance, are currently some of the world’s best librarians. Not only are they creating a lot of excellent content, but they are presenting it and sharing it in a way that is inviting and powerful. John Resig, who runs the CS department at Khan Academy, is an exemplary librarian in many respects. In addition to the CS Program, he is the creator of the JQuery library, and is behind the world’s largest repository of Japanese Woodblock Prints. In each of these areas, he is finding or creating content, sorting it, deciding what is worth knowing and holding it up for us to engage with. In this broad sense, so many of us function as librarians, as “custodians of learning”.

I bring up the Khan Academy, not only because they exemplify this broader, noble definition of library-work, but also because they are leading us in the right direction. The Khan Academy is a library of thousands of open, multimedia educational resources that is not only created, curated, and shared, but also, in some areas, ordered by difficulty and relationship. Much like the Dewey Decimal System, the Khan Academy is beginning (as teachers have done in their syllabuses for decades) to sort and assign educational resources according to a number of complex variables.

This is where the amazing capabilities of the web come in to play. Not only can it offer content that is, at once, multimedia, responsive, and interactive, it can also provide content that is easily updated, reviewed, and sorted to exist in multiple places at once while offering perspective and motivation to students by visualizing and awarding their progress.

If we can properly recognize the strengths and limits of online learning and move beyond the MOOC, there is an exciting future ahead. If we can rightly value the MOOC, the effort of expert teachers, MOOC supporters, and open education advocates could be redirected towards building the ultimate open educational resource library.


To begin discussing what could be beyond the MOOC, let us talk again in the context of the massive open libraries that came before it, but in a new light. Consider a neo-traditional library if it existed, somehow, in the world of the ideal future web. Step into the poetry section and imagine that all of the “books” on the shelves are nodes of digital content (or groups of nodes). A node could be a poem, or a lesson concerning a poem, or an essay on poetry, a video lecture, an audio file of the original poet reading their work, an interactive creative writing assignment, or a non-digital service opportunity. These nodes are not individually isolated, but are able to be sorted and connected by any number of variables or relationships. For example, you could look at everything concerning William Carlos Williams or everything on modernist poets, or all poems about wheelbarrows, or look at a course of nodes concerning stream of consciousness literature that includes W.C.W. A single book or node of W.C.W. poetry would be sorted into all of these places at once. No more struggling on where to file resources like “The Philosophy of Science” or “Environmental Ethics”. This is the end of mono-disciplinarity in the shelving of knowledge.

If a teacher wants to offer a MOOC-like experience for students of this library, they can create a series of nodes that connect and map an order (a syllabus!) for students. Linking separate nodes often won’t be enough, so they can also create an introduction and multiple pieces of segue content to provide a consistent thread between nodes and resources. The design process for such a class would not be so different than the current MOOC process, except that teachers would develop with an eye towards smaller parts of the course being useful as standalone content.

In powerful ways, this library would include passive content (like essays, films, blog-posts, etc.) as well as active content (interactives, assignments, and collaborative exercises). Similarly, content would be either static (a published book) or in beta (a piece of documentation or an essay that is constantly being updated). The richness of such content, and the potential for refinement, is thrilling to consider. Much like the Web of Science is beginning to do for academic articles, Askr could do for open learning content. What we need is not the expansion of the MOOC, but an evolution of the library as the ultimate hub for open, connected learning resources.

Mapping Knowledge and Planning Progress

Imagine that, when in those same poetry “stacks”, you could see instantly, what “books” you had read, what poems you liked or wrote about, and a portfolio of your own poems that resulted from your study. The library becomes more than a reservoir of content, but a data and planning center for the development of your mind. For a great example on the beginnings of this, check out what the Khan Academy has done with their math section knowledge map. Imagine if such a map existed in three (four? fifty?) dimensions and included all subjects, displaying the process of development and connections between nodes. Again, some nodes could be whole texts, while others could be short sections on “This is how you learn X”.

Progress on a Khan Academy Knowledge Map

Within this knowledge map, you will have the ability to plan courses of study, follow courses that others have crafted, or just learn everything within a certain content area. Perhaps most excitingly, long-time students will be able to look back at their progress over many years and see a serious portfolio of everything they have ever read, watched, created, and learned. Every assignment, quiz, and essay could be looked at individually, or in aggregate to give students a picture of their personal development thus far. If used to its fullest potential, a student would be able to see the lifelong progression of their talents in a snap-shot and the path they took to get there.

Beyond seeing where they have been, students will be able to do some serious work planning their next steps. Not only can they explore the inspiring stacks of human knowledge, but they can set goals and identify a path for accomplishment. If the map could be made expansive enough, a 4th grader playing with legos who just came home from a field trip at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater could visualize every step needed on the way to mastery in the field of architecture. And they could start right then. This sort of pre-requisite progress mapping helps to further drive home the importance of base skills like mathematics that, too often, feel disconnected from more direct, work-related pursuits. “Oh, so if I want to be an architect I need to master Trigonometry and Physics…and…”

Rendering of Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X

The magic of the “skill tree” is best captured and named in some of the most intricate video games. The Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X provides the player with a way to visualize a series of decisions for their development. Where should you start on the grid? Which direction should you go? If you choose a certain skill set, what areas are you forsaking? This sort of cost-benefit analysis that recognizes the opportunity cost implicit in all education is a powerful act that, while common in games, usually occurs with less intention and less tools in the development of real persons.

The Askr

Since time immemorial, a tree has been the ultimate metaphor for knowledge. Its slow growth and expansion; the changing elements, relational interactions, and multiple dimensions of its multivalent nature closely mimic the complexities of knowledge. In the norse mythology, Yggdrasil (or the world tree) represents the multi-dimensional interconnectedness of worlds, as well as a map between them. This ash tree, or askr (in the norse), is the pillar upon which all civilization is built and through which it is nourished. It was the place in which Odin constantly quested for knowledge with help of his two birds, Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory) upon his shoulders.

The Askr, Yggdrasil, or World Tree

Askr is the right name for this expansive knowledge-mapping endeavor. Not only does it perfectly reference a storied mythology, it also references an apt set of technical arboreal metaphors. Even more simply, it is a name for the learner. Asker: one who asks questions, one who seeks knowledge. Lo and behold, the etymology of our word “ask” has its roots in the norse “askr” (ash tree). It means, literally, that one who asks a question is one who pursues knowledge upon the askr.

This project could become more than a map, but a complex, ever-branching and growing, multi-dimensional platform that contains all the worlds of knowledge. By allowing the learner to visualize connections between familiar and unfamiliar knowledge, it empowers the Asker to pose questions—to learn something—that they did not know existed. Often, there are certain questions for which we have not yet learned the words or, more commonly, we would not think to ask. We cannot Google that which is completely unknown to us, just as we cannot ask questions we have not thought of yet. So many of our web searches are inspired by something we know of, but don’t know about. A project like Askr can help us engage with what is still outside of our consciousness.

Current technology allows for the storage and tremendous collaborative scale in human computation (an answer to the Google < Library problem mentioned earlier) that is necessary to begin such a project. Thankfully, we will not have to fruitlessly build castles in the sky like the delusional Casaubon’s work on The Key to All Mythologies in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Connected Learning

The Askr project is one excellent tool in the pursuit of what the MacArthur Foundation calls connected learning. In addition to creating and curating the educational web, it can map local, out-of-school learning resources. A node or course on Askr could include both digital and non-digital resources. In fact, any effective course, should direct students to both of these.

Any good Askr course (or online course, in general) would consistently challenge students to engage with non-digital learning opportunities whenever possible. Even something as simple as a node that sets parameters for an interactive non-computer exercise. A small example: if a student is studying Spanish on DuoLingo, they should be challenged, in order to continue their path to mastery, to go buy tacos at the Mexican grocery while speaking Spanish. In general, a high percentage of nodes should be production-centered and engage students to use the City as Our Campus.

An Askr course on ceramics, for instance, could include historical texts and instructional videos on Askr, point to a local ceramics class, then to a series of design exercises on Askr, then back to a local ceramics-based service project. Ideally, the instructors of those local courses could utilize Askr content in their classes (creating their own if necessary) and use Askr to promote the existence of their class. In this way, Askr could become a universal, but uniquely local platform for discovering and sharing educational resources (and experiences). Instead of searching “I want to learn x” and getting resources both excellent (the Khan Academy) and terrible (an eHow article), students would go to Askr. There, they will find quality content that has been aggregated, organized, curated, even personalized. Askr would replace the traditional search engine for all learning-related searches.

As local content is created, students will increasingly have access to global content. After all, a global education just requires we learn that which is local somewhere else. Once we have become native to our own places, we can begin to understand and relate to the native of elsewhere. Not only would learners be able to access digital resources from these other places, but they could plan educational travels based on embodied learning experiences in those places.

If one of the Askr roots (perspectives) allowed learners to map content geographically, one could, literally, use a country as their campus, engaging with geo-tagged content remotely or, more powerfully, as they wander—or bicycle—around the country. More than just local classes, Askr could allow for more common places and experiences to be offered up as educational life experiences. For instance, a student “Learning Ireland” while in Ireland, could take a brief course offered in Dublin, study Irish wildlife while hiking the countryside (using Askr resources as a fieldbook), go to Innisfree for a poetry and nature study, visit and work on some Irish farms (offering WWOOFing opportunities), and learn Gaelic as you go. All these resources would be available for students to plan and map on Askr.

Of course, all of these resources already exist, but they are not organized anywhere. An Askr app could function as the ultimate learners guidebook for any new place and entice us with the question: “Want to come learn Ireland?” It could offer travelers an experience that goes beyond the factoids and lodging recommendations of lonely planet. Rather, they could map their journey as one of education , informed by a richly mapped library of a place’s history of knowledge.


The Leaves and Branches

The full details of an Askr project are yet to be written, but it’s worth mentioning some of the fascinating elements of its potential design. The most basic piece of which would be a node. Each node represents either a piece of content or a cluster of content. A node can be zoomed in on (to reveal nodes within) or zoomed out from (to reveal nodes that contain it). Large identifiable groups of nodes would be considered branches and groups of branches would be considered trunks. Sometimes, just as nodes can contain nodes, it may be appropriate for branches to contain smaller branches and trunks to contain smaller trunks.

Essentially, everything functions the same: names are given to nodes within nodes within nodes, until we reach the smallest form of the content: a resource, or leaf (to continue the metaphorical language). Resources, or leaves, can function as nodes or just as resources. That is, not every resource ought to contain other nodes, but some should and not every node is also a resource, but some are. Each node has the potential to contain multiple iterations with the best version having priority (more on this in the section on curation).

An example of the tree (nested data structure) from the perspective of the disciplines root:

Root: Disciplines
Trunk: Literature
. Trunk: Poetry
- Branch: American Poetry
—Branch: American Modernist Poetry
——Node: The Works of Williams Carlos Williams
———Node: The Poetry of William Carlos Williams
————Node/Leaf: ”A Sort of a Song” by William Carlos Williams
—————Leaf: A critique of the poem by William Carlos Williams
—————Leaf: A lecture on the destructive meaning of this poem.
—————Leaf: Assignment to write a poem using the same tension.

This same structure could be translated into the geographic root (more on roots shortly). Note that each trunk, branch, and node could be expanded further and directed towards different resources. There would be many other embodied learning opportunities

Root: Geography
Trunk: Europe
. Trunk: United Kingdom
. Trunk: Ireland
- Branch: County Sligo
—Branch: Lough Gill (Lake)
.——Leaf: Nature Hike around Lough Gill (with plant IDs and audio files concerning landmarks and lake history)
——Node: The Lake Isle of Innisfree
———Node/Leaf: ”The Lake Isle of Innisfree ” poem by W.B. Yeats
————Leaf: Songs by Fleet Foxes: The Shrine/An Argument, Isles
————Leaf: Critical Essay on Transcendentalist impact of Poem
————Leaf: Assignment to write a poem about a similar place.

The Roots

One of the most powerful elements of an Askr project, as mentioned earlier in the discussion on The New Library, is that it enables the deconstruction of disciplines. No resource within Askr needs to exist on just a single shelf, but can be associated with multiple nodes, branches, and trunks depending upon the perspective, or root, a student chooses. By choosing a different root, a student can explore the tree in a completely different lens. Just as you pan your lens around a tree and begin to see the branches overlapping in different ways, so will changing roots offer a different mapped perspective on the knowledge tree.

When the root changes, the perspective would mainly shift the trunks and branches and early nodes. Nodes further along in the tree would often remain unchanged. A limited number of roots would be created that rely on a complex system of tags and relationships to allow for these shifts. Just as a real estate website allows one to view houses by street, by map, or by price; so too could Askr allow students to approach their learning pathways in a number of ways.

Here are some initial possibilities for roots:

  • Disciplines: The standard way of sorting academic knowledge
  • Nature: Sorted based on the structure of the natural world; things related to humans, plants, natural resources, the atmosphere, etc.
  • Geography: Approach content by what is important to, or authored from, a specific place. Learn by walking a path across the earth.
  • Human Discourse: Structured as a giant conversation across the ages. This would be amazing, but would need serious curating.
  • Chronological: Ordered primarily as a timeline of topics in order of development.

The Librarians

Obviously this project would be a tremendous undertaking that would require an effort more difficult and more complex than that of, say, Wikipedia. What Wikipedia has done for the encyclopedia, Askr could begin to do for both Libraries and Schools. However, instead of solely relying on the efforts of the crowd, Askr would have tiers of curation related to quality and the certification of the curator. Curation relates to how students define a path through material, how the different roots and relationships are formed, how content is tagged, documented, and what courses are created through the content.

Hired curators and known experts in their fields would take precedent, followed by community members who have proven their reputation (like the process used on Stack Overflow), followed by a popular support process (+1!). Expert curators would offer something very similar in value to the work of a professor creating a syllabus. They will know best how to fit things together, what seminal texts must be digested, and what course of study is best taken. This could be the beginning of the open-source syllabus.

As curators develop their work on Askr it would be possible for students to follow the work of specific experts, both within Askr and on outside platforms like Twitter, Github, etc. Curating knowledge and learning paths on Askr could offer experts another way to build their reputation in a specific field, as well as providing students with easy ways to connect to mentors and leaders in niche fields. Each branch within Askr could display the current leading expert curators, content creators, and authors of primary texts.

The Curation
As mentioned, curation would fall into three tiered processes: certified experts, the reputations of community members, and popular support (the humble +1). Through these processes, resources will be sorted, named, documented, and commended; courses (or paths) will also be created.

No doubt the curation process will include many roles, but I will briefly explain three primary ones: commending a node, creating courses (or paths), and—the most complex—identifying relationships.

  1. Commending a Node
    Anyone can recommend that a specific resource (or set of resources) take precedent within a node. Just as there are limited spaces for book on library shelves, there is limited screen space and a need for each node to have prioritized content. Certain nodes like, for example,“Explanations of The Affordable Care Act” node might have content that differs in perspective and quality, so curators will set to the work of commending certain types of content as the best explanation of this Act. Multiple iterations and additional content options will always be available and, if the crowd disagrees with the expert or reputable curators, they can +1 a resource towards the top (“No, this, is the best explanation of the affordable care act”). This sort of open process assures quality, but all diversity of available content. While people may agree there is one best way to learn a certain topic, they might want a second opinion, or a resource that offers a different learning style. This also limits the potential for canonization of materials. All created content will be made available and can, potentially, rise to take priority within a node.
  2. Creating Courses
    In addition to commending the best content in each node, curators will be able to offer the best path through the nodes. Courses can be crafted and shared with the community who will, in turn, offer feedback on their quality and effectiveness. A course will chart an ordered path through nodes and, when necessary, create extra course-only resources that help to connect the dots. Courses can, and should, cross between trunks, branches, and root perspectives to offer truly interdisciplinary learning pathways. Whenever a student is viewing an isolated node, they will see potential relationships and courses that utilize that node. Courses, like nodes, will also be commended and ranked.
  3. Identifying Relationships
    This is truly the hardest act of curation. The difficulty found in traditional library work is made much harder when the librarian must define relationships between resources with nearly infinite potential “shelves” on which those resources could be placed. Expert curators will have to identify what resources and nodes should live where, both from the traditional perspective of disciplines, but also from the perspectives of other roots. Obviously, the detailed and accurate documentation of content will become extremely important.

Certain branches of knowledge, like fringe subjects, or those dealing with ultra-contemporary projects, would initially rely more on the Askr community than on experts. Every point of curation within Askr would be marked by the curator, either an expert or a reputable community member.

Data and Credentialling

I’ll be concise here. It should be noted again that, more than the MOOC, Askr lends itself to hybrid or “flipped” learning within the context of an accredited University. On the alternative side of things, the intense curative process lends itself to easy correlation with things like the Open Badges platform or, simply, students can point to their progress on Askr itself as proof of their expertise in a certain area. The Open Badges platform also lends itself well to integration with non-digital learning opportunities that have a presence on askr (more on this soon).

As mentioned earlier, Askr could also function as a portfolio of a student’s work with completed projects being correlated to their respective nodes, as well as integration with other portfolio- and reputation-building platforms (Github, Stack Overflow, etc). In the long term, student data could be hosted for their private use on Askr. Soon, a powerful act will be possible: give students a look at their own data. Students would be able to do in depth analysis on long term trends in their personal development. One’s Askr profile could become a credential-conglomeration much richer than that of the grade-point average or academic resume. It could contain the complete scope of one’s schooled and non-schooled learning accomplishments.

The Economics

One question that the MOOC has yet to answer is “How do we pay for this?” While crowd-sourced knowledge and donations consistently fund Wikipedia, and DuoLingo captures the value of massive human computation, Askr will require numerous experts that are compensated for their work. Although Askr would require a serious staff, much like the operation of the Khan Academy, it would also rely on the contributions of thousands of non-staff experts who should be compensated in varying amounts.

I see four obvious ways to provide compensation for both staff and non-staff contributors:

  1. Paid Members: Support the internal staff by offering premium memberships to the Askr platform. Ideally, the vast majority of Askr content should be free and openly available, but some content and more advanced tools (such as those that would be used by teachers, universities, and libraries) would require payment. Premium membership to Askr could also provide discounts on paid content.
  2. Paid Content: Necessarily, some content that should be on Askr would require payment. Obviously, the purchase of books and films falls into this category, but so do some lectures and interactives, like what offers to members. Askr could take a tiny percentage of paid content sales. Content authors could have the choice to make their work open-source, free, or paid.
  3. Content referrals: While Askr should always remain ad-free, it necessarily contains references to a lot of copyrighted content that many students will purchase. Any paid-content that is a resource on Askr, referral links to a range of sellers would be provided for a percentage of the sale. Ideally, digital and physical library integration could also occur so that your first options are to find a free text (if public domain) or borrow it locally. Additionally, the services of some expert curators could be acquired for free, in return for them being able to highlight their text in a course they create. e.g. a Michael Pollan course on Food Studies.
  4. Gittip: My favorite option is the most direct. If someone is contributing excellent creative or curatorial work to Askr, their fans should support them by funding them on Gittip. The goal of Gittip is to function as “genius grants for the rest of us”, a sort of sustainable crowd-funding platform for people contributing freely to the common good. If we fund them on Gittip, we enable them (like mini-benefactors) to continue doing their good work on Askr and beyond. Every Askr resource, node, or class will be tagged with the stamp of the curator and a Gittip heart-coin link to encourage this sort of support. Through Gittip, we can support grass-roots development in the quality curation of any knowledge area students find interest.

Askr PART IV: Addressing Limits with Integration

The goal of this thought experiment is to recognize exactly where the web excels and describe an educational platform that plays to its strengths. For it to be truly effective, however, the platform must also address its limits and point to resources that can provide what it lacks: mentors, fellow students, places, application, and inspiration. This section will talk briefly on ways we could connect Askr resources to non-digital learning experiences. How do we point Askr back to the world?

The Magic of Libraries and Unintentional Knowledge

Building on this sense of mythology and history, I want to talk more about the concept of library magic that is captured so well in our hearts, as well as in video games and film. The Askr project must build itself in recognition of the history and weightiness of its undertaking, recognizing the importance of aesthetics and architecture. My current library catalog is far from gorgeous, especially when compared to the building. Students using Askr should feel a sense purpose and grandeur in their work. Askr should be as artistic and expressive as it is powerful and organized, an exemplary reconciliation of theory and practice, of beauty and utility. On Askr itself, let’s create the digital equivalent of a Michelangelo painting on the ceiling, but also recognize that people will be engaging with this platform from places.

Askr could be complemented by learning stations in our libraries that provide excellent hardware, software, and physical space that is appropriate to the platform. Ideally, these stations could re-focus our library time away from World of Warcraft and the world’s worst flash games and, once again, towards educational resources of some fashion. The main reason libraries allow so much internet access is because so many educational resources are found online and nowhere else. In the spirit of freedom, not all library stations should be sequestered, but many would value the focus an Askr-only workstation would provide.

Perhaps most importantly, the creation of Askr must recognize the value of unintentional knowledge. While there is great power in Search it has serious limits when it comes to learning. Education, in its purest form, is the expansion of consciousness. If we can only expand our consciousness through search, we are limited to those things which we already know or, at best, what is connected to that which we already (as in the case of the “wiki-hole”). The future of knowledge needs to value aimless browsing on par with targeted search. As Julio Alves argues in his essay on the subject:

“there is pedagogical value in getting lost in the stacks”.

The Role of the Librarian

With this changed paradigm in mind, the new librarian will continue to curate and share content, but in a careful recognition of exactly where their value lies. As mentioned, the librarian has serious value in two ways:

  1. The Digital Librarian: Instead of replicating the work of others, by curating in isolation, librarians should collaborate on building and connecting universally applicable, digital content within Askr and the distribution of it to their public.
  2. The Place-Based Librarian: The most irreplaceable work of the librarian lies in the unique connections and knowledge they have of their immediate communities. Noting this, librarians should, more than ever, become experts on their places and become curators and promotors of local learning resources. Using Askr, librarians can catalog and share what Pittsburgh (or any other place) has to offer and can create and tag place-based learning nodes and courses for students.

Redirecting the Energy Behind the MOOC

In building the Askr platform, teachers will naturally join librarians in doing quality curative work whenever they use the platform to create course syllabi. In this way, Askr powerfully lends itself to the easy execution of digitally-resourced courses like the “flipped classroom” and hybrid courses, for which many are already calling. At the Saxifrage School, we’ve already attempted to hybridize an in-person course with the content of a MOOC, but there are significant challenges due to the unwieldiness and mystery of the MOOC. Because the MOOC is so self-contained, it is too difficult for the in-person facilitator to know what the MOOC will teach, when it will teach it, and how to properly extend the learning.

In the context of Askr, the lectures, exercises, assignments, and expert curation that is contained within the MOOC would be broken apart into separate nodes for the easy use of others (while still being available as a whole course). Content would be available for others to utilize it in their own time, with a full preview of the content. In common language, Sal Khan’s flipped classroom idea just asks us to subtract as much static content from the classroom as possible. Take out everything you can from the class that can be digested as well—or better—in a digital format, and utilize class time for the rest.

Just as recitation gave way to the book with lengthy lectures and, in turn evolved into use of the textbook supplemented by more concise lectures, content has now become interactive exercises, multimedia libraries, and video lectures. Sal Khan may be right that this is not just another evolutionary step in technology, but the final stage of that evolution where all content can be removed from the classroom, leaving the class to focus wholly on discussion, inspiration, critique, and project-based learning.

Teaching, as we know it, could be seen as dividing into three categories of knowledge-transferring work: digital and place-based librarians (to curate and share content), creators (to create content), and facilitators (to apply content and engage students). Ideally, certain people would fall into two or all three of these roles at times.

The Future of Teachers

In using Askr, teachers can do less administering and creating of content and more mentoring of their students. Askr is nothing new in this regard, but would expand what the Khan Academy is already doing so well in offering teachers tools to visualize individual student progress. As the teacher has time (and tools) to better know their students, they can re-imagine their roles in a number of ways. Perhaps, most powerfully, such a platform could move us away from what Freire calls “the banking concept” of education and towards more genuine teacher-student relationships.

Teachers could move away from a focus on expert lecturing, to a focus on mentorship and apprenticing their students into work focused on meeting the needs of their place. As Wendell Berry simply puts it, we need more people who see “something that needs to be done and starting to do it, without the government’s permission, or official advice, or expert advice, or applying for grants or anything else. They just start doing it.” Teachers ought to be, more than anything, people who are leading by example in doing this needed work; people who are leading by patiently bringing others into that work with them. They would be teachers in the literal sense of the latin “educare”, meaning to open up, draw out, and lead forth.

Perhaps the disruption offered by new technologies can force a moment of questioning in which, new and old teachers alike ask themselves “Why School?” and base their teaching on the answer to that foundational question. People have mentioned that thinkers like Montessori and Dewey were decades ahead of their time. Let’s hope, for the sake of so many unengaged students, that this is true. For Dewey, the primary goal of education is to inspire the learner to more learning. If, at the end of schooling, a student is not more enamored to learn than when they began, then the entire experience has been miseducative. Dewey’s ideal student outcome, which most would agree on, is the passionate, self-directed learner. Askr can provide the map for self-directed learners, while teachers provide the compass and the courage.

The Role of the School

Conversations on digital content and connected learning often coincide with discussions on fostering genuine civic engagement in students. If you take digital content to its extreme, there is no more content in schools. If you take the civic engagement discussion to its extreme so that students are “living” not “merely studying”, the ideal finds students using their city as the campus, not the school. Recognizing these extremes, it begs the questions: “What are schools then for?”

The school, beyond any cultural associations or programming it holds, is just a building. A piece of infrastructure utilized for the operation of classes. It is filled with books, lesson plans, printers, teachers, students, and offices. If increasing amounts of content and programming are happening without the help of the school’s infrastructure, it liberates that infrastructure to be used for other purposes. Again it comes down to redefining the boundaries: what does digital not do well? What is hard to do out there in the city-campus?

There is a singular answer to these two questions: making stuff. Even if it means blowing stuff up. A school that is primarily digital in content and outwardly civic in focus should be powerfully resourced as the world’s greatest sandbox. Right now, the trailer to Minecraft claims this title, but our schools must fight to reclaim it. Resurrect the shop class, grow food, and hack on everything. At home, young students can afford Duplos, and then Legos. At school, they should have the blocks and tools to start building the world. And not just for pretend.



Timothy Freeman Cook
The Saxifrage School

Product @launchdarkly; founder of @saxifrageschool ed. laboratory. Part-time farmer. Bikes. Poems.