TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

Open source learning


About David

David Preston holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Science. He has taught at universities and graduate institutes and consulted on matters of learning and organizational development for 20 years. For the past seven years, David has also taught English for students of all ability levels in grades 9-12 in Los Angeles and on California’s central coast.


What a wonderful moment for learning! Not just because I’ve had a fan crush on TED for the last few years and this is an amazing event with all the ideas and speakers we’ve had so far. But also what a time to be alive and thinking about learning.

Traditionally, learning was just seen as what happened between our own two ears. I’m not so sure that is what learning is. We are talking about social learning now. We are talking about technology-mediated learning.

I find myself wondering what is going through all those heads right now. For all of our advances in neuroscience and observational technology, and academic disciplines, I’m still at a loss to explain how that sub-neuronal lightning storm somehow creates my experience of being alive.

And I wonder if we can map reasonably a population’s efforts at the thought process, not just snapshots in time of how people do on tests or how people do on content, but what does it all mean to be learning in a time when we have an ever-increasingly complicated and uncertain future? So to me, learning is the ultimate open question.

I’ve been at this for a long time. (Laughter) In the first grade, the first question I asked was to the kid next to me, “Eric! Why is she pulling kids’ hair for getting a math problem wrong?” And the first thing I learned was how well, and how amazingly well, an aspirated whispered “s” traveled across the first grade classroom and entered right into her ear.

So on my way to the principal’s office, I remember sitting down in the hallway and asking, “Is this learning? Is this what it is supposed to look like?” I’ve been gnawing on this question ever since; that was 37 years ago.

Since then, I am a creature of public education, and this is a very special event for me because all three of my degrees are from UCLA, and I taught here for 10 years.

But in 2004, I decided to go back and start teaching high school courses because I wanted to know for my own two eyes and two ears what we can possibly do in today’s culture to help people learn.

And now I have a vested interest. My daughter is the apple who hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.

So now I find myself thinking, “How could I preserve the values of learning that are so messy and chaotic, and fun, and the stuff of life?”

You know that the research out there is not only finding that learning is the key to innovation, community good, and marketplace good. We are also finding that learning may actually be a cause to cure depression. Learning makes us happy, developing new neurons is the stuff of life.

But my daughter isn’t facing the same conditions that I faced. We have over a trillion dollars of toxic student loan debt. We’ve got an environment in which desperate times are consistently calling for ever more desperate measures. So in that environment, what does it mean to be an educated global citizen in the information age?

To begin with, I think we need to have a conversation about digital literacy, not certainly as a substitute for in-person interaction, but as a way — you saw the quote over Royce Hall — to make sure that we’re using the tools of our age to the best of our ability and to the fullest potential.

In a broader conversation, we’d be talking about how the curriculum should include mental fitness, physical fitness, spiritual fitness, civic fitness, and technological fitness. But for the purpose of today’s talk, we’re going to focus on the latter.

Lots of people around the world now are using technology in their learning communities: blogs, wikis, all sorts of apps and tools out there. But this also isn’t about the apps or tools. If Enzo Ferrari, God forbid, had focused on a screwdriver the way educators today and the policy makers focus on tools, we never would have gotten into a car.

By showing these artifacts, I’m going to take you through a quick tour of how one learning community is opening the source. I don’t just mean what code we’re using to write to. And I don’t just mean that teacher is a DJ using sources in addition to the textbook. I mean, can we create a learning community that is technologically enabled to share information in such a way that we are all co-authoring our learning experience without compromising on the evaluation side of things?

If in the information age, the core for us is gathering, curating, analyzing, evaluating and ultimately acting on information, surely we don’t need to throw out the quality baby with the bathwater.

When I get on an airplane or going for surgery, it’s really important to me that that professional has a metric that tells me he knows or she knows what she is doing. But in this environment, we can quickly see how authentic artifacts of learning create a multi-dimensional picture that shows me how a person is progressing.

When you look at these blogs, for example, you don’t just see a response to an assignment, and you don’t just see an authorship for an audience of many. You see elements of personality. You see elements of aesthetic. You see elements of style. When people begin curating and collaborating together, we see different elements of technology-enabled community.

This was an article where we had 24 hours to put up a research flash mob. We all created a strategic plan, figured out how we were going to do this, and it was a happy mess. But in 24 hours, we created a mind map that explicated a very, very dense piece of literature in a way that none of us could have on our own.

This is our little mini-Arab Spring where essentially, learners are taking the process into their own hands and learning to reach out beyond the teacher as practitioner to the teacher’s network.

When I saw Eli Pariser’s talk on filter bubbles, for example, yes, I assigned them the video, but then I sent him an email. We do that with every author we read. Who better to comment on the original piece than the author him or herself?

And for future, who better than the auto mechanic down the block to teach auto-shop? Who has got a better equipment in today’s budget? Who’s got better eye for talent?

As you see the conversations take place, this doesn’t just extend the content. This extends the process. Students have the capability to reach out all throughout the world, and they’re underutilizing that.

It’s not their fault. We haven’t trained them. We haven’t given them permission. Now learners are capable of having online conferences with thought leaders all over the world. And what they quickly find is that we’re no longer spectators in front of this screen. We are active participants.

This image proves the point. We showed up in a TED talk in Africa. That was an eye-opener for a lot of people who have been on Facebook for years, but digital natives? I’m a native of California, it doesn’t make me an expert. And tools won’t change the game. 

When you hear the future is video — I’m neutral on tools, they can be used for wonderful things, but a scalpel in the hand of a surgeon can save your life; a scalpel in the hand of a gangster can take it.

Here gamification is at play, but that is not the only answer. It’s an answer and the key element of this is that students created their own opportunities for assessing each other. 

What happens when a community polices itself? Not as an authority police, but as a community support. They created their own assessment. They still do. I don’t keep a roll book. Not only that, but they hacked the game too. They can create the curriculum just as well.

Now they are working on extending their personal learning networks to the point that we are creating an opportunity for thousands of people to collaborate across the country on a single exam. This is a mind map that one student created remixing the curriculum. And of course, they can teach as well.

I’m not the greatest expert in the world on internet security. My former education on computers ended with a TRS80 in 1980. (Laughter) But I’ve got white hat hackers in the room who know better how to protect things, so I had them teach the class. They’re creating resources online for each other.

Can you imagine a coalition of the willing across this globe creating artifacts for each other to help each other learn? You’ve seen the Hole-in-the-Wall experiment? It doesn’t take much. This is all intentionally underdesigned freeware that we were using.

Here a student said, “You know, writing seems like a daunting task, but I think maybe I’d like to try it.” So I added him on. Well, bingo! We’ve got a publisher now. A bunch of students in a high school in central California are writing novels for National Novel Writing Month. How many of you want to tackle writing a novel in a month?

There are elements of learning that we lose along the way. The passion and idealism of high school students is something amazing to watch. I can’t sit still for six hours and do any one thing anymore. And I don’t have ADD unless it’s culturally enabled.

But watching what happens when learners have permission, gives them a sense of value, and ultimately, in our culture, entrepreneurship is a function of value. Entrepreneurship is a function of taking personal responsibility for putting something out there; what we are all doing here today.

Ultimately, if we encourage people to achieve their own value, to get referendums through online media, through social media, we have a better opportunity than ever of creating a sort of innovation that will see us through the next century.

When I look at what is potentially possible here, again, we are doing this with no software whatsoever. But when you think about it, we’ve got research out there that suggests that the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, increases the complexity and diversity of information in the system.

Can you imagine what could be possible with 3.0 affordances to the point you wouldn’t have to compare reading scores from Iceland to America, you could compare information and judge exactly in real-time how well a community or a system is learning. You could have — I mentioned the mechanic down the block — revenue streams all over this economy that transform learning from a cost center to a profit center.

And I will leave you with this thought. We’ve heard so many ideas today across the disciplines, and Shakespeare came up more than once. This is not an educational problem.

As I think about my daughter and the world that so many of our young people are going to face in the next decade, information has never been more available, it has never been more free. You can take every course MIT has to offer for free. But the credentials still costs you close to a quarter of a million dollars.

Can you imagine what would happen if we underwent that sort of transformation? This is not an educational question. It’s an existential question. To be or not to be. Thank you. (Applause!)