I just returned from the Summer New Media Consortium (NMC) conference at MIT in Cambridge, MA. A terrific three days, chock-full of excellent speakers, edgy ideas, and excellent networking. This post will be an attempt to capture and process what I heard and saw – or at least a first stab at it.
The first full day opened with Joichi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, as the conference keynote. He gave a wonderful talk and set the tone for the meeting ahead by explaining that life at the Media Lab (where innovation rules) is less about “stocking” (filling your head with information) and more about “pulling” (being able to pull the information you need, when you need it). The Media Lab is really set up like an adult kindergarten – you get interested in stuff, you mess around, you figure things out. Created 28 years ago, there are 26 faculty (in different fields…they call themselves “anti-disciplinary”), 140 graduate students, 300 research projects, 70 sponsors, and an annual budget of $35 million.
Ito talked about the finances of innovation with venture capitalists. Basically, it comes down to the fact that the “sitting- around-and-thinking-about-it” costs or the “trying-to-retool-it-costs” are always more than the “just-try-it” costs. If it’s not working, abandon it – good luck, move on, come back when you have another good idea. His average project at the Media Lab costs less than $100k. He cites the example of a company spending $3 million on a feasibility study to decide whether or not to move forward on a $600k idea. A total waste. Interesting way of thinking…
Ito then went into a description of his media philosophy, by talking about the thinkers who influenced/architected the internet. This is important to provide as context since, as Ito puts it, “The internet is not a tool, it’s a philosophy.” I really liked that. Starting with Small Pieces Loosely Joined (David Weinberger), then onto David Clark, Rough Consensus Running Code, which basically translates as come to a rough consensus, write code, hack on it, retool. From there, he went onto The Power of Pull, John Seely Brown, the importance of serendipity, and getting good at using your peripheral vision.
Ito went on to encourage us to “think like mushroom hunters”. When hunting for mushrooms (notoriously hard to spot), experienced mushroom hunters don’t look for mushrooms, they search for complex patterns. They stop looking at anything in particular (don’t focus), and instead look for patterns – voila! the mushrooms pop into your view. The more you focus, the less pattern recognition you have. So, at the Media Lab, he tries to get people to stop focusing and, instead, use their peripheral vision. We’re so used to planning and focus being good things, but he and the Media Lab are going in the exact opposite direction.
With this approach, he finds that people can be more agile. You can build first, think later. You make things really quickly because you really don’t know until you see it whether or not they will work. He doesn’t believe in longterm strategy – “by the time you figure out the strategy, the world has changed”.
HIS PHILOSOPHY: resilience (instead of strength)/pull (instead of push)/risk (instead of safety)/systems (instead of objects)/compasses (instead of maps)/practice (instead of theory)/disobedience (instead of compliance)/crowds (instead of experts)/learning (instead of education)
Following that high point, there were a number of other excellent speakers and sessions. Sherry Lassiter (MIT, The Center for Bits and Atoms), talked with us about Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Lab). She set the context for her work by reminding us of the previous two digital revolutions: analog to digital communication and analog to digital computation. And now, as she sees it, we’re in the third revolution – moving from digital to analog fabrication (making things).
She teaches an MIT course called How To Make (Almost) Anything. If you could make (almost) anything, what would you make? Students do amazing projects with laser cutters and 3D printing machines. And now, they’ve set up 135 fab labs in 27 countries around the planet. All the fab labs include a laser cutter, a sign cutter (circuits), milling machine (circuit boards and moulds), and a 3 D printer – all wrapped together with an electronics workbench. Young people come into the lab, pull the required knowledge as they need it, and apply it to build what they imagine. Of course, they don’t get it right the first time, but they keep trying until they get what they planned, inventing and problem solving as they go.
Lassiter describes the 21st century workforce as a STEM-capable workforce. The inventions coming out of the fab lab are amazing – wireless infrastructures, solar homes, agricultural innovations… Lassiter strongly urged us all go out and “make something” (you’ll be glad you did).
Scott Sayre, founder and principal at Sandbox Studios, a Minneapolis-based group that works with museums and storytelling, also gave a terrific talk. He urged us all to think of the ways that museums display art – in a clean room, simply hung where you don’t really know the story of each piece – how it was created, how it got there, who all owned it. You also don’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff at the museum – the huge staff, the storage bunkers (~95% of any museum’s collection is in storage), the conservation efforts, the other voices (see the Walker Center’s staff blog site). Sayre advocates the telling of all of these stories - past and present – in our museums.
“A deed, a gesture, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrapper.”
A very useful break-out group session called “Don’t Adjust Your Set - This Class is Live” was given by Andy Rush, Tim Owens, and Grant Potter. They’ve been making good use of live radio, podcasting and videocasting in their teaching. Many of you are well acquainted with DS 106 – these are a few of the guy behind it. Great advice on apps, software, and techniques for livecasting cheaply and efficiently. Check out this page for all sorts of useful tips and this page for their past presentation videos.
One of my favorite parts of the meeting was the sessions “Ideas That Matter“, a 90-minute session on the morning of the last day which featured eight excellent speakers giving short, TED-style talks. Among them was Helen Keegan‘s presentation of her amazing adventure running a module of her course as an alternate reality game. If you haven’t read about it yet, you’ll want to: Who is Rufi Franzen? And see the collection of tweets. Absolutely fascinating.
Another favorite of mine was Keith Kruger, CEO of Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), who gave a rousing talk “The Big Hairy Problems of Technology and K-12 Education”. I particularly liked this series of historical quotes he flashed up on the screen:
“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend upon their slates, which are more expensive. What will they do when their slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write!” -Teachers Conference, 1703
“Students today depend too much upon ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.” -National Association of Teachers, 1907
“Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices and then throw them away. The virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Businesses and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” - The Federal Teacher, 1950
Just a humorous reminder that we humans have been here before, nay-saying new technology…You can read the whole raft of these shades from the past here.
The meeting concluded with a wonderful capstone in the form of Lord David Puttnam’s talk. Lord Puttnam is the current Chancellor of the UK’s Open University, but prior to that he was a film producer. His experiences making movies (Oscar-winning movies!), along with his cinematographer’s eye, is evident in both the content of his message, as well as the way he conveys it. His talk was a call to action…the undeniable necessity to overcome education’s “stultifying resistance to change”.
He made a beautiful analogy between the development of the machine gun (and its impact on warfare) and the current situation with educational technology (and illustrated it with a stirring clip from the movie War Horse). Apparently, the machine gun’s introduction was delayed by endless debates over cost/affordable/practicality as well as the love affair that war strategists and officers had with the horse. Once it was demonstrated undeniably effective in battle (during World War One), there was no more discussion – the money simply had to be found.
Lord Puttnam explained that it’s the same with educational reform – we simply can not afford not to do it. “To settle for anything less is to risk the success of the next generation. We can not allow our children to drift into being second class world citizens.” It was a stirring end to an intensely interesting week.
- The importance of agility and moving quickly to try things
- The importance of making things and the catalytic environments that support that: Makerspaces, TechShops, Hackerspaces, Fab Labs, DIY
- The power of igniting passion and curiosity in students
- Keith Krueger’s suggestion that the question “should we invest in educational technology?” is the WRONG question. Rather we should ask “What should learning look like today so that students are prepared for tomorrow?”. If we ask that question, technology will be squarely in the center.