The honeymoon is over. People are writing about how online education willneverreplaceofflineeducation. I’d like to challenge that view: not only will online education eventually be as good as offline education, it will be better.
Saying that online education will never be as good as offline (because it’s not currently as good) is like taking one look at a Model T, saying that it’s unsafe, and urging everyone to switch back to horses.
The reason online classes will eventually be better than offline classes is simple:
We can measure and respond to students’ behavior much more easily and quickly when education is digital than when it is analog.
On the other hand, what makes for a good teacher in a classroom setting? A good teacher is someone who can:
come up with compelling content that explains complicated topics
take in a lot of information about how students are responding to that content
quickly adjust the style based on that information quickly
A good teacher can see the look in a student’s eyes and tell immediately whether a particular topic is resonating or not. He or she has the ability to reiterate a point and respond to questions in real time. That’s what we mean when we say that an in-person classroom experience is more “personal” — and it’s hard to imagine online education being able to match that anytime soon.
But let’s suspend disbelief for a second. In theory, a computer can take in vastly more information than a human can and respond to it much faster. According to Scientific American, two years ago the fastest computer could store almost ten time as much data as the human brain and process it almost four times as fast.
Companies in the online education space are not currently taking advantage of even a fraction of the data that they could be.
Imagine what a good teacher could do if he or she knew where exactly a student was getting confused during a lesson, how long it took that student to complete an exercise, or even the student’s physiological responses to the content (say, for example, by tracking heart-rate or eye movements via webcam — forget about the creepy-factor).
There are a handful of education startups already tracking some of this data, but they’ve barely scratched the surface of how to use it to make education more compelling.
This brings me to my second and more pressing point:
The biggest problem with in-person education is that it forces a linear, one-size-fits-all teaching style.
In any classroom, there will be some students are behind and some that are ahead.
Even the best teacher in the world must deal with this tradeoff, which boils down to the following question: Should I slow down to help more students understand, or speed up to cover more material?
And so they inevitably end up settling on a pace and an educational approach somewhere in the middle.
As a result, in-person education is always suboptimal for a large number of students in a classroom.
Online education can solve this problem because it allows for personalized learning. Educational content and style can adapt to a particular student and that student’s response to a particular lesson.
Imagine a world in which no one person experiences the same class in the same way. One that adjusts a lesson on computer programming depending on whether a student already has previous experience with programming, or is a total beginner — why not use concepts a student may already have to allow them to learn something faster?
Or one in which the way the material is delivered is different depending on whether the student is an auditory, a visual, or a kinesthetic learner.
Or one in which the order of the lessons themselves are rearranged. (Or A/B tested!)
Or one that can identify early that a student might get stuck in an upcoming lesson and takes him or her on a learning detour to reinforce important concepts and avoid frustration that might otherwise lead to abandonment.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine this world, because Salman Khan is already doing it with Khan Academy (watch 13:35 if you’re not yet sold on the value of personalized education).
Finally, advancements in online education allow teachers to treat classes in the same way that startups treat products.
There are tons of amazing tools out there for a/b testing, onboarding, gamification, email campaigns, measuring user satisfaction, and so much more that startups use. Why not apply the same tools to education? It’s going to happen, it’s only a matter of time.
That’s why it’s frustrating to hear people brush off online education as a failure that will never amount to anything. Let’s see the current batch of online educational classes and platforms as what they really are: a first attempt.
Back when I first declared my CS major at Rutgers three years ago, the community was a far cry from the vibrant and passionate one that characterizes Rutgers today. When I started, Rutgers computer science was a disparate collection of students who scarcely got together in groups larger than four people.
Since then, the community has grown by leaps and bounds; its members have launched startups, taken second in the inaugural MLH season, and founded both a semi-annual hackathon and a semi-annual tech meetup. Now that I have 1.5 feet out the door at Rutgers, I wanted to take a look what factors came together these past three years to change Rutgers CS from a scattered community to the massive group of developers it is today. In the process, I hope that our success can provide some ideas for people hoping to create a similar culture at their school.
When you hear “campus computer labs”, it generally conjures up unappealing images like this:
Although there is a fair amount of that at Rutgers, one of our labs is quite different. A few years back a Rutgers employee named Lars Sorrenson decided to convert one of our CS labs into a collaborative learning space. The result was the CAVE, a CS lab which looks something like this.
Although the CAVE isn’t exactly a productive work environment, its design has made the room a CS community hub at Rutgers. The CAVE serves as a great place for workshops and tutoring, but its most important role is as a place for students to meet and hangout between classes. Sometimes they’ll discuss programming, but other times they will just play video games or watch the latest Game of Thrones episode on the giant TV. Through it all, familiar faces from class become acquaintances, acquaintances become friends, and those friendships form the basis for a strong community of developers at Rutgers.
What any university can do: Create a comfortable physical space for students to hang out in and get to know each other. If you can convert an old computer lab, that’s great; if not, try looking for other options to get people in the same space together.
HackRU was started and held regularly
Although now there are a fair number of Rutgers students who regularly travel to hackathons, three years ago you would have been pressed to find more than a handful who even knew what a hackathon was. HackRU initially started out as a modest attempt to grow this small handful, but since then it has grown to engage 250+ students every semester. In the process, it has helped hugely in building community by bringing hacker culture to students at Rutgers.
As the attendance at HackRU demonstrates, there is a large group of students who are either too busy, too intimidated, or simply unaware of hackathons that are going on around the country. By creating an on-campus hackathon, the organizers of HackRU have been able to bring these students together and get them excited about building projects in a way that didn’t happen before. This is not only awesome because it grows the skills of young developers, but also because it shows all the attendees that they’re a part of a larger Rutgers developer community.
We created culture based on learning and positivity
Tess Rinearson wrote an awesome article a while back about how CS
is a community that is focused on building each other up, and we’ve tried to make that very evident at Rutgers. As many community leaders have grown and become more skilled, they have started to focus on helping underclassmen improve their skills and encouraging them to work on side projects.
From their very first CS course, students are introduced to the idea that
Rutgers CS is a helpful community of students by the peer mentoring program. Through this, upperclassmen are put in charge of running small recitations for CS 111, our Intro to CS course at Rutgers. In addition to helping take some of the load off department TAs and establishing a precedent of helpfulness, the peer leader program has served as a great way for upperclassmen to bring underclassmen into the CS community without them having to attend events.
Over the past three years, the spirit of that program has been taken up and broadened by a couple of on campus organizations dedicated to helping students build their programming skills outside the classroom. One such organization, RUMAD has done this by helping students build mobile applications, a process which includes hands-on workshops and presentations about the latest technology. Another organization called USACS has been offering mentoring, tutoring sessions, and a weekly Hacker Hour series to teach students about topics they wouldn’t learn in class. At the same time, RU Tech Meetup and the Rutgers Hackathon Club have also sprung up as avenues for students to get together and show off what they built, thus furthering the idea that students can, and should, get together to build projects on their own.
Taken together, these efforts haven’t produced a development utopia at Rutgers, but they have produced a community of students who are eager to grow their skills and help others do the same.
What any university can do: Create mentorship programs to encourage young developers and help them feel comfortable. Also, create opportunities where people can be recognized for their hard work.
Leaders stepped up and built organizations which brought people together
One of the biggest problems that faced the Rutgers technology community when I joined was that it lacked leaders who took the initiative in building it. All that has changed over the last 3 years as a handful of leaders have emerged to drive the community to its current state.
The proto-leaders in this sense were V and Sameen, two of the big architects behind HackRU, but they aren’t the only ones. Since HackRU 1, many leaders have stepped up and left a legacy of building community at Rutgers. On the USACS side, after V and Sameen stepped down, Devon served as president and brought his own brand of creativity to the table, and now Billy Lynch is doing the same with his presidency at USACS. At the same time, leadership has expanded past USACS in the form of Swift, who has set the gold standard helping Rutgers students even after graduation, and the RUMAD team: Nis, Dave, and co., all of whom have taken RUMAD from nothing to a 200+ person club in just two years. Without the contributions of these and many other leaders, it is tough to say what the Rutgers community would look like today. However, what’s for sure is that because of these students’ hard-work in building events and organizations, Rutgers technologists have been able to come together in a way that was unheard of 3 years ago.
What university can do: If you feel like your school needs to have a larger community, start planning events you’d want to attend and then market the hell out of them. Communities don’t just magically appear from thin air, it takes people to build them.
Looking back at the past three years, it’s pretty amazing to see what how much the CS culture at Rutgers has grown. While we haven’t built a development paradise, we have taken a community of 10 students and transformed into a group of 350+ developers who are energized about building new projects. Sadly my time as a Rutgers CS undergrad is coming to an end, so I won’t be able to shape the future of the undergrad community anymore. Nonetheless, I’ll be back as an alumnus over the coming years, and I’m excited to see how future students find ways to grow the Rutgers developer community even further.
(A big thank you also goes to Gerard and V for their help in editing these thoughts into a coherent piece)
By most measures, I should have technical entitlement in spades.
I’m the granddaughter of a software engineer and the daughter of a entrepreneur. I could use a computer just about as soon as I could sit up. When I was 11, I made my first website and within a year I was selling code. I took six semesters of computer science in high school, and I had two internships behind me when I started my freshman year of college.
Despite what it may seem, I’m not trying to brag—seriously. I’m just trying to prove a point: I should not be intimidated by technical entitlement.
And yet I am. I am very intimidated by the technically entitled.
You know the type. The one who was soldering when she was 6. The one who raises his hand to answer every question—and occasionally tries to correct the professor. The one who scoffs at anyone who had a score below the median on that data structures exam (“idiots!”). The one who introduces himself by sharing his StackOverflow score.
That’s technical entitlement. It starts with a strong background in tech, often at a very young age. With some extreme confidence and perhaps a bit of obliviousness, this blooms into technical entitlement, an attitude characterized by showmanship and competitiveness.
It’s easy to dismiss technical entitlement. People often cite social ineptitude as a reason for unpleasant behavior in tech. But, frankly, I’m tired of that excuse. The fact is, the behavior that comes from technical entitlement is poisonous. It can really ruin someone’s introduction to computer science.
Let me frame it this way: I know logically that I’m pretty good. But I never feel like I’m as good, or as experienced, as everyone else.
I always feel like I’m behind, trying to catch up to a group of super-elites who’ve been programming since they could walk.
Now imagine someone starting out as a college student taking their first CS course. Imagine how the technical elite make them feel.
“Oh, that’s not for me.” I’ve heard this more times than I can count. Or, “I’m not that kind of person.” Or even just sheepish laughter. I have several extremely sharp, logical friends who won’t even think about CS because it’s not “right” for them. (How can you know this if you don’t try?!)
At the NY Tech Meetup’s “Conversation with Women in Tech” (which is 100% worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet), my friend Amy Quispe talked about her experience studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon. She didn’t like it—at least, not at first. “I felt like an outsider,” she said.
As an aside, this is patently absurd. Amy is the kind of person who everyone knows and adores. Amy is at the heart of Carnegie Mellon’s CS community, and is a pillar of the CS student community for students everywhere–even if she hasn’t always felt like that. In the fall of 2011, Amy decided to organize a hackathon. Hackathons weren’t popular at CMU, she explains. But her hackathon was a huge success. Why?
She broke down the entitlement barrier. “We told people, ‘You are exactly the kind of person who does this kind of thing. You’re exactly the kind of smart, creative people who like to solve problems. So why not?’”
Amy’s hackathon, TartanHacks, had a turnout of over 150 students. Most other CMU hackathons had no more than 50.
At the same event, Jessica Lawrence, who organizes the NY Tech Meetup, told a similar story. And hers illustrates the real danger of technical entitlement: It discourages diversity.
One of Lawrence’s roles is finding startups to demo at NYTM, and she had trouble getting women to demo, she explains. She’d invite women and most of them would turn her down. Out of curiosity, she decided to organize an event just for women—and they applied in spades. She had so many female founders apply that she was turning them away. “Why?” she asked them. “Why did you never apply to the full NY Tech Meetup?”
Their responses were astonishingly consistent. They didn’t apply for NYTM because it was big, and intimidating. They felt like they “weren’t ready.” Women in tech, Lawrence concluded, don’t have an under-aspiration problem or an under-competence problem.
“There is,” she said, “an under-confidence problem.”
Sound familiar? Yep, it’s exactly the kind of self-doubt that can arise when there are so many technically entitled people around.
So why does this happen? Why does it persist? Technical elitism seems like the kind of thing that could knock the entire industry flat. Why do we keep scaring everyone off?
I have a couple of ideas.
For one thing, precocity is rewarded in tech. We all swoon over the guy who started programming robots when he was 6. Growing up in tech, I took this as a constant in life—if you’re doing cool things, the younger the better. But it’s become obvious that this is more unique. One of my friends working in finance put it this way: “If I told people I started shorting stocks when I was nine—not that I was, by the way—people wouldn’t be impressed. They’d only say, ‘Who was stupid enough to give you their money?’”
Additionally, there is a certain machismo and bravado associated with success in tech. I watch my classmates one-up each other day in and day out. (Occasionally, rarely, I do a little one upping myself.) Why is this the case? Well, that’s a whole separate question. But it certainly contributes to the way that technical entitlement turns “outsiders” off.
That’s not something I want to do. I love computer science, and I’m a huge advocate of everyone giving it a shot. (Just ask any of my friends who are studying political science.) So when I realized what a problem technical entitlement was, I momentarily threw my hands up in the air.
And then I remembered that many people probably see me as incredibly technically entitled. Many people probably see Amy as very technically entitled. (We both started writing code in middle school.)
Technical entitlement is all relative.
Odds are, if you’re in CS, someone sees you as being technically entitled. I’ve realized I have to keep this in mind. This is worth keeping in mind for everyone in tech.
My officemate is the son of a software developer, and when I asked him about the technically entitled, he said he’s made a conscious choice “not to be one of those people.” This is, at the very least, a good start. (And I can personally attest that he’s a very welcoming person.) This is a start that we can all make.
So, what will happen if enough of us make that choice? Will it be enough? Will that make computer science a friendlier field?
I sure hope so.
I originally published this post just over a year ago, on June 29, 2012. When I wrote it, I was a Penn student and a Microsoft intern, and I was kind of angry.
I’m reposting it to Medium, unedited, and using Notes to add commentary from where I stand now, in July 2013.
“I highly recommend that you don’t take Economics 100 unless you absolutely have to.”
I looked at my academic adviser incredulously. As a first-semester college freshman, I didn’t see how a 100-level course in what seemed to be a fairly common discipline could be that hard.
“Why shouldn’t I take it?” I queried.
“It’s a weed-out course. Essentially, it’s designed to make anyone who won’t be able to handle the rigorous Economics degree fail out.”
“Oh,” was all I said in response.
I didn’t have the remotest intention of majoring in Economics. I simply had the audacity to think that knowing how money worked was a good thing, even for people who weren’t economic geniuses.
The next semester, I became even more audacious and decided that I should try my hand at basic programming. I felt like everyone was constantly talking about website development and app design and the increasing importance of technology, so it seemed like it would be helpful to acquire some practical knowledge regarding these topics.
When course registration came around, I searched the registration website for “programming” and scrolled through the results. The courses were all listed in the undergraduate engineering school, which I wasn’t a part of, and most of them had multiple prerequisites, which I hadn’t taken.
Once again, the message was clear: Unless you’re planning to have a career in this field, don’t bother trying to learn about it.
Yet universities’ all-or-nothing approach toward many subjects harms students who only have a beginner’s interest in those areas. I wasn’t looking to become an economics or programming wizard; I just wanted to acquire some basic knowledge that I thought would help move me forward in my life. However, I was denied that opportunity because I did not want to become an expert in those fields.
Unfortunately, the implications of this educational mindset are far greater than simply not being able to casually study a subject.
As these “weed-outs” accumulate over time, they begin to telegraph a very clear message to students: Curiosity is not allowed here.
Unless you are trying to major in this subject, don’t take this class. Stay within the bounds of whatever major you have declared. If you’re looking for intellectual exploration, try Philosophy 101 instead.
This openly opposes the adaption needed to navigate the job market post-college. If you are not curious — if you are not constantly trying to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills — how are you supposed to switch careers every 4.4 years?
No wonder traditional universities are feeling such pressure from massive open online courses (or MOOCs). With their multiple levels of commitment, MOOCs provide for both the intrigued beginner and the committed veteran — not just those who want an in-depth knowledge. A quick browse of Coursera, one of the most popular MOOCs, revealed introductory classes in both economics and programming. A free online website now offers what my own brick-and-mortar university could not — or would not.
It remains to be seen how universities will navigate the rapidly changing landscape of higher education. But one thing is for sure: It’s far from an academic sin to be casually interested in a subject — and a casual interest could plausibly become the gateway into an unexpected (but much-needed) job. The sooner both universities and their students realize this, the more prepared those graduating students will be to face whatever the tumultuous professional world decides to throw at them next.
A few years ago, I started to experiment with my learning. I started taking grades and schoolwork less seriously. I began paying more attention to the things that actually mattered to me. I adjusted my education experience around my interests, instead of forcefully changing my interests to meet the needs of the system. My goal was to reevaluate how schooling would shape my education.
I decided to write this to share a few of those experiments and their associated lessons.
1. Skipping classes can be beneficial, not detrimental.
Not all classes require you to be there to learn. If you can, skip. Come back to the material when you need to. Use your time wisely. If you’re an undergraduate business student, why aren’t you attending MBA classes? If your goal is to become a lawyer, go speak with J.D. candidates at your school’s law building to learn about their experiences. Or start a company, make products, learn new skills, network and build relationships, etc.
This may seem drastic to some, but if you’re passionate about something, don’t wait. University is a four-year period during which you’re surrounded by immense amounts of intellectual capital, relatively little responsibilities, and a manageable workload. Take advantage of this.
Saving time for non-academic pursuits — not your GPA — is the most important prerequisite to differentiating yourself from the pack. How do you save time to differentiate? By cutting the fat, not the essence.
Find courses that are the fat, and skip (or cut) them.
2. Don’t let poor grades or failure discourage you. To paraphrase Seth Godin, the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t, isn’t that successful people succeeded. The difference is that people who succeeded failed more often.
Keep in mind that getting high grades is like playing a sport. Just because you understand the rules of the game, doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it. Similarly, just because you conceptually understand something, doesn’t mean you’ll get good grades. Getting good grades is less about understanding and more about practice — the practice of getting inside your prof’s head, playing the right cards, forecasting what’ll be on exams, and manipulating rules to your advantage.
The point: grades are an extremely inaccurate measurement of your intellectuality. Take them with a grain of salt. They’re a means to an end. The end is breaking into the workforce and forgetting about this thing called “GPA”.
3. Don’t care too much about what others do. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen many of my friends abandon their passions by succumbing to the pursuit of what’s popular or prestigious, as defined by the pack. You’ll see a student with passion for art forcing herself into banking, or a student who’d rather be pursuing sports, trying to become an accountant. You’ll see students who have absolutely no interest in science, trying to become doctors.
Putting your passion on hold for something reasonable is fine. But giving it up in return for something that’s more “realistic” or “respected,” isn’t right.
4. Stop meeting, start working.
Remember, “a meeting is an event at which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.”
As Ev Williams said in his post: focus. Don’t get distracted. Meet people only when you absolutely have to.
5. Don’t get involved in activities just to pad your résumé.
If you do, you’ll not only hate it and leave a negative impression, but you will also do a disservice to your team members. It’s better to pursue one or two activities that you enjoy, and be the absolute best at them, instead of getting involved in 10 different activities and spreading yourself too thin.
6. Find people who understand your passions. If you’re passionate about sports, find other people who share that same passion. If you’re into art or filmmaking, find other artists or filmmakers who you can connect with. If you’re an entrepreneur who likes to create, find other entrepreneurial minds that you can bounce ideas off of.
Connect with people who genuinely understand how it feels to be in your shoes. And talk to these people often.
7. Challenge your professors. Expertise doesn’t mean perfection. Good professors usually like this. The strongest asset of any university or college is the intellectual capital of its instructors and professors. When you get a chance, talk to them about non-academic things. Pick their brains. Get their insights and advice on something that you might be working on outside of school.
Understand what makes them tick, and you’ll connect well.
Never let the structural rigidity of any program limit your learning.
It’s reading period at Tufts—the short few days in between the last day of class and the first day of finals. The period of the year where you cram in all the information you should have been learning throughout the semester.
For me, this is the only time of year where I act even remotely like a typical student: spending hours and hours in the library, using phrases like “study break,” cracking open text books, reading over notes, blocking social media from my computer, and so on.
It is during this period of intense focus on school that I realize something profoundly important: as much as I like to say that I hate school, want to drop out to “join the real world,” start working on things I’m innately passionate about, stop following instructions and start carving my own path, school has given me a lot of things to be thankful for.
Amidst all of this studying and academic essay-writing, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect back on this past semester. On paper, it is going to be the worst semester of my academic career. However, in terms of its impact on my life, this semester has been the most profound.
This has been the semester where I have learned the most, grown the most, partied the most, slept the least, gone to class the least, struggled the most with my anxiety disorder, joined a fraternity, overcame a bunch of fears, became a more confident person, started a company with a few classmates, made new friends, lost touch with old friends, and, most importantly, became more self-aware and happy with who I am.
I think a lot of the time, when I’m questioning why I’m in school, what I’m getting out of my education, and contemplating dropping out, I simply have the wrong mindset.
School isn’t about being a great student, it’s about learning how to be a great person.
I’m not a great student, I never have been and never will be. It simply isn’t who I am. My dissatisfaction with school stems from my inability to be a good student in an institution where I (falsly) assumed the ultimate goal was to be a great student and follow all of the rules.
Contrast my inability to be a great student in an institution that rewards academic success with my ability to shine as an insightful person, thinker and entrepreneur in an industry that appreciates and rewards my innate talents; there is no doubt as to why I have felt like school isn’t the right place for me.
But I was wrong. Hating school because I don’t like the system is taking the easy way out. The right thing to do is to find reasons to love school: to focus on having the best four years of my life.
Ultimately, those who get the most out of school are those who make school work for them.
If I can figure out methods to measure my success in terms of personal growth instead of grades, than suddenly, I can look at my time spent in school in an entirely new way. Lately, I have been able to do this, and I am now confident that, even in my darkest hour when I wish I were out in The Valley working on my company full time, being in college is enormously valuable to my life and to my future.
Right now, in this moment, I am a student at Tufts Univeristy, finishing up my third semester of college. That’s not the only aspect of my identity, but it is as much a part of me as anything else. I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t give it my all.
I’m lucky to be where I am today. I have spent years building a personal brand, amassing a network of mentors and valuable connections, telling my story, and ultimately finding my place to stand out in the crowded, ultra-competitive entrepreneurial landscape. I still have a lot of room to improve.
It’s not easy to be an average student in school when you can be an exceptional person “in the real world,” but it is incredibly important.
I have a lot of friends who are in a similar position to me. Some of them are in school, some of them have dropped out (or have not gone to school at all). Some of them have been successful, and some of them haven’t. For people like us, we are often given opportunities to do things that many people can only dream of. We are given the chance to stand out, to be unique and to forge our own paths. School sounds like a miserable waste of time in comparison.
What I’ve realized, though, both through my own situation and also through observing my friends is that, in life, it is very tempting to skip steps. Life is short, after all. We are reminded of this so frequently that it has become engrained in us. Thus, it becomes hard to justify to ourselves why we should spend time doing something that seems so useless.
Most people view school as a means to an end; as the prerequistite to a career. This is the problem, especially for people who have already been able to achieve the “ends” that school is supposedly designed to enable.
It is important, every once in awhile, to be average… to be just another student trying to get by. It is humbling and also informative to learn that, in many ways, even exceptional people are average in many contexts. Putting yourself in these contexts give you insight into your weaknesses and gives you opportunities to grow.
School isn’t a four year program designed to prepare us for the workforce; instead, it’s the start of a lifelong journey of continuous growth.
For some people, school gives them the skills they need in order to get a job; a job they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. These are the people who work hard, follow the rules of the game, get good grades, receive academic awards, and impress their professors. There’s nothing wrong with being one of these people. My goal here is to challenge the assumption that not being one of these people means you should drop out of school.
For people like myself, school is a place to grow and learn in an environment where it is safe, surround by people doing the same thing. Going to every class, writing papers on time, and reading everything that is assigned is of very little relatively importance. What’s important is that school creates situations to make mistakes, to fail, to learn the hard way, to step outside of your comfort zone, and to do things you hate—or thought you hated.
What’s also important is that school create an environment for self-reflection. Once you graduate, life starts moving so fast, you will have little time to reflect on who you were, who you are, and who you are becoming.
I am thankful for every opportunity I have gotten throughout my entire academic career to become the person I hope to be when I graduate.
Sure, there are moments when I hate school. If there were words stronger than hate, I’d probably use them. In the end, however, when nothing else matters aside from the stories that have shaped me into who I am, I will not regret for one moment the four years I spent in school. The four years I spent realizing how little I know that will ultimately—hopefully!—launch me into the world as a curious, ambitious, appreciative, hard working, respectful member of society.
School is, if nothing else, a time to mature without having to every actually grow up; because, after all, who wants to grow up? Not me.
A more meaningful transcript
While my transcript may depict me as a failure, the following anecdotes and memories from this semster should serve as my real transcript—a collection of the things I have learned and the ways I have grown. These are the things I will tell my grandkids, the stories that I will tell that will define my identity. After all, that’s what a transcript is supposed to achieve.
Joining a fraternity
This semster I joined ATO of Massachusetts. It’s technically a “frarority” as we have both male and female members. I could not be happier to be a part of an amazing group of people. A few years back, I never would have expected myself to join a fraternity, but now it is one of my favorite things about school.
This goes to show how little certainty we have over our futures.
ATO has made me more confident and more aware of my weaknesses. It has given me the opportunity to become close to people I likely never would have otherwise. In a world filled with uncertainty and in a life filled with chaos and change, being a part of a group is a stabling factor. It’s an aspect of your identity that you can rely on; that you don’t have to fight to defend.
ATO, like college overall, is a place where it’s okay to let loose, be a little crazy, and have fun. Life doesn’t have to be so serious.
Getting drunk with a bunch of smart people is an amazing way to realize just how insignificant so much of life truly is. School can be stressful, as can life. It’s nice having a support group to be there for you. In college, you are surrounded by friends almost 24/7. The same cannot be said about the workforce.
You are a sum of the people who you surround yourself with.
Starting a company
Having realized that school is all about the people, not the grades or what happens inside the classroom, I was lucky enough to find three amazing co-founders to start a company called Marko Labs building products that we believe will make people’s lives more fun.
In college, time is limited and abundant at the same time.
As cliché as it is, college really is the best time to start a company. I’m lucky to have found two of the smartest engineers at Tufts as well as an incredibly artistcally talented best friend to join and share my vision of creating simple yet powerful products that give life more meaning.
We’re building an iPhone application that helps people leave their mark.
Every physical place has its own story—created, remembered, and told by those who have been there before, and those who will stumble across the place in the near or distant future. Marko let’s you take part in an evolving history of a place by dropping photos that can only be viewed while in the location they were left.
Learning from my (academic) mistakes
I signed up for five classes this semester but quickly ended up dropping Western Political Thought, right before our first paper was due. I guess in my mind, it was easier to drop the class than to do the work, leaving me with only four classes.
My favorite two classes are Data Structures and Human Machine System Design however, even those classes I have skipped several times, turned in late work, and often neglected to put in my full effort.
I also take Behavioral Statistics which is an incredibly important foundational course, but that I have not once paid full attention to in lecture. Finally, I take Ethics but have practically skipped more classes than I have been to and have not gone to a single one of my apparently mandatory recitations.
I used to tell myself that I just didn’t care, but I was lying to myself. Truthfully, I am disappointed and have let myself down. There are few things worse than disappointing yourself—of realizing you could have done better.
If you are going to do something, either do it well, or don’t do it at all. I am thankful that I was able to learn this earlier rather than later. In the big picture, my academic successes and failures will not matter. What matters is that I learn from my mistakes.
The only real failure is failure to learn from your mistakes.
The Big Takeaway
I came into this semester not wanting to be in school. Ultimately, that is what hurt me the most. Negativity spirals and can get out of control quickly. School is a wonderful place and I needed to remind myself of the reasons that it is so wonderful. It took longer than I would have hoped, but reflecting now, I am thankful to have finally realized that there is no place I’d rather be than in college.
Whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, you’ve got to want it.
The digital world is always shifting and we all know it. Myspace, once the king of social networks now finds itself clawing for any slight bit of relevance. Meanwhile, it’s successor, Facebook, is looking for every way imaginable to cement itself as a permanent force of the internet by providing convenient social systems (i.e. commenting, sharing, “likes”) that other websites are eager to employ. In slightly over 5 years, one service toppled another transferring millions of users. This is just a brief mention of how quickly the digital world shifts. In the meantime, education still has not fully embraced the digital age. Citation systems still are not sure if URLs should be required, teachers are hesitant to allow electronics in class and most courses have little to no content available online. This is beginning to change as schools realize the convenience and power of the digital world in educational systems.
A common sentiment made about writing digitally is that it removes students from the pressure of a class. This is both good and bad, Amanda Hagood and Carmel Price note in their article Sister Classrooms: Blogging Across Disciplines and Campuses, that having discussion over the internet is liberating for students. It allows them to write out their thoughts, rewrite them, fully flesh out their idea before they publish the idea. Hagood and Price note that students give superior answers online, where they can use writing as a way to learn, rather than being a product of learning. In a standard classroom, the student is pressured to know the answers at a moments notice, to formulate opinions and answers in seconds. It’s an incredible amount of intangible pressure, something that can often get results, but the results are consistently less thorough than those produced in online writing. When writing in a standard classroom setting, the teacher will usually assign a topic and the student will produce a paper directly on the topic. There will be a revision and a final draft, but the paper is designed to prove that the student understands the concepts taught in class. But often, a student will learn more from writing the paper than he or she will from the actual reading and lesson.
Digital writing is very different; a blog is asynchronous. In the words of Hagood and Price there is an, “absence of faces, voices and other non-verbal cues that help us understand face-to-face conversations.” We understand this to be detrimental in discussion groups, that speaking and discussing through digital means produces less efficient results because the extra effort must go into writing to be clear. It also requires the participants to be incredibly clear about what they mean, often at the expense of prose. This means that digital writing and commenting can simply confuse the student, unless the class is instructed in how to write a useful and clear critical analysis of the original work.
While usually detrimental to prose, this lack of physical presence can be beneficial. Eric Zhi-Feng notes in his paper Using Peer Feedback to Improve Learning Via Online Peer Assessment, that students often feel anxiety during peer review of their work and that peer review through digital means (i.e. commenting systems, forums and Twitter interaction) actually reduces that anxiety by providing a distance between students and their peers. It is both a literal and metaphorical glass wall between students and criticism. It means that students are more relaxed and accepting of criticism, in fact, students reported back that they actually had a positive attitude towards the feedback. The students also reported that they had a much higher quality and quantity of feedback. This feedback comes from an online community; ones who read and care about the subject that a student writes about. It can be other classmates, professors, perhaps just an engaged stranger. It changes the landscape of who the student’s audience is, taking what was previously just an assignment and putting the student in the shoes of an educator. It gives a student a sense of agency over their work that is lacking from standard assignments.
Finally, Dan Pink cites purpose as something that motivates people to work creatively, the idea that what they are working on has “a larger meaning.”
Digital writing takes the ideas in class and makes them applicable on a larger level, allowing students to take the lessons they learned in class and make them relevant to the average person. Writing with purpose means that the student’s work isn’t just written for a professor, it’s written for other experts, or possibly for those who have no background in the subject.
These are all properties of writing in a digital environment that aren’t possible in the same manner via a standard classroom setting. Digital writing allows the student a measure of autonomy in their work, while still remaining on topic with their class and learning far more than what they would have learned had they been assigned a topic.
Digital writing allows the student a chance at mastery of their topic, by writing to learn and then move on to educate, rather then using writing as a way to simply prove that learning has occurred. It also gives students a sense of purpose, that what they are writing can be seen by other students, used to educate others. Having students write in this manner requires that they attain a more specific knowledge of their subject matter so that their writing, which now has the purpose of educating a worldwide audience, is the best quality it can be. When a student is writing in a digital environment, their work is no longer within the four walls of a classroom, their work is global; it has meaning.
This global outlook is a key point of digital writing that comes back to community. Leigh Wright, an assistant professor of journalism at Murray State University, has been one to fully embrace digital mediums, going as far as to use Twitter (an online microblogging service) as a major platform for class writing. He has used projects such as “live-blogging” school basketball games and lectures from Spike Lee to teach students to tell a story in a concise manner. Let me rephrase that: you have 10 tweets, 140 characters each and a 2 hour lecture to tell your story. This project does not produce the same endless, mindless, pointless spam that Twitter is often criticized for. It’s a project that produced fantastic results because the students involved were given the three things that Dan Pink cites as being essential to creative solutions. The students were given autonomy to tweet about whatever they wanted within the event they were live-blogging. They were given a chance at mastery of writing quickly, concisely and in developing their own writing voice. And because it was live, online, viewable by the entire world, they had a sense of purpose. These live-blogging projects weren’t just for an assignment, they were for the world to see.
The students in this experiment were thrown into a global community where ideas could build on each other, where they could combine all their tweets into one story, organized by a hashtag (a method of “tagging” a post on Twitter to make it easy to find). Where some students tweeted about the game, others tweeted about the fans or the food. There were no repeat observations, the students painted a picture of the entire event they attended, regardless of if they understood it. It allowed the students to engage a wider audience because their voices were so disparate, while still writing about the same events.
This is why digital writing is so powerful. It creates an environment where students care about what they write about. By giving them a measure of autonomy over their work, students have the freedom to expand their project in directions that might not have been thought of up until that point. It makes student work, suddenly of relevance to someone besides a professor, who already has a vast knowledge of the topic. The student is responsible to gain an additional level of mastery over the topic, for the purpose of educating their audience. It puts the teacher in the role of an educated critic, one who can encourage the student to move in a new direction or expand on a sentence they don’t realize has potential.
Digital writing also creates a system where in-person discussion is vital to the creative process. Because there is a lack of interaction via digital writing, the early stages of the writing process, that part where ideas are just beginning to form, are some of the most important. In person discussion allows students to build ideas and expand on them, growing those ideas in directions that wouldn’t be possible without running commentary from peers, bouncing ideas back and forth until the student has a starting place that they’re comfortable with. From there the student can move forward with research or writing, having the benefit of feedback as they write as well as when they are finished.
My own experience with digital writing has been one where I know my writing improves vastly when I’m given the opportunity to write online. Mine and my partner’s blog (www.gastropermaculture.com) has been live for a few months now. We’ve been hard at work, not just for a semester or even a few weeks, but for months, developing ideas through face-to-face discussion and over the phone. We’ve had to figure out what we mean by specific words, how we feel about a certain post or if we should move the blog in a specific direction or not. It was a long four months of discussion and early planning, but now we are posting.
Our blog has taken ideas from sustainable agriculture and brought them together with gastronomy to create a project about sustainable food systems; how to source, shop, cook, eat and clean both sustainably and happily. The ideas we expanded on are based off of the principles and ethics of permaculture, an ideology that is normally applied to agriculture. The definition was our prompt, just like we would get when in a class, but we had to find it ourselves and look for the connection between our own ideas and Permaculture. We had to research definitions and opinions, find out if our ideas could fit within the confines of permaculture. There was one particular night where we took a definition of permaculture by it’s originator, Bill Mollison, and rewrote it to have the same principles but with food in mind. It took hours and we worked long past when we normally would have slept, but we had to figure out the idea.
There are still some early posts that we are working on that are best approached by working in the same room, discussing ideas as we write and by visiting places together. But there are countless other posts that we’ve scheduled out what we want on the blog simultaneously, so that there isn’t an influx of similar content, that we can work on separately, using the ability to work at a distance, while still working together. Almost all of this would be impossible with a normal form of print media. Digital writing allows us to incorporate video, podcasts, limitless color photos and interactive media. And because the digital world is always changing and evolving, we have the ability to evolve our content with it. A lot of research will have to go into creating this content and so we are tasked with sorting through mass amounts of information, between permaculture documents, food documents and nutrition documents as well as connecting all these ideas for different posts, there is a lot of education for ourselves before we even begin to educate others.
This is a simple illustration of how digital writing can create an ideal learning environment. My partner and I were self-motivated (autonomous) with our topic, deciding how to approach it, what to write about, our audience and how to integrate to normally disparate ideas into something entirely new. We are required to master our subject matter, having to learn an entire new field, both technically and how to communicate some rather lofty ideas to those who have little to no experience in either permaculture or cooking, while still retaining the attention of those who are well-versed in both. Much of this learning will happen as we write, sometimes requiring multiple drafts. And we have purpose. We passionately believe that what we are learning about, writing about and educating people about. We believe that it can make a difference for people, to give them a freedom over one aspect of their lives and make a positive change in the world.
Digital writing allows my partner and I to do that and it allows other students to do that as well.
Tim Hegberg is a student at Dickinson College, and contributor to Gastronomic Permaculture. His primary work is with digital environmental and sustainability communications. This essay was originally written for Writing In and For Digital Environments (WRPG211) and adapted.