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Innovation and Failure Part II

Alison Carr and Brewster Kahle provide two practical applications of processes that encourage/embrace failure. Of the exercises Carr posits, the most interesting to me were “Assessing ‘Quality of Failure,’” based on Edward Burger’s “Teaching to Fail” and “Try Again, Fail Differently,” based on Peter Elbow’s concept of low-stakes writing.

“Teaching to Fail” subverts the notion that there is such a thing as correct and incorrect by making failure a prerequisite for a good grade. As Carr explains, Berger defines failure as “a willingness to take on and pursue ideas that might not seem entirely ‘safe.’” This exercise is based on the belief that “risk-taking and failure foster imagination and lead to innovation.” He encourages students to share their failures, and 5% of the grade is based on “Quality of failure.” (Whatever that means! See below.)

If Berger subverts the notion of correct=good grade, failure=bad grade; then Elbow rejects the dichotomy altogether. As we read last semester, Elbow suggests that in order for student writing to improve, teachers need to create environment in which writing is disassociated from receiving red marks on the page. In Carr’s exercise, the idea is that writing is never correct (check mark) or incorrect (red mark), but constantly in flux. As she says, the focus is “not on how to say it better but on how to say it differently.” This semester, my students participated in an archive-building activity with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which required them to write a short vignette that had a limit of 1500 characters. Similar to this process, it was fascinating to see them have to figure out what to cut and how to tighten their language so that they could upload their piece. Assigning students to tweet, it seems to me, would also have a similar effect.

Here are some questions these teaching models brought up for me:

  1. How do we assess failure? Is it in relationship to success? Or can you assess it alone? (As Berkun says, failing alone is not enough to lead to innovation; it requires the ability to extract the lessons learned from failure and apply them to new situations.)
  2. How might we as teachers measure that extraction and re-application of lessons learned through failure? It seems to me that that, actually, should be the metric of learning.
  3. How do or would your students react to these assignments? Would they freak since it subverts their entire experience up until this point? What types of scaffolding could you put in place to help them feel comfortable with an assignment in which failure was to be valued, not feared?

Last, yesterday’s very interesting lecture by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, got me thinking even more about innovation and failure. Here we see a man willing to go a long way in pursuit of wacky ideas. The non-profit has now made millions of books, movies, software, music, TV shows, websites and more free and open to the public. Kahle also referenced new pet projects including bit-coin and affordable housing; two aspects that don’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the archive. He spoke repeatedly of delegating; whether working with a Columbia University new music archivist to assess the importance of/create taxonomies for music preservation, or working with volunteers to trust them with the work of searching for whether video titles are currently available for purchase (and therefore should not be added to the archive.) In many ways, his approach and story reflects many of the  innovators described by Berkun.

Furthermore, his entire project, The Internet Archive, is the result of the failure (as he sees it) of the National Archives and the Library of Congress to collect, preserve, and create public access to intellectual material in digital formats. Kahle expects that he will be perpetually begging for forgiveness. This assumption that he will “fail” (get in trouble, do something wrong,) means that he doesn’t feel the need to constantly ask for permission. Some of the best parts of his talk were when he described mis-steps along the way and what he’s learned from other failures. For example, the fire of the Library at Alexandria told him to make many copies. Further, he’s making those copies in all types of different formats, with the full expectation that 90% of those (my made-up number) will fail to preserve this material. But if you try a gazillion different things, something is bound to stick.

Questions that Kahle made me consider:

  • What are the ramifications of this? Could it ever become damaging to get so used to/proud of failure? By never asking permission, but merely taking down materials when people complain, Kahle is railroading the (economic, social) aspects of shame that have historically protected intellectual property. In many ways, the digital age has meant that we no longer have these feelings of shame around stealing/being caught “stealing” intellectual property.
  • Should we see the integration of the pedagogy of failing forward as a feminist act? What are the gendered ramification of changing the culture of classrooms in this way? In Berkun’s lecture, we saw a group of innovators and were asked what they all had in common. My initial reaction was that they were all men; an observation that Berkun glossed over, along with the observation that they all have “bad hair.” Kahle embodies the sort of devil-may-care, breaking the rules personality associated with masculinity. Last year there was an article entitled “The Confidence Gap” in the Atlantic about why women fail once they move beyond the classroom into the real world; they expect that doing what they’re told will lead them to success. It worked in school; so it should work in the workplace! But, as Berkun and Kahle show, this training does not lead to innovation. The author argues that women get left behind since they lack the confidence to fail and to ask for raises/promotions, etc.

 

Sarah’s Midterm Project Proposal (2 of 2)

Title: Development of History Engine

Introduction
History Engine (HE) is a digital history project of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab that has three stated goals: to be a teaching resource, educational experience, and academic tool. In ITP Core 1 I did a comprehensive assessment of the pedagogical and technical successes and shortcomings of HE; in Core 2 I will implement two of my recommendations. First, I will re-frame online publishing and tagging from a formatting responsibility to an archive-building activity. Currently, the site focuses on the importance of publishing the collection, but presents the act of publication as boring lists of rules: “uploading,” “style guide,” and “citation guide.” The site will shift its focus to how a student’s work can help a future researcher. Second, I will revamp the “Teacher’s Guide” to be more accessible and engaging. Currently, it offers a professor a step-by-step roadmap for thinking about using HE in a course, yet it is formatted as a dry, unappealing word document. I will re-vamp this guide as short videos and exercises in order to engage a professor in “cognitive apprenticeship” with the one of the experienced teachers who crafted the materials.

Set of Personas
Shelly: A student at Miami University of Ohio who’s been assigned to write an “episode” for History Engine in her class on American Slavery.
Fred: A researcher who stumbles across an HE episode in a google search.
Elan: A professor interested in assigning HE to his/her class who’s been forwarded the link by a fellow professor.

Use Case Scenario

Professors from colleges as far afield as Juniata College, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Rollins College and Furman University have opted to use HE in their classrooms. They may find it through the University of Richmond’s digital scholarship lab; learn about it in a publication by Ed Ayers, President of the University of Richmond and designer of the famous Valley of the Shadow digital history project; or they may learn about it through word-of-mouth from colleagues. Some professors use HE as a semester-long assignment; others spend just three weeks, one “episode.” Most students access the site once they’ve been assigned to write an “episode.”

Full Fledged Version
The first step in this process is learning how the back-end of HE is set-up to understand what is possible. Rob Nelson only (finally) approved my work on HE last week, so I have yet to learn on what platforms the site operates/can interface.

Reframing Online Publishing: A new section in the “For Students” section of HE called “Build a Database” will explain both the reasoning behind and the process of database building as a meaningful part of the historian’s craft. To do this, I will include a (humerous!) video introduction to databases that will highlight the differences between a database and a traditional archive; the potential uses of HE’s archive to scholars; and illustrate the potential pitfalls of incomplete/improper metadata. I can get assistance from friends who work in production as well as free movie software such as imovie to create this clip. I will also create a series of exercises for students to practice proper metadata tagging and to show the potential pitfalls of improper tagging. I would like to model this off of some of the exercises offered by Khan Academy. I have a friend who works there and can ask her for advice/contacts in how I might borrow code or think about writing my own.

Revamping Teachers Guide: Resources for teachers should be dynamic and continue to grow just as the database of “episodes” evolves. My initial thought is to create a forum for teachers to discuss syllabi, assignments, etc. When I proposed this, Rob Nelson replied that they had tried that and “It was pretty much unused.” He continued, “We don’t have enough instructors using the History Engine (probably much less than ten) to sustain a conversation [during any given semester.]” So, to best direct my efforts at improving HE’s teachers guide, I will focus my efforts on creating and administering a survey to teachers to collect assignments and best practices on how to use HE, and find out what types of questions they would like answered.

Timeline and Skills Acquisition

  • Connect with Rob Nelson to organize a time to earn the back-end of HE, identify teachers who frequently use HE, and his assessment of what teachers need/how to design the teacher survey. Continually keep Nelson informed of my progress/check in with questions. (20 hours)
  • Investigate the range of potential options for building the “Create a Database” section. (10 hours)
  • Research best practices in introducing/spinning/explaining digital uploading/archival creation/metadata as an “experience” (30 hours)
  • Contact Khan Academy/others to assess the potential to “borrow” code to write exercises (5 hours)
  • Write, record, produce and edit movie about database creation (50 hrs)
  • Administer surveys with teachers; build and manage a collection of resources they’ve developed for HE (20 hrs)
  • Interpret survey results and make recommendations for updates to teachers guide
  • Implement/publish simple solutions to teacher’s guide (20 hrs)

Minimal Viable Product
I will complete do one of the two proposed elements; most likely the reframing of online publishing. I can certainly do the research and build-out the language to include database creation as an element of the Historian’s job, even if there are no exercises and videos to accompany it.

Project Proposal: Building a path from passive to active learning

I want to build a website to address the issue of passive learning and to provide a framework in which parents can explore new options for their children, by identifying failing schools and comparing them to schools who have a proven track record of success in educating children through engaging students through a combination of progressive and traditional learning. By highlighting the successes of these schools (i.e, showing student collaboration on projects, increased subject interest through research, making and building, and exploring how technology encourages blended learning through digital practices) parents can gage new educational options and understand children can be educated within combined progressive and traditional methodologies.

The website will allow visitors to view maps of both failing and successful schools, and will also provide different data visualizations around success rates and curriculum, trajectories for successful careers as well as consequences for failure.

A space would be provided to invite writers to contribute articles around the many ways technology could be used in the classroom. This space would be specific to technology, as a way to glean the possibilities for in-depth training in the area.

The website will also provide space for discussion around curriculums and ongoing projects at different schools.