Crossover Sensation

Fair warning: this post is long. If you’re not interested in education issues, go ahead and skip it. 

Jane = Name I go by as UX Designer for WordPress and related projects

Jenifer = Legal identity used in academic settings, interested in 1) the relation between pop culture and the acquisition of historical knowledge, and 2) ways of improving educational opportunities and programs using digital technologies to bridge the gaps between geographically/demographically disparate groups of students. 

The Jane nickname came about in 2001, and stuck. Jenifer is my legal name, is what I’m known by to family and friends who pre-date the 2001 nickname, as well as to my academic connections. These two identities had been very separate until recently, when the WordCamp Ed community began to develop and I started to get involved. Suddenly there were people who knew me as Jenifer wondering why my business cards said Jane, and people who knew me as Jane the WordPress girl wondering why WordCamp attendees were calling me Jenifer.  As I stood at a podium to talk about WordPress design, I also talked about the ways WordPress could be used to educational ends. 

The crossover between my two identities has gotten to the point that they aren’t separate anymore. While I lament this on one hand (it’s always nice to have a separate world you can step into for a change now and then), on the other hand it’s exponentially more interesting to be able to work with two amazing communities to try and accomplish things that benefit everyone. 

I’ve been talking for a while with people about the various education-oriented projects I’m interested in developing, but I’ve never posted about them, which has meant that I’m not really on the hook to do anything about them. This post is meant to be a kick in my own ass to get going with these ideas, find some co-conspirators and start trying to change the way we approach a few different slices of the educational pie. 

In no particular order, then, a few ideas:

1. Using technology to broaden educational horizons. My nieces are the product of a really crappy Georgia school district. I’ve listened to their stories about racist teachers (and lesson plans), curriculums that involve little to no reading, and the failure to instill skills like spelling under the reasoning that “you can always use spellcheck” (!!!)(Seriously!), and the worst part about it is that the kids don’t realize the subpar education they are receiving and many students are internalizing the bad attitudes of these subpar teachers. If only they were in schools with better curriculums, had more enlightened teachers, and were part of a more diverse student body!

So, what if…. students from around the country (and eventually the world?) were placed in online study/discussion groups that mixed up students from different geographic regions, socio-economic profiles, racial/ethnic groups, family makeups, etc.? Would a discussion about slavery or immigration take on a different tone? Would talking about civil rights have different results? What if instead of just reading (often biased and/or just plain inaccurate) textbooks, students engaged in group projects using online video, photos, documents, blogs, chats, and other forms of communication? Would a more immersive experience requiring personal investment of time and energy bring about a kind of learning that goes beyond memorization and regurgitation, requiring kids to develop critical thinking skills and an open mind?

I think so. I think a study to test this theory would be awesome. We’d need to pick a course topic to use for a pilot (I’m thinking a unit or two of U.S. History would be ideal), get enough teachers/classes to participate so we could have test and control groups including:

  • Traditional class, no interactive element 
  • Class using interactive assignments, but only working within own class group
  • Class using interactive assignments with students from different areas/profiles

For a pilot, would be nice to include 4-5 regions. Maybe students from a NYC magnet school, a rural south public school, somewhere in Idaho, some from East LA, etc. To get enough students to cover integrated test groups plus controls it would require a number of teachers and students, so it would take a fair amount of coordination. Would be ideal to run study through a university and if possible get a grant to cover costs and pay the teachers for participating, etc. 

2. Developing a generation of geek girls. Enough has been written on how girls (often right around middle school/junior high) are tracked away from math and science despite there being many girls with high aptitudes and interests in these areas. In addition, I think a lot about how the web industry really doesn’t require much formal education… it’s largely a meritocracy, and you can learn most of what you need for free online. Why, then, aren’t more low-income kids guided toward this area? They could have awesome careers and jump ahead socio-economically based on their own merits rather than being stuck in a dead-end job because college isn’t a financial option. 

Combining these two thoughts, I’d like to see a program designed to get girls, and especially girls from low-income situations, who might have an interest into fields like social media, computers, design or related jobs. Starting with middle school, there could be summer camp-style programs or online groups or some combination thereof that provided guided lessons and exposure to the kinds of opportunities available to people with these skills. 

One thing I’ve talked about with Matt in regard to this is the idea of bringing together some girls who fit this profile and teaching them how WordPress works, maybe doing workshops for them that gets them working together to create a plugin or design and build a good web site, bringing them to San Francisco or New York and doing tours at some of the cool offices/campuses where people in our industry work. A visit to the Google campus? Might be kind of inspiring to someone whose parents work 3-4 jobs between them to support the family. Getting to meet web luminaries for lunch and hearing how they spend their workdays, same thing. 

So that would be cool. There are a number of programs out there that do girls in tech camps, etc., but I haven’t seen anything that starts with social media or focuses specifically on the demographic I’m interested in supporting. 

3. Open Source online educational software that is awesome instead of aggravating. Blackboard sucks. Angel sucks. Moodle is a good project, but is a little clunky. The Courseware plugin for WordPress is a good first step toward building an educational system on top of WordPress. Scriblio is also fantastic. We need a set of plugins that address the need for testing/grade reporting according to AICC/Scorm standards that many educational institutions still require, multimedia collaboration and non-sucky ways of discussing content. I’d volunteer to do the UX/interface stuff on this if any badass developers wanted to step up to build the thing. Anyone?

4. This one isn’t WordPress related, but it’s been pinging around in my head for a few years. I’m interested in how people learn about history from non-academic sources. Films, novels, songs… more people learn about history from these sources than they do from textbooks or non-fiction publications. That wouldn’t be bad, except that most of the time these sources are heinously inaccurate, and media consumers don’t know/don’t care. I think a study the looked at where information came from, how it affected attitudes/historical knowledge/perceptions of how knowledgeable one is would be really interesting. 

Okay, so now all that stuff is off my chest. I’m going to try and attend the Edupunk panel at SxSW this week and see what they have to say. If you’re in town, you should come too. 

(And if you are interested in maybe working on any of these projects, let me know!)