Learning By Sharing

When I was in Norway last spring (2013), I kept in touch with people back home a few ways. One was through a blog I regularly occasionally rarely updated. Another was through a writing group that my friends and I put together to share our fiction, poetry, and essays. ‘Write More, Write Better’ was more fun than the blog – reading the excellent stories my friends wrote, I was inspired to write my own. Where the blog felt like an obligation, the writing group was an opportunity to create and share.

While I was abroad, I also started sharing my writing in print: I started writing for the Diamondback (The University of Maryland’s Independent Student Newspaper).  I have shared my opinion in a column every two weeks since then, except summer and winter breaks. This past friday, I wrote about the frustration of writing dumb, context-less papers that are only read by professors and thrown away.

Trash bin

I keep my old papers in a circular file.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that it is a product of blog class. Blog class is a great example of sharing-driven education. Other classes have student blogs or course blogs, and some classes publish student writing in other media. As I argue in the article, the sharing is limited to far too few classes. If no one will ever see my paper, and the assignment is not inherently captivating, I will not care enough to spend time making it good. After the fact, there is little opportunity for feedback and iteration or improvement. All in all, the current system is bad, and the massively better replacement is obvious and easy.

Share the work online.

THIS IS A NO-BRAINER.

It's a no brainer!

The image search results for ‘no brainer’ were too good to choose only one.

Sharing is good. 

From my experience, sharing writing makes writing better. I am much better at writing than I was a year ago – faster, clearer, and more concise. You can tell, if you look at my articles and blog! It has not been a constant improvement, but a general trend upward.

I attribute a good deal of the improvement to the feedback I get. When people see an article they like, they tell me. If they disagree, they tell me that too. If the point I tried to make was unclear, I get to revisit the point and try to clarify it, and I learn to be more straightforward in the future. You may have had friends edit your paper before, you know how useful genuine feedback can be. Imagine if you got feedback like that on all of your writing, and on the trends in your writing over time – how very useful it would be!

Sharing is good in other ways too.

They know all about sharing. And caring.

Writing for a real audience makes the writing real – I am not just writing this post to get a grade, I actually want to convince you of my point! Not only can genuine context improve your writing and your motivation to write, it can actually make a real difference! Reading what my friends write actually shapes my views – how about that!

Go, start blogs, share on email or facebook, share, share, SHARE!

Sharing isn’t easy, especially if you do not get lots of hits or feedback at first. If you keep bothering your friends about it, eventually you’re likely to write about something interesting to someone, and the conversation will begin. I have been using bitly to shorten links; it automatically and conveniently tracks clicks from different sources, giving you a sense of how wide your message is spreading.

So, maybe you are sold on the whole sharing thing, at least for writing, at least when you have time. If not, let me know, and I can badger you with more reasons why it is good. The internet provides lots of good ways to start sharing some things: text, images, video, web projects. In case you haven’t heard, or never thought of sharing, WordPress, Flickr, and Youtube make it painless to broadcast content. Email, Facebook, and Twitter are also cool, but y’all probably know about all that. I am a fan of Google Drive for document sharing and collaboration, but I know those who use and love Dropbox and Box for file sharing, and you can do the Microsoft or Apple thing too, I guess. Git is unbeatable for code projects, but it is super cool for text that many people might edit together.

Basically, the internet makes sharing super-easy.

Really easy.

What about all the things we learn that don’t fit as nicely on the internet? Can you share what you learn in Business Law or Introduction to Logic? What about the hovercraft or bridges you build in first year engineering? Are people really going to read your undergraduate research blog?

My answer is yes, they will read it, find a way to document what you are doing, and share it. If that means writing paragraphs about basic business law scenarios or little logic problems, so be it. If you need to take pictures of a project, do that. If instead of the internet, you share through conversations with your friends or family – that’s great too, as long as you share. If you are sharing, you will learn.

Even better than just sharing, you can encourage your friends to share, provide feedback, and help create a sharing community. We aren’t learning alone, no matter how the assignments are designed or graded. Months ago, I wrote a different column about the other side of sharing – Why You Should Read Your Friend’s Stupid Blog.

It’s important!

I can’t possibly take all the classes that everyone else takes – if I want to be all smart-like, I gotta talk to people about those classes! If you want to be all smart-like too, you’ve got to share and participate in the give and take.

Of course, I would be hypocritical if I didn’t take some steps to do better sharing of my own. In order to make it easy for you to view alllll my writing, I made a new page for it – Other Stuff I Wrote. Check it out if you like!

If you have things to share, by all means, include me. I am sometimes good about giving feedback, especially if you ask me directly. The key is not going to be sharing your work in my comment thread though – it’ll be starting your own blog and sharing there.

Now get out and Share!

Share All The Things!

 

[Brief Lumosity and Duolingo update: I have been cruising along pretty well on Lumosity, but I have not been very active on Duolingo. According to the Lumosity people, my brain is growing, which is cool – I have yet to notice myself remembering things that I would otherwise forget, but I don’t know when that is supposed to happen. My German has stalled, but hopefully I will plunge back into it once the semester is over… Has anyone gone over and tried either of these sites? Any other interesting daily-training-type sites that I should look into?]

Learning With Games: Lumosity

I promised in my first week of blogging that I’d write about some of the learning tools now available online. I wrote about Duolingo, and I suppose I ought to provide an update before diving into a whole ‘nother topic.

Duolingo Update: Mixed results. After a few weeks, I slowed down in my training. Caught up in school, perhaps, I stopped taking the daily time to practice. I have started again in fits, and hopefully the reminder emails will keep me from losing track again.

The web version is indeed better than the mobile app, and because I don’t like the vocal practice parts, I have turned that function off. The drills are good, although I sometimes get frustrated when I make a small error and it costs me the last life in my lesson. (The game-style exercises have me hooked!)

Potatoes under the faucet

Wir waschen diese Kartoffeln

 

Hopefully, my slow, inconsistent efforts to learn German will be aided by my attempt to use another online learning resource…

Lumosity

What’s a lumosity?

Well, lumosity is a website with a suite of games promised to make your brain work better. From the promotional content on the website:

Challenge your brain with scientifically designed training

Build your Personalized Training Program:

Train memory and attention

Web-based personalized training program

Track your progress

Cool sounding, if it works. So how is it?

I have only been on for a few days, but so far it seems promising. Some of the games seem badly designed, but most of the ones I have played are a good mix of challenge and relaxation that generally make games appealing. I went ahead and paid for the real version, so that I would have access to the full range of tools they provide. What kind of tools, you ask? Read on!

Games

Lumosity is mostly games! The games are broken down into categories: Speed, Memory, Attention, Flexibility, and Problem Solving. As boldly proclaimed on my training dashboard when I log in, many of the games are based on tasks used in neuropsychological studies. So, they redesigned and repackaged some games that researchers use to measure different brain functions. Seems legit.

Video Games. Awesome.

Awesome.

The site links to some research about their program. From my brief glance around the web, a few of the results are contested, but most are generally positive.

My favorite games so far are the flexibility games – they challenge you to switch mental tasks quickly – between, for instance, recognizing letters and numbers, or the direction of arrows and their movement. They require careful attention, but they are very satisfying to do well.

I think I am learning the most from the memory games. Trying to keep track of shapes or symbols is challenging, but I imagine that it is sharpening my brain. Memory is one of my weaker areas, according to the site’s performance indices, so hopefully I have some room to improve.

Daily Workout

Leaping amidst a field of workout balls

Sort of like this! [from health.com]

The point of lumosity is not to waste your time on internet games. Instead, the structure of the site points you towards a daily workout regimen – for your brain. An email prompts you to visit the site to train on five short games – about 10 or 15 minutes total – each day. I set it so that I get my reminder email in the morning, but you can change the email settings to suit your inbox needs.

Before the games of your daily workout, the site prompts you to rate your mood and the number of hours you slept the night before. This simple rating system, on top of the more complex points and evaluation system for the games, helps you with…

Testing and Tracking

I have long been interested in the quantified self movement and philosophy, but I have never been able to establish a habit of tracking anything about myself. The daily mood and sleep check-in help me catalogue two crucial metrics.  I get to tie all my habits together into a single step; clicking the link in the reminder email takes me to the workout and the tracking.

Stopwatch

A New Record! (I yield to the pun temptation: quantified self = stopwatching me)

I have not spent enough time on the site to have amassed useful data, but I am excited to see quantified improvement over time. Some of it will come from learning the particular tasks required in the games, but hopefully some of the gains will be real.

 

 

All in all, I am excited by the cool new ways of learning that technology makes possible. Tools like lumosity are answering some of those ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ questions, particularly ‘wouldn’t it be cool if learning was more fun?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could train my brain to be smarter?’

It is cool! It is cool indeed!

Learning about the Internet (An introduction for the curious)

I am often surprised when I meet incurious people. As a curious person myself, I am always trying to understand. I love to know the particulars about a subject, but I often find that the most useful knowledge is general – how do the basics of banking work? What are the main types of animals and plants? About how many people live on each continent?

Antarctic Penguins

And how many penguins?

This kind of general knowledge lends insight into daily questions – underlying concepts help frame new data. For instance, knowing a tiny bit about how the international money supply works means that when I see the headline “IMF’s global forecast is most optimistic since crisis,” I know that

  • IMF is the International Monetary Fund, and that
  • if the global forecast is optimistic, they may be more likely to lend, which will probably
  • impact negotiations in and about Ukraine.

Not that this particular information changes things, but you can see how earlier curiosity about the general Way Things Work pays off.

So, what are the basic things everyone ought to know?

This question has plagued me and many others since forever. Should we read all the Classic literature? How far do we need to go in Math? Science? Geography, History, Politics? Pop culture? Classic Movies? I call the general problem of ‘what content to choose’ the Selection Problem. I don’t have a name for this specific subproblem, the “what should everyone know?” question, but I have thought about it lots and still only have musings, not a solid answer.

The big, starry universe.

It’s a big ol’ place. And complicated! (image not to scale)

It seems likely that we ought to know the basics about the big stuff – the things we interact with every day, the things that shape our lives. We ought to know how our food and water get to us, how people and the universe work. A passing familiarity with money and politics and geography and history are likely candidates. From the post title, you can probably guess that I would also include a basic knowledge of the technology underneath the Internet.

With the onward march of technological progress, there has been a growing movement for young people to learn more about technology, particularly coding. It’s mostly worked! Lots of people have at least seen code, and maybe written a little bit. They still don’t know the big picture stuff, but at least they know that computers are good at following specific directions and bad at knowing what you want them to do.

Even if you have seen some code and you’ve remember from somewhere that the Internet was started in 1969 by some scientists or the military or someone somewhere,

1) You are reading this on a computer, and probably 2) have only a fuzzy idea of how the words got to your screen.

Lucky for you, I just built a website (knommon.com – go check it out!) and through that process, I learned a ton about how the internet works! I’m here to share what I learned with you.

(Note: This is just an intro, and might be flawed: there are lots of other places to read about this, in any level of detail. Search on the terms mentioned here to find literally thousands of pages explaining what’s going on)

So, the Internet is a series of tubes. Right? Haha, ah, hahaha. ha.

All jokes aside, tubes is not a very useful analogy. I think a much better image is a food court! That’s the one I’m sticking with.

A food court

A fancy one, with lanterns! (also not to scale, though it is closer)

So, you have your computer, and there are lots of other computers around the world. Some of the computers are like yours – desktops, laptops, phones – in our analogy, the hungry mall-goer looking for a bite to eat. There are also big, professional computers, the ‘servers’ that you have heard about but maybe not grokked. They are like the kitchens behind the food court storefronts, ready to produce your food for you.

What does a meal consist of? How do you find it and get it? In a food court, it’s pretty easy. On the internet, it’s less familiar.

Let’s start with what you already know – what you do to access the internet.

You fire up a web browser, Chrome or Safari or Firefox or Explorer or Opera (okay, not many of you are on Opera). You use the search engine or enter a url into the address bar. The page shows up, or it gives you an error. You do whatever you came to do, browsing, reading, clicking links, playing games, signing in and out, adding items to a virtual shopping cart – generally, conducting transactions.

What happens back in the kitchens that lets you get the food you want? Underneath the pretty layout of your browser, and floating in ‘the cloud’ is the cool software that makes web browsing possible. Step by step:

1. You enter a url (Uniform Resource Locator – the address you type at the top, it starts with ‘http’)  in the browser. This is like you deciding what type of food you want to eat – for this example, Chinese. But, your browser doesn’t know where to look to find that page – so it has to look!

2. The browser tries to find out what server that url represents. To find out, it does a Domain Name System (DNS) lookup. DNS is big and hairy and complicated (like some of the mall maps I’ve seen), but you can think of it as asking some mall staff person where to get Chinese food – they might know, or might not, but if they don’t, they’ll at least point you to someone else who knows. Your browser sends a message to the local DNS server, probably the one provided by your internet provider e.g. Verizon, which might or might not know the location of the server you want – it might ask some other DNS server.

3. DNS lookup returns the Internet Protocol (IP) address that corresponds with the url that you entered. The IP address lets your browser locate and send messages to the server where the webpage you want is stored. It’s like knowing which restaurant in the food court to go to if you want Chinese food.

4. Your browser sends a request to the server located at the IP address it found through the DNS lookup. Once you know where to get the food, you go and put your order in. With the request, your browser sends useful information, like your computer’s IP address, so that the server can send back what you want.

5. The server responds to your request. For most websites, the server does some internal processing on the information from your request, so that it knows what data to send back to you. Server side processing, like all of the topics I am introducing here, is a huge topic that I can’t even begin to do justice to here. Some of the things it might involve are:

  • Finding, adding, updating, or removing information in a database
  • Complicated math to make sure your data is secure from hacking
  • Piecing together information and code and turning it into the response it will send to your browser

All of this is like what is going on in the kitchen and even in the business office of the Chinese Restaurant. They buy food, they prepare it, they cook it, they do all kinds of steps necessary to making your dish that you don’t have to worry about. Servers are like that too, only even less visible.

6. Your browser interprets the response from the server and renders a beautiful webpage for you to view and interact with. The response it gets is usually in the form of a page of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) with some other files that help make it beautiful and useful. These often include Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Javascript files, and resources such as images or videos which populate the page. The browser knows the rules to put all of these files and resources together, and it follows them, like you putting the sauces and toppings on your food just how you like it.

Then you eat! Of course, unlike at the food court, you probably want to visit lots of sites and many different pages on each one – like ordering six items at nine restaurants at an enormous food court with millions of options.

The basics are still the same – when you click a link, your browser sends a request to the server. If it already knows where the server is, it doesn’t need the whole lookup process, but links to other sites do. When you fill out a form online, your browser turns it into a different kind of request for the server (POST instead of GET), but the general steps of the process are the same.

Sometimes, the server will send along extra data, so that when you click a button or through a slideshow, your browser already has what it needs, and doesn’t need to request anything more from the server. This is particularly true for games and videos, where a large file will load with a single request.

What’s best, your browser handles all this for you! And you didn’t have to cook.

Chinese-style fish

Just like this fish. Don’t worry about it.

So that’s how it works! Of course, there are lots more details to learn if you want to really get it. It took actually building and getting a website hosted for me to understand what I do understand about the internet. If for you it means sitting down and writing some code, I highly encourage it! If it means reading more blogs and articles, that’s good too.

I introduced this post by talking about curiosity, and how we ought to be curious about the world we interact with. Here’s a much better post about curiosity over on LessWrong, which, if you haven’t stumbled on before, is a great site for learning and being smarter.

Curiosity is better than solemnly valuing The Truth. Hopefully I have, through my wonderful analogy, made the inner workings of the Internet a little bit less intimidating, so your curiosity can carry you the rest of the way. I could point you to some links, but, wouldn’t it be better if you explored on your own?

Go forth!

Understand ALL The Things

In media res

“You know what else you forgot?!”  The soles of her boots slammed into his chest and arm. He fell, hard. She somersaulted into a ready stance, palms up and eyes alert, just as Master Splinter had taught her all those years ago. She saw the damage her dropkick had done, and dropped her hands.

 “Your face.” 

L brushed the stray hair from her ponytail, turning her back on her fallen former friend and lover. Never again would she let a man get so close. Never again would she share her secrets.

Everyone is coming to this blog from a unique starting point. All blogs are like that – you usually come in backwards, start at the end and scroll down towards the beginning. Most of the time, you get a small amount of context and head back out the way you came. In that way, reading a blog is very much in the middle of the thing. 

More than you, though, there’s me; I am hardly at the start of my learning. At 22, I am many years, many schools, many teachers and textbooks in. Even if I write lots of posts, and even if you read alllll of them and even if you know me outside of the internet, I won’t be able to provide all of the context I have for any of my thoughts, and I will even less be able to write with knowledge of where you are coming from as a reader, what experience you have and what will make sense to you.

I’ll take a page from the writers of action stories and use it as an advantage, dropping hints at the origins of my perspective, and hopefully by the end spelling out the whole story and tying up loose ends. I haven’t storyboarded the whole blog, so who knows if the loose ends will ever get tied. I’ll also try to make the drop-in to the blog soft and easy, accessible: if you stumble in out of the cold, it shouldn’t be too confusing and tied to all sorts of esoteric knowledge you can’t find. I’ll link and tag things so it’s navigable too.

I think three new posts (real ones) are coming this week, so keep your eyes open!

Learning Habits

I had excellent teachers throughout my K-12. I remember hearing from several of them, at different points in my young learning career, that what mattered about the schoolwork I was engaging in at the time was not the content itself, but the habits I formed by working diligently as I was assigned. While I have since come to disagree with that justification for assigning otherwise meaningless work, the implicit principle still seems valid.

Habits are the key.

In my first post, I started the idea that learning is the way we become who we are. I won’t waste your time with a bunch of baloney speculation on what exactly makes up our identity as individuals – better writers than I have stabbed at it and come closer than I would. Suffice it to say that habits are some significant fraction of our daily actions, and worth shaping. Learning the meta-skill to develop the habits I want on demand is a top-priority long term learning objective. Some habits I am currently working on (I will try to keep you up to date on the interesting ones, fans, if you want. lemmeknowinthecomments.)

The world (read: internet) is full of advice. Advice animals, thought catalog faux-wisdom, the next thing-you-won’t-believe on buzzfeed or Huffpost or Cracked what have you, or the life-changey wisdom we see on TED or Medium or my blog(hah). Some of the insights seem at first to be crap and turn out to be nothing more, some seem actually inspiring or wise or faking it well, but rarely if ever does any of it actually change the way we act.

Instead of just sharing the things I like and ignoring the things I don’t and staying who I am no matter what I see, I want to build myself an effective wisdom-filter. I want to be on the lookout for things that I can actually use, advice that will change my habits. I am trying to grow my spidey-sense that will warn me of wise-sounding but unhelpful advice and other insight, so I can stop wasting my time feeling good but not changing. There are some things that are worth absorbing for their content – knowledge of interesting subjects is inherently worthwhile. But I’ve only got so much time, and there is a lot of internet out there. The most impactful content empowers me to develop good (useful, powerful, smart, time-saving…) habits.