Books I Read in 2015

Martin’s post has inspired me to share the books I read in 2015, though I have not made the time to produce useless charts like he did. :) I must say that, after staying healthy, the biggest benefit of running is all the audio books I manage to read. Some things on my list are only in print (no audio), but they were super important to me to read.

51uG7NLD-aL._SX336_BO1204203200_A few thoughts that occured to me as I made the list: I reread several books in preparation for reading new books that were released in a series this year. It will be no surprise to people who know me to see that Brandon Sanderson has his own category. I’m definitely tilting toward economics, and continue to be deeply interested in how to frame / describe / talk about “open” in the context of the discipline of economics.


  • Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice
  • Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources
  • The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement
  • Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
  • Debt: The First 5000 Years
  • The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique
  • Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics
  • The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It
  • To Save Everything Click Here
  • Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness
  • In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World
  • Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics
  • The Information (reread)
  • The Lean Startup (reread)

Brandon Sanderson

  • Mistborn: The Final Empire (reread)
  • The Well of Ascension (reread)
  • The Hero of Ages (reread)
  • The Alloy of Law (reread)
  • Shadows of Self
  • Steelheart (reread)
  • Firefight
  • Sixth of the Dusk
  • Perfect State
  • Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell

Other Fiction

  • The Lost Gate (reread)
  • The Gate Thief (reread)
  • Gatefather
  • Seveneves

There’s been a lot of discussion about open textbooks, efficacy research, and student cost savings in the wake of this year’s #OpenEd15. The general theme of the conversation has been a concern that a focus on open textbooks confuses the means of open education with the end of open education. I’m compiling a Storify of examples of this really engaging writing – you should definitely take the time to read through it. I’m not responding directly to many of the points made in those posts here, but will in a later follow-up posts.

The overall criticism about ends / means confusion may or may not be true – it depends entirely on what you think the end or goal of open education should be. This is a conversation we almost never have in the field of open education. What is our long-term goal? What are we actually trying to accomplish? What kind of change are we trying to create in the world? The recently published OER strategy document, as informative as it is, reads more like a list of issues and opportunities than what Michael Feldstein describes as “rungs on a ladder of ambition.” Answering these questions leads to additional, more proximate concerns, like what specific steps do we need to take to get from here to there? In his #OpenEd15 keynote, Michael pushed our thinking with some additional questions, like “Who are we willing to let win?”

As I have reflected on the post-conference conversation, and these larger questions about goals and purpose, I’ve decided to share some of my current best answers to these questions. (Disclaimer: my answers are guaranteed to evolve over time.) Your answers will almost certainly be different than mine – and that’s a good thing. I’m not sharing my answers as a way of claiming that they reflect the One True Answer. I’m sharing them in the hope that they will prompt you to think more deeply about your own answers. I find that nothing helps me clarify my thinking quite like reading others’ thinking I disagree with. As we all take the opportunity to ask and answer these important questions for ourselves, and to do that thinking publicly, out loud, who knows what might happen? [click to continue…]


The Primary Problem with Educational Technology

There is much that’s wrong with the educational technology (“edtech”) market. However, the title of an essay I read last week sums up the biggest problem as succinctly as possible: Caring Doesn’t Scale.

This three-word sentence captures so much. First, it clearly communicates that “scale” has become a virtue. More importantly, it implies that old-fashioned virtues – things like caring about people – simply can’t compare in importance to modern values like scale. It would be an interesting thought exercise to re-examine the traditional seven virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity) and decide what each of their edtech replacements would be. However, I’m positive that in the updated version of the EdTech Bible, Corinthians 13:13 ends “the greatest of these is charity scale.”

Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling once made the distinction between an “identified life” and a “statistical life.” Identified lives belong to people we know and care about. Statistical lives belong to future imagined people who are nameless, faceless, and unknowable. Schelling argued that we think about – and even value – these two kinds of lives differently:

Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Edtech companies are primarily focused on what we might call “statistical students.” How could they not be? Their veneration of scale necessarily piles up students until they become tiny dots in a distribution, converts them into a billion small contributors to Big Data.

Why are we hell-bent on taking the greatest communications technology ever known and making sure that no one communicates with it? Why must we replace opportunities to interact with teachers and tutors with artificial intelligence and adaptive systems? Why are we so excited by the prospect of care, encouragement, and support giving way to a “Next” button that algorithmically chooses what a student should see next? The answer is that caring doesn’t scale – and given the choice between the two, mainstream edtech chooses to scale. (For sake of completeness, we should explicitly state the corollary to ‘caring doesn’t scale,’ which is ‘scaling doesn’t care.’)

If I could shout something from the rooftops, perhaps it would be this: edtech doesn’t have to be this way – there are other ways to imagine the use of technology in education.

In my talk at TEDxNYED in 2010, I argued that the proper role for technology in education is “to increase our capacity to be generous.” I still believe this is true. The affordances of digital, networked technologies make it incredibly easy – so easy almost as to create a moral imperative – to be generous with educational materials that cost almost nothing to duplicate and transmit around the globe. Open Educational Resources (OER) are one way in which technology allows us to be more generous.

Digital, networked technologies can also be leveraged to design tools and pedagogies that augment, extend, and improve a teacher or faculty’s capacity to care. That is, educational technology can help us be more generous with our care, encouragement, passion, and support. Educational technology can help us come to know, care about, and genuinely support a much larger number of “identified students” than we ever could without its help. But precious little of the activity in the edtech market is focused on achieving this goal.

The good news is that, like soylent green, the edtech market is made of people. We are the ones who design the tools and services that are available. But we must find the willpower to reject the “caring doesn’t scale” narrative and chart a better, more generous path forward.