Sharing Nicely Philipp Schmidt's shared learnings Wed, 25 Sep 2013 17:37:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Reflections on philanthropy (mostly by others) Sun, 04 Aug 2013 17:43:31 +0000 Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son and chairman of the NoVo Foundation, recently posted an opinion piece for the NYT about his frustrations with philanthropy. He suggests there is a problem with expecting the social sector to solve problems the corporate sector helped create (funded partially by money made in the process).

Matthew Bishop, who is with the Economist in NY, took issue and responded on his blog Philantrocapitalism..

Both posts are worth reading. I very much like the idea of philanthrophy as risk investment in areas that are important and maybe don’t attract typical risk capital. The Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship, which helped start P2PU, is an excellent example for risk philanthropy. But ultimately I fall on the side of Peter Buffett. And I feel the criticism focuses too much on the window dressing, and not enough on the core of his arguments.

For example, the point he makes about “one hand takes, the other gives back (to feel better)”. Mr Bishop suggests that is not the case and lists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to make his point. But even looking at Microsoft, there is a direct link between keeping computer software artificially high to extract rents from African governments, and limiting how many potential innovators in Africa were able to use computers in the 90s. A more philantrocapitalist approach might have been to co-design the software to be more suitable to users in developing countries, implement more flexible pricing schemes, and build capacity in Africa for software development. All of those initiatives would have slowed the growth of MSFT and reduced its profitability, but they would have given African innovators a leg up – towards solving their own problems today.

I can think of many other examples where this is the case. The financial cost of international remittances is a transfer of wealth from the poorest (who are sending money home to their families) to some of the richest (the owners of the banks). Rather than praising some of them to then give back money, we should push them to do things that reduced their income now – and create opportunity for poor people to solve their own problems. Another example are telecommunications companies who by extracting rents from fast growing African markets, are effectively limiting access to the Internet. Oil companies who use any and all means to get access to natural resources in West Africa. All of this is much more complicated than I make it out in 2 paragraphs. Clearly it is not simply the work of some greedy foreigners.

However, it is an important enough point to pay attention to for those interested in understanding and improving philanthropy.

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How to build a project Mon, 17 Jun 2013 19:25:15 +0000 My friend Chris Geith asked me for five points on how to build a new project. Here is what I sent back to her.

I have more questions than answers. Some of these are things I wish I’d done better at P2PU. Some of this applies to tech projects more than other types of projects.

Change is good – It’s also frustrating, it’s hard, it drains your motivation and enthusiasm, and people don’t like it. But if you are building something new, dealing with change really is the one thing you need to be good at. Very few things will work they way you thought they would. When the ground under your feet moves – don’t panic, enjoy the ride!

What is the problem you are solving? – Never forget to ask this question. Never forget your answer. And make sure it’s a problem you care about.

Outsource the “plumbing” – Find people who will do your accounting, legal, HR for free (pro bono support is easier for non-profits) or pay for it. It’s a gigantic distraction.

Learn how to prototype and test – No matter how smart you are, or how well you understand your users, try out a new idea before you dedicate huge resources. And embrace the fact that you will always throw away the first version (unless you are ridiculously lucky, in which case you don’t need good advice anyway).

Be smart about your tech – Unless technology is the core of your business, use existing off-the-shelf platforms and solutions. Do NOT build anything yourself. You will regret it.

Update (thanks to the excellent Helen Turvey, and Steve Song). Added one more:

Bring a friend (or more) – Starting something new is stressful. Rarely do things go according to plan. Having someone who is in it with you is key. Not just for the days when you need a kind word, a kick in the butt, or someone to make a joke – but also for the days when you’re on top of the world. Cause it’s more fun to share! (hint -> sharing nicely!)

Update 2:

Chris has turned all the feedback she received into a collection of 64 Tips to Blossom and Thrive.


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What we can learn from Self Organized Learning Environments / Sugata Mitra Mon, 17 Jun 2013 15:52:14 +0000 I downloaded the brochure about SOLE Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize project. It’s relevant to our work at P2PU in a number of ways:

The need for facilitators

The SOLE model relies on educators to model curiosity, prompt questions, and support the learners through the process. I would love to see how they scale up the community of teachers that implement SOLE – and what challenges they run into along the way. This strikes me as a very similar challenge to the way we try to recruit facilitators. In both cases, these facilitators need fairly unusual skills. In the P2PU case, we have the added challenge that the typical incentives that exist for teachers (a job, a salary, rich personal feedback and relationships with children and their parents) don’t exist in the same form.

Questions and projects? How to spark great learning 

The magic sparked by the SOLE experience emerges from fascinating questions igniting children’s curiosity.

We have done a lot of work on projects and encouraging learners to think in terms of projects, and I wonder how projects relate to questions. In the PDF some great example questions are listed. Not many of them lend themselves to project work – but I can see how they lead to fascinating discussions, lots of intellectual exploration and engaged learning. Are projects a type of answer to fascinating questions (questions that can be answered in a concrete way)? What is the best way of integrating questions into P2PU courses?

When we work with partners (e.g. on Schools) we try to get everyone to think in terms of projects that learners can tackle. For many people it’s a big step from content-focused learning to project-based learning. Asking them to articulate interesting questions might be an easier step towards design of engaging learning experiences?

What is it? A school? A lab?

We have been struggling with what to call P2PU. We called it a grassroots education project, a community, and organization and over the last year or so we’ve been calling it a lab. I was startled to see that Sugata seems to have the same questions about his project – he calls it a school in the cloud, and then describes the school in the cloud as a *global laboratory*. Maybe it’s ok to accept that P2PU is many things and we have to be comfortable describing it in a number of ways. That is not to say we should become too many things (because trying to be everything, you end up being nothing) but some level of ambiguity is probably ok.


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P2PU Strategy post / Blog identity crisis Mon, 21 Jan 2013 14:47:16 +0000 Last week I put up a P2PU Strategy post over at

And I’ve increasingly been posting things related to P2PU over there. Which puts this blog into somewhat of an identity crisis, since most of my work and writing is P2PU related these days.

Ok, I admit it. I’m also writing this here to keep Mako and the Iron Bloggers off my back. There, I said it.

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Learning Like the Web Mon, 17 Dec 2012 00:28:12 +0000 Illich wrote of learning webs that provide access to people, materials and tools to support interest-driven learning. Open source software communities have demonstrated how self-organized communities of practice can function as learning webs online.

I just spent two days with some of the leading people in the MOOC space. There was much agreement about what a future of learning might look like. And there was much disagreement. We are working on a paper that summarizes the confusion.

The event helped me clarify (a little more) what I think the future of learning looks like. It looks like the web, which is to say it looks like communities of practice online. It is huge, but made up of many small communities, loosely joined. joined.

When barriers to participation fall away, the need for artificial schooling falls away. We can participate in “real” work/science/play rather than learning about it. We can be 9 years old and join a research group on Penguins at John’s Hopkins University. We can share our brain scan results and work with an army of amateurs and professionals to find the best way to treat our cancer. Imagine if we could also watch Salman Rushdie write, help a farmer plant tomatoes, or contribute to ideas for self-driving cars. None of these seem particularly impossible or out of reach.

I am not passionate about a learning future in which the world’s best experts (whatever that means) teach millions … or billions. I am interested in a future in which billions help each other and access the resources they need to increase opportunities.

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Analytics and The Art of Learning Sun, 09 Dec 2012 14:46:01 +0000 I posted a long piece about analytics and the (lost) art of learning over on the P2PU blog. It is quite a personal reflection and made me think about my own personal journey, and the influence my parents’ have had on the way I think. I had originally considered posting it here, rather than the P2PU blog, but I am hoping it will have more influence on the important conversation about what we should be measuring over there.

I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback >

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Good tools make you smile Sat, 08 Dec 2012 16:39:09 +0000 I recently downloaded Sketch, an inexpensive vector drawing tool for OSX. I was actually hoping for a pixel / photo editing tool that could replace Seashore, which is free and I appreciate the fact that it exists, but also regularly drives me crazy. So much for careful product review before purchasing.

Good news however: Sketch turns out to be incredibly well designed and user-friendly. Just one minor thing that impressed me is the fact that the Export workflow remembers the size of the export selection. It’s a small detail, but it makes a big difference. And it made me smile.

I’m interested in font design, and am hoping to use Sketch in my course on how to make a font. Some shapes I created this morning, playing with negative/positive space. I was originally playing around with the shape of the greek letter Phi, but it turned into a head.

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The great ideas in edtech are old. And that’s an opportunity. Mon, 26 Nov 2012 20:50:05 +0000 I’ve been participating in the edtech reading group here at MIT, which brings together people from the Media Lab and CSAIL (Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence Lab). We have mainly looked at technology as a way to increase quality, efficiency, or measurability of learning – similar to a lot of the discussion in the education / technology / policy space these days.

Given that I am a visiting researcher at the Media Lab I thought it would be nice to dig into the treasure trove of past work done right here at the Lab and some of the thinkers that have influenced the way that learning happens at the Lab.

I chose two articles:

Seymour Papert, who was one of the founding academics of the Lab, published A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future in 1990. Many of his concerns and insights still apply today as hopes spiral once again that technology will save the education system, asking what the computer can do to our learning. But as Papert writes, “The question is not ‘What will the computer do to us?’ The question is ‘What will we make of the computer?’ The point is not to predict the computer future. The point is to make it.”

And reading Illich’s description of learning webs (published in 1971) I am equal part excited, because of the possibilities to build many of the things he imagined, and deflated because of the slow progress we have made towards his vision. What have we been doing in the 40 years that have passed?

I believe that no more than four — possibly even three — distinct “channels” or learning exchanges could contain all the resources needed for real learning. The child grows up in a world of things, surrounded by people who serve as models for skills and values. He finds peers who challenge him to argue, to compete, to cooperate, and to understand; and if the child is lucky, he is exposed to confrontation or criticism by an experienced elder who really cares. Things, models, peers, and elders are four resources each of which requires a different type of arrangement to ensure that everybody has ample access to it.

His challenge to us still stands: “Technology is available to develop either independence and learning or bureaucracy and teaching.” Which brings me to the title of this post. Let’s look for the the ideas that will read as fresh and insightful in 2050 as Illich sounds today, and let’s execute on bringing his vision to live with technology that didn’t exist when he wrote, rather than focus on increasing efficiency of the industrial education.



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How children (and everyone else) succeed Mon, 05 Nov 2012 21:29:12 +0000 Paul Tough’s recent book “How Children Succeed” weaves together a broad body of research with stories of students, teachers, and principals to propose that there is hope for improving the disaster that is education in low-income communities. I am mostly convinced, but have been thinking a lot about the implications of his findings on my own work.

Tough finds that a set of non-cognitive skills, like grit and character, might be more important to help us succeed in life than IQ. The bad news is that traumatic experiences during early childhood can make it hard to develop these skills, which is where low-income kids have a special disadvantage. The good news is that there are ways to learn them later, unlike IQ which is pretty fixed at a relatively young age.

A lot of the research is not new, and for those working in low income communities some of the ideas might seem obvious. Traumatic family environments make it harder for kids to learn. Duh! But even if the problems may be obvious, the solutions have been elusive so far.

Tough describes the challenges, but doesn’t stop there. He argues that through a series of straight-forward interventions at home and at school, kids can develop non-cognitive skills and habits that will help them succeed in college and life. After many misguided attempts to improve education for those who need it most, Tough’s book may lead us in a better direction.

There is much in the book that rings true, based on what I have seen in the success of Ikamva Youth in South Africa. At Ikamva, young university graduates, who come from townships, tutor the next generation of high-school learners and help them enter and succeed in college. The academic support is important, but more important is the ability to imagine a better future, and seeing a clear path that leads there through committed hard work.

What is success?

The book mainly defines success as completing a college degree. A college degree is an ambitious goal for kids in low-income communities, and college degrees are correlated with better health, higher income, and other positive outcomes. Yet somehow, developing the character skills that help us graduate from college, doesn’t really seem enough. What about creativity, the arts, sparks of invention, or ethics that form our moral compass?

I feel ambivalent about bringing this up. Because, when I read about the aspirations of some of the kids in the book – being able to get a job, renting a flat, providing a safe space for siblings to grow up – my arguments why a college degree might not be enough sound hypocritical. I have a degree, and it has made it easier to take for granted things that these kids aspire to, like a job, a flat, and a safe space to life (I also have a pretty impressive track-record of academic dead-ends, but that’s for another blog post).

That path we travel to get a degree will often include steps that spark our curiosity, help us develop grit, and bring mentors and role models into our lives. Those are the things that count and I would have enjoyed Paul Tough unpack what’s in the degree a little more – maybe in his next book?

Beyond grit

Most conversations I have had about the book ended up returning to grit and conscientiousness, because it comes as such a surprise that those are the skills that determine success and not IQ. It worries me that some readers may hone in on grit as the *only* solution. I believe that grit can be a big part of the solution, but it is not enough (and I don’t think Paul Tough suggests it is enough).

Tough’s stories of kids who beat the odds are not just about grit. There is something special about the relationships that they have been able to form with mentors, be they parents, other family members, or teachers. Adults approached them with empathy and a true commitment to helping. As a result these kids received the feedback, the critique and the encouragement that they needed. It’s not grit itself that the book focuses on, but the structures and environments we have to create, to enable kids to develop their sense of grit.

Relating the book to my work

Peer 2 Peer University starts with an interest or a passion to learn something. It operates outside of many of the traditional carrot or stick mechanisms of formal education. And the Lifelong Kindergarten Group where I am visiting has a great track record or creating environments for creative and interest-driven learning. Real-world spaces like the computer clubhouses or the computing environment Scratch allow kids (of all ages) to build, tinker, make mistakes, and to learn from their mistakes. Developing grit hasn’t been an explicit goal of P2PU or these LLK projects, but I don’t think that means it isn’t there. In fact, I think kids and adults who follow their passions and interest, and operate in spaces that allow them create things, often develop extreme persistence. We just don’t think about grit when we are spending our evenings and weekends trying to solve a problem we deeply care about. We call it grit if it’s something we’d rather not do.

I was surprised however that in the book, chess turned out to be an example of something that kids seemed to find such passion for. One wouldn’t think of chess as very high on the list of interests of teenagers (especially in low-income communities). I’d be curious to find out more about this example – is it possible that the school created such a strong culture around its chess program (think football program at a major state college) that the kids were passionate about chess coming into the program, or was there an onboarding process that helped kids discover a passion for chess they may not have known they had? What is that spark – that ignites a passion for learning?

Fairly harsh critical feedback (coupled with the encouragement to try again) was described as one of the reasons for the success of the chess project. Translating this type of critique into online environments, or more creative learning environments is a challenge we are working on at P2PU. In the case of the chess project, there was a deep sense of trust that was developed over a period of time. On the foundation of that trust and empathy, even hard criticism was accepted and constructive. In online environments we lack many of the clues that signal empathy, and it’s harder and takes longer to develop trust. That’s one reason why we often focus on positive and supportive feedback, to help new users develop the confidence to take the next step. At what point does this approach fall short, and the positive feedback actually limits what students will push themselves to achieve?

There was one thing I found truly annoying about the book. While its main focus was on students from low-income communities, it occasionally detoured into the world of posh private schools. The argument was that even there, students sometimes don’t develop the important skills they need to live fulfilled lives. So what? I couldn’t really get myself to care about the rich privileged students who didn’t have enough opportunities to fail. If that drives them into boring careers in banking and law, so be it.

Acknowledgement – Almost nothing in here is just mine. Thanks go to the great folks in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab whose ideas got all meshed up in my head. This blog post is a great example why the world will be easier (and maybe better) once Nate Mathias has figured out a way to make acknowledgement work on the web.

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How to get a Shuttleworth fellowship Wed, 17 Oct 2012 15:19:48 +0000 I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, the Shuttleworth fellowship is gold-dust for people interested in starting a venture at the cross-section of technology, learning, and “open”. Word seems to have gotten around and I frequently get asked for advice on how to apply, what “they” are looking for, and any other tips. I am a fan of the model, and I am happy to help others apply.

Here are some general tips that I personally think are useful (but I can’t guarantee they work for everyone, and you should definitely check in with the Foundation early on – see tip 1):

Speak to the Foundation early on. Most proposal or application processes work like a black box. You submit a proposal that is some mix of what you want to do and what you think will get funding and then you wait. I recommend the opposite approach for the fellowship application. Spend some (but not too much) time to review the guidelines on the website and check out other fellows’ projects to make sure your idea broadly fits. Then ask one of the existing fellows for an introduction to the foundation or email to set up an initial conversation. If possible I would do that on the phone because it gives you more flexibility to try out a couple of ideas, ask questions.

Treat the foundation like a partner, not like a funder. The trick is to get the foundation interested in “building this together” not in “giving you money”. All the fellows understand that they are facing big challenges and they operate with a high level of uncertainty. Sharing some of your big questions is a great way to get the foundation involved in answering them. If you don’t have any questions, and you have it all figured out already, you probably don’t need the fellowship.

Build something. There are lots of interesting research questions. There are lots of interesting experiments. There are better places to do research and experiments. What the fellowship is fantastic at is helping you “build/start” something. You’ve got a big idea, you’ve played around with it enough to know that it has legs, but you need time and some seed-funding to prove it out and lay the foundation for scaling: apply!

Let your passion show. When you record your application video, don’t forget to bring your passion. When we explain our work we often focus on the problems we are solving, the strategies we implement, the progress we hope to make. Those are all super important, but in my opinion, what swings it, is often the person behind the idea. And there is nothing as convincing as excitement and passion.

Commit! In eggs with bacon, the chicken is invested, the pig is committed. The fellowship is great for people who cannot not work on their idea. It is not the best model to create the first spark, but an awesome mix of fire-starter and lighter-fuel.

How the money works. Almost nobody seems to understand how the funding actually works. It’s unique and brilliant, like VC funding for social projects. You get an amount X (let’s say 50,000 USD) that is designed to roughly cover your life expenses so you don’t get distracted by another job. From that money, you can choose to reinvest some funds into your project. Your investment is multiplied by the foundation at a factor of 10, 15 (if you invest above a certain amount) or 20 (for collaborations with other fellows). So, if you put 5,000 USD back, your income goes down to 45,000 USD but you get 50,000 in project funds (5,000 * 10) to hire someone, organize a workshop or use in other ways to build your project.

Hope this is useful. Feel free to drop me a note anytime. Always happy to help bring more awesome people into this fellowship (better fellows make me and the other alumni look smarter). Also, feel free to leave questions below and I’ll try to answer them here for everyone.

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