Homestead’s end: starting to sell our house in Vermont and what it means

After lunch Ceredwyn, Hestia, and I walked around the house.  It was unusually warm for this time of year, 39°F or about 4℃.   The skies were gray, and some mist rose up from surviving snowpiles.  It felt a bit like March as we tromped along the little ponds, the minor woodpiles, the front flower plot, the driveway’s stone wall, the major wood storage, the hot tub.

Walking with us was a realtor.

pink-sunsetYes, we are starting the process of selling our house.

There are two reasons for this major step, the first being our youngest son is aiming for college next fall.  In around eight or nine months Ceredwyn and I will be the only humans in the house, and have a lot more freedom to move.

The biggest reason, of course, and one familiar to readers of this blog, is that broadband here is horrendous and not getting better.  This is frustrating, at best, for our personal lives, making entertainment, education, culture, and family connections difficult.  More importantly there’s an important chunk of our work that we can’t do from our house or town: downloading major files.  Conducting audio- and videoconferences: it’s no longer quaint to have to turn the camera off to preserve sound quality.  Producing and publishing audio and video projects: podcasts, Future Trends Forum live sessions and recordings, more video sent to YouTube.  That’s a growing proportion of our work – heck, of many professions – and other such needs are coming on line fast, like VR and AR production.

After nearly a year of intensive research and networking, following more than a decade of community work, we cannot escape the conclusion that Vermont is just not interested in expanding rural broadband.  The state does not consider broadband to be a utility.  The outgoing governor, Peter Shumlin, quietly gave up on the universal connectivity goal.  The incoming governor, Phil Scott, has said openly and clearly that he will not pursue that goal.  For the private sector, businesses have been upfront about resisting rural expansion for business reasons.  So unless a solution appears on the Green Mountains over the next few months, we’re getting ready to exit.


Down the sledding hill in autumn.

This is a heartbreaking decision for Ceredwyn and I.  We’ve lived here almost twenty years.   Vermont is the best state we’ve ever lived in. Our two children grew up in Ripton.  We have many deep roots in the community, from serving on school and community TV boards to riding with the fire department to building up a local highspeed network to working on the local historical society and fighting to protect our post office and more.  I run the town blog. We have many terrific friends here.  Our hearts are in this place.

But Vermont is not interested in keeping us here, neither our family nor our business.  That is now quite clear.  So we have to make peace with heartache, which will probably take the rest of our lives, and start packing.

That’s why we’re starting the house selling process and taking our business with us.  Over the next three months we’ll do a lot of interior preparation work.  Once the snow and ice fade we’ll turn the the house’s exterior.  Late May is our rough market debut schedule.

Where will we go?  Well, our options are actually quite broad, since we won’t have children in local schools, and Bryan Alexander Consulting is now an international business.  Our work occurs online or with clients, so we only need basic office speed (AND BROADBAND).  Our current desiderata include:

  1. Blazing fast internet.
  2. Good to plentiful local/regional higher education.
  3. Ready access to a good or major airport.

Beyond that… we’re flexible and exploring.  Extended family needs might take us to southeast Michigan or central Virginia.  Two potential urban locations in Vermont are actually in our sights.   We’re open to suggestions.

There’s a larger point to this decision beyond our family’s particulars.  We bought and organized our house as homesteaders.

goat in the snow

We wanted to be a self-sufficient as possible.  To that end we raised animals (ducks, chickens, goats, turkeys), planted and grew crops (corn, beans of all kinds, various berries, potatoes, carrots, etc.), and planted and tended fruit trees.  We’ve built up the soil through extensive composting.  We heated the house entirely by wood, some of which we logged ourselves.  Water came from a well.  We faced challenges ranging from the hilarious to the brutal, including week-long power outages, temperatures below -35 F, and bear incursions.  We learned… easily a PhD worth of what it takes to live sustainably on the Earth outside of cities and suburbs.  Much more than I can outline in a single blog post.

And we can’t do it any longer without broadband internet.  We can’t homestead and also provide an income for our selves, and do the work we love, without that essential technical infrastructure.

wood-piles-inside-tentThis digital gap is a hard limit for anyone going back to the land, excluding the small and shrinking group of purists and others who do without the digital world. If this gap persists, there will be fewer Helen and Scott Nearings in the future.  The pool of deep, practical knowledge involved in living on the land will shrink.

More importantly, this connectivity chasm is also a hideous cramp fastened onto rural America, because the biggest digital divide is now between city and country.  We are not solving the problem, and the nation isn’t really concerned about it, based on recent politics and cultural currents, even thought this election arguably turned massively on the urban-rural divide.  If I’m right about this,  the city-country gap is just going to widen, with consequences for culture, economics, families, and America as a modern nation.

The problem is especially acute in Vermont.  Like the Rust Belt, like the rest of upper New England, we’re aging.  Vermont’s median age is about 43, nearly a decade past the nation’s.  The younger, most technology-reliant populations are tending to move to cities, emptying out the graying countryside.  How we will sustain a population increasingly consisting of retirees with a shrinking pool of younger workers is an open question.  Our poor infrastructure and lack of interest in technology means Japan’s solution – robotics – is not on the table.

In general, American states and businesses are no longer interested in extending the 21st century to rural folk.  Think about what that means, what a terrible division we’re witnessing.  We’re quietly and passively erecting digital walls potentially as vast and ugly as Trump’s desired Mexican barrier, but without any civic outrage, concern, or even awareness.  I shudder to think of the consequences.

Perhaps Ceredwyn and I can find a rural location steeped in broadband goodness.  We’re looking, and, as I said above, open to suggestions.  Otherwise we’ll close the homesteading chapter of our lives together and explore cities and towns.

Any suggestions or thoughts for our big shift, dear readers?  We’re listening and reading, while making our preparations.

Pearl Lee Road in snow

Our road in winter.


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Demographics and the future of education: lessons from a new study

As a futurist I love demographics.  Unlike, say, technology, pop culture, or policy, demographics change verrrrrrrry slowly.  Once a population is born, it’s easier to trace its outlines and project them forward than it is to extrapolate from nearly any other trend.  Many population tendencies are just baked in and remain for decades, unless an extraordinary event occurs.  My viewers, listeners, and readers know I emphasize demographics when looking at the future of education, and how useful that is.

A Politico research project just published results, looking ahead to 2020-2060, and I’d like to identify key aspects for the future of education.  There aren’t many shocking surprises, but the data is very useful and updated.

NB: this isn’t about Americans’ quantity, as the makeup of that population.

That nation will have gone through two big shifts: It will likely be browner and more polyglot than the America of 2016, and it will also be much older.

First, on the age distribution: America is getting older, generally speaking.

the growth in the population over 85, those most likely to be ill or disabled, will be especially stark. Currently, there are approximately 33 working adults for each American 85 and up; by 2050, that ratio will fall to 13 workers per American over 85.

(The latter point can be mitigated to a degree by increasing worker productivity.  Alas, that doesn’t mean increasing wages.)

The over-65 population isn’t a statistical majority, nor will it be, but it is growing faster than any other segment:


The Politico report identifies some political dimensions of this change:

Wherever they are, their health care needs will be acute. The demand for nurses and home health aides will continue to grow. Those jobs are often filled by immigrants, generally women. A key question will be whether services for the elderly, such as Medicare and Social Security, crowd out the federal budget so that there will be little money left to fund education from early childhood through college—the tools that could allow the daughter of a home health aide to transcend her origins.

For education the latter point is more salient at the state level, unless the federal government decides to follow a Bernie Sanders-style higher ed plan (unlikely in the age of Trump).  But notice the health care needs aspect.  As I’ve said before, when a population ages education is likely to respond with more health care programs and more students taking them.

Second, let’s turn to the racial makeup of America is changing, as we know.  Consider the changing prevalence of people from various races: Continue reading

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When an online book club takes off

One of the great pleasures of teaching, parenting, or politicking is seeing the people involved cut loose on their own, being productive and creative on their own initiative.  I have always taught with this in mind, considering that’s how people learn best.  It’s also how they often get things done with other people, and where I have the most fun.

We Make the Road by Walking Conversations on Education and Social Change Search the full text of this book Search Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John PetersCase in point: our book club reading of We Make the Road by Walking.  Inspired by Kristen Eshleman and Alison Salisbury, I start things off by doing some prep work: research into the book and participants, reaching out to people who might want to read along, blogging about the reading, scheduling things, emailing, more reading, and more tweeting.

There was some initial interest in the form of responses via email, Twitter, and comments on these posts.  I posted notes on the first three chapters.  And then things started rolling, entirely because other people, inspired and engaged, went to work.

On Twitter we hashed out hashtags together , settling on #HortonFreire, because nobody else was using it, and it’s both clear and reasonably short.  Once there seemed to be c consensus there, and before I could reload my Tweetdeck, *dozens* of posts appeared, using that tag as an anchor.

John Stewart went back to earlier content and tweeted it with the new tag, to make sure we got it.  Lora Taub fired off a series of fine quotes from the book, each identified with  #HortonFreire.


This is just a handful, all I could fit in one screen.

Ken Bauer showed us the tag in action in his Tweetdeck, along with links to his students and their classes.


Alan Levin quickly set up an instance of TagExplorer, so we can see connections between our tweets:


Paul Bond found perfectly named and tasty musical accompaniment.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere lit up.  Kate Bowles wrote up her reactions to the book’s first part and on the book club experience. Ben Scragg blogged up his thoughts on the reading so far. Adam Croom wrote a subtle, and heartfelt commentary on the book’s first two chapters.

Then, inspired by the hashtag, Adam whipped up an image from Dr. Seuss:

Horton Freires a Who! by Adam Croom


Don’t forget the reading resources Google Doc, created by Ben Scragg and subsequently added to by other folks.

Does this relate to what We Make the Road by Walking is about?  Absolutely.

Think of the educators’ insistence that learners possess vital knowledge that teachers often lack.  Ditto organizers.  In this case, as the reading’s cat-herder I have very poor image-hacking skills, so couldn’t pull off what Adam did.  I still haven’t mastered Tag Explorer, and am utterly unsurprised that hacking/media fiend Alan raced ahead on that score.

But it’s not just about technical skill.  Each participant brought their own perspectives, interests, and sense of humor to bear.  The result is far richer than if discussion were limited, xMOOC-style, to just my productions.

Thank you all for reading and creating.  Next chapter’s blog post is coming up on Monday!

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One new approach to funding American public education

The state of Kentucky is considering an interesting new method for funding public colleges and universities.  It’s worth looking into because it could point the way for other states.  It also embodies several trends we’ve been discussing.

The key theme seems to be tying state funding to higher education performance.  Not grades, but certain degrees.  Consider:

schools would have to improve in the following areas: the number of bachelor’s degrees produced, the number of STEM + H (science, technology, engineering, math and health) degrees produced, the number of degrees earned by underrepresented minorities and degrees produced by low income students.

Kentucky Country Roads

Kentucky Country Roads, by Alan Levine.

Notice the combination of different political agendas in that group.  There’s support of the sciences and technology, perhaps most often seen from libertarians and pro-business Republicans.  There’s emphasis on underrepresented minorities and students from poor families, calls for which we normally see from Democrats.

This is not extra money.  What makes this interesting, and perhaps risky, is that it’s a formula for allocating basic state support.  “More than 30 states already have performance funding as part of their funding, but those have always been added with new money, not base funding.”

There are obvious risks, one being that such financial inducements could tempt departments and programs to make those degrees easier to get.  One Facebook commentator observed that such an arrangement would make professional associations more valuable as quality guarantors.   It could also lead to rising tuition, as one campus leader observes:

Morehead State University President Wayne Andrews says he has a problem because the formula does not taken tuition into account, and several schools charge higher tuition and get more from out-of-state students.

To be fair, this is just talk at the moment.  The linked article points to announcements a month from now.  But the idea is fascinating.

It embodies the trend of increased attention to STEM fields (nobody’s calling for tying public funds to more degrees in the arts or history).  It builds on the growing demand for academic accountability.  The discussion also draws attention to recent concern about economic and racial inequality.

Have you seen anything like this in your state or other country?

(photo by Alan Levine; thanks to Christel Broady for the link)

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We Make the Road by Walking: chapter 3

Welcome to our book club’s ongoing reading of We Make the Road by Walking.  In this post we can discuss chapter 3, “Ideas”.  In this post I’ll offer a summary of the reading, followed by some reflections and discussion questions.

To read previous posts and comments about this reading, including explanations of what we’re up to, click here.  Don’t miss the rich comments on chapters 1+2, and Adam Croom’s great post on those chapters.

We Make the Road by Walking Conversations on Education and Social Change Search the full text of this book Search Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John PetersI. Summary

“Ideas” explores the intersection between politics and education.  Myles Horton and Paolo Freire start with their preference for combined theory and practice, then argue for teaching that situates curriculum in social context.  They tease out the links and differences between teaching and political organization, then return to the previous chapter’s theme of authority and authoritarianism in education.

II. Reflections

There are a lot of practical, tactical questions in this chapter.  How much politics can you teach in a biology class (104)?  When should a teacher give their opinion on a subject (107)?  When does expertise empower or disempower learners (120-1, 128-9)?  When should faculty oppose their institution (142-3)?

Some great aphorisms:

  • “When you’re talking, you aren’t learning.” (114)
  • “Education is before, is during, and is after.  It’s a process, a permanent process.It has to do with the human existence and curiosity.” (119)
  • “If I’m the expert, my expertise is in knowing not to be an expert or in knowing how I feel experts should be used.” (131)
  • “[T]here can be no such thing as neutrality. It’s a code word for the existing system.” (102)

Horton’s autobiographical stories are simply amazing, from organizing a union (110-111) to being held at gunpoint for not teaching (126-7).

Interesting critique of political leaders for being too focused on emotion (109), instead of being “translators” of the people’s will (111).  Related to that is the political power inherent in teaching and learning, as when “[w]e took over the county politically by using education” (125).

Gender makes an appearance in a discussion of when to intervene in a sexist practice (131-2).

Freire references Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, who led a rebellion in Guinea Bissau.  Freire advised him and published a book about the experience, Pedagogy In Process: The Letters to Guinea Bissau (1978). (133)

While they agree on many things, Horton and Freire disagree on several points.  Freire prefers open discussion of a population’s problems, while Horton prefers to act silently, without “forc[ing] people to admit they were wrong… We just skipped the stage of discussion.” (135)  They also have different ideas about the role of limits (139-141).

III. Discussion questions

Freire offers this striking politics of learning and teaching: “The educator must know in favor of whom and in favor of what he or she wants. That means to know against whom and against what we are working as educators.” (100; emphasis added).  Who would educators work against in 2016?  Is it ethical for educators to teach in opposition to people and forces? Continue reading

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The humanitarian case for automation: the case of suicide prevention

automation_g_originalsOne of the arguments driving the spread of automation is, in some ways, the polar opposite of cold equations.  Humanitarian reasons can encourage us to automate functions currently performed by humans.  A good example of this is the potential of self-driving cars to reduce automotive-related injuries and deaths.  I suspect that potential is probably the biggest reason for autonomous cars’ rapid rise.

Here’s another one, still in the early research days.  What if we could prevent suicides through the use of artificial intelligence?

That’s the premise of a new study.  All we can see in the open web is the abstract, so let me excerpt the key part:

[W]e used machine learning to measure and fuse two classes of suicidal thought markers: verbal and nonverbal. Machine learning algorithms were used with the subjects’ words and vocal characteristics to classify 379 subjects recruited from two academic medical centers and a rural community hospital into one of three groups: suicidal, mentally ill but not suicidal, or controls. By combining linguistic and acoustic characteristics, subjects could be classified into one of the three groups with up to 85% accuracy. The results provide insight into how advanced technology can be used for suicide assessment and prevention.

“These computational approaches may provide novel opportunities for large-scale innovations in suicidal care.”

It’s a fascinating idea on multiple levels.  In the paper itself (thank you, online friends) we learn that such software uses “state analyses [that] measure dynamic characteristics like verbal and nonverbal communication, termed ‘thought markers’”.  Pestian, Sorter, Connolly, Cohen et al cite an awful lot of preexisting research already identifying suicidal markers in

retrospective suicide notes, newsgroups, and social media (Gomez, 2014; Huang, Goh, & Liew, 2007; Matykiewicz, Duch, & Pestian, 2009). Jashinsky et al. (2015) used multiple annotators to identify the risk of suicide from the keywords and phrases (interrater reliability = .79) in geographically based tweets…  Li, Ng, Chau, Wong, and Yip (2013) presented a framework using machine learning to identify individuals expressing suicidal thoughts in web forums; Zhang et al. (2015) used microblog data to build machine learning models that identified suicidal bloggers with approximately 90% accuracy.

And there is more.

Consider this as a thought experiment.  If their software hits 85% accuracy, after some improvement, how many lives could it save in a mental health care facility?  I’m assuming the program would work on spoken word texts (recordings or transcripts of conversation) and whatever writing patients produce.  Could this kind of software reduce injuries, emotional tolls, and deaths?

Extent the thought experiment to schools.  In an educational setting, we could imagine running the software over LMS posts for a school.  Could that detect and enable the prevention of some self-harm and suicides?

Let’s go further still, beyond institutional settings.  Could hosts of discussion venues for other relatively suicide-prone populations – say, veterans, or anorexia survivors – do the same?

Or assume (for the sake of argument) that this software is generally reliable across populations who aren’t tied together by a particular purpose or identity.  That’ll take some invention and development.  Could we deploy the resulting tools across a social network, like Pinterest, or Twitter, or Facebook?  Facebook is already doing something along these lines. Continue reading

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On that Stanford information literacy study

stanford-history-education-groupA Stanford University team won a lot of attention this week by releasing a study on how badly teenagers assess information online.  “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning” examined more than 7,000 students to check their information literacy skills.  The results?

at each level—middle school, high school, and college… young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

[W]hen it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped. (emphasis in original)

It’s an interesting and useful article (and I look forward to more from that team), with important implications for information and digital literacy.  Let me pull out some points and themes that struck me.

What literacy?  Weirdly, information literacy as a term doesn’t show up in the report, despite being evoked as a concept all over the place.  Digital literacy only appears once, at the very end, in a discussion of next steps: “We hope to produce a series of high-quality web videos to showcase the depth of the problem revealed by students’ performance on our tasks and demonstrate the link between digital literacy and citizenship.”  In their coverage NPR mentions no form of literacy at all. The WSJ piece mentions media literacy, but not information literacy, which is probably a better term there, especially since the same article complains about a lack of librarians in schools.  This doesn’t speak well to the presence of digital/media/information literacy in late 2016.

Political literacy Some of the questions presume a bit of political awareness on the part of students.  For example, one asks undergraduates to assess the quality of a poll tweeted by  Assessment includes understanding MoveOn’s nature as a partisan advocacy group, plus a similar awareness of the linked Center for American Progress‘ politics:

students must acknowledge how the political motivations of the Center for American Progress and, both of which support stronger gun control measures, may have shaped the structure of the poll and how its results were publicized.

Is this fair?  I honestly don’t know if most traditional-age undergraduates would be that aware of advocacy groups and think tanks.  It does suggest information or digital literacy requires a political awareness.

Sponsored research This seems to be a particular blind spot, at least for one exercise.  That speaks well to its power and deviousness as a business outreach approach.


More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identifed by the words “sponsored content,” was a real news story. Some students even mentioned that it was sponsored content but still believed that it was a news article. This suggests that many students have no idea what “sponsored content” means…

Why is this happening? The report quietly recommends improvements in education, naming teachers and curriculum without casting blame, but it’s clear from the document that K-12 has failed these students.  Higher ed, too, has its share of failure, based on the undergraduate responses.  A good question to ask: why is K-20 is so bad at teaching information literacy?

The paper doesn’t speculate on non-scholastic causes, beyond this mildly dismissive account of students’ digital practice: “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to  it between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram…”  They don’t focus exlusively on social media in their questions, however, focusing at least as much on home pages ( and, alas, CNN) as on tweets and Facebook.  Would the researchers like to argue that contemporary social media is structured to challenge information literacy?

We could also reach back to classic media literacy and select advertising as a major culprit.  I would add tv, but that seems out of scope here.

The article Bravo to the Stanford team for paying attention to info lit challenges in underresourced schools.  (There’s an important little note about using paper and pencil, rather than computer-based, exercises)  Kudos to them as well for sharing their exercise materials openly, including media samples, rubrics, etc.  It’s useful to see samples of student responses arranged by rubric positions, too.

Digital literacy Thinking about this research in context of the NMC digital literacy briefing, the Stanford research is much narrower than digital literacy.  Students are not producing much, beyond hand written responses to survey-givers, and those responses don’t seem shared with anyone else – i.e, there’s not sign of students as producers within social networks.  Students did have access to technology to research the problems, which is, once more, within classic information literacy parameters.

I’d love to see how this survey would change if students could create, say, a critical version of that flower photograph, or record a podcast, or ping their social networks for thoughts and feedback.  That would be a very different study.

How worried should we be?  Plenty.  This research should be a serious spur to any educational institution considering information, media, or digital literacy.

But adults shouldn’t rest easy.  We know that older adults – the people more likely to vote than the young – are more likely than these students to rely on tv “news” for information, which is a problem of equal salience and danger.  They have also experienced less training in info/media/digital literacy, which they’ll need as they gradually explore new digital domains.

Posted in digital literacy, libraries | 10 Comments