The New Education Economy of “Free”

Have you ever been leading a session and been faced with the statement, “That’s great, but what does it cost?” The new economics of education rely on free as the baseline of worth in the classroom, and that’s bad for ideas and growth.

I know that money is tight1. I’ve spent hundreds of my own dollars on classroom supplies, materials, lessons, and tissues…so many tissues. I’m concerned that the value of materials is rooted in what it costs rather than its instructional value, which is both good and bad for education.

We need to differentiate between the free sharing of ideas and the free sharing of products.

The two are not synonymous, yet they are often equivocated. Consider the following:

I may share an idea on Twitter, my blog, or at a conference. It could be a lesson plan, a lab activity, or something to do with students learning. I have no ownership over any part of it, other than it’s something I came up with. The idea is ephemeral…it lives and dies with the action that’s taken.

Someone reads or hears the idea and runs with it. They create a lesson plan, supplemental materials, and other products which can be shared – maybe even a curriculum or an ebook.

Are they wrong for wanting to get some return on their investment of time and energy by asking for a small fee for those materials?

Depending on who you talk to, yes.

creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by r-z

I didn’t ask anyone, but I know that making a living off of selling content is really, really hard in today’s education economy. What bothers me the most is that people (individuals, not corporations) who sell materials rather than giving them away are really hearing, “My time as a teacher is valuable, but not what I make with that time.”

A refrain I hear is, “I give all of my materials away for free, so others should do the same.” We’re projecting our own values onto others in the community! I can’t think of a much more damaging sentiment to communicate to colleagues. I’d even go so far as to say it’s bordering unethical behavior by expecting others to work with their products in a way that suits the community rather than their own goals. You can better a community and make money at the same time.

How many entrepreneurs have been stifled because of the “free-and-only-free” expectation? How many conference sessions have been unheard (or even commandeered) because it didn’t focus on free stuff? An economy of free isn’t sustainable, and I’m worried we’re losing valuable insight and growth opportunities because of the path we’re on.

Ideas vs. products. It’s important.

1. I know I’m not in the classroom right now, but I still experience this reaction when I make suggestions of resources for use in the classroom. Free isn’t always worth the hidden costs.

Scratch is the Hardest Thing I’ve Done in a While

I’m not going to lie – I found this week’s assignment really, really difficult. More on that later.

Nearly all of the coding I’ve done has been in front-end web development. I like playing with HTML structure and seeing what I can do with CSS. Lately, I’ve been creating a blog template which added some significant PHP and jQuery. I enjoy working in text editors, the command line, and the development tools in Chrome. I like text.

Scratch is the complete opposite. Everything you do is represented with graphics. Loops are large brackets which take blocks of code, operators modify events as different shapes…I didn’t find it very intuitive, to be completely honest. I spent most of my time trying to remember which color corresponded with which shape so I could get into the correct menu. There was a lot of clicking, a lot of eye rubbing, and more than one trip away from the computer to clear my head.

The entire process of programming in Scratch is rooted in abstraction and decomposition. I know what actions I want the sprite to make, but in order to get that to happen, I need to think through each and every step leading up to the result. Once I had an idea of what steps needed to be accomplished, it was time to put them into sequence and think about how to chunk the project up.

I started with a small drawing program. It isn’t very advanced…but it took me a while to get through because I had to think through each block and what it was doing step by step.

After adding each command, I would test the program…then debug. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

It still amazes me how much the final product changes from the initial idea. At first, I wanted the sprite to jump around the page, drawing random lines to see what could be generated by chance alone. That isn’t much fun for the user, so I moved it to a follow-the-mouse game. A concept I remember from my art classes is continuous-line drawing, where you draw without lifting the tip of the pencil. I always enjoyed that style, so I decided to put it into a little game you can play.

creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Asbestos Bill

Now that I have some chops, I went back to the game-of-chance idea. This game is based on luck alone, and it came from the “do something surprising” prompt in the Creative Computing handbook.

This project threw a new loop at me (get it? loop?) and I really struggled with writing separate scripts for each individual sprite in the editor. I expected one main editing interface, and was really confused about where my scripts would go as I added sprites and backdrops. Again, I think this goes back to my experience with written code and managing everything in the flow of one document. (If you’re curious, this is called “object-oriented programming,” something I’m familiar with, but not nearly competent in.) So, this exercise turned into a major learning experience for me.

I found myself – again – digging through, step by step, experimenting and testing, until I found patterns that I could build off of.

It’s important to remember that Computational Thinking is all about the problem-solving process.

I was sketching diagrams, talking out loud, and looking at other examples as I figured out where I was failing. The great thing about computers is that we can rapidly implement ideas and iterate toward a working solution…they help us quickly isolate problems and work toward solutions. So, the computer is extending not only our creative capabilities, it’s helping us refine those ideas in an efficient way.

We can emulate that process in any activity, especially in the classroom.

It’s important to remember the struggle we feel I felt during this exercise is how someone feels daily in my classroom. Patience, empathy, and understanding the components of working through problems are essential for me as a leader and equally essential for students to learn.

Timing is Everything

When you touch something hot, the nerves in your hand will immediately fire a signal up toward your head to make a decision about what to do about the “hot thing.” But – here’s the cool part – your nervous system is smarter than that. Your spinal cord sees that warning go past and tells your hand to pull away – no brain needed. In fact, you don’t even realize you’ve pulled away until after it’s happened because your brain hasn’t received the signal from your hand yet. Wild.

Analogy 1: Pulling Bach

Make sure your volume is up, then click the animation


Bach’s ability to layer the theme in a count-counterpoint method was unmatched. Listen closely – the right and left hand of the pianist are playing the same pattern, just at different octaves and at different times. Yet, they overlap to compliment one another. Our brain does the same thing…variations on a theme (sending and receiving signals) at every moment of the day unmatched in efficiency and power by any machine built.

Analogy 2: Coordination and Node Structure

Click to expand in a new tab.

The nervous system isn’t a straight A-to-B system. It’s a complex network of feedback loops which feed information between nodes in response to the environment. The global air traffic network is more than the sum of it’s routes…an issue at a single node anywhere in the global network will be felt downstream. The same is true for our sensory networks – a delay in our reflex arc, for example, can lead to serious damage to our tissues.

Building solid analogies requires that we step out of our own area of expertise and think as a novice.

The most difficult part of this assignment was avoiding direct comparisons – particularly those based on physical structure. I also think a good portion of building a solid analogy is thinking outside of my own understanding – approaching the idea or problem for the point of view of someone who has no experience with the topic.

In fact, it’s how I built the Bach analogy. My wife and I were discussing analogies and this assignment, and I was explaining some of the examples given in Sparks of Genius (in particular, the vibration of electrons). She suggested that I apply music to our nervous system because of the way it is built. I immediately thought of the call-and-response (counterpoint) style of music, and was able to build that into an explanation of how the reflex function works. Before speaking to Lindsey, I was limiting myself to structural comparisons…I was thinking too literally about what I already knew. I then used the same approach to draw the second analogy between our bodies and the air patterns of the world day to day. I may not be able to talk about the actual structure of nerves at this point, but everyone can relate to a delayed flight at some point. We now have a truth which bridges our experiences.

As teachers, we often rely on our content knowledge more than our context knowledge. We fall back on “explaining” rather than “exploring” because it’s safe, and frankly, it’s how many of us were trained before entering the classroom. That being said, we often analogize on the fly – we come up with examples and comparisons to help ease confusion and frustration. Consider keeping track of those and refining the ideas to become more central in your instruction and not so situational.


Bach: Badass of Counterpoint (2013). Listen, learn, and do. Retrieved from:

Colombo, C. (n.d.). “4. Inventio in D minor BWV 775 (0’54”).” Retrieved from:

Global connectivity revisited (2011). Spatial analysis. Retrieved from:

Kuensting, S. (1995). “Reflex arc animation.” Retrieved from:

More Attribution Done Just for You

I’m expanding on a post I wrote a week or two ago in which I added automatic Flickr attribution to header images on the blog theme I’m working on. I wanted it to be done on all images on the blog, and I finally got the script after playing around and with some help from StackOverflow. Here’s the skinny:

I didn’t expand my original script – I want that one to run on its own because it styles the credit a little bit different than the body text. Rather than overlaying a credit, which would require some HTML restructure, I’m simply adding it below the picture because KISS is always the best policy.

Here’s a CodePen demo of the script in action.

A couple things to note about the script:

  1. Right now, it only adds a credited caption to Flickr photos, because, let’s be honest: they have the best API for this kind of thing. Don’t hope for anything like this on Instagram any time soon.
  2. It specifically looks for the Flickr URL before running the script, so your site won’t be bogged down with scripts running.

So, there it is. Take it as it is, or take it, mess with it, and share it back.

Also note I’ve got a larger project going which will get its very own post someday soon coming up.


I’m on bath duty each night. After dinner, the water runs, and Meredith gets really, really excited. The tub is full of boat, plastic chains, and foam letters which have a great feature of sticking to the wall when they’re wet. I’ve even discovered that, if thrown just right, they will stick on their own.

I don’t want to humblebrag, but I can get it to stick one out of seven attempts.

I managed to get a “G” to stick tonight and I started wondering why it stuck to the wall…is it cohesion or adhesion?

I’m still thinking through how to best explain this…which force is more prevalent? Is is one more powerful than the others?

When I taught adhesion and cohesion, never considered a problem like this…they were all straight forward because I had to assess the standard. I was afraid of confusing them. Now, I’m more afraid of what I missed because I didn’t confuse them.

How would you explain the picture? What would your students say?

Functional Patterns

Structural patterns exist all around us, especially in living systems. A common example in the biology classroom is bone structures which show evolutionary similarities between species.

My biology courses begin at the cellular level and explore the basic structures of life. Phosopholipids, for example, make up our cell membranes. Each individual molecule has the same structure and in aggregate, they serve a critical function in regulating the life of every cell in our bodies.

Patterns in the scientific sense often lend clues to the function of the system they belong to, and they can help us make insightful observations of new systems. New questions arise as patterns emerge and are analyzed in new ways. I want my students to look for similarities in observable features (particularly in biology) and use those observations to build hypotheses about new systems. The skill of pattern-finding is important in itself, but it becomes more powerful when applied in context with the content.

Patterns dictate every aspect of biology, and we are inextricably part of those patterns.

Traditionally, freshman biology curricula begina with atoms, molecules, and cells, and work their way to larger structures and systems. This is a very abstract approach which most ninth grade students are not prepared for (prerequisite science is usually a physical science of some kind). Rather than looking at structural patterns and their functions, it makes more sense to begin with patterns which affect their lives.

Consider the changing seasons: life on earth is made possible by energy from the sun. As energy availability changes, patterns in living things also change appropriately. Plants and animals move into (or out of) dormancy; part of the shift to dormancy may include structural change (ex. losing leaves) due to those functional shifts. The seasonal shifts physically affect students – they can connect the pattern to their own lives. This can be extended to the cycle of life and death, both in a macro- and micro-biome. When natural patterns are disrupted, problems emerge, and they can now be approached with a concrete frame of reference.

What does this mean?

Patterning is important in science because it can help set a frame of reference for further study. Typically, this is done by studying the microstructures which dictate systemic functions of plants and animals. While effective in some situations, may biology courses are built starting with small (cells) structures and leaving the big (plants, animals) to the end of the year. But, with exam pressure and other end-of-year stress, many of the macro-level units are touched in spirit only.

Rather than focusing on structural patterns first, focus should be given to identifying and observing patterns students are more familiar with. Exploring environmental factors which can influence an organism is more in line with them empirical science they’ve done in years prior and helps build an answer to the question, “why?”. I understand the danger in making blanket statements like this, especially because each student comes to class ready to engage in different ways.

So, while I would prefer to start with recognizable patterns to help forge connections to the content, it really comes down to knowing my environment and adjusting as needed. It takes a blend of ideas – giving opportunities for concrete exploration as well as abstract can help bridge the gap created when one method is used exclusively over another. As the teacher, it is my responsibility to help students make those connections, regardless of the particular content. Spiraling, scaffolding, and exploration can all be used in the process. The key is to be aware of what patterns exist congruently and work to take advantage of each.

Creative Roots

“My work isn’t always incredibly creative, it’s just different than the way other people think about the same things.”

Vicari Vollmar

Creative work is defined by circumstance – we work creatively for our jobs but we also work in creative ways for personal fulfillment. Each requires a different mindset and each results in its own reward.

For instance, if creativity is defined by a work’s “novelty, effectiveness, and wholeness,” (Mishra, P., Henriksen, D., & the Deep-Play Research Group, 2013) in a work situation, effectiveness comes first. “Function supersedes form,” as Vicari put it. Her creative work (design) needs to communicate an idea first and foremost. Conversely, Kaitlin said the best part of working in her kitchen is “getting it right.” Hitting the flavors, texture, and appearance of a baking project (wholeness) is the goal.

We also discussed the nature of creativity…in other words, is creativity in the product1 or the process? Both Kaitlin and Vicari believe that creativity resides in each individual.

Here’s an analogy: You and I are given a task to complete. We go our separate ways and do the work; we experience and respond to the prompt in unique ways, which leads us down unique paths for a product. Regardless of the final medium, we have gone through our own creative process. Additionally, the product does not need to shared with anyone else in order to have been creative. Kaitlin often bakes because she wants to bake. Vicari writes because she wants to write.

Creativity is not rooted in the product, but in the product’s creation.

So often, our interpretation of the value of our work comes from others. I may take a photo, but compared to other people’s, it isn’t very “creative.” Perhaps it isn’t as novel, but it may be more effective at communicating an idea. Novelty is often over-emphasized with effectiveness and wholeness falling aside. Perhaps this is because the novel work is celebrated by culture; it’s what is passed through email and discussed at lunch. It causes discussion, inflating its importance in the creative process.

External affirmation is linked with creativity, I think, because of our culture celebrating musicians, artists, athletes, and other public figures. I don’t think this is wrong, but it often dilutes the innate value in thinking and acting creatively because of the limits we impose on ourselves. Creativity and talent are often blended, and it leads to confusion over what true “creativity” looks like.

Vicari and Kaitlin helped expose the value of the process we follow to create. Being cognizant of the purpose of the creative task is going to play a big role for me. I often bog myself down with novelty and not enough effectiveness or wholeness. Thinking with purpose and the big picture in mind is the first step to improvement, and it’s one I’m learning over again each day.

Special Thanks

Many thanks to Kaitlin Flannery and Vicari Vollmar for answering my half-baked, very ambiguous questions this week. You can read about Kaitlin’s baking on her blog, Whisk Kid. Vicari has just started her own blog, So Vicarious.

Notes and Resources

Mishra, P., Henriksen, D., & the Deep-Play Research Group (2013). A NEW approach to defining and measuring creativity. Tech Trends (57) 5, p. 5-13.

1. Nick Briz is an educator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has written on glitch art and the ephemerality of digital creation. One of the more interesting applications of “ephemeral creativity” I came across recently is a game called Plink. You join three other players and create music by moving your mouse. It isn’t recorded; it isn’t broadcast. The creation happens in the moment and is limited to the players in the game. It is incredibly fun, and adds an interesting aspect to the discussion of defining creativity.

Grim Pictures

Since early this year, the WHO has been calling for international aid in response to a burgeoning crisis in west Africa. There had been a confirmed death and further infections due to Ebola virus. Initially, it’s mortality rate was above 65% for infected individuals. Fast forward six months and the death toll has topped 3,000 with five countries officially recognizing infected individuals.

It hasn’t been in the news much because the media typically covers “disaster moments.” NPR’s Planet Money podcast took an insightful look at why it is just coming to American’s attention. I decided to grab some readily available data from the CDC, the WHO, and other international relief agencies to put some of these numbers in perspective.


Ebola virus data is easy to track down because it was only identified in 1976 in the Philippines. Since then, every outbreak has been documented by major health organizations. Most of the cases since 1976 have occurred in central Africa.

Confirmed Ebola virus deaths in Africa, 1976 - 2012.

Confirmed Ebola virus deaths in Africa, 1976 – 2012.

In the past, these infections have been isolated to remote regions in the bush country (Ebola is contracted from contaminated bush game meat), so transmission was limited. The current outbreak region is centralized in heavily-populated urban areas.

Confrmed Ebola virus deaths, 2014.

Confrmed Ebola virus deaths in Africa, 2014.

Higher population density with low-quality health care facilities translates to a higher rate of infection. How much higher?

Historical Perspective

There have been Ebola virus outbreaks every few years since it was identified in the late 1970’s. Like I mentioned earlier, these cases are well-documented by health organizations globally. This year’s outbreak is nearly three times as large as all other outbreaks…combined.

Comparing all Ebola virus deaths, 1976 - 2012 to the present outbreak.

Documented Ebola virus deaths 1976 – 2012 to the present outbreak.

The infection rate has also skyrocketed due to the urban spread of this particular outbreak.

Rate of Ebola virus infection, 1994 - present

Rate of Ebola virus infection, 1994 – present


There is a sliver of good news in this last picture: the mortality rate is slowly decreasing. Typically, the mortality rate for Ebola virus infection hovers around 50%. The current outbreak mortality rate, overall, is roughly 30%. However, individual nations have varying rates (Liberia has a 54% mortality rate currently). As international aid and global awareness increases, the transmission of the disease will eventually slow. However, if international response is not increased significantly in the coming weeks, the infection rate will continue to grow exponentially, and the virus will continue to jump borders.

All of the aggregate data can be seen here.

Learn More

There are a variety of science-based reporting outlets with up-to-date data and facts about the fight against the spread of Ebola virus. Read, learn, and share.

Ebola virus monthly infection rate by country

September update from the World Health Organization

Summary of the West Africa epidemic

Epidemiological timeline of Ebola virus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

2014 Ebola distribution map

Ebola outbreaks in five charts – Forbes