September 4, 2021•1,606 words
My wife's old laptop, which I pulled out from under a bookshelf, had a spider sticker on it - the cover art from MCR's "Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys". It also had an actual spider on it. It was an old HP model (the laptop, not the spider); no webcam, not a lot of memory, a measly 2-core processor. My highest achievement was being able to complete Diablo 2 on it, a few years ago. These days, Windows 10 struggled to run. Connecting to wi-fi was problematic. There was no battery, or if there ever was one - it went flat and AWOL.
It was perfect - not just as a spider halfway-house, but also as a tool for the project I had in mind.
A few hours later, Windows 10 was replaced with a lightweight Linux distribution. I kept the sticker spider, plugged in the Ethernet cable, and installed a few apps and upgrades. I fished out a music CD (!) and managed to persuade the CD drive to play it (!!).
As I write these words, I am determined to use this laptop for a project which, until a better name comes along, I'll be calling "Punk Learning 2021-2022". It's a personal learning adventure, and a professional crusade, too. Here's what it's all about.
When I started BRAVE Learning, nearly 10 years ago, I was keen to explore foreign language learning in its every aspect. I was teaching English back then, and managing a language school. My interests have changed since then, and this blog evolved with them. In 2020, alongside there was a lot more focus on lifelong learning on the blog, and on productivity, too. I was happy with where this blog got me, but I felt I could use a fresh challenge.
Then, in 2020, Covid hit, and it hit hard. As everyone around me scrambled to make sense of the new rules for living, working, teaching, and learning, I decided to put the blog on hold. I'd published three books and courses earlier on that year, and I watched them lose their relevance (or so I thought) almost day-by-day. I mothballed the blog, and decided to focus on other areas.
Quite right, too. Educational publishing, which used to be my bread and butter, was struggling to find its place (not to mention, its profit margins) in the New Normal. I still don't think we've arrived - but along the way, I found myself changing jobs and employers much more frequently than I was used to.
With every new project and every new educational enterprise, I was lucky to witness first-hand a range of possible responses to the brave new world of post-pandemic learning and teaching. Some changes were heart-breaking (so many closing language schools!), some were heartwarming (so many creative teachers!).
When it came to organising online learning, to my dismay, I've found teachers, learners, clients, users, parents, managers, authors, and content providers all defaulting to the same few "choices". The quotation marks here are justified; the solutions were rarely a matter of actual choice to begin with (people just picked whatever helped them sort out the crises), and ended up being permanent as a result of inertia.
Schools, classes, learners and teachers flocked to Big Tech. Google and Microsoft products were now used even more widely to organise courses, manage day-to-day delivery, share information and content. Zoom calls were now the norm. Whatsapp groups for parents and students were set up.
All of the above meant that several things happened all at once, and very fast.
First of all, the technical demands placed on learners of all ages increased almost overnight. Your child needed its own laptop, and a webcam. Your spouse needed to get up to speed with Microsoft Teams for her training course. We all joked about learning to unmute. We bought up all the gear we needed. And those of us with no gear, or no idea - well, we fell through the cracks. "Catch-up learning" would be offered in some state education, for kids. For adult learners, the expectation was that they'd catch up on their own. Paying university students were expected to keep paying.
This sudden acceleration was a reaction to the virus disrupting our everyday lives. Work changed; so did leisure, and relationships, and travel. It was logical that learning would change, too. But just as with work and all the other walks of life, learning and education was seen by many international tech companies as "ready for disruption", and 2020 was the turning point. Before the pandemic, very few people heard of Zoom - now it was ubiquitous. Before lockdown, schools may have experimented with Google Classroom - now, for some, it was mandatory. When I was in sales, it used to take me several conversations to convince English language school teachers to try out some interactive whiteboard software. After the virus hit, digital materials were suddenly an obvious choice. This was the second sudden change.
The last change is a corollary of the first two. It's about the learners / teachers we leave behind, the inequalities which we see created when it comes to learning, and the skills we ignore or abandon. As I mentioned before - the heroic work around the switch to online learning led to some great and quick wins for many. Learners and teachers who adapted, continued learning and teaching. However - even before the pandemic, access to education was already an unequal playing field. It's still difficult to gauge the impact of the lockdowns on learners globally, but one thing must be safe to assume: the "digital have-nots" missed out on even more learning opportunities, and the new demands mentioned above must have meant that even more learners and teachers found themselves unable to keep up their work.
I will come back to these three ideas later - I don't want this to be any more ranty than it needs to be. All I'm going to say now is this: I became frustrated and pissed off at the direction of travel for learning and teaching. It felt like huge chunks of human experience - connection, memory, discovery - were being sold out to Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Zoom - as if they needed any more helpings of these! At the same time, it felt that the conversation around resistance - emphasising privacy, freedom, anonymity, and ease of access - gets swept under the roomy carpet of The New Normal.
I was not OK with this. I still wanted to learn, but I wasn't going to set up another Google account or another Teams instance. I was going to keep learning new things, but I would do it my way.
I think it's time to introduce Punk Learning to you in more practical detail. Think of it as a one-person online school, and these are the rules and objectives.
There are three learning goals in this year's edition - all connected to things I was keen to learn anyway. These are all to be achieved by September 2022.
- Goal 1: Learn Japanese to the point of being able to hold a CEFR A2-level conversation. No reading / writing, and no kanji - this is focused on vocabulary, listening, and speaking only. The goal is connected to a trip I'm likely to make in October next year. I'm a complete beginner when it comes to Japanese, but a pretty good language learner in general.
- Goal 2: Learn chess to the point of being able to win at least 33% of my games. I'm a near-beginner when it comes to chess. I know how the pieces move, but I'm definitely lacking 99% of the skills needed to strategise my way to a win. It's possible that I'll revise the wording of this goal later; for now, what with my abysmal win record, it's ambitious enough :D
- Goal 3: Learn digital music composing, recording, and production, to the point of being able to publish 10 tunes / songs. Again - I'm a near-beginner here (had a few false starts with acoustic guitars).
Sounds good so far? Here's the catch. Actually, it's a list of catches.
- I will avoid using solutions offered by big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. - this involves all aspects of planning and learning.
- As far as possible, I will use libre / open source software for all my learning.
- As far as possible, I will use the Tor browser to access materials, research, and share information.
- As far as possible, I will use open formats to access and share learning content.
- There is no budget restriction here - but as far as possible, I will rely on resources which do not cost money.
- As far as possible, I will use anonymous learning, and will not allow services / apps to track me. I will only set up an account when it's absolutely necessary.
- I will use one old laptop (HP Compaq 6820s) to access all my learning. I will also use an entry-level digital Yamaha piano for the music.
This week, I'm setting up my laptop and my blog, and making first steps towards actual study. I hope you stay tuned for more updates. I will share as much as I can with you - it's important for me to show you all that learning can be free, private, low-tech, and still fun and effective.
Hope to get another update to you soon, with the details of my tech setup. Until then, stay classy!