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Textbooks as NFTs: an idea whose time is gone

Three years ago, the powers-that-be at Pearson announced that they were moving to a "Netflix-like" subscription model for their textbook sales. This week, Pearson's CEO decided to use another tech-related term to describe his company's business model: Pearson's textbooks, he said, were going to be sold as NFTs.

There are many reasons to doubt the shelf life of this statement - chief among them being the context of it: earnings calls, and CEO comments around their companies' financial results, are usually a smoke-and-mirrors show (we'll debate an off-the-cuff remark about NFTs until the cows come home, and none of us will devote any time to analysing the actual financial results, because TL;DR).

But just in case I ever get tempted to sell any of my content as NFTs, here's a post you can then quote right back at me: a list of reasons why selling textbooks as NFTs is a no-good, super-bad idea.

Disclosure: I've worked on several digital projects related to Pearson educational products. I'm also selling my own online courses. This post is not a dig at Pearson or any other publisher - it's a critique of an idea which happened to be recently floated by Pearson, as reported above.

1. Tracking all learners, and all learning, all the time

I'll just let Andy Bird summarize what he said about his plan: "(...) technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life." The important thing here is to define the word "participate". For Pearson, the thinking doesn't stop at the bottom line: sure, they make money out of every textbook sale, not just the first one. But they get so much more than just the money. They begin to know.

They now know who decides to sell the book, and who chooses to keep it. They know who buys the book next, and when. They know which books are secondary market all-stars, and which are only good for primary sales. And because they are able to connect this data with all the other data they gather, they begin to know much more.

"Who knows?" is the first key question which Shoshanna Zuboff urges us to ask in the age of Surveillance Capitalism. Say goodbye to the anonymity of paper textbooks exchanged for paper banknotes. If this works out, Pearson (or any other publisher) participates in every learning investment down the line.

If you're interested in learning which is less trackable, my course "Privacy-based learning" is available (not as an NFT!) here.

2. Whose blockchain?

Andy Bird's quote above mentions "blockchain", which Bloomberg quickly mis-represents as "the blockchain". The "the" makes all the difference in the world.

There's no such thing as "the blockchain" any more; not since Bitcoin's original idea proved popular enough to be replicated. There are blockchains, plural. Some are better-known than others. Some are more successful, others - short-lived.

The idea of a blockchain is open participation and surveillance - this much is known and agreed upon. But the myth of 100% transparency and open governance of the blockchain is precisely that - a story which stopped making sense as blockchains (and their intended uses) proliferated.

Maybe Pearson wants to hitch a ride on a blockchain already in existence - adding a new veneer of legitimacy to an already-existing base of users. There are good candidates out there, if they were to consider that.

But knowing Pearson a little, I'd bet a Dogecoin or two on the alternative: Pearson building and launching a blockchain of their own, for the purposes of selling their textbooks, and reaping the rewards of a custom-made stream of market data. If it works, it's another marketable solution which other publishers would be more than happy to apply.

For the learners, it's a lose-lose situation. Either your learning record is present on one of the existing, widely available ledgers (that's how blockchains work: everyone with access can know what books you buy or sell, and when), or it's part of a walled-garden blockchain benefiting a select few companies (whose intentions you can't influence, either).

Both options sound terrible. If your data is on one of the big, widely available blockchain, this is a risky development. Imagine an abortion rights educator who now needs to think twice before buying a textbook from anywhere. Or a person living in an oppressive regime which just gained unfettered access to their research and learning history. Blockchain isn't an innocent, transparent tool, and "having nothing to hide" is a short-sighted defence when faced with tech you can't own, outpace, or control.

And if the blockchain in question is something Pearson (or any future publisher) is aiming to launch, then what really happens with the data? How soon before they lose interest in favour of the next catchy metaphor - what happens when they do? Whose job it is to sustain the blockchain, who's able to control its governance? Ultimately - if it restricts all these options - is "blockchain" still the right label to apply to it?

3. Energy concerns: sell a textbook, burn a tree

The situation in several blockchain models is now improving, but it's still nowhere near being sorted: every blockchain contract burns through way more energy than it should. The computing power needed just to carry out and record the transaction is excessive.

Even if a publisher were to pick up and use an off-the-shelf NFT solution, they would still be making every transaction more complex, less sustainable, and more power-hungry. The textbook wouldn't be improved. The customer experience would suffer, if anything. The sale - each sale - would take longer and be more likely to fail.

And let's not forget that Pearson (or any other publisher) would most likely not be able to find an off-the-shelf solution, and they'd have to spend additional resources just to make one happen...

There may have been merits in doing this anyway, if, in exchange, one gained some universally useful knowledge, or added security. In the case I'm discussing here - a private publisher selling its textbooks for profit, as NFTs - we can't guarantee either. The knowledge is likely to be closely guarded by the publishers, making this look even more like a planet-burning exercise in corporate greed. And as for the security...?

4. Security concerns: why NFTs are so hopeless at being secure

Every week, millions of dollars are siphoned off web3 transactions by hundreds of savvy (or not-so-savvy) individuals. People's digital wallets get hacked and emptied of cryptocurrencies and/or NFTs. Discord server passwords get discovered, and the channels - used to publicize fraudulent links. And even if no crime gets so blatantly committed - every week brings about another crypto/NFT project whose founders (after a long time spent making bombastic announcements and inflated claims) decide to change the rules, freeze the hype, and keep the money. (Read "Web 3 is Going Great" for more, much more, of this.)

It's not about the mathematics; not about the widely-touted infallibility of the digital ledger (another myth we don't have time for). No: the discipline you need is psychology. In an area awash with get-rich-quick money, ruled by startup-grade hype and unverifiable claims, powered by the "move fast and break things" ethos where security and testing is for losers, and populated by people whose tech skills (on average) far exceed their critical thinking or people skills - the weakest link is usually the human: that's how fake links get clicked, incorrect addresses go uncorrected, incredible claims - given credibility. And, since the great promise of web3 is decentralization and governance, law enforcement is a nightmare (which police force to report this to? How to investigate? Who to indict, and where?).

When a setting like this meets the long-term landscape of academia (let's say your journey from freshman to PhD takes you 10 years), one thing becomes certain: your NFT textbook is about to get hacked. Just having to type these words gave me a headache.

What if you want out?

5. Excluding the un-block-chained

Publishers are not known for flexibility when it comes to customer choice. Once a business model gets adopted, the audience is expected to follow along; textbook buyers are a prime example of a customer who rarely has any other legal options left to them.

The pattern is well known in many industries. Access to content is reserved to those who play by the rules. This used to mean getting the right content for the right price - then, with the DVDs, also the right region. Then, with the advent of digital sales, this also meant using the content according to the DRM regulations - usually on the right kind of program and operating system.

Each time, along the way, a fraction of your total possible audience gets left out. Those who can't afford the retail price. Those who (for whatever reason) won't invest in the hardware. Those who (for whatever reason) won't install the official apps or switch to the official systems. And now, those who (for any of the reasons listed above, or others still) won't be keen to sign up to the NFT ecosystem.

If you think that's a bad business decision, think again. Every step of the way is a publisher's chance to jettison the customer with low purchasing power, or inconveniently high moral compass, or both. Those who remain become the new core demographic - until the next inflection point. Yes, you're leaving behind some bright young minds, and whole states / countries sometimes. Yes, you're basically encouraging the growth of new areas where piracy is the only reasonable alternative. These used to be the expected costs of each such shift.

With NFTs, I think it's not as simple as that. Here's why.

6. A bad look, about to get worse

As Pearson (or any other publisher) considers moving into the NFT space, here's a brief and biased list of other NFT products it might find itself competing against:

Already, I'm seeing comments which express confidence that Pearson's entry into the NFT world will transform the unsavoury discourse around the whole technology, and become a sign that grown-ups are finally entering the space to make it less chaotic. To them I say: there are 5200 CryptoDickButt NFTs in existence, more are getting added every day, and I hate myself for having to fact-check this for you.

The NFT space isn't growing up. It's not about to become less toxic. Having an NFT label applied to a linguistics textbook and a CryptoTitVag isn't going to elevate the CryptoTitVag, or make it go away. There are dozens of ways for these kinds of adventures to end in a PR disaster, and (due to the space's financial volatility and lack of security, mentioned above) new ways keep coming. Pearson (or any publisher) would probably find this out the hard way, soon after declaring themselves "open for NFT business".

Conclusion: really don't mind if you sit this one out

Pearson (or any textbook publisher eyeing the NFT market in 2022) is, at best, five years behind the zeitgeist on this one. Seven, if they commit today and move at the usual pace.

If the move to NFTs happens, it would most likely result in a launch (sometime around 2024, maybe? ask yourself - what are your plans for the internet in 2024?) of a business model whose impact on sustainability, inclusiveness, privacy, and transparency leaves a lot to be desired. This business model would launch as part of an NFT market already in freefall, in the midst of an economic downturn and deepening energy crisis - and, in my opinion, it would soon be abandoned in favor of the next catchy metaphor, or perceived "paradigm shift". Those who believe in Pearson's (or other publishers') power to somehow make NFTs work alongside their goals for sustainable and equitable global education are, to put it mildly, more optimistic than I'll ever be.

Will Pearson still carry out its plan? Will other publishers follow? It's hard to say. To anyone bold enough to enter the NFT fray in 2022, I'd recommend first minting and trying to sell an NFT of this quote from the physicist Richard Feynman:

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

Commodore 64 would survive the upcoming computing vibe shift - here's why

(Please, note: this post is not meant to advertise sales of C64 or any other computer. It's firmly tongue-in-cheek and written to illustrate general principles, not specific solutions. Your mileage will vary, I'm not your computer uncle, etc.)

I turned 40 this year. You know who else did? This guy.

Commodore C64 was the first computer I ever got. I never got to do interesting stuff on it - I was mainly into playing games, back then. But I did get to experience the clunky, 16-color magic of it all, before the world of PCs opened before me.

I'm writing this in 2022, listening to a collection of C64 games soundtracks, and after a bit of nostalgia-inspired research. And it's fair to say - I'm writing this in "interesting times". After years of stuffing microchips into every imaginable device, the world is suffering a microchip shortage. This started during Covid, and was made worse by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. At the time of writing this, there's no signs of this situation improving.

Ironically or not, a "vibe shift" in computing may be on its way. Will we rethink the way our devices work in our lives? What conclusions will we reach? Will there be fewer chips, in fewer places? As I ponder these questions, I turn once again to C64 - and from this unlikely, untimely source, I think I hear SID-modulated echoes of some surprising advice.

Here we go, then: if C64 and Commodore were alive today, here's why I think they'd ride out the computing crisis in style. Strap in and get

READY.

1. Simple hardware matters...

Commodore was known for keeping the hardware simple. The motherboards and components relied on stuff which was never going to lead to technological breakthroughs. The production process - and the end result - was pretty advanced for its day.

C64's specs meant it could compete with the Atari and Apple models on the market at the same time. However, the way it was designed and manufactured meant it could be made simply and inexpensively. This matters...

2. ...because mass production and adoption is your aim

Commodore wasn't perceived as complex or sophisticated. Its goal was different: "computers for the masses". This meant retail price had to be low, and distribution - really wide. This was a computer whose aim was simple: land on as many supermarket shelves as possible, with as much available software as possible.

It worked: C64 was a market success. This meant that the software could get more ambitious: companies were less worried about risks, knowing they were likely to sell more copies. C64 is still the best-selling computer model of all time.

3. Let users work out your good sides...

Let me get back to that game soundtrack compilation for a minute. It is awesome - even in 2022, it kicks ass and delivers tons of unmistakable energy. I'm not the only one thinking that. The SID chip, responsible for C64's sound, is still in demand - and custom-made sound components can be bought for today's PCs to explore this sonic nostalgia. C64 was not fast. It was not remarkably expandable. It had a few things going for it - the memory, the interesting graphics modes, and the sound.

All these things were instrumental in the birth of the demoscene - a community of creators who were keen to showcase their talents (and C64's audio-visual capabilities). I remember these vividly. The C64 games were, by and large, playing it safe when it came to sound and graphics (aiming to please the paying customers, and having to spread the talent over several levels). But the demos were mad flashes of genius - 30-second episodes of serious digital creativity. Commodore may not have had this in mind when selling C64; it certainly didn't encourage the demoscene with its nonchalant attitude to user support. But the demoscene emerged, took matters in its hands, and is still alive and kicking today.

4. ...and offer low-tech connections...

Here's why I was really able to get my hands on C64, back in primary school: it worked with every TV set imaginable. My two candidate television sets, at that time, were both already ancient Polish/Soviet hand-me-downs. I used one of them to watch my own NBA games when parents were occupying the big one. C64 worked with them both, with no hassle. And you know what else it worked with? Cassette tapes. All my software came on them. There was no need for us kids to work out floppy disks just yet: we knew how cassette players worked, and this meant C64 knew how to work with us.

There are more examples I could share here, which at the time I didn't have access to (the telephone modems, connecting to BBS boards; Habitat, the first virtual-world MMORPG game released in 1985) - and some I did (compatibility with existing Atari joystick and mouse ports). C64 wasn't intent on building its own ecosystem of bits and pieces: it was ready to work with whatever we had going on, and that's why it was so many people's first computer.

5. ...for beastly longevity

Commodore went bankrupt ages ago, powering through a retail-price race to the bottom just as PCs started to represent good value for money. The business, which used to produce hundreds of thousands of units of its Amiga and C64 computers every week, is no more.

You can still buy a tested and working C64 on eBay in 2022, though. It can run its BASIC 2.0 system, or an aftermarket OS of your choice. With enough determination, you can connect it to a TV set, to a modem...to the internet, even. You can reach out to other C64 users - they're still out there, and pick up some tips on how to make the most of it. Or just load up any of the old bits of software and feel the nostalgia again.

I'm not saying you should. I'm saying you can. The computer still works with what you've got. The hardware is still a no-brainer. The simple motherboard design helps make life simple for anyone willing to repair or replace stuff. C64 computers are 40, and not dead yet. (This forty-year-old blogger finds a lot of comfort in writing that.)

Now, I want you to look at the device you're using to read these words, and answer this: will you be able to say the same thing about it, in 40 years' time? And if not - what would it take?

I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you're interested in low-tech solutions for learning and teaching, may I recommend my course, "Learning in difficult circumstances (v1.0)"?

5 reasons why RSS deserves some love from learning designers (and 5 ways to show it some)

In preparing to write this post, I've done some online research. I've looked at posts and thought pieces titled "RSS is dying," or "In defence of RSS," or "Google/Facebook/Firefox is trying to kill RSS".

They were all 10-12 years old. The news of RSS' demise were greatly exaggerated. The whole thing just won't die. But I feel it's not getting the love it deserves.

Today, I'll try to list several reasons for thinking more kindly of RSS, and several ways of showing this venerable piece of web furniture the love and respect it deserves.

(If you made it this far pretending to know what RSS is, but can't keep up the charade any longer, please take a few minutes to watch this clip or review this Wikipedia article. We shall speak no more of this.)

1. It's an open format

Proprietary formats are problematic for designing learning content. They exclude teachers and learners without the "correct" tech/software setup; they often end up keeping designers hostage to proprietary authoring software; and having to migrate away from such closed formats can be a nightmare.

RSS is an open format. This means that the information you need to design, use, publish, and fix things based on RSS is freely available - no one company owns it, no one piece of software monopolises its use.

This is good news for your learning design setup. When it comes to longevity, accessibility, repairability and budget concerns, open formats beat closed formats any day of the year. RSS deserves to be in your mix.

2. Easy to build, difficult to break

Speaking of fixing and repairing: RSS setups aren't complicated. If your IT team know their way around XML (hint: they do), then they'll have no problems with RSS.

There aren't many things to go wrong with RSS, mind: at its simplest, it's a way of extracting information and content which your web pages already provide in their code - for shipping away to other clients. The "ugliness" of it all - the fact that there are so many ways to subscribe to a feed, or design an RSS button, or that sometimes you see the code displayed in your browser tab (and that's a good thing...?), means one thing: when you set it up right, RSS is flexible and robust enough to work in almost any setting.

3. Respecting learner choices

This brings us to the next point. The idea of RSS is to take the content away from your site, and to allow uses more control over how, when, where, and in what company they choose to display this content. RSS takes the good bits - the news, the stories, the podcasts, whatever you want to publish - and lets users decide on how they want it delivered.

This shows respect to what is happening in your learners digital lives. Maybe they don't care about the other 19 lessons on your course; they'll skip right past them in their RSS reader and only display the thing they want to learn. Maybe they wish to mix your pieces with other colleges' podcasts or videos; they'll organise a folder with your feed's contents, and the other offerings. Maybe they're too overwhelmed to smash that like button and that notification bell; your updates will be waiting for them in their app, when they have put the kids to bed and sat down to do some learning.

This, I suspect, is why there's no love for RSS among the tech giants, who want you in their ecosystems - and won't happily support anything that lets you build your own ones. Killing RSS, by now, is like killing plumbing in all houses on the planet. It can't be done, so it's best to pretend it's not there.

4. Respecting learner privacy

Some learning deserves to be tracked, monitored, and analysed. Some learners want to see and display their progress. This much is obvious. And for these instances, every analytics tool can be of benefit.

But I would estimate that most learning doesn't need all this tracking. And that most learners, if they were 100% aware of all the privacy they give up on while using your content, would object, or at least feel uncomfortable with that they agree to.

RSS is a way to move away from the webpage-and-browser complex. Analytics exist, but they're not as invasive - and not as widespread. Depending on the setup, a well-curated RSS feed collection can be the best way to keep up to date with one's corner of the Web, without the need to allow the Web to keep up to date with you.

(If you want to find out more about this stuff, I recently published a course called "Privacy based learning". You'll find it here.)

5. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff

RSS is boring. If your website were to offer an RSS button, chances are, no more than 5% of the visitors would use it. The technology probably won't be revolutionised at any point in the future; it works just fine the way it is now. Nobody ever got rich "in the RSS business."

That's the whole point.

You will doubtless always have learners, stakeholders and partners who are after "the wow factor". For them, nothing but the latest and greatest will do: the Metaverse! the interactivity! the flashy presentation! the production values! That's where your effort, and your budget, will be most required. When this learning content is launched - there will be fanfare, recognition, award ceremonies. Well done; it's all well-earned.

But you will also always have the 5% who want to click the bloody RSS button, and complain when there isn't one. The ones who still haven't completely worked through the Google Reader stages of grief. The plain-text learners. The independent types. The ones who go at their own pace, stick to what they know and love, and build their learning that way.

Trust me, they're likely to have loved RSS for years. They don't need much to be happy - a working feed will do. And once they find one, they'll love your learning content until the wheels come off.

There are many more reasons to explore RSS if you're a learning designer. But how to get started? Here are five quick ideas, in order of difficulty (roughly).

1. Learn something about (or through) RSS. This one's a no-brainer: become a learner, and a user, to understand how this works. Get a good RSS reader (I use Liferea on Linux and QuiteRSS on PC). Subscribe to some feeds, blogs, or podcasts (if you want to start with this blog, the URL you need to paste into your reader is: https://listed.to/@Vic/feed). Explore for a few weeks. What does it take to get the RSS habit to work? What does it give you, once that's successfully set up?

2. Explore ways to make your content RSS-friendly. An interactive animation isn't likely to work well with all RSS readers. Metaverse is a closed system and, as such, opposed to what RSS is trying to achieve. But if that isn't viable, then what is? Do you publish podcasts, articles, short videos? Can your text-based learning be broken down into several updates?

3. Explore the RSS capabilities of your CMS / LMS. Many existing solutions already play well with RSS. Wordpress only takes a few minor tweaks to be fully compliant. Your podcast provider and your blog is almost certainly going to work with RSS. It might take some more research, and a few conversations with your IT / sysadmin - but you're likely to discover, at the end of your search, that RSS is a tap you can turn on with no real effort.

4. Give up on the idea of monetising RSS in any meaningful way. Remember when I said that nobody ever got filthy rich in the RSS business? You won't break the pattern. RSS is too clunky, too free, and too open to lend itself to reliable cash flow solutions. Its strengths lie elsewhere: building loyalty, establishing a readership, and promoting your long-tail content. As you start an RSS discussion around your team, try to agree on this from the start. It then becomes a question of choosing the content to promote via this medium: valuable, long-term, but not something that needs to sell (it won't).

5. Prepare a long-term RSS strategy for your learning content. The conversations which you'll start in steps 3 and 4 above should then be made more meaningful: are you ready to commit to RSS? What sort of content are you likely to distribute? What would be the purpose of sharing such content this way? Who is most likely to appreciate this functionality? Remember, RSS is the opposite of the one-hit wonders that make your learning content go viral. It's the long, slow, steady flame which people will miss when it's gone. Is your learning designed in a way which would feed it?

RSS will be around for many years to come. It's the un-flashy, un-glamorous hero of the internet. Use it right, and you may just reach learners whose loyalty you'll care about. Happy RSSing!

How to hire a freelancer / contributor in 30 minutes, with 1 email and 10 sentences

This week, I decided to turn down a freelance job. I was not happy with the way the work was presented to me, and with the information I was getting from the company. When I thought about the reasons for saying "no" to this project, I realised that there is a bright side to this story.

In the industries I work for, and in many others, the jobs and offers are coming back on the market after Covid. This means that companies frequently need contributors at short notice. Starting a successful vendor-freelancer relationship instantly is difficult, but it can be done.

It's possible to have a conversation with freelancers which ends in a "yes" in record time. I've been on both sides of such exchanges; I remember hiring people in the time it took my tea to steep, and being hired on the spot - and not regretting or being confused by either. The particulars will vary, but I wanted to take some time to list several techniques which will increase the chances of this happening.

Here we go, then: my (subjective) guide to freelance hiring/getting hired, in 30 minutes, 10 sentences and 1 e-mail.

  1. Bottom line up front. Not all military ideas are terrible. BLUF is a way of formatting key messages which makes sure that one of the first sentences of your e-mail is a summary of the most important information. The project manager could write something like, " for the next 10 working days, we would like you to do regression testing on 5 products, for a total of 400 screens, logging all differences in a spreadsheet provided." The rest of the message can take care of the details: after reading this, I'll instantly know whether the job is something I want in my life now.
  2. "If..." and "if not..." with clear next steps. If you want your freelancer to start today, then anything you can do to shorten the e-mail chain will help you both. If you've done a good job with your message, many freelancers will straight away be able to say, "yes please, what do I do next?", so be ready for this. My message could say something like, "if the dates and rates are acceptable, please click the link below to fill out and sign an NDA, and I'll be in touch with the contract and full brief. If you're not available at this time, or if you have further questions, please let me know via email." Now it's clear what the next steps are.
  3. Get your rates and schedules in order. Freelancers are busy, but their workweeks are surprisingly stretchy for the right kind of task! If we think we can manage it, we'll always ask for more information. So even when a freelancer already has a few things going on, they may be persuaded to work on your project. Here's what you'll need, though: clearly defined schedules and reasonable rates. If you want us to start instantly, then pay us more generously. There's no getting around that. This information goes in the email, too: we'll always ask about these, so save yourself the hassle and give us these details so a "yes" or "no" can be clear from the start.
  4. Have all the steps laid out. Here's why I ultimately said no to this week's project: the initial email I received didn't mention money, and in response to my question about rates, I was asked to look through the briefs and estimate the rate + workload myself. This would normally be acceptable (only just), but we were supposed to start on the same day. I was way too busy to do the project manager's job for them. If you want the contributor to start today, have them start on the actual job - don't ask them to brief and project-manage the approach.
  5. Lay out the steps as if you were writing news. You're probably writing the same message to lots of freelancers - and they are probably expecting the same details from most jobs they look at. If you're after a qiuck hire, simple works. Cover the "Wh-" questions in your message, as clearly as you can. "Our client is (X) and the product you'll be working on is (Y). The customers for the product are (X) in the (Y) markets. The job involves (A, B, and C) and should take about (Z) hours per week. You'll be expected to (D, E, and F)." This is your copy-and-paste goodness, which you can use for every email you send about this contract. Keep this simple, get this right.
  6. Send a brief sample, *but not the whole brief.* Are you looking for someone to start tomorrow? Make sure they get the right idea about the job - but don't give them the whole induction spiel just yet. If it's understood that this is a fast-moving process, then freelancers will expect to get the key facts straight - and they'll know to ask for more information or feedback later. Don't slow the process down by sending everything all at once; distil the brief. I know it looks like too much work at this stage. Trust me: for a rush job, a well-written one-pager will get you more good replies than a 5 megabyte almanac. And sooner, too.
  7. Explain any potential red flags. "Okay," a freelancer thinks to themselves, "so you need a proofreader for seven ebooks to start work this week...what happened to the previous guy you had lined up? You had a guy lined up, right?" I trust there's an honest explanation you can share with us. Ask yourself: if you were to be hired on the spot for this project, what doubts would you have? Then, share what you can. Maybe in such cases, it could be as simple as "our previous proofreader turned down this job as it now overlaps with her vacation."
  8. No surprises. It's tempting to try and move the goalposts on fast-paced projects. Once you have us on board, the pressures from all sides mean that you'll try to get us to do more than what was briefed, or sooner, or to a different schedule. Here's the thing, though: a freelancer who feels they're tricked is a freelancer you'll need to replace next. Do right by us, and we'll come back to work for you. It's a trade-off between saving a tiny bit of hassle now (at our expense) and saving more hassle later (with us on board again). What's it going to be?
  9. Have a video demo/call ready. This one helped me brief and hire authors just as we were all on our way to our respective weekends: always be ready to jump on a call and explain how things work via a screen-share or a video call. Better yet, record yourself going through the key bits of the job, and share the recording with anyone who asks for more details. Make it clear in your first email, saying something like, "I'm happy to do a 10-minute Teams call at any time today to go through the work and show you the system, or to share a video demo with you." Many freelancers will be happy to just read through the brief and work it out for themselves - but if they want to see it in action, or ask questions, then they'll happily take you up on the offer. This often means we're halfway committed, too.
  10. Ask for referrals. Every freelancer I know is connected to many others. And we understand that hiring in a hurry means you'll be asking everyone you know, too. So it's OK to tap into all these connections, and be open about what you want to happen. Write something like, "(X,) I'm emailing many of my connections about this project today and looking to find someone soon. If you're not available, I would appreciate if you could pass this on to anyone who might be suitable. Feel free to include my whole message, the attachments, and contact details, and copy me in."

There you have it: 30 minutes, 10 sentences, and 1 e-mail later, your rush hire moves from the "Mission Impossible" category to the "Sign on the dotted line" folder. Wishing you many successful projects, whether you're a freelancer, or a project manager!

Launching today: "Computational thinking for everyday life"

It gives me great joy to share my latest course with you today. "Computational thinking for everyday life" is now available for download in the Punk Learning shop, on a pay-what-you-can basis. What is the course about, and why should you care?

1. Why does this course exist?

Computational thinking is an idea which gets really complex and really ambitious every time I hear other people talk about it.

In almost no time at all, the talk goes from "we should all do more computational thinking" to "here's how these really clever mathematicians/biologists/engineers use it".

It's great that lots of people today use computational thinking to make their projects more effective, and to think with technology - not against it.

But you shouldn't feel like you need a degree to do computational thinking. And you shouldn't feel left alone when trying to cover the ground between "having a computer" and "being a complex computational thinker".

I wrote this course to help.

2. What is this course about?

The word "algorithm" doesn't appear in my course. Not once.

The word "human" appears 47 times.

In 10 chapters, I've tried to give you an overview of how computational thinking plays out in real life.

I described real situations, involving real people and real machines. I discussed the way humans think, and the way computers work.

I looked at how computational thinking helps, from the ways in which work is set up, to the ways in which we can use questions, processes, and ideas of people around us, to make improvements.

I focused on change, and questioning, and on practical ideas to help you get closer to using computational thinking confidently.

After finishing this course, I hope you will be able to notice how computers and machines work all around you - and I hope you'll start working with them, and with the teams built around them, with more confidence.

3. How does this course work?

There are ten chapters in this course. Each chapter consists of three parts, and the parts work in a similar order in every chapter.

It makes sense to go through this course from beginning to end, as it is written. But after this is done, you can come back to the chapters in any order, and I hope they will be useful to you when you return.

After every chapter, I have prepared a Workbook exercise for you. These are optional, but definitely recommended. The Workbook is your chance to do some practical, hands-on tasks, which get you to think about what you just learned, and try it out in your world.

4. How do I get "Computational thinking for everyday life?"

You can download the course right now from the Punk Learning shop.

You pay what you can for the course.

Once you've downloaded it, it's yours to keep forever.

There are five formats available, and you instantly get them all:

  • PDF - good for tablets, laptops, computers, smartphones

  • PDF (OpenDyslexic) - the same format, set in a dyslexia-friendly font

  • epub - good for e-book readers

  • epub (OpenDyslexic) - see above

  • odt - This is the open source text format. You can work with it in your text editor. Feel free to make your own PDFs and worksheets for your own use.

5. Get "Computational thinking for everyday life" today!

I'm excited about this course, and really happy with how it turned out.

There is more to come from Punk Learning in the area of working with computers. We're only just getting started.

I hope you enjoy the course. If you have any questions or comments about it, please let me know - you'll find my contact details in the course's final chapter.

The course is ready for you. Get your copy, and spread the word. Happy Punk Learning!

Week 2: Iterations in difficult circumstances

The laptop was dead.

It turned on but froze before getting to the operating system's login screen. Nothing worked - waiting, rebooting in safe modes, stern looks, desperate sighs. I couldn't find out what broke, so I couldn't go about fixing things.

It was time to start over, and that's what I did. I formatted the hard drive and replaced my operating system with a fresh installation. I went with a 64-bit Xubuntu flavor this time - seeing that any attempts to re-install Lubuntu from the USB drive didn't seem to work.

The install went well, and I was soon able to start over. A blank slate, again (mostly), and hopes for a better ride this time!

There were several thoughts running through my head as I prepared to reboot my Punk Learning setup. Here there all are, in no particular order.

1. Backup should be a right, not a privilege

I was lucky to have access to other computers, and means of getting back to speed. It only took me 30 minutes to download and prepare the other operating system - I knew where to look, my broadband was quick enough to download it, and I had the second computer on which to do it all. After that was done, I could log in to my Standard Notes quite quickly, to pick up where I had started with my notes etc.

Not every learning situation is this privileged. And I'm aware that this could have gone much worse. Without backup, my laptop would probably be dead for a long while, and I'd struggle to get it running again - and even if I were to succeed, I'd still have lost the data.

This matters to everyone, but I think it matters even more to learners. Here's why.

2. It takes a lot to start from scratch

If this were to happen three months down the line, I'd probably be tempted to give up on this project. Even with the backups, I would feel like progress was slipping through the net, and I'd be anxious about losing something that wasn't backed up.

It could still happen. The laptop didn't magically become more reliable - it's still old and fragile! And when it does, it's a pain to start anything over again, or to try and find the place where I can pick up my learning.

Learners need encouragement and reassurance - no matter their age, location, or social context. Learners in privileged context can rely on this, sometimes (although it's easy to mistake the heady brew of always-on connections, notifications and badges for actual support). Learners who aren't so fortunate may need to find other ways to seek this out - or to build their own support networks. How could this be addressed?

3. Absolute minimal solutions still save the day

Even before I formatted and re-installed Xubuntu, I was already able to access my computer using one last trick - sort of. And I was super pleased that I could try this out.

TAILS is short for The Amnesic Incognito Live System. It's a pared-down Linux variety with extremely strong privacy protection. Loaded from a USB stick, it allows users even more privacy, encrypted web traffic, and lets you use computers without leaving many traces of your activity.

It worked on my fried-up old laptop. It connected to the internet via Tor. It allowed me to do the bare minimum. If this was an emergency, I would be able to get online, notify someone, and get organised / supported while I try to resuscitate my machine. At a pinch, I could probably even write and submit an essay for a last-minute assignment.

I was happy with this; I realised that very few other solutions would be able to still run on a computer in this state. I knew a re-install would be necessary, but I wanted to see if Tails would be workable, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was.

This is not everyone's cup of tea - Tails would come across as overkill, precisely because it's being marketed as the super-cautious, strongly protected operating environment. I think, though, that a different type of messaging could be possible - and that providing operating systems which help less privileged users / learners out of a tight spot (while also being privacy-focused and secure) could be the way forward. If, as a learner / teacher, I knew such solutions existed and could easily be employed, I'd be less worried about my hardware.

4. Still starting mostly from scratch

So, there we are. I didn't want this to be a blog about Linux adventures, but my computer made me blog about this again :) I hope it's not going to happen soon for a while.

Chess is going really well - dozens of Lichess games help me see patterns more clearly, and I'm actually more confident in making my blunders, losing with flair and rolling on to another game. Some of them I'm beginning to win :)

Everything else will need to be re-started this weekend.

Stay classy -

Vic

My Punk Learning Stack: what hardware and software will I use to learn?

I know I enjoy writing blog posts like these, and I also know that I often get distracted when writing them. So I decided to share this one early on, and get to learning as soon as possible, without spending too much time on the details of my gear and apps! Of course, I will post an update whenever a new gizmo gets added to my inbox.

I'm not posting any links below - feel free to search for these on the internet. In time, I will possibly do some in-depth demos of the more relevant apps or setups.

1. Why I use what I use

There are probably seven computers at my flat right now. I say "probably" because, frankly, I've lost count.

Some are currently in use. Some see intermittent use - there's the gaming / video editing desktop PC. Some were sent to us by the companies we used to work with, and never got picked up. And one or two of them are seemingly too obsolete to be of any real use.

This laptop used to be one of these "fossils". Now it's back in service. I'm not doing this because I have to. My other machines could probably handle my learning projects with relative ease. There are two big reasons why I chose to use the older laptop.

The first reason has to do with what educational experts call "learning in challenging circumstances." My interest in education and lifelong learning has often meant that I was busy chasing the latest technological breakthrough, debating the pros and cons of the newest EdTech solutions, and so on. This, in turn, often meant that I was blind to the other portion of the learning landscape. Learners and teachers who are not (or cannot be) early adopters of cutting-edge technology may sometimes feel confused and disorientated by the newest learning or teaching tools. Many of them aren't as privileged as this household; they cannot switch from one device to another, cannot order a new tablet on a whim, and may think hard before purchasing some new software. And for many more, even this level of access would be problematic.

I use what I use to remind myself that learning doesn't need the latest gadgets, and that it can (and sometimes must) happen with the use of tools and solutions which are far from perfect.

The second reason is the brighter side of the first. Curiously, it was best described in the context of Nintendo's tech philosophy! In designing early versions of the game consoles and peripherals which we now all know and love, Nintendo was resolutely rejecting the pursuit of the latest, priciest components. Game Boy could have been a more modern piece of kit - but because of its older components, it was able to sell at a lower price, and game programmers were quick to launch games which used the solutions they already knew and felt familiar with. This "lateral thinking with withered technology" was what inspired me to start the Punk Learning project in the first place.

I use what I use to discover and remember valid and effective uses of the technology already at hand, and to think about successful learning in the context of low-tech, familiar and affordable solutions.

I promise I'll come back to the two points above one day. For now, let's leave theory for another day, and introduce you to the tech at the disposal of the Punk Learning project.

2. Laptop: HP Compag 6820s

This used to be my wife's work laptop. I am sure that she already had it back in 2008, so it's at least 13 years old. A quick eBay search tells me that I could get a similar model today for about 100GBP - although maybe some of it is already collector value?

My wife used the laptop for her translation and photography work. For both these tasks, the laptop was a great choice - the screen is taller than in most modern models, which means you get to see more side-by-side text, or a bigger preview of the photo you're trying to edit.

The laptop's been given every reasonable upgrade a few years ago, when the idea was to use it as "backup" which we never needed in the end. As such, it now has 4GB of memory (the most it can handle) and a new solid-state drive.

It's never been the most portable of beasts - the size of it is quite unwieldy! But all that is moot, since the battery must have gone missing and never got replaced. It only runs from mains power now. This helps with temperature, but it's annoying when the power cable pops out of the machine (which it did on a few occasions).

There is no webcam. The speakers are so-so. It's got Bluetooth. It has wi-fi, but the connection procedures are arcane; I ended up using my phone as a tethered connection point, or an Ethernet cable.

The biggest problem so far will probably be the audio capabilities. The laptop is barely able to handle recording and editing a single Audacity track - and I know that the memory and processor won't be able to handle much. In short, the technology is so "withered" that my thinking when it comes to making music will have to be very "lateral" indeed :)

The most annoying thing about it? Too many cables sticking out at the side. But I suppose that's the beauty of old technology.

3. Operating system: Lubuntu 18.04 32-bit

This was one of the first decisions I needed to make. There was no way this laptop could handle modern-day operating systems (don't get me started on this; it's definitely a topic for another rant). And I was resolutely against using Windows or any other proprietary system. It had to be Linux for freedom's sake - and a lightweight distro for the tech's sake - and probably an older version of the distribution, for the sake of the laptop's age.

I'd tried Xubuntu and Lubuntu before, and decided to give Lubuntu a go. This replaced an existing Windows 10 installation on the laptop. The results were very promising - Win10 was slow and sluggish on this machine, whereas Lubuntu 18.04 is just about enough to get the most features for not too much hassle.

There were probably better choices when it came to the operating system, and part of me was keen to try out several options before settling...but here's the problem with this course of action: you end up comparing operating systems for weeks on end! I was determined to install something, check that it does the basics well - and then get to work, as an average learner would. This isn't a Linux learning adventure, it's a learning project which happens to use Linux. Well done Lubuntu for being hassle-free.

4. Other software and apps (more to be added soon)

For this step, the choices were simple: I wanted something as open-source as possible, as free as possible, and respecting my privacy as much as possible. This isn't a new preference; this is how I try to do my work. Many of the choices, therefore, were either already confirmed - or were about to be decided very quickly.

Of course, this list is just the starting point. I will be adding more tools to the repertoire - I feel that the music / composing area will need the most head-scratching!

4.1. Tor Browser

Tor Browser is meant to work just like any other browser, with one exception: instead of sending your web traffic directly from the requested server to your computer, it masks your activity and directs your traffic through a series of nodes located around the world. (I know it's not a strictly accurate description, Tor experts; it will do for now.)

Tor isn't perfect. As a browser, it has its quirks; as a privacy measure, it is probably not 100% sufficient. And it's not Chrome - which is especially annoying when I try to use online synthesizers (they all love Chrome and hate Firefox, which Tor is built on).

I am still determined to use Tor for as much of my research and work as I can manage. The reasons are outlined above, and there's a third argument joining them: the need for privacy. I believe it should be legitimate, possible, and valid to learn in a way which is 100% private. As such, this project will be a voice in support of such efforts. Tor it is.

4.2. Standard Notes

Probably the best note-taking app in history. It works on each of my devices, and syncs across them without a hitch. It's encrypted, open-source, and customizable. Best of all, its "Extended" (meaning, paid) version allows me to publish my notes directly to this blog.

Everything about Standard Notes encourages me to use it more, and I love it. The Extended payment was made several months ago, so I guess you could say I "inherited" this paid perk - even without it, I think I'd still use the app for note-taking purposes.

4.3. KWordQuiz

My Linux distribution doesn't, so far, let me run Anki. And I need a flashcard app to test and review my Japanese vocabulary. For now, I'm choosing KWordQuiz.

The interface is sparse, to say the least - but this makes the flashcard editor one of the easiest programs to master. And I like that it gives me several options to review my vocabulary. I've used it on a few occasions so far, and it does its job well. I wish there was an audio feature - fortunately, there are few difficulties with Japanese pronunciation...

4.4. Liferea

An RSS feed reader is a beautiful thing: it delivers webpage content to my machine without the need to start up a web browser. This means fewer distractions, more focus, and a more lightweight experience.

So far, I've started on my collection of Japanese learning blogs - there are several which I'm already liking. I have also subscribed to my favourite ambient and new-classical music mixes, to help me study and concentrate! Again, the interface is minimalistic - but I get the text and the sounds with no problem, and I enjoy having control over what reaches me.

4.5. Audacity

This audio recording software is an old favourite, and I'm pleased to report that it does the job pretty well on this laptop. I've managed to work it out much quicker than other, more robust tools (I've got Ardour 5 for editing / mixing, but its time will come).

Audacity lets me carry out the basic operations on my sounds, and doesn't get in the way too much. I am excited about the recording process already.

4.6. Bristol, Hydrogen, etc.

Today marked a small victory: I have managed to get Bristol and Hydrogen to play back audio! Bristol is a synthesizer emulator with several legendary synths to choose from, and Hydrogen is a drum kit software. These are both free, open source, and nimble enough to run on my laptop.

The list of synth / music software is likely to grow. I wouldn't want this to become the main focus of this project - but the appeal of finding just the right sound among all the 70s/80s nostalgia is strong, I must admit :)

4.7. Lichess.org

This is a free, open-source, web-based chess service. It works in Tor, and is my main source of knowledge about chess these days.

I couldn't imagine a better website for all things chess. The great grandmasters use it alongside complete beginners like me. There are puzzles, studies, streamed games, and lots of variants of chess to pick from. There's even a useful analysis model, which I'm not on speaking terms with lately ("...what do you mean, ALL my moves are blunders?!").

5. Digital piano: Yamaha YPT-255

This is an entry level digital piano, with several nice-sounding presets and some useful beginner-friendly tutorial features. A few years ago, I managed to pick it up in a UK discount supermarket.

It doesn't have a USB or midi output, so connecting it to the computer will possibly be a big problem. For now, I'm planning to use it to actually learn how to play music - making sounds and composing with the use of the laptop is one thing, but feeling the melody and rhythm with my fingers is another.


That does it, I think! There are some other apps and gadgets which may join the list at some point. But for now, I'm happy that I've managed to get this old laptop to do most of what I need - without spending money, and without compromising my preference for privacy.

I hope you've enjoyed this quick list. If you have questions or comments about my choices, feel free to get in touch - there should be a way to contact me on the "About Vic" page.

Take care, and stay classy!

Vic

Week 0 - the Whys, the Whats, the Hows and the Whatsits of Punk Learning Class of 2022

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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!

Vic