Meet New People! Learn to Code! Eat Snacks!

 


As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve started attending OpenTechSchool workshops to get a better understanding of computers, and to meet other people starting out in this field. It has been wonderful and I’d recommend anyone else to give it a go as well. Check out the video above to find out some more about the workshops and how OTS operates.

 

My experience with OpenTechSchool also got me thinking. Could their techniques work in other subject areas? Why not OpenScienceSchool or OpenMusicSchool, for example?

It doesn’t appear immediately plausible. Programming seems uniquely ideal for this kind of environment- the programming tradition stems from self-taught programmers offering their advice and experience (and occasionally their brutal smackdowns) to newbies who are also learning through books, websites, forums, and good old-fashioned ‘trying things out’.

CC-BY toolmantim on Flickr

On the other hand it seems to me that OpenTechSchool works, not because of its subject matter, but because it makes the best use out of both technology and people. There’s less pressure on a single teacher to create their own materials, and there’s no need for expensive textbooks. The curriculum is developed collaboratively and shared online. Once the initial core curriculum is written, coaches can spend more time focusing on the learner. Online version control means it’s easy to collaborate, adapt and improve the material, and the open license (CC-BY-SA) means it can be used by anyone, anywhere, sparing redundant creation of similar material.

 

Allowing each student to choose their own pace also seems an important aspect to this approach. In a traditional teaching environment, the teacher’s pace may be just right for some students, but others may be bored, confused or lost. With OpenTechSchool, the learner sets the pace and the coaches are proactive in offering support where needed.

Surely for any subject area, it would be worthwhile getting as much one-on-one teaching contact as possible, for the student’s confidence and comprehension and for the teacher to get a better understanding of each student’s progress and the effectiveness of the material.

 

The first prospective subject to enter my mind was language learning- my parents were both English language teachers and they speak multiple languages, so growing up, my house was always full of dictionaries and languages, and I’ve picked up some along the way. My Spanish is rusty, but I’ve hacked away at German for long enough that it will finally behave. What high school French I have left sounds like an offensive impression of a Frenchman choking on a baguette. My language abilities are nothing compared to a real European, but by now I’ve at least got a good feel for the learning process, and I think an OpenLanguageSchool could definitely work.

 

The social environment of these workshops is a great advantage for learning programming languages, and it’s also an absolute necessity for spoken languages. You can’t learn a language in isolation. Like programming, it’s through practical application (SPEAKING) that you really learn – the theory is good for filling in gaps, improving technique and expanding your understanding.

I told you there were snacks. CC-BY toolmantim on Flickr

It’s already common for people to meet up in the real world to learn and teach languages together, via language exchange or tandems. Mostly this is an entirely offline activity (though sometimes facilitated through online sites).

Where I see an opportunity is in the enhancement of this offline community by working together with online tools and activities, by using open educational resources like video, audio, texts, lessons or software together.

 

There are certainly many people who would be interested in such an idea, and there is a huge wealth of language-learning resources online already. The real work and the real opportunity is in curating and managing such resources, and building a structure for this kind of learning. Organisations like P2PU and Wikiotics or the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning are all interesting initiatives to watch for the future, or better yet, get involved with now. As the number of language learning resources grows, and the organisation of these resources improves, the opportunity for more effective mixing of on- and offline learning becomes greater.

 

Language learning is just one of many areas where this approach could be effective. It would be wonderful to see the OpenTechSchool-style learning environment ‘go mainstream’ and become a regular part of the learning experience in many different fields. Not as something that replaces schools, university or independent study, but a way to enhance the learning experience and provide support and encouragement to learners of all backgrounds, income and interests.

Having no cost or barrier to entry makes it as easy as possible for people to join in. It brings education to people who would never normally have sought out or signed up for an evening class or traditional course. And it encourages people to continue educating themselves throughout their lives, not just for their career’s sake but for their own enjoyment and empowerment.

 

On that topic, If you want to improve your language learning with useful online tools and free software, check out this intro to Learning With Texts and Anki, or contribute to the Tatoeba translation project. Or if you want to help out the free and open source software community, you can contribute translations with Zanata.

The Wonderful, Wooly World of Hacked Knitting Machines

[Video] Check out what Fabienne Serrière (and others) are creating on their ’80s knitting machines


Once upon a time, there was a warm, fuzzy hack. It was 2010 – Becky Stern and Lada Ada (Limor Fried) built on Steve Conklin’s disk emulator and knitting machine resources to allow their modern computers to work with the ancient microcontroller of a 1980s knitting machine. This meant that they could now knit designs made with modern tools, too complex or tedious to easily knit by hand. They shared their work with the world and since then, following an open hardware model, they and many others have contributed hardware and software improvements, smoothed the workflow, and allowed other models of knitting machine to be hacked. I went for a beautiful autumnal bike ride over to Wedding and caught up with Fabienne Serrière (FBZ), who has contributed a number of improvements to the original hack and has the wonderful woolens to show for it. We talked about the history of knitting machines, this hack, open hardware and Fabienne’s various projects, and started plotting to make an open source sweater to keep me warm in the winter months. We covered so many different things that I can only show you a brief introduction to her projects now, but there will be more to come!

EDIT: as promised, a second video: we made a hat!

There’s also an open source knitting machine in the works, thanks to Varvara Guljajeva & Mar Canet – it’s called Knitic.

Info related to the Brother knitting machine hacks can be found here. Check out Lady Ada & Becky Stern’s original tutorial, here’s the video:

Andrew Salomone is an artist who does amazing things with this technology, an infinite Cosby sweater, a drum’n’bass loop scarf…

At the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki I saw a talk on knitting machines and personal fabrication by Estonian artist Varvara Guljajeva – (from the Knitic project – she was in fact the one who put me in touch with Fabienne). Varvara makes wonderful things with knitting machines (spam poetry, anyone?) and during her talk she showed this little gem from 1988: a charming lady showing how she programs her knitting on a commodore 64.

 

I don’t think it’s open source, but while we’re on the subject…

So, suggestions for open source sweaters are very much welcome, and if you’re in town, come say hi to me and Fabienne at the summit, tomorrow and Friday! This is not the last you shall hear of knitting machines…

Speaking at the Summit of Newthinking, 15th November

[Video] Checking in with Claudia and Andreas to see how the summit preparations are going

Next Thursday the Summit of Newthinking kicks off, and I’m going to be giving a talk about my first 100 days of trying to live open source – some of the successes and struggles, and my plan for the rest of the year. It’s also a great opportunity to tell some of the stories which I have experienced but haven’t had a chance to publish yet. I’ll be discussing the various different ways in which free / libre / open ideas are spreading into different areas, and some inspiring projects, some bizarre ideas, and some unusual approaches I’ve come across. Come by and say hi!

Newthinking has been around in the Berlin open source scene for almost 10 years, so over the last few months Andreas and Claudia have been introducing me to people with cool projects – and they’ve been extremely busy organising the summit as well! I went down to Newthinking HQ to talk to them about how all the preparations have been going and what to expect from the event next week.

There will be plenty of presentations, in both English and German. Check out the full schedule and speaker list here, and hopefully see you at the summit!