A Break from Blogging

As I approach the final stretch of my time at Bitmaker Labs, I’m starting to realize that I need to focus more on coding. When one’s blog is an extension of the coding experience, it becomes easy to complete; however, when one desires to write about something entirely different, it feels as though one is working double shift. The blogging continually encroached upon time reserved for sleep, which meant that I would more than often come to Bitmaker Labs slightly exhausted – I’m the guy who would take power naps at least once a day. With that in mind, in deciding to put my blog on hold, I will be able to sleep earlier and come to class completely refreshed; further, I will now have the time to go for a jog or do some meditation in the morning.

That being said, I’m fully intent on continuing where I left off except that I’ll be using an education-branded blog: edethos.com (at the time of this posting, edethos.com has not been set up). Thus, I will then repurpose kodekonviction.com as more of a technical blog – which it was originally supposed to be – while my opinion pieces on education will be featured and consolidated in edethos.com.

If there is anything that I’ve learned from this experience, it’s the importance of focus. We are granted only so many hours of genuine work in a given day and if one desires to truly master a particular discipline – in my case, coding – nothing less than complete devotion is necessary. To divide your efforts is to undermine your efforts, where in chasing two objectives simultaneously you end up empty handed in both endeavours.

Despite this momentary break in my blogging, I am content in knowing that I have found a particular subject area that interests me greatly. There is so much material to be written about the future of education that a mere month’s break won’t be much of a setback – it is but a shrewd realignment of priorities, allowing myself more time to focus on coding when such an activity is important in my immediate present. Look forward to some updates from me in mid-August on both edethos.com and this blog – until then, happy coding!

On the Nature of the Educational Institution | Day 20

Although I believe that economic/commercial reductionism – the act of reducing all phenomena to a paradigm of exchanges, with buyers and sellers – is a poor filter through which to view every social situation, I will attempt to apply it in the context of higher education. Even if such a lens of observation may appear distasteful to the academic purists, there is much insight that can be gained from its application to our subject of investigation. Throughout, we will be operating under the assumption that education is primarily a social endeavour and experience.

If we are to accept our aforementioned assumption, then several interesting facts emerge. Primarily, the institutions of higher education would not be purveyors of intellectual goods but, rather, purveyors of something akin to events – they would be facilitators of packaged social experiences in the form of classes and the like. These institutions could thus be understood as physical platforms that help to connect people – an institutionalized version of what Seth Godin would term as an impresario. In the Godinian sense, being an impresario is a good thing; however, it is hard to justify the degree of importance and status that these institutions hold when they are performing a task that nearly anyone can now do in our age of the connection economy.

In a different sense, when we recognize these institutions as connectors, many parallels can be drawn with the conference organizing circuit. In both cases, there is a cult-like element permeating the undercurrent of the events involved, where acolytes willingly submit to the authority of various speakers, be they professors, thought leaders, or high priests for that matter. It is for this reason that I have always been drawn to church metaphors for describing the university experience, where the institution can best be understood as a secular seminary. Even though I like to conceive of the university as a record label of sorts, with the professors being the signed artists – as such a lens sheds light on the exploitative aspects of the administration in relation to the teaching talent – this model does not quite fit the situation since the students are not entirely consumers. There is a participatory element to the educational experience which eliminates any conception of a product paradigm – the students are co-creators of their education, not mere passive recipients.

In understanding the students as co-creators – or members – in a dynamic social environment, the cult element begins revealing its face. These members have the opportunity to rise higher in their cult, by degree, whereby participation and recruitment are one and the same. A corresponding model exists in the conference circuit where, should one like a conference after attending, one has the opportunity to volunteer to help organize future conferences and ascend in the hierarchy of leadership. The end result of this line of thinking is that we may understand an individual applying to an institution as seeking membership within a society. Nonetheless, all of these observations mean nothing lest we identify the defining factor of these cults: ideology.

In themselves, ideologies are not rational constructions – they appeal to the irreducible element of faith that exists, always, in the heart of man. They lack rationality because the system of logic was never meant to describe the numinous. The language of logic exists for the realm of matter, whereas a different mindset is required to understand the operational affairs of the intangible spirit. Like a program installed as a super user, ideologies take root in the mind without question – once installed, they become the operating system that functions in the background. Even though you are not always aware of the operating system’s presence, it is very much alive and shapes your quotidian computing experience.

When groups form, they assemble for a purpose – a specific cause or function exists as a rallying point. In the conferences that I attend, it is very clear that an entrepreneurial ethos permeates the air. People attend these conferences not merely to meet fellow-minded individuals but to swim in the ideological current. We seek to be shaped and we desire to have an external reference point around which we can attach ourselves. With this in mind, it becomes increasingly important to identify the ideological current that flows outward from our educational institutions. I need not articulate my personal observations, for I encourage you to take the investigative journey yourself. What is the ethos that underlies your institution? What psychological programming is at the core of your education? Look not at the letter of the words but at the spirit of what is spoken and arrive at your own conclusions. The message may be less evident depending on one’s field of study but it most distinctly emerges for those pursuing a course of study that is inherently ideological in nature. Rather than dealing with embedded ideology that informs the operations of pragmatic courses of study, the ideological veil is thin for those wrestling with abstract concepts.

Keenly selecting some insights from the above commentary, let us refocus upon the metaphor of the educational institution as both a secular seminary and a society. Even though I have in no way undergone formal religious training, I would posit that evangelization is a key operational tenet to any faith – a belief system cannot exist without believers. The seminary thus acts as an ideological training ground from which exponents of a faith can emerge and thereafter evangelize their faith to others. In a similar sense, our institutions of higher learning, as secular seminaries, are training their students in a particular ideology – whatever that may be – from which those students may expound that faith in their working lives. Moreover, as members of a closed society who then occupy positions in general society, graduates are given the opportunity to externalize the tenets that they have internalized through their ideological training. In this sense, we must see ideology, and its propagation, as the chief function of an educational institution. At this point, we may realize that the precise ideology of an institution becomes a salient factor to identify.

Given that ideologies are inherently tied to group structures, that these ideologies are merely systems of thought that are not intrinsically good or bad, and that ideologies can be actively constructed and deconstructed, we are presented with an uplifting conclusion. Rather than having unquestioned ideological frameworks that linger in the subconscious of an institution’s collective mind, these ideologies can be actively questioned and brought to the forefront of said mind for closer scrutiny. When we can see these systems of thought for what they are, we are in a position to reshape them for ends that are beneficial to the collective group. This sequence of thinking of course assumes that something is wrong with the status quo and I leave the careful observer to identify the flaws where they exist. Lasting change can only be brought about when there is an active awareness of the importance of what is being done – without this consciousness, the changes will eventually fade.

In the end, I simply wish to highlight that there is a greater operational undercurrent that informs the gleaning surface of higher education and its traditional institutions of implementation. The product, if we can even consider it as such, that these institutions are selling and what we are buying is far more than mere “learning.” There is a foundational social element and ideological agenda that is continually at work, whether one is aware of it or not. Furthermore, I wish to emphasize that in our present connection economy, every individual is blessed with the ability to create his or her own platform of connection, which is the core element of these educational institutions. Above all, I encourage everyone to take control of their own education and to be actively aware of the ideological frameworks at play – we have so much power right now that it is baffling that we could ever hand it over so blindly to others. Acknowledge this power and cultivate it: you will be in full control of your life’s direction.

Choice in the Realm of Canon and Curriculum | Day 19

The nature of choice in one’s educational path, and its repercussions, is an issue that doesn’t receive as much attention as it should. To what extent is complete freedom of choice an ideal situation? Does genuine freedom of choice actually exist? From an operational perspective, less choice is actually more effective as the burden of selection is reduced – one can focus less on deciding and more on doing. Moreover, when we consider all of the environmental factors that inform the greater context of the situation, complete freedom of choice is merely an ideal without tangible grounding. Our very existence is a case study in limitation. Perhaps, then, we should define our terms more clearly: what exactly do we mean by “freedom” in the domain of content selection for one’s educational journey?

When one thinks of choice in the educational context, the hindrances of curriculum and canon come to mind – bodies of works selected for you by individuals vested with authority and considered experts in their respective field. Works are defined as canon while others remain in the apocrypha; specific bodies of knowledge are considered relevant to the core of one’s training while others are relegated to electives. It would appear that the canon and curriculum are working against one’s freedom of choice, yet, we must really question if this is the case. Does not freedom emerge through restriction? Do we not require a defined scope before action can be taken? Perhaps a false dichotomy has been set up between one’s powers of choice and predefined paths of educational consumption – perhaps there is more interaction than we initially perceive.

If we understand choice to be an emergent phenomenon, rather than one that exists a priori, then the discussion shifts from one of progressive restriction to one of progressive enablement. Thus, rather than seeing the predefined paths as barriers to immediate choice, we can choose to see them as governing parameters that enable a further degree of choice. By stepping down a proven path, you are able to focus on other aspects of the journey. For instance, I’ve been recently learning about the Rails framework in which convention takes precedence over configuration. Rather than having to configure the file structures yourself, you heed the established conventions and are thereby able to focus on what matters: building what you desire to build. This notion of convention plays into my understanding of industrial automation, where the repetitive and monotonous processes are taken care of by control panels so that the creative capacity of the human can be devoted to less mundane endeavours. In a similar sense, once a student has decided upon a course of study (e.g. humanities, sciences, engineering, commerce etc.) having an established curriculum helps the student to worry less about figuring out what to study so that he can focus on the actual studying.

However, beyond the enabling aspect of having predefined paths of study, canon and curriculum help to act as common points of reference throughout the timeline of one’s studies. Individuals engaged with the same course material will be able to use course texts as springboards for discussions that will only help them to deepen their understanding of the material. Without such a framework of commonality, intellectual distance emerges and community dissolves – departmental silos become entrenched. Consequently, wherever possible, it seems best to batch students together in small groups with aligned intellectual interests, such that the greatest amount of interaction is possible when these students are given a common curriculum to work through together – this has been my experience at Bitmaker Labs. Cohort criteria such as age, gender, ethnicity and the like are largely unimportant – what matters is that the group of students share the same intellectual interests and that they remain numerically small enough so that a community can form amongst them. When you have these two factors, adding a common curriculum for the group enhances their overall effectiveness in learning the material. It is as though you have given the students an overarching ideology that allows them to structure their actions within an overarching paradigm – they become nodes in a network that relay information at an enhanced rate.

On a final note, before ending, it’s important to mention one aspect of canon and curriculum that is beyond the scope of this post to address: decisions of inclusion and exclusion. Accepted curriculums and canons are the paths that structure a given student’s intellectual development – he who shapes the curriculum, in turn, shapes the minds of the students. Thus, it becomes increasingly important as to what exactly is included in the accepted canon and curriculum, where the decisions always reflect the agenda and biases of the decider. At present, it is simply important to note that there are individuals deciding upon what should be accepted as canon and that everyone has the responsibility to assess whether or not a given selection reflects their deeply held beliefs. If a canon does not align with one’s values and interests, one must have the courage to reject it and seek out curricula that better embodies the values that one espouses. Life is too short to spend doing what does not inspire you.

The Importance of Belonging | Day 18

At a fundamental level, we each seek to find our place in the world – a niche that we can carve out and claim as our own. We desire belonging, external validation, and an affirmation of our importance to our greater community. If we are to accept the assumption that the social element is the defining attribute of an education, then the process of identity formation merits closer examination. To what extent does one’s sense of belonging influence the quality of one’s social, and therefore educational, experience?

Immediately, we can posit that it is indeed very important to have a sense of belonging – anyone who has experienced some form of social exclusion can attest to its detrimental effects. However, what is important here is to establish how one’s sense of identity is shaped and how an educational program can be designed to better facilitate a positive sense of belonging. Implicit in our investigation is the assessment of where traditional approaches are lacking and how alternative models can fill the present void.

To begin, we must recognize that a sense of identity is merely the software of the mind, which is deeply shaped by the de facto hardware – the structural realities of our physical plane of existence. Physical space is deeply important in shaping interactions in the same way that the design of an educational program can affect the intensity of those interactions. We are operating here with the assumption that more contact and more connections are better, but we recognize that such may not be optimal for all personality types.

If we take a traditional research-intensive university, we can observe all of the faculties and departments acting as silos – disconnected units that occupy their own positions over a dispersed campus. Were it not for the student-run initiatives, life on campus would be one of entrenched alienation. The community element of university is one that forms in spite of the institution, not because of it. Residences, students clubs, sports teams, politics, and the like all contribute towards a sense of belonging; however, a sense of community is often lacking in the actual learning environments. Large lecture halls dominate half of your university experience until you can take your upper level seminars and actually engage in meaningful discussions. I believe I stumbled upon a solution to this structural dilemma with my time at Bitmaker Labs.

The learning environment at Bitmaker Labs is one of an integrated nature, adopting the co-working space model. There is an open area for general work where interaction is encouraged along with individual study rooms for those periods where you need to block out the world and focus on the task at hand. Moreover, we have an enclosed lounge area of couches that is good for napping or reading; we have a kitchen area complete with a mechanical coffee machine that enables us to truly feel at home. Finally, the distance between the instructors and the students is non-existent – one can approach an instructor at anytime should help be required. The important aspect here is that this integrated physical environment facilitates a sense of belonging that borders on the familial – because there is no need to leave the space and we all spend most of our days here. By virtue of unifying all that is needed into a single location, you’re creating the perfect storm for connections to develop and for a collective identity to be formed, in which each constituent individual finds his or her place.

As much as the physical environment is pivotal in influencing how identities are formed, we need to pay attention to one more element: the structure of the program. The semester model employed by institutions of higher learning seems to mimic their campuses: dispersed and disconnected. However, in this case the dispersion is one of chronology and the disconnection is one of relevance. In what way does an education dispersed over four years aid the individual? As far as actually acquiring an understanding of the material is concerned, not very much. Why? Because those four spent in study lack intensity. I’m not sure if I speak for everyone but I can state with confidence that material studied for exams in April are often lost by the time September comes around. Of course, if we understand an education as a social experience then the dispersed fours years actually makes sense – with time, the individual gets to evolve from naivety into something approaching maturity. Furthermore, an experience that lasts nearly half a decade is a great way to solidify relationships that will be beneficial in the years to come, especially on the professional front (remember, business is done best with those you trust).

Unfortunately, this dispersed model of instruction is ineffective for achieving the actual aims of learning, even though it helps satisfy the social element. I feel that the intensity of the bootcamp model, where one devotes ten to twelve hours a day, for several weeks, to a single discipline is much more effective. Imagine if you could have spent your four years of higher learning in a series of focused bootcamps – just imagine how much you would have actually learned and how many people you would have actually developed bonds with. The fact remains that spending nearly your entire waking hours with a small group of people helps to foster relationships that are far more meaningful than those in a typical classroom setting. For example, my experiences at Shad Valley – essentially, a summer camp for nerds – four years ago are comparable to a bootcamp and I’m still friends with the individuals I met there, even though the actual experience was only a month long. In short, intensity matters and there is much to be extracted from the bootcamp model that can be applied to the traditional setting.

In the end, the importance of community to an educational experience cannot be overstated: the existence of a community and the finding of one’s place within it are extremely important. In order to facilitate the development of such a collective identity, and the affiliation of various selves to this identity, structural and programmatic considerations need to be thought through carefully. It would appear that the best policy is always to err on the side of physical integration and programmatic intensity. With these environmental factors at play, the individual is sure to find himself feeling a sense of belonging, whereby his operational effectiveness as a student is sure to increase.

Addressing the Emergent Dissatisfaction | Day 17

To commence a series of posts that deconstruct the current dilemmas of the education system and elucidate potential areas for improvement, I must begin with the largest pain point: purpose. You were expecting me to highlight employability, weren’t you? The way I see it, the notion of going to school to get a job and the often recited tirade of how schools are failing to prepare students for the workforce is simply attacking the straw man – we need to look deeper. What I feel to be the root problem is that society has allowed itself to accept a skewed definition of what an education truly is. We are told that we must acquire an education but very few ever ask themselves why they are doing it. For what purpose does education exist? What do you seek in your pursuit of an education?

Fundamentally, I view education as primarily a social endeavour – it is a process of socialization. Learning, understood here as the acquisition of knowledge or skills, is an aspect of an education, but it is not the defining element. Thus, when we say that an individual, John, is getting himself an education, what we really mean is that John has selected a social experience in which to immerse himself. Consequently, if John should tell his friends that he is getting an education in order to get a job following his graduation, John should understand himself as saying “I have chosen to immerse myself in this social environment, which will facilitate me in securing employment.” This statement bears such a simple truth that it cannot be glossed over – it doesn’t matter what John is studying for the only thing that matters is who John meets in the course of his immersion in his given social environment. In short, an education is defined by its social element, where connections are the true currency.

With the above in mind, the entire focus on the lack of job preparedness in the media is a complete farce, propagated by a system that wishes to render a generation powerless. Indeed, I acknowledge that for technical fields there is a caliber that must be maintained. For instance, either you know how to code or you don’t – I wouldn’t employ a friend to make a website for me, no matter how much I cared for him, if he lacked the skills to make that website. However, for non-technical skills the social element is paramount – some may call it nepotism, but I’d prefer to call it common sense. Would I teach my trade and hand over hard-earned money to a stranger sending me a resume that I don’t care to read or will I take the time to cultivate an individual who I view as a friend? The clan element is one of the strongest forces in the subterranean crevices of our animal mind and it cannot be so easily forgotten.

For those recent grads who find themselves jobless, it pains me to say this but, I view their predicament to be a reflection of class system at work – the wealthier, on average, have a greater ability to advance themselves in the façade of meritocracy than their less fortunate counterparts. For instance, Samantha, daughter of a single mother divorcee who is dying to make ends meet, is going to have trouble competing against Robert, son of suburban royalty whose supportive soccer mom makes his life one of relative ease.  Perhaps this isn’t as big of an issue in Canada as our educational institutions – even the more internationally reputable – all compete on similar footing: a tiered element has not truly manifested here as much as it has in, let’s say, the States. Moreover, grades-focused admissions in Canada tends to level the playing field, where application processes that consider ECs may definitely find themselves skewed towards favouring a particular segment of the population. In any case, what I’m trying to hit home here is that the entire focus upon employability as the main virtue of education is misplaced – the presentation of the issue has been doctored to appeal to a skills dilemma when it is really a social dilemma. Nonetheless, I will attempt to show how the two are slowly converging together.

What we see manifesting are class elements showing through the veneer of equality, which get exaggerated by the creeping menace of technological automation and globalization. The fact remains that you aren’t needed for many of the jobs that your grandparents could have been hired for with limited skills. We no longer need factory workers – we’ve got control panels and conveyor belts. We no longer need paper pushers – we’ve got an app for that. We don’t need your overpriced intellectual labour – we can outsource to India and China. As the number of available jobs dwindles in traditional industries, merely knowing people won’t exactly cut it anymore – this is when second and third tier institutions fall short of the mark, as the first tier institutions, or first tier social environments, have already succeeded in connecting their members with the right people. Thus, as we move forward, possessing technical know-how is becoming increasingly important to remain relevant with web and mobile as the present frontiers of innovation. In short, only the best social environments can help you seize positions in closed industries while technical knowledge is needed to compete in the wild wild west of the internet era – skills that are not directly taught.

As we arrive at this solemn fact, we are brought back to our original question: what is the purpose of an education? I believe that an education is a social experience that you choose to immerse yourself in, so to better prepare yourself for your desired path, whatever that may be. We begin to see a problem here if one’s chosen social environment does not aid one in pursuing one’s desired path. Society’s high praise of the university experience has led many to pursue a social environment that may not necessarily aid them in attaining what they truly wish to achieve. The solution to this dilemma is in realizing that there are alternative social environments that one can choose to engage in – Bitmaker Labs is an example of such an environment. As we move forward and realize the possibilities that can replace our actuality, much can be achieved. All change begins from within and flows outward – we can only externalize what we have first internalized.

In the coming posts I will seek to further deconstruct the holes that I view in the education system, before attempting to outline a tentative solution. Additionally, there is more to extract from this commentary on the social element that underlies education – I have only chipped at the surface here. These posts remain as a continual work in progress.

An Administrative Note | Day 16

After the past several weeks at Bitmaker Labs, and especially following our recent encounter with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), two facts have become quite apparent to me. I’ve come to realize, primarily, that the type of posts that I like to write are much different from the posts that I have initially been writing for this blog and, secondly, that I’ve finally discovered the industry that I truly want to innovate in.

When I began this blog, I thought that it would be apt to write about the day’s events, summarizing my time here at Bitmaker Labs. However, I quickly discovered that this was an unsustainable model for content generation, especially when I wanted to write posts of a certain caliber, at a sustained length. I found myself procrastinating until late at night, squirming to put something on the page – I felt very reluctant to write summary posts. If I really wanted to, I could lay out the entire day in a single paragraph and that’s not the type of writing that I wanted to engage in.

The fact remains that there are operational realities that enforce strict parameters upon what can be written. I practically spend twelve hours every day at the Bitmaker Labs office, arriving at a quarter after eight in the morning and leaving at eight in the evening. When you combine the limited amount of time remaining for blogging with the fact that I want to blog everyday at a high quality, I’m left with very few options. In these situations, with time working against you, you have to use the natural strengths that you have developed to your advantage.

It was in attempting to write posts everyday that I realized that I had to play to my innate strengths: I’m a Philosophy and English Lit major who can write commentaries with relative ease. It is much more easy, and engaging, for me to take a certain topic or theme and work through it as if I were analyzing a text or developing an argument. Consequently, you will notice the evolution in my posts as I transitioned to commenting on what I can only describe as meta topics. My writing became more detached from the quotidian affairs of Bitmaker Labs and, instead, focused itself upon tangential topics where it could develop a particular topic into a sustained post. It is in the spirit of these recent posts that I wish to continue my blog.

Even though I had implicitly stumbled upon the type of posts that I wished to write, it was not until Bitmaker Labs’ run-in with the MTCU last week that I realized that Education, in general, is a topic of particular interest to me. In my interactions with my entrepreneurial friends, we have often identified Education and Healthcare as two industries which will see major shifts – and, consequently, room for disruption – in the upcoming decades. Nonetheless, I have never “owned” Education as my industry of choice until I had to defend it from a momentarily misguided ministry. It was in those moments of rebellion that I saw something, not only worth defending but also, worth innovating in.

With the above in mind, I feel justified in bringing this blog to a new direction in the coming weeks. I christened this blog “Kode Konviction” primarily because it was my conviction that coding was the new frontier for me in my life (and, secondly, because I have a morbid fetish of rebranding “C” words with a “K” to appeal my suppressed, Montreal-inspired hipsterness). In many ways, Bitmaker Labs and my pursuit of coding will forever remain as the backend that informs the frontend of my present writing – any post that I write emerges from this environmental context. Nevertheless, coding is more than just the code, inasmuch as language is more than just the words. I have always been interested in the manipulation of words to achieve differing emotional responses. My experiences with poetry have always been from the standpoint of a problem solver rather than a genuine artist – when I was in middle school, I would spend hours just fiddling with words to fit a rhyme scheme or a stanza structure (I was never one for free verse). As a result, it would only make sense that I would be drawn to what coding can help me achieve in a particular industry rather being interested in just the code itself.

From my standpoint, words and code are simply tools – they are instruments and I can craft them to achieve a particular end. You can only write well when you have no attachment to the final outcome, when you see the words for they are: mere symbols that encode meaning. Through a detached use of the tool, you become the tool’s master. In a similar sense, I only see coding as a means to an end, where such an end would be a manifest change made to the prevailing system of education. There is much that I want to write about regarding potential changes that can be made to the education system – especially how technology and the internet can play a pivotal role – and I will be using my blog posts to incrementally convey my thoughts on the matter. There will most likely be the occasional post on Bitmaker Labs or Ruby on Rails, but I feel that it would be a much more beneficial use of my time if I could articulate the gaps that I see in the present system and the changes that I desire to make. There is much to be written and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you.

Growth and Reconciliation | Day [Limbo 2-4]

What a torrent of change the last few days have brought to us all, here at Bitmaker Labs. It just goes to show that when pushed against a wall, a united group of individuals committed towards a single purpose can achieve great things. I have not been blogging actively for most of the week due to the sensitive nature of the issues that I was involved with; however, I believe now is an apt opportunity to unwind and share what I, and my fellow students, have experienced. On Monday it seemed like our hopes and aspirations would be dashed by bureaucratic red tape – three days later, we are more confident than ever in the road before us. How was this possible?

One crucial element to our collective success was the leadership taken by the various students – the instructors at Bitmaker Labs admitted to us that they would not have been nearly as successful if they also had to deal with angry and disheartened students. Fortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post, a group of students took care of damage control while another group went on the offensive. It was this unified front, on the part of the students, that allowed the Bitmaker Labs instructors to focus single-mindedly on spreading the word of what was going down. The amount of press coverage that they managed to generate was truly phenomenal.

Strategically, one must understand that the governmental body operates at a speed that will not allow it to deal with a high volume of press in a short period of time. A blitzkrieg of attention by significant publications was the only way that Bitmaker Labs could gather attention to its dilemma and rally support to its cause. It is important to note that this blitzkrieg could have been at conducted at a much greater intensity if the students, on the offensive, had launched their own media campaign. It would have been a localized grassroots campaign of student groups, non-profits, and tech companies that, when combined with the international press coverage, would have been a genuine avalanche – a flood, a hurricane, a volcanic eruption of discontent that no governmental body can truly fight against when they consider their dwindling domestic support and international scrutiny.

To truly understand one’s opponent, one must see the world through their eyes. What does a politician fear the most? A politician’s eyes are ever focused on the next election, where dwindling support means less votes. With this in mind, a campaign was designed that would have focused on a crucial campaign issue – economic growth and technological innovation as tied to job creation – and would have allowed the opposing party to jump on the bandwagon. Playing to the partisan element is crucial here – you need to strong-arm your opponent into a corner where they are left with very few options. Moreover, you need to understand how your opponent operates and the hierarchical structures that influence decisions. To see impact, you cannot target a governmental body, as a whole, but the figurehead of the organization, individually. You must direct your every effort to the one person who has the most to lose from the situation. In our case, it was none other than the minister himself so that is where we focused.

With our campaign on hold, the students on the offensive devoted most of Tuesday to calling and emailing the minister. As anticipated, we received no reply. Did we really expect a response? No, but we needed to have our due diligence done so that we’d be justified in launching our campaign should we have chosen to do so. We even wrote up a letter expressing our views, signed it, and had it delivered to the minister’s office. Let me recount the three-pronged strategy hitherto expanded upon: (1) the instructors have shared their story with various media outlets, (2) the students have gained local support from a variety of organizations, and (3) the students have directly contacted the minister through various mediums to express their concern. Meanwhile, another group of students are actively keeping the collective morale up by holding their own lectures and review sessions – in short, all fronts were covered and accounted for. Metaphorically, by having our army assembled, our allies ready, and our domestic front content, we were a nation ready for war – woe unto the fool who dares to cross us unprepared.

By virtue of doing all of the above, we forced the ministry into a corner and yet provided a way out. Rather than working against us, the ministry could use this as an opportunity to celebrate and support the tech community in Southern Ontario. I believe the ministry saw the opening that we provided and quickly acted upon it to save their public image. The minister called Bitmaker’s CEO on Wednesday afternoon and worked everything through. I will not go into the precise details, but I can say that we will be fully operational – as though nothing had ever happened – following Canada Day. It was extremely fortunate that events worked out the way they did as we were about to launch a petition that would have been shared by code.org on their mailing list of 17,000 subscribers. Truly, what an eventful three days!

With everything settled, we spent most of today in review mode. The pace of life has eased and the students are now back to their studies – life is slowly regaining the sweetness that we were swiftly deprived of not too long ago. With the success of Bitmaker Labs, I am emboldened in my resolve to re-engineer how education is conducted. Alternative forms of education merit their place alongside traditional institutions, in the overarching spectrum, and I will not cease until I have helped solidify this shift in any way that I can. We find ourselves amidst a revolution and I will gladly be a standard-bearer. Let Goliath, in whatever form he may display himself, fall to his knees. The slings of change demand a victim and we are now witnessing the foundations of traditional education being uprooted and torn asunder. I pity the day that I, too, will find myself a Goliath; however, today, we are Davids and let us commence the felling of giants. Institutions have grown fat, prideful, and outmoded and we stand here ready to slay them on their thrones – their days are numbered.

Assembling Our Strength | Day [Limbo]

We all walked into Bitmaker Labs today with the expectation of continuing on with our program – business as usual. However, all of our instructors and team leaders came out to convey an extremely difficult message: due to the potential of a cease and desist, they would no longer be permitted to teach us what we came here to learn.  A potential outcome existed in which severe fines, and perhaps even imprisonment, awaited our instructors should they continue to teach us without being an accredited institution under the Ontario Ministry of Teaching, Colleges and Universities (MTCU). Given these circumstances, they halted all official teaching and the Bitmaker Labs office essentially became a co-working space for all of the students.

With the full force of the news hitting the students, leadership emerged in two very different forms. On the one hand, several students took up leadership positions to maintain morale and organized review sessions – amidst the chaos, they provided direction to the directionless and distraught. On the other hand, a small renegade group of well-connected students began to plot a social media blitzkrieg, as they wished to spread awareness about the issues at hand – I was one of those individuals. I laid out a plan of action, co-wrote a petition, spread the message to my Facebook friends, and began to plan out a social media strategy. Sword and Shield worked together perfectly to make the best of these unfortunate times.

The amount of support that I received on Facebook was more than expected – having friends in Southern Ontario’s tech scene never hurts. I gained significant traction and was planning on releasing the fruits of my labour earlier today. Fortunately, I have some extremely wise friends who advised me against such an immediate social media campaign – it would be counterproductive to our desired results. All that the students at Bitmaker Labs wish to have is the ability to continue on in their web development studies uninhibited by a ministry that is supposed to “help [us] get the education and training [we] need to build a rewarding career.” If we were to be too aggressive in our campaigning, we could have very well forced them to solidify their stance.

Consequently, rather than releasing my petition and launching my campaign, I emailed the head of the MCTU, Brad Duguid. I simply told him that I wanted his side of the story, so that we can work towards a solution that is amicable to all parties involved in this misunderstanding. If a reply is not received in a week, I will happily initiate my campaign and rally the full support of my extended network.

In an age where the tech sector is truly making headway, halting a program like Bitmaker Labs is a direct assault on the competitiveness of Ontarian tech startups. These startups are in desperate need of the specific skills that Bitmaker Labs is providing – I can only hope that the MTCU will see their error of judgment and allow us to continue in our studies. The international students from Europe and the United States, along with the Vancouverites and Montrealers here, are all suffering from this unexpected hitch in the program. What does the future hold? We will never know, but I remain confident in the strength of my friends and in the human capacity to recognize when faults are made.

Learning Communities | Day 15

What is the defining characteristic of an education? Having gone through one third of my Bitmaker Labs experience at this point, I believe that it is relevant to weigh in on the value of what I am engaging in. At the end of the day, I came here to learn how to code and that is my top priority; however, there is plenty more that can be offered through a social experience.  When you reduce the experience to its foundational components, the social element is truly what stands out. Inasmuch as the medium is the message in forms of communication, it can be said that the channel of delivery is the product for all ventures in all industries. From this guiding principle, we can derive an hypothesis that an education is not so much defined by its content as it is by its manner of dissemination. Does this hold?

When I arrive at Bitmaker Labs at eight o’clock in the morning, I am immediately greeted by my fellow early risers, normally Jared and Ernie. More often than not the place is still somewhat of a mess from the previous night, with coffee mugs strewn about – Ernie immediately goes to clean them up and I’ll help occasionally. Although one might remark at the mundaneness of this daily process, there is a certain ritualistic element to it, one that allows you to segregate the self of home from the self of study. The same psychological divisions occur for those in the workforce where, further, uniforms or a particular style of dress help to enforce the psychological divisions of self.  Though inherently artificial, this compartmentalization helps to strengthen one at the task at hand – in our case, learning to code. The day essentially begins with the message “I am learning amongst a group of people, a community, that seeks to help one another.” Bitmaker Labs, at its core, is a learning community. As much as I am interested in developing online learning communities, there is something special about the social bond that is fostered among those with similar goals, pursuing them together, in person. The synchronous element here is crucial, and I believe we will see its importance carried through in the discussions below.

As the day progresses, we have our daily lecture, which is more of a practical tutorial than a traditional sermon of sorts – I mention this intentionally. If a university can be considered a secular church, then the professors are the priests of humanistic studies – praising the feats of man and matter, as opposed to God and spirit – and their lectures are nothing more than sermons. Cultural formation – indoctrination – is the name of the game. In any case, if we carry this metaphor forward, our lectures at Bitmaker Labs can be compared to Bible study groups. Rather than having a Bible and proceeding to heavily annotate the passages, we all have our Macs out, with Sublime Text 2 open to follow along with the code and our browsers ready to follow up on any websites that are mentioned. In many respects, by virtue of the open sourced nature of the technologies that we are employing, the internet, itself, is our “text” of study. In any case, through our pragmatic lectures, we benefit from the synchronous experience that is inherent to the method of dissemination. Here, we cannot help but acknowledge that the channel of delivery is tied to the medium of communication – they are inseparable, as two covers of a single book, sharing the same spine. Having a synchronous interactive learning experience is important beyond measure, as we are able to learn from the dialogue and discussion generated student-to-lecturer and student-to-student.

Carrying forward in the spirit of synchronous interactive learning, the day is sprinkled with optional breakout sessions and working groups. If you ever feel like you’re missing out on a certain aspect of a given language, these sessions help you to fill the gaps in your understanding. Moreover, the instructors – perhaps we can call them TAs for a lack of a more definite term – are always roaming around to help with any problems that you may have. Nonetheless, the rest of the day is spent in asynchronous project-based work. If you want to work in a group, you can work in a group; if you want to work alone, you can work alone. If you enjoy an environment with just the right amount of background noise, you can stay in the open area; if you feel like shutting the world out for periods of serious focus, you can move into one of the quiet rooms. Rather than being situated on a campus with multiple buildings and numerous students taking different courses of study over four dispersed years, at Bitmaker Labs we’re putting a small group of students sharing a unified curriculum in the same room for nine weeks. Intensity. Commitment. Unity. These three words emerge to define the bootcamp experience, one that cannot be replicated in any other fashion.  Out of all the elements that I just listed, I feel that being in the same room is the most important aspect. Regardless if you are communicating with everyone – overtly, you’re not – the simple act of sharing the same space allows you to genuinely become a family. Not a dispersed space, but a single location that acts as a stand-in for a home of sorts, in which we are each members of a family. Again, not just a community, but family – the scope is different and thus the intensity differs.

Through the observations above, we can distill that synchronous interactive learning and asynchronous project-based work in a unified environment among a small group of people stands as the pillars of the Bitmaker experience. Do we have grades here? No. Are we doing this for a certificate? No. Are deadlines strict? No. Why are we here then? To learn, of course. Examinations, grades, certifications, and strict deadlines turn the intended learning experience into a performance optimized for appearances, not substance. Did we go to university to be at a talent show or a school? In any case, what I wish to emphasize here is that a centralized physical hub with a decentralize mental environment, if you will, allows the student to thrive optimally. Social creatures demand a social environment but deserve a path to learning that can be forged on their own terms while still having mentors around to provide guidance and support. Physical collectivity and mental individuality seem to be the winning characteristics.

Taking in all that has been discussed, we arrive at an opportune moment to evaluate our original hypothesis. Even though I didn’t get into online education, which would have driven home the distinctions more clearly, we can still see how two competitors in the same industry can have different nuances that change their respective final products entirely. It is the ­how of the educational delivery that matters. We have static lectures against dynamic interactive learning; examination-driven learning against project-based learning; a dispersed campus against a centralized hub; varying class sizes against a constant class size; anonymous students against a genuine family. The more we compare, the more clearly it emerges that we are not just dealing with educational experiences of a different quality but of a different essence. Philosophically, they share the same type – physical institution – but are different tokens of that type. They diverge by virtue of their methods of dissemination, whereby those methods come to define them. Moreover, we earlier acknowledged that the method of dissemination is closely bound to the medium of communication employed – a corollary of this revelation is that the social experience becomes the defining element of the educational pursuit. Thus, an education may be categorized by virtue of the degree and nature of the social experiences that it facilitates (and, which, it is in turn propagated by). We have not only confirmed our hypothesis, but have also extended it. The next time you walk into class, please ask yourself what kind of social experience you are receiving, for that is the essence of your education.

On the Passing of Time | Day 14

The adoption of a new mode of being necessitates that the phenomenological experience of time slows down. Every moment becomes a wholesome internalization of something unknown. You progress forward without a map and without expectations as life unfolds – a blossoming flower whose petals open to the light of time, extending its roots more firmly into the soil of existence. Unfortunately, this feeling of newness eventually fades as routines set in and as you become accustomed to the rhythm of your current behavioural pattern. Time no longer remains as a meandering stream but accelerates into a forceful torrent that carries you forward at an alarming pace.

As we approach the end of our third week at Bitmaker Labs, I am taken aback by how swiftly time has progressed. With each passing day, the body and mind come to anticipate the quotidian schedule and, consequently, the hours seem ever shorter. It is at these junctures in life, when our perception of certainty and agency diminish, that we must reaffirm our commitment to the path that we have embarked upon. Why are we here? For what purpose did we decide to learn how to code? Was it to get job? Did we desire to launch our own projects? Perhaps both? Whatever the case, it is important to actively understand what you want, why you want it, and to work in the direction of your desire’s fulfillment – such is the only way to stay focused and collected as your external environment changes.

Once one accepts the limitations of time, there is merely one thing left to do: optimize one’s use of it. It becomes a matter of setting realistic expectations for oneself, in a stepwise fashion, so that a sense of progress and achievement can be established on an internal level. In the end, half of the battle is won in the mind and by acknowledging the progress that one is making, however small, genuine momentum can be built from within and channeled to the external world. If life were a vast expanse of light, moving in all directions, our lives would be focused streams of that eternal radiance. The stream of light that knows where to focus its essence – to focus upon the uplifting phenomena – fares much better, experientially, than the stream of light that casts itself upon the desolate shores of failure. We are but thinking beings, matter raised and light descended, and what we think about matters.

In light of this understanding, it behooves us to focus our attention solely upon affairs that are directly within our control. We approach an ocean of change in waters growing ever darker; sunlight fades amidst a full moon rising; the solace of shore and lighthouse are but fleeting dreams for the vessel, nigh flotsam, without anchor or wind. Although you cannot control the externalities of the situation, your reaction to it is fully within the domain of your agency. You may not dictate the current, but you can determine your steering; you may not dictate the external light, but you can determine the amount of light that you choose to let emanate from within you; you may not dictate the passing of time, but you can determine how to use what you possess. Narrow your parameters of sight to the immediacy of the here and now, to what you are doing in the living present, and you will find that all anxieties diminish. The overthinking mind is left distraught; the individual in action is left without the opportunity to doubt himself as he progresses steadily towards his desired destination.