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.

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