Monthly Archives: February 2013

You are the choices you have made

This was what I have realized right before I went to the states for the first time: You are the choices you have made.  Now I realize it deeply again.

Recently it was in contact with several of my old classmates in college. They have been professors in the states. I cannot help but feel the great contrast btw the different paths that we have chosen. If I didn’t quit my Ph.D program to pursue my passion on software programming and elearning (realizing real life learning), I could have been professors as well. This is the most stable path for us foreigners in the states. But I disliked doing research at school very much since when I was doing research on elearning I saw so many wasteful and meaningless research papers. None of those papers aimed at solving the problem. Instead they are just creating problems. Yes, probably you have sensed, all my life has been about something bigger. Ever since my childhood, I realized that human life is very precious and I have to strive very hard to experience fully of it. So I always tried to expand myself to the fullest and not to limit myself.

But life has its age. When I became 30s, I had to realize that my body is not as young as before. Now at my age, I also realize that I cannot keep expanding without any concern of the so called mundane life. If I think having a family is what I cannot give up on in my life and it is a very important experience to have babies, then I have to give my attention to them now. At certain age, something can wait, something cannot wait. In the past, I didn’t want to give any thoughts to that since I really need to cherish the time to expand fully when I am still young. I thought I had to come to America to see people and culture different from us. So I came. I thought I really like programming and elearning is really what my life points to. So I changed my major to computer science and did research on elearning. I still remember how happy I was when I changed to Computer Science successfully. How I felt when I told people that I was in CS major and how I felt when I truly become a professional in this field. The kind of energy I had worked so passionately in this field up to this day.

In my life, in the past I don’t quite understand people who are always concerned with the so called mundane life. Now I think I come to understand their values and views since I need to think of that as well. I can understand it is very normal for people to think like that if they haven’t experiences that clearly as I experienced in my childhood. These so called mundane concerns are not mundane either. People need to be well-grounded. And these give you a good foundation to be at ease and enjoy your life so you can keep healthy and pursue other things bigger. Not to mention that my parents are getting older too. In China, parents give all of themselves out when taking care of the kids and in a way they have to rely on their children to give back when they grow old. This is the cultural norm here, and you should give back the love you received. So I think what is life about. If I want to understand normal folks and this is what they live, I should have this experience as well.  For those passions and dreams, since I have laid a good foundation for them and there is no major area that I have to expand myself into now, I think they can wait a little and I need to see when the opportunity comes up. In a sense, I feel it is like how in the past I didn’t spend much time on the girlfriend seeking thing and just wait for the right opportunity come up and meet the right person — there is really not much you can do about it.

In my past, I put all my energy in understanding the field I am working in, for example, what is really learning. I tried hard to conquer several big areas, for example, being able to explore freely with programming. I aim only at solving the problem. But those understanding and skills I gained are hard to be translated to job market terms. As I have always been trying to create the future learning, what I need now is to prove myself in the existing industry. After all, you have to grow stronger and you need to work with others to build things. So I think this is what I am learning now.

As I am reading through the current landscape of what people are innovating in the learning/education field in America, what I have outlined several years ago as what we can work on to realize future learning have mostly been worked on: http://www.3exps.org/social/leon/framebook/notes/note/17659/?&pick_lang=E

So it is really going to change soon.  For more than 10 years, I have been working on something that is not going to have any employment opportunities in the industry. Now, there are a lot of job opportunities.  If you really want to make real life learning the mainstream learning, there are plenty of work for you to do. So you had better start caring about the real learning instead of learning that is centered around the traditional school classroom teaching. There will be less and less those jobs available.

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language, consciousness and aging

Note: below is a question I asked a friend who is a neural scientist. I thought it would be good to share it here.

For a long time, I am trying to understand how language, consciousness, aging are connected. Maybe you can answer my puzzles or give me some suggested reading.

I am interested in understanding the relationship of language and consciousness. Knowledge of this will help understanding many things. For kids before age 12, for most of them, whatever they do, it is actually for the growth of language. They learn things around them, but it is actually for the development of language. And with the development of language the consciousness in their brain grows as well. As I have experienced when living in the states, there seems to be such feelings that something in my brain was growing whenever I learned a new expression. At that time, I was trying not to let other things interfere with this growth so it can grow continuously. After I came back to China, for at least one year, when I spoke Chinese, I still need to first think in English and then convert it to Chinese. When I was thinking, I thought in English. When I went back to where I went for college or where I grew up, it was a whole layers of past memory dug up, which had been buried deeply for a long time. So it seems that my learning of English and American culture formed its own layer. Once this layer gets stronger, it is not easy to break it. As foreigners, we usually speak a quite broken English, and it is easy to break it up. Whenever I spoke with my parents over the weekend, I found it difficult to pronounce English on Monday. (But maybe this doesn’t have to be so. And I am not sure if other foreigners have experienced the same thing.) There was once that when playing soccer with friends on Monday I yelled out Kongzhi (in Chinese it means control) the ball. I had two things mixed up.

So for foreigners living in the states, they have to perform adult functions and carry out adult responsibilities. Those are the social functions of the brain, which develop after the develop of language. For the foreigners what their brains need is to be proficient with the language first, e.g. have that basis of consciousness grown and form a layer of substrate, on top of which social functions can grow. The foreigners have their experiences of these social functions stored in their brain. But probably it is more strongly associated with the substrate of their mother tongue. The consciousness has to grow again on the new substrate in the new culture.

Social functions are also important for the health of the brain. Doctors said detainee of Guantanamo bay may suffer brain damage because of extreme isolation. National Geography’s special issue about Intelligence of animals points out that social interaction is responsible for the intelligence in animals.

OK, above has been a little messy. Let me sum up. Social functions are important for the health of human brain (more so than for animals). Social functions grow on the substrate of language. Learning of a language is actually growing the consciousness. And a language will form its own layer of consciousness.

What can be studied is probably to study how foreigners brain change as s/he learn the language. A span of 10 years of following (or at least 5 years) the subjects might be necessary. Or compare brains of bilinguals with those who only speak one language, and see what differ. Whether an old age makes the brain difficult to grow the consciousness related to language?

Do these observation and questions make sense? It is written in a hurry. I should need more time to refine and make it more logical. My questions might have been answered by scientists and I just don’t know. These are interesting things to me, and I think understanding them is very important.

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Thomas Paine came to America

With all the debates on immigration reform in congress, I hope Americans can have a bigger vision for their future in thinking of these. If Americans worried that Thomas Paine may steal American jobs, American  revolution probably would never have happened. I am not sure of the exact historical situation then. Reading from the wikipedia, “Paine emigrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin and he arrived in time to participate in the American Revolution”.

When I was in graduate school, I had a close American friend. He is a very excellent photographer and has been puring his passion in photography for decades. But he didn’t want to sell himself out to corporations. At that time he couldn’t even afford to buy a secondhand mac computer to do do his work (photo editing). (Nevertheless he is very generous in donating money to non-profit organizations.)  I thought then that for him to sacrifice so much for pursuing his passion was already very counter-productive to what he wanted to do. Well, now I find myself in the same situation as he was, having to spend quite a lot of time on money-saving. I recently saw his works on facebook. Really awesome works!

For me, I just want to be able to completely focus on what I like to do and not to be bothered by the money issues. So I  knew very little of things related to insurance, 401 and so on. I never want to waste time on them. Also I never want to waste time on paperwork. It is too distracting. I also don’t like to bother friends with anything. I felt pretty bad having done all these recently. The tedious process also wears you down and consumes all of your time. I hate to see so much time spent on unproductive work. For everything, you had better take it easy if you are not there yet.

A very important lesson I have had in my life is that I have to trust myself. If I trust others more than myself and my own experiences and reasoning, I will be doomed for a big setback. I had that lesson before. It made me feeling very bad and made me resolved not to repeat that kind of mistake anymore.  After all, Dharma is my teacher. I will be responsible for my own life. For whatever I have received in my life, I am always very grateful and set aside my time to return the love and consider their needs when making decisions of my life, like I did for my parents. As in Chinese culture, parents like to make decisions for their children no matter how old their children are, we need to keep in mind that trusting oneself and being responsible for oneself is the foundation of happiness for one’s life. If it is some kind of experience that no where else I can get advices on and only people who have lived through it know it and it is impossible for me to try, for example the relation btw language and development of consciousness, I would appreciate if someone can offer their experiences on that.

Last updated: Feb 27th.

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My work in the past three years and seeking future collaborators

Here is my work in the past three years: http://www.opensourcelearning.org/

It is a self-learning tool. It can be used by individuals to help them learn by themselves. It can also be used in school for teacher-led courses. You can also use it for peer learning in a learning group.

For example, in the case of teacher-led courses, the teacher can outline the knowledge in the subject area. Sample phenomenons or experiences in this area, and how students can practice in their daily lives to experience various aspects of it. The students can also view the teachers’ personal learning notes to get an idea of this learning area. The teacher can also show the kind of tags students can use to make notes of their learning experiences. And then students should try various things on their own in their daily lives to gain experiences in various aspects of the area. In the course sessions, the teacher can have the students show and tell what they have explored. The simplest form of that is to go through each experience s/he has collected and explains it. More complex forms can be making knowledge frames from the notes made. The teacher should help the students analyze their experiences and teach them how to synthesize them. So basically learners are still playing the major role of learning, and they do self-learning. The teacher only leads them to explore the field.

So the teachers should be those who really have learning experiences in the field, and have a complete map of the knowledge. S/he should be able to describe the knowledge or the things to be learned in the area, and s/he should be able to break it into several small modules that students can practice in and accumulate related experiences. The students can try whatever resources out there to learn by themselves. But their learning experiences and collected learning material can be reflected in this twitter-like snippet knowledge system. By promoting the students to form a habit of self-reflection and consciously exploring knowledge and gaining the skills, students learn the important skills of how to learn.

So with this twitter-like snippet system, the way of teaching in school will be dramatically different from the past. The twitter-like snippet knowledge system makes it easy to carry out the kind of teaching where the students are at the center of learning and exploring by themselves and the teacher can guide the students in combining their experiences from practice together with construction of the knowledge system in the area. We hope that more people can try this and together we can come up with more standard and systemic ways of doing this kind of teaching.

Of course, such usage in school is mainly for people who haven’t learned how to learn, which currently includes quite a lot of people. For those who are very strong learners and know how to learn by themselves, they can form learning groups and learn topics together through peer learning. This twitter-like snippet system will also have features to support and facilitate that kind of learning.

The ultimate goal is for people to be able to learn in real life. People can be engaged in whatever they want to do in their lives. They only need to spend a very small portion of their time to contemplate on what they experienced daily or weekly, and be conscious of the knowledge system they are in. Teacher and students will be more equal. The teacher is merely an early learner who has more learning experiences, probably has gained the full picture of the knowledge and is able to tell where the student is. Learning is never separated from life.

I have two master degrees in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science from US schools. Neural system and brain have been my most favorite parts in my study of life science. I have been doing work on elearning and education for more than 10 years. I am also a long time Buddhism practitioner. I am looking for future collaborators to work on this research together. So if you are interested, please contact me.

I am glad to see that the development of contemplative science and study are helping the fields of learning and mental health, and help us understand more of the material basis of human consciousness (even some of my old classmates are now professors doing great research in this area). But none of these contemplative science and study utilize the power of software as a tool or vehicle to make breakthroughs. And my approach is more about solving the problem. Even I tried to have a whole understanding of learning and teaching on the theoretical basis, it is still for the purpose of solving the problem. To me, contemplative or feeling of the space, is not just helping learning, actually it is the center of learning and that is the original face of learning.

 

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