Archive for the ‘Modern History’ Category

Deadlines and Informal Learning

June 16, 2009

I saw this wonderful senior project from Bang-yao Liu, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, and wanted to share it. The title of the video is “Deadline post it stop motion.”

But of course, this blog is about informal learning, not cool stop-motion animation.

So in keeping with the official theme of this blog, my post instead is about the derivation of the word ‘deadline.’

Wait, you say, what does the word deadline have to do with informal learning? Just this. Deadlines have a marvelous capacity to focus the learner’s mind, as I expect young Bang-yao would admit.

Informal learners could do worse than to give themselves deadlines to finish their readings, learnings, writings.

The word deadline comes from one of the darker chapters of American Civil War history, Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville. Andersonville was a Confederate prisoner of war camp, in Macon County, Georgia, about 150 miles from Savannah.

In time some 45,000 prisoners of war were housed at Andersonville over the course of its 14 months of operation. In August 1864, there were 33,000 POWs in the camp. By December 1864 100 prisoners were dying each day, mainly due to disease and malnutrition. All told nearly 13,000 POWs didn’t survive Andersonville.

The prison was set on 16 acres of land, later expanded to 26 acres. The Confederacy, stretched from war expenses, provided the prisoners no barracks or shelter of any kind from the Georgia weather, although a ‘tent city’ did arise self-provided by the prisoners. Food rations were notably meager.

The camp site was bisected by a slow moving stream called Stockade Creek. It served as both a source of fresh water for the prisoners and sanitation purposes. With so many prisoners the creek and the boggy area around it quickly became a fetid, disease-ridden swamp.

Camp Sumter was surrounded by a 15-foot stockade wall. Guards patrolled the inside of the stockade. Between them and the prisoners was a low wooden fence called the ‘dead-line.’ The name came from the rule that was associated with the fence: if a prisoner so much as put his arm over the dead-line, he could be summarily shot. About 15 men were shot and killed for dead-line infractions.

Andersonville was a horror of the highest order. Its commander, Henry Wirz, was tried and executed after the war. During the trial the prosecution and witnesses described the prison, including the malevolent dead-line and its deadly rule. The newspapers of the day ate it up.

In time, a number of personal accounts of Andersonville emerged, some of them highly dramatized (as if surviving the place needed any embellishment). Few failed to mention the dead-line.

By about 1900 or so the term was in use by printers to describe an area on the margins of paper not meant to be printed upon. By the 1920s or so it began to be used to mean a time limit.

That meaning seems to have found its fit with the word. There’s no good synonymy for deadline. ‘Target’ doesn’t convey the right urgency. ‘Zero hour’ has punch, but not much currency. ‘Crunch time’ implies a band of time rather than a terminal moment.

So thank you, Bang-yao Liu, for your clever project and reminder about the power of deadlines.


A Free ‘College Education’ on Your Computer Screen

April 21, 2009

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14 plowboy

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14-year-old plowboy

I twice had the pleasure of meeting the widow of Philo Farnsworth, the man who had envisioned electronic television while plowing an Idaho potato field as a boy of 14. No kidding!

His widow’s name was Elma, but she went by ‘Pem.’ When I met her, circa 1990, Pem had completed the first book-length biography of Philo called Distant Vision.

It’s an interesting read, especially the part about Philo programming his first TV station, W3XPF in Philadelphia. Farnsworth… who received precious little formal education after high school… was racing against the ruthless General David Sarnoff, head of RCA, to prove the concept of television by actually programming a station. Farnsworth had conceived of television as a kind of ultimate educator, a technology custom fit to bless the lives of humanity.

The word ‘television’ was invented well before there were any channels to change and Farnsworth’s philosophical determinism on the topic was common among the television pioneers. Several years before he’d founded RCA and decades before the advent of TV, Sarnoff himself circulated a memo to friends in which he wrote: “I believe that television… is the ultimate and greatest step in mass communications.”

Farnsworth began broadcasting on W3XPF in January 1937 in Philadelphia, about six months after RCA started experimental broadcasting in New York City. RCA’s first TV broadcast had singing acts, a dramatic reading from a Broadway actor, and a performance from three ballet dancers. Farnsworth made an abortive attempt at televising educational lectures before following RCA’s lead into entertainment.

Farnsworth’s electronic television, he found to his dismay, seemed to demand something not only livelier but shallower than education for the masses.

In short order W3XPF was producing a mix of orchestral music and singers, variety and novelty acts like ‘Baby Dolores,’ a 4-year-old singer/dancer. RCA demonstrated electronic television at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. Then WWII broke out and everyone who was once a television specialist was now a radar specialist, Farnsworth included. Television as the great educator of the people fell through the cracks for decades.

In retrospect it’s easy to understand why television as an educator didn’t fly in the earliest days of the medium. Really gifted lecturers are rare. Compelling educational TV can be made today, but producing it can be expensive and requires technology and pedagogical approaches that were decades away in 1937. And then there’s the issue of exactly what to program. Videotape wasn’t invented until the 1950s. Until then all TV aired live. Even in 1937 a university might offer hundreds of different courses. But which one to televise?

You might also blame anti-intellectualism among the American populace, but I reject that argument. Beginning in the 1830s a broad swath of Americans embraced a rising tide of informal adult education. Lecturers would tour the cities and the backcountry talking about the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, philosophy, religion, languages, the evils of liquor and tobacco, and more.

Mark Twain made a good living as a lecturer before enjoying fame as a writer. And in the century before movies and television, people in smaller burgs especially had few of the outside diversions we enjoy today. Back then, education was entertainment.

Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates. People would watch the debates for several hours, break for lunch then come back, break for dinner, and then come back again for a third session. If there really ever was such a thing as ‘American Exceptionalism,’ some part of the explanation must be owed to our historical propensity for self-improvement.

Now benefiting from the long tail made possible by digital content and inexpensive storage, Farnsworth’s dream has come true. Only the TV is on your computer or even your phone.

Since March 26, 2009 YouTube has offered a broad aggregation of videos from the nation’s accredited 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities, all free. The project was undertaken by a tribe of volunteer YouTubies.

Philo Farsnworth, self-taught  genius, would have loved it.

[Check this sample clip featuring Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, MD from the University of California San Diego. She lectures on the topic of the apparent relationship between obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. As she takes pains to point out, no causation has yet been proven.]

Informal Learning on the Street Where You Live

July 2, 2008

\Imagine if thought balloons appeared above people’s heads that told you exactly what they were willing to teach someone like you. 

  • Maybe the gentle-looking white haired fellow you pass in the aisle at the grocery store could teach you about the miracle of forgiveness.
  • Maybe the tattooed and be-pierced kid at the library texting her boyfriend could help you work through a thorny CSS challenge.
  • Maybe the well-dressed woman in the Lexus in front of you could help you understand the Upanishads. Or, belly dancing. 

Now it appears that a Seattle outfit called TeachStreet is doing just that. (Though not exactly with thought balloons).


Presently in beta, TeachStreet links together teachers who are willing and presumably able to teach students in Seattle. They claim to have in their database 25,000 classes, teachers, coaches, instructors and schools just in the Emerald City.


Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re a student who wants to learn, say, conversational Italian. You plug in the term ‘Italian language’ into the site’s search engine. When I did 86 results popped-up. Currently you can narrow the search by geography, class size, ability, schedule, and price.


I selected personalized lessons, evening classes, and beginner status, which left me with a more manageable six results. I clicked on the one taught by a Valentina Preziuso… whose name sounds wonderfully Italian… and it took me to her biographical area. So far Valentina has yet to post anything about her background. There’s a review section as well, but for Valentina that too is blank.


At the page for the class, I found a link to Amazon products and a Google Ads column, as well as information about the class and cost, times, days, etc.  


The class and teacher profiles are free to registered users.


TeachStreet is the brainstorm of Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO, and a director at Amazon from 1998- 2004, who was, as his bio says, a driving force behind Amazon’s marketplace platform.


So far TeachStreet is only in Seattle, but plans are in the works to expand the concept to “San Philayorkizona,” the website reports.


The Buddha is supposed to have said; “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”


Time will tell if there are enough students ready for 25,000 teachers in Seattle.