Thoughts on Skillshare's Penny Conference

Last week I went to Skillshare’s Penny Conference about re-imagining education for the 21st century. Here are my reactions to the some of the ideas that caught my interest:

Michael Karnjanaprakorn, founding CEO of Skillshare, opened the day with a talk that drew a distinction between learning and education. His company is built on the idea that in the information age, people don’t value a highly-trained expert lecturing at the front of a room as much as they used to. Education today is de-centralizing and democratizing. His triumphant tone here reminded me of Robert Wong at Bill’s Design Talks. Robert was really excited about the widening availability of digital design and media tools and their democratizing effect on culture.

Skillshare is an organization whose mission is to transform education by empowering teaching and democratizing learning.

A sense of triumph was also in the air when various speakers brought up themes of intellectual rebelliousness and dropping out of college. Rote learning, formulaic testing, and traditional metrics of success were denounced as the enemies of innovators and dreamers everywhere. These ideas uphold a lot of 20th century American lore surrounding the lives of entrepreneurial and creative luminaries. Our culture loves the stories surrounding famous dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I find these legends to have a strong Modernist aroma, distinctly un-21st century– the romance of a great lone genius. My hope for education in the 21st century is that our culture will put very high value on humility & interdisciplinary teamwork as weapons against big complex problems. A good team, I think, would have a healthy blend of rule-following experts and rebellious thinkers. Actually, I think both traits can coexist in one person. It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a dropout or a PhD– what matters is what you bring to the table.

Baratunde Thurston spoke about something that interested me– the idea of a porous, infinite book. He talked about his unique process of writing How To Be Black, the coolest part of which was the idea of “live-writing.” Live-writing entails publicizing a web link where anyone may view a broadcast of the author’s computer screen as he works. I think this is a really cool idea. Anybody who works on a computer could try this “open process”–a video editor, a graphic designer, an architect. Baratunde said he did not pay attention to the comment stream as he worked, however he did review the comments at the close of a writing session. I like how this, as a gesture, takes some of the mystique out of creative work. Now that the book is printed, he uses Twitter provocations and other web means to keep the conversation flowing and open. He views the final book as porous– not a finite, bound object. In the 21st century, printing no longer implies that a book is complete. I like this infinity idea because it feels truer to the way people really interact with a text–always citing, discussing, debating, revising.

Zach Sims of Codecademy argues that in the 21st century, “understanding algorithms” ought to be added to the core skills of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.


I liked what Charles Best had to say about “pushing intelligence out to the edge.” The phrase comes from the security industry, referring to advanced device networks where a non-central node in the network can make intelligent decisions without querying the central node. Charles is excited about web platforms like Kickstarter, Etsy and his own website, Donors Choose, because they jettison the traditional gatekeepers and middlemen of cultural production, pushing [cultural] intelligence out to the public, which allows good ideas to come to life more easily and quickly. Charles pointed out another great outcome of pushing intelligence out to the edge, which is that “solutions can come from the front lines.” Many good examples of this phenomenon are included in our Design With The Other 90% exhibition series. The 90% series features lots of design solutions for different problems that originate from the end users themselves. There’s no need for products and services to come down from on high (governments, large companies, powerful institutions) any more. If you are interested in this topic, check out the Social Impact Design Summit we held early this year.

In sum, decentralization of ideas, learning, and teaching was the major theme of the day.

I thought the day could have been even better if someone had discussed an important group of concepts: prestige, class & social mobility. If we’re really going to re-imagine education for the 21st century in an inclusive, sweeping way (which was, I think, what the conference organizers intended) it’s important to keep aware of the different meanings “education” has for all. There’s a powerful association in our culture between education and social mobility. Adam Braun’s talk about building schools in Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala did introduce the idea of access, but nobody made the more challenging mindset leap–it’s the shorter leap–to the complicated, insidious disparities in our own city. The opportunity to affiliate oneself with the status and high regard of a respected institution is a privilege. I think it’s a mistake to excessively glamorize an informal educational ethos without acknowledging the reality that going out on a rebellious limb is most comfortable for those with an economic safety net. Hacking education is great, but the traditional currencies of prestige and status can’t be omitted from a conversation about transforming education for all.

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About Katie Shelly

Katie was Media Technologist from 2011-2015 as part of the inaugural Labs team under Seb Chan. She's since left museumzone to pursue a Master's in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island in Manchester, England. You can always catch her latest doings on Twitter as @interkatie.

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