The Mythical Unicorn of Ed.Tech

01/29/2015 | By Courtney Francis

This post originally appeared on

The following is a guest post from Tim Cook, founder and director of the Saxifrage School.


With so many projects happening, so much money being spent, and so little time, it seems important (for my personal clarity) to take a moment and try to summarize exactly what we are all building towards, or should be. It’s what I’m trying to build, some way or another, over the next 10 years. I want to describe this mythical unicorn in a single sentence. The mythical unicorn is: An opendecentralized platform on which communities of people can create, curate, and browse an expansive map of local learning opportunities and digital resources that, as they learn, form a personal archive of proven skills and experiences. Okay, that’s it. The following is a glossary where I do my favorite thing and parse the sentence.


When I say “open”, I refer as much to the process of building the unicorn as the final product itself. Yes, this platform needs to be open-sourced and fully accessible and built to be shared, but even more urgent is the need to build this collaboratively out in the open. If we are going to build this, we need to collaborate, not duplicate. Too much of the important work happening in this space is siloed or poorly documented. Resources are limited and the goal is huge.


I’m not quite sure how to best build this in a decentralized way, but I’m convinced of its necessity. A decentralized platform is more equitable, does not limit user agency, and is less subject to problematic issues of privacy and control, etc. See the other values of the indieweb for inspiration. I would love to hear ideas and start a discussion on how we map and curate the wealth of the world’s learning resources in a decentralized framework. Maybe the answer is some sort of hybrid in which resource data is held centrally, but available to a federation of regional hubs… These hubs consist of thousands of learners who each have their own private webspace where they are hosting their personal learning archive and sharing out as they see fit… …Like we all have our own digital bookshelves, except they are knowledge maps and they are all connected … !? Maybe? Lots to think about. My thoughts are weak in this area.


Okay, I lied. There are actually two unicorns. That’s right, two mythical creatures. And the second is actually more important: the real communities of people and places that actually use this platform and its resources. These learning communities exist already in our schools and workplaces around specific majors or careers, but they should increasingly form organically around locally important subjects and problems. Projects like City of Learning and others are building frameworks in which a learner’s path is not driven by the limitations of their schools, but by their interests. If we start to use the entire city (or region + internet) as our campus, we can begin to think of learning beyond single institutions. If this happens, we will have an exciting moment to consider what learning communities could look like in “the real world”, outside of the peer-driven, often monocultural communities of our schools. Thoreau says that “we are all schoolmasters and our schoolhouse is the universe.” What do learning communities look like if learning moves in this direction? Meetups on steroids?


Perhaps the hardest part of all of this is to curate all the resources; it’s what a lot of smart people have been talking about as the next Herculean task for us denizens of the internet. We’ve created all this stuff, now let’s sort it all out and map it into a beautiful and usable network of learning resources. Google’s Director of Technology, Craig Silverstein admits the limitations of current technology: “My guess is about 300 years until computers are as good as, say, your local reference library in doing search, but we can make slow and steady progress, and maybe one day we’ll get there.” We need today’s librarians not to work as functional administrators of content, but as creative curators who help define what is best and sort out the complex relationships of resources. They have to do the powerful acts that Google cannot and may never be fully able to do. Just as the dark age monks before them, we desperately need librarians to protect, curate and hold aloft worthwhile knowledge. In the face of the barbarian hoards they were necessary because of the dearth of texts. Today it is the opposite. We need librarians as lighthouses amidst the floods of available information.

expansive map

The aggregate of this work done by librarians, content experts, and regular humans will be an expansive map that organizes all of the best learning resources and their relationships. Really, all of us have already been drafted into this work as curators and librarians. If the map could be made expansive enough, a 4th grader playing with legos who just came home from a field trip at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater could visualize every step along the way to mastery in the field of architecture. And they could start right then. This pre-requisite progress mapping helps to further drive home the importance of core skills like mathematics that, too often, feel disconnected from more direct, work-related pursuits. “Oh, so if I want to be an architect I need to master Trigonometry and Physics…and…” finalfantasy Rendering of Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X The magic of the “skill tree” is best captured and named in some of the most intricate video games. The Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X provides the player with a way to visualize a series of decisions for their development. Where should you start on the grid? Which direction should you go? If you choose a certain skill set, what areas are you forsaking? This sort of cost-benefit analysis that recognizes the opportunity cost implicit in all education is a powerful act that, while common in games, usually occurs with less intention and less tools in the development of real persons.

local and digital

On this map, there will be two primary types of content: local learning opportunities and digital resources. One exciting outcome of this would be the deconstructing of online courses. Instead of a self-contained silo of learning content, the “MOOC” could be broken apart into separate nodes of content with mapped relationships. The online “course” could become a specific pathway on the expansive map that is supported by an expert and a community of learners. Courses will fade into the background and function as a curatorial (and relational) layer on top of the great resources being created by experts. After all, we’ve always known that resources like Hack Design have always been better than anything on Coursera. The really successful “” platform will be the one that recognizes that technology is inherently neutral and that, when it comes to engaging a learner, relationships and learning communities will always trump content distribution and teaching machines. The platform must do this by taking on the important, but very complex job of pulling together both the digital resources and the entire social structure of education: workshops, volunteering, mentors, games, apprenticeships, courses, meetups, etc. etc. etc.


Imagine you are in some magical library of the future browsing poetry books in the stacks. Imagine that, when in those same poetry “stacks”, you could see instantly, what “books” you had read, what poems you liked or wrote about, and a portfolio of your own poems that resulted from your study. The library becomes more than a reservoir of content, but a data and planning center for the development of your mind. Imagine if such a map existed in three (four? fifty?) dimensions and included all subjects, displaying the process of development and connections between nodes. Again, some nodes could be whole texts, while others could be short sections on “This is how you learn X”, or an in-person local workshop. kahn Progress on a Khan Academy Knowledge Map Within this knowledge map, you will have the ability to plan courses of study, follow courses that others have crafted, or just learn everything within a certain content area. Perhaps most excitingly, long-time students will be able to look back at their progress over many years and see a serious portfolio of everything they have ever read, watched, created, and learned. Every assignment, quiz, and essay could be looked at individually, or in aggregate to give students a picture of their personal development thus far. If used to its fullest potential, a student would be able to see the lifelong progression of their talents in a snap-shot and the path they took to get there. They could then curate their personal portfolio and knowledge map and share it with the public as part of their CV or application for schools.


This, of course, brings us to just exactly how the public knows that your map contains proven skills and knowledge. The answer lies in some sort of data-rich external endorsement related to your learning experiences. This data-rich credential has, to date, most capably taken the form of digital badges. These badges can provide the data needed to help learners find their way to their next learning experience, to make their personal portfolio substantive, and to provide the credentials necessary for the public to trust and properly value that portfolio. thoughts? what’s your unicorn?