2017 Goals – Books, Documentaries, Podcasts, a Think Tank, and Three Words

For the last several years, I’ve shared my personal/professional goals publicly on this blog. It is adds a little accountability. It provides a chance to connect with others who might have similar goals. Then there is also the thought that it might encourage others to think about clarifying their goals for the new year. So, this article is my continuation of that tradition.

Before looking to the present, I’ll also provide a quick view of the past. I don’t technically set goals at the beginning of each year, although I do establish priority projects. For example, last year I had six books as priority projects and I finished three of them, with two more nearly finished. I ended up putting the sixth one on hold, as I’m refining and expanding my thinking on the subject (for those who read my 2016 version of this article, I’m referring to the digital badges book which I expect to turn into a broader look at credentials). Instead of traditional goals, I’ve been going with three words to focus my efforts and thinking for the upcoming year. In 2014, my three words were flourish, bless and befriend. In 2015, they were author, impact and family. The three words for 2016 were write, design and launch. Yet, I’m not sure that I did much launching in 2016. I did more writing than ever.

I didn’t achieve what I hoped in 2016 in some ways.  I really wanted to publish more books by the end of 2016, but I only managed to publish three (2 single author and one edited work), with two additional full manuscripts complete (one on self-directed learning and another on feedback and the limitations of letter grades). One of those manuscripts should be published by Wipf and Stock in early 2016. I’m still seeking a publisher for that fifth book.

My continuing education focus for 2016 certainly occupied a great deal of time and effort with mixed results. I piloted the Moonshot Edu show and, while I learned a great deal and received some positive feedback, opted to phase that out after we finished what we committed to, an 8 episode pilot. I started a book on badges but decided to put it on hold for some other projects. Then there is the start of Birdhouse Learning Labs, which is still on my radar but remains a place holder. If you happen to be interested, you can read a bit more about these in my 2016 goals and plans. Yet, looking back, I am proud of the work and results on the publishing front, while recognizing that some of the other experiments were educational but ultimately didn’t produce the desired results. So, I start fresh in 2017, building on past ideas and venturing into new domains. With that in mind, here are my tentative plans for 2017.


January through May of 2017 involves a sabbatical that will take me and my family to Middletown, Connecticut while I serve as the Jonathan D. Harber Fellow in Education and Entrepreneurship. I’m excited to teach a course on education as social entrepreneurship where students have the chance to identify a pressing educational need or promising opportunity and pitch a solution in the form of a startup or some other effort. While teaching that class, I will also spend those five months working on a new book on this same topic.


I have a growing list of books that I hope to write and publish. I plan to finish up on a couple of book projects from 2016, publishing Adventures in Self-Directed Learning as well as a book tentatively called Learning Beyond Letter Grades (inspired by the MOOC that I led on that subject a couple of years ago). The first drafts of both are in progress. Then I have a book with the working title of Digitized that will explore how digital culture impacts our spiritual lives, our beliefs, and values, and what we can do about it. That book will more explicitly explore spiritual themes as shaped by my Lutheran Christian faith. With that in mind, I also hope to start on a book that profiles a variety of different models of Lutheran education around the world (online schools, project-based learning schools, schools in post-communist countries, schools in communist countries, classical schools, etc.), but that is likely a project that will extend into 2018.  That will likely be among the more time-consuming projects.

Then I have a few other books that I hope to finish or at least make significant progress on in 2017. One is a collection of fictional stories that describe “awakenings” of teachers, parents, and students to promising possibilities in education. Another is of particular interest and it will likely be a co-authored book. I’m tentatively calling it Self-Education and the American Dream. In that book, we will highlight a series of self-educated well-known figures in American history while also building what I hope to b a compelling case for the importance of self-education in a free republic like the United States. I am still prioritizing these along with a couple of other pending writing projects, so publication of the texts mentioned here may occur in 2017 or 2018.

Ideas and Storytelling on the Screen

Then there is a growing and new interest. I’ve kept this one quiet as I’m definitely a novice. However, I”m beginning to explore the possibility of venturing into documentary film making. I’d like to explore this as a new way to examine pressing issues and promising opportunities in education. I’m still not quite sure about the form that this will take, but I have committed to learning by doing, so I am already in the research and scheduling phase of my first attempt at a documentary, an exploration of the letter grade system in education. It will explore the history, why letter grades persist, critiques of letter grades, arguments in favor of letter grades, along with an exploration of alternatives that people embrace in education. I’m excited to tell this story, and my hope is that it will be a useful tool for discussion among people who are interested in exploring promising practices in education. I already have a tentative lineup of incredible interviews with some of the leading and more insightful minds on this subject. I plan to complete as many interviews as possible during my fall sabbatical in 2017. Granted that all goes well with that, I will move on to the next phase over the summer.

I want to have the documentary finished by August or September of 2017, but again, I’m learning as I go, and I may well run into some glitches along the way. Many documentaries take $30,000 – $300,000 to create, and I’m going for a much more modest self-funded budget, while also striving for a high quality end product. I want to be as hands on as possible with this first project, so I will be doing at least part of the directing and producing myself, while hopefully connecting with some great existing talent in the world of documentaries. I’m still learning about how to connect with talent to help with video and audio of shots as well as the post-production work. This will make for a fascinating learning journey at the least.

Birdhouse Learning Labs

You may recall reference to a LLC that I started in 2016 called Birdhouse Learning Labs. You will likely see that name show up in 2017. Depending upon what I learn from this first documentary project, I also have a few other ideas at work that I think would benefit from a documentary format.  These documentaries are likely to be some of the first products coming out of that startup. I’m also looking at starting a boutique publishing arm for BLL. As an academic, going through traditional publishing routes is still important for me, but I’d love to experiment with starting my own publishing arm that still includes a robust editing and some sort of peer review process. I’m planing to figure some of this out in 2017 and get started with it.

Think Tank

Some subscribers to my newsletter already know a little bit about this, but currently distinct from Birdhouse Learning Labs are the early explorations of a possible think tank devoted to championing some of the key ideas that I reference in my book, What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Education. Much of my writing and the new interest in documentaries can fit in this work, but I would like to product at least two quality whitepapers in 2017 as well. I’ve been experimenting with one right now that examines community concerns related to what is often referred to as a “brain drain”, top college graduates leaving for other parts of the country. That project is not high on the priority list in the first quarter of 2016, but I plan to return to it later in 2017.


In 2016 I experimented with the MoonshotEdu show, an exploration of the fun, forecasts, foibles, and frontiers in education. That was a great experiment from which I learned much, and I was humbled by the ongoing interest of viewers. Yet, it was an 8 episode pilot that concluded. Now in 2017 I’m ready to bring it back, keeping the same name but now refining it as a more traditional podcast. I already recorded and published the first episodes and it is on iTunes. It is also available through SoundCloud, on the MoonshotEdu Facebook Page, and on the MoonshotEdu Website. I welcome your partnership in spreading the word about this. I will be refining the technical quality of the recordings as I move forward with this. I have decent equipment, but I’m still learning about how to optimize the sound along with developing a distinct and authentic style for the show. If you listen to the first episode, those familiar with my work will not be surprised by what you hear, but I hope that you will be inspired and aided in exploring the possibilities. I’m also looking for people to contribute questions, stories, and comments that I will gladly incorporate into future shows. You can do that with the link at the top of the MoonshotEdu show, but sharing something on the Facebook page, or by emailing me through the Facebook email contact button.

Three Words for 2017

Then there is the final part of my 2017 plans, the three words to guide and influence my work. Last year the words were write, design and launch. This year I remain focused on some of the same ideas. As such, my three words for this year are curiosity, creation, and compassion. I intend to be deeply curious about lire and learning, allowing that curiosity to take me in any number of directions. This first word isn’t about production or results. It is about getting back to the love of learning and being deeply curious about this world and the people in it. Creation is an extension of past efforts. Writing is a passion and will continue to be a significant part of what I do, but I will also be venturing into new and different forms of creation, expression, and storytelling; formats like documentaries, podcasts, and more. Finally, the third word for 2017 is compassion. From its Latin roots, this is about about suffering with or suffering together. It is about connecting with others, about not hiding from struggles, conflict, or suffering. Even as I invest much time in creative endeavors and being curious, I aspire for a 2017 that is closely connected to learning what it means to live with compassion.

Is There a Dark Side to Setting Goals?

Is there a dark side to setting goals?

I like goals. In fact, when I turned forty a number of years ago, I set 1600 goals that I wanted to accomplish by the end of my 40s. I have goals about fitness, reading, writing, different types of foods that I wanted to eat, travel, personal finance, education projects and so much work. At work, I challenge each individual and team to have quarterly goals. At the end of each year, people at work set goals for the next year and review their progress of goals from the previous year. Goals are a significant part of my life and work.

They are also a large part of education today. While we have nuanced definitions of words like objectives, outcomes, standards, competencies and proficiencies…there is a goal-oriented nature to all of them. Ultimately, we are setting goals for people to achieve. There are goals for educators. There are goals for students. There are goals for individual schools.

Yet, the concept of goal setting is actually a type of technology, and as frequent readers of my blog come to think, every technology has affordances and limitations. Even the most positive and promising tools, methods, strategies, and technologies have a dark side.

Goals are no different. While I have every intention to continue using goals in my life, I would like to point out three important limitations or downsides to goals. As such, I am a champion for goal-setting but I also believe int the value of creating goal-free zones in my life and in learning organizations. Consider the following limitations and the implications for how we design learning communities.

Specific goals can inhibit creativity and innovation.

When you are focused on achieving a goal, you are just that…focused. Focus is a powerful tool. It keeps us from getting distracted. It helps us make progress is a discrete or specific area. It helps us prioritize, setting aside that which does not relate directly to the goal. This is powerful and helpful at times, but it can also inhibit creativity and innovation at other times. Sometimes we benefit from meandering, allowing our curiosity to draw us near and far, surfing from one idea to the next, and mixing diverse experiences and ideas. This less focused thinking, ideation, brainstorming, meandering, and experimenting can surface new ideas and possibilities. It can help us see things that the more goal-focused person might miss.

Have you ever been so caught up in an idea that you tuned out everyone and everything around you? Maybe you were even driving at the time. Afterward, you don’t even remember much of what you saw or did during the drive. It might have been very productive thinking. At the same time, you might have also missed out on an amazing scenery or something else noteworthy. This is true when it comes to the benefits and limitations of goal-less learning too.

“Goal setting motivates unethical behavior.”

There is research about this. While setting goals doesn’t make you unethical, there is an interesting element to this. Goals motivate and drive us to want to achieve something. When things get in our way, we can be tempted to cut corners or disregard the rules on our mission to reach a goal. This happens when students are driven to get an “A” on a test more than they are driven to learn. It happens when teachers are driven to get the highest possible student test scores. It happens in many other areas as well. Goal setting doesn’t always bring out the best in us. This is why our core values and convictions must play an even more central role than goals in our lives and learning organizations. Who we are and how we get there is, I contend, as or more important than the goals that we achieve.

Missing the Big Picture

Similar to the first limitation, we are often guided to set specific goals. We are also advised to set smaller goals that lead to larger ones. This can be helpful. However, if we are not careful, it can also lead to a view where we see the trees but miss the forest. We get our little piece of the puzzle but miss how our piece fits into something larger. That might be motivating and rewarding, but the big picture gives us context, meaning, purpose, and a sense of mission. These are important in education, so we want to find ways to not let goal setting focus our efforts exclusively on the narrow and specific to the point that people might miss the larger and meaning-rich picture of the what and why.

I’m sure that there are plenty of other limitations with goals too, but these three are a good starting point. Goals are good and helpful in education, but like so many things, they have their limitations. With this in mind, how might we design learning communities that leverage the benefits of goals while not falling prey to these less favorable possibilities?

2016 Goals: Life & Learning in a Connected World

Failed plans should not be interpreted as a failed vision. Visions don’t change, they are only refined. Plans rarely stay the same, and are scrapped or adjusted as needed. Be stubborn about the vision, but flexible with your plan. – John Maxwell

2015 was a good year. It was not an easy year, but it was a good one. I learned a great deal, had rich conversations with many fascinating people, wrote, taught, advised, consulted, failed fast, grappled with some intriguing challenges, presented, designed, thought, helped lead a wonderful set of teams and broke new ground in my thinking about the emerging future of education. I did not reach all of my goals, at least not on the desired timeline, so some of them will expand into 2016. I had a few setbacks recently but, God willing, I will work through those and make good progress on new goals for 2016. With that in mind, here is my combined reflection about 2015 along with some working goals for 2016.

  1. Educational Innovation – In 2015, I had a series of presentations on, “The Calling of Higher Education Innovation”, starting with one to a group of University Presidents of Christian liberal arts colleges around the United States. It was at the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, a perfect spot to talk about higher education innovation, as it was only 30 miles from the original Black Mountain College and the experimental Black Mountain SOLE that has since closed but I still consider an important experiment that will generate important benefits still to come. I later presented a related keynote at the Distance Learning Administrator’s Conference on the beautiful Jekyll Island, Georgia, allowing me to further refine my thinking on the subject. This set the stage for a year of writing about educational innovation that turned into a 50,000-word manuscript. The tentative title for this forthcoming book is Missional Moonshots: Insights & Inspiration in Educational Innovation. It is an expansion of many ideas expressed on this blog over the years. Think of it as a blend of two non-existent books: Chicken Soup for the Educational Entrepreneur’s Soul and Tips & Tricks for the Educational Innovator.
  2. Assessment Innovation – I enjoyed consulting for a few clients this year on topics related to assessment innovation and learning analytics. That led to refining a manuscript that I also plan to publish as a shorter book in 2016 that is tentively called Learning Beyond Letter Grades: Exploring Promising Practices in Assessment. Some of you might recognize this as the name of a short course that I taught for Educause/ELI in 2015 and ran as a MOOC in 2014. I am very excited about this forthcoming book because it is a healthy blend of philosophical musing about assessment and grading along with a collection of practical chapters that will assist educators in conducting a solid assessment makeover for individual courses or entire programs. I’m also planning to run an online continuing education course on this topic, a series of 3 webinars starting in February. You can learn more about that at CUW Online.
  3. Birdhouse Learning Labs – In April of 2015, I was invited to give a presentation for Young Entrepreneur’s Week in Milwaukee, WI. I spoke on the promise and possibility of educational entrepreneurship, making the case that a spirit of entrepreneurship is a very good thing for education and that socially minded education startups can play an important role in education reform. It was a persuasive presentation to at least one person…me, because, with a colleague, I launched Birdhouse Learning Labs. Right now it is just a placeholder but it is an entity with a personally compelling mission. “We are on a mission to support, celebrate and create unconventional solutions to education’s greatest challenges.” I’ve yet to decide on the what and how, but the why is clear to me. I love education, but I still consider myself a writer and designer at heart, and I’m interested in using 2016 and beyond to turn more ideas into viable and useful educational products and services.
  4. Book on Digital Badges – I continued to write about various aspects of digital badges for learning in 2015 and presented on them at the U.S. Distance Learning Association and DevLearn. As part of the International Day of Badges, I put together a blog post highlighting over 50 articles that I’ve written about badges over the years. That led me to collect those essays and do some heavy editing. It is my goal and hope to publish that as a book by the end of 2016 / early 2017…possibly sooner depending upon my other book projects.
  5. A Book on Self-Directed Learning – In January 2015, I ran my third MOOC, this one called Adventures in Blended Learning. After that, I ran another one later in the year called Adventures in Self-Blended Learning, a look at the growth of self-directed learners in otherwise traditional learning organizations. That also turned into a developing manuscript that I plan to publish as a short book in 2016. I’m debating between going with a traditional publisher, an independent publishers or self-publishing for this one. After all, what better type of book to self-publish than one about self-directed learning. Regardless, it is my goal to have this out in 2016 as well.
  6. 10 Critical Issues in Contemporary Education is becoming a book. – I write 2-4 blog post every week, and responses to each one are different. When I wrote one that summarized my convictions about the ten most important issues in education, I was not prepared for how it resonated with people, getting shared on social media far more than most of my articles. I received countless emails and encouragements about it, and based upon that feedback, I decided to expand on these ten themes by writing a book on the subject. That book will also be a major project in 2016, with the goal of publishing in late 2016 or 2017. After all, if you have been counting, I have high goals for writing in 2016.
  7. The Pedagogy of Faith book – Not everyone who follows my blog knows about my background in Christian education, but it is an important part of my identity and personal formation. I have immense gratitude for the role that such schools played in my life, and I considered it a great honor to serve as the editor for Concordia Publishing House when they asked me to assist with a first of its kind book called The Pedagogy of Faith. It is an unprecedented collection of essays that explore everything from the influence of technology on faith formation to topics like project-based learning, service learning, and child development. This is scheduled to release in the spring of 2016, likely around May or June.
  8. The Moonshot Edu Show – It was started on a whim with a colleague and it was great fun. It was far from a polished show but we learned a great deal through our pilot and experimental episodes. We interviewed some fascinating people and difference-makers, connected with amazing people around the world, and had great fun exploring the “Hashtag Headlines” of 2015. I’m still deciding upon the future of the show, but there is a good chance that it will restartin the first quarter of 2016. I’ll be sure to share news here if that happens, but you can also check out the dedicated site.
  9. Identity Management, Reputation Systems, and More – Amid a series of readings and conversations, my thinking about credentials and digital badges took an important turn. There was a marriage of my work in this area with my work and writing about self-directed learning. More than ever, I am committed to promoting, creating and normalizing multiple learning pathways as well as means for individuals to “show their work” and represent their achievements and accomplishments that are not tied to formal degrees and University credentials. This showed up in my article about learning pathways. It was also evident in my article about digital badges in the special issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Expect more on this in 2016.
  10. A Calling Confirmed – Perhaps you noticed a trend here. I love to design and create ideas, and I love to write about them. I thoroughly enjoy advising clients on topics related to educational innovation and education policy. Yet, regardless of the typos or sloppy grammar that you might find in my blog at times, writing is one of my callings. Writing, connecting with people through my writing; and sharing ideas that benefit other mission-minded educators, educational innovators and social entrepreneurs is a personal calling. I came to recognize and embrace that even more in 2015, and it is my hope and personal goal to make it a distinguishing feature of my work and scholarship in 2016. I am committed to making writing a priority and sharing my best (and often unconventional) ideas about education with the world. God willing, that will be in the form of published books, this blog, some and other emerging writing, research and design opportunities. I am humbled by the affirmations and encouragements that I’ve received from so many about the ideas that I share here and elsewhere. For me, borrowing from the Isaac Asimov quote, I’m just thinking with my fingers.
  11. Continuing Education – I love to teach, mentor and consult. I especially love it outside of the confines of formal degree programs. So, I have aggressive goals for offering a myriad of continuing education offerings in 2016. Look for potential news about webinars, workshops, and other formats. I have sketched for over 30 possible webinars around 6 different themes ranging from a “Digital Influencers Academy” to a Continuing Education Certificate on Designing Digital Badge Systems for Learning” and “Planning for Self-Directed Learning.” These are drafts, but it is my goal to bring at least some of them to reality this year.
  12. Three Words – For the last several years, I quit setting New Year’s Resolutions, opting instead for three words to guide and inspire my work and thinking. My three words for 2016 will be write, design, and launch. Expect more writing from in my multiple forms. Expect me to design and create models, frameworks, strategies, products and services. Also expect me to have a strong bent toward launching at least some of these into the world in more formal ways. I live in a world of ideas, and that is unlikely to change, but 2016 is also about doing things with those ideas.

Global Impact: Dreams, Educational Innovation, Airsickness, & Landing on the Moon

moon-landing-60543_64066 years. That is the time between the Wright Brother’s first flight and the 1969 Apollo 11 landing on the moon. 66 years is also the time between 2015 and the year they invented the airsickness bags that sit in the pocket in front of you on the plane. While there have been subtle changes to the latter innovation, it pales in comparison to the rapid evolution of first flight to landing on the moon. So, why is it that innovation skyrockets (pun intended) in some areas but gradually develops in others?

1) Capturing the Imagination

The first one compels people to imagine and dream, and that is a powerful lever for innovation. The latter addresses a real need, but who gets excited about designing the next innovation to help capture the result of mid-air emesis? There are probably a few people, but the other was enough to generate completely new fields of study.

2) Meeting a Need or Embarking on an Adventure

We need simple and practical innovations, at least we can and do benefit from them. However, one taps into a thirst for adventure, discovery, and “going boldly where no man has gone before.”

3) Leverage a Broad Community of Innovators Toward A Compelling Vision

The first one is an example of a grand dream, large enough to create an entire community of people who gathered to do something about it. It didn’t start overnight. It came from centuries of musings about flight, and the build up to the moon landing relied on many smaller innovations. It was not just the grand vision of flight. It took a diverse community of innovators who contributed everything from the communication technologies to the work of rocket scientists. Yet, without that central and driving vision, these micro-innovations may have never come together to result in such an accomplishment.

4) Find the the One that Leads

These two innovations that I mentioned go together. Who needs an airsickness bag if you can’t fly? And yet, the innovation around that 66 year-old airsickness bag is not such a small innovation after all, not if you look at the broader problem, that of airsickness. Look at the innovations around motion sickness. Consider antiemetic medicines created over the last half century. Consider the scientific knowledge gained about emesis since the invention of the first airsickness bag. Yet, it is clear that one of these innovations is inspired by a grand dream. The other helps address practical challenges along the way.

Educational Applications

Now what if we apply these simple (and maybe too obvious) lessons to educational innovation. I’ll offer four.

1) Lead with a Grand Dream

Before you start investing in countless tablets, technologies or new models for education; clarify your dream. Is it big? It is worthy of your life’s work? Is it clear and compelling? Is it capable of rallying a group of diverse people to accomplish it? If so, get to work. You might be the one to lay the groundwork of exploring the possibilities. You might be one who helps make one or more of the possibilities a reality. Either way, use what you have to contribute to the dream.

2) Focus on the Grand Goal

It is easy for us to invest the bulk of our energy working on the educational equivalent of airsickness bags, small innovations that make educational life a little more convenient or bearable. In fact, it is possible to spend an entire life doing that without realizing it. Then there are others who are willing to “shoot for the moon,” to dream grand visions of what could be in education, ignoring the naysayers, gaining inspiration from the possibilities and the nobility of the vision, and persistently driving toward that goal. Along the way, you will likely need many of those micro-innovations. Embrace them, learn about them, but keep putting them in the context of the grand goal. As Mark Twain once wrote, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

3) Invite Others to Join You

You don’t get to the moon on your own. The Wright Brothers represent an important step in that direction. So do countless others. Find inspiration, support, and encouragement from a growing group of others who have a shared vision. Many of the grandest innovations in history have this in common. We also see this with some of the boldest visions for education today. They build a small community around this shared vision, and it very often spreads into something bigger.

4) Embrace Your Place

It is hard to tell what role you play on a truly grand vision. Sometimes you are the Da Vinci, sketching out possibilities hundreds of years before they happen. Sometimes you are a pair of brothers building early prototypes inspiring a generation of others who will take your work to an unimaginable next level. Sometimes you are the one building that first rocket. You might be part of the support crew for the first launch. You might also be the first one to step foot on the moon. Sometimes it is hard to tell which one you’ll be. Embrace the dream, commit to the goal, identify and use your gifts in pursuit of it, and enjoy your unique role. Hopefully, one day you will be able to sit back and take pride in the small or significant ways that you helped make that happen.