Table of Contents

digiacademy's digital palette of tools and instruction for full digital literacy

eCROP: The Basic Idea

All life is problem solving. Karl Popper, 1991

The eCROP site provides an academy, philosophy, strategy, guidance to sets of tool drawers of apps and instruction for eCROP digital literacy, real 21st century literacy that empowers 21st century problem solving development and educational, cultural and economic expansion for the era of cyberspace. At the heart of the CROP idea is a crop of questions producing a crop of solutions. Each generates the other through knowledge of numerous content areas. Done effectively, this process enables individuals, groups and cultures to thrive.

What does it mean to thrive? It is one of the central cultural questions that emerges in the context of any age. Once again in human history the cultural landscape is working through a major turning point and its economic and other cultural systems are undergoing vast changes. In a relatively short period of time, an agrarian and then an industrial culture shifted to a knowledge centered culture. In the last blink of an historical eye, information age culture then shifted into cyberspace's more global thinking about resolving problems through inventing and developing ideas empowered by rapidly evolving digital tools. Educational systems in turn have always followed such changes to fill the needs of a new culture but a consensus on a new educational paradigm has not yet emerged (Rovai, 2004). What is becoming clearer is that the gap between cyberculture and educational systems that commonly focus on the recall of facts is vast. Around what ideas could a re-visioned educational system center that would maximize the value of the new culture? The CROP or eCROP site poses a number of strategic and practical answers to such a question.

Quoting Karl Popper, one the leading philosophers of the 20th century, "all life is problem solving". Without our ability to question and solve, our species would not be here. The steady increase of climate variability over the last several million years played a central role in the evolution and extinction of numerous hominid species, leading to homo sapiens, us, as the last species standing. Though the vagaries of weather have largely been defeated by invention of modern tools and resources, many other factors have picked up the charge for change, leading the ever faster pace of our current existence. exponential curve going upwardThe exponential curve is a strikingly elegant symbol of the accelerating nature of 21st century life (clickable graphic on the left). Understanding the complex implications and the accelerating problems created by this simple symbol on the left is critical for surviving and thriving in the new age (Houghton, 2008^).

At the heart of human thriving is the question, so elegantly expressed by the symbol of the question mark. large question mark symbolTo be able to pose and shape a question is to not only demonstrate the capacity to discover a problem but to provide a mind that is prepared to learn and change. A question represents a mind that can scan for change, for what is new and what possibilities that newness might pose. Our 21st century culture is already a 'perfect storm' of problems and disconnected and overwhelming quantities of raw data that need the focus of questions in order to find effective results. As questions are the seeds of solutions, the art of questioning needs nourishing by every means possible. The quality of any crop of questions that range throughout our higher order thinking skills is not only a measure of the health and capacity of an individual but of the health of all kinds of communities from homes to classrooms to teams to larger organizations. Communities of whatever scale are the means by which we find, rework and share our harder questions for which this web site poses the CROP model.

To deal with life's problems, the basic idea of the CROP model and supporting web sites is to provide the ideas and the education about our digital tools for individuals and teams to better find (discover and share), frame (think about, shape, refine) and solve problems. CROP addresses the need through an overarching strategy for problem solving that fits all ages, topics and content areas.

Thriving always happens in a context. We work with what we have and what we know. In this new age, the greater our digital literacy, the greater our unprecedented new capacity for communities to resolve our problems (CROP). The CROP Web site is a set of supporting digital strategies, methods, tools, library of resources, and instruction for problem processing in our ever more nonlinear 21st century.

model with question mark at center surrounded by problem sharing, shaping and solvingQuestions drive thinking. To better follow this process means learning more about the emerging strategic thinking model that undergirds the global idea processor commonly known as the World Wide Web, represented by the model of the graphic on the right. In this model, the question mark consists of three key elements: question or problem sharing: problem shaping and problem solving. As "university" means a community of learners, teachers and scholars, then for those that use it wisely, the Web has already become the world's first global and free school and university.As scholars and teachers have always known, becoming more effective in following this triangular process of problem finding, framing and solving (graphic on right) also means becoming more fluent in the literacy required to carry out problem communicating and processing more effectively in the tools of the age.

The clickable digital palette on the left is an overview of the basic composition elements of the new literacy of our digital age, discussed in detail within Breakaway Literacies (Houghton, 2010^). digital palette of many elementsIn the subtle outlines of the yin yang symbol at the heart of the digital palette the observant will see the outline of a question mark. These dividing lines outline a model of the infinite interplay between our question solving compositions and the birth of new understandings, an endless awakening of new questions and solutions. Throughout human evolution this process has been able to draw on ever more varied and powerful tools for thought, leading to the current range of digital tools for the problem solving trade, the newest literacy, digital literacy. They represent a broad palette of options for problem solving that are widely used by children and adults in the 21st century.

eCROP stands for electronic Communities Resolving Our Problems, one possible way to provide models and strategies for this process. Within this model, the term community refers to any group of 2 or more. CROP can also be seen as the application level of the emergent and chaotic paradigms that are increasingly taking center stage in our culture.

Why accent problem processing? Relentless and accelerating change in world culture (Friedman, 2007^; Gleick, 2000^; Toffler, 1970^) and growing knowledge of our limited capacity to predict (Houghton, 1989^; Smith, 2000^) requires equally relentless pursuit of ideas and systems that can address our problems and questions even faster than they emerge. This three stage conceptual model frames the three main branches at the top of the CROP web pages. This model aids two audiences that seek to spell out and solve problems, individuals and communities. CROP's design also highlights the enormous potential for an integration of school-based and work-based learning communities. Web and Net technologies provide a wide range of ways to discover, capture and share questions and problems, which are also central to the activity of learning and teaching in more formal classroom and educational systems. Addressing authentic problems, real world problems in which student effort towards solutions creates real-world answers has significant potential for greater motivation and engagement in the learning process, a long standing problem in our current formal educational systems.

To support this integration, this performance-support system pulls together a wide range genres of previous digital applications. CROP also serves as a model for the development of similar but more specialized web problem processors which could be designed for a wide range of disciplines and needs, for example, a flatworld processor, an entrepreneurship creator. CROP can also be seen as part of a new foundation for non-rival economic activity. Through problem processing we can reflectively teach ourselves and others. CROP is a new kind of application, a web based problem processor. So, use this web site to help solve any problems, including your problems and those of your community. The power of spreading problem solving ideas has been an important part of American thinking from its founding.

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea… He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature…
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813

A Personal, Classroom and Community Problem Solving Model

The great danger of the current educational system is its blindness to its strength, its ability to teach its participants to answer the problems and questions of others. Within that focus, come many weaknesses. This begs the question of how many more might become educational successes if the focus shifted from the answer to the self-initiation of questions.

Too often the learner is perceived as a kind of tape recorder, someone who must store, find and repeat facts back on demand on some form of a computer-scoreable test. In a similar way, too often the worker and employee has been seen as some kind of organic robot that simply carries out the thinking of others (Ehrenreich, 2001^; Smith, 1776^;  Taylor, 1919^;  Whyte, 1956^). Though demonstrations of the recall of information are necessary to everyday experience, the information age increasingly puts such skill at the bottom of its ladder of economic and cultural importance. Are there not other more interesting and more valuable models for teaching, learning and working?  Such activity can be found within the problem processing models for creativity, ethical and critical thinking, and inventiveness.

Such a problem based line of thought that connects real world knowledge with intellectual growth has long been pursued by educators (Kliebard, 1999^) and researchers (Strand el al, 2003^; National CBR^; PolicyOptions^). Those interested in entrepreneurship and the health and economic growth of businesses pursue a similar agenda (Kurato & Hodgetts, 2007^). The information age with its growing cognitive requirements (Darling-Hammond, 2006^) has accelerated this reassessment of learning and teaching as central cultural goals. This web site pursues educational and community reform and innovation through a focus on a goal important to every area of study and life, questioning. The acts of finding, reframing and solving problems are at the heart of economic and cultural growth in the 21st century, and therefore problem processing should be at the heart of the teaching and learning process as well.

Problem solving provides a meaningful and useful context through which CROP integrates a number of socially important agendas: preservice teacher reform, educational leadership, authentic learning, technology skills, information literacy, community building, school-parent-community building, university research that is community-based and business entrepreneurship. This site provides considerable support and guidance for increasing problem solving skills with new technologies and further integrating legacy or older technologies. But solving any given problem is just part of a larger model for problem processing. The CROP site also seeks to find and provide the right amount of support for not only solving problems but in discovering and refining the problem itself.

The CROP (Communities Resolving Our Problems) design is a system for processing problems. In concept, it is a general model for problem processing from K-12 into adulthood. It makes a clear distinction between problem processing and problem solving. Problem solving is just one sub-part of this larger problem process. The term community applies to a community of one (the community of interacting thoughts in one's own head) and to the communities of larger numbers of interacting people (within a classroom, work team, or state or nation, etc.). At one level, the CROP model works well as a personal problem solving system or model. At another level, it becomes group based, inviting collections of problem solvers to work together. CROP activities integrate problem processing with current school and community resources. This site also provides models of transition technologies, a migration path from no computer to one tele-computer (computer with Internet connection) to settings with more and more telecomputer resources. The links in the CROP model at the top of this page integrate three major features of a problem solving community: people; perspective; and process. They parallel Popper's 3 stage model for knowledge making (Firestone, 2004). These three elements can also be expressed as problem finding or sharing, framing and solving.

At this site, these features at the top of each page are labeled and expanded via the graph on the right:

The conceptual and operational skills of SUP, THINK, and LEAP form the foundations for what Professor Florida (2002) estimates are the key skills of the some 38 million workers in the United States of America that make up its rising creative class, "roughly 30 percent of the entire U.S. workforce". Each of these three major topics contains several important sub-features.  

SUP: Problem Finding/Sharing

A key part of the CROP model involves finding, collecting and sharing real and Still Unsolved Problems (SUP) and sharing contributions to their solution. Several models for stimulating problem discovery and awareness are provided. However, the act of noticing and making the nature of a problem clear is the most difficult and yet rewarding part of problem processing. Further, it is the philosophy of the CROP site that the term problem means the same thing as the term opportunity. 

The willingness to face-up-to or look for problems/opportunities is as much a challenge of attitude and spirit as it is one of knowing process and technique. One such attitude that teachers must assist is risk taking. To take an interest in something is to expose and reveal some aspect of yourself. An accompanying attitude is caring. It is very difficult to notice a problem or see it as an opportunity in an area about which you are bored or have no feeling.

 Once a sufficient level of caring has been achieved, it is difficult to suppress noticing and sharing problems. When learners discover and create a resolution to the problem themselves based on their teacher's training, this is a very empowering moment for both learners and teachers (Dewey, 1907; Dewey, 1934; Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999). Such moments provide the sustaining energy that enables learners to continue to take the risks necessary to progress (Outward Bound, 1998; Rugen, 1998; Richardson, 1994). Such moments also provide the sustaining energy to keep a teacher teaching. This activity is one of the critical elements of the creative process which also brings enthusiasm to workers and employees at many levels of economic activity (Florida, 2002^). It is this vital activity that is most often removed from learning and teaching situations. There also is an overwhelming and often conceded desire for teaching and learning to begin with a problem, not with its discovery. To skip discovery is an intuitive and seemingly time-saving simplification, but if continued without relief it ultimately becomes a life-force suppressing activity. To build the capacity to discover problems is to build the capacity to continue to resolve them (Holt, 1981; Miller, 1998). Once you have the vision to notice problems, we become aware that we are practically swimming in them. Problems might come from neighborhoods, from educators and their classrooms, from businesses and government and private agencies. 

The Internet has many special models or systems for the discovery and sharing of problems. These include discussion forums and their FAQ pages, Q&A databases and 311 systems. The CROP problem sharing page provides direct links to many examples.

One of the earliest and still most common models for problem sharing on the Net is known as FAQ, which stands for Frequently Asked Questions They were first created by experts in email discussion forums who grew tired of new group members asking them the same questions over and over again, but now are seen as a valued resource for many purposes. The Net discussion groups that create the FAQ files list the most frequently asked questions with their answers for questions which well known answers about which there is no or little debate. These kinds of questions make a good source for trivia game questions. Several sites have attempted to keep a comprehensive list of FAQ pages on hundreds of different topics. Some examples include: global education, chemistry, or teaching language arts. However, the real buried treasure are the unanswered or partially answered questions that its email conferences cannot resolve, that get left behind in group email-archives. It is the unanswered questions that need to have a way to get attention. The CROP model uses SUP to stands for those problems without answers or without acceptable answers. SUP stands for Still Unsolved Problems.

Q&A or question/problem and answer databases come in many flavors. Clicking the Problem Finding or Problem Sharing link throughout the CROP site leads to a page with dozens of direct links to such sites. Of the dozens of such sites, Yahoo Answers is the largest of the public sites with millions of participants, having answered over 1 billion questions in May of 2010. In addition to these commercial sites there are many free or shareware programs that any group can use. Further, almost every private organization with products to sell or services to provide has created an internal help desk supported by a customer support database of problems reported by product owners. Such systems track and report the progress of getting the question answered to those interested and escalation options to greater levels of expertise for more challenging problems. Examples include Remedy, Numera and Elsinore. Finally, public organizations have developed the 311 concept. Just about every city in the country along and various government organizations has a 311 city service center, a place where citizens can call with questions or complaints about problems, such as reporting potholes, noise complaints, graffiti, water main breaks or other issues. In the spring of 2010 the Federal government announced their support for Open311, a free 311 software service which was developed in San Francisco and increasingly adopted by other cities including Portland, Boston and Washington, D.C. A common national standard means that specialized features written for one city would work in any other city in the country. Those citizens can still call in questions and problems by phone, they can also Twitter, and include pictures of problems with photos taken by cell phones and other mobile devices. Such systems hope to migrate beyond fixing what is broken to developing solutions to things that do not yet exist, such as a new playground or new community service that is based on needs identified by the problems reported (Johnson, 2010^). Other examples include SeeClickFix, FixMyStreet and BlockChalk and many others including international efforts such as Ushahidi which was used effectively in assisting with the recent Haiti earthquake disaster.

 CROP works to raise the negative perception of problems to their positive perception as opportunities. This long standing business perception is also essential to economic and community development in the information age. Community development of opportunities is also a social skill. The SUP database is not only a database of questions and responses, but a database of email addresses of those individuals interested in certain questions. The database then provides a mechanism for setting up face-to-face meetings through which de-voicing (Locke, 1998) is avoided and deeper and more significant relationships are built.

The CROP model recommends an SUP focused database for each community's questions. The Yahoo Answers and Open311 designs are excellent example of databases of individual, community and global problems that become a master database of problems that will contain millions of questions and problems and connects citizens with teams of people addressing them. The challenge for educators is to find ways for school curriculum and school service projects to tap these emerging databases of problems and questions to provide real world problems for teaching and learning activity in schools. To help students prepare for this emerging future, teachers can implement WonderWalls or WonderWeb in classroom poster space for children to pose and answer their classmates questions.

THINK: Problem Framing

To ask a question is to identify a problem. To ask a better question is to better define the problem. One key component of problem solving is the ability to build or ask questions and then refine them. Time and again studies have shown that question asking skills are often weak, that good models are available for higher order questions, and that instruction has been too inadequate in this area. Higher quality solutions must begin with higher quality statements of the problem. CROP links to many web pages that address such needs. With knowledge and the rate of change doubling at ever faster rates, learners and teachers must become connoisseurs of authentic questions. Authentic higher-order questions steer our instruction clear of the trivial pursuit of facts. Real problems put learning and teaching in context.

Sometimes problems fit patterns that have been used to solve problems elsewhere, even in different fields of study. Examining the study of patterns yields many useful approaches (Alexander, 1979^; Cunningham, 2005^). Finding and applying those patterns is also part of the problem framing phase.

LEAP: Problem Solving

The third key part is a unified model for moving from problem discovery to problem solving. The LEAP (Look, Evoke, Assess, Perform) model is a synthesis of many problem solving models.

At the Look stage, the learner is seeking and receiving information, which may come from their own directed inquiry or direct scripted instruction from a teacher. Either approach can be heavily supported by networked computers. The CROP site provides links to a vast set of tools for searching and advice on strategic approaches for doing so.

At the Evoke stage, the learner must create or compose a response using something. A computer provides more options, from word processing to video editing, for supporting such invention than any single technology in the history of mankind. The CROP site provides an extensive list of such tools and tutorials on how to use many of them.

At the Assess stage, the learner needs feedback about the progress of their creations and projects. Computers provide some automated feedback tools such as spell checkers, but more importantly they provide fast access to communities of others with interest in a learner's creations using email, chat and other tools. 

At the Publish stage, the learner needs to share finished activity, creations and projects and once again hear from a larger community. Computers provide the world's fastest delivery and biggest arena for sharing completed activity, whether the creation is a short essay, or pictures, or an oration or a video or more. A table shows how LEAP integrates many problem solving models used across many subject or content areas. The table also provides conceptual integration with many tools of the information age. Further, this table highlights the balance between human and computer strengths and weaknesses. Whatever terms we use, successful learners, professors, designers and leaders spend an appropriate amount of time at each stage of the LEAP model. Web pages provide numerous branches to support many aspects of each stage. These procedures in this table for solving problems are as useful to the K-12 community as they are to the community of adults that surround our schools.

Historical Context

By comparison with current times, it is now hard to imagine how “hot” (novel, exciting and significant) the innovation of mechanical systems (motors and gears) and the factory model were in the 1800s with water power and in the 1900s with electrical power. The definition of machine was a device that magnified human physical power, for both productive and destructive ends. Enormous intellectual, social and architectural uproar resulted from the simple idea of focusing on the process for producing things instead of the process for producing food. This focus required ever deeper knowledge of the chemistry, physics and engineering needed to create the machine tools that produced things. These mechanical systems in turn transformed the previous center of human endeavor, agriculture, and at the same time shifted it to a more supporting role. The tractor is just one tiny example of the contribution to agriculture from the age of motorized machines. In turn mechanization enabled an exponential expansion of human population that in turn needed vast quantities of things while exponentially shrinking the number of people needed for agriculture.

Huge rivers of people shifted their livelihood and social practices from rural farm life to city industrial related jobs.  It was easy to see the resulting changes as cities mushroomed in width and height while interstate highway, jet and railway systems were built and expanded to connect them, all developments that physically and thereby psychologically dwarfed our human 6 foot scale.  What was not so easy to see was the explosion in consumption of natural resources and the increasingly higher cost of extraction required to power this change.

Educational systems followed suit, shifting from vast numbers of neighborly schools that looked more like homes (1 room multi-graded school houses) to regionally located ones with a mission for universal literacy that looked and acted like the places their parents drove to, factories with specialized production lines. In a very real sense, the factories of the industrial age created a universal illiteracy, an absence in our ability to communicate with sufficient speed and detail to large audiences, for which parents and then eventually the larger culture sought greater schooling as an antidote. Becoming literate shifted from an optional contribution to a satisfactory livelihood to a critical requirement for the better and best jobs.

Something similar and just as significant is underway in the 21st century, but it is much more invisible and much less tangible. The shift in the 1800s was about discovering processes that vastly magnified physical power and finding the knowledge systems that would support them. In the 21st century it is now “hot” (novel, exciting and significant) to discover and process ideas and invent new systems for doing so.  The central construct for such processing is not steel but Boolean logic, not finely nuanced physical force but the finely nuanced power to direct the flow of information through the knowledge provided by programming and computer science. This focus has required ever deeper knowledge of the chemistry, physics and engineering needed to create the digital tools and processes of the new age.  The definition of machine is now more personal; the workstation is a machine which is a computer in our hand, shoulder bag or desktop with invisible nanoscale levers serving as gates to hold and release the raw material of information that we process. The new central engineer of our culture, the programmer, now has more in common with literati than machinists. The new economy is being developed by entrepreneurs who can either program or understand and can fluently speak within the gestalt of computer science.

Just as happened with the age of agriculture, this shift in focus to a new sense of the central cultural problem followed with a transformation of the prior process. The emergence of the 3D printer has re-conceptualized and shifted/relegated the entire cultural and economic system that supported the factory model to a critical but still supporting role similar to that of farming. These shifts are still in their beginning stages of an inevitable change.

This time huge rivers of people have been shifting their livelihood but there is little to no physical movement required; no architectural changes are required with this new transition, though they will follow. Our ideas move at the speed of electrons and light between any two points of our globally connecting Internet. People now dwarf the increasingly shrinking size of the machines they work with and build with each day, computers. The psychological impact of this transition holds great promise for a renewed human spirit. What has not been so easy to see is the explosion in the creation of the free raw materials that are in available for processing and consumption by the new age. The information explosion for just one category of information, archived data, grows at the rate of 23% a year and already dwarfs our capacity to keep it, let alone analyze it to draw further value from it.

Educational systems are again following suit.  The Internet puts the case against the one room multigraded neighborhood school house and school so beloved by families and many educators of that era on increasingly thin ice. The requirements for universal literacy have exploded beyond text to the range of media now routinely used and communicated on the Web and Net, a vast digital palette of options. The use of multimedia and computer science in the new economy have created a new level of illiteracy, which parents of means and digital employment and now even a growing number of children and adolescents have recognized, and are addressing individually through the learning resources of the Net.  YouTube may have once been the greatest source of cultural trivial in the world, but combined with the other elements of the Web may now be the greatest educational materials center yet invented.

Once again educational and cultural forces lag behind the efforts of individuals and families in promoting the new literacy and the new means for delivering that literacy. "(O)ur learning institutions, for the most part, are acting as if the world has not suddenly, irrevocably, cataclysmically, epistemically changed and changed precisely in the area of learning" (Davidson & Goldberg, 2009). Who or whom will play the role of Horace Mann that led the national effort for universal schooling in the text literacy of the 1800’s is not yet clear. Some unintentional candidates such as Salmon Khan of Khan Academy may be emerging. Are there others?

New tools provide new perspectives. These enable each age to recognize new problems along with creating new challenges. The global thinking stimulated by the Net also stimulates a greater focus on global problems with biological concerns such as species diversity, population growth, climate change and war. The low level of physical activity required to participate in the new culture and economy also contributes to the potential for an enormous drop in human health, and as the work on neurogenesis is suggesting, deep impact on our intellectual and psychological health as well.

The call of our times then is to understand, develop and support the new literacy, to lobby and legislate for a new literacy that enables universal participation, invention and creativity for the increasingly challenging problems of 21st century culture.

Further Resources

The eCROP site is operational yet under continual development and change. If you would like to share other ideas and models for communities of problems solvers, please send me email at the Page author address below. Further knowledge about the model and its use are found throughout the many links of eCROP's interconnecting sites.

The Practice of CROP

Understanding CROP, is a brief summary of the basic idea of behind CROP as a personal, classroom and community problem solving model.

A Map of the CROP Site , a single web page with all the major CROP branches.

Education and Training for CROP The Theories Behind CROP

Resource Bibliography

People, Teams, Organizations (Person)

Shelved Resources (Place)

Online Articles & Sites (Thing):

35x253 header labelled CROP, standing for Communities Solving Our Problems
Communities Resolving Our Problems: the basic idea
[SUP: Problem Finding] [THINK: Problem Framing] [LEAP: Problem Solving]
Questions are the seeds of solutions. Robert S. Houghton

Copyright, Dr. Robert S. Houghton, 1994 - present. PageauthorHoughton Pub: v1.0, 1994;Version 9.14 Update: 12.8.2013