…or is that the un-education of the technologist?

Uma Descida ao Maelstrom

Uma Descida ao Maelstrom

Amidst the tumult, the academy appears oddly complacent. Open source technology, open access publication, open education have all had their successes, but none of these movements could fairly be described as having transformed practice. Models of publishing, reviewing and assessing research have not fundamentally changed. Innovation in teaching is at the margins, the essential structures of curriculum and assessment wholly unchanged. Educational technology, far from revolutionizing practice, seems primarily dedicated to perpetuating it: “clickers” provide a sheen of interactivity in the cavernous lecture hall; “learning management systems” promise to protect its users from the raging uncertainties of the digital chaos.

We have been cursed to live in intersecting times. The fundamentals of networked communication have changed so rapidly  that even an educational technologist cannot help but take notice. Access to powerful servers and effectively limitless bandwidth can be had virtually for free. More ambitious hard-core web-heads command multiple-domain online empires managed by intuitive graphic  user interfaces, at the cost of a daily cup of coffee. Open source software places sophisticated, supple and customizable tools in the hands of anyone willing to take the time to learn them. Creative types leverage viral media platforms to find vast audiences for artifacts created on laptops and cameraphones. There are ample examples of Yochai Benkler’s model of commons-based peer production producing epic outcomes.   To suggest we live in an age of unprecedented information abundance is an obvious platitude, yet somehow understates the reality as well.

Across the cultural landscape, we see media shaking practice into near-submission. The music industry in freefall, the newspapers in meltdown, book publishing in crisis. Broadband eats everything.

To further complicate matters, it is almost certain that the happy development curve that has accompanied the nexus of innovation referred to by that obnoxious label “Web 2.0” will soon drop off a cliff in at least some respects. As this article goes to press in the early months of 2009, a global economic storm continues to build, and surely it would be an act of reckless, feckless lunacy to presume that the shiny, “we just wanna build cool stuff and make the world happy” ethos will prevail. The efficiency gains in cloud computing models for work are evident, yet only a fool would not expect those clouds to dump some hard rain in the days ahead.

The curators of this collection do not pretend to possess a synthetic theory to conceptualize this state of affairs. Though the instant transmission, unlimited replication, and prospects for remix inherent in digital media sends them with unkempt enthusiasm toward personal publishing tools, models of self-organization, the abuse of copyright restrictions, embedding distributed media, and syndication.

The model of presentation reflects a process of necessary un-education. We appropriate the method of Marshall McLuhan articulated in his preface to The Mechanical Bride. McLuhan noted that when he wrote that book “A Descent into the Maelstrom” by Edgar Alan Poe kept coming to mind. Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and cooperating with it. The present article likewise attempts to set the ourselves and our readers at the centre of the evolving picture created by digital media, where we might observe the action that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. From the analysis of that action, it is hoped, many individual actions may suggest themselves.

Poe’s sailor says that when locked in by the whirling walls and the numerous objects that floated in that environment:

I must have been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.

It was this amusement born of his rational detachment as a spectator of his own situation that gave him the thread which led him out of the Labyrinth. And it is in that same spirit that this collection is offered as an amusement.

A Space of One’s Own

The New Media Consortium’s 2009 Horizon Report lists “The Personal Web” as one of the developing trends for educational institutions over the next 2 to 3 years. They define it as follows:

Part of a trend that began with simple innovations like personalized start pages, RSS aggregation, and customizable widgets, the personal web is a term coined to represent a collection of technologies that confer the ability to reorganize, configure and manage online content rather than just viewing it. Using a growing set of free and simple tools and applications, it is easy to create customized, personal web-based environments — a personal web — that explicitly supports one’s social, professional, learning and other activities via highly personalized windows to the networked world.

It might be understood as a philosophy — when it comes to using web-based applications for teaching and learning, use tools that are simple, flexible, open, and your own. What does it mean to tell members of an intellectual community that the work they do online is their own? Moreover, what does it mean to push the members of a university community to take ownership of what they publish? Something that they can take with them when they move to a different institution.

Serena Epstein, a student at the University of Mary Washington, had been blogging her academic work through the university hosted publishing platform over the course of three years for at least five different courses. Recently she exported all of her work from the university hosted blogging system and imported it all into her own domain space that she purchased and hosts for less than $8 per month. In effect, she has maintained control of the work she has done over the course of her college career and has integrated it into her own space effectively taking ownership of her own archive.

Internment Mashup

University of Mary Washington student Bradleigh Efford takes a course on Asian American Literature with professor Mara Scanlon. Over the course of the semester he, along with the rest of the class, searches for relevant resources to the week’s reading and blogs his findings. While reading a novel about Japanese relocation in North America, he shares a link to the propaganda film Japanese Relocation (1943) which was produced by the Office of War Information. The version Efford discovered was on YouTube, but it was re-published from the original source at the Internet Archive.

Soon after sharing the video, Efford and his classmate Mathe Horne cut and re-mixed the soundtrack from the US propaganda film and created a three minute rap song examining the questions surrounding Japanese Internment that they wrote, produced and performed. A project which they then shared back with the class through their blogs. A model of freely available, public domain resources being discovered by students through a variety of services and mashed up as a way to creatively comment upon and critique the literature they are examining.

Download Japanese Relocation Rap

Spontaneous Connections

An embrace of openness can allow network effects to unexpectedly take work to a new level.

When Nancy White gave a talk entitled Seven Competencies of Online Interaction at the Northern Voice Conference in 2006, it was recorded by Alan Levine with a portable audio recorder. One day later, Beveryly Traynor (writing from Setubal, Portugal) posted her own “selective” notes and commentary based on listening to the audio file. Soon afterward, White posted her conference presentation visuals not as a downloadable PowerPoint file but as a Flickr photoset. These disparate media artifacts were combined by Nivk Noakes in Hong Kong, who grabbed the images, downloaded the audio, and combined them into a synchonized video file that he subsequently posted on the Internet Archive.

As Levine summed up: “a session presented and recorded in Vancouver BC, audio loaded to a blog in Arizona, images uploaded from Seattle, a movie produced from Hong Kong, and a distilled session summary from Portugal! …It would not happen inside a singular, expensive, closed wall enterprise-ware application. None of it was designed, planned, or directed. It just happened.”

Serendiptous collaboration chains

The notion of useful “federated search” across multiple collections of learning resources has long been something of a holy grail for proponents of sharable learning objects. It is considered to be a functionality requiring complex web architectures and rigourously detailed metadata schemes. The years of expensive work across multiple institutions that have gone into developing specifications such as the Ariadne federated search architecture (or the eduSource Communication Layer) have to an extent succeeded and been implemented in various sites. However, the complexity of these protocols and the effort required to meet them effectively limits participation to large, well-funded institutions, and makes the inclusion of more modest efforts difficult. It also effectively creates a bubble of restricted interaction within the larger open web. As Stephen Downes noted in his post-mortem of the eduSource project: “Who cares if a few universities exchange learning content among themselves (not that this really happens a lot anyway)?”

Contrast this highly managed, expensive and lightly-adopted model with a series of uncoordinated yet connected activities on the open web.

Zaid Ali Alsagoff, an eLearning Researcher based in Malaysia, decides to post “all free University learning related OCW and OER resources and collections [that he had] discovered into an all-in-one (sounds like shampoo!) quick-to-access/find juicy compilation.” Alsagoff includes links to existing open education collections such as OER Commons, community collaborative OER sites such as WikiEducator, institutional sites such as Berkeley’s collection of  webcasted lectures, online book collections such as the Gutenberg Project, as well as resources not strictly aimed at educators such as the TED Talks, and the general interest information site How Stuff Works. While not all of the resources meet the stricter definitions of an “open educational resource” – some work is copyright, other work is posted in formats that do not support easy reuse – Alsagoff’s set of links represents a massive collection of readily online materials that can be useful to educators in virtually any discipline.

In England, Tony Hirst of the Open University takes Alsagoff’s links and uses them to define a Google Custom Search Engine. The Google CSE allows any user to create a constrained search across a set of specified domains. Hirst sets his CSE to search across all sites linked in Alsagoff’s post.

Subsequently, in Victoria, Canada, Scott Leslie alters Hirst’s formula so that the collection of sites being indexed by the Google Custom Search Engine is managed on a public wiki, so that anyone can contribute to the set of pages being searched. Leslie is sufficiently pleased with the success of this prototype that he extends that work into the slightly more formalized and integrated structure of the BCcampus Free Learning portal. Built on the WordPress platform and incorporating tagging structures from the social bookmarking service Delicious, this site required less than a week of development and programming time, and all of the code required to implement this system is open source.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this work is that at the time it was done, Alsagoff, Hirst, and Leslie had never met. They were not coordinated by any central body. They required no project funding, and each did their part drawing on minimal resources from their home institutions. What was required was openness: the resources needed to be indexed by Google on the open web, and each step of the process was shared on a weblog to allow others to learn from and build on the work. This simple yet powerful collaboration model fostered the development of unexpected and widely beneficial outcomes.

The Massive Open Online Course

In the fall of 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes co-taught a course entitled ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. Offered through the University of Manitoba as a credit course, it was also open to free participation to anyone interested.  2200 people signed up for the course, and Downes later estimated that 1870 persisted through the duration of the course. Due to its sheer size and scale, it came to be called the MOOC – Massive Open Online Course.

Participation was multilevel and multi-modal. 24 students paid tuition at the University of Manitoba and took the course for credit. The lifeline of distributed course communication was the daily newsletter, in addition to the official course weblog. There was a course wiki, and a Moodle installation for threaded discussions. Synchronous discussions were held on the proprietary Elluminate platform (with limited seating) and archived as publically available MP3 files. But given the sheer scale of participation, not to mention the orientation of the course itself, it should not be surprising that students themselves took significant control over the media of course delivery. More than 170 students maintained their own course blogs on multiple platforms, and an RSS aggregator and the daily newsletter collected and redistributed these efforts. Three separate Second Life communities were established, two of them in Spanish. (It should be noted that while the course was offered in English, Spanish speaking students took it upon themselves to translate core course materials.)  This considerable activity prompted significant activity even amongst online educators who were not formally aligned with the course.

The number of participants rendered traditional notions of “instructional support” meaningless. Instead, as Downes notes, “by combining participants from a wide range of skill sets, people were able to – and did – help each other out. This ranged from people answering questions and poviding examples in the discussion areas, to people commenting on and supporting each others’ blogs, to those with more skills setting up resources and facilities, such as the translations and Second Life discussion areas.” Similarly, the notion of “course material production” was upended, in place of a structure that owed much more to the commons-based peer production that marks Wikipedia and other initiatives that thrive in an era of unprecedented information abundance: “Materials for the course were not ‘produced’ in the traditional; sense – rather, the instructors created a framework, populated that framework with open materials already extant on the web, added some commentary and videos of their own, conducted open online sessions and recordings, and created the infrastructure for wide student participation.”

Learning in the wild: Murder Madness, and Mayhem

In the spring of 2008, Professor Jon Beasley-Murray, rather than bemoaning the inadequate and shallow coverage of Latin American literary studies on Wikipedia, assigned his students to improve the online encylopedia. Working in groups, some students were assigned to topics that did not yet have articles, while others were tasked with improving existing articles. The grading scheme was explicitly tied to the criteria and external peer review processes used by Wikipedia to assign good article and featured article status.

Though the demands of the assignment were significant, at the end of the semester three of the articles had achieved “featured” status, and eight more had achieved the slightly lesser but still daunting “good article” designation. Reading the articles created in the course of this assignment, it is difficult not to be impressed with the depth of the research (the citations and the references are strikingly comprehensive) and the clarity of the writing. Ironically, the pressures created by interactions with the wider Wikipedia culture tend to sharpen the application of “traditional” literacy skills. As Beasley-Murray observes: “Students seldom learn about the importance of revision to good writing. And yet on Wikipedia, revision is (almost) everything: contributors are called editors precisely because their writing is a near-constant state of revision.” As one of Beasley-Murray’s students Monica Freudenreich acknowledged, “what pushed us to achieve higher standards were the other wikipedian editors. They were constantly pushing us to find better references and to reference everything. In working towards GA and FA they set the bar incredibly high.”

In addition, the students are immersed in an exercise that sharpens what might be described as new literacy skills. Beasley-Murray notes that  the students are “writing for a public audience, also one that almost uniquely was in a position to write back, to re-write and comment upon what they were writing. Indeed, working on Wikipedia had the potential to become a collaborative process: students would have to collaborate not only with each other, but also with fellow editors or wikipedians who they met only on the wiki itself.” At the very least, students who engage in such a process develop a much enhanced sense of the strengths and weakness of Wikipedia’s open editing model, and certainly will be that much better equipped to make judgments on the resource’s validity when consulting it in the future.

A notable instance of the wider community enhancing the learning process was manifested by the appearance of the “FA Team“. The FA Team are a a small group of experienced Wikipedia editors who were looking to increase the number of featured articles on the site, and actually approached Beasley-Murray’s students with offers to help with a range of considerations including copyediting, formatting and critiques of the articles themselves.  As Beasley-Murray reflected later in the process, the FA Team “embarked on an ongoing task of encouraging, mentoring, and guiding all of us in the process of editing Wikipedia articles to a high standard.” It seems inconceivable that such interactions could ever begin to occur in a closed, managed environment.

Finally, it must be noted that the outcomes of this exercise was not a paper exchanged solely between professor and student, or even discussed within a peer group, but the creation of a set of persisting open educational resources in their own right. Projections based on a one month sample of Wikipedia page views suggest that the pages created or enhanced via this project will range from 14,000 to 740,000 views per year.  And in each case, the article created ranks at or near the top for Google page ranks, using likely search parameters.  The authenticity of the process, and the notion of contribution to the digital commons has a notable effect on student motivation and sense of achievement. Freudenreich concludes: “This page will be read by countless people over the course of its existence. Because I have worked so hard writing and re-writing it, I am extremely proud of the finished result, I almost can’t believe I helped write it when I look back over it. Term papers I have handed back end up in a binder than eventually sits under my bed and files sit on my computer unopened ever again.”

From the perspective of an education technologist, it is also worth noting that there are no license fees to pay to Wikipedia for the provision of this learning environment.

Feed frenzied learning (syndication on the cheap)

Image of RSS symbolsWhat if we didn’t understand what we do in education with blogs as “blogging” but as a quick and easy way to publish online within a learning community? Or a place to feature a portfolio of students’ best work? Or a site where professors and staff track their professional and personal development? What if we understood “campus blogging initiatives” as a community publishing platform to share, learn, and integrate various resources from around the Web into a more specific community?

We need an alternative means of conceptualizing how university networks might approach supporting teaching and learning technologies by designing their online publishing systems around an RSS-rich aggregation system of open syndication, rather than closed repositories and Learning Management Systems (LMS) that seldom, if ever, allow or enable communication outside the walls of the course. The University of Mary Washington has used WordPress Multi-User to build an enterprise-level educational publishing platform, which has fundamentally transformed the online component of teaching and learning beyond the tools of the standard LMS. Moreover, it is all built with open source applications and extensions that make such an application a fraction of the cost of your average LMS (a process which is thoroughly documented and system which is thoroughly supported).

The revolution will be a bus

Image of a Revolution Bus
Revolution by Lawrence Whittemore

Every generation needs a new revolution.
[[Thomas Jefferson]]

What blogging brought to the table, in addition to the liberating power of personal publishing, was a new take on the venerable publish/subscribe pattern, expressed now in terms of the familiar metaphor of news syndication. In any version of the new Internet OS, syndication-oriented architecture would have to play a crucial role.
[[Jon Udell]] “What is an internet Operating System”

At the heart of any transfer of power there must be a concomitant shift in the distribution of information. Moreover, for such a shift to be sustained, an individual’s ability to access, manipulate, and interact with information must remain easy, open and free. Our generation’s revolution can be characterized by the “liberating power of personal publishing,” and it is the architecture underlying this transformation which is germane to tracing the decentralized, multitudinous vectors of fragmented power, ownership, and control that the new model affords. Syndication must be understood simultaneously as a digitally networked dispersion of conversation, as well as an idiosyncratically aggregated diaspora of data. And it is the re-constitution of variegated voices which offers the means to easily circumvent centrally organized, unilateral vacuum-tubes of distribution.

The revolution will not be televised, it will be syndicated!

[[Rohit Khare]]’s conception of syndication-oriented architecture helps us frame the implications of this revolution. We no longer need to build massive repositories to warehouse learning objects, rather we should be “RSSifying everything in sight, then flow all the feeds through a ‘syndication bus’.” Applications like Facebook have already brought this architecture mainstream through a feed-driven framework, yet it has done so at the cost of mining people’s personal data and forcing them to surrender certain rights over their work.

Syndication buses need to be open, free, and public hubs of aggregation that allow both individuals and communities to trace the flow of information relevant to them, while at the same time enabling them to filter and visualize that stream in numerous ways. Applications such as Bloglines and Google Reader are just two examples of feed aggregators that allow an individual to easily subscribe, filter, and visualize information from a variety of sources. But how do we represent this phenomenon on the scale of an educational community consisting of potentially thousands of members? Additionally, what does it mean for an educational institution to represent this process openly?

At the center of both these questions is the root of the revolutionary route for the future of education. You can only truly represent and scale an institution with thousands of members at the atomic level of the individual. People scale through their own publishing space. But in order to embrace this fact educational institutions must first move away from the centralized logic that learning management systems have come to symbolize through both their design and routinized use. The LMS is little more than an administrative system for record keeping and basic file management that is ultimately fueled by institutional efficiency and instructor complacency, a complicit relationship between vendors, administration, and faculty that has enabled an ongoing marketing masquerade that erroneously terms these systems learning technologies. The very logic of the LMS might be understood as a mausoleum for the internment of any and all possibilities for an individual to control, manage and openly share their own thinking with the community at large—it is within these darkly sealed crypts that you will find the mummified corpses of learning.

Alternatively, syndication buses represent a space through which individuals within a learning community can share their work through personal publishing platforms that they maintain ownership over. Rather than locking information into centralized systems, institutions should be designing a syndication-oriented framework that empowers its members to add their own syndicated voices to a larger, streaming conversation that can be filtered and visualized through semantic tags and categories. All of which is undergirded by a staunch belief in the fact that openness is no longer the exception, but the rule for learning institutions. It is their obligation, their mission, their raison d’être to provide the conditions of possibility for inspired thinking, while at the same time enabling this inspiration to be broadcast far and wide over and open network.