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

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.

Extras: Guerilla Edtech

The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.
[[Mao Tse-Tung]]

Guerilla EdTech can be understood as the act of introducing new ways of conceptualizing teaching and learning with light-weight, open, and de-centralized technologies as a means to challenge the explicit restrictions and limitations presented by lumbering proprietary systems premised upon a fear-based institutional culture.  Permission to experiment with the best tools and explore alternatives for organizing and building a community approach need not come from on high. It can originate from any one within a community at any time, it simply requires faith in a seed cultivated through a diffuse network of support and encouragement. It entails a series of actions often undergirded by the belief that the results of an innovative act in educational teaching and learning far outweigh the risks—despite the potential ramifications the move in a new direction is intricately linked with challenging an existing order that is suffocating out possibilities.

Extras: Cloning innovation

Hey, wait just a minute! Sharing isn’t just limited to course materials, syllabi, and other educational “objects”? We can also share platforms? That’s right, honcho, with these new fangled open source tools many possibilities become available that you could only dream of in your paltry FUD philosophy

For example, UMW Blogs recently setup Longwood University with their own blogging platform within minutes by simply using the Multi-Site Manager plugin and mapping an additional domain on the WPMu blogging system we currently have running. This way, Longwood can benefit from what UMW has done and save money on server infrastructure and the like, and focus on thinking through the practical implications of such a system on teaching and learning within their community.

And, UMW has also reached out to a local high school, Fredericksburg Academy, to give them the core plugins, themes, and overall setup (along with documentation, etc) to quickly create their own publishing platform, Fredericskburg Academy Blogs, for the low, low cost of $8 a month. That is solution one can warm up too in these cold economic times.