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.

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).

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.