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.

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 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.