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.