Literacy and the Digital Self

I’ve been mulling two separate ideas over the last week – but I have a nagging feeling that they’re somewhat related.

The first is that “digital literacy” is a poorly defined concept and there’s a significant gap between the idea and the reality.

I’d suggest that there’s a significant difference between learning software and becoming literate in digital technology – yet the two are more often than not considered the same. One is said to signify the other but to me the way we learn to use technology is akin to learning to memorise a book rather than learning to read it. Learning to read requires us to learn the mechanics, vocabulary and grammar – it’s developing knowledge and understanding of the way things are constructed that allows us to become literate.

With technology we seem to just skip that process and in its place we memorise processes and technique that are specific to a certain circumstance (application, operating system, version) which aren’t transferable across contexts. Without an understanding of the mechanis every new technologies requires tremendous effort to learn, just as it would to memorise a book. However, if we become literate in digital technology – if we’ve learnt how to read – new applications, systems and software can become akin to picking a book off a library shelf and instantly being able to make sense of it. While the story, the character, even the way language is used might be different our literacy allows us to make sense of it. It’s not about homogenisation but rather the skills to adapt to complexity, variety and diversity.

I’m on board with the idea that digital literacy is something vital for 21st century society. I feel that it can equip us with the tools and knowledge to become active in determining our technological future rather than just responding and adapting to the technology placed in front of us. The big caveat here is that it requires effort – quite a lot. Becoming digitally literate requires a similar effort to learning to read – taking years to develop and improve through incremental exposure to new concepts and increasing complexity.

The other idea is that of creating a student centric technology ecosystem.

I’ve been toying with the idea since the end of last year and it came from thinking through the concept of transferring ownership and custodianship of data back to students. It’s been fuelled over the last month by the blog discussions from Jim Groom, Mike Caulfield and others collated in this post from Ryan Brazell. Their discussion and suggested frameworks are similar to what I had in mind for a system that would transfer ownership and control back to students in terms of their data and the content they generate as part of their studies. Think blog + LinkedIn + eportfolio + badge backpack rolled into one but managed by the student not a commercial entity looking to commercialise data. Think then about integration of this system into institutional systems (LMS, student admin etc) via APIs using profiles that the students have control over. They can decide levels of access institutions can have to their data as well as things like preferred communication channels and contact details. This kind of system could work with the traditional LMS but it would be transform it into an aggregator, returning it to the status of an actual management tool, rather than the source and container of all content. It would create a distributed ecosystem of self managed services performing a range of functions from identity management to online publishing, records of learning and displays of achievement. This would work just as well for staff within the education sector too – and could form part of establishing their digital literacies. Essentially it decouples the student from the confines of institutional systems while also supporting the institution in providing more seamless and collaborative offerings. It opens universities to new models of working, collaborating and the associated income streams possible.

But … (and in this case it’s a big one) … this system would require greater digital literacy to get off the ground than say an LMS, especially in terms of executive management. It’s a huge shift away from how digital technology has been sold and has worked in the past. It’s a move away from the control, concentrated resources, monolithic system and captive data that most institutions are used to (perhaps depend on) to something open, distributed, personal and fundamentally mobile. It’s a situation that this cartoon I retweeted sums up perfectly:

Perhaps what links these idea together is what I perceive as the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

We want students and staff to be more digitally literate but that currently is equated to knowing software or performing rudimentary tasks not an understanding line mechanics of the digital environment. We want personalised learning but think that we can achieve this by containing students within the LMS rather than on the web and by measuring vast amounts of data rather than actually giving students the power to make their own informed decisions. The intended outcomes aren’t reflected in what is being done, even on a strategic level at most universities, let alone what happens in the majority of individual classes.

Putting this all down in this post is an attempt for me to come to terms with what I’ve been thinking. It’s not particularly clear – but it’s a description of events that I see as the come into focus. I’m not trying to be pessimistic – instead its my way of licking my finger, sticking it in the air and trying to see where the wind is blowing.

I’m not pessimistic on what lies ahead – far from it. The work that people like Jim Groom and the team behind Domain Of Ones Own have been doing actually fill me with hope – because someone out there is doing something. I’m also interested reading Mike’s posts because I can see at least someone is starting to develop a vision for what’s next. The work ahead is about trying to draw a line between the two!

Thanks to @jimgroom, @holden & @ryanbrazell for sharing your work so openly!

Fourteen Years

Today is a big milestone in my relationship with Clare – fourteen years together.

I’m not sure if there’s something mystical about multiples of seven but for some reason I really feel this anniversary. Maybe it’s because there’s enough space at this moment in my life to catch my breath and contemplate. Maybe it’s because multiples of five and ten are too busy with planning and celebration. Or maybe the universe is letting me know to stop and remember this one in particular.

Fourteen years is a long time for any relationship. I’ve never spent this amount of time with someone and never so intimately. In fact, I would go as far as saying that this relationship is my life!

It’s the place where I’ve grown up and shaped who I am.

It’s got me through some of the toughest and most painful passages of time that I will have to endure.

It’s also gifted me with the happiest and most joyous moments I will ever experience.

It’s taken me to the ends of the earth and back.

It breathes life into my lungs and sparks my mind with the desire to know and seek and feel.

It gives me comfort and shelter from the world around.

It lets me recharge and gives me power to get up and face the day.

And while it seems to have a life of its own – it is just the shared experience with one person – my love, Clare.

Happy anniversary!

Gaming Education

A couple of ideas about gaming, gamification and the space between education.

Rather than just being a buzz word – the reason we should be looking at gamification is not to simply translate the mechanics of games into the education system but to learn how to develop our own. The games industry has turned the development and construction of digital experiences and user assessment into an art form.

Games moved beyond simple point scoring systems decades ago, education hasn’t. Games can map and spawn complex interaction models that reshape the personal experience, education can’t get past one size fits all. Games create immersive online environments that encourage social interaction, learning and development, the LMS just doesn’t. Game systems spawn spinoffs, derivatives, modifications and remixing, education as a whole can’t even get it’s head around this concept.

Let’s also be up front – copying and pasting gaming techniques, methods and processes won’t translate into better education. The fundamental drivers and values between the two are poles apart. You can’t just equate playing with learning, what drives someone to play is often the opposite of what motivates them to learn.

Education shouldn’t be trying to emulate gaming as the model, instead it needs to learn how to develop its own. It needs to fork the ideas, concepts and mechanics of gaming and then develop and adapt them to suit our context. This might lead to us needing to change a lot of the methods and metrics that are foundational to the current system, but Everything is a Remix.

What is valuable and should be learnt from gaming is how they trod the path to understand and incorporate increasing complexity into the experience from a practical and cultural perspective. Let’s not get diverted by cheap thrills and hi scores.

We need a new language to describe emergent forms of commodity economy. It’s not neo anything or post anything. It’s not late capitalism or cognitive capitalism. Modifiers won’t do. It’s based on an ontological mutation: the historical production of the category of information.

…. Just sticking some modifiers on the old terms doesn’t really capture the strangeness of the times.

- McKenzie Wark

The same should be applied about education too. This interview is a great read if you’re interested in our evolving digital times - Information-Commodification. There are so many great ideas bouncing around and some real insight into how the Information Age is changing and mutating the way our society works!

Wark was my first introduction to academic writing and thinking – way back when I was 17 and still in high school I read (and re-read his work).  I appreciate Wark because it set me on the path to where I am, but I’ve realised I haven’t engaged with his work for ages and probably have a lot to catchup on. It’s all a bit serendipitous that this post came up in my Twitter feed because I was literally thinking about re-reading The Virtual Republic just to see how it holds up more than a decade on.

I love this article and there’s a number of other ideas worth spending some time mulling over:

“Facebook ‘gives’ you information, about your friends and so forth. But it extracts far more than it gives. It gives data but extracts metadata.”

“We’re all servants of the most boring and clueless ruling class in a century.”

“The state no longer knows how it is supposed to marshall the forces of commodification towards ‘progress’. There is no real promise of a better tomorrow to make the pain and boredom of commodified life seem worthwhile. The disintegrating spectacle is where we are now. “

MOOCs & Mavens

It’s not everyday you get a hat tip from your vice chancellor, but the other day it happened. It was via Twitter – although I’m sure our VC would look quite fetching in suitable headgear – and was in relation to some links and posts I’ve curated regarding MOOCs and EdTech.

The comment was made in relation to an open Coursesites Forum created for a MOOC discussion at the forthcoming Universities Australia 2014 conference. Anyone can register and comment so feel free to sign up and have your say!

As part of my maven reponsibility (which I think should have an accompanying hat) I’ll be posting the comments to the following questions, but I thought for those not wanting to signup to Coursesites, or who want to comment without the gaze of those enrolled, I’d post them here too. Now I know MOOCs aren’t one of my favourite topics – but I think the idea of having a discussion around them is actually important because they have made a mark on the landscape and we do need to respond – to the negative and positive things they’ve bought.

Seeing as this is in a public forum and that there’s a risk of doubling up, I’ve attempted to look a little beyond the most obvious responses (not that the obvious isn’t important!). I’ve already noticed that there’s some common and linked ideas to what others have written so it will be nice to see how things evolve out of this discussion space.

What have been the most significant impacts of MOOCs?

One of these has to be emergence of new ‘for profit’ players into the global education sector. I think it’s important to understand that all of the new MOOC companies are financed by venture capital and have an expectation of making money out of these projects. Secondly these are not American companies in an American market – they have jumped straight into the sector as global brands – something that is only now starting to emerge as a trend from a select few universities.

It’s also been interesting to have watched just how quickly some universities responded to MOOCs. (Mark Smithers picked this up too!) For organisation known for their conservatism, slow pace and reluctance to change it was quite shocking at how agile some universities were in their response. It would be nice to see this new found agility put to work in developing a home grown vision for education and foster innovation internally rather than it be a one off reactionary meassure to outside forces.

What have we learned about teaching and learning from the experience with MOOCs?

In terms of pedagogy we are gathering far more proof and acceptance that it’s interaction, not content that is the key to online learning. Courses that promote higher levels of interaction – essentially peer-to-peer due to the Massive nature – perform much better in their metrics than those that don’t. Designing for experience rather than consumption seems to be a better way to phrase learning design in the online environment.

It’s also becoming abundantly clear that the metrics we have to measure online learning are terribly inadequate. Sign up, clicks, time spent on page and multiple choice questions – are terrible metrics for understanding anything about learning and useless to feed into through to development of better teaching practice. If we want to understand more about learning and teaching in this environment we need better tools than these to gather and generate more usable and focussed conclusions.

What trends do you see for the future of technology in higher education?

Mobile technology is ushering a new age of distribution and decentralisation that applies to the types of device, systems, data, storage and interactions we are used to. Monolithic systems will be replaced by distributed and federated services, systems and data that is User Centric and User Defined. It’s interesting how most MOOC platforms don’t adopt any of these ideas, but those cMOOC mavericks have been there all along.

The technology we are moving towards will allow unprecedented interoperability, personalisation and portability and it will redefine how we think about institutional and organisational support, services and systems. It will be a shift from institutions as the owners/managers/curators of information and data to a system whereby students choose what to share that with the institutions they wish to interface with.

What impacts do you think MOOCs will have on university business models and who do you think will be most affected?

Interestingly I think MOOCs might present universities with some hidden promises because its a business model that makes expertise worthwhile and potentially profitable. For some time degree programs have been reducing the number of niche subjects in favour of more generalist ones because classes sizes are just small and unviable for a campus based university to run. So Matriarchal Society in Iceland is a hard sell when your potential audience is limited to only those students enrolled in a university, on a campus, in a state, in one country. However if you’re potential reach is more than a billion students perhaps uptake could (realisticly) be hundreds of students rather than single digits. An online course for hundreds might not be massive enough to be thought of as a MOOC but it does provide a model for offerings that are niche and require expertise. It’s a way of broadening the global perspective for universities, an opportunity to go beyond the campus, to build on their internal expertise and see staff as a valuable asset.

So if there’s an opportunity, but a threat from MOOCs is to accreditation. There is questioning going on into the legitimacy and value of a university degree already, particularly in the US, as fees are raised and employment prospects are stagnant (or falling). MOOC providers are pivoting their offerings so that they can offer a low cost alternative accreditation or qualification. Universities will have to shift and adapt to this change but perhaps they shouldn’t be competing in terms of costs – rather looking at how to be innovative and add value. New business models will arise from those willing to take some risks. Subscription based education could cater for lifelong learning, fees for alumni could pay for ongoing access to systems, services and professional networks. Even the elites, regardless of their current prestige, will have to cope with their qualifications losing value over time.

What do you think higher education will look like in 20 years’ time?

There will be a major shift around the very concept of education that will see the focus the entire process around the student. To that extent degrees won’t have to be from a single provider anymore but an accredited patchwork of experiences from the best the world has to offer. Students will be able to create and control their pathways through higher education. It will mean universities will have to change their models and become more adaptive and open to recognition, not just accreditation of learning. This kind of education system will thrive from collaboration and complementary practices and systems between institutions rather than in direct competition. This kind of market will promote institutions who are smaller and more agile or force a return to more specialised groups, offerings and centres operating with more autonomy inside large institutions. Higher education needs to ensure that it is seen and understood to be a social enterprise and embed itself in the local communities to leverage a global reach.

The benefits of scale will no longer be there as the middle ground of generic qualifications will be taken up by low cost providers, not necessarily corporate entities (like the MOOC platforms) but initiatives like the OERu who could take a more substantive role within the global education movement. This shift will mean that there insitiutions are required to specialise and develop expertise in order to ensure differentiation in the university sector.

What questions should we be asking ourselves now about change in higher education?

The current funding model is explicitly linked to current arrangements around student enrolments, and those enrolments explicitly to a degree. Are there other options and models that we need to be developed that provide more scope for innovative delivery of education?

As public institutions how can we focus on collaboration and complementary practices that ensure that we are providing value back to the communities that fund us? Furthermore what policy & funding changes are needed to actually enable that to happen?

What are the three best articles you have read on MOOCs?

Andy’s posted a few that I would highly recommend but here’s a few more:

Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina from Michael Feldstein

To Save Everything Click Here is a book by Evgeny Morozov that not about MOOCs per-se but a critique of techno-solutionism. I start with Audrey Watters review of the book here to get gist of the idea.

What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong not about MOOCs but the label often applied to them – Disruptive Innovation. I think this piece is particularly interesting and relevant when we think about consumer driven change (i.e. that coming from our students).

An Academic Authoring Environment

Ok in a set of somewhat freaky circumstances I seem to have been thinking through some ideas over the summer that a number of others have too. I had just finished sketching out some initial ideas yesterday and today I read through Mike Caulfield’s post A Better Way to Build a EdTech Support Wiki (or, Doctor, Heal Thyself)
and it hints at quite a few of the same kinds of issues I’ve been mulling over. The idea around federation from Ward Cunningham is pretty close to some of the thinking I’ve been doing – although I have to admit I had no idea until I saw Mike’s prior post A Federated Approach Could Make OER More Numerous, Findable, and Attributable about his work in this space.

So I’m coming from the perspective of spending a considerable amount of time last year working on the Publishing phase of content (through our work around TADPOLE) The Adaptive Digital Publishing Engine. While we completed the proof of concept the work is on ice at the moment and in the down time I started to rethink the system and ways we could simplify it, make it easier and make it better. In going through this reflection I started to think more about the authoring side of things – how could we make that better?

How can we write and develop content better?

The first clue was that writing works better through feedback. Getting others to collaborate, read, edit and change your work usually ends up in a better result. The project report and two academic papers I worked on last year were collaborative, but the experience of working this way sucked. The tools we have access to mean that it wasn’t easy to incorporate changes and edits (even finding them is a problem!) and this in turn created a huge number of version control issues. Even for myself, using different software applications meant copying and pasting from app to app – unsure of which was the “Master” copy.

At the same time my team was engaged in software development and it’s through this I became aware of Git. Git provides the backend technology that fosters collaboration between developers and through concepts like clone, fork & commit you are able to develop a custom workflow suited to you and your environment but in a way that actually fosters connection and collaboration. It provides the practical tools for people to actually work together as well as go off independently.

That concept was something missing from my experience writing. What I was using was just a bunch of clunky tools that required a lot of effort from me to mesh and work together – particularly going from authoring through to publication. Rather than simplifying the process the technology tended to get in the way. I quickly came to the realisation that what I needed was to work out how can I get Git working for me.

This coincided with one other big change in my work – Markdown. Throughout 2013 I made the switch to writing everything in Markdown. Occasionally it’s Google docs, but anything I initiate and work through, its Markdown. Why? Well it simplifies the publishing process. With a couple of keystrokes or mouse clicks I can publish my content to almost any format, any tool, any system and do it with clean, simple code. No mess no fuss. Add in a style sheet and I’m done, it’s that simple! This works great for me – but could this become more mainstream?

The last clue in framing my thinking came form some discussions around OERs at the Ascilite conference. In a great symposium session we worked in groups around some of the issues in developing and implementing OERs within institutions. Our group focussed quite a bit on the lack of interoperability of systems, information and published content. Again, despite the best efforts of many smart and talented people – technology was getting in the way.

Looking over what was happening I started to base my thinking around:

  1. Git – its ability to version control, clone, fork and commit.
  2. Markdown – as a simpler way of writing content to simplify publishing
  3. Open Practices – understanding of issues around tech needing to be more interoperable yet understanding of localisation.

Over the summer I’ve been mulling over how and what you could do about this and I came up with this:

An Academic Authoring Environment

The concept here is an Academic Authoring Environment that supports the following core functions:

  • collaboration
  • multiple authors
  • multiple institutions
  • publishing as a temporal container
  • versioning, cloning, forking
  • customisation
  • localisation
  • open & federated access
  • a content first approach
  • multiple workflow
  • system interoperability (API connections)
  • distributed hosting (self and institutional)
  • self publishing + institutional

How could you do it?

Well I haven’t really worked all of this out in detail (and as I’m not a programmer som I’m unlikely to ever built it myself) but I have a few ideas that I’ve started to sketch out.

The main one comes through the arrival of the flat file CMS. Rather than build a monolithic system the flat file CMS just works via files and folders – things like Ghost, Statamic & Kirby. They store your content as simple text files, and use a folder structure for your other components – media, css, javascript. Then using PHP (or similar) your website get put together on the fly. This allows a level of independence from databases and applications to keep things much simpler and manageable.

So my initial idea is to separate the flat file CMS into 1. an authoring and 2. a publishing function. We borrow the simple folder structure to order content and manage assets from the flat file CMS & setup a simple authoring standard. Writing in markdown would also allow you to use Git to manage the whole management of content and share, contribute and collaborate with version control, cloning and forking available. The publishing arm could be a customised flat file CMS for display on the web or an API pointing to the hosted content so that it can be incorporated directly into an LMS or CMS.


Now the ease of use for such a system, which at the moment looks like a text editor, is pretty low – but there are ways that it could be made better.

  • An editing and collaboration interface like that used by Drafts or Editorially could be really useful to ease people into this new method of working. They could actually be incorporated as a optional component of the authoring environment!
  • The authoring side can be kept relatively simple for the most part – just using files and folders – and the complex publishing components abstracted away. This can mean publishing a huge tome of work is as simple as telling a system to look at a folder. The technology rather than the person does the heavy lifting.
  • Ideas like the Adaptive Media Element (AME) used in out TADPOLE work last year could be incorporated into the system. This would mean that complex and adaptive content is possible. AMEs could also be used to circumvent some of the limitations inherent in Markdown, which tends to err on the simple side of things.
  • Once content is marked-up properly its a pretty simple process to convert it to other formats. This means that such as system could be used to populate web sites just as easily as it could be used to create printed books, mobile apps, eBooks and more! This is a huge selling point and broadens the use across an institution – rather than a tool specifically for teaching, research, support or administration.
  • A system like this would be able to handle some of the issues that Mike highlighted around attribution – but also findability – a GitHub for academia would be a great idea!

Twitter Trouble

I need some advice:

How are people managing Twitter?

I have too many tweets a day in my timeline. Over my break I’ve realised that the way things have been working aren’t any more. The compulsive and deeply psychological drive to having read everything – reaching inbox zero – is getting more & more difficult. I’m starting to feel a little like a slave to Twitter. So I’m putting the call out – seeing as many of you are following way more people than I am.

So what are others doing? 

Do I unfollow?
Is muting better?
Just use Lists?
Set up multiple accounts? 

How are people tuning into the signal and not the noise? How do you find the voice you need when there the rooms getting crowded and noisy?

Affective vs Effective Education

I’ve been wondering if we should be directing the discussion around education – and what it is, what is good about it and what is valuable – to be framed as affective rather than effective.

If effect has a meaning of “a result,” it deems it to be finite, that there is an end, a measure, a point of completion.

If affect means “to influence,” doesn’t that reflect the true purpose of education as an ongoing and lifelong activity?

Perhaps this comes from a perspective and understanding of education as best represented by an ecosystem – an environment in which we interact – rather than as a task or defined structure. It is a network in its own right, but more importantly it links, binds and connects with other networks, across spaces and scales – mono, micro, meso, macro and mondo.

Perhaps individual nodes in the network can be “effective” but education as a whole should be focussed on being “affective”.

Note: I’ve previously mentioned these levels of scale – mono, micro, meso, macro and mondo – it’s from a little scrap of paper I tore from an article some time ago but it gave these basic definitions. I’ve always liked it as a way of  understanding the complexity of zoom – which I’ve blogged about before – where indicators, measurements, ideas and concepts only work at the corresponding level of zoom.

  • mono – one, alone, singluar
  • micro – small
  • meso – middle
  • macro – large-scale, overall
  • mondo – worldly

2013 in review

<p>The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.</p>
<a href=""><img src="" width="100%" alt="" /></a>
<p>Here's an excerpt:</p>
<blockquote>A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people.  This blog was viewed about <strong>2,400</strong> times in 2013.  If it were a cable car, it would take about 40 trips to carry that many people.</blockquote>
<p><a href="">Click here to see the complete report.</a></p>