No Work …. till Next Year

This blog has been neglected a bit this year. The silence has felt deafening on this end – there’s been plenty to write about, lots has been going on in life, but finding words and being able to talk things openly have challenged my expression. This site has been a place where I have shared a lot, and I often feel that it’s a disservice when it’s left idle.

Work has been challenging. My job has changed quite a bit over the last few years, and in the last year has been quite challenging. There’s been significant movement within my division, and that looks set to continue with a review completed and a restructure on the cards. That’s all led to a feeling of disillusionment and deep questioning of what I’m doing.

I’m lucky enough to have been at the university for 11 years now. It means I’ve been here long enough to understand the machinations of the place, and I’ve been here long enough to unlock long service leave.

So that’s me for the rest of the year – I’m on leave. No more work till 2019!

I’ve got enough time up my sleeve to actually go and do that thinking, to work out what I want to do next. I’m not sure about the university, or the sector as a whole. I don’t know what it is I should be doing and spending my time. But I’ve at least got an opportunity to go away and have a think about it.

Because work is not life, and in general life is good.

We’re a happy family and enjoy being together. I’ve found more interesting avenues outside of work – setting up a startup and currently looking for ways to fund it – has engaged my creativity and challenged me to do new things and push myself. I would never have got up on a stage in front of 300 people and pitched, or be interviewed on the radio. I feel I’ve got a great professional network going in EdTech – I’ve managed to find the honest, compassionate and engaging people in that space and ways to stay connected with them. I have a lot to be happy and grateful for – and work has helped create that for me. I’m glad to be back in our lovely home and in this great regional community.

It’s time to think about what comes next!

PS – Please get in touch about any projects or work that you think might be of interest. I’d love to here about what’s happening in my network, opportunities that I’d never have thought about or considered.


Some Online Learning Truths

I haven’t written here for ages, but there have been plenty of things of late that I’ve wanted to engage with. Instead of that deep engagement in posting my (Twitter friendly) equivalent of me yelling stuff out of a car window as I pass by at the speed of life:

  1. Online courses don’t need to be massive. You can have a viable class with 15-20 people. In fact the bigger the course the less of a “class” it feels.
  2. If you keep the numbers small you can dedicate more time to more students/teacher interactions. Both will feel more nourished and engaged.
  3. You don’t need to have a quiz at the end of a topic. Have a conversation instead. Don’t discount informal assessment.
  4. A course doesn’t have to be content driven. Sometimes conversation and the generation of ideas and context are more suited and more beneficial to learning. Could you run your course with zero materials?
  5. You don’t need a course to learn. Guess what!? You can just search for stuff online these days and learn by yourself! Education providers don’t have a monopoly any more. In fact formal education – you’re more difficult to engage with than ever before.
  6. Making stuff that’s meaningful is a better tool for assessment than any exam or essay.
  7. Essays are an abstraction of writing for purpose & communicating an idea. An essay is a format, a style – and for this it fails to do its job. Why? Because in essence you’re actively hiding an idea under a ton of formatting.
  8. Word count is not a signal of proficiency. Challenge the learning by forcing a more succinct statement. A tweet, a 5 minute presentation.
  9. Text is not the only way to assess. It would be faster to mark 10 x 5 minute presentation than 10 x 3000 word essays. But from a students perspective, and in the assessment of learning – just as much time/effort is required – it’s not a lesser format.
  10. Don’t forget, there are a myriad of tools and tech out there that enable conversation and dialogue. The forum can be replaced. The forum often should be replaced. Get your students to talk to each other.
  11. Different LMSs are just like Coke vs Pepsi – neither is really good for you, they have no nutritional value and you should probably just have water. We need to Think beyond the LMS.

Earn or Learn, Eat or Read

Reason students leave school: time and money. For many it’s earn or learn, eat or read… today’s system is not designed for today’s students. #asugsv2018

This tweet hit my timeline this morning as I sipped my coffee. It stuck in my craw.

The debate around the education system doesn’t seem particularly fruitful, instead it tends to centre on apportioning blame for one shortcoming or another. Education is a complex beast, mainly because it spans civic, private, social, public and increasingly, corporate realms. It involves economic, political and financial aspects at both macro and micro levels. So many spheres with so points of interaction and intersection that it is a tangled mess. But that’s what it is. No amount of streamlining, efficiency dividends, restructures or regulation will change that. Educations place in our society is as a nexus.

However, we cannot avoid the fact that the situation described in that tweet is real, students are increasingly faced with the choice to earn or learn, eat or read. And to rub salt into the wound, they are paying to do so!

But it’s this next bit that rubs me the wrong way – “today’s system is not designed for today’s students” – because I don’t think this is a problem that’s systemic within Education. Yes education has problems that contribute to this situation, but I think it’s society itself is the problem. The society that we live in is increasingly not designed for its citizens, in fact it’s becoming It’s more and more hostile to vast swathes of people, in particular the younger generation.

I’m not sure that the Education System is capable of addressing the kinds of problems that are on table. I think we’ve got a society whose value system has gone awry, and what’s happening in education is symptomatic of that.

We are in a state where we are asking to student to pay for the privilege of choosing to earn or learn, eat or read. Apparently we can’t afford to educate people any more, while at the same time we hand over billions in corporate welfare and tax breaks. We can’t afford to feed or house people any but we can give away our natural resources and sabotage our land and water.

Education can’t and won’t fix that. Education isn’t the solution here. It might even be part of the problem as the system seeks to maintain relevance and prestige by changing the concept of education to fit the ‘work ready’ mantra. We’ve shifted the costs and the burden of being a citizen onto the next generation to the point where they have to choose whether they eat or read!

Catching Up on the Year

Wow, this year is rocketing by. I was thinking today it must have been a while since my last blog post. I just checked and it was 31/12/2017. So lets catchup on where I’m up to.

I spent the last six months elbows deep in Blackboard developing up a new theme for CSU’s deployment. A lot of that work exists as a GitHub repository and it was great to really try out GitHub and use it to it’s full potential. I’ve used the Issues and Projects features of GitHub extensively to manage and maintain the projects momentum. I also built a whole Style Guide (built with Fractal) – designing and coding the thing from scratch which has been migrated into the new theme in Blackboard.

That’s the good part of the project – the creative and challenging bit. The actual implementation into Blackboard has been a real headache for many reasons. For starters the code base for Bb is awful. Styles are all over the place and the HTML of Bb itself is atrocious. Because I’ve tried to to really take the theme that somewhat resembles modern web practices – responsive design, relative measurements and improvements to readability – it’s made this a challenge. I’ve got about 20 years of technical debt present in the application code and HTML that I’m trying to update with CSS. Add to that 10 years of technical debt when it comes to content and a lack of consistent tools and practices and I’ve reached the limit of whats possible with CSS.

There were a lot of teething problems with the roll out – communications aren’t great across the institution for these kinds of changes, there were unforeseen problems caused by the theme, and the change to a responsive design was a bit much for some very vocal staff. I bore a lot of the blowback because I was the one who’d made the changes. And that was a big part of the problem, this wasn’t a team effort – I was responsible for the whole thing. I’d done the design, code, documentation, training and communications for the whole thing.

This whole thing ate the first quarter of the year for me and also a lot of the hours that I had hoped to dedicate to other projects this year – because this was supposed to be my year of the Dog. I’m no longer a full-time employee of the university, having dropped back to 4 days a week with the aim of spending the other working day on Kelpie. I’ve managed to squeeze in some some work on it – building out a new website in Jekyll and taking my new found CSS wizardry to a new level and incorporate some CSS Grid into the site. I’ve also used my new found design system skills to work on one for Kelpie, experimenting with how and what to take from a lot of great examples out there. Visually Kelpie is looking sharp now, I’ve cleaned up the logo, colours and type concepts and really got into working with Sketch.

Over the Easter holidays I took some extra days off and managed to get a few other projects underway:

  • I finally got on top of my photos. I now have a consolidated RAW archive that’s backed up to the cloud and a jpg archive in Dropbox and in Flickr. This is a huge relief. I lost all my RAW files in the fire – having backed up across disks, but not sites and our awful internet speeds mean the cloud was out of the question. I was lucky that I had started to do a yearly archive in Dropbox so we didn’t loose everything, but it was a huge loss.
  • Yard Cleaned Up – We’ve been in the house coming up to a year now and there are still a few outstanding jobs to be done. I think we fell into a bit of a rut having finally arrived home, there was a collective sigh of satisfaction having survived that ordeal and we never really got back up. But now we’re on the move. We got a tree out the front removed and our beautiful shady tree out back was in need of a drastic trim. There was also all manner of building materials, bricks and old stuff that we needed to get rid of. So over the weekend we filled a skip bin of that detritus and sent it off on Tuesday morning.

There’s plenty more to come in 2018… and it feels a bit like the year has just started in many ways now that I can mark a few of these jobs done (or at least deferred).

Design Thinking

Or, how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t.

Or, how to waste time and money without making progress.

I’m glad Lee Vinsel wrote this post Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains. While it takes a rather extreme view the further in you go – eventually equating it with the Hitler Youth (does that count as Godwin’s Law?) – it does include a relatively detailed critique of many of the problems that the cult of Design Thinking has caused.

To start – I am a Graphic Designer. I trained in multimedia and graphic design and worked in a variety of roles doing design work over the last 20 years. I’m pretty familiar with the design process, but also the skill of the designer. This is a profession, an art and a craft and it requires a diverse set of skills. Not everyone has them, not everyone has them all, and so you can quickly start to recognise what your capabilities are, what your strengths and weakness are and how to manage them. So for me Natasha Jen’s video really struck a chord with me. Lee returns to her ideas again and again throughout his piece too because they are a really strong critique of the methodology and ideology that sits behind Design Thinking.


The main problem that I have with Design Thinking is the fact that it’s hostile to an actual Designer. If you practice design then the linear nature of the process, the toolkit, the ideas, the lack of evidence, iteration or improvement is worrying. What is fundamentally flawed is the lack of “crit” – not just the critical engagement within the process, but the lack of change that occurs because of criticism.

As a Designer one of the key lessons from my years of study is critique – how to do it, what to take from it, how to handle it and what to do with it. And it’s that last one that makes a designer (and hence the whole design process). Being able to comprehend, understand and make (or not) the right changes based on criticism is the most important skill of a designer and the process as a whole. Design is iteration. It is fluid. It is changeable and the form is malleable and adaptable and you do that as part of the process. You don’t just prototype as a singular, you constantly change and adapt to feedback and intuition. Yes, intuition – the tacit knowledge and skill of the designer that is built up through years of practice, success and failure. Design Thinking does none of this. Skill isn’t just missing – its completely absent. The process actively discounts it and instead relies on the supposed meritocracy of the Post It note. Anyone with knowledge or skill can’t really exercise it in the process – they’re just along for the ride.

Absent Friends

Critique isn’t just missing from Design Thinking – its completely absent – and so when it becomes the method for change, for generating innovation, for defining the future you don’t get Design or Creativity. You get…. well nothing but a bunch of half-cocked ideas. You get the same old solutions to the same old problems. You get a vision that is so unimaginative and uncreative it looks like yet another rerun of yesteryear, because it is.

At it’s heart Design Thinking isn’t really about developing a creative or novel solutions to a problem, it’s about involvement. It’s about bringing people together to think about the problem, which is good, but not to actually solve it. Not to actually participate in change. Not to be the change themselves. Because Design Thinking isn’t about doing the work – you know, designing, that happens after the fact when someone actually has to process Post It notes and turn it into something tangible. To take a wireframe and make it real. To take a half-cocked idea and translate it into something actionable. And that isn’t design at all! Design isn’t something that’s tacked onto the end, it is the process. Design Thinking is a poor substitute and I think Lee’s article does a good job of what’s wrong when it is.

Design Thinking is how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t. It’s like a long meeting, with more activity, discussion and Post It’s but the outcome is the same. Nothing actually gets done. No change gets made. You just think about it instead.

The other absentee is history and evidence. Design Thinking assumes a clean slate and it’s dismissal of prior skill and knowledge leads to a process of simplification that wipes away history, complications, systemic issues, even legal, moral and ethical considerations. When you set the scene as a “what if” you remove context from the problem you’re trying to solve, which is the absolute opposite of Design. This really stuck out for me in Jen’s talk:

You bring forth evidence and then everybody crits the heck out of it. And that’s when you can make improvements, right? That’s when you can begin to really evaluate if something is valuable, is good, at all.

When was the last time this happened in Ed Tech?

When was the last time this happened in Higher Education?

This ignorance of history and evidence is perhaps Design Thinking’s most critical flaw. And it’s led to an unprecedented waste of time, money and labour without making much progress. How much change has really happened? How widespread are the changes of MOOCs? How has the lives of students improved because of Ed Tech? If you don’t critique, you don’t improve. If you don’t change what you’re doing then you keep making the same mistakes.

I’ve written before about critique, and more importantly the lack of it in Ed Tech, and more broadly in Higher Education.

the purpose of the critique is to make the work stronger, better, and more fitting.

I wrote that in 2015. I haven’t seen much change since then. In fact after 10 years working in Ed Tech I’m seeing the conversations come full circle. The same stuff we were discussing a decade ago are coming around again. We haven’t learnt. We haven’t listened. We haven’t critiqued.

2017 – Rebuilding: Homes and Hospitality

This year was another big one.

My daughter started school back in January which was a pretty momentous occasion – for her and us doting parents.

First Day Hugs with Dad

The build work for our house started in earnest after a long drawn out battle with the insurance company. We were paid out a fair sum of money to have our own builders come in and finish the job. We finally got to move in at the end of May after almost 20 months after the fire occurred. It was good to be home.

Oklahoma Skyline

I was lucky to have the opportunity to head over to the US again and catch up with some of my favourite and inspiring people. Thanks to Laura for showing me some of the best beers in Texas. The Reclaim Crew put on an outstanding conference where I got to meet and catch up with Tom, Alan, Brian, Jim and a whole swathe of intelligent people. The folks from Oklahoma University – Adam, John and Keegan – who showed me around and openly shared their work.


Work this year was an interesting mix of talk around innovation and the more boring and practical. I spent a it of time immersed in the EduGrowth community but was bought back to the reality of EdTech while spending a big chunk of time skinning Blackboard. I have now upped my game when it comes to CSS abilities but have earned a few grey hairs in the process. What came out of it though was a new design system – one that I hope can grow and be maintained going forth.

As a side project I dove headfirst into the world of AgriTech startups this year with my fearless colleague Ben. While we never managed to win anything we did quite handsomely with our runner up spots that proved we were onto something. We’re planning on taking Kelpie a bit further in the new year and see what’s possible.

eChallenge Awards 2017-187

Being back in our home was an amazing feeling and I think as a family unit we revelled in it. We had our space and stuff back. The house was comfortable but more importantly was that it was ours. It wasn’t temporary or a placeholder it was something we controlled and inhabited. I can’t express how important that feeling is – it’s an intangible thing, but it anchors you. Home lets you be, become and do other things.

I had the great honour to have a number of international visitors come out to Australia. Keegan, Jim and Alan all made the long trek out to Australia and it was great to catch up with them all and spend time on “home turf”. It was great to explore Melbourne with Keegan and Jim, to meet Rohan and introduce them all to Joyce and Mark. What was really exciting was when Jim and Alan actually made it all the way to Wagga Wagga. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to host friends from overseas for a long time and it was great.

A willingness to be hospitable has been missing in my life for a little while. Having spent so long living in what felt like (and technically was) someone else’s house, I never really wanted to invite people in or over. Most of our socialising was done somewhere else – out at a venue or at their place, but never at ours. Being home has changed that. We now have somewhere where we feel comfortable inviting people into – something that represents, reflects and embodies us. Now that we have our place there’s both a willingness and opportunity to invite people in and be more hospitable. Being home is the opposite of the hostile architecture that the rental felt like.

Cooking Genius of Tim Klapdor

I’m glad Alan captured my “Up-The-Duff Chicken” – my go to meal for guests because it’s both relatively easy to prepare over a conversation at the kitchen bench, simple to cook, looks impressive and is delicious. I realised afterwards that I’d served this to both Jim and Alan when they visited (not on purpose) and I think it represents something quintessentially home-made. It’s certainly not something I’ve seen on the menu at any restaurant and the use of a can of beer to steam the chicken from the inside seems quite Australian. It was really great to have Alan and Jim come into my home and show them around Wagga and the local area and it was an honour to have them both here. It was also great to travel with Alan over to Wollongong and stop at a few of my favourite places along the way – Hyam’s Beach and Huskisson for fish and chips.

2017/365/329 Reaching for the Beach

Meeting Kate Bowles and her amazing family was a huge payoff at the end of the drive. Experiencing her hospitality, and that of the whole family and the cat, was really life affirming. Her daughters blew me away with their intelligence, compassion and engagement with the world. Spending the afternoon and evening in their presences and in such hospitable company and setting recharged my sense of humanity and honestly game me hope in these often bleak times.

This year has been a shit show in so many ways. Throughout the year I’ve felt horrified at the depravity, spite and abhorrent behaviour that’s been on display. I’ve also felt completely out of my depth. I haven’t known how to respond or react in a meaningful and welcome way. I can bitch and moan from the sidelines, but most of this year I’ve been silent, unsure of what, if anything I can or should do.


2017 has been a year of rebuilding. Physically the house is done, and I’ve been able to make some in roads to being more hospitable and welcoming. I’ve got to experience it’s importance, but more significantly its effect. I’ve felt recharged and empowered by spending time with people this year, and as an introvert that’s hardly ever been the case. I realise that I was lacking in hospitality in my life, having all your stuff taken from you tends to have that effect. There was plenty of sympathy after the fact, but it wasn’t what I needed from other people that was important, it’s what I could give to them. And that’s what I’d lost in the fire – both the mechanism to do so by being able to offer my house to others, but also a real desire to invite anyone in. I think I’ve turned a corner on that one.

Students & The Cost of Higher Education

The news of the government announcing an end to the demand driven higher education system shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one, this government’s oligarchy driven ideology likes to veil their policies in the concept of the “free-market”, but in reality they are anything but. This is a party based around favours for the rich, of keeping the status quo and a naive sense of regressionism to the “good old days” (when white men were in charge and everyone else knew their place was under their rule). So something like a demand driven system, you know something that resembles democratic choice, was bound to be pulled back because it didn’t fit their ideology. This time it was done as a budget measure to pay for tax cuts for the rich (who don’t seem to pay much tax… so not sure why they need another one).

The other reason that this was inevitable was that it was getting increasingly expensive for the government. Universities were under no obligation to reduce the cost of their courses as student numbers increased and economies of scale arguments could have easily been invoked. Instead most of universities spent big to attract more students with little thought of the long term consequences of scaling up their enterprises. The government could have been proactive in this and sought to undertake some real reform in the area, but instead of attempting to tackle some of the underlying issues in the current funding model but instead they simply sort to cut funding and magically all the problems will resolve themselves.

The silence around some of the key problems in higher education is deafening:

  • No one seems willing to discuss the fact that students are being forced to prop up the higher education system as the government slowly defunds it.
  • No one seems to willing to discuss the impact of students having to bear a vast amount of debt right from the outset of their careers.
  • No one seems willing to discuss how much of the fees students pay goes to cross subsidise research and if that is a justifiable expense to be shifted to students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss the massive casualisation of the teaching workforce and the lack of time and permanent staff allocated to teach students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss if higher education will retain its value for students going into the future.

No one seems willing to discuss students.

The language around higher education seems to ignore them completely, despite the fact that our future literally depends on them. Higher Education seems fine with de-humanising itself and in being discussed purely in economic or industrial terms. We love talking about money and value, and industry sectors and exports, and economic contributions and growth, and standards and rankings.

We don’t seem to want to spend any time talking about the people.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on staff through precarious employment. How we don’t pay them over summer. How they can’t get a loan because they’re not permanent. How our last minute hiring practices creates a heart in the mouth event every single session, or how they aren’t allocated enough time to actually engage with student in any other way than the delivery of content.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on students to perform. How this course is costing them $2000 a pop so the cost of failure has huge financial costs associated with it. How there is no financial support to study. How they are forced to work menial jobs to feed and cloth themselves most of the time. How we just cut penalty rates and took $100 a week from their pay check. How we fail to even acknowledge the mental anguish our student go through in order to study. How we belittle them with bureaucratic paperwork and arbitrary penalties. How we have removed sympathy from the system of education which would acknowledge it’s very human connection. How we are silent about suicide, even when it’s attempted our own campuses, in our dorm rooms.

What worries me about the coming debate about these budget cuts is that there won’t be a sliver of acknowledgement of staff or students or the predicament they find themselves in now, let alone the state we are forcing them into. We are forgetting that Education is an essentially human pursuit, and removing the humanity is not a cost we should be willing to bear.


I wrote about the fire and the temporary permanence we lived in for close to two years. But I haven’t written about coming home.

There were of course the expected delays in the build. The took a while floors, the joinery too and each had their own knock on effect. But in the last week of May we got the keys on the Friday. We hired a van, bought a shed load of flat pack furniture and over the weekend we moved.


That Friday I spent the house night building furniture. I am somewhat of an IKEA master and knew from the outset this was going to be tough. Two wardrobes, a bed, two desks, a rather large chest of drawers, bookcase and a bunch on incidentals awaited me. I went and bought an electric screwdriver and every hex key attachment you would need and settled in. I came come at 1am, slept and was back at the house by 8am.

My wife packed up the rental. The problem with losing all your stuff is that you have to replace it – most of it. While there is plenty of superfluous stuff in our lives there are also plenty of ‘essentials’. Technologies and objects that make life easier. Goods that we have that we only use occassionaly, but are vital when called upon. But it’s funny how quickly you accumulate. The rental was fully furnished, so lucky we didn’t have to move much furniture (hence the flat pack frenzy), but there were clothes and games and utensils and stuff to preen and clean and smell better. Toys – so many toys for such a short while, many given to us from those helping out in the aftermath – they were sorted, packed and many given new homes.

Over that weekend all the furniture was erected, stuffed and filled. The house was a mess for a few more days as we began to unpack – and then I left. Off to Oklahoma for the Domains Conference. I left my wife and daughter alone in this new/old place.

My daughter didn’t really remember the house. We had looked at photos but it didn’t click. Saturday she walked in to her new room. Immediately she had her place – the bed, the dresser/desk, wardrobe with her clothes, bookcase with her books and boxes of toys. It became recognisable as her space within minutes.

The house was unpacked, clean and warm when I got home. I hadn’t learnt how to use the new appliances – induction cooktop and fancy oven – so it felt alien at first. But life didn’t stop, it kept ticking with the beat and we slowly got back to the rhythm.

School is close now, a quick walk around the corner. It was bitingly cold some mornings – but I love holding hands with my daughter and chatting as we made out way to class on the cold mornings.

The house is so warm. We’d been used to the typical Australian design feature of gaps and drafts in all our other houses. They let the cold air in and the warm air out in winter, vice versa in summer. We’d decided to spend the money and replace all the external doors and windows with double glazed units and the new building codes required floor and ceiling insulation. The new heating and cooling meant every room could be warmed just so – it was amazing. Can’t wait for summer now 🙂

We spent money doing stuff to the house. There are more cupboards everywhere and a new bathroom. We’ve ditched the deco elements (not necessarily by choice) and embraced modernism. We picked bold primary colours, bright whites and inky blacks. We installed a Mondrian in the kitchen and went redder on the cupboards.


The laundry is white with a splash of blue and the bathroom opening is golden. The little (expensive) touches were worth it the custom vanity and bench works for that small space. The antique brass finish on the taps is a relief from the standard chrome. I love the patina they’re developing.

The appliances, which were a considerable sticking point in our dispute with the insurance company, work really well. I love the control of modern electric appliances – and now I have that back, where the numbers on the dial means something – not just too hot or not hot enough.

But all that is nothing. It’s just stuff. It’s ours and it’s done but in reality it’s kind of inconsequential.

But what does matter is that I feel like I’m back home, in my place, the one my wife and I made. The one we worked on, and put our sweat and blood into. The one we had to fight for. The one where we bought our daughter to just 2 days after she was born. Where she grew and took her first steps. Where we celebrated birthdays and got together with family and friends. Where we cuddled together on Sunday mornings, bleary eyed and half asleep and watched movies, drank warm drinks and ate eggs.

There’s a few outstanding jobs in the house. We haven’t even touched the yard. But life is good now. We are happy with our spot. Home.


Lipstick on a Pig

The blog has been quiet for a while now. It’s neglect is qualified by the amount of work – professional and personal – I’ve been doing the last couple of months.

I’ve been part of an 8 week incubator program and an entrepreneurial course to help progress a personal project, Kelpie – the digital working dog. It’s been great to go through the creative process of coming up with an idea and to take it through it’s paces to develop it further. We’re now doing the final push to get our last assignments done and prepare for a 15 minute presentation.

In my 9 to 5 job I’ve been chipping away at developing a new theme and UI for Blackboard. Yes the LMS, my long time enemy has been sucking out my will to live for the past couple of months now.

While Kelpie has been a great experience, developing and creating your own thing, working on Blackboard has been the opposite. Trying to work within the technical constraints of someone else’s system is difficult at the best of times. Blackboard takes it to a whole new level. The code is so verbose and complex it’s a challenge to make even the most simple change. Armed only with CSS and within the theming conventions of the Blackboard it’s nigh on impossible to make any meaningful change. The best I can achieve with this limited toolset is what I’d equate to putting Lipstick on a Pig.

Blackboard seriously needs to get some actual web developers on staff – the state of the HTML, methods, processes and conventions are so antiquated that it doesn’t even make use of the Cascade in CSS.

Where I’ve tried to focus my attention is in the content area within the system. Most courses use the default theme’s default styles which results in pretty awful and dated looking material. Even if the content is good and well written, the presentation lets it down. Those that have tried to improve things seem to have focussed on “display” rather than use. Showing the content in a particular way has been of greater importance it seems than making the content readable – form rather than function.

The WYSIWYG in Blackboard is a problem too. It’s method of working – inline styles. Yes, gone is the convention of separating content and presentation (the thing that the main conventions of the web – HTML & CSS – are built upon). What results is a tangled mix of butchered HTML littered with an assortment of CSS, spam tags and unsemantic markup. Having just given a presentation on the usefulness of simple markup (via Markdown) and its flexibility to be repurposed and reused in a variety of ways – Blackboard’s attempt is both atrocious and deeply concerning. Why? Because it’s locks up the content into their system, not via proprietary formats but through sheer awfulness. The task of cleaning this stuff up is daunting which means the motivation to move, to redo and improve is greatly diminished. Why change what “works”? Why redo something people won’t “see”?

There are plenty of reasons to hate the LMS, I think I’ve discovered a new one.

Beyond the LMS


As the Australian delegate, on behalf of the whole continent I say Thanks for Having Me.


This is the context of my institution.


These are our campus locations.


For size and comparison – here’s an overlay of the US.

And I live and work from Wagga Wagga, one of our main campuses.


What I wanted to do today was talk about the Learning Management System, or more importantly what might come after it. But before we get to that I wanted to start with a look at the current state of play.


Over the last decade the LMS has become synonymous with online learning. The LMS has become the default. To many it defines what online leaning looks like, what’s possible and what it’s limitations are.


An element of control is baked into a centralised system. It’s one of its distinct features, but it has some significant side effects. One is an embedded power dynamic that prioritises institutional needs over students, which often reinforces didactic teaching methods where teaching is delivered from a central point.


It’s for that very reason that a key trait of the LMS is a lack of user Autonomy and Agency. Teachers and students lack any real ability to self-govern or to act on their own.


From a central space all can be observed, monitored and tracked. This surveillance is often marketed as “analytics”, and while it may indeed be able to offer some meaningful data it does so at the expense of dialogue and perhaps more importantly permission.


I’d suggest we have reached peak LMS. It has achieved saturation in the market so that is little growth left. For institutions we are now all beholden to innovation being provided to us by vendors and unable to offer substantially different products or services. When everything begins to look and feel the same the return for having an LMS will begin to diminish. Instead of being of value it starts to be a hinderance. If our goal is to create a distinctive curricula and learning experience, then the LMS simply can’t provide that.


There’s a lot of discussion around the concept of the Next Generation Learning Environment. It’s being touted as the solution to the current woes around the LMS.


I am however quite skeptical. You see it’s the same centralised model, with the same inherent problems, the same structures, the same limitations. Sure it’ll be better, faster, stronger – but it won’t change anything.


It won’t create change where it’s needed. It won’t change the visions of what Online Learning looks like.


I’d suggest that the LMS, the default, acts as a container for our thinking. Just like a vessel does with liquid – it shapes the contents. It shapes the performance and what we can imagine is possible. The container provides hard edges, limitations which define how and what we think and do.


So that’s the LMS, but what about our current practices in online learning?


One of the underlying problem is that online learning hasn’t yet adapted to the medium – the web. We’ve simply sought to recreate the physical classroom in the online space. This is what we do with any new medium – radio replicated the theatre, television replicated radio, the early web replicated print. What has happened in the online learning space is a continuation of the trednd – initially it tends to copy the old one, but over time it develops its own distinct form and function.


But online learning has yet to go through that phase. There are examples on the fringes – Downes, Siemens and Cormier’s work on connectivist and rhizomatic learning for example. But for the most part online learning is still an attempt to replicated the Physical Classroom in the medium of the web.


The fact that the biggest LMS company is called “Blackboard” is not a coincidence. Current online learning is an attempt to simply replicate classroom practice. It doesn’t embrace the web. It doesn’t seek to utilise the medium, instead it walls it all off and out.


The LMS also enforces arbitrary Time Boxes which have a profound impact on learning. Access tends to be limited to a session – 6 months – and then students are locked out. Despite the fact that they paid for the learning that occurred there – students no longer have access to the discussions, wikis or content that lives in the LMS. This Time Boxing effectively forces students to start from scratch every session – their profiles, their identity, their network gone. And there’s no way to come back. They can’t return after the fact – to revise, reread, rediscover – it reenforces this concept of learning as a linear processes, all done in step, together and at the same time.


This creates what I’ve called Learning on Rails. Similar to the style of video games where you are immersed in a realistic environment, but have no free movement to explore, simply to complete each task, one after the other. Online Learning tends to consist of linear tasks. Navigating information and working through content is done not as an exploration to hypertext document – but as a series of Next buttons.


So what could the future look like?


If we were looking at the medium itself, what is unique about it? How could we model pedagogies that utilise those traits and features?


Over the past two years working on developing a vision for what online learning could and should be. Based on the large body of educational research that exists, the aim has been to pull together a cohesive model that establishes clear elements to aide the design, development and delivery of online courses.


This is the online Learning model that we developed for CSU. We identified these key elements as part of a curriculum that encourages and enables engagement to occur.


We have also developed the Online Learning Exchange. There you will find a more extensive description of the model. We have also developed up a range of strategies that can be used to help implement the model into courses and used in the design, development and delivery process. The Mixer is a tool to map out practices and how intense their adoption is, the aim to understand that there could and should be variations in the levels depending on the subject and discipline area. It also may help diagnose issues and help direct the design process. The applications area provides case studies and how the model might be adapted over a course, tying in delivery methods and techniques as well as tying in assessments.


This body of work is aimed at moving the university – the largest provider of distance education – into a new way of doing things. It’s a realisation that the while the correspondence model of education works, it has significant inherent problems too. Going online had provided us and many others with a cheaper and easier way, but it also provides an opportunity to rethink what and how we do things.


What our work on the online learning model has uncovered are large gaps between what we want to be able to achieve pedagogically and what the technology, primarily the LMS, is actually capable of.

… but ..


At the moment the LMS is necessary in many cases. It provides a backbone and integrations with administrative functions.


There are issues to do with scale and operations that a Domains program isn’t ready to handle or set up to do. The practical perspective is that if we want to do away with the LMS – then we have to develop a viable alternative.


So let’s look at one way of getting there.


The alternative to the centralised systems, and what I think is the key to changing and transforming what online learning looks like, is moving to a distributed system. The Internet is a Distributed system. It’s success comes from that underlying infrastructure – one that is shared and open. Designed to be more resilient to breakdowns and less vulnerable to attack it also acts to distribute power so it is less abused and better reflects needs of all stakeholders, especially the small and weak.


It’s for this reason that the internet has become a place where emergence happens, fostering more innovation and discovery because people are empowered to do so. They have autonomy and agency within this structure and the ability to carve out and create their own personal and virtual spaces to share.


Domains themselves are a distributed system. They provide each individual a space for autonomous creativity and expression.


They embody these key elements that we want online learning to look like.


But Domains are really only the infrastructure. They provide a mechanism to get things done, but not the method to do achieve it. We have to build – something on top of that solid infrastructure.


My personal journey has been very much focussed on how can we replace the LMS. A couple of years ago a started thinking about how could we do this. What would it look like. And I started with – MYOS. What if we created something like an operating system where we can run our all of our own apps.


And while I think its a sound idea – the reality is that this is too big a task. Recreating applications is a hell of a lot of work, but increasingly we don’t need to do anymore. The main reason is the rise of the API.


Application Programming Interfaces provide a way for different systems and applications to interact with each other. They can share data, send messages to each other and trigger routines to provide different inputs and outputs. APIs are how apps talk to each other. They’ve been part of large applications for a long time but were locked away in the source code. Today though more and more applications are running on the web – and have opened up their APIs. This means developers can link up services – you can cross post social


Last year at the Indie EdTech meetup we started discussing this idea of the Personal API. And having got to spent some time with and listening to Kin Lane I started to realise that you don’t need to run all your own apps. You just need a way to be in control and to coordinate different service and get them to talk to each other. This way if you want to use Dropbox for storage or Amazon S3 – that’s fine. If you want to WordPress or Known – that’s cool too. Utilising a variety of existing web service is actually preferable to building your own, because then it is personal – it’s up to you as an individual to make choices. In this world Agency and Autonomy are baked in.


Utilising APIs at an individual level takes this concept of the web – small pieces loosely joined – and makes it a much more serious proposition. As an individual all these “life bits” are connected – to me. And if I can programmatically control those bit – how they connect and interact, then all of a sudden we have a very new and very powerful tool. At the same time if we utilise existing systems/application then we also have something thats very light weight in terms of development.


So my idea is to develop up a Distributed Learning System. A structured way of utilising a range of technologies to configure a viable alternative to the LMS.


Combining these three key elements we can create a truly Distributed Learning System.


Utilising Domains as the Infrastructre, Applications for functionality and APIs to connect everything together and allow data to pushed and pulled throughout the system.


In this system each student and staff member would have their own System running on their Domain – A Node. Nodes would act as their own entity. They would act as federated points – able to act autonomously but designed so they allow for connections to be made.


And Nodes would connect to Hubs. These could represent subjects or courses – but are much more flexible than that. They could be set up for projects, research, committees and collaboration. Hubs define relationships between Nodes – they allow an agreed set of rules to be developed and define the nature of the relationship – What data will be shared, who with and for how long.


Hubs establish relationships and conventions that allow aggregation and sharing to occur between nodes.


They allow content to be moved around, communication to occur, assessments to be submitted and feedback to be shared.


This map provides a way of understanding how the different components of the system all fit together. The Node acts to manage the Personal side of the equation – connecting apps together and features that are part of the Domains infrastructure.

At the same time the Hubs link together institutional systems and data with those of the nodes. They establish a handshake agreement between parties to ensure that the relationship is negoatiated, data isn’t simply made available and vacuumed up by the institution.


But this isn’t a one-to-one relationship – this is multiple nodes connected. Moving data between students and teachers


Students and teachers would interact with their own node – not the LMS or another site. Their Node. Messages from the hub could be displayed, communications sent back and forth, content would be federated so that students could read, annotate and interact with their materials that they would main them forever. All the tools we currently use for learning would all still work – but in a way that is shaped by the student, and with them having access and choice.


The radical of this that students would be able to take their learning with them wherever they please – and for as long as they please. They wouldn’t be chained or confined by the institutions any more. We could start to see this concept of lifelong learning actually be supported by the technology. Students would retain copies of their learning and they would be able to use it how they wish. Creating eportfolios, showreels, blog posts – reusing and repurposing their learning.


At the moment Domain of Ones Own relies on co-opting open source applications to achieve certain needs. Blogging tools like WordPress have become powerful tools in the hands of skilled artisans, but outside of those few individuals have we gone much further than simply blogging? But what if we used those applications the infrastructure of Domain of Ones Own to develop tools specifically for learning?


I still refer to this post from Andrew Rikard when thinking about domains and students. One way of the thinking of the Distributed Learning System is to provide a way to unbudle the students learning from their domain and digital identity. By using APIs we can be more focussed on who and how we share content. And in doing to it not only provides a safe space for students to work in – and still engage with the web, but to do it on their terms, while maintaining their authority and avoiding turning domains into the next checkbox assessment.


The real potential of the DLS is the development of new applications and tools. To utilise the latest technologies and the open nature of the web and software to create new applications that focus on learning, on a pedagogy of the web. We develop methods of learning that are of the web, and are based on discovery, exploration, creativity and reflection.


At the moment there are some fantastic innovations happening out there – over this conference we’ve been introduced to just some of them. But we’re dealing with blips at the moment. To improve and make a difference to online learning and perhaps education as a whole, we have to work to share our knowledge and experiences. We also need to make it easy to adopt them. To learn from one another and our experiences. By creating a system, and while that word may scare some people, it’s really just a way of working, we could share more easily. APIs provide a way that we could share, adopt and adapt new developments more easily – between users and institutions. Having some commonality would provide some cohesion


Moving into the future – if we want to develop and deliver a truly distinctive curricula and learning experience. One that I think would produce the kind of graduates that would thrive in the future. A distributed learning system radically changes the possibilities and provides a way to really develop self directed learner. Providing students with a level of autonomy and agency that is simply not possible within in the LMS and centralised systems, they will develop the skills to manage and define their own learning in a life long way.

If you have comments, questions or ideas – let me know. I’d love to hear them and bounce ideas around.