The Dynamics of Static Sites

For the last few websites I’ve worked on I’ve utilised this thing called a Static Site generator, and one in particular, Jekyll. I’ve wanted to post about this for a little while because it’s honestly been one of the best things I’ve done in along time. It’s forced me to deeply think about webdesign in a verry fundamental way, learn a bunch of new techniques and skills, exposed a whole new way of building with the web and returned my enthusiasm and passion for the web that I fell in love with two decades ago. The recent podcast from the Tech Gypsies was the inspiration and motivation to finally sit down and write, so here we go.

What are Static Site Generators?

Lets kick this off with a quick overview of what a Static SIte Generator (SSG) is. StaticGen, a site dedicated to listing and ranking these tools, fortunatel had this pretty adequately covered :

The typical CMS driven website works by building each page on-demand, fetching content from a database and running it through a template engine. This means each page is assembled from templates and content on each request to the server.

For most sites this is completely unnecessary overhead and only adds complexity, performance problems and security issues. After all, by far most websites only change when the content authors or their design team makes changes.

A Static Site Generator takes a different approach and generate all the pages of the website once when there’s actually changes to the site. This means there’s no moving parts in the deployed website. Caching gets much easier, performance goes up and static sites are far more secure.

In many ways static site generators simplify the technical overhead required to design, write and publish on the web. Yes there are skills you will need to employ and technology you will have to understand, but these skills and knowledge are essential literacies for working with the web. Literacies that I think gets lost when using most CMS’s and social media platforms, because their shiny Admin interfaces ad WYSIWYG editors, essentially divorce users from the underlying workings of their site and they become dependant on developers and programmers to make the web work. Static sites are a return to the essentials of the web and what makes it great and powerful.

What’s It Like Using a Static Site Generator?

Using a Static Site generator work in ways similar to Dremweaver templates but with a numbder of key enhancements You create template pages that define the look and structure of your site and you keep your content completely seperate and simple, and then with a small amount of programming code you build your site.

From here on in I’m going to be talking about Jekyll, the most popular SSG out there at the moment. While I am familiar with the range of SSGs out there, Jekyll is the only one I’ve spent a lot of time with. I’m keen to have a play with Grav in the near future – as I think it might be capable of some of the dynamic components I need with some projects.

How Jekyll works is that you create a few HTML pages as templates, utilise Liquid to create some basic queries to populate pages with content, write your content in Markdown and metadata in YAML and then get Jekyll to do the grunt work of putting it all together. What you end up with are essentially two folders – one is your development area and contains all your build files, the other is your finished site full of HTML pages, links and menus all built for you and ready to deploy on a server. If you have web hosting already set up – just FTP the folder to your site and you’re done. Even cooler – make the site a repository in GitHub and it can host it and do the build for you for free. That’s right, free websites!

The Learning Curve

For some of you that last paragraph may have been written in cypher – yes you will need to learn new things but I can assure you that the curve isn’t steep. Each of the technologies listed are core to working with the web and understanding how it works:

  • HTML – is the building block of the web and once you understand how it works, you can manioulate and publish virtually anything you want. You can tweek, hack and change your web experience.
  • Liquid – is pretty basic programming and developing an understanding is a transferable skill.
  • Markdown – can be viewed as simplified HTML, but it also introduces the power of plain text as a timeless and adaptable content format. It also brings to the for the cetral idea of seperation content from presentation.
  • YAML – is a great introduction to metadata. Using metadate we can connect content, posts, ideas and visuals and also seperate display options, graphics and information about the content from the content.
  • FTP – File Transfer Protocol is the equivalent of a file manager for your web server. It allows you to upload, copy, move, delete and update files and it kind of what the CMS admin menu will let you do – except now your dealing with real files and folders.
  • GitHub – Git is a version control system, GitHub is a service that allows you to host your digital projects online and take advantage of versioning and centralised access that’s great for teams. GitHub have also built a bunch of useful tools and additions – like website hosting, wikis and issue tracking – that make it incredibly useful for open and public projects.

Working with Text

What you will need to get used to is working with text. Rather than a fancy Graphical User Interface, to use Jekyll you’ll need to embrace the Terminal and run commands and to tweak and build things you’ll need a Text Editor. The beauty of this is that neither of these require expensive or proprietry tools, in fact there are plenty of great free options so the total cost for development is close to zero. (Side note: I’m on a Mac and have used Homebrew to get me up and running quickly.)

Developing on my local machine meant installing Ruby and Jekyll by copying and pasting in some commmands – which does mean opening the terminal. This might be pretty scary for some people – but to be honest, most of the code is cut and paste from some of the fantastic documentation and demonstration that are available. Did I tell you how awesome the community is? Well it’s one of the greates things about developing this these tools, because the resources people have shared are incredible and impressive. Even if you’re a novice you’ll find a wealth of tutotials, videos and discussion forums to learn from and engage with.

My Workflow

Working with SSGs has meant that I’ve been able to focus on the design a lot more. I’m able to use my knowledge of HTML and CSS to put together simple and well designed websites – Quickly! That’s a key element to this for me – time – and I’ve been able to invest more time doing and learning about these sites than planning, researching, shopping and hacking them together. And then having them break over time.

Tools

  • Brackets – This is my text editor of choice at the moment. It’s free, it’s from Adobe, and it’s build using web technology. It’s open, customisable and simple to use.
  • Skeleton CSS – Getting started with the actual design of a website should really begin in the code. Rather than start from scratch I’ve found the Skeleton library to be a light weight and simple starting point. In my latest project I found a SCSS version of Skeleton up on GitHub that I’ve used. This has broken up Skeleton into a bunch of components that I can add or remove from a project if needed. It also takes advantage of Jekyll being able to compile SCSS and take advantage of variables within the code.
  • GitHub – I’m a pretty novice user of Git – but GitHub I use alot. From finding interesting projects, unearthing code snippets and examples, to digging through source code – GitHub is a fantastic resource. I’ve also made use of their ability to host a couple of my sites and setting up domains to point there.
  • Reclaim Hosting – I’m a paid up memeber of the Reclaim crew, but to be honest I still have plenty of work to do on my Reclaim Project. That said setting up domains and utilising FTP is an incredibly easy and painless way of getting sites up and running.
  • Chrome – I do most of my debugging in the Chrome browser. Whenever you’re working in the web you need to see what you’re looking at and being able to bring up the developer tools (CMD+OPT+I) to inspect a site is so easy. Plus, if you see something you want to steal, Inspect and find the source code🙂
  • Jekyll Serve – one of the hand commands is Jekyll serve which basically tells Jekyll to watch a folder and anytime there’s a change, rebuild the site. When I’m making I leave this on the whole time, which means any change is a simple refresh away.

My Jekyll Projects

So in the last year or so I’ve ran a number of projects through Jekyll.

  • Inhal.es – this was my first project utilising Jekyll. The site was inspired by Stephen Downes’ amazing OLDaily posts and Audrey Watters’ HackEducation (so much so I used the same theme!). I wanted to create something similar, find an interesting article and comment on it. To set this up I had to install Ruby and Jekyll on my local machine and then tweaked the Mediator theme developed by Dirk Fabisch. The site is hosted on GitHub pages and the domain redirects from my account with Reclaim Hosting. See the repo.
  • Lessons From Dad – This project is yet to be finished or finalised, but it’s a collection of lessons I want to pass on to my daughter. I started these just before she was born and aim to continue to add to these over the next 14 years till she’s 18 – and then hand them over as a present. This project was simply playing with a different theme and finding my way around Jekyll.
  • TimKlapdor.com – This was my first big foray into using Jekyll for something beyond a blog. Instead of using Pages and Posts this site uses Collections to group content. The aim of the site was to create a simple one page resume – so each section makes use of a different type of collection. I created custom YAML data as well so that I could use Liquid to parse and populate the index page. See the repo.
  • Resume Builder – This project takes what I created for TimKlapdor.com and turned it into a forkable and reusable boilerplate for creating your own one-pager online. I’ve simply stripped the site of personal information and left it ready for you to fill in. By simply copying and adding your own Markdown files for each of the sections the page will build itself and put it all together. Most of the configuration is done in the _config.yaml file where you can change colours and various bits of informationSee the repo
  • CSU Online Learning Exchage – This has been my main project for the last couple of months. Originally this was going to be WordPress site and I started to create a Plugin that would create a custom post type and related taxonomies. As the project rolled on it was getting to difficult to define all the data and structure that I needed and there were ongoing disagreements about terminology. So instead I went back to the drawing board and decided to keep it simple. Rather than go all out with the build – I decided to make it adaptable and iterate to get it right. So I went with Jekyll. The idea was that over the next couple of months we would flesh out the site, test it with users and add features and changes as required. I can do a lot of what we need in Jekyll, and am exploring adding search via Javascript. If it fails the content is in Markdown and easily transferable and reused. The site is also an example of my recent learning. I started with SCSS as I wanted to do as much as I could with HTML and CSS without resorting to JS. I find it a lot easier to write CSS in this way, and the fact that Jekyll looks after the compiling make it simple. The banner colour is me playing with a CSS gradient animation – wait for a little while and it will change from Orange to Pink to Purple to Blue,and back again. The Mixer page was built using HTML and Flexbox, a fairly new layout function thats available and makes life a hell of a lot easier when it comes to layout. While I’ll admit it can be a little confusing, it seems to do a nice job of showing what is essentially 11 A4 pages of text🙂 . Jekyll doesn’t come with Archive pages like WordPress so I borrowed some code to create the pages for the strategies for each of the Elements . The View All page was created using Tags and some borrowed and tweaked liquid code. I also used a Liquid include to create a reusable YouTube Embed snippet. The site mixes HTML and Markdown and renders fine because I’ve added a markdown="1" to the container tag. The Learning Exchange (or LX as I’ve come to know it) is the culmination and proof for me that there is an undeniable power associated with the current crop fo SSGs. The speed I was able to get this up and running from a some basic mockups was astonishing.

So the future is Static?

I’ve loved reconnecting with some of the “old” ways of developing with the web. I’ve realised how much faster I am at hand coding stuff, becasue there’s no abstraction or middleware in your thinking. I can write, review, re-wrire, review and repeat – much, much faster. There’s no UI to get in the way. I know some people may struggle with this, but as someone who was first to code their first website by hand in Notepad – it’s hard at first, but it is ultimately beneficial. If you’re learning about web development, this is the equivalent of immersion to learn a foreign language. It can be hard at first, but you’ll see results faster and be practicing with more fluency than in any other way.

I’m not sure if WordPress is the best introduction to the web – there’s a lot that gets in the way of learning the mechanics and masquerades what’s actually happening underneath the hood. SSGs maybe more “raw” becasue you can see the engine working, kind of like a hot rod. And continuing with that metaphor – they don’t lack power or control or nuace – they just have it on show. Perhaps SSGs are the Centre Pompidou of the web.

Will SSGs suit everyone? No.

If you need forms and a bunch of server-side functions you’re better off with an existing CMS. The same goes for large complex sites because rebuilding an entire site for every small change is going to take time.

But if you just want to serve up content quickly and easily, there are few better options. I’m not entirely sure why the default for a website became a CMS which needs a complex database and programmatic language to drive it, but for most applications its simply overkill. I think SSGs are a return to the traditions of the web but with some 2015 Delorean Upgrades. Not new, but definately improved!

On Dealing with Insurance Companies

I’ve spent a great deal of time dealing with our insurance company over the last ten months since The Fire, and more so in the last month since lodging an official complaint. It doesn’t look like we’ll be in our house within the year since we lost everything, and at this point lucky if we’ll be in before Christmas. We are tired, stressed and sad, yet we have to put on a brave face everyday in order to continue at least the appearance of normal for our child and our work.

In the last couple of weeks that’s become incredibly difficult and both of us have faltered, cracked and broken down. I thought nothing could be as bad as losing everything you owned, but dealing with an insurance company has proven otherwise. The process attaches the extremely raw emotional ties to something as important as ‘home’, to a beauracratic and uncaring behemoth in order to reach some kind of resolution. You can imagine the results are less than stellar. 
Here’s some of what I’ve learnt in the process:

You are not in control. Despite this being an intensely personal subject, decisions will be made for you, not by you. You will be disconnected from concepts like “home” and “normal” the more the claim drags on. Logic is not your friend, it is the path to despair. Conflict is the only way to achieve an outcome. Ask for everything in writing, if they won’t do it, there’s a problem you are not aware of. Ask for every document related to your claim, there are mistakes everywhere. Create a timeline and keep track of every interaction. Let nothing slide longer than a week. Set reminders and make demands. Cry and scream, do not try to bottle it up and put on a brave face. Everyone will understand your circumstances, except the insurance company.

From AI To IA

When I Bryan Rieger use the term intelligent agents, almost in passing, to describe the current reality of what artificial intelligence looks like today, it really struck a chord with me. Despite all the hype and all the investment I’m not even close to being convinced about Artificail Intelligence. An intelligent agent however is achieveable and perhaps the best that we can hope for today. The kind of Artificial Intelligence that is sold to us is pure hype. What we have at the moment is single purpose code. AlphaGo is not intelligence, it’s an algorithm that’s been refined and worked on for years that only plays the game Go. It can’t play chess because ut can’t think beyond Go. It can’t respond to other stimuli or interact with you in any way. It’s not going to take your job, truth is it can’t even make your coffee.

When I listen to people talk about artificial intelligence I cringe. Their analogies and examples require a level of abstraction that requires you to leave your intelligence at the door. AI is an attempt to recreate thought, recreate how our brains work, not the other way around because our brains aren’t like computers. A computer requires something to be coded and encoded and so that there’s a distance between the information in the code and reality. The code is a construct of reality and it will remain that way for a long time.

But when Bryan mentioned this idea of Intelligent Agents it really got me thinking. Rather than these fanciful imaginations of AI that resemble 1950s Science Fiction and posit something like Silicon lifeforms, what if we focussed on the practical? An Intelligent Agent would be incredibly helpful. Having the computer perform tasks in our digital space could actually be life changing. I’m not even thinking about physical tasks like making coffee or ironing shirts, but the ability to use technology to bridge what’s in your brain and bringing it into reality.

At this point I want to mention Bret Victor’s The Humane Representation of Thought. One of the really interesting concepts in this talk was the idea of creation via conversation.

“I’m talking about improvising and sketching dynamic models in seconds, not hours or weeks, as part of the real-time give and take of a conversation.”

Bret talks about this in terms of bringing computational models and functions into forms beyond the visual and symbolic, which is quite forward thinking. That’s incredibly interesting, but the idea of creation through conversation made an impact on me. What if through the process of talking about an idea, you were able to construct it? What if you were able to develop tools and systems not through abstraction and code, but through conversation?

So I started to think about the emerging chat bot interface (something that Ben Werdmuller covers incredibly well) and how that could be combined with an intelligent agent to get things done. What if instead of asking a bot simple tasks like fetch, you could actually be developing and writing software? Developing and writing software without having to learn to code. What if instead of needing to learn a language you learnt the grammar of programming. The way that you can put things together, to string ideas together and do that in a natural language which the Intelligent Agent would be able to translate that into actual coded products.

When I start talking about the kinds of tools that I want — for example if I want to create an app for my iPhone which pushes a selected photo to Facebook, Flickr, iCloud and Dropbox simultaneously – I could make that happen via a conversation with a chat bot. A set of commands and parameters I answer as questions from the Bot, would be all I needed to create that app.

If you could created a grammar for an Intelligent Agent to translate text to code, a chat bot to provide and interface and utilise the power of APIs – anyone could easily create their own apps. To start with this would work great just text (anyone from Australia or Scotland will understand the infuriating nature of voice recognition) but it could easily become much more complex and powerful. Expanding the agents grammar, writing across different languages and platforms would extend it’s usefulness. You could even have a conversation with multiple Agents — each dealing with different aspects of the build — running the AWS services, setting up databases, designing a front end.

The idea of Intelligent Agents working with us in our digital environments would be empowering to people, as opposed to our subservient role in the projected AI driven robot future. Democratising the ability to code, write applications and manipulate data would be welcoming back to the idea of digital being a kind of protean entity. If the digital became malleable we could reform it into what we need it to be, we could take our data and turn it into something else, something that tends to be lost in proprietary formats and code that is written by only a select few.

This kind of Intelligent Agent could revolutionise the world and I think we’re getting closer to being able to do that. To get to a point where we can actually create customised systems for ourselves would be incredibly empowering because digital technology has for a long time been something that’s done to us. Sometimes it’s done for us but very rarely done with us.

I think this, Intelligent Agents, are a massive opportunity we need to explore because it could change everything. Artificial Intelligence as it stands is just the status quo, replicating the same power structures and with the same lack of respect to our humanity. Intelligent Agents though would people to create their own real world solution. It could provide regular people with the agency to build their own rather digital solutions and not be reliant on the elites in Silicon Valley, or for that matter the elites of the western world.

Rather than the future of slavery, joblessness and insecurity that Artificial Intelligence represents, what about the autonomy, agency and empowerment we could gain from our Intelligent Agents?


I’m starting to think that there’s an interesting indie ed-tech project in here. Bots + APIs + DooO = Apps of ones Own.

Temporary Permanence

This is a long post that seeks to join three threads together. It’s taken a while to get to this point and it is definitely something I am still actively thinking through. Feedback appreciated.

1. Home (or the lack there of)

I haven’t really written about my personal life for quite some time, not since The Fire from last year. Part of that’s been a choice of mine not to publicly discuss and publish my experiences and those of my family. Part of it was an inability to actually articulate the emotions of dealing with the loss of our home and everything that entails.

Now that we’re coming up to ten months since the fire and we’re still not in back in our house, I feel the need to describe the state that we’ve been living in. I don’t want to start “pity party” – but there is something in this uncomfortable reality that’s been part of our everyday lives. A force and effect that has been shaping our physical, mental and emotional state that I would would describe as temporary permanence.

The temporary part relates to the fact that at some point we will be moving home and rebuilding our physical spaces along side the emotional space around that thing that we call Home. When, where and how seems ephemeral, but it will happen eventually. It’s been telling not to have Home as part of our lives. It isn’t simply a physical building, it’s a combination of different spaces and states that act as an anchor, a reset point, and a refuge. Being without a Home has led to a very different kind of mental and emotional mindset that guides how we think, feel and deal with our day-to-day lives.

The Permanent component is the fact that this has been going on for soooo long that it no longer looks, feels or smells like something that’s temporary. When I consider the what is temporary, I picture a couple of months at best (or worst). But dealing with the loss of our home has been going on now much longer than that.

This temporary mindset has been going on for so long that it is now embedded into our routine physically and mentally. The temporary has become part of the permanent. There is significant distance between Home and where we are now. We exist in a transient state that combines the features of both the temporary and the permanent. We stand on, in and between two different temporalities. Two completely different realities and ways of seeing, interacting and rules for operating in.

It reminds me of the demountable buildings used so often by schools. Designed to be be bought in on a truck and erected quickly to house students during a crisis, like extra enrolments or to carry out repairs to a building, they lack the fixtures and fittings of a permanent space. They’re used for something that can clearly be judged as a temporary measure, but they don’t ever seem to go away. Over time they become a permanent fixture, they don’t stop being used and they’re never actually demounted and moved somewhere else. They stay and become permanent fixtures, looking awkward and out of place as they settle into the landscape. That idea of something designed to be temporary, living in a permanent space is what I’m feeling. It’s a juxtaposition a whole bunch of questions and choices that seemingly contradict each other. Choices that work in a temporary space are not built to cope with permanence and vice versa.

This manifests itself in this concept of Home and the role it plays in our lives. We are/were lucky to have access to temporary rental accommodation that came fully furnished, a rarity in Australia. At the time it was a godsend not to have to rush out and buy furniture for a place that was always going to be temporary for us. We could just move in and inhabit the space . That was fine and accepted in a temporary mindset, this is only going to be a couple of months, after that we’ll be Home. Back to our place, our stuff, our space, our choices and decisions. Until then we were OK with what the temporary afforded us because we knew that soon enough we’d be house with our own fixtures and fittings and personal items.

Ten months on and it doesn’t quite feel the same. The clear edge between what is temporary and what is permanent is gone. The furnished state of this house is now a cumbersome burden that impedes us from really claiming the spaces as Home and provides a constant reminder that this isn’t our space. We are foreigners here. This is not our Home, and that has a direct effect on how we process things emotionally and how those emotions influence our lives. So little things like the appliances in the kitchen, the furniture layout and configuration of the rooms begins to grate on you. They’re so foreign to the Home that we left and become an impediment to engaging with the space and to treating it like our home. And that sentiment seeps into the rest of your life. In many ways that disconnect becomes part of how you live life. You begin to act, behave and care like this is all just temporary. It seeps in that deeply. You have to adapt to what’s here and what’s present and now, and that is starkly different to what was. Your whole life becomes a nice place to visit but at least I don’t have to live there! But now you do, the length of time spent dealing with the temporary has constructed a permanence that changes everything.

The place that was a refuge is now a prison. This place now mounds every aspect of your life – your hopes, dreams and aspiration. Your thoughts and feelings become detached as realities and temporalities collide. Life becomes stuck, a victim of this Temporary Permanence.


2. An Age of Temporary Permanence

In the last few weeks, having got to the point where I can recognise and articulate this experience, there has been a profound recognition that this is a lived experience for so many people on this planet. This disorientation and contradiction and the affect of temporary permanence is a global state. For every refugee in the world that it’s displaced, this is their reality. The refugee camps that were seen as a release and a safe haven from conflict become prisons over time. Where years are spent readjusting and living in not just temporary accommodation, but temporary lives, cut off from Home but also work, family, community and place. My affinity is limited to just to place, I don’t have any other trauma to deal with, so by no means do I want to compare what my family have been through with those of refugees. But I understand now that kind of disruptive emotional state that temporarily permanence places on someone.

There’s a stress and conflict created by the inability to divide the temporary and the permanent, they actually co-exist within the same space. For us it’s been the constantly changing timelines of the process of rebuilding. We’ve kind of gone from thinking that this is a short term temporary thing to not actually knowing when we will ever be in our house due to the continuing delays.

I think this is the root of it is that I don’t think we are designed as humans to cope with that coexistence of temporalities. That the temporary and the permanent need to be separate in order for us to cope. The ambiguities around time lines is the disrupting force here. These changes affect emotions and the way that our brains cope with the information and the situations we find ourselves in. We can’t rely on our mindsets and processes from our previous experiences. This is like nothing you’ve ever felt or experienced before, and most people don’t and won’t experience this.


3. Temporary Acts Permanently Changing Lives

Perhaps the most stark example of the effect of the Temporary Permanence was captured in the recent footage from ABC Australia’s Four Corners program, Australia’s Shame. Of greatest concern for me was the fact that children were being a locked up in solitary confinement for arbitrary and extended periods of time. There was now defined dates or times for these kids. The rules around adult solitary confinement were completely ignored and I am deeply concerned about the psychological and mental state of those children. This is situation where Temporary Permanence is harmful, and we watched as these kids cracked over time. The inability to attached themselves or their lives to anything permanent, the fact that what was supposed to be temporary punishment become a permanent state, that these kids were already damaged by the system – it creates a powder keg, and the resulting explosion is that of a young persons life.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

This is the fouth year I’ve been invited to participate in the CSU Think Piece project. The idea here is to put forward a brief presentation on the challenges and opportunities of learning and teaching at CSU to help stimulate an ongoing and open dialogue. This years theme is “Leadership for Innovation in Learning and Teaching”.

If you would prefer to watch and listen the presentation is available on Youtube.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

My Name is Tim Klapdor – the Online Learning Technology Leader in uImagine. In this think piece I wanted to explore the notion of leadership and hierarchy in the increasingly complex environment that is education.

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One of my long standing beliefs is that the human default for organisation is the hierarchy. It’s simplicity enables us to quickly organise a group of people in order to achieve a set task.

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And while default may just be, as Homer Simpson suggests, the two sweetest words in the English dictionary – I tend to question their value.

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The most obvious reason is that people rarely move beyond the default. For most of us the default isn’t the starting point, but the end. They are used as a shortcut – assuming for a fact that someone with more skills has looked at all the issues and made decisions on our behalf.

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While initially an organisational structure may have been adaptive, over time hierarchy becomes an embedded part of the culture. It becomes the default lens for seeing all problems and the default way in which they are the addressed. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

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When it comes to defaults we need to start questioning the consequence of them:

  • What it is they entrench?
  • What do they avoid?
  • What do they hide?
  • What do they improve?
  • What do they enhance?
  • What to they leave behind?

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And more importantly WHO?

  • Who do they entrench?
  • Who do they avoid?
  • Who do they hide?
  • Who do they improve?
  • Who do they enhance?
  • Who to they leave behind?

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy8

When it comes to current concept of leadership and the language around it, the default is to think about it in terms of hierarchy. In particular – leaders and followers – which immediately embeds a power dynamic based on Us & Them.

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This seems at odds with the kinds of organisations we want and of what we ultimately want to be a part of. But Hierarchy tends to distills roles into these kinds of binaries which may work well in simple organisations but tend to stretch and break the larger an organisation gets.

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The reality is that Hierarchies and the kind of leadership they promote won’t help us move into the future. One result of hierarchical organisations is that they divorce people from power. Rather than empower people, they seek to confine it to just a few and use the hierarchy itself as the mechanism to maintain and support this function. This kind of leadership has limited use and really only work well for small, simple problems – something that education is increasingly not.

So it begs the question:

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy11

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If we think about the kind of environment our organisation operates in – most would say that it’s pretty complex. There are a variety of connected, dynamic, interdependent and interactive factors at play – financial, social, personal and political systems that we intersect with at both individual and organisational levels.

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One way to make sense of this complexity is to use something like the Cynefin framework.

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Developed by Dave Snowden the framework is a tool to facilitate Sense-Making. Where we can plug in different situations into the framework to consider the kinds of approaches and characteristics that work in each of the domains.

You can find an excellent explanation of the Cynefin Framework from Dave himself on you tube

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In order to understand hierarchies and leadership in today’s climate I think we need to focus on the Complex domain. That what worked previously doesn’t work any more because the environment that we’re operating has changed significantly.

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Education is no long simple or even complicated because it now operates at a global and local level of interplay with various markets, governments, communities and individuals (both students and teachers). You throw in a couple of decades of computing and rapidly changing communications technology and we have a system that no longer knows what is best practice. It’s difficult to even define what is good practice.

Complexity challenges simple wisdom:

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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result”

In a complex environment, doing the same thing twice will give a different result.

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“You can’t fix what you can’t measure”

You can intervene in a complex environment, even if you can’t measure it reliably.

Complexity also challenges existing measures and metrics and often finds them inadequate. Problems often have many contributing factors, often far beyond an organisations control, be they social, political or cultural. But rather than admitting defeat, complexity challenges us to find ways to intervene rather than fix or solve a solution entirely. That small changes can have big effects. And we see it when providing support to a student at a particularly difficult time results in them completing their degree goes on to ultimately changing their, and their whole family’s, lives.

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In the Complex domain even beginning to understand the problem requires experimentation. The final solution is only apparent once discovered and in hindsight it might seem obvious, but it was not apparent at the outset. No matter how much time you spend in analysis, it is not possible to identify the risks or accurately predict the solution or effort required to solve the problem. Complexity requires us to focus on emergent solutions.

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Associate Provost for Digital Learning a Middlebury College, Amy Collier uses the phrase Not-Yetness to describe what is happening in Distance and Online Education. To quote her:

In our context, emergence is allowing new ideas, new methodologies, new findings, new ways of learning, new ways of doing, and new synergies to emerge and to have those things continue to feed back into more emergence. Emergence is a good thing. For us, not-yetness is the space that allows for emergence. Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

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Emergence is not only key to solving problems, but to discovering and defining them too. Emergence is the practice required in the complex domain and it looks and feels a lot like learning and research – two things that universities are more than capable of. It may seem counter intuitive but emergence is about loosening control and providing space for iteration and adaption. Of being willing to take risks and for risk to be part of the equation, rather than something that has to be eliminated. It is the realisation that to affect change it has to be in numerous small and in many different ways.

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A single silver bullet that will fix everything will never happen in a Complex environment.

But

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The way we currently do things doesn’t really allow for emergence and it certainly doesn’t support iterative development. These two things are key aspects of innovation. The silos and bottlenecks that hierarchy creates impedes innovation at Every. Step. Of. The. Way.

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One way is to rethink the concept of leadership and to uncouple it from the hierarchical structure. Leadership should be something that we can build and develop outside the hierarchy. To model a different kind of leadership, one that doesn’t rely on the concept of leaders and followers.

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Leadership is taking the responsibility to create an environment that facilitates a transition between states.

This is the definition I came up with during the Graduate Certificate in University Leadership and Management. It’s an attempt to define the role of a Connected Leader.

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Instead of authority there’s responsibility. Instead of control there is autonomy through a focus on environment. And instead of change (which is now the rule rather than the exception) I’ve tried to define a process that is more holistic and captures the journey as much as the destination.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy30

Another way to to change is to shift the focus from the vertical elements in the hierarchy and to develop of horizontal structures – teams that compliment, collaborate & share across divisions, schools and faculties. To augment the hierarchy and reduce the silo issues teams that span the silos that a hierarchy creates work together in a more holistic way. These teams share and create knowledge that span the organisation rather than it being concentrated.

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Another way would be to invest in areas that create diversity within the organisation. This would be a process of investing in innovations outside the normal “business functions” of the organisation and in areas that the organisation relies on for support. Technology is an obvious one, investing in the development new systems that support the delivery of our online courses. There are other areas like professional development that would allow use to develop and test new and innovative practices, course designs and methodologies

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Perhaps the best way to encourage Emergence is to provide greater autonomy. To allow individuals to explore within their unique circumstances. The work we’ve been doing in uImagine embodies some of these ideas. The Online Learning Model provides a language and a way of thinking about teaching and learning that allows individuals to adopt an adapt practices to suit their needs without being prescriptive. It’s elements provide a way of thinking about and conducting teaching and learning in the online space that is based in research and evidence. It is a way of allowing staff across the organisation to participate in the conversation and explain the vision for what our online course can be.

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Another method is to to connect the knowledge that exists across the organisation. Our next project, the Online Learning Exchange, seeks to support the autonomy of the individual by providing access to exemplars of practice. It will hopefully become a tool that provides individuals with the information they need to make changes to their subjects and practices, and in turn share those with the CSU community. The vision for the Learning Exchange is that it will become a resource for sharing – connecting knowledge across the institution by operating outside of faculty and school structures. It will become a place for not only finding exemplars of practice – but contributing to them too.

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Perhaps we don’t need to dispense with the hierarchy totally – it provides a stable scaffold from which the organisation can run. But perhaps we can create spaces in and around it in which we can work. Through which innovation and change can emerge through a culture that accepts the notion of not-yetness.

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Images

Complexity by Mark Skipper

Links

License: CC-BY-NC 4.0 @TimKlapdor

A Tidal Response

Last week my post Does it Scale? was featured on Doug Belshaw & Dai Barnes’ excellent podcast – TIDE. Honestly it was a surprising pleasure to hear my name get mentioned and listen to some deeper analysis of what I’d written as I pottered around the kitchen. The episode featured two guests, Greg McVerry and Ian O’Byrne, so my piece was commented on by four people – plus some additional commentary from Laura Hilliger’s newsletter.

It’s been a little while since I’ve been on the end of a critique like this – and it was a unique experience to listen to it done via podcast. I was interested to hear the quite different interpretations of that particular post. While I don’t think anyone disagreed with the overarching point, there seemed to be a few points that raised some concerns. I thought I would address a couple of these as part of a dialogue that seems to be spanning multiple medias and mediums. This post is a reply to what’s been said and aims to continues the conversation. To be clear – I don’t disagree with what anyone has said, but I want to address a couple of points in order to clarify my intent and present the other side of the discussion🙂 .

Limitations and Potential

Doug mentions Laura Hilliger’s newsletter in which she took issue with a particular section. I wrote

“Human’s have limits. We can only be so fast, so strong, so big, so small, so smart. We are finite creatures. We have biological, physical, mental and neurological limitations. We have to choose how we operate within those constraints.”

to which Laura responded:

which I wildly disagree with. Our bodies are anti-fragile, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our minds are too. I agree that “everything has to scale” and “we need MOAR” are myths that are suck-all for learning. Automating education, as Dai puts it, doesn’t work. Equally insidious these attitudes are contributing to the the destruction of the planet. I agree that learning is human, but not that it is finite or that the stuff we can learn is finite. No, no. Learning, growth, development for a human is an endless and never-ending journey. If we’re going to be a broken record on the topic of “scale”, let’s start talking about how we scale the “economy of care”.

What I’d like to comment on here is the interpretation of the word “learning”. In my original post my intention was to describe and attach these ideas to the concept of learning as a process – the how of learning, not the what. The post aimed to discuss learning as a process – not the stuff we learn, nor the technology we may utilise to do it, nor the system through which we use for access.

Another point I do want to discuss here is something that Laura and Ian raise as well – the idea of the finite human – as it seems to have hit a nerve.

In many ways I agree with Laura, that “learning, growth, development for a human is an endless and never-ending journey” – specifically as it applies to our potential and the plasticity of the human mind. The proof is that humans are the most supremely adaptable species on the planet, able to adjust and change to massive changes in climate, culture and environment. I agree with Doug that it’s at this point that Laura and I might just be talking past each other, because while I agree that we have virtually incalculable potential to do things, the reality is that we still have limits. This is the (unfortunate?) reality of the universe we live in and the dimensions we inhabit. Growth is not infinite, there’s often scope for a lot of it, but as with the planet, at some point it begins to swallow up and affect other things.

It’s not comfortable for many people to accept this point of view as it flies in the face of embedded cultural ideas that we can be and do anything – but the reality is that we can’t. We all have physical and mental limitations, and that’s before we move on to the social and economic ones. It is important to note that these limitations do not affect our potential – we can certainly be and do almost anything we want – but only if we are granted the right opportunities and are prepared to work at it.

And to sacrifice. As a creature with hard physical and mental limits in order, we need to recognise that to improve and live up to our potential we have to sacrifice certain aspects of our mental and physical selves.

We specialise and devote more of our limited resources to specific areas. In order to know more about one area we sacrifice learning in another. In order to be a faster runner we remain an awful swimmer. We can do a bit of everything or concentrate on just a few – we can’t do both. Those that transcend to another level of consciousness as Ian puts it, do so by sacrificing vast amounts of knowledge (by exclusion and focus) and experience (science, food, travel and family come to mind). Humans have limitless potential to be who and what they want – but they are limited by what they are able to do. Infinite growth is impossible. Can you go beyond the limits of where you are? Of course, but it’s through sacrifice.

Education isn’t Learning

The other point I want to make is that Education isn’t learning. Greg goes on to make the point that we have scaled up learning at a number of points in time – the printing press and the web are two examples. But I argue that those elements aren’t really learning per se nor are they related to learning as a process. As technologies they augment our human abilities to transfer information, open up new avenues for what we can learn and have pushed us to the brink of how much information we can actually store in our heads – but have they actually changed the process of learning? Making content available is not learning. It can assist the process of learning, in particular the process of teaching and instructing – but you can’t conflate content nor access with learning. The underlying practices of learning and the neurological underpinnings have remain unchanged. And the things we know about how people learn best haven’t changed – authenticity, discussion, engagement, individual attention. We’ve scaled up the system around learning – this thing we call Education – but how much have we really changed or scaled when it comes to learning? A MOOC may have 100,000 participants – but are they learning differently? Has their learning actually been scaled up or is scale being applied to the provision of certain aspects of an education? Are those participating actually learning in different ways?

Technology Changes Things

With all that said – technology tends to change things. In many ways technology allows us to augment our human limitations and to push beyond. A forklift allows one person to pick up and move a load that would normally be too heavy for one person – overcoming the limits of strength as applied to the human. Digital technology has massive potential for us to augment some of our limitations when it comes to learning but, as per the original post, current efforts are all focused on this idea of scale. Of making education available to as many people as possible at the lowest cost, not on doing much to improve the learning process. Ed-tech is being led down a certain path and shaped in a certain way that is based on industrial process and not on the human aspects to improve the process of learning.

That’s why I’m here – because I’m not interested in scale, I’m interested in learning. I think technology can change, can improve, can transform learning – and pursuing that change is a goal worth my time and effort. At the end of the day it will be worth it if we can improve someones learning in order for them to reach their potential – however limitless that maybe.

PS – A Lament for Blogs

I was keen to add something to this discussion but it may not have happened. I don’t know if another podcast has ever discussed my work – I was lucky that I listen to TIDE on a regular basis. I didn’t know Laura had commented on it either. It’s times like this that I miss blogging and it’s associated technologies – in particular pingbacks and comments. I see why blogging was so powerful and why so many people lament the lack of it – because through blogs you could create and follow a thread across sites and platforms… something that’s much harder to do today!

From Us & Them to We

One of my long standing beliefs is that the human default for organisation is the hierarchy. It’s simplicity enables us to quickly organise a group of people in order to achieve a set task. With the Cynefin framework in mind, a hierarchy works for Simple problem space. At a stretch they can be used in Complicated problem spaces, but more often than not this is where they start to fail. Too many possibilities and influences mean that more layers are added and each layer becomes a bottle neck. Once we get into Complex spaces hierarchy becomes an impediment rather than an aid and in Chaordic space they often become destructive. Hierarchies have a limited scope and are useful for small, simple problems. However, as our world becomes more populated and more connected, the problems we face are becoming bigger and increasingly more complex. The systems that enable us to thrive and survive (and those needed into the future to address the ecological strain we’ve created) are complex adaptive systems. Finance is no long simple because it operates with a global level of the interplay between various markets, debts and risks. The logistics of supporting life in cities is incredibly complicated, with complex supply chains and logistical operations that crisscross continents and nations. The reality is that Hierarchies won’t help us move into the future.

What I’ve been trying to think about is why do hierarchies work and why do we default to them?

Divide and Conquer

The power paradigm associated with hierarchies is that of division. They create a power dynamic by establishing an Us & Them situation. One has access to power the other doesn’t. One leads, the others follow. When problems were relatively simple and the number of people involved are few, a hierarchy made sense. In a biological way humans are set up to be social and a hierarchy enables a social system to be set up relatively quickly and easily. We can debate patriarchal and matriarchal pros and cons, but hierarchies are more about who has the power not the reasoning for a power dynamic in the first place.

Us & Them

What hierarchies create are a distinction between Us and Them. Whether you’re the one with power or not, there is a common Us that you share with others and a Them that represents those who are foreign to you. Us & Them becomes an embedded mindset and a lens in which we see the world. We become focussed on what is different to Us. Identifying who are the others becomes a driving force in how we see the world and operate within in.

Us & Them has become the defining feature of the cultural systems we humans have devised so far. From governments to religions, sports to the courts, finances to education – we have created adversarial and competitive systems that create and operate around division. Us & Them defines how we currently operate on this planet.

But is it becoming less relevant? In a globally connected world who They are is increasingly difficult to define. So too Us. When we are connected do borders matter? Do borders contain us? Do they define an Us? Does locality matter any more when distance is no longer a factor? When instantaneous global communication is a reality who do we call Them?

From Us to We

The reality is that every human on the planet shares 99.5% of their DNA. That means that all the differences we perceive to exist between us – the colour of our skin, gender, race, sexuality – is represented in just 0.5% of our genetic make up. If anything else in the world was 99.5% the same we would call it identical. The actual differences are so minute they just don’t exist. Once you come to see humanity as 99.5% the same, instead of seeing Us & Them you begin to see a We. That we share too much to be defined as truly different. Differences are simply augmentations, often based on things well beyond our control. The fact that we think randomality within our 3 billion lines of DNA code defines Us, that 0.5% of our makeup makes us part of something is laughable. This isn’t some hippy ideal – statistically speaking we are all the same.

When we become a “We” the way the world is perceived changes completely.

What do We deserve?

When the world is a We rather than an Us & Them most of our cultural systems are called into question.

If We are the same then why do 62 people have more wealth than 3.5 billion?

Does the current for of representative goverment and parliament work when we don’t directly vote on the laws we are governed by or choose how our taxes are spent?

How do we justify the treatment of refugees and those fleeing for their lives?

How do we justify the destruction of lives through war?

It’s easy to justify many of the things behaviours and decisions we as individuals and collectively as governments make with Us & Them mindset, but almost impossible once you do look at them through the lens of We.

We is a counter cultural mindset when the world around us is defined by Us & Them. It was something that some of the Hippies got back in the 60s – rather than a world built on hierarchy we did it differently? That small cultural shift led to massive changes in the US around Vietnam, feminism and civil rights. This isn’t a new or original idea – take the teachings of Buddha or Jesus, they are predicated on us ditching the Us & Them and embracing the We. It’s about seeing the world differently, and once we see the difference we can make the change.

Visual Thinking: Private, Public, Civic, Social

I tend to ponder on big issues – politics, the state of the planet, humanity in general – the usual. Recently I’ve been trying to map out some of thoughts like:

  • What do certain political ideologies look like?
  • What does the Panama Papers means for our societies?
  • How does Silicon Valley effect my local community?
  • What did societies look like at certain points in history?

To achieve this aim I started with simple graphs, then started to think in 3D and then it all got too complicated.

I came back to this problem this week and developed this simple concept:

private-public-social-civic-1

This maps out the main domains we tend to inhabit, the:

  1. Private
  2. Public
  3. Civic
  4. Social

These represent quite different ways of operating and forms of expression.

The way that I’ve been thinking is that the Private domain represents a personal expression – “I am” and is individualistic in its operation. The Public domain however is group driven “We are” and operates as a competitive environment. The Social domain is about an individuals constructed connection – “I am part of” and operates as a cooperative, together but with a personal outcome. The Civic domain represents communities that we inhabit, “We are part of”, they are collaborative achieving effort for the community as a whole.

The idea with the graphic here is to adjust size and overlap to represent different ideas. You could also overlay additional domains one might interact with, for example the Corporate domain:

private-public-social-civic-2

And then you can play around with different ideas – like the Neo-Liberal Agenda:

private-public-social-civic-3

What might Communism have looked like?

private-public-social-civic-4

What about a local community?

private-public-social-civic-5

At the moment I’m just playing around with the idea of thinking visually … and as a way to represent thoughts in something other than words. I’ve been thinking about the overlaid areas and what they might mean – for example is the cross over between the Civic and Personal domains Family? Social and Personal friends?

I just thought I’d put this out there – I’m not sure it’s of any use – or just a copy of something someone has already done. Just thinking out loud.

Everything on this page is CC-BY and if you want source files get in contact – happy to provide them. 

Administrivia and APIs

It was great to spend time talking with students at the #IndieEdTech/API Conversation a couple of weeks ago. Listening to their voices is something I need to make sure is a bigger part of what I do. It was both refreshing and insightful… And slightly concerning.

The concerns raised by students in various groups during the design sprint (judging by the various blog posts out there) seem to have been focussed on administrative tasks.

Finding and accessing information that has value and meaning seems to be a huge issue for university students. Navigating the complexities of our organisational design, corporate structure and responsibilities is tremendously difficult. Institutional Knowledge is simply inaccessible for most students, especially those who need it most – first in family, the under privileged, minorities and the disenfranchised – who often lack the cultural capital to seek, let alone find, information within our organisations.

I’m not sure if those working in Higher Ed realise just how complex our internal structures and systems are to navigate. Those of us who’ve been in here long enough have learnt it’s not what you know (or even where you go) it’s who you know. The fact is that the skills required to navigate the system aren’t embodied by the system, but in the tacit knowledge of those who work in it. This should be of concern to everyone involved in the system.

But it isn’t. We are failing to communicate effectice and do very little to address the administrative overload we place on staff and students – we just keep adding more. We just add another system. We just create a new department. Or rename an existing one. We restructure again. We run a project for 6 months. We create another new website but leave the old one in place. Information is constantly added but nothing is ever removed. This all becomes a burden that hinders students from focussing on their primary aim – learning!

Then there’s the language. In my organisation I think it’s possible to have an entire conversation that would be unintelligible to any outsider just by using our internal nomenclature. The effect that the casual observer may think we’re speaking in Swahili. We have so many unnecessary acronyms and seem to waste an incredible amount of time explaining them, but no desire to simplify the language in order to make it accessible. How does this help students or new staff?

There’s a massive assumption that technology actually offers efficiencies and not more administrative overheads. Every product sells itself as more efficient and more effective than what proceeded it, that everything will be faster and better. But when you measure those claims against the one constant we have – time – do they stand up? Has anything ever actually freed up more time to teach? Improved your life so much you can switch to more fulfilling tasks? Or has the amount of administration simply exanded to the point of suffocation?

I agree with this tweet, to a point – teachers can’t be replaced with technology – but how much of the technology that we’ve rolled out in the last 10 years has created more time for teachers to focus on their learners and build relationships?

The Ed-Tech industry (and the billions of venture capital dollars being fed into it) seem to assume that the problem is not the technology, but the teachers. That if we get rid of them, or automate their function we’ll somehow get a better education system.

I agree with Helen on this one – that the way forward is definitely not more technology, but less. Less faux interaction and more real ones – with actual human beings. What’s needed is to stop the need for people to the part of the technology that makes it all work, the soft malleable stuff that glues things together. Less automation of the human elements and more automation of the data itself.

Context Sensitivity

I’m always so surprised at how unhelpful our technology tends to be. Yes, our phones are connected to the internet so the world of information is at our finger tips, but why is the search prompt the primary interface of my phone? Why is it that so little information seems to actually come to me despite a myriad of data points available.

I read Bret Victor’s Magic Ink paper some time ago and I suggest you have a look as it’s thoroughly engaging discussion on this topic and not particularly technical. The abstract reads:

The ubiquity of frustrating, unhelpful software interfaces has motivated decades of research into “Human-Computer Interaction.” In this paper, I suggest that the long-standing focus on “interaction” may be misguided. For a majority subset of software, called “information software,” I argue that interactivity is actually a curse for users and a crutch for designers, and users’ goals can be better satisfied through other means.

Information software design can be seen as the design of context-sensitive information graphics. I demonstrate the crucial role of information graphic design, and present three approaches to context-sensitivity, of which interactivity is the last resort.

Bret goes on to illustrate and outline his ideas with wonderful demonstrations and cases that model the kinds of behaviour he’d like software to represent. When I reflect on many of the conversations and topics discussed at the #IndieEdTech event, particularly around the concept of the Personal API and the issues outlined above, there is a strong parallel to this paper:

  • When we talked about non-traditional students accessing a knowledge bank – it was to overcome the curse of having to interact with a system that has no understanding of your context, structures with no meaning and language that’s incomprehensible.
  • When we talked about a course handbook that contained ratings and examples of student work – it was because of how barren and decontextualised the information that students had access to when making choices on what to study and why.
  • When we talked about using Slack as a model for interaction between students, the LMS and their class – it’s because so much time was wasted navigating these systems that the purpose – actually learning – was being lost.
  • When we talked about building an API mixer – it was to empower users to take control of their data, but also to automate the drudgery of “interaction” with the glut of information systems within the university.

My experience of APIs with IFTTT has enabled me to actually reduce the administrivia I’m required to perform in my professional and personal life. I’ve programmed an auto-updating timesheet based on geo-location. I get a personal weather update based on my location at the time I’m usually getting dressed so I can make sure I’m clothed appropriately for the climate outside. The simplicity of IFTTT recipes mean that I can utilise a range of APIs to provide the Context Sensitivity to improve my experiences with technology. Technolgy begins to work for me. Imagine what would be possible for learning if we applied the same thing to Ed-Tech? APIs rather than Robots. Simple solutions rather than complex ones.

Simpilicty of Language

Another way forward is to begin to simplify the language used in universities. One of the things that I got from listening to Kin evangelising APIs was the role of language in the design process. By starting a project off with the development APIs you could actually design in a much more thoughtful way. This process of developing an API system represents the simplification of language in order to develop clearly defined functions and purposes within an organisation. It’s a document that everyone should be able to can relate to – from administrators through to designers and developers – it should be Human Readable. This process requires the functions and purposes of the Univeristy to be abstracted from the specificity of systems, and creates a more broadly accepted and accessible language from which we can all operate from. This way of working with technology can dramatically reduce the friction in terms of technical implementation – but adopting the same language would have a real impact on reducing the institutional knowledge gap that staff and students have.

Language really matters and I would love to see institutions take steps to make theirs more accessible. To go through a process of simplification in order to remove it as a barrier for learning, but also for adopting and utilising technology.

Smarten Up Dumb Technology

I’m going to keep going back to this – but for me #IndieEdTech really is about increasing autonomy and agency. Part of that is empowering users to take control over their technological footprint – to utilise the tools they want in ways that suit them.

So rather than seeking to constantly create smarter technologies, what if you simply allowed people more control over how they interacted with them? What if you provided tools that allowed users to move data between systems more easily? What if you got your internal systems to talk to each other in a shared language? What if you made systems more contextually aware? What if instead of investing millions in “better” technology you empowered your users?

I think APIs are a way in which we can do that. They don’t represent the solution, but a way to find it.

Does it Scale?

“Yeah, but does it scale?”

This question seems to have become the catch cry of today’s education circles. From politicians to presidents, tech pundits to tech critics, teachers to theorists1 we all seem to be concerned with scale.

But what are we really talking about when we discuss scale? What does the idea of scale imply? How does it impact the way we think?

The idea of Scale seems to be informed by the Industrial Age, and in particular manufacturing. Scaling up of manufacturing, from hand-made artisan processes via mechanisation and machine production lines, led to significantly lower unit costs i.e. stuff got a lot cheaper. This was seen as a great thing and led to the transformation of global economies from aristocratic driven to consumer driven economies. It reorganised the concentration of wealth and power in the economy from the few to the many, from the state acting on the whim of the few to being powered by a market force. In this case, scaling up manufacturing was a good thing as it allowed more people to purchase and own manufactured objects, which had been out of reach for most of the population. It dragged people up out of povery into a life more comfortable and less demeaning. It changed the power base of economies around the world from the few to the many. (At least for a short time… until the few worked out how the new levers worked and to regained control and re-concentrate the wealth being generated.)

But education isn’t an object. Learning is not something that can be mechanised, it is organic and biological. Learning is human – and therefore the only scale that works is human scale.

Human scale is the set of physical qualities, and quantities of information, characterising the human body, its motor, sensory, or mental capabilities, and human social institutions.

Human’s have limits. We can only be so fast, so strong, so big, so small, so smart. We are finite creatures. We have biological, physical, mental and neurological limitations. We have to choose how we operate within those constraints.

It doesn’t matter how much growth you have in your mindset – there’s a hard limit because the world we inhabit is finite. Whether we can truly comprehend that fact seems to be another matter, because at this point in time we seem to be completely fixated on growth and not on whether that’s actually possible.

The idea of Scale plays into this obsession. Nothing seems to have value anymore unless it’s at a massive scale. Perhaps it’s because technology has shrunk our concept of distance that we tend to think global rather than local. Today we can hop on a plane and within hours cross oceans, traverse mountains, plains and rivers. What we consider as “big” has changed, so that we now tend to think of big as being in the billions rather than hundreds. It’s at this point that Scale stops being a human thing and instead Scale becomes de-humanising.

We start referring to people as customers or users. Wealth in dollars rather than happiness. Change as percentage points. Everything translates into numbers. We can abstract our whole world into a spreadsheet.

In a Scaled world numbers replace humans – those fleshy individuals with thoughts and feelings and family and friends. Climate change becomes an argument over 2° rather than the fact that we are taking the planet to the point where billions of people will die.

Scale undermines human concepts like care, solidarity, love, compassion, sharing, joy or sadness. As Doug Belshaw put it recently:

Caring doesn’t scale and Scaling doesn’t care.
– Tide Podcast

Scale has become an important part of the Neoliberal ideology that is running the world. It works well as part of it’s hyper-libertarian agenda which seeks to justify the destruction of the social and civic components of our society and replace them with corporate structures. By invoking the concept of Scale those in power can easily dehumanise that which they wish to dismantle and destroy. Business becomes a term for global mega-corporations rather than anything that resembles a “family business” that you and the ones you love might build together and dedicate your life to. No, instead of seeking models that are sustainable and contribute something back to society, the focus is on monopolies and creating “unicorns” that simply extract wealth and ship it off shore. Business becomes an operation that embody Scale itself – in all it’s dehumanising glory.

In many ways Scale is a way of thinking about big things but without addressing any of the complexities that are associated. It doesn’t require you to think about who or what is being exploited, what waste and bi-products are being produced or the social and environmental impacts. Scale boils all that down into a single number – profit.

Yes education needs to get bigger in order to meet the demands of a larger global population with changing labour and social conditions, but it doesn’t need to have Scale applied to it. Instead it needs investment, fostering, change and development. It needs care, solidarity and compassion. It needs sharing and support because Education is fundamentally about being Human.

By following the lead of manufacturing and applying it’s model of Scale to education we are changing what is being offered. The more we unbundle, in order to find greater efficiencies, the less we see the student as a whole – as a person. The more we seek to Scale education the less it embodies what it is to be human.

Yet, education doesn’t have to be automated nor does it have to seek out a way of making it cheaper “per unit” – because there is no base unit when it comes to education. Despite the efforts to standardise education around ideas like the “credit hour” – the fact is that learning is not an object or currency that we trade in. Students are not vessels or banks that we deposit learning into. As I’ve said before:

Learning is not something that is easy to understand or pin down. For example, it is not the process of education, thats just what we do to earn it, the same as selling an object for money. It is not the act of teaching, researching or publishing – those are merely some of the actions that enable learning to occur. It’s not the buildings, the desks, the chairs, the computers, the stationary or any of the infrastructure – but they all help to create an environment for it to happen.
No, learning is a subjective, personal and sometimes spiritual event. An intangible, ephemeral and immeasurable object. It is something that is perceivable only by its consequence and affect. We can measure it through testing and demonstrating knowledge, skills, application and process – but it is measurement by proxy, not of the learning itself.
The Reality Distortion Field

How do you Scale what is at it’s heart Human? You don’t.

Photo: BIG/small by B.A.D. shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license


  1. Yes, even I have succumbed to employing the idea of scale in my writing and thinking.