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.

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Beyond the LMS

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


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This is the context of my institution.


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These are our campus locations.


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


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


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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


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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.


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


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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So what could the future look like?


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


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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 ..


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


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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.


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


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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.


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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.


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


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


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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


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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.


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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.


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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.


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


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


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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.


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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.


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


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


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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.


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


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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.


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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.


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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?


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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.


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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.


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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


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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.

A Domain of “Our” Own

“Clarysse” By Sofie Muller flickr photo by cogdogblog https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/35013345241 shared into the public domain using (CC0)

From the first sip of coffee on Monday morning my brain was in put into high gear and stayed there except the brief hours of sleep in between. It’s Thursday and I still feel it. Words have been difficult to find – a feeling shared by many others who attended. For me it comes from not knowing what to call something new.

This is something new

Domains was the first conference where I felt a real connection – to the people, purpose, content and in a strange way the location. Having Domains at the 21C Museum Hotel was a masterstroke. The eclectic mix of art, installation and industrial rehabilitation was an amazing backdrop to the themes, practice and issues being discussed over the two days. (I’d love someone to write a post matching the artworks to sessions if anyone needs a prompt). That deep connection across those elements is something new.

Conferences don’t usually feel like that, they don’t engage with you on that level, they don’t give you energy. They’re usually draining events – both physically and mentally. You get stuck in sessions that a boring, you try and make space for yourself by skipping out and retreating from the crowds. That wasn’t the case at Domains 17. I went to everything, I sucked up every opportunity to learn more, I felt invigorated to go back and get more the next day. Even today I’m hanging out to find out other peoples impressions, to read their reactions and responses. That is something new.

It was a great thrill for me to connect with people in person. Finally catching up with people you’ve been circling for years, connecting with new and old friends and being in the presence of such a diverse group of amazing people is worth all the time and effort to fly halfway round the world. As someone who struggles to define my role and place in the world I felt more at home professionally than ever before. That’s something new.

There was a tangible sense of community at the event too, bought about by something that I think Kate Bowles would appreciate – hospitality. There was genuine care and concern demonstrated in the practices, decisions and choices on display – from the organisers through to the presenters and attendees. The whole event kicked off with the Domains Fair – a chance for people to share their practice and with time to engage, converse and discuss. This set the scene for the whole event. We were all there to learn from each other. No one was trying to sell us anything, make us feel stupid or inadequate, pull the rug out from under us, bring up petty differences or reignite long held rivalries and arguments. There was cohesion, attention and dialogue at the heart of everything across the two days. Even the failed attempt to do Karaoke. That was new too.

I’m not sure that this “newness” is a shared phenomenon – maybe it;s just my antipodean experience and naiveté – but those that I’ve spoken to have seem to have a shred enthusiasm for it. They too have been uplifted by the event and inspired to push themselves forward – ready to adopt new ideas, work hards to make improvements and are returning home with sack full of new knowledge and ideas from some of the best practitioners on the planet. I’m just a little flummoxed about where to begin, but beginnings are often the hardest part. That part’s nothing new.


Feature Image: “Clarysse By Sofie Muller” flickr photo by cogdogblog https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/35013345241 shared into the public domain using (CC0)

A Future for Tech

Digital technology has the ability to disrupt and to change the future, but it has to do it by actually challenging the past. Disruption doesn’t happen when one institution is simply replaced by another, which is what we are seeing today. Disruption only occurs by offering a viable and sustainable alternative to the system in place. It requires a rewriting of the current underlying power structures and to do this it needs to put forward a model that’s not built on the exploitation of others rather than creating another middleman or simply rent seeking.

We need a new narrative for digital technology, one that seeks to empower communities and individuals and achieves that by engaging with them, rather than selling crap at scale. At the moment we have reached a point where you can’t distinguish the signal from the noise. Where technology is increasingly used for inhumane purposes rather than empowering and enriching our lives.

If you create something which only increases the display of ads to people, then what good is it? How is this actually helping?

We have to step back and realise that this isn’t about technology – its about people. The decisions we make aren’t just about money or the next big thing to investment in, the next trend or item on the hype cycle.

The whole tech sector needs to realise that technology has real power and influence. The field that we are working in affects people’s lives. Their livelihoods. Their futures and their family’s.

Whatever you take out, whatever data you collect, whatever profit you make – you take from those individuals. So make sure it matters. Make sure it does no harm. Make sure it benefits them. Make sure it enriches them. Make sure it brings a smile to their face. Make sure you recognise them as people.

The Re-Concentration of Power

Given the most recent global events and trends, I’d posit that what is happening today is a great re-concentration of power into the hands of a new aristocracy.

Over the last few decades the neo-liberalism ideology has created the great undoing of the social changes won and shared from the ashes of WWII. A fairer and more equal society began to emerge and as Thomas Piketty’s work suggests we achieved this by the 1970s, but recent decades have seen that re-distribution of wealth and greater equality whittled away. The institutions that stood for the people and those that we owned by the people have been sold off and bought by the rich who have gone on to shape a system that benefits their extraction of wealth across the globe. Wealth has become more and more centralised in the hands of fewer and fewer people and what can only be described as a new aristocracy has emerged. An aristocracy who’s lifestyle is so distant from the everyday – the single parent, the minimum wage earner, the student – that they might as well be living in literal ivory towers amongst us.

Wealth is still subject to entropy as is everything in the universe and soon enough it will seek a way to find equilibrium. Some may steal the wealth others may move it, but it is never stable. It is inevitable that wealth will move, but we can create a circumstance where it happens more quickly. Education provides an opportunity to attack the ideas behind inequality, the methodology to create it and the system that allows it to happen.

I think that digital technology is part of that change too. The ability for digital technology to enhance the emergence of distributed network that enable individuals to connect provides a new medium for change. It’s what enabled the Arab Spring to occur because the technology removed the barriers that traditional institutions and culture has had put in place. It shifted the point of control in a way that changed and undermined the traditional power structures.

At Human Scale

I’ve spoken before about the idea of human scale, and I think that’s where we need to be focussed. Digital technology has really suffered from it’s obsession with massification, but for me the future is about restoring the human scale. It’s about ensuring intimate human relationships and connections can occur, and occur without the need for proximity or being in the same locale or the same school, but that we can connect more wholly online. That we use the power of digital technology to shrink the physical distance but also the distance between the physical and what we now call the “virtual”. That we can do this in a way that ensures it’s accessible and you don’t need vast sums of money for devices and infrastructure.

What I hope is that we create new ways to find the others and that we can connect in deep in meaningful ways online through dialogue and conversation more nuanced and respectful than what’s possible today. That’s the future of technology for me.

We need to take a step back and rediscover ourselves within the tangle mess of wires, lies, hate and bullshit. We need to push back on what we have and reestablish the humane nature of technology. At the moment it is so foreign and used in ways that are truly inhumane, which seems entirely at odds with the aims of technology and quest for progress.

A New Space

I feel I was lucky enough to go through rise of social media and experience many positives along the way. As a white educated male I’ve not had to endure any of the negatives that so many do. When I step away and think that experience can’t be shared by the 50% of the population because they’re female, there’s some something not right here. For people coming into social media in the last three to four years, it must have been a hell of a ride, and I don’t think they would have got any of the same opportunities that I got. When the networks weren’t so full of noise, when they weren’t so full of corporate ambition they really could connect and reconnect people.

I spent a year in Sweden on a student exchange and had lost contact with most of my friends there, but through Facebook was able to reconnect with many of them and watch their lives over the last decade or so. I was able to bridge the tyranny of distance and language and complicated technology to stay in touch. I knew I couldn’t be part of their lives, but there is something to be said about being able to keep track of what’s been happening in our lives without the luxury of proximity because I genuinely care about those friends.

Twitter was initially a way to vent and to put stuff out there. It was very much a tool of self expression. But it quickly developed into a way of connecting to other people. Twitter has became an important network that now spans the globe. It’s been built up virtually over time but opportunities have come along to meet people and connect face-to-face and there’s something magical about meeting someone you’ve known for so long online. Like running into Alan Levine in the main street in Davidson, a stroll through the Stanford grounds with Laura Gogia, a meal with the irrepressible Jim Groom or finally getting to meet Kate Bowles in California rather than somewhere closer to home. Working in this industry with my skill set was initially quite isolating. Where I am in the world tends to be far away from where their action is, let alone where I am in relation to the rest of the world. If Australia is the the arse end of world, then I’m somewhere near the arse end of that. But Twitter reduced that distance down to zero. Twitter allow me to communicate with other like minded people and to find the others as Timothy Leary said. What was refreshing was that there were out there people that thought like I did, or thought differently to me and challenged my ideas and my beliefs.

I feel bad that many people didn’t get to have those kinds of experiences. They didn’t get to see that side of social media, what they got was the shitty commercial bit, the trolling and the hate. They didn’t get to experience those kinds of connections, the kinds that can change your life.

The Unrealised Potential of Online

One of the things that makes me stick with digital technology is how little of it’s potential I think we’ve realised so far. We don’t seem to have got our head around the ability to reduce the infrastructure required to connect, communicate and share and the internets ability to reduce distance down to zero. We have the ability to send digital signals around the globe today at such an astounding speed that it essentially removes the distance. We are all in a way proximal to everyone on the planet. We can speak and listen to each other from around the other side of the world. We can tune in and watch live events as they unfold and we no longer need a traditional broadcast infrastructure. No towers or wires or cameras or relays – just a smart phone and a connection to the internet. The world is no longer out of our reach.

These connections however have led to an abundance of information that we are really struggling to understand. We are struggling at the moment to understand how we adapt to it because this explosion of information has exponentially increased the level of noise. As individuals what we need is more signal. But how do we go about that? The latest trend is with a digital detox – turning off our devices and the social networks. I understand that is one way of dealing with things, it doesn’t seem to deal with the problem. This is not a failure of the individual but a failure of the technology itself. It’s a failure of the massification of technology being driven by a profit. Put simply, more users equal more profit. It has never been the aim of digital technologies to improve our lives, it’s been to sell us more stuff, create new markets, new consumers, new ways of profiteering and fuck the consequences. Social Media is a prime example. Rather than work on ways to connect and enrich peoples lives, the focus of all the platforms has been about how to monetise and make profits. It’s led to the development of the biggest surveillance and intelligence tool ever developed and the dumpster fire we see today filled with hatred, bigotry and propaganda. This is Troll Country.

These platforms have scaled up without any care for their users. They have become places where we dwell and spend enormous amounts of time doing meaningless and trivial tasks. Often not because we choose, but because we are being manipulated. Actively and constantly experimented on, not for our benefit but in order to make more money. The “news” is unmediated and unedited and this total free for all doesn’t actually work. The reality is that as humans we actually require customs and rules, because that’s how you function as a species that is by necessity social. We have evolved not to be solitary, that we cannot exist in a solitary way, so we need each other. We need to work together, so we need some kind of order. We need order to actually communicate to each other – without them we just talk past each other or simply yell and scream. Sound familiar? As a species we actually need to have dialogue and to do so we need conventions, and that’s what is missing from digital technology.

In many ways this seems odd because conventions are just procedures, and the thing we build our digital technologies with is code, which is procedural. What are the the conventions and the procedures that would allow us to communicate and filter out the signal from the noise? This isn’t a people problem, I think there is a technical solution, but we don’t need another platform or application, we need another business model too. The investment driven business models utilised by the big tech companies have bought us to this point. Profit is now the driving force of success. They’ve written code and applications that simply aim to increase profit with very little thought of their effect on individuals and society.

When Twitter and Facebook claimed an active role in the Arab Spring, in effect a revolution that they helped facilitate, it must have caused huge ripples in espionage and intelligence circles. If social media can help a band of unorganised, unfunded and oppressed people facilitate a revolution, just imagine what an organised, state supported and well funded agency could achieve! The tech world seems to have been oblivious and naive to what has been going on within their midst and on their platforms. While they’ve sort to automate more and more of their operations in order to increase profits, forces have been hard at work gaming and manipulating the algorithms for their own ends. As the tech world has sort to dehumanise their operations state organisations have been using these platforms to interact directly (and indirectly) with those humans. Rather than platforms for collective improvement they’ve become tools of propaganda, surveillance and foreign influence. By removing the human elements and actively ignoring the conventions that allow us to socialise and have dialogue, the system has been corrupted. And dare I say, irreparably.

I think what is needed is for technology to comes back to information theory itself, that idea of being able to divine the signal from the noise. We need our tools to be capable of communicating effectively the message. At the moment we don’t have that and Trump is a great example of just how broken things are. There is inability for the signal to actually penetrate the noise at the moment. Social Media has become a set of Noise Systems and there is a dire need of tools that create spaces for real dialogue and conversation. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is no time where there is a greater need for more civic and civil technologies.

Not the Next Uber

If I read another “Its like Uber for ….” headline I will scream. For one, it’s usually not and two, Uber is the worst model you can possibly imagine to replicate. Their whole business is improved user experience through absolute and desperate exploitation of their workforce. And that’s while they have a workforce – because the long term plan is to remove them as they are an unwanted cost burden. That’s right – the workers who do the actual driving bit, the actual service you use – they’re the burden. Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of the middle man that gouges out a cut from every fare? But I digress.

Netflix is to me the champion of user centred design and something that more businesses should be seeking to emulate. Netflix demonstrates clearly the power of the Aggregation model (suggested above) in the digital age. By utilising the power of the internet to eliminate distance and the need for seperate infrastructure Netflix with it’s subscription business model points to a way where there is viability in an ad free environment. Netflix was also able to do what most companies that sold analogue products were never able to do and migrate their business into a digital age. In many ways it’s a clear demonstration of the path that broadcast television should have followed, but it was too entrenched in it’s ad driven income to gracefully make the transition. This ties into my point – that there’s real potential for disruption, but its in the changing those underlying models not what you can do within the current one.

Netflix’s ad free subscription and aggregation based model shows a viable way of operating that could be transitioned into other areas like education. Even the user behaviour and features that Netflix encourages – the binge watching, user informed recommendations, long tail content, always available collections – are all features that could be adapted to education or a future model for it. They reflect the contemporary reality where carving out time into our schedules is difficult and our schedules are often fluid, insecure and need to adapt to changes in work and life. The “take a vacation from life” model of residential higher education seems at odds with this reality. Sure it has appeal for certain groups of students, but it leaves many under served. And how does that work exactly for “lifelong learning”? Do I need to schedule in study sabbaticals or leave? How can anyone actually afford that in this day and age?

The Business of Ed-Tech

For anyone starting off in the world Ed-Tech one of the biggest pieces of advice I can offer you is to learn how the company makes its money. Don’t focus on the technology itself or the feature list that comes with it, find out how it makes money as the first port of call.

The reason for this is that is simple – it allows you to understand what it is you’re going to be paying for and what kind of culture you’re buying into. There are a bunch of different ways to make money from technology – you sell a product, a service, access to a community, infrastructure, support or, as is often the case with “free” technology, sell user data and information to another business (or government, spy agency, advertising agency). Understanding the business model is key to understanding how those companies operate, what they prioritise and care about.

In many cases companies will go out of their way to confuse and obscure how it is they actually make money. They’ll hide behind a feature list and a carefully worded press release but these are just opaque windows that hide the inner workings. If you’re going to work in this field part of your job is to dig in, to investigate and ask the right questions in order to find out that information.

If you want to understand ed-tech, really understand it – follow the money.

Changing Business Models

Another challenge for those in the Ed-Tech world is that the business models are changing. For a long time Ed-Tech meant software, a simple product that you bought off the shelf, installed and ran. That’s no longer the case with most offerings. Now there are a plethora of models available – most centre on a subscription model that locks you in to making a yearly payment rather than the one off purchase of yesteryear. On face value it’s great, and the marketing material will certainly tell you now you can have a solution customised to your exact needs. It’s more agile so that features and improvements can roll out much faster.

These selling points also have a number downsides.

  1. Vendor Lock In – Once your a paid up subscriber your more than likely a captive to that vendor. The cost of changing or moving systems goes up considerably, to the point where making that change hardly seems worth the effort.
  2. Top Tier Services – While the documentation clearly shows the various tiers of service, the reality is that most people will end up on the top tier. Why? Because these businesses know that by locking away core services behind the top tier it will force users into paying more. The reality is the lower tiers aren’t for the business, they’re for you to make the justification to your boss that “it’s only X dollars more than the next level down”.
  3. Changing Goal Posts – That new agile model sounds great, until the company decides it wants to pivot, update its terms and conditions, security process or core code because then your stuck. Stuck with a depreciated product that you’ll be forced off in the future you’ll be faced with two options – move or suck it up. (See above for likely outcome)
  4. Faster Bugs– Another “great” thing about this new agile model is that bugs are introduced with a greater frequency and more devastating effect than ever before. No one is safe either, software that works to day can be rendered unusable the next day by an overnight “patch”.

Then there’s the “freemium” model. Up front users actually pay nothing, or very little, for the full product. The catch? Your data is hoovered up and sold as an asset of the company. That’s right all your data, and that of every single student, is assimilated in a Borg like fashion and is then monetised. Sure, there may be privacy provisions in place but the reality is that everything that goes in becomes a resource for the company to exploit – from data mining, research data for 3rd parties, sales database or just plain old surveillance – you are no longer in control. Free sounds like a great thing, but the costs are just hidden by the future – you just can’t see the consequences.

The other model I want to make mention of is the Candy Bar model. Just like the cinema the profit isn’t in the obvious ticket sales, the money is made in at the Candy Bar. Those massively inflated prices for popped grains and sugar water are where the real money is, but they’re hidden in the experience of the cinema. Any why to we pay $15 for popped grains and sugar water? Why don’t we question it? Part of it is that we are a captive audience, drawn there by what on face value seems like an exclusive experience. Big screen, lots of speakers, big names – we seem to forget that the same thing will be out in 3 months to watch at home. The Candy Bar is a model where the “associated costs” are actually the viable part, the rest is just hype and manipulation.