The Apples & Oranges of Online Learning

I’m sitting in the airport right now, about to board a 16 hour flight to Dallas before making my way to Austin for SXSWedu. I’m going to the conference with eyes wide open, it will take a lot to impress me in terms of buzz words and vendors, but there are some amazing people attending which makes it a worthwhile journey. Online learning and EdTech & consumer technology’s role in it will form a large part of a lot of conversations that happen over the next few days. I’m really glad that events like this occur, but I’m hoping that the kinds of conversation that are happening are far more nuanced that they appear to be at the moment.

As online learning has grown up it has changed and adapted in many ways. This has precipitated a complexification in terms of what online learning is, what it looks like, how it’s conducted and what is possible if we choose to learn online. What that boils down to is that online learning is not a singular thing anymore – it’s diverse and multifaceted – yet the discussion about online often fails to make any acknowledgement of this diversity. What ends up happening is that Apples get compared to Oranges, Oranges compared to Pears, Pears compared to Pineapples – in fact the whole fruit cart is often at play. This means that any real debate about learning online, and the conclusions people make about it and the technologies involved, stunted and ineffective. It allows history to be glanced over, rewritten or completely ignored. Research that is conducted and written in ways that make validity impossible and vendors to make claims that verge on fantasy.

What is needed is for the conversation around online learning to become more nuanced. Ideas, technologies, statements even advertising has to become more qualified and more definite. Basically we need to compare Apples with actual Apples and Oranges with actual Oranges and compare like for like instead of the hyperbolic mess that we have now.

So a couple of ideas of some key areas when differentiation is necessary and helpful:

Real Time vs Asynchronous – the temporal constraints are one of the key ways the learning is differentiated because you simply can’t operate the same way. Real time has specific affordances that Asynchronous doesn’t and vice versa. The interactions that are possible are different, as are the textual vs oral nature of the communications. You just can’t do the same things in Real Time that you can Asynchronously – it would be great if we acknowledged that.

Linear vs Non-linear – The structure that learning takes also influences the design – and one of the biggest influences on design is whether the structure is linear or non-linear. Linear design makes specific assumptions about how students are going to travel through the course. It changes the way information is contextualised, accessed, architecture and presented. Again what works in a linear environment won’t work non-linear one. They don’t work the same way – they can’t. They aren’t compatible with each other and so have to be treated that way.

Automated vs Artificial Intelligence – While they sound similar they are not the same. Automation are actions that occur based on preset and programmed parameters. AI however requires the program to learn, make the decisions and their associated actions. By this definition AI is a long way off – and that’s kind of the point. Regardless of how complex your program – if it’s programmed, it’s automated.

Interaction vs Transaction – What is described as “interactive” these days has virtually rendered the term obsolete. But I personally like it – when its applied correctly. Clicking a button or a link is not “interactive”, Watching a video is not “interactive”. At best these are transactions – navigation or consumption – but very far from any real “inter” (between or mutual). I click this, I get that – that’s a transaction not an interaction.

Social vs Civic – Social has become the new black but I think it oversimplifies the ways in which people interact. Just because someone is in my class doesn’t mean they are my friend nor does it mean I want to socialise with them. Not everything happens in a social space either, and so I think we need to think about defining some of the spaces and interactions we expect from students as Civic. They are about interacting and creating a community, that doesn’t have to translate into friendship. I don’t necessarily want to invite them into my space, to meet them in social spaces – but I’d be quite happy to interact in a civic space. The town square vs the living room.

Personal vs Personalised – Another contentious one – but some differentiation between what is personal and what is personalised needs to be made. Personal is that which is of the person, Personalised is what is suited to the person. Personal is about the individual, personalised is about matching something to that individual. It would be unwise to try and program for the personal, but OK to parasitise something to suit the person.

OK, well the plane is starting to board – so I better finish up. Would love to hear your thoughts on this, and if you’re at SXSWedu – maybe catch up for a coffee or beer and chat!

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Provocations on the Personal API

The Personal API.

It’s a really interesting idea – to have your own way of interacting with online systems. Most big online systems today utilise APIs (or Application Programming Interface) in order to transfer and transact information. APIs have been around for a long time, but they’ve mostly been internal and accessible only by developers. That’s changed dramatically over the last few years as more and more technologies provide public APIs that allow you to exchange information, access services, publish information and what powers the ubiquitous “Share” functionality from you desktop to your phone.

But what if you had your own?

What if you were able to interface directly with the variety of systems out there in order to build your own products, services and applications?

What kinds of systems would you be able to build? What would they look like? How would they even work?

What follows are some initial thoughts of my own. I’m putting them out there as a kind of provocation, a conversation starter. I’ve written them to be considered on their own, each with it’s own merits and flaws. Let me know what you think too – maybe we can actually resurrect some old time blogging to respond to each other 🙂


The ultimate aim of the Personal API is to claim sovereignty over our own identity. It will allows us as individuals to define ourselves, manage how we are presented and more importantly control how we interact and transact on the web. The Personal API provides a method and a mechanism for us as individuals to reclaim choice and turn the web back into a participatory medium.


The Personal API is a first step towards independence. It represents a push towards a more democratic web. The only real threat to the oligarchs of Silicon Valley is true democracy. The Personal API has the potential to create the means towards something akin to universal suffrage on the web. To bring power back to the people. It’s more than reclamation, it’s liberation and provides the instrument to empower the Node, to take control and have autonomy over your digital self.


The Personal API is how we can create distributed systems. The problems we have with the web at the moment is that they have become too centralised instead of distributed. Centralised systems create a panopticon – and that’s the business model for companies like Facebook and Google. We get services for free but they get to constantly capture our data. One way to defeat this predatory surveillance system is through distribution. It’s a more complex process and way of working but in the broader sense it’s better. It’s hard work – to establish and agree to protocols, standards and to stick by them – but once you have them you’ve created a platform. A platform for individuals to create, innovate and invent. SMTP is a great example of protocol as a platform. Where the standard allowed you to use any service, any application, any client and email would still work. There is no autonomy in these centralised systems, they strip you of the ability to make choices. You don’t get to decide. You don’t get to choose the app, the client, the service – it’s all or nothing. It’s all in their eco-system, on their Terms (of Service). You can’t tweak the timeline. You can’t choose stars instead of hearts. You have no choice because you’re not a participant. You can’t reach out beyond the eco-system. You don’t exist outside the eco-system. A real social network would allow you to socialised with those outside the network, not force them to be part of it. A Personal API can provide the glue to make those connections. To bring people together on their own terms. To create our own civic space through which we can socialise, connect and interact. No longer confined to their space, we can have OUR space.


The Personal API provides the system for choice. It provides a way to PUSH information out into the world and to choose how you’re connected. But it also allows you to decide how information and interactions could be PULLed back. That it’s not just about the act of publishing, there’s the possibility of hospitality. That you can welcome someone in to access you data. That it’s not just about feeding their database, filling in their forms to create an “asset” – instead you can welcome them into your world. What if we started to participate in these transaction? If instead of filling in another form with exactly the same information again, what if we had a handshake – an exchange of data that is mutually agreed to and one that is built on the premise of hospitality, not authority.


As a complete aside I just wanted to include this rant about forms. If there’s one thing that the Personal API should make redundant it f$@!king online forms.
Filling in forms is not participatory – it’s a demand and the inconvenience is on me.
Even if I’m attempting to give you money, the onus is on me to provide you with information.
It’s all one sided. The exchange is unfair. Not only do I give you money but you get to store my private information.
And that private information gets stored in way where you choose the method of security.
Your business is improved and made more efficient, but what’s in it for me?
That’s not an exchange.


The Personal API provides a way for transactional behaviours to become much simpler. You don’t need to store my information in perpetuity if I give you access to it. You just need it long enough to complete the transaction. You could keep a “memory” of me, but there’s no longer a requirement to keep all my data forever. As a user I should also have some control over what this “memory” looks like and how long it stays. As participants we should be able to define when and how data is forgotten. As participants the lifetime of the data should reflect the nature of a transaction. If it was a one off, then the data retained should be that, not coopted and personal information stored in yet another database. Through a handshake process we can agree to terms – what data can be accessed, how often, how long it an be stored and under what circumstances.


A Personal API would allow us to assign a death to data, a point in which it is forgotten. If instead of data being stored in a database, it was simply accessed from ours then we can create a termination point. Once we have completed our transaction we can go our seperate ways. I can turn off the tap instead of being tied to your database for eternity. In doing this we can create attached value for our data, that it’s not something we just give up for free but is a kind of currency. If we can control the flow of data it can become scarce, rather than something that is scooped up as par for the course, because the reality is most businesses don’t need to retain our information. They do so because they themselves are limited. What if instead of storing personal data they simply accessed it via a key, a key set by the Personal API and which you can control. Then you could actually have real data protection. You could have real private services and actual privacy going into the future.


The Personal API provides the backend for creating of my own operating system. This backend that’s powered by the web would work as the equivalent of a device operating system, but one that I can integrate into multiple devices via a set of applications. That regardless of the device, operating system or hardware I can connect all these things to My Operating System (MYOS). That instead of service Cloud being the duct tape between applications, that MYOS is the sovereign source and all data goes through it. That I can allow applications can access this layer – I don’t need to set up multiple accounts or profiles and authenticate through them – they authenticate with me.


The Personal API provides an opportunity to fix the problems of the web. It creates a new way to think about the kinds of systems we need, how they’re designed, what they look like, how their maintained and by who. It provides a tool to reshape the web. You could re-create the services we love as infrastructure, as a utility that we can all access and share without the corporate interests. We can customise these services to suit us. We’d get to choose! It could be as simple as choosing if we want Hearts or Stars or Poop emoticons. What if “tweeting” was a protocol rather than a business? We would not be beholden to venture capitals choices as they drive to monetise.


The Personal API provides a mechanism for us to make decisions about the web as individuals, as friends, as communities, as institutions and as organisations. That the Web can be something that we do together, not something that is done to us. That the web that we’ve seen transformed from the individual spaces into the contained controlled and surveilled, can become a social and civic centre.


The Personal API is foundational to the next web, and what I think the next web looks like is a return to the distributed network. It’s Web 1.1. Same ideals and goals as before but with a decade or more of technological change behind it and a slew of lessons learnt from the foray into Web 2.0 and centralisation. Why is the Personal API foundational? Because what we should have learnt from Web2.0 is that the web doesn’t handle our identity. It creates space to express it. Databases to store versions it. Bots to define and track it and Corporations to monetise it to service ads. The web doesn’t provide us with a way to create, define and manage our own identity. Instead we’ve offloaded that responsibility to Google, Facebook and Twitter. We’re generously able to have a single sign on across the web, just with an identity ultimately controlled by someone else.


The Personal API needs to be accessible. We need to take lessons from the UI and UX world in particular the Facebooks and Instagrams. That if we’re planning to change paradigms then we have to bring people with us. If that requires a staged approach then we do it. If it requires analogies and skeuomorphic flourishes to begin with, then do it. If it’s simplicity over features then do it. It needs to make people feel it belongs to them. It might start off replicating or replacing existing paradigms to set itself in motion and once it reaches a level of maturity take off the training wheels. Not everyone wants to run their own server or open up terminal. Some just want a human at the other end to take care of it. The Personal API should be a seen as a service rather than a technology.


PS – I have to acknowledge the posts from Phil Windley who have really clarified some of the thinking on this – in particular the concept of sovereign identity and the awesomeness of SMTP. 

A Better Academic Authoring Environment

I’m putting all this out there beause I’d love to hear from anyone with suggestions or experiences with something similar. If you’ve got some nifty plugins, themes or code I could use, feel free to recommend them! I’m happy to provide feedback on how it goes and share the work on this openly.

Content is still very much the infrastructure in education. in this sense Learning and teaching, the associated activities and assessments are built on and around the content. For this reason concepts like openness, OER, OEP, shareable, reusable and forkable resources are important. But too often the process of authoring and publishing these resources leaves a lot to be desired. Many people utilise the LMS as both their authoring and publishing platform but having attempted to do this recently – it’s a terrible experience.

Things you take for granted when using something like Word – styling, editing, versioning, embedding, linking – are all incredibly difficult, if not impossible to do. It’s a clunky experience equivalent to writing webpages with a typewriter. Or transcribing code from a dictation. It simply adds work to the process. And don’t get me started on reuse!

As I’ve said before:

What goes into the LMS stays there … and then gets deleted.

A number of projects I’m involved in are focussed on reuse and developing resources that make sense to be available to many students across different courses, but available in the context of their study. Something that they can access from the LMS (as the central contact point) but it doesn’t have to be in the LMS.

Blackboard’s lack of anything that resembles proper support for mobile is another issue. At the moment the best option is to not use Bb at all as a content tool if you want the content to be mobile friendly. Why responsive design isn’t a feature of Bb yet I do not understand but it’s a massive barrier to making the system truly accessible.

What I’ve started to look for is a way of creating a simple tool/system for developing resources – and not just text but rich media – as well as publishing them to students. A singular environment that is built for the web and is of the web. Some of the resources, due to content and copyright issues can’t be made available openly so we need to authenticate users who wish to view it. I don’t want to store information about the student – just for them to be authenticated for access.

So my thoughts so far:

  1. WordPress – does most of what we need in terms of authoring and publishing. I can spool an install in matter of minutes thanks to @reclaimhosting and it’s completely customisable. In this way we can have rich and mobile friendly content available quickly. It also has roles and permissions and is generally pretty extensible in terms of the types of content and configurations we might need.
  2. H5P – if you haven’t come across this go an check it out. It’s an open source library for creating HTML5 media for learning. Using it with WordPress you can author, host and share media assets via an embed code.
  3. Quiz Plugin – a number of the projects utilise quizzing as formative feedback for students. I’ve noted there are a number of quiz plugins available for WordPress, so I think that ones covered. While H5P does have quizzing a couple of resources would like to utilise randomisation and question banks to improve reuse by students.

The last piece I’m currently looking at is the authentication into the site. From a student/teachers perspective what I want to offer them is a way to generate a link from the WP site that can be added to the site in the LMS.

So how can I do this?

Well my thoughts so far are that I can setup a specific Role (or user Subscriber) in WordPress that allows Read access to the private pages in a site. I should be able to turn off the Admin menu for these users too so it doesn’t get in the way of the experience. It also means I can create a few public pages so there is something front facing incase anyone stumbles across the site.

My initial thinking was to utilise LTI – but after searching through the plugins available it looks like LTI integration does way more than I want or need. I don’t want to provision sites, just access to existing ones. I’m also not sure if I’d need to do something in our Blackboard backend to enable the WP site for LTI. Might just be overkill at this point in time.

Another (probably simpler) option could be to utilise an “Auto Login” feature. I haven’t found a maintained example yet – but there seems to be few out there. It would be nice if it was a “proper” plugin too – so that someone can set this up without modifying code, just change some settings to access the URL to cut and paste.

I want to start putting this together in the next week so I can test it out – so feel free to comment below!

Cheers!

#dLRN: The Cynefin of Conferences

So I’m flying home to Australia after a challenging week here in the US. Challenging is good, but damn, it’s hard work!

I got some time to myself, to be with my thoughts and be away from the situation at home, which was a bit of a relief. I was also away from those dearest too me for too long and there was a definite sense of isolation there. I’m beginning to really understand how close knit we are as a family, and any extended time away from each other is hard for everyone. Can’t wait to see them soon!But the conference … How do you describe #dLRN15? It’s complex.

This was not your usual conference. While some of the structure was familiar, some was new. The conversation was different. The themes were different. The people were familiar but new. The discussion was broad and inclusive. There was respect and balance and care evident by everyone who spoke.

There were a lot of first for me:

  • first time seeing a lot of this community in the flesh, I only new them as an avatar and a @ handle before;

  • first time interacting with many of these people outside the digital, so ditching the blogs and tweets and actually having a dialogue;

  • first time discussing topics outside of text, pushing language and the limits of oral thought processes;

  • first time discussing actual issues that are having a real impact on people;

  • and first time in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley and an elite institution like Stanford.

That’s a pretty heady mix and a brew shared by many of the attendees and why I think it’ll require sometime before we’re able to really process the conference and what we might do next.

So to be honest I don’t think I’m ready to unpack the themes yet, but I do want to make an observation.
This is the first conference I’ve ever been to that dealt with education in the complex and chaotic domains.

I’m referring here to the Cynefin Framework and  I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful way of trying to in which to frame what’s going on in the world and the solutions and approaches required. As Wikipedia describes

The framework provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations or solutions might apply.

If you’re new to Cynefin if suggest you check this video best describe I’ve found

If I was to think about the conferences I’ve been to historically I’d suggest that they fit the various domains:

Simple = Vendor/Commercial Conference

Well to be honest the relationship between cause and effect is obvious – it’s the vendors product – and the content is usually about applying best practice

Complicated – Society or Professional Conference.

While taking it up a notch these conferences focus on analysis of the relationship between cause and effect. Content focussed on investigation and the application of expert knowledge. Through this we get a sense of what good practice is.

Complex – dLRN15

This conference really did focus on discussing the relationship between cause and effect in retrospect. There was a lot of presentations that referenced the past – success and failures – and attempted to place what was happening in a historic context. We discussed a lot of what had happened but there were not a lot of predictions of what will happen. There was an acceptance that the environment is a complex mix of social, political, cross cultural and economic issues that are locked in step. There was acceptance of complexity for the first time ever – in particular that there is no single solution. As such the presentations and discussion for the most part was very much focussed on  the emergent practices of digital learning. It also attempted to place them in a much broader and connected context.

Chaos – Bits of dLRN

To complement the complex there was definitely elements of the chaotic too. These were more like fleeting moments where the  relationship between cause and effect was left out of the equation and instead a focus on

novel practice. Mike’s discussion of the federated wiki and garden metaphor, while

grounded in the history of information, was very much a novel approach and alternative to the current model. 

Disorder 

It’s important to point to the final state of Cynefin – disorder. Which is very much the state of higher education and edtech. 

The fifth domain is Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision. 

That to me sounds very much to the system (and the battle) that everyone at dLRN is involved in. 

The California Effect

There was something so refreshing about this conference and its ability to move into that complex and chaotic space. Maybe it was the location, the weather or the people, but it felt like something significant happened on the Stanford campus. Maybe it’s the Californian Ideology at play – but judging from the blog posts so far (from @acroom & @googleguacamole) whatever it is it’s left a mark on many of us who were there. 

Ditch the Duality

This presentation was developed for a series of Think Pieces at Charles Sturt University. I’ve nominated to do these for the last few years, mainly because it gives me an opportunity to explore issues relating to education and technology in a slightly more expansive (and sometimes provocative) way. My take on these think pieces is not for me to do all the thinking – but open up a channel to explore some different ideas.

I developed the topic for this presentation about 6 months ago – having a notion of what I wanted to discuss. What I’ve ended up with is probably not what I orginally intended but actually more cohesive. It brings together a number of ideas I’ve previously blogged about (interaction, abstraction & mediation) and ties in with some interesting pieces I’ve been reading recently – most notably this post from Nathan Jurgenson. Nathan’s post appeared at the perfect time – one where I had the ideas but not the taxonomy laid out – so I’ve borrowed quite a bit of his post.

Let me know what you think!

You Are Not In Control

Tonight I’m giving a presentation for INF537 Digital Futures Colloquium, a subject part of the Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation).

While the title slide is a little ominous it’s aimed at being a provocation to the class to stimulate discussion rather than a lecture. I really want to hear what the students have to say – even if they think I’m way off.

Hopefully the seminar “provides the stimulus to identify and reflect critically on topics that have implications for a student’s own professional development, professional practice and scholarly interest” the subject aims to do.

Personality in Teaching: Content, Activity & Relationships

Martin Weller’s post on the role of personality in education has stimulated a lot of really interesting conversation and dialogue (it’s particularly interesting to see so many comments on a blog post these days!). I’ve ummed and ahhed about writing a response to Martin’s post but I honestly couldn’t articulate what I was trying to say. This post is like Martin’s – some musings on the idea of personality – and how it relates to teaching and pedagogical models. There’s a disconnect for me between the personality in say an xMOOC and a course like DS106. How it’s expressed and what it represents are two very different expressions of “personality”. One sees personality as something akin to celebrity – the other uses personality as an adhesive or conduit that connects people, ideas and expression. MOOCs made embedding the personality into the content the main feature of their curriculum. Don’t learn a topic from just amy old hack, learn it from the “best”. The video has become so ubiquitous in MOOC pedagogy because it provides the simplest and most immediate injection of personality. Text is too hard, too nuanced and it’s not like you ever interact with the actual lecturer anyway. Content provides the only real way to embed any sense of the “teachers” personality. (Yes I’m using a few terms “loosely” in that paragraph). To me the objective dilemma that plagues institutions like the OU aligns quite nicely with the Reusability Paradox that illustrates the inverse relationship between reusability and pedagogical effectiveness. The more something becomes objective the less personality it retains and the less that there is to relate to. You need some personality but just how much? Yet when you think about it, particularly in the case of say the OU, personality is there – it’s just down the line. Rather than be in the content it occurs when the individual tutors that students interact with. Personality comes through this relationship rather than through the content. As I listened to Doug Belshaw and Dai Barnes discuss Martin’s post on their TIDE podcast the concept of “relationship” was raised. Rather than content being the focus in the classroom it’s the relationship that really matters. Which is one of the affordances of face to face teaching, particularly in schools where you have time and proximity on your side. That kind of deep and meaningful relationship is pretty difficult to establish online and so that expression of personality tend to be lost Interestingly when I think about the kind of work someone like Jim Groom, personality is often exhibited not through the content nor through establishing a deep relationships, but the activity of the course. Jim embeds himself in the tasks and activity of the course in a way that’s unmatched by most of his contemporaries. The wacky topics, the gifs, the assignment bank this is where Jim’s personality is embedded. Why? Because he makes himself a vital part of that activity. He is part of the action, not a passive observer, but an active participant – a learner as much as a teacher. It made me think that there are these three key expressions of personality in teaching:

  • Content
  • Activity
  • Relationship

Each of these components compliments the other and by changing the order of emphasis, where the personality is most expressed, there’s a fundamental shift in the pedagogical approach and the delivery to the students. What’s also interesting is that if any of these items are missing the learning experience is compromised. Content, Activity and Relationship actually provide an interesting model for understanding and mapping teaching, and more broadly education. When I think about it, it may provide an interesting lens to look at current trends. At first glance I’d say that MOOCs represent the pinnacle of a Content First approach. DS106 of Activity First and classroom teaching (perhaps best exhibited in primary and lower secondary schools) the focus is Relationships First. Shifting the emphasis between the three components provides a way of changing the possible pedagogies deployed. An online course that shifts from being fairly content centric to relationship centric would be pretty different in terms of design and structure. So too would shifting the emphasis in higher education to a more Activity First model – both in face to face and online.

Make Your Own Slogan: MYOS and the Networked Future

When I started this post it was only a week since I submitted an abstract for the dLRN15 Conference, but the it’s taken much longer to pull this post together than I originally thought. The title of the talk that I submitted was Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure and in this post I want to begin the process of sketching out some of the core motivations and ideas I’ve been having in regards to the technology for living and working in a networked world.

This is has been a process of attempting to bring together some of the ideas I’ve been dwelling over for the last year and a half about what is happening online, particularly in the ed-tech space, and alternative ways that we could do things. The ideas are very much tied into notion of networks, in particular the concept of distributed systems. I put it down on my “year ahead” post back in January as a topic that I really wanted to explore this year, so when the call for papers, and the list of speakers/organisers came out – I figured this was as good a time as any.

In the meantime Jim Groom has published a couple of posts, one & two, that share similar ideas, particularly around the architectures around how to build alternatives. Yesterday Michael Felstein also put together this great post on the EDUCAUSE NGDLE and an API of One’s Own. Both share commonalities with what I’ve been thinking in particular around APIs and an “operating system” of sorts. It’s kind of why I decided to get this post out even though in some areas it’s still only half-baked.

So what’s the problem?

The big issue that I have with the current raft of technology is centralisation. Some of the big players are working desperately towards concentrating all your data, profiles, media and personal information into their own systems (see Facebook has officially declared it wants to own every single thing you do on the internet). Commercial social media tools have given life to the idea that networks are things that can be created, manipulated, bought and sold. However,

a network isn’t a thing, but an expression of individual nodes, how they interact with each other and the relationships they develop.
The Network & Me

These enterprises do not operate as networks, but as containers. They are an explicit attempt to seize and monetise our digital endeavour by controlling the vectors through which they flow. They are closed, controlled and centralised systems that are attempting to enclose the web, the notion of commons and the ability to connect and share. Yes it will be possible, but on their terms and in their space. As the importance for digital networks grows, the tools we currently rely on are undermining their ability to function. They are becoming a medium where networks do not grow and thrive, but silos in which they become stunted and curtailed by a simple binary choice – accept or decline.

Technologies in which digital networks can thrive don’t look like the tools available to us today, or those planned for tomorrow. Not the learning management system, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Medium.

So what’s the alternative?

I’ve been a huge fan of Jim Groom & Tim Owens’ work on developing up the literature and architecture for a Domain Of Ones Own. I think that idea – a space owned and controlled by the user – is paramount in this networked age. It forms a solid foundation from which to build networks in a distributed way, rather than the centralised silos that are currently available.

I’ve been eating up information relating to domain of ones own projects and the related technologies and concepts like Known, APIs, Docker & Containers, Federated Wiki, WordPress, JSON, GIT, node.js, Open Badges, xAPI, Blockchain – because to me they all work towards developing an idea of how a domain of ones own can be transformed into an operating system of ones own. An operating system that can drive us forward into the networked age by changing the current technological paradigm to one that seeks to empower the node rather than enclose them. “Nodeware” rather than explicit software or hardware.

This platform would aim to improve the ability for each individual to connect and share with others in truly negotiated and social ways. A platform that allows us to rethink the ways in which we learn and engage with digital networks – distributed, negotiated, social, interactive and sovereign.

Genesis

The genesis of this was an attempt to rethink the Learning Management System in a distributed rather than a centralised way. I was over bemoaning what the LMS is and was and so took it upon myself to think through the what a viable alternative might actually look like. If we simply reinventing the LMS we’d end up with something like the Learning Management Operating System that Feldstein and co developed. The central idea I was working on however was to provide students, rather than the institution, a way of creating content, recording learning, developing a portfolio and managing their online identity. The challenging component of this was to think beyond the standard institutional IT infrastructure and beyond a better centralised system but one that was truly distributed system. Domain of Ones Own showed that there was a viable alternative, and coupled with concepts embedded in the indie web movement such as POSSE (Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere) and the growing momentum behind APIs ideas started to form around a way to manage, mind and make your own learning:

mind-your-own-learning

That image was from about a year ago – the kernel of an idea was there but not necessarily the means to take it forward.

Over the new year I participated in the first Federated Wiki Happening and the experience of not only using, but embracing, a federated, socially constructed, non-linear and cooperative environment was fantastic. It opened my eyes to what could be possible if we re-thought not on the applications but the underlying technologies we used too. I loved the open nature of the federated wiki, but what I fell in love with was the concept of being an “empowered node“. The system worked in a way that empowered the individual. It provided tools and methods to create an individual identity while at the same time allowing others to connect social and professionally.

Last year I also worked on our university Badges project, and have been thinking about the potential of xAPI to capture a more nuanced and broader spectrum of learning and so have been broadening my concept of what’s possible technically and culturally.

A fortnight ago we held a workshop on how as an institution we could support Learning Technology Innovation. One of the key areas I wanted to explore with the group was APIs. So in the process of planning and putting together a presentation for the event I’ve been engaged in that space too. Just follow Kin Lane and have a play with IFTTT and you will quickly understand the power and potential that APIs offer. (PS this video offers a neat explanation of what the hell APIs are).

Welcome to MYOS

MYOS is the name I’ve given to the concept of developing a personal and social software system that provides not only the tools and technology to empower the individual in the networked age but some guiding principles about how it should enable, enhance and empower the user.

The name came from a bit of a play around with various combinations of words to describe what it would encapsulate:

  • make your own stuff
  • mind your own stuff
  • manage your own stuff
  • my online self
  • my operating system

MYOS could simply be – Make Your Own Slogan 🙂

MYOS is very much the model the Jon Udell laid out as “hosted life bits” – a number of interconnected services that provide specific functionality, access and affordances across a variety of contexts. Each fits together in a way that allows data to be controlled, managed, connected, shared, published and syndicated. The idea isn’t new, Jon wrote about life bits in 2007, but I think the technology has finally caught up to the idea and it’s now possible to make this a reality in very practical way.

Technology Foundations

There are two key technical components to MYOS – Containers and APIs.

Containers are a relatively new phenomenon and arose as part of Docker. They allow individual applications and services to be packaged in a way that can be deployed on a single server. Apps can be written in any language and utilise a variety of databases because they are contained their own package. At the same time they can talk to each other – share common layers that allow for greater integration. Containers provide a way for a variety of “life bits” to be co-located and packaged in re-deployable ways.

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) at their most basic level allow applications to to talk and interact with other applications. APIs are the vectors through which information travels between systems. For many years they were primarily used internally with large and complex systems, but they are now emerging into the public space. They provide you the ability to cross-post between twitter, facebook, google and instagram. They allow you to push files to and from Dropbox from a multitude of applications. APIs are increasingly accessible not just to developers but to users too. Services like IFTTT allow almost anyone the ability to harness APIs to create useful “recipes” that link their own data and interactions in ways that increase effectiveness and impact.

Founding Principles

On top of those technical foundations MYOS aims to embed a number of key principles common with the Indie Web movement and help define what the system aims to do – Empower the Node:

  1. You are in control
  2. Data is yours
  3. Connections are negotiated
  4. Enhance and enable diversity

You are in control

The focus of MYOS is to empower the individual rather than re-enforce the network. Empowered nodes provide a stronger and more resilient network that is able to not only cope but thrive on change. An empowered individual is not locked in or enclosed within a single system but is free to move between them.

Data is Yours

You should always be in control of your own data. You should be able to decide who and how that data is accessed, viewed and shared. Data sovereignty is now more important than ever as we see how state surveillance and commercial enterprise has transformed private data into a commodity that is bought, sold and exploited. MYOS should ensure that any data is ultimately controlled and managed by the individual.

Connections are negotiated

In a world that relies on the network we need to ensure that democratic values are not lost. Individual choice has increasingly been eroded by the binary – Accept or Decline. We need to move beyond the autocratic rules that have come to define much of our digital lives. Connections need to be negotiated and a key way of developing that is building in a handshake mechanism that ensures transparency but also encourages users to negotiate terms that suit them. This would include being able to decide what information is shared, how it is shared, what is hidden, what is private, what is relevant, what is preferred as well as negotiating a period of renewal. This handshake could include the development of “data lifetime” clause to ensure that data isn’t kept in perpetuity, but can be removed or forgotten without the deletion or removal of the user or service.

Enhance and enable diversity

Rather than enforce a monoculture, MYOS aims to promote diversity. While there is a need for a stable core, MYOS should promote a diverse eco-system of applications. From a technical level a containerised approach enables different application built with different languages, foundations and data structures.

Making it Work

For MYOS to work it hinges on a number of cultural concepts:

Owners not Consumers

I’ve written before about my notion that society is transitioning from passive consumerism to active ownership. The current model of networks is very much on built on consumerist conventions and why much of the potential inherent in the technology has devolved into manipulative and exploitative marketing. As an alternative Ownership requires a personal investment and active participation in order to receive a reward. An owner understand that there is always risk and a cost involved, but rather than be manipulated into supporting a venture, they wish to be informed. Value needs to be demonstrated and transparent.

Openness

In a cultural capacity openness is still a fairly new and one that is continues to challenge and disrupt existing cultural modes, model and practices. Many aspects of Western culture are built on practices that install and maintain rigid hierarchies of power and exploitation that are achieved by ensuring knowledge is limited through secrets, lies and division. openness destroys those notions and instead requires trust to be created, managed and maintained through transparency and a shared experience. Openness seeks alignment rather than consensus, cooperation rather than collaboration – which tends to turn all processes into a “consensus engine”. Openness encourages federation rather than centralisation, a key tenet of MYOS.

Community

For MYOS to ever function it requires a community, but communities don’t just happen. They require encouragement and nurturing as well as a level of active participation and contribution. Rather than being an emergent outcome of a social environment they require the result of careful fostering and cultivation. Community is the outcome of contribution, not participation. MYOS needs to be something that works with people, not for or to, and lies in the process of reclamation and liberation.

Agnostic Appropriation

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.
– Steve Jobs

MYOS isn’t a new thing. It’s an attempt to draw a line that connects a number of concepts that relate to our digital lives and the way we are increasingly living and working in this connected space. Movements (like the IndieWeb) and software (like Known) already provide aspects of the kinds of functions I see MYOS fulfilling. MYOS is an attempt to create a map of a networked idea.

Nodeware

In developing up a set of features for MYOS I started thinking about the idea of “Nodeware”. A combination of software applications, hardware and device that don’t just provide a service to the user – they empower them. They provide a rich set of tools to create, manage and maintain their online selves. Names are purely illustrative, but below is a quick list of starting features:

Identity Management – profiles and memberships
Cards – identities and personas
Keys – authorised access
Records Management – quantified self
Sash – badge display
Qualifications – certification, diplomas & degree
Shelf – web and print publications
Gallery – photos and graphics collections
Cinema – video collections
Radio – audio collections
Portfolio – assembled artefacts
Notes – ideas, notes and fragments of thought
Scrapbook – collection of the curated and salvaged

Expanded not replaced

The idea I’ve been working from is not an attempt to go and reinvent or recreate existing applications and services but to expand their features and connect them together. Open source projects make a perfect candidate for this expansion – so rather than replace Known or WordPress they can be developed in ways that integrate it into MYOS. One way that this could work is by rethinking something like cPanel and turning it into an OS level application that provides an underlying data structure and tools to connect and deploy various application via their containers.

More to come…

I’ve felt a little rushed to put this post out, but I wanted to join in the conversation not sit outside it. I’ll admit to not having everything fleshed out, or even properly specced, it’s still very much about an alternative way of thinking, designing and working with systems online. There’s a couple of posts I can see already that need to be written,in particular what the LMS and other institutional systems might evolve into when students are using MYOS. Until then I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Featured Image: flickr photo by rrruuubbb http://flickr.com/photos/rubodewig/5161937181 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Thoughts on Learning Experience (LX) Design

Straddling a background in design and an evolving career working in Education I’ve been aware of the the commonalties between the fields of user experience (UX) design and learning/instructional/educational design and the opportunity for cross fertilisation. So I’m really interested to see the emergence of an attempt to formalise the relationship between two. This post are some of my initial thoughts.

At this early stage I think it’s vitally important that Learning Experience (LX) doesn’t fall for some of the misconceptions that mystify and befuddle UX.

One of my personal bug bears is the inability for many people to actually define what the User Experience actually is. Take this image for example:

design vs UX

I fundamentally disagree with the way the image is labelled. What we have here are two alternate USER INTERFACES. The User Interface is the tool or process in which to achieve the intended goal, it’s central component but it is only part of the user experience. The experience relates to the journey to the destination. Of course the interface, or the way that we get there impacts on us but it’s not the user experience. It’s part of a greater whole.

Another way to look at UX design is to take a look at the factors that make it up:

Those interested in learning design can quite quickly see the commonalities between this model and say TPACK and how things tend to overlap and overlay rather than act in isolation. You can also see why the User Interface is so often confused with UX – it’s the central component that overlays each of the other disciplines, but the centre is not the whole.

For those interested in understanding a more nuanced approach to UX and how it impacts on LX I’d suggest engaging with the work of Whitney Hess. Whitney has been a guiding light for me in the domain of UX because she provides so much clarity in here writing an speaking. Let start with her 10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design and this summary side:

For LX to take off I think it needs something similar to explain what it is, and perhaps more importantly, it needs to articulate what it isn’t. (See MOOCs for what happens when these things don’t get articulated)

Whitney also put together these comparisons of interface and experience which might also be useful to clarify LX:

User Interface is a street light. User Experience is an evening stroll.
User Interface is a surfboard. User Experience is riding the tube.
User Interface is a camera. User Experience is a memory.
User Interface is a door knob. User Experience is keeping your conversation private.
User Interface is a book. User Experience is a land far, far away.
User Interface is a dimmer switch. User Experience is a romantic evening at home.

Why it matters?

Understanding UX and designing for it is almost the antithesis of business as usual because as human beings we don’t take the time or make the effort to see how things connect. In that sense its very much the same way we see Learning. We tend to think of learning as this linear storyline but that’s only how we picture it in hindsight. LX could provide a way for education to move beyond thinking in this linear way because it’s not how UX works and it’s not how learning works either. We have to start embracing the complexities of learning and design with that in mind, rather than seeking the simplicity of a single model, technology or mode.

I think LX is a concept that not only has legs, but it’s one that is vitally important as we attempt to make use of the affordances of our rich, connected and digital world.

User Experience is a big concept made up of tiny details, connections and relationships.

Learning Experience needs to ensure that it thinks of itself in the same way.


*PS Thanks to Joyce and Jess for kickstarting this whole thing 🙂

Riffing off Remix

I’m feeling a little inspired after reading David Wiley’s The Remix Hypothesis and Mike Caulfield’s Paper Thoughts and the Remix Hypothesis. That’s on top of putting together an application for a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship where I’ve applied to carry on doing work around adaptive digital publishing. (The pitch video outlines a lot of what I’m going to describe in a pretty simple way – so if you want to know more have a watch and I’m happy to answer any questions). One thing I’m particularly keen to explore in this space is how to improve sharing, collaboration, reuse and remixing – is it possible to build that kind of functionality into a system so that is built for and with open content at its heart?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been playing around with the concept of Adaptive Digital Publishing. A group of us wrote a paper and developed a proof of concept. We shopped it around for funding but other people had other priorities.

Conceptually I think it stands up as the most effective way to publish materials across multiple platforms. It bought together ideas that are only now starting to emerge into the mainstream – e.g., in srcset and picture in HTML – where content is adapted depending on attributes set by the device & browser. The Adaptive Media Element we worked on did that – but in more complex ways and for all types of media – from video, data, images to audio and across print, web and eBooks.

The proof of concept we developed was built on WordPress and used the PressBooks plugin to provide many of the features we required, an easy to use interface and a solid foundation to work from. The ideas were executable more easily within an existing framework, so rather than attempting to build everything from scratch we could focus on our innovations – the AME and the corresponding Publishing Profiles.

Ever since we built that initial proof-of-concept I’ve been toying with how to make it simpler. How can we make it easier to share, collaborate and remix content? Our initial concept didn’t really think about those areas, but they’ve been bugging me ever since.

How to Support Remixing?

One way would be to expose the WordPress system via JSON. This would allow other systems to pull content in to display, but also to commingle, re-contextualised and retooled. My experience over the summer with Federated Wiki has challenged many of my preconceptions about how content, and indeed publishing can look like in a purely digital sense. I’m enthused by the concept of a JSON based system but there are plenty of dependencies and technicalities required to develop things this way.

My other idea is to go simple by removing the need for a database by abstracting authoring into a simple files & folders structure, and then focussing on developing a “generator” to the publishing. So rather than create a contained system we could build something that can be plugged into a file system and live separately locally or online. This idea builds on those already in use in a range of static site generators that leverage markdown, scripting and something like GIT to manage the whole workflow.

By simplifying the system down to the bare minimum the potential is to make content more “forkable”. You reduce the need for specific software in the authoring but also open the process to powerful versioning and management technology. In this way remixing is encouraged but with the ability to merge back the potential is a truly inspiring. This would ensure that the remix doesn’t become another standalone piece of content, but a connected component that might be co-opted back into the main branch. It enables localisation, translation and adaption to specific contexts not just to be made, but tracked, traced and attributed.

The other attraction to this more simplified model is that it also reduces the technical overheads required. It could be run locally or over a simple network. It could run offline and allows for asynchronous editing and collaborative authoring in a manageable format. I’m not sure if this will provide the simplicity or granularity of that the federated wiki has, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

This flat file model also means that content can be openly hosted using repository sites like GitHub but also almost any online space, and for educational and research publishing this could be a huge boon. Being openly hosted means that access is greatly improved. The ways that Mike describes data models being accessed and modified could be achieved this way.

The final plus is that switching to a flat file generator model means that there is less reliance on single technology or system . While GitHub, WordPress and certain programming language are the choice today they are also dependancies in the long term. Not relying or depending on certain technologies means that we’re creating more sustainable content that is open to change and evolution as technology and trends change.

Publishing in the digital age needs to embrace the concept of remix as it’s the most significant affordance of being digital. I’m in a state now where I can see that the technology required is getting closer to realising that idea. Once it does we’re going to be in for a ride.