The Dynamics of Static Sites

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

What are Static Site Generators?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s It Like Using a Static Site Generator?

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

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

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

The Learning Curve

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

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

Working with Text

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

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

My Workflow

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

Tools

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

My Jekyll Projects

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

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

So the future is Static?

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

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

Will SSGs suit everyone? No.

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And more importantly WHO?

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

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

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

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

So it begs the question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complexity challenges simple wisdom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images

Complexity by Mark Skipper

Links

License: CC-BY-NC 4.0 @TimKlapdor

From Us & Them to We

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

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

Divide and Conquer

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

Us & Them

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

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

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

From Us to We

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

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

What do We deserve?

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

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

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

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

How do we justify the destruction of lives through war?

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

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

Administrivia and APIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context Sensitivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simpilicty of Language

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

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

Smarten Up Dumb Technology

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

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

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

Does it Scale?

“Yeah, but does it scale?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Embedding Activity in Online Learning

This is the second post that shares a theme and discuss ideas that relate to agency and autonomy in education. The first was Learning On Rails.

So for a long time I’ve been a proponent of an active approach to online learning. At the same time I’ve never really articulated what that means I suppose I need to explain what I mean by that.

I think historically what we’ve done when Universities have moved their courses online, has been entirely focused on a content driven approach. Content went online primarily because it was a more effective and efficient method of delivery. It’s cheaper and quicker to post documents online because there’s less time required, no extra resources, no printing, no logistics in mailing stuff out. But content is very passive – it exists in order to be consumed and failure to engage with student any more beyond that initial consumption.

Activity is how learning really happens. Using that content – putting it through a synthesising process, applying it, remembering it, building on it – that’s how we learn. And in terms of the face-to-face teaching – that’s we do – we tend to build activity into the teaching process, and it’s quite easy to kind of facilitate. Here you have a classroom, you’re colocated, you’re face-to-face, you can talk directly to people, it’s not a consumptive environment.

For Online it’s different. The consumptive bits aren’t the homework – they are often the entirety of the course. The active elements of face-to-face teaching aren’t substituted with anything meaningful, they just disappear or they’re replaced with stop-gap functions like a forum, which tends not to replicate anything like what would actually happen face-to-face. Any interactions of benefit that occur through a forum or similar tools are almost a byproduct of the system, rather than because of the system itself. The way a forum tends to work is that it gives everyone the ability to post thoughts and opinions, in essence what that means is that it creates a room full of shouting people – which is nothing like an actual discussion. A real discussion, conversation or interaction is facilitated. It is premised around certain activities and work to be done and it’s managed and maintained, but those functions haven’t followed online. Sure there are people who have succeeded in replicating practice this online, and can do it particularly well, but those people will probably tell you that it’s hard hard work to initiate and maintain it. They are also the exception to the rule again. Most forums and comment sections generally de-evolve into silence or hatred.

To me Online Learning has been very much driven by it’s passively, and if you look at a lot of what people are calling innovation in this space it’s simply new ways of generating more passive content. Watch this. Read that. New ways of going through the motions of what I’ve referred to as Learning on Rails. That you’re guided through a set of questions and tasks rather than the kinds of organic processes that good learning often looks and feels like. It’s just now you can do it with iPads, or with Augmented Reality – no wait it’s virtual reality now! This passivity has also removed the opportunity for autonomy and agency – both from the teacher and learner side of the equation. With a model driven by ready-made content consumption what opportunity does a teacher, let alone a student, have to take agency over the process and to personalise it to suit their needs?

So Mark Caulfield has written a recent post, Why Learning Can’t Be “Like a Video Game” talking about what he thinks are the big problems with VR and 3D environments. Essentially it’s the passivity of them. These environments are constructed to be consumed and there is very little possibility to really interact with the world and that instead interaction occurs on top of the world. In most games and virtual environments the world is simply a foundation that allows something else to occur, and it’s that abstraction that leads it to feel fake. Everything is heavily facilitated by the by the technology to the point where it’s so heavily reliant on it that anything else is merely an add on. Second Life is an example where the interactions were usually just the same kind of interactions that are possible in other mediums, but this time they were done on top of a virtual world.

If we compare that with something like Minecraft you can see that at its heart a very different model. Minecraft is very much structured around a generative learning process. That the reason it exists is for people explore, find, communicate, share and in this kind of environment the virtual world takes a back seat. The virtual world is not part of that process, it becomes a way of simply facilitating those kinds of functions within itself, not replicating existing functions from outside.

A Lack of Language

Part of the reason why I think we keep falling into Passivity is that it we don’t have a clear vocabulary around activity. We seem to slip back into calling things interactive or immersive yet those terms are so loosely defined. Interactive can mean that users get to click on a button. Beautifully rendered 3D environments are called Immersive even if there’s nothing to do in them to sustain interest for more that five minutes. There’s a missing taxonomy around what’s actually taking place – what are the actions and activities that are really going on. Instead we keep using these container words that do little to describe the reality of what’s going on.

Mike’s piece was also quite interesting that when talking about this idea of “linkage” as a primary function for learning resources. The ability for student to create links allows students to embed content it into their learning, into their practices and into their own environments is how learning occurs. This calls into question the idea of creating resource to be consumed as opposed to resources to be explored. Resources that can be linked, discovered and pulled apart. The same thing can be said about teachers where a good tool can be immersed into almost any discipline area, and that with mild adaptions can be used across a whole range of different applications.

What we are missing is a language in order to gain a more nuanced approach to this. I have always hated the word “Interactive” to describe what happens in a digital and online space, because it’s so poorly applied to just about everything that exists in that space. For me interaction is a feedback and conversational dialogue facility. That’s what “real interaction” actually looks like – having a dialogue or a conversation within an environment. Clicking a button is not that, it’s just a basic transaction.

Looking Ahead in Real-Time

So it’d be nice to think that going into the future that we could start to have more mature conversations about what Online Learning really is right now and a more mature way of thinking about what it could be. I think we need to start to embrace Activity as the driving force for Online Learning and to take advantage of the opportunities that online presents. There are such huge things that we can do right now and are failing to embrace. Things like Real-Time technologies that enable face-to-face chat and messaging. The ability to actually do things together – to collaborate and cooperate in order to create, build and share.

When I think about the opportunities that digital technologies provide I think that Real-Time is one area that we’ve failed to embrace in education. Online Learning has narrowly focussed on the delivery of content – email and the LMS provide content faster and more conveniently, but it’s replicated the same old function. It’s modelled on the asynchronous aspects of correspondence based education but now gets the fancy label of “flexibility”. Online assignment submission is not something new, it’s just the removal of the printing process and the associated time and effort. Yes we can provide the flexibility for students to go off and do things on their own and in their own time, but what we’ve failed to see is that time and distance have been removed entirely from the equation thanks to mobile technology. Mobile provides a connection, a computer and a variety of communications technologies (text, voice and video) in a convenient package that reduces time and distance to zero regardless of physical location. Students and teachers can now inhabit the same space regardless of where in the world they are as long as we are willing to do it in the digital environment. We now have the opportunity to get students together in the same space and time to work cooperatively and collaboratively and to push the kinds of interactions that are possible.

It was interesting at the Indi Ed-tech meetup that the group I worked with in the design challenge looked at using chat as an interface for the learning environment. Modelled on Slack we explored the ways that chat and real-time communications could improve the learning significantly and provide students with a voice and a way of participating in the learning rather than being passive recipients of it.

The obvious criticism of Real-Time is that it’s hard to schedule. Seriously? That’s it? We can transcend time and space and the reason for not doing it is it’s hard to organise? The possibilities of Real-Time asks us, no challenges us to change (dare I say it – because it’s innovative) and that’s the biggest hurdle. We would have to change how we think about Online Learning, but if we can say that a textbook is a fricking mandatory, then surely we can schedule a time in a week to meet! Yes, people need flexibility but we are giving it to them in different areas – they can choose where they will be rather than when they will be. It might mean shifting teaching to 7pm instead of 9am and that requires the organisation to change, but what you gain is the ability to embed real activity in online learning. To change the whole way we think about Online Learning and move away from content delivery to a model that allows students and teachers to interact, to do – to be active participants in their learning. To become more autonomous and to have more agency!

Featured image from http://sparksheet.com/welcome-real-time-revolution-just-getting-started/

Learning on Rails

This is the first in a couple of posts that share a theme and discuss ideas that relate to agency and autonomy in education. Some have been half baked drafts sitting in a folder – others are newer – but all seem to share some commonality that has been made more concrete by the Indi Ed-tech meetup.

If you’ve ever been inside a video arcade or bowling alley you would have seen those video games. You know, the ones with a the physical guns on them? Well I think learning is often like them.

(Not in the slaughter of innocents way, this isn’t that kind of post!)

These games deploy a type of gameplay often referred to as a Rail Shooter. The player effectively cedes control over movement in order to concentrate on a singular task – shooting wave after wave of aliens, zombies or whatever the faceless “baddies” the weak narrative is premised around. Surrendering control of movement means that the action tends to take place “on rails”. It follows a predetermined path through the game environment where the only parameter the player has any input on is the completion of the set task. Did they kill all the zombies? Yes, move on. No, game over. There is never an opportunity to diverge from the path that’s been hard coded into the game. Players can’t explore the created environment in any way. They are herded through the game facing predetermined scenarios completing set tasks and objectives.

I’m going to generalise here but I’m going to suggest that this is most people’s experience of education most of the time.

Of course there are exceptions, but they are that, exceptions. The rule is that learning occurs on rails.

Learning on Rails

Over the last decade or so there has been a greater push to standardise learning. This has led to the broad development, articulation and implementation of graduate and learning outcomes across our educational institutions. Having those goals and aspirations are a good thing for the sector – we should be able to articulate what we are trying to achieve. What has tended to be done poorly is the implementation – how are we going to achieve them?

What I think has happened is that learning has along the way been defined as a linear exercise which has led the system of education down a certain path. This exercise implies a simplicity and linearity that isn’t inherent of learning and led to the constructivist model, where learning is assembled according to instructions from elements that are designed accordingly. Learning becomes something that is linear, programmed and hard coded rather than something that is discovered, experienced or explored. This approach sees learning as a mechanised and industrialised process that paves over our organic, biological and experiential human nature.

Students are herded through the course facing predetermined scenarios completing set goals and objectives.

There is little opportunity to move beyond the defined path. Student’s can’t opt out of the tasks assigned, choose a different track or be and do anything that looks remotely like an autonomous action. No, learning in this sense is binary – you either pass or fail, graduate or drop-out. Learning is an act of consumption and not participation. Accountability and the associated metrics have come to represent success, which have become less about capturing or measuring learning and more about a complicated process being boiled down to a number. Abstraction rather than qualification. While the educational experience may seem more immersive – rich media, real time communication, mobile, apps, virtual reality – the underlying model of the students role one of passive spectatorship. They are not creators. They do not decide. They do not choose. They do not explore. “Learning” has become a process divorced from the participants.

Learning as a System

The problem with Learning on Rails as opposed to the Rail Shooters is that there is no alternative. Rail Shooters are merely a genre of games, not representative of the gaming universe. In fact what they represent is the shallowest of gaming experience, designed not to engage a player in deep and pervasive ways, but to suck coins from their pockets. They are cheap thrills and nothing more. And I wonder what does that mean for learning? Has it been reduced to just cheap thrills? Engagement in the most shallow of ways? There’s a reason Rail Shooters rarely make it to the home console where players have the time and space to dedicate – because there’s nothing really there. Nothing to explore, nothing to really achieve.

I bemoaned this kind of vision of education and the one currently being promoted in the popular media. Mainly because what it does is reinforce this passivity on the students behalf. Removed from all the choices and decisions, and despite all the whizzbang immersive technology, they are thoroughly unengaged from the learning. Why? Because in this vision learning is still seen as an exercise, a step-by-step program that any idiot can do. Learning is something you can consume. Learning comes almost via osmosis or proximity. Learning is a passive thing done to you.

Expanding the System

All this comes back in many ways to the conversations around Indie Ed-Tech and what I believe to be the underlying drivers of it – agency & autonomy.

Indie Ed-tech is infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.

Indie adds another genre to the mix. It supports the more active approaches to learning – connectivist and rhizomatic models for example – that involve both teachers and students as participants of the learning.

SXSW: Pop Edu

Day 3 at SXSW was a bit of a bad day. My Bubble Burst and then I was exposed to (by my own choice), what I can only call “Pop Edu”.

First up was the keynote presentation How to Think (and Learn) Like a Futurist from Jane McGonigal and then in the afternoon I went to the panel Igniting a Practice Revolution that included Sal Khan and discussed a project to improve the SAT performance using Khan Academy. I went to these presentations already a sceptic to the evangelical pronouncements both speakers are know for, and it was very much driven by a need to “know thy enemy”.

If Pop Music can be adequately described as music that appeals to teenagers and is a bland watered-down version of rock’n’roll, then these two panels are very much in the vein of Pop Edu. They also illustrate that the banal evil that lies behind pop music – commercial interests and maintaining power structures – exists in Pop Edu too.

If I was to break Pop Edu down it would look a bit like this:

  1. Neophilic – it’s all about the new, what’s next, quick fads not quality, high turnover, everything is replaceable – and will be in ever shorter cycles.
  2. Shallow – there is no depth to what’s being proposed. Everything is simplified and provided in bitesized pieces.
  3. Manipulative – it’s persuasive because it deploys tactics aimed at presenting a specific narrative. There’s always a half truth, but the whole truth is always glossed over with a convenient narrative (e.g. Everything is broken)
  4. Saccharine – The message is always too sweet and positive. It never delves into anything that looks painful or reflective of reality (e.g. never addresses race, inequality, sexism).

Unpacking the McGonical talk is a case study in Pop Edu. It started well. Here’s a narrative about a “successful” person – without addressing what it was they were really successful in doing. We can gloss over the pedagogically poor “projects” undertaken because they were “massive”. Lots of people equals success right? Just like platinum albums go to the best musician! That’s all before we get to predicting the future! McGonical hails from the Institute for the Future (which has sounds as credible as the Ponds Institute and the Laboritoire Garnier) which claims “helping all kinds of organizations make the futures they want”. So who wants the future McGonical is presenting? Who paid the Institute for the Future for the Learning is Earning campaign and what it represents? Let’s get an answer to that before we invest in that vision, OK? Now let’s get into the mechanics of what’s on offer. Just like a three chord pop song there’s not a lot of depth or nuance here, instead it relies on effects and gimmicks (think auto tune). Edublocks sounds cool and has all the right buzz words that Edu Pop needs – badges, blockchain, unbundling – but brush aside the buzz (no need to dig deep here, it’s shallow remember) and there’s nothing here that’s particularly innovative or good. The base unit of an Edublock is still time, this isn’t about learning it’s about delivering. I think you can see quite clearly this is an attempt to disrupt the monopoly that universities and community colleges currently have over accreditation. The end game however is not about accreditation – it’s about access to funds. Government funds in particular, and once you’ve got access to those then you can degrade the product to maximise profits. That’s how disruptive innovation works remember? But to get to a point where that’s at least possible you’ve got to get into the market – and Silicon Valley isn’t there yet. Yet – because Learning is Earning is part of a very distinct form of Edu Pop. Country had Nashville, Grunge had Seattle, Edu Pop has Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile Sal Khan is changing policy. I personally don’t have a problem with the Kahn Academy in the same way that some people do. I think for certain topics – in particular foundational mathematics – the drill method of learning works because it is about committing stuff to memory and then recalling it. Students can do this at their own pace in and in their own time. It’s simple but thats fine and making resources freely available to assist student is a nice thing. Beyond that specific purpose though you’re going into different waters, waters where the pedagogy the Khan Academy utilises falls over pretty quick. What works for foundational maths is not going to work for History, Art or even Science where there is more complexity and understanding required. What was interesting about this session was the good buddy routine with the head of the College Board – the people who set the SAT exams. What was interesting was not the fact that Khan Academy was involved in providing students preparation for the exam, that seems like a natural market, but the fact that the SAT WAS CHANGED in this process. That’s right they changed the test in order to assist students studying via Khan Academy. They removed the logic questions because, not only are they hard, you can’t really study for them, especially using the Khan Academy model. Despite waffling on about “mastery” what they were doing was removing the only real means to test mastery in the exam. Memorising and applying a set formula to a question is not the same as applying logic to it. The most galling fact though is that Khan Academy was influential in changing the exam to suit their product, not for the students. Again, no depth. Instead of assessing the suitability of the SAT they just changed the test to suit what was currently the new trend. Pop Edu pop at work again.

Rather than shake my beliefs, this all just confirmed my suspicions. It just made them clearer and tangible.

What was interesting was that during both session is how the audience reacted. McGonigal had the crowd right up till the video for Learning is Earning. At that point the sighs were audible as was the grumbling. The guy next to me was particularly explicit about how he felt with several audible groans, sighs and expletives. What was more noticeable was the walk outs. Streams of people just getting up and leaving. Pop isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Honestly the Pop comparison only came to me last night, but it’s been subconsciously inspired by the recent musical musings of various EdTechers out there and the fact that I’ll be talking Indie EdTech later this week. Indie music is a really interesting model for discussing Pop, because Indie is the antithesis of Pop. Indie is:

  1. Retro – there’s an understanding and knowledge of the past. Indie utilises history in order to make better decisions, avoid the pitfalls and do things more simply.
  2. Deep – it shows a real understanding of the underlying structures, is self critical, reflective and embraces the complexity of what’s involved. Talent is able to be exhibited and challenged in this environment.
  3. Open – it’s truthful and honest, often to a fault and its own detriment. There is no need to manipulate, Indie is what it is – it’s what’s on the label, it wears it’s heart on its sleeve (right next to the tattoos).
  4. Bitter – Indie relies on the ying & yang and often goes to the other end of the scale in order to justify itself. Disaster porn rather than candy. It wants to tackle the hard stuff and creates a space for real conversations.

What’s important to note is that Pop never changed anything. It’s never really disrupted or innovated anything. Seriously, ever. Music has always been changed from the outside and those on the fringe. Change is driven by the independent artists not those married to the mainstream. Pop just steals from Indie, distorts it into its own image and strips it of history & context. Pop always claims to be the new sounds, but it’s really just the same thing over and over and over again.

All this means I’m looking forward to Friday, when I can finally get my Indie EdTech on. And the drive there so I can listen to a few of my favourite tunes!


PS: While Jim Groom loves his punk I will always be a metal guy, and to me Metal is the great example of successful indie music scene. Here’s an entire genre that thrives outside the mainstream – no radio, no TV and no media. Yet it succeeds inspire of this, in fact it succeeds because of this. It’s global yet highly localised. It’s mobile and agile yet always remains committed to its roots and history. And metal is diverse, this is not a homogeneous or single strained style – this is a full genre that requires a whole family tree to encapsulate it. Metal is the antithesis of Pop, but also of rock and roll (for those not with me on that one, it at least bites it’s head off, swallows it up and vomits its back out). If we want indie EdTech to go far, become more Metal!

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!