Ed-Tech as a Discipline

This post has spiralled slightly out of control. Initially it was just a couple of loosely connected ideas that I jotted down. Then I dug up an old half-written blog post. Then I went for a walk on yet another cold wet day and started to think more deeply about this and it turned into this.

1. Should Educational Technology be a discipline?

This deceptively complex question has led to an incredibly interesting discussion. Martin Weller and Audrey Watters have stirred the pot on this issue and the comments on Martin’s blog provide a number of expansive multidimensional perspectives on the issue.

I think Martin’s post does a good job of outlining some of the practical aspects of becoming a discipline:

  • to bring in a range of perspectives
  • establish good principles and processes
  • a body against which criticism can push

Audrey does a pretty good job critiquing the very concept of a discipline:

  • aim is to characterize, classify, specialize
  • it distributes along a scale, around a norm
  • imposes hierarchy on individuals in relation to one another
  • it can often disqualify and invalidate individuals
  • brings to bear disciplinary (punishment) practices, mechanisms and technologies

The comments on Martin’s blog are also incredibly enlightening:

  • Maha Bali suggests the discipline already exists as “critical digital pedagogy”
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses discipline in the Weberian-Bourdieusian sense that needs institutions, exclusion/enclosure, prestige hierarchy. But also the evolution of Ed-Tech from and as a network “The indirect legitimacy in a network environment is actually post-institution even though the way we talk about it centers the institution”.
  • Kate Bowles is eloquent as ever “When the gain from disciplinarity turns out to be a shared who’s who and a consensus around ideas that matter, we overlook an entire history of subaltern thinking about who always gets left out when the lists are made. Because lists belong to someone, and conferences belong to someone, and professional associations belong to someone, and when we Venn Diagram it all, the same people get waitlisted, because first everyone has to get through the A-list.”
  • I particularly like the the imagery invoked by Laura Czerniewicz “One can look at a discipline as a field of players and moves and negotiations and power plays, a Bourdieu approach, and the approach of this discussion I think. Or as a structured knowledge terrain – the Bernstein perspective offers to edtech the notion of “horizontal knowledge structures in hierarchical discourses” in other words how knowledge is configured. Ed tech is never going to be a vertical discourse ie a coherent, explicit systematically principled structure. It is applied and fragmented and constantly added to.”

I’m left with the feeling that maybe a discipline isn’t what we need – but we do need something.

2. What is Ed-Tech?

I come into this having done some thinking on these issues, in particular while travelling in the US in April. Travelling across seven states by car gives you an opportunity to dwell and ruminate on these kinds of issues. In particular I was dwelling on the experience of having just attended SXSWedu. It was quite an experience and I wrote about it at the time:

There’s a couple of key points in this series of posts that I keep coming back to:

  • What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice. “Good practice in education seems to be nebulous – no one really knows what it is, what it looks like or how to describe it. They might be able to recognise it – but articulate it? No.” This is particularly evident in the research – what methodologies, practices and methods produce valid evidence and proof?
  • We need to bring the critical element into the discussion to solve problems. “Rather than try and “solve” the critics, those involved in Personal Learning should be encouraging and engaging in a dialogue with them. Invite them in. Listen, talk, learn.” Critique needs to become involved in the process, not screamed out from the sidelines. 
  • We are not a profession. “What’s become abundantly clear though is that most teachers, particularly in higher ed which relies on Academics who perform multiple roles and Adjuncts that have no permanency to their role, aren’t aware of best practice. Nor are they properly equiped or compensated to learn or implement those practices.” There are broader cultural and institutional issues at play here but ed-tech is good at highlighting significant structural problems. 
  • Pop Edu dominates the narrative, the bulk of investment and political capital. Pop Edu is neophilic, shallow, manipulative and saccharine but they are the ones at the table. The “rising stars” like Sal Khan and the walking chequebook of Bill Gates are the ones deciding where ed-tech will go, what it will do, what it will look like and who it will leave behind. We need to develop a credible and audible Alternative Scene, something that can challenge this mainstream crap. 
  • Education is a system. An app is not going to disrupt a system – it’s too big and too complex. But people… well they just might. There are many, many fantastic people out there working in the field, but we’re not working together. How can we bring people together to collaborate, pool their knowledge and influence? “There’s also little acknowledgement of the EdTech professionals out there – the actual people who work under a thousand different titles, perform similar jobs and have similar problems. EdTech is not a profession just yet, it’s something still undefined and under appreciated. Quite often they are the glue that makes everything work – from technology and systems to professional development and training through to learning design and pedagogy.”

A discipline appeals because it offers an answer to some of these points. It can act as a connector, a focus and opportunity to bring people and minds together. At the same time it may just entrench exactly the kinds of power dynamics many of us are seeking to subvert and disrupt.

After a couple of days in the car I arrived in Davidson, North Carolina, for an event that was poles apart from SXSW. The Indie Ed-Tech Idea Jam was the antithesis of SXSW – small, friendly, intelligent and humble. It bought together a very different group of people and a very different way of getting things done. It didn’t need millions of dollars, a journal or a policy platform – it was grassroots reform and change.

3. Change at both ends of the Spectrum

The reality is that there are different ways to do this. One is to utilise the machinations of the current system, another is to introduce a new force. To be honest I’m all for a discipline approach. Ed-tech and using digital technology for learning is something distinct and relatively new. It’s not computer, neuro or information science, or humanities or education – it sits outside the normal traditions. It needs staking out, research, evidence and practices in order to take a seat at the table and have access to the dollars and policies that define so much of what we do.

At the same time we desperately need indie ed-tech. An alternative ‘fuck you’ to the established system that goes out and makes its own way. The awesome thing is that we can do this inside the system. We don’t need vast sums of money or changes to the curriculum – we can act within the system, with or without it knowing. By combining forces, to create a ‘scene’ we also make it more powerful, palpable and recognisable. Uniquely local and connected globally at the same time.

Change can happen at both ends of the spectrum. I think we need to accept that the two paths are equally important, they ultimately compliment and support each other.

4. Discipline as an Organising Force

Perhaps what ed-tech needs isn’t a discipline in the academic sense, but discipline in the sense of organising itself. That what it needs is a coordinated and organised approach to its work, to define its conduct and behaviour. Those of us who’d subscribe to being part of the ed-tech movement need to get our shit together because we are being overrun by a class of robber barons, quacks and snake oil salesmen. They are the ones who get to speak about what we do, (re)write our history and define our ideology. They are who gets a seat at the table, to be at the table with presidents of universities and of nations. If ed-tech is not a discipline then it will defined as one by these robber barons and the snake oil men who are here to colonise and extract profits!

Resist Colonisation

We need to reclaim our culture, our research, our space and our ideology for ourselves and we need to do it now. Ed-tech is being colonised and exploited. These colonists are becoming the dominant voice and it’s their narrative that is being recorded and driving conversations. If we leave this too long there will be nothing left to Reclaim from the patchwork of data mining and surveillance capital systems that ed-tech will inevitably becomes. Now’s the time to get organised, to do something about this because otherwise we, our data and that of our students, are going to be enslaved and our resources mined and exported till its all gone.

It’s not just Pedagogy

Yes critical digital pedagogy is an important part of ed-tech but it isn’t encompassing enough. The tools that we use themselves are encoded with ideologies, so a pedagogical perspective, while important is simply not enough. Ed-tech needs to be critiqued and practiced at the level of the source code. The criticality needs to extend to the underlying technologies, their dependencies, access, and licensing – it is a technical problem as much a pedagogical one. The other shortfall of a purely pedagogical approach is the relationship with the learner. It relies too heavily on the concept of teacher and student, but the potential for ed-tech is to reframe that whole power dynamic and rewrite that relationship. Not everything has to be taught, somethings can just simply be learnt, but a pedagogical framework embeds the teacher and instructor as a central concept st a time when perhaps it should be challenged. I’d rather we approach ed-tech in a much more wholistic way.

Being at the Table

The problem I think we have is that the ed-tech community is simply not at the table. The database guy has more say in the roll out and deployment of ed-tech in most institutions. We are not part of the decision making, the policy making or the spending of actual money. George and Audrey and Jim are not at the table with the president talking about how they’re going to spend their money or what policy should they enact. We are not at that table and we are not having those discussions. But you know who is? Sal Khan. Sebastian Thrun. Tim Cook. Bill Gates. These men, these companies – they are the voice of ed-tech in the community. They have a seat at the table. This is what we need to reclaim. This is what we need to get organised about. This is what we need to stand up against.

5. Getting Organised

I think the idea of a discipline resonates with a lot of people because it’s an opportunity and motivation to finally get organised and get our shit together. It isn’t the trappings of an academic discipline that are attractive (nobody really wants a journal do they?) it’s the opportunity to cooperate and collaborate that we want. We can develop our ideology, write our history, because otherwise they’ll get written for us. Silicon Valley is eyeing off education around the world as an untapped market, here lies vast untapped riches to be exploited, and the language of colonisation isn’t coincidental. What worries me is that, discipline or not, if we don’t become disciplined we will be over run and there will be nothing left to Reclaim.
We have to start to organise, we have to get our shit together and we have to do it in a way that is sustainable. We have to get a seat at the table. We need to establish better research patterns and not fall for the trap of “scientific” rigour that seeks to disembody the human from the technology. This shit is complicated and complex. We need to develop and express an ideology, and god forbid a canon, not to entrench power but to help get people on board and join us.

For what it’s worth I think that’s what becoming a discipline does – it forces those things to happen it forces those debates out into the open. At the same time I agree that a traditional academic discipline is not what we should be aiming for. Audrey provided enough evidence and practical information in her critique to warn us off going down that path, but we need to get disciplined.

We need to start to unite around certain things, we need to come together. Even the idea of a canon, of some central ideologies and respected research, those kinds of things are really important for us for progress and to at least debate against. At the moment all that’s happening is history repeating itself, the same old technologies, the same old hype, the same flawed research being peddled out year after year. We need to get organised in order to build the critical component of our work into something that does something, that moves us from the sidelines and begins to actually effects change. We need to move beyond repeating the mistakes of the past and repeating the same Cassandra-esque warnings of impending doom. I just hope that doesn’t put Audrey out of a job.

From AI To IA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/

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!

SXSWedu: The Obvious Innovation

My revelation or insight from one day at SXSWEDU:

What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice.

Based on the sessions I attended yesterday and the level they were pitched at that’s the only conclusion I can come to. But it supports my experience. At my own institution little is articulated by faculty staff about what good teaching practice is, what it looks like and how to do it. There is a disconnect from the practice required to do well and the profession itself.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many, many staff out there who don’t fit this generalisation. I’ve worked with them, listened to them speak and share, but they are not the majority.

Good practice in education seems to be nebulous – no one really knows what it is, what it looks like or how to describe it. They might be able to recognise it – but articulate it? No. That’s a big problem and may be why the education system seems to be in a quagmire at the moment and unable to truly move forward. If we can’t articulate what good practices are, then how can we move forward? How can we fight the colonisation from Silicon Valley? How can we petition against funding cuts and student debts? What are we fighting for?

I went to a session with members of the University Innovation Alliance which was interesting. What struck me though is their description of their work: Innovate – Scale – Diffuse. Nothing wrong with that at all, but given the climate my mind started to wonder – is that the right order of things?

If I was to make a change it would be to concentrate on the Diffusion of good practice first. Get it out there, get people discussing it, give people a vocabulary and shared language and provide rich examples that allow people to learn, share, adopt and adapt.

Then focus on scaling up. Once people know what it is you want them to do, they can get on with it. Show them how, provide them with the incentives, policy and structures to support their work. Scaling up what you know is easy, scaling up to early will only highlight issues and introduce an element of risk.

Finally, Innovate on top of a solid foundation. Innovating first leads to obvious issues and only entrenches the “pockets of innovation” that is the heart of our current problems. Get good practice embedded – diffused across teaching staff and scaled across the organisation – and then innovation becomes easier. Improve first, not fail first. The fact is that there’s 100 or so years of research and practice to draw on – we can do this without a whole lot of effort. I’m not advocating for a single form of good practice – far from it – education needs diversity and best practice should suit the organisation and student cohorts.

This Diffuse – Scale – Innovate pattern seems to match quite nicely with the work that I’m actually involved in at Charles Sturt University. We’ve developed a strategy and articulated a model that suits our institution. We’re working on the initial pilots to help us articulate and illustrate that model and we’re planning our scale up now. Once we’re there then we have a real solid foundation to innovate on and around.

There’s a lot of work to do – but the in the search for the newest shiniest innovation, we’ve forgotten the most obvious.

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!

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!


Contribution to 2016: Civitas

The start of the year sees a flurry of posts full of predictions and promises. Last year I thought that rather than do that I would post what I planned on contributing to, and I want to do that again this year.

Last years contributions went a bit like this:

  • Distributed systems – went well resulting in a lot of thinking and a number of posts and presentations and my big ideas – MYOS.
  • Customising WordPress – didn’t pan out at all. The projects I thought would relate to this didn’t really follow this path – instead I learnt Jekyll 🙂
  • Design Patterns – while I haven’t dealt with this publicly I have been working on this quite a bit in the last month or so… stay tuned.
  • Netpro – unfortunately this didn’t get up either. It’s something I’d like to come back to and might do so this year.

So a mixture of successes and failures – and to be honest that’s good because I learnt a lot from last year, met some amazing people, had some great conversations and found my ideas resonated with people around the world. A pretty good year on that front.

I also did some unexpected things and one of those was helping lead a session at the Wagga Hack4Good event. This was an event that came out of the local council and government agencies with the idea of exploring some of the social problems we have in our community and the possibilities to resolve them with technology. I was part of some of the organising with a slap together crew of interested, rather than experienced, people who were all willing to get something up and running. What exactly that was may not have been apparent in the beginning- but what emerged out of the event for me was a need for the community, and the council, to start engaging with technology.

The session I led started as a quick presentation about design – in particular user interface and user experience design. It then evolved into an ideas session, discussion and then trying to refine that down into something singular to “hack” with about 30 people in the room. We had a couple of technical guys from the uni on hand to build something – so much of the session was about outlining something for them to go away and build, but the majority of people that were attending weren’t technical at all. They were interested in the opportunity and not short of ideas, but they did lack the digital literacy and skills to really engage beyond those initial ideas.

Throughout the year I also took part in the People’s Panel initiative from the local council. It was a way that planners and the council could get feedback on plans and initiatives being undertaken. I took part because it was online and I wanted to participate in some kind of civic duty. At the end of the year they invited people to come and meet face-to-face and discuss the councils strategic planning. It was a great session with lots of interesting discussion but again it became abundantly clear that technology could provide some real improvements to current practice and solutions to some of the problems but there was a lack of ability to think about this, let alone push for it.

What I was left with was a feeling that there is a huge gulf between “social” or “public” and “technology” at the moment. That in many ways there really hasn’t been much innovation recently in “social technology” – stuff that makes connecting, collaborating and cooperating better, easier and more productive. Things may have improved for individuals – but getting groups together often means resorting to older technologies, and my personal bug bear – ones that aren’t mobile friendly. It seems that the only innovation that occurred in this space happened fairly early with wikis and blogs and then it all just got swallowed up social media. There’s a massive gap in the social and public spaces online that isn’t being addressed despite the proliferation of devices and access to the internet. I wrote and presented about the exploitation and enslavement that’s occurring under the guise of “social media” and even presented an alternative in MYOS because we need an better solution. But while MYOS may address an individuals needs, what about a community? What kind of solutions are out there for communities to engage with?

So that’s what I’m planning to contribute to 2016 – public and social spaces in technology. I’ve even found a word that summarises quite nicely a number of ideas I’ve had – Civitas.

Civitas is the body of united citizens and is the mixture of rights and responsibilities that create a public and social community. Civitas embodies the the qualities that generate a sense of identity, commonality and cultural relevance in the public real.

What I’d like to do this year is work on how we can embed technology into our civitas and civitas into our technology. I think there’s a real opportunity in this space – for ideas and solutions. I also want to branch out beyond education. I have a full workload planned for this year and to be honest EdTech and a singular form of technology is doing my head in. I think there’s technology that’s suitable across multiple context – so if this works at a community level it would work the same at a class, course or degree program to. Also I think there’s the possibility to be more radical and innovative without the constraints of the educational system.

My first step is to map out a couple of ideas I’ve already had:

  • To campaign for a community roll out of a domain-of-ones own program. This is kind of foundational for developing digital skills around the community and something that provides the infrastructure to move forward.
  • We came up with an interesting idea at the Hackathon for a community events app, but one that had some additional features. I’d like to push that further if possible and maybe flesh out some of the functionality we discussed on the day.
  • Developing up an app idea Civi. This is basically an App to enhance and provide democratic functions. It’s an idea I had a while ago and something I’d like to flesh out and share with you good people!

So that’s the big thing for this year. It’s singular but pretty board. It encompasses some serious ideas and thinking, some technology hacking, maybe some training, speaking and perhaps more important selling. I need to get out there an engage with people. I made a positive impact on a few people at the hackathon and so I’m keen to leverage those connections to get something up and running. I’m hoping there’s an audience open and willing to participate, as well as someone willing to put there money where there mouth is!

There’s also plenty of work to be done in this our second year of u!magine in online learning, a house to rebuild and my awesome family to hang out with and hopefully have some great adventures. 2016 is going to be good!

Thoughts on How Facebook and Twitter Won

Mike Caulfield kicked off an interesting discussion with his blog post How Facebook and Twitter Won. I think Mike makes a pretty convincing argument which I’ll go along with, as long as I can add a couple of but’s to encompass a couple of other factors.

But 1 – HTML

Yes RSS failed to capture the minds of people as a simple way to syndicate and share, but HTML never actually caught on. Despite a couple of decades word processing being done on computers the very concept of markup is still not understood. HTML was, and still is a clunky beast, especially for the uninitiated. It’s not even really code but it’s closer to it than many people would like to actually get. When publishing on the web required a working knowledge of HTML it created a barrier to adoption for many. Facebook and Twitter won because they didn’t rely on HTML.

But 2 – Servers

The reality for most publishing solutions on the web is that they still require access to a server. And to run that server you have to know, or be willing to learn by trial and error, how to configure and install software in a very different manner to the desktop. There was no one click install, so droplets or packages. It was command line and quite often typing stuff into the command line that you had no idea what was happening or if it would work. And once online your stuff was vulnerable. To server crashes, down time and data loss because mitigating those risks was hard. Yes things have radically improved since but Facebook and Twitter won because they didn’t rely on an individual setting up a server.

But 3 – Making a Network

Blogs and RSS made it easy to consume found sources of information or to publish to them. These however were individual silos which did little to create a way of connecting the dots, the people, the ideas into a cohesive experience. Facebook and Twitter did. They created the Like and the Follow button which allowed a user to simplify the creation of a personal network. It didn’t involve a workflow, in involved a click. There weren’t steps or apps or skill involved – it was all just a click away.

But 3 – Making Money

I think we need to differentiate two very different models of blogging. There’s blogging for personal expression which most often has no commercial concerns or implications. Out of this model comes blogging as profession which is possible once a blogger has reached a critical mass of readers that they can actually make a viable income out of this effort. All of a sudden eyeballs matter in a very real and very commercial sense. RSS essentially cut off a source of income from these professional bloggers by removing eyeballs on their site. When you’re income is all of a sudden under threat why would you ant to support RSS, the technology that threatens it? Sure the personal expression bloggers couldn’t care less and RSS might makessense to them, but when making money is at stake why would you support it, let a lone push it? Facebook and Twitter won because RSS never had the support from those who were making money out of it.

But 4 – How to get Paid?

The final But is perhaps the most pervasive question in the online space – one that is yet to be really answered properly – How to get Paid? At the moment the predominant model online is advertising. You get paid by providing a vehicle to attract an audience and then selling that to advertisers. And the reality is that’s it…. the web seems lost for ideas on how to get people to pay for whats on the web. There’s the donation system that power Wikipedia and subscription services but the fact of the matter is that neither of these are truly viable systems – particularly from a users perspective. In an age of an of abundant information why pay? Why subscribe to just a single source of information? Is it cost effective to have a subscription service to news, magazines, music, TV and movies? And what about the independents? The artists, writers, designers, bloggers and musicians that don’t publish via a label, magazine, newspaper or studio? Surely the web can democratise this space? Surely it can provide a viable way for independents to make money? I thought this was the gig economy? Or is it just a gig when you signup and someone scrape 30% of your fee up front? If you want to people to let go of the idea of people reading your stuff on your site – you have to work out a way to make sure they can get paid and earn a living. I probably should turn this But into a post on it’s own.


I want to end on something positive and that is

… and despite all that we can create an alternative. We can build out of these existing technologies the kind of web we want. We can learn from Twitter and Facebook rather than capitulate to them. We can re-engineer and re-create the web we want. Yes they may have one this round, but lets go back to the corner spit out the blood and tweak our tactics.

And we can learn. And we can change. And we can create.