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!

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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!

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!

Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure

This is my presentation from the dLRN15 conference – Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure. Below you can watch a audio of the talk + slides or just the slides below.

In this presentation I’ve really tried to highlight the perceived problem with current online technologies and practices, distilling it down to the concept of Enclosure. I introduce a bit of Marxist theory updated for the 21st century and discuss Wark’s concept of the Vectoralist class.

The second half is a vision – or outline of a vision – of how we can actually overcome these problems. Not by recreating or developing new systems, but by redesigning the underlying models. By moving to a more distributed model, one that harks back to the original conceptualisation of the web.

This is a passion project for me and I’m definitely keen to collaborate and discuss the concepts behind MYOS. If you’re interested feel free to comment or tweet to start a conversation.

Thanks!

Personality in Teaching: Content, Activity & Relationships

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

  • Content
  • Activity
  • Relationship

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

The Quiet Page & Linking the Web

A number of recent posts and articles I’ve read discuss the concept of linking – Will Deep Links Ever Truly Be Deep?, Beyond Conversation, Follow-up: Reader as Link Author, How we might link and The Web We Have to Save.

Each in their own way has resurfaced an idea that I had a number of years ago. The year was 2011 and I’d spent about 3 weeks in the US as part of professional experience program. I’d spent a lot of time in the company of some great thinkers and innovators. At at some point there was a discussion about books – the supposed death of print, the inadequacy of ebooks but the potential that digital technology has for rethinking what makes a “book”.

Out of those discussions and over some long days driving I started to flesh out some ideas about what could be, where could the concept of the book go once it had been made digital? I wrote it down, drew it up on paper and left it there. Knowing the idea wasn’t ready. I couldn’t see how it could be done. Not yet anyway. But I pulled that paper out over the summer and read through it. Rethought it and started to rework it. And the big idea?

The Quiet Page.

At that original point in time most discussion was around what digital could add to the reading experience. Media, interaction, social media, video, analytics, data metrics, the list was endless. I was actually draw to the simplified, the unadulterated text. To be able to experience words and language without distraction. Without embellishments. Without blue underlines, embedded video, high definition graphics, interactive elements or embedded social media – the quiet page.

Text delivered to my liking. My font, my size in my colour or screen setup. Quiet. Relaxed. Readable.

And from the quiet page we can add the ability to turn on functions. To add to the quiet page layers of functionality. To view the text in different ways. To move beyond the navigation of our magic ink, and to embed the text with additional contextual information.

the-quiet-page

  • To see it linked to other resources to show its research and context. The internal and external connections of the text itself. (Author)
  • To add richness by adding media, visual and auditory elements that help enhance the message. (Publisher)
  • To annotate it myself. To highlight underline and note. To visualise and add my experience with the text. (Personal)
  • To view others experiences of the text. To see their notes and discussions. To see their highlights and to experience the text in a social and shared way. (Social)
  • To create trails. To connect the text to other content, ideas and resources myself. To place the text in my context, my experience and my knowledge. (Synthesis)
  • And then to share those trails. To let others see how I’ve contextualised the text. To see my experience but to then be able to add to it and expand it. (Connected)

From the Quiet Page you can do all these things – because the page doesn’t change. Each layer is an enhancemennt, an addition to the text rather that part of it. The Quiet Page allows the text to be adopted for other functions and purposes. To become non-linear, lived, felt, experienced and shared. To map and chart the interactions with the text. To go far beyond the “book”.

The point was to link the text. Not just in one way, but many. Internally and externally. Personal and social. Private and shared. And to cross between those states. To make the external internal, the personal social and the private shared. To link the text to life.

This discussion around linking – in particular Mike’s contribution – has made that importance of linking clear. That it is one of the key differentiators of the digital – not just the linking itself, but what the linking enables. It allows connections to be formed – not just between data, ideas or information, but people too. They provide a way to express, to visualise and map connections. To share, create ad communicate with humanity beyond our physical and temporal constraints.

The link is unique and powerful. It drives the potentially of the digital medium and needs to be enhanced rather than killed off or replaced.

Otherwise all that’s left is the Quiet Page.

Moving. Writing. Learning.

This blog has been a bit quiet of late. It’s not for a lack of things to say or lack of things being done, but rather a lack of time to do so.

In the past week and a bit I’ve started a new blog and re-evaluating my online presence – where things live, who controls what, what I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to be.

In most cases what I put online is pure self expression. I don’t do this for anyone except myself. When I started this blog it was just another attempt at blogging – one that spans back about a decade of repeated failures. This one has stuck because it came at the right time I guess. I was actually doing interesting things and having interesting ideas – my previous failures might be attributed to youth and lack of anything worthy to contribute.

But now I’m in a different mindset – too much to say. Not that I care if anyone actually listens – what I’ve found through blogging is that the externalisation of ideas is profoundly useful. Putting ideas and thoughts into words, constructing them in ways that can be understood, solidifies them and reduces the jumble going on inside my head.

Writing brings clarity.

Clarity is becoming an incredibly important part of my life. Juggling busy work hours and home life with a wife and toddler, while under the pressure of a tidal wave of information is exhausting. Having clarity creates a stillness. A moment of zen. Even if only temporary, clarity is becoming incredibly important for my ongoing mental health. It gives me the mental space to switch between tasks and dedicate time and attention to where I am and live in that moment.

This is in opposition to the manufactured chaos that the media and corporate society inflicts on us. They actively deny us the ability to think by providing an infinite amount of distraction under the illusion of choice and a retarded form of free-market economics.

Moving

As part of a personal project to learn how to use static web publishing tools I set up a new blog – Inhale. My idea is that it will be a replacement for the reading list posts I previously posted here that capture the interesting bits of content I inhale as part of daily life on the web. The reading list posts were pretty useful but time consuming because I did very little prep. Inhale is aimed at being more “stream of consciousness” – a link to the post, article or podcast with a quick comment attached. It’s a poor cousin to Stephen Downes’ OLDaily or John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, but definitely inspired by the value that curation plus that little piece of commentary adds to the collective discussion and understanding.

The other new site I’m planning is Exhale. A place for quick, simple posts, half formed ideas and things I’ve learnt. I’m not sure what form it will take. The Jekyll workflow I’ve developed utilises the iOS Editorial app which means it’s extremely simple to get a post written and up on GitHub. I’ve been looking for an excuse to try Known for sometime though. And there’s also Federated Wiki, which I love and have been trying to work out how to incorporate. I might need a bit more of a think about this one. (PS Open to other suggestions if you’ve got one).

What I’m seeing is an opportunity to expand my online presence and to use different platforms and their different affordances. Rather than try and find a single solution (a unicorn right?) and instead make smaller investments in tech that take advantages of the plethora of tools out there.

Learning Jekyll has lit a spark. I’ve had to learn it from scratch and have been doing things way beyond my comfort zone. I’ve been installing via the command line, editing code, tweaking domain settings and really learning.

Learning is something that I love. The last few years I have been quite passive in my learning – spending most of my time reading, observing and reflecting rather than doing. This process has been much more hands on and as a result I feel enthused and empowered.

I’ve already redone a prior project, a blog of my life lessons for my daughter, am designing a template for a Jekyll resume page (already sorted the design) and hoping to experiment with using subdomains to support the whole family in having a web presence, and I want to dig into the older posts on this blog to organise, edit and revisit some of the ideas packed away in there.

Momentum

I’m not sure what’s changed but I can feel a real momentum behind me. There’s a spark and a desire to move and disrupt the way I’ve been doing things. I think I’ve felt too comfortable it’s how things were and as a result too passive. I’ve been shouting from the sidelines and realised the only way to change is to get into the game. The MYOS post (and those from others it links out to) was for me a real kick in the arse. A turning point because I could actually see a different way of doing things. An alternate model, not one that fits the current narrative but could actually change it.

This blog will be staying here. There’s a history and a presence attached to it and a heap of hyperlinks I don’t want to kill. I’d say it will evolve and change and be augmented by other stuff. It also provides a stable home, somewhere to come back to, to revisit and retreat to.

Moving Beyond The Default

Default. According to Homer Simpson the two sweetest words in the English dictionary.

To me though, default is more insidious. It represents choices denied and the removal of control by eliminating the opportunity for discussion to occur at the place and time it should – before decisions are made.

This post was triggered by some fairly innocuous tweets from Rolin Moe but they struck something that had been sitting there for some time.

While on the surface these are small fry complaints they point to something big:

What are the consequences of the default?

I’ve been doing some work on designing spaces over the last year looking at spaces that promote creativity and group work. One of the key issues we are facing is that space is at a premium, so a “feature” of these designs is that they are required to have multiple configurations. They need to be able to be re-designed and re-configured to suit a range of purposes and activities.

The work has involved visiting a range of spaces across our campuses but also looking more broadly at other universities and places which enable the kinds of work we are seeking to promote.

I’ve taken a few key things from this:

  • Furniture is too often bolted to the floor and thus it actually inhibits true flexibility. Furniture needs to return to its root and once again become mobile rather than a structure.
  • Technology is still fixed. The reality is that it still requires wiring, connections, setup, support and central control. These fixtures limit the flexibility that’s possible. Wires and cables are still the reality when it comes to technology – wireless just isn’t there in any way shape or form just yet.

But perhaps the biggest lesson was this:

The Default is what defines the space. No matter how flexible the room and the furniture in it is, it has to have a default position. No matter how flexible the space is, it has to have a starting point, a point zero that it can return to. It’s this default that defines what the space is, how it is perceived, how it is defined and inevitably how it will be used.

The simple reason is that people rarely move beyond the default.

Yes, the room may have a million-and-one configurations, but the reality is people stick with what’s there. They won’t move anything because they are used to the notion that the choice has already been made. That the default isn’t a starting point, but the end of a designed process. That someone else with more skills has looked at all this and made decisions on our behalf, whether this is true or not.

I get the reasoning behind the default. It’s something that’s necessary because decisions can’t be made all the time. There’s a cognitive load related to making decisions that is often at the expense of focussing on what really matters. Yes configurations are important, but at what cost and for what benefit?

Should we simply accept the default or be actively working to change it?

Defaults aren’t bad, and they can actually be sweet, but we have 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?

And more importantly WHO?

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

Questioning the defaults is perhaps really interesting when applied to opt-in/opt-out scenarios. Take organ donation. It’s an area where the default has a significant effect on the outcome (It’s also one of the few occasions where I can mention the work of my brother!). Changing the default organ donation setting from opt-in to opt-out increases the number of transplants. You don’t remove or deny choice – it’s just switching the default position. It speaks to the power of The Default. It sets the agenda, it defines the space, it changes the argument and resets the tone. It’s the kind of trigger needed to move beyond the ‘gift of life’.

So perhaps we just need better defaults?

It’s important to note that the default often hide difficult and complex decisions. Those PowerPoint templates? Well they hide a huge range of design choices about fonts, line heights, placement, styles, colours, look, tone and feel. The problem is that PowerPoint hides all those decisions by not exposing you to them. There is just the default. You don’t find out about them until you actually sit down to develop your own template and you realise how messed up the system is. The Default is the choice because there are few alternatives. Customisation is a chore, or more realistically something closer to a layer in Dante’s hell, and what are consequence of changing the default?

But if you take that lack customisation into something like an LMS? Well the stakes get a lot higher. The consequences rack up quickly when you’re talking about the cost of a course and the potential impact on a life! Bad design when it comes to learning has real and definite impact. There are consequences. Big ones.

Better defaults, better modifications

I think we need to start questioning the default. Yes they’re necessary, but we need to better understand what their impact is. Simple defaults in PowerPoint effect the look and feel, but are how consequential are they? Complex defaults, like those employed in an LMS or a course design, can and do effect lives. We need to question the assumptions they make and the impacts they have.

The other area that needs considerable work are the tools that allow us to customise. At the moment they tend to suck, badly. They’re either too light weight to just too complex. This points to a design problem, one that is built on assumptions about the consequences (or inconcequences) of the default. Making customisation not only accessible, but transparent as well, is vital in enabling accountability but also encouraging learning and improvement. It provides a way for us to not just accept the default, but to move beyond it.

One way I’ve been thinking about this, particularly in the educational context is through the development of patterns and blueprints.

Patterns & Blueprints

Patterns are ways of defining components relating to structure, tone, material and activity. They are abstracted so that they do not define the entirety of a design, but make up the pieces through which it is constructed. They are multifaceted which allows them to be reconfigured in a variety of ways to suit specific applications.

Blueprints on the other hand provide a way of sharing a design. They show how various patterns fit together. They highlight areas where adjustments needs to be made but essentially what they allow is for design to be communicated and shared. They bring transparency to the process by providing insight into the design. You can see how the default has been made, what decisions have been made and what areas could be changed.

In many ways Patterns are like Lego pieces and Blueprints are the instructions.

Watching Amy Colliers videos at the end of her awesome blog post Not-yetness was an interesting way of thinking about this analogy. Blueprints can suck the creative joy out, but at the same time they provide a default. They specify the patterns required and usually in the box are multiple variations of the blueprint on the front of the box. The Blueprints provide a marketable and packagable default, but the underlying point is the Patterns they contain are able to be re-formed and re-constructed.

Remixed.

I’ve used the terminology patterns and blueprints very specifically. I don’t want to talk about templates, learning objects, learning designs, OERs, LAMS etc – because they don’t do what I think they need to do.

They lack a form that enables remix. They are like wooden blocks rather than Lego. Yes you can build similar structures, but you lack the ability for those components to be integrated. Blocks tend to sit on top rather than connect and integrate into the structure. They’re often too big and cumbersome to be shaped into exactly what you want. This leads to a compromised, rather than customised design.

What we need are ways of working that not only embrace the remix, but enhance it.

The FedWiki Happening

Over the last month or so I’ve been participating in the #fedwikihappening that the amazing Mike Caulfield has been running. I’ll admit I crashed the party a little, asking for an invite having seen a Twitter conversation I wasn’t part of, but I’ve been following Mike’s work for a while and was really keen to have a go at Smallest Federated Wiki. The main reason I wanted to get on board was because there was a structured reason behind it. This was a happening not just a free for all. This structure meant a lot as it provided motivation as well as tasks and purpose to participate. It’s definitely something I want to adopt if I’m doing anything similar as the structure allowed those involved to not only explore the potentiality but also put the technology through it’s paces.

I’ve outlined my experience below into a couple of thematic areas which might help

The Technology

So lets start with the technology. It’s still in development and if you go in with that attitude you’re going to be OK. There are some idiosyncrasies to learn, some slightly odd concepts and practices but if you’ve ever driven a French car it’s nothing you can’t take in your stride. Things aren’t quite where you expect them or work how you might have intended but with a bit of practice you can quickly get the hang of things. I did encounter the Orange Halo Of Death but finally diagnosed that it was to do with the online security at work – so not browser or user related! FWIW – I used Chrome rather than Firefox throughout and never encountered any issues.

The Happening Process

The bulk of the happening happened over the Christmas break – which made my attendance a little difficult. There were a few days of travel in there and a strong desire to spend plenty of time with the family rather than the computer. I wasn’t prolific but did make a good attempt at trying to find my way and post some “forkable” pages.

I managed to tweak my background and flag image with a shot from my recent trip to New Zealand and a pre-job interview selfie to provide a bit of a personal look to the interface. I then set about getting my head around what is FedWiki, how does it work, how can it work better and how can I actually use this?

  1. You Write – That’s how you use it in the beginning, developing up a little portfolio of ideas and expressions. They’re primarily for you but they’re written with an audience in mind.
  2. Then you Fork – Forking is an interesting concept and the fundamental feature of the fedwiki system. Forking entails copying someone else work back to your site along with the pages history and connection to other authors. Pages are yours to do with as you wish but they are embedded with a relationship. Previous authors can see your changes and they can in turn fork them back to their copy.
  3. You Fork Everything – One of those interesting and idiosyncratic things with Fedwiki is that Forking is synonymous with saving, merging, fixing, connecting & reconnecting. It’s your one stop shop for all things Fedwiki. This has its advantages but it’s intellectual baggage if you come from git or other fork/merge systems. To me this was the least intuitive thing to learn. Upside is I guess, I want to fork everything now!
  4. You Learn – The great thing about the Happening and the forking feature is that you contribute to something bigger – others can see, edit and extend your work. You start of selfish but quite quickly your activity tends to be social. You begin to create with the intention of others seeing and forking. And even when you don’t, others see potential and do. This was a fantastic learning experience for me. I’d write to the extent of my knowledge – then someone would pick up where I’d left off. I could track that, read it, use it and then fork it to make it my own. I’ve never used something that allows you to do that so intuitively! Simplifying learning is as a process is one area I can see Fedwiki having a huge potential. Jon Udell had some great ideas about using it for learning basic composition

FedWiki Thoughts

I’m kind of shocked at the flexility of Fedwiki as a tool. It’s really only limited by your imagination and I’m only just starting to get a sense of how it can be used. I’ve got to sit down and map some of this out a bit but as a personal tool alone I can see how it can change the way I take notes, record and map ideas. Scale that out to group work and theres some amazing potential for an incredibly tool to dramatically improve efficiency, productivity and creativity. The only drawback I can see at the moment is in publishing – but that’s really only if you’re thinking in terms of an artefact with a temporal constraint. As something living and breathing – Fedwiki would be perfect.

Happening Deconstruction

I’m really enjoying the blog posts on the deconstruction of the Happening as much as the participation but I’ve also tried to capture some of my reflections using fedwiki rather than the blog… because I kind of want to fork everything now! You can have a read over here and if you’ve got a FedWiki to play with have a go at forking it!

I posted this over on Frances Bell’s blog in the comments. The post and the comments provide a great insight into other participants perspective the whole thing and are worth a read.

One of the themes coming through from the shared and personal experience is this idea of Cooperation vs Collaboration. I think we’re too used to automatically assuming that group work has to be collaborative. Mike’s post bought it home to me that no – the difference here is that it’s actually cooperative.

I think a cooperative approach is a significant shift away from the norm – and perhaps mirrors the rise of auto-ethnographic research that some others have picked up on – because it actually injects the self back into the work. Despite the sell of personalisation so much of what we do, see and read is effectively depersonalised – anything that vaguely provides a clue to a personality or identity is stripped away. I think this kind of connective (rather than collective) approach provides a better way for us to learn. In many ways it’s more a kin to our existing social experiences of dealing with individuals rather than the hive mind that collective processes tend to foster.

Yes there are technical issues – but that cultural curiosity and the embedded potential have made this a really worthwhile experience.

Coming Soon – A Contribution not a Prediction for 2015

2015 has arrived and there’s a plethora of posts offering predictions, Top 10s, Year of _____, biggest trends etc etc etc. I’ve decided to do something different and talk about my contribution to the future rather than spruiking what it could be.

This year brings an opportunity for me to actively drive some innovation within our institution (in my new role as Online Learning Technology Leader), rather than simply react and respond to what’s happening outside. So I thought I’d seize on that and use this year to develop some new skills and explore some new ideas. So here’s a few things I’m hoping to work on.

Distributed systems

The anniversary of the web and the Snowden leaks that revealed the level and scale of surveillance has really put into perspective the need to re-discover distributed systems. The growing centralisation of the web has made surveillance easier but also made us too dependant or what are massive fail points. Concepts like Domain of Ones Own appeals to me in the sense that it empowers users rather than traps them. Data and information remains yours and in your control, not something that’s matter-of-fact-ly subsumed by a corporate interest. The start-up data trail is a particularly interesting thing to note – when a product fails commercially the one asset they can sell is user data. This kind of behaviour is something we should be paying attention to and beginning to actively avoid. The other big interest I have is to more fully explore the potential of the Federated Wiki. Having participated in the Happening I can see the massive potential this system has for authoring and creating (I’m still not sold on it being the best ‘publishing’ interface – but maybe that’s simply something to explore further).

Customising WordPress

I’ve been a user of WordPress for sometime now and as a blogging tool it’s been great. What I’ve really noticed over the last few years though is it’s slow evolution to highly adaptive and customisable CMS. It’s gone so far down that road that I’m personally thinking of swapping my blog over to Jekyll or something more light weight. But that CMS functionality could be deployed and utilised as an effective backend for a variety of systems. So I want to get in there and begin to use its plugin and theme structures as a development tool. To that end I’m keen to really explore custom posts and interfaces and how they can be utilised to create new content systems. One of the great things is that WordPress is one of the easiest technologies to rollout that fits a distributed model. Using a Domain of Ones Own or a Multisite installation you can really go to town on developing smaller distributed systems. I have some concerns of a lack of a proper API but an open and hackable system is an OK option.

Design Patterns

Mike Caulfield’s posts on design patterns got me thinking a lot and I believe there’s something significant in the concept. In my new role I specifically interested in the potential of patterns to be used to scale up and scale out good practice and innovation. One of the hidden themes at Ascilite 2014 was the power of good teaching. In fact I’d go as far as saying that effective innovation requires good teachers that capable of adapting good practice. The area I was thinking about was digitally mediated interaction as it’s something where I sense there’s a significant gap. It’s also an area that’s ill-defined and often ill-conceived so I think there’s something scholarly in there (maybe).

Netpro

At the Ascilite Conference I co-facilitated a workshop with Kim Tairi and Joyce Seitzinger on the Networked Professional. I got a lot out of the day where we were as much participants as facilitators. I’d like to keep up that work over the year. Maybe running the workshop again – or maybe developing up some ongoing ‘events’ – TweetUps, Hangouts… something to keep that momentum and shared practice going.

I’m not sure if that aligns with anyones list or trends for 2015, but they’re areas where I CAN do something and make something happen.

Cheers!