2017 – Rebuilding: Homes and Hospitality

This year was another big one.

My daughter started school back in January which was a pretty momentous occasion – for her and us doting parents.

First Day Hugs with Dad

The build work for our house started in earnest after a long drawn out battle with the insurance company. We were paid out a fair sum of money to have our own builders come in and finish the job. We finally got to move in at the end of May after almost 20 months after the fire occurred. It was good to be home.

Oklahoma Skyline

I was lucky to have the opportunity to head over to the US again and catch up with some of my favourite and inspiring people. Thanks to Laura for showing me some of the best beers in Texas. The Reclaim Crew put on an outstanding conference where I got to meet and catch up with Tom, Alan, Brian, Jim and a whole swathe of intelligent people. The folks from Oklahoma University – Adam, John and Keegan – who showed me around and openly shared their work.


Work this year was an interesting mix of talk around innovation and the more boring and practical. I spent a it of time immersed in the EduGrowth community but was bought back to the reality of EdTech while spending a big chunk of time skinning Blackboard. I have now upped my game when it comes to CSS abilities but have earned a few grey hairs in the process. What came out of it though was a new design system – one that I hope can grow and be maintained going forth.

As a side project I dove headfirst into the world of AgriTech startups this year with my fearless colleague Ben. While we never managed to win anything we did quite handsomely with our runner up spots that proved we were onto something. We’re planning on taking Kelpie a bit further in the new year and see what’s possible.

eChallenge Awards 2017-187

Being back in our home was an amazing feeling and I think as a family unit we revelled in it. We had our space and stuff back. The house was comfortable but more importantly was that it was ours. It wasn’t temporary or a placeholder it was something we controlled and inhabited. I can’t express how important that feeling is – it’s an intangible thing, but it anchors you. Home lets you be, become and do other things.

I had the great honour to have a number of international visitors come out to Australia. Keegan, Jim and Alan all made the long trek out to Australia and it was great to catch up with them all and spend time on “home turf”. It was great to explore Melbourne with Keegan and Jim, to meet Rohan and introduce them all to Joyce and Mark. What was really exciting was when Jim and Alan actually made it all the way to Wagga Wagga. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to host friends from overseas for a long time and it was great.

A willingness to be hospitable has been missing in my life for a little while. Having spent so long living in what felt like (and technically was) someone else’s house, I never really wanted to invite people in or over. Most of our socialising was done somewhere else – out at a venue or at their place, but never at ours. Being home has changed that. We now have somewhere where we feel comfortable inviting people into – something that represents, reflects and embodies us. Now that we have our place there’s both a willingness and opportunity to invite people in and be more hospitable. Being home is the opposite of the hostile architecture that the rental felt like.

Cooking Genius of Tim Klapdor

I’m glad Alan captured my “Up-The-Duff Chicken” – my go to meal for guests because it’s both relatively easy to prepare over a conversation at the kitchen bench, simple to cook, looks impressive and is delicious. I realised afterwards that I’d served this to both Jim and Alan when they visited (not on purpose) and I think it represents something quintessentially home-made. It’s certainly not something I’ve seen on the menu at any restaurant and the use of a can of beer to steam the chicken from the inside seems quite Australian. It was really great to have Alan and Jim come into my home and show them around Wagga and the local area and it was an honour to have them both here. It was also great to travel with Alan over to Wollongong and stop at a few of my favourite places along the way – Hyam’s Beach and Huskisson for fish and chips.

2017/365/329 Reaching for the Beach

Meeting Kate Bowles and her amazing family was a huge payoff at the end of the drive. Experiencing her hospitality, and that of the whole family and the cat, was really life affirming. Her daughters blew me away with their intelligence, compassion and engagement with the world. Spending the afternoon and evening in their presences and in such hospitable company and setting recharged my sense of humanity and honestly game me hope in these often bleak times.

This year has been a shit show in so many ways. Throughout the year I’ve felt horrified at the depravity, spite and abhorrent behaviour that’s been on display. I’ve also felt completely out of my depth. I haven’t known how to respond or react in a meaningful and welcome way. I can bitch and moan from the sidelines, but most of this year I’ve been silent, unsure of what, if anything I can or should do.


2017 has been a year of rebuilding. Physically the house is done, and I’ve been able to make some in roads to being more hospitable and welcoming. I’ve got to experience it’s importance, but more significantly its effect. I’ve felt recharged and empowered by spending time with people this year, and as an introvert that’s hardly ever been the case. I realise that I was lacking in hospitality in my life, having all your stuff taken from you tends to have that effect. There was plenty of sympathy after the fact, but it wasn’t what I needed from other people that was important, it’s what I could give to them. And that’s what I’d lost in the fire – both the mechanism to do so by being able to offer my house to others, but also a real desire to invite anyone in. I think I’ve turned a corner on that one.


Students & The Cost of Higher Education

The news of the government announcing an end to the demand driven higher education system shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one, this government’s oligarchy driven ideology likes to veil their policies in the concept of the “free-market”, but in reality they are anything but. This is a party based around favours for the rich, of keeping the status quo and a naive sense of regressionism to the “good old days” (when white men were in charge and everyone else knew their place was under their rule). So something like a demand driven system, you know something that resembles democratic choice, was bound to be pulled back because it didn’t fit their ideology. This time it was done as a budget measure to pay for tax cuts for the rich (who don’t seem to pay much tax… so not sure why they need another one).

The other reason that this was inevitable was that it was getting increasingly expensive for the government. Universities were under no obligation to reduce the cost of their courses as student numbers increased and economies of scale arguments could have easily been invoked. Instead most of universities spent big to attract more students with little thought of the long term consequences of scaling up their enterprises. The government could have been proactive in this and sought to undertake some real reform in the area, but instead of attempting to tackle some of the underlying issues in the current funding model but instead they simply sort to cut funding and magically all the problems will resolve themselves.

The silence around some of the key problems in higher education is deafening:

  • No one seems willing to discuss the fact that students are being forced to prop up the higher education system as the government slowly defunds it.
  • No one seems to willing to discuss the impact of students having to bear a vast amount of debt right from the outset of their careers.
  • No one seems willing to discuss how much of the fees students pay goes to cross subsidise research and if that is a justifiable expense to be shifted to students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss the massive casualisation of the teaching workforce and the lack of time and permanent staff allocated to teach students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss if higher education will retain its value for students going into the future.

No one seems willing to discuss students.

The language around higher education seems to ignore them completely, despite the fact that our future literally depends on them. Higher Education seems fine with de-humanising itself and in being discussed purely in economic or industrial terms. We love talking about money and value, and industry sectors and exports, and economic contributions and growth, and standards and rankings.

We don’t seem to want to spend any time talking about the people.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on staff through precarious employment. How we don’t pay them over summer. How they can’t get a loan because they’re not permanent. How our last minute hiring practices creates a heart in the mouth event every single session, or how they aren’t allocated enough time to actually engage with student in any other way than the delivery of content.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on students to perform. How this course is costing them $2000 a pop so the cost of failure has huge financial costs associated with it. How there is no financial support to study. How they are forced to work menial jobs to feed and cloth themselves most of the time. How we just cut penalty rates and took $100 a week from their pay check. How we fail to even acknowledge the mental anguish our student go through in order to study. How we belittle them with bureaucratic paperwork and arbitrary penalties. How we have removed sympathy from the system of education which would acknowledge it’s very human connection. How we are silent about suicide, even when it’s attempted our own campuses, in our dorm rooms.

What worries me about the coming debate about these budget cuts is that there won’t be a sliver of acknowledgement of staff or students or the predicament they find themselves in now, let alone the state we are forcing them into. We are forgetting that Education is an essentially human pursuit, and removing the humanity is not a cost we should be willing to bear.


I wrote about the fire and the temporary permanence we lived in for close to two years. But I haven’t written about coming home.

There were of course the expected delays in the build. The took a while floors, the joinery too and each had their own knock on effect. But in the last week of May we got the keys on the Friday. We hired a van, bought a shed load of flat pack furniture and over the weekend we moved.


That Friday I spent the house night building furniture. I am somewhat of an IKEA master and knew from the outset this was going to be tough. Two wardrobes, a bed, two desks, a rather large chest of drawers, bookcase and a bunch on incidentals awaited me. I went and bought an electric screwdriver and every hex key attachment you would need and settled in. I came come at 1am, slept and was back at the house by 8am.

My wife packed up the rental. The problem with losing all your stuff is that you have to replace it – most of it. While there is plenty of superfluous stuff in our lives there are also plenty of ‘essentials’. Technologies and objects that make life easier. Goods that we have that we only use occassionaly, but are vital when called upon. But it’s funny how quickly you accumulate. The rental was fully furnished, so lucky we didn’t have to move much furniture (hence the flat pack frenzy), but there were clothes and games and utensils and stuff to preen and clean and smell better. Toys – so many toys for such a short while, many given to us from those helping out in the aftermath – they were sorted, packed and many given new homes.

Over that weekend all the furniture was erected, stuffed and filled. The house was a mess for a few more days as we began to unpack – and then I left. Off to Oklahoma for the Domains Conference. I left my wife and daughter alone in this new/old place.

My daughter didn’t really remember the house. We had looked at photos but it didn’t click. Saturday she walked in to her new room. Immediately she had her place – the bed, the dresser/desk, wardrobe with her clothes, bookcase with her books and boxes of toys. It became recognisable as her space within minutes.

The house was unpacked, clean and warm when I got home. I hadn’t learnt how to use the new appliances – induction cooktop and fancy oven – so it felt alien at first. But life didn’t stop, it kept ticking with the beat and we slowly got back to the rhythm.

School is close now, a quick walk around the corner. It was bitingly cold some mornings – but I love holding hands with my daughter and chatting as we made out way to class on the cold mornings.

The house is so warm. We’d been used to the typical Australian design feature of gaps and drafts in all our other houses. They let the cold air in and the warm air out in winter, vice versa in summer. We’d decided to spend the money and replace all the external doors and windows with double glazed units and the new building codes required floor and ceiling insulation. The new heating and cooling meant every room could be warmed just so – it was amazing. Can’t wait for summer now 🙂

We spent money doing stuff to the house. There are more cupboards everywhere and a new bathroom. We’ve ditched the deco elements (not necessarily by choice) and embraced modernism. We picked bold primary colours, bright whites and inky blacks. We installed a Mondrian in the kitchen and went redder on the cupboards.


The laundry is white with a splash of blue and the bathroom opening is golden. The little (expensive) touches were worth it the custom vanity and bench works for that small space. The antique brass finish on the taps is a relief from the standard chrome. I love the patina they’re developing.

The appliances, which were a considerable sticking point in our dispute with the insurance company, work really well. I love the control of modern electric appliances – and now I have that back, where the numbers on the dial means something – not just too hot or not hot enough.

But all that is nothing. It’s just stuff. It’s ours and it’s done but in reality it’s kind of inconsequential.

But what does matter is that I feel like I’m back home, in my place, the one my wife and I made. The one we worked on, and put our sweat and blood into. The one we had to fight for. The one where we bought our daughter to just 2 days after she was born. Where she grew and took her first steps. Where we celebrated birthdays and got together with family and friends. Where we cuddled together on Sunday mornings, bleary eyed and half asleep and watched movies, drank warm drinks and ate eggs.

There’s a few outstanding jobs in the house. We haven’t even touched the yard. But life is good now. We are happy with our spot. Home.


Lipstick on a Pig

The blog has been quiet for a while now. It’s neglect is qualified by the amount of work – professional and personal – I’ve been doing the last couple of months.

I’ve been part of an 8 week incubator program and an entrepreneurial course to help progress a personal project, Kelpie – the digital working dog. It’s been great to go through the creative process of coming up with an idea and to take it through it’s paces to develop it further. We’re now doing the final push to get our last assignments done and prepare for a 15 minute presentation.

In my 9 to 5 job I’ve been chipping away at developing a new theme and UI for Blackboard. Yes the LMS, my long time enemy has been sucking out my will to live for the past couple of months now.

While Kelpie has been a great experience, developing and creating your own thing, working on Blackboard has been the opposite. Trying to work within the technical constraints of someone else’s system is difficult at the best of times. Blackboard takes it to a whole new level. The code is so verbose and complex it’s a challenge to make even the most simple change. Armed only with CSS and within the theming conventions of the Blackboard it’s nigh on impossible to make any meaningful change. The best I can achieve with this limited toolset is what I’d equate to putting Lipstick on a Pig.

Blackboard seriously needs to get some actual web developers on staff – the state of the HTML, methods, processes and conventions are so antiquated that it doesn’t even make use of the Cascade in CSS.

Where I’ve tried to focus my attention is in the content area within the system. Most courses use the default theme’s default styles which results in pretty awful and dated looking material. Even if the content is good and well written, the presentation lets it down. Those that have tried to improve things seem to have focussed on “display” rather than use. Showing the content in a particular way has been of greater importance it seems than making the content readable – form rather than function.

The WYSIWYG in Blackboard is a problem too. It’s method of working – inline styles. Yes, gone is the convention of separating content and presentation (the thing that the main conventions of the web – HTML & CSS – are built upon). What results is a tangled mix of butchered HTML littered with an assortment of CSS, spam tags and unsemantic markup. Having just given a presentation on the usefulness of simple markup (via Markdown) and its flexibility to be repurposed and reused in a variety of ways – Blackboard’s attempt is both atrocious and deeply concerning. Why? Because it’s locks up the content into their system, not via proprietary formats but through sheer awfulness. The task of cleaning this stuff up is daunting which means the motivation to move, to redo and improve is greatly diminished. Why change what “works”? Why redo something people won’t “see”?

There are plenty of reasons to hate the LMS, I think I’ve discovered a new one.

Beyond the LMS


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


This is the context of my institution.


These are our campus locations.


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

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


What I wanted to do today was talk about the Learning Management System, or more importantly what might come after it. But before we get to that I wanted to start with a look at the current state of play.


Over the last decade the LMS has become synonymous with online learning. The LMS has become the default. To many it defines what online leaning looks like, what’s possible and what it’s limitations are.


An element of control is baked into a centralised system. It’s one of its distinct features, but it has some significant side effects. One is an embedded power dynamic that prioritises institutional needs over students, which often reinforces didactic teaching methods where teaching is delivered from a central point.


It’s for that very reason that a key trait of the LMS is a lack of user Autonomy and Agency. Teachers and students lack any real ability to self-govern or to act on their own.


From a central space all can be observed, monitored and tracked. This surveillance is often marketed as “analytics”, and while it may indeed be able to offer some meaningful data it does so at the expense of dialogue and perhaps more importantly permission.


I’d suggest we have reached peak LMS. It has achieved saturation in the market so that is little growth left. For institutions we are now all beholden to innovation being provided to us by vendors and unable to offer substantially different products or services. When everything begins to look and feel the same the return for having an LMS will begin to diminish. Instead of being of value it starts to be a hinderance. If our goal is to create a distinctive curricula and learning experience, then the LMS simply can’t provide that.


There’s a lot of discussion around the concept of the Next Generation Learning Environment. It’s being touted as the solution to the current woes around the LMS.


I am however quite skeptical. You see it’s the same centralised model, with the same inherent problems, the same structures, the same limitations. Sure it’ll be better, faster, stronger – but it won’t change anything.


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


I’d suggest that the LMS, the default, acts as a container for our thinking. Just like a vessel does with liquid – it shapes the contents. It shapes the performance and what we can imagine is possible. The container provides hard edges, limitations which define how and what we think and do.


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


One of the underlying problem is that online learning hasn’t yet adapted to the medium – the web. We’ve simply sought to recreate the physical classroom in the online space. This is what we do with any new medium – radio replicated the theatre, television replicated radio, the early web replicated print. What has happened in the online learning space is a continuation of the trednd – initially it tends to copy the old one, but over time it develops its own distinct form and function.


But online learning has yet to go through that phase. There are examples on the fringes – Downes, Siemens and Cormier’s work on connectivist and rhizomatic learning for example. But for the most part online learning is still an attempt to replicated the Physical Classroom in the medium of the web.


The fact that the biggest LMS company is called “Blackboard” is not a coincidence. Current online learning is an attempt to simply replicate classroom practice. It doesn’t embrace the web. It doesn’t seek to utilise the medium, instead it walls it all off and out.


The LMS also enforces arbitrary Time Boxes which have a profound impact on learning. Access tends to be limited to a session – 6 months – and then students are locked out. Despite the fact that they paid for the learning that occurred there – students no longer have access to the discussions, wikis or content that lives in the LMS. This Time Boxing effectively forces students to start from scratch every session – their profiles, their identity, their network gone. And there’s no way to come back. They can’t return after the fact – to revise, reread, rediscover – it reenforces this concept of learning as a linear processes, all done in step, together and at the same time.


This creates what I’ve called Learning on Rails. Similar to the style of video games where you are immersed in a realistic environment, but have no free movement to explore, simply to complete each task, one after the other. Online Learning tends to consist of linear tasks. Navigating information and working through content is done not as an exploration to hypertext document – but as a series of Next buttons.


So what could the future look like?


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


Over the past two years working on developing a vision for what online learning could and should be. Based on the large body of educational research that exists, the aim has been to pull together a cohesive model that establishes clear elements to aide the design, development and delivery of online courses.


This is the online Learning model that we developed for CSU. We identified these key elements as part of a curriculum that encourages and enables engagement to occur.


We have also developed the Online Learning Exchange. There you will find a more extensive description of the model. We have also developed up a range of strategies that can be used to help implement the model into courses and used in the design, development and delivery process. The Mixer is a tool to map out practices and how intense their adoption is, the aim to understand that there could and should be variations in the levels depending on the subject and discipline area. It also may help diagnose issues and help direct the design process. The applications area provides case studies and how the model might be adapted over a course, tying in delivery methods and techniques as well as tying in assessments.


This body of work is aimed at moving the university – the largest provider of distance education – into a new way of doing things. It’s a realisation that the while the correspondence model of education works, it has significant inherent problems too. Going online had provided us and many others with a cheaper and easier way, but it also provides an opportunity to rethink what and how we do things.


What our work on the online learning model has uncovered are large gaps between what we want to be able to achieve pedagogically and what the technology, primarily the LMS, is actually capable of.

… but ..


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


There are issues to do with scale and operations that a Domains program isn’t ready to handle or set up to do. The practical perspective is that if we want to do away with the LMS – then we have to develop a viable alternative.


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


The alternative to the centralised systems, and what I think is the key to changing and transforming what online learning looks like, is moving to a distributed system. The Internet is a Distributed system. It’s success comes from that underlying infrastructure – one that is shared and open. Designed to be more resilient to breakdowns and less vulnerable to attack it also acts to distribute power so it is less abused and better reflects needs of all stakeholders, especially the small and weak.


It’s for this reason that the internet has become a place where emergence happens, fostering more innovation and discovery because people are empowered to do so. They have autonomy and agency within this structure and the ability to carve out and create their own personal and virtual spaces to share.


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


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


But Domains are really only the infrastructure. They provide a mechanism to get things done, but not the method to do achieve it. We have to build – something on top of that solid infrastructure.


My personal journey has been very much focussed on how can we replace the LMS. A couple of years ago a started thinking about how could we do this. What would it look like. And I started with – MYOS. What if we created something like an operating system where we can run our all of our own apps.


And while I think its a sound idea – the reality is that this is too big a task. Recreating applications is a hell of a lot of work, but increasingly we don’t need to do anymore. The main reason is the rise of the API.


Application Programming Interfaces provide a way for different systems and applications to interact with each other. They can share data, send messages to each other and trigger routines to provide different inputs and outputs. APIs are how apps talk to each other. They’ve been part of large applications for a long time but were locked away in the source code. Today though more and more applications are running on the web – and have opened up their APIs. This means developers can link up services – you can cross post social


Last year at the Indie EdTech meetup we started discussing this idea of the Personal API. And having got to spent some time with and listening to Kin Lane I started to realise that you don’t need to run all your own apps. You just need a way to be in control and to coordinate different service and get them to talk to each other. This way if you want to use Dropbox for storage or Amazon S3 – that’s fine. If you want to WordPress or Known – that’s cool too. Utilising a variety of existing web service is actually preferable to building your own, because then it is personal – it’s up to you as an individual to make choices. In this world Agency and Autonomy are baked in.


Utilising APIs at an individual level takes this concept of the web – small pieces loosely joined – and makes it a much more serious proposition. As an individual all these “life bits” are connected – to me. And if I can programmatically control those bit – how they connect and interact, then all of a sudden we have a very new and very powerful tool. At the same time if we utilise existing systems/application then we also have something thats very light weight in terms of development.


So my idea is to develop up a Distributed Learning System. A structured way of utilising a range of technologies to configure a viable alternative to the LMS.


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


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


In this system each student and staff member would have their own System running on their Domain – A Node. Nodes would act as their own entity. They would act as federated points – able to act autonomously but designed so they allow for connections to be made.


And Nodes would connect to Hubs. These could represent subjects or courses – but are much more flexible than that. They could be set up for projects, research, committees and collaboration. Hubs define relationships between Nodes – they allow an agreed set of rules to be developed and define the nature of the relationship – What data will be shared, who with and for how long.


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


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


This map provides a way of understanding how the different components of the system all fit together. The Node acts to manage the Personal side of the equation – connecting apps together and features that are part of the Domains infrastructure.

At the same time the Hubs link together institutional systems and data with those of the nodes. They establish a handshake agreement between parties to ensure that the relationship is negoatiated, data isn’t simply made available and vacuumed up by the institution.


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


Students and teachers would interact with their own node – not the LMS or another site. Their Node. Messages from the hub could be displayed, communications sent back and forth, content would be federated so that students could read, annotate and interact with their materials that they would main them forever. All the tools we currently use for learning would all still work – but in a way that is shaped by the student, and with them having access and choice.


The radical of this that students would be able to take their learning with them wherever they please – and for as long as they please. They wouldn’t be chained or confined by the institutions any more. We could start to see this concept of lifelong learning actually be supported by the technology. Students would retain copies of their learning and they would be able to use it how they wish. Creating eportfolios, showreels, blog posts – reusing and repurposing their learning.


At the moment Domain of Ones Own relies on co-opting open source applications to achieve certain needs. Blogging tools like WordPress have become powerful tools in the hands of skilled artisans, but outside of those few individuals have we gone much further than simply blogging? But what if we used those applications the infrastructure of Domain of Ones Own to develop tools specifically for learning?


I still refer to this post from Andrew Rikard when thinking about domains and students. One way of the thinking of the Distributed Learning System is to provide a way to unbudle the students learning from their domain and digital identity. By using APIs we can be more focussed on who and how we share content. And in doing to it not only provides a safe space for students to work in – and still engage with the web, but to do it on their terms, while maintaining their authority and avoiding turning domains into the next checkbox assessment.


The real potential of the DLS is the development of new applications and tools. To utilise the latest technologies and the open nature of the web and software to create new applications that focus on learning, on a pedagogy of the web. We develop methods of learning that are of the web, and are based on discovery, exploration, creativity and reflection.


At the moment there are some fantastic innovations happening out there – over this conference we’ve been introduced to just some of them. But we’re dealing with blips at the moment. To improve and make a difference to online learning and perhaps education as a whole, we have to work to share our knowledge and experiences. We also need to make it easy to adopt them. To learn from one another and our experiences. By creating a system, and while that word may scare some people, it’s really just a way of working, we could share more easily. APIs provide a way that we could share, adopt and adapt new developments more easily – between users and institutions. Having some commonality would provide some cohesion


Moving into the future – if we want to develop and deliver a truly distinctive curricula and learning experience. One that I think would produce the kind of graduates that would thrive in the future. A distributed learning system radically changes the possibilities and provides a way to really develop self directed learner. Providing students with a level of autonomy and agency that is simply not possible within in the LMS and centralised systems, they will develop the skills to manage and define their own learning in a life long way.

If you have comments, questions or ideas – let me know. I’d love to hear them and bounce ideas around.

A Domain of “Our” Own

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

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

This is something new

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Future for Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Re-Concentration of Power

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

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

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

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

At Human Scale

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

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

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

A New Space

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

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

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

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