The Reclaim Code

As Bud (the great Harry Dean Stanton) notes after snorting a long line of speed in Repo Man (1984), “Not many people have a code to live by anymore.”  I couldn’t agree with him more, and this seems particularly true in edtech where we seem to spend far too much time and energy searching for technological salvation through analytics, data, and scale. The closest thing to a code most “innovators” cannibalizing edtech proffer are hollow notions of disruption.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Repo Code ever since Tim and I were talking the other day about our vision for the future. As we double-down on our commitment to Reclaim Hosting, we have to make one thing entirely clear: we are NOT EDUPRENEURS. If you label us as such, we will be offended. This word suggests we are trying to disrupt educational institutions. We are not, we are trying to support those who want to do cool things within them. That horrible word also suggests we are sitting on some big idea waiting for angel funding of VC investment. This is not the case, we WILL NOT be taking any VC funding from anyone for two reasons:  a) VC funding is the devil’s work, and b) we have a viable business model based on a trailing edge technology called web hosting.

What’s more, how we have built our business over the last two years is simple: we have kept our prices and overhead very low and provided exceptional service. This is not ground breaking, it’s just solid work. Work both Tim and I are really proud of. We’re an independent hosting label focused on supporting education, but open to any and everyone. The notion of independence is very important to us because it means we are not beholden to any other interests but our own. I like to believe we are part of what I hope becomes a broader movement of independent edtech, “green spaces” for exploration, experimentation, and collaboration. We need to Reclaim Innovation from the corporate disruptors.

SO, Tim and I have come up with you might call a Reclaim C.O.D.E. to quickly delineate what we believe and why we are doing this.

Community: First and foremost, Reclaim was made possible by the various and variegated people in our community. Reclaim Hosting is part of a long history of experiments and collaborations: ds106, Hippie Hosting, Domain of One’s Own, etc. Many of the people who use and trust Reclaim Hosting are the same ones who helped us build it. Moving forward it only seems natural that these are the same people that will join Reclaim in more official capacities as we grow. We will hire from within!!!

Openness: Tough term, it’s taken a beating as of late for good reason: over used, under delivered. For us openness remains what it has always been. Share everything we do openly and freely. We will share all our work/code openly on the web. Our model is not some secret sauce code base, it’s support and development to people who want to experiment with teaching and learning on the open web. The more we share it, the better it is for everyone, especially the people we work with! [One of the under appreciated laws of blogging.]

Decency: Unfortunately web hosting is an industry over-run with fear-mongering and bullying that is built into the very fabric of the business. Just take a look at Godaddy or Network Solutions, it’s awful. We’ve done a lot to make the process easier, more decent, and honest (and we still have much more to do to make it even better). We won’t prey on people’s fear of getting hacked or manipulate their lack of understanding how certain things work. When you work with Reclaim Hosting, you will be treated with decency and honesty.

Education: Our strength is education. Not simply because we have worked in higher ed for decades, but also because the mission behind Reclaim Hosting is to try and educate as many people as possible about how the web works. Ask any of the more than 700+ folks who have submitted a ticket at Reclaim Hosting how that’s worked for them. We spend time showing folks how to use this space to create something on the web. Reclaim Hosting is a community for educators to explore the web for teaching and learning, and it may be the best thing to happen to higher ed since ds106

That’s the C.O.R.E. for us. We have a strong value system we operate from, so you’ve been warned. What’s more, we’re not necessarily consultants. People ask us to consult, and we have and can. But I associate consulting with parachuting in and out telling folks what they need. That’s not us, we have an ongoing relationship with folks once the come to work with Reclaim. Out core business model is built on providing web infrastructure for learning from the individual to the course to an entire institution. We partner with all of them to suggest how to use it most effectively. But not one and run, but, rather, over time. It’s a relationship, it’s part of a broader community of independent edtech. That’s what we do, and it’s pretty amazing.

Slacking off at Reclaim

One of the many great perks of going full time at Reclaim Hosting is that I can work from anywhere. This is something my family and I will be capitalizing on, which means Tim and I need to get into a tighter rhythm if we’re gonna work effectively in a distributed fashion. Yesterday we re-visited Slack, a team communication tool Tim setup back in November. As he put it accurately and succinctly” “Slack works to eliminate as many emails as possible.” I think that’s a very useful way to think about it. It’s a tool that focus communication for a working group or team in one place, and allows you to integrate all sorts of other applications. For example, our customer support tickets from Intercom or the @ReclaimHosting mentions on Twitter. You can think of it like a more fluid, next generation version of BaseCamp, if that makes any sense to you.

So Slack can be a window in your browser or an application on your computer you have open to see recent tickets on Intercom or who s mentioning ReclaimHosting on Twitter or what Tim is working on now. Hell, I can even read his latest blog post on “Building Slack Integrations for Reclaim Hosting” in the blogs channel of Slack. [You can set up a channel as a focused feed aggregator for blogs.] We plan on committing to it for a while to see if it helps us work more closely together.

Slacking off at Reclaim

And as Tim’s post explains, he has been working on creating custom integrations (what are called “slash commands”) to scratch some itches we have when responding to support tickets. For example, when someone submits a ticket we usually have to search our billing system to find out what server they are one (we have several now) before we can help them. So Tim built a slash command that allows us to type “/whatserver bavatuesdays.com”  and the information will be retrieved from our billing system and printed in Slack so we can logon to the server, circumventing the extra step of logging into our billing software. I think that is so awesome, check out the GIF demo of the process below.

Slacking off at Reclaim

Another custom slash command Tim built today is grabbing whois data on any domain by simply typing: /whois bavatuesdays.com.  My domains registration information will be printed in Slack. It’s pretty awesome. It always takes someone showing me how something like this might be useful—like blogging, for example—but once they do, I am #4life! Also, this post highlights another major reason I’m so excited about Reclaim, Tim is an endless fount of new and very cool ideas. He is always open to experimenting, truly a first class lab rat!

Building Slack Integrations for Reclaim Hosting

Building Slack Integrations for Reclaim Hosting

For that past few months I've been dipping my toes in and out of the water of a Slack account I setup for Reclaim Hosting. When I went full-time back in January it seemed like perhaps a better way for Jim and I to stay in touch about what we were doing. But old habits die hard and we tend to still use Twitter DMs and email for a lot of that correspondence. That being said I've kept that app on my computer because of two integrations I added early on that proved useful.

I added the Twitter integration to notify a channel of any interaction between @ReclaimHosting. While I still use apps like Twitter for Mac to correspond with folks there it's nice to have a quick archive of that stuff in Slack as well. I also added an integration with Intercom, our support system (we were previously using Zendesk which also wrote to Slack) to have ticket notifications come into a support channel there. I still get all of these notifications by email for now because sometimes I'm in multiple places, but I can start to see how pushing more notifications to Slack channels could help filter and, well, channel that information to places where I'm not the only one receiving them and others can act on them. And even though we're only a team of 2 today, if history is any indicator even that could change a year from now so setting up processes today to share this information is a good thing in my eyes. I've also found notifications come to Slack typically much faster than either email or native notifications on the phone, which is a nice perk.

So Jim and I were taking a fresh look at our Slack setup today and I had recently begun to look at Slash Commands. Slack has a few built-in commands for doing a variety of things like setting reminders, switching channels, or even subscribing to RSS feeds. But one really cool thing is that you can build your own commands that get sent via the Slackbot to a script and return information. So my goal today was to try building one that Jim and I had a need for, finding out what server a particular user is on. When we began Reclaim Hosting almost 2 years ago we had a single server and life was much simpler. Today we have 3 servers for shared hosting with probably a 4th being provisioned soon, not to mention servers for a variety of other institutional accounts. When we receive tickets from folks needing help the first piece of information we go looking for is which server they're on to troubleshoot. So I figured it would be cool to have a command that we could send a domain to and get back the server it's hosted on.

WHMCS, the billing system we've used since day one, has a decent API for getting some of this information remotely and it turns out Slacks system for building slash commands is pretty straightforward. You tell them what you want the command to be (in this case we chose /whatserver) and the location of the script and they will simply forward on the text that comes after the command to the script as a POST request. The script can parse it however it likes and whatever gets printed from the script gets sent back to the Slack channel as a private message to the person who issued the command. Building the script required just two API calls, one to receive information on the requested domain and one to take the user ID from that first call and print out each hosting account the user has. With some formatting of the final echo I'm able to do something like this: Building Slack Integrations for Reclaim Hosting

Now it's not perfect because it's pulling all "products" for a user and in my example there are a few SSL certificates. I need to narrow it down to only display hosting accounts but that's just massaging the data. And ideally I might be able to get information like this directly from our DNS rather than through the billing system (which isn't necessarily going to show information about addon domains registered elsewhere and other nuanced scenarios like that). But for a first pass this will greatly help Jim and I be able to jump into the server of whichever user we're looking for. Because our ticketing system does display user ID I made it optional to throw a number at the same command and get the same display rather than even having to know the domain.

Some changes I'm looking at making are to generalize this into a single command for multiple types of information. I could see a /whmcs command that pulls all types of information about a user on the fly, not just a single-purpose script like this. I'm going to work on that using a WHMCS PHP library as a base and release the code for that in case it's useful for others, though I recognize this is very much a niche thing. As we start to play around with integrations like this I'm also realizing that building small purposeful tools for our business could really save us a bunch of time and it's the not-so-secret way that we're able to remain lean and build a company supporting thousands of people today. I'm starting to find comfort in coding and the idea that if we need something and it doesn't exist yet, we might be able to build it.

Update

I've added an example script to GitHub to show how this works. This script will print out a list of domains by sending it an email address. I've also put a lot of comments in it to show what's happening.

Independent Teaching Networks

In the wake of my announcement that I’ll be going full time with Reclaim Hosting, more than a few folks wondered whether I’ll be teaching in the future. This came as both a surprise and honor. I build my teaching around the things I am interested in, and I have been fortunate enough that UMW has let me try this on numerous occasions over the years with various partners.

Howard Rheingold commented, “You are going to jones for students. I know that I am.” And David Kernohan echoed a similar idea:

I can’t see I world where I don’t do teaching either. In fact, of the list of classes I want to teach, only one of them (the Library of Congress Movie MOOC) would really depend on being at UMW (or at least in the area) for the full imagined effect—though it could definitely still be done. The others, like the seminar about Italy during the Years of Lead, a course exploring Domain of One’s Own, a refresher on Zombies and Copyright, or a fullblown cultural hist0ry of Sharks are still very much in my future.

giphy

In fact, with the work I’ve been doing with Zach Whalen on the Console Living Room,  I started thinking the the 1980s course I talked about co-teaching with Dr. Garcia in that list post could be even more pointed than a whole decade. What if we had a course about a 16 weeks of a single year*, say the Spring or Fall of 1984 or 1985. What’s more, it would never happen in anything resembling a classroom. Rather it unfolds as a 16 week media experience of television, radio, cinema, etc. in a living room across roughly those same 16 weeks 30 years earlier. The idea was inspired by the broadcasting of 1980s TV Michael Branson Smith setup in the UMW Console last month.


Animated GIF from Atari 5200 ad thanks to Zach Whalen!
So, rather than having a course where you talk about 1980s culture. You setup a framework (or a living room) that over the course of 16 weeks recreates a culture across the axis of television, radio, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, vinyl records, books, magazines, etc. Students (or anyone else in the community) could come into that living room and grab from a library of VHS tapes, video games, cassette tapes, books, records, magazines, etc. and experience those various bits of culture. What’s more, they could watch TV across numerous networks and/or tune into radio across various stations. And they would blog and reflect on those various moments they experience, and the cultural assumptions of the moment. They could go there to watch together, do it alone, or explore and share back new elements of media from that moment. In fact, Zach and I have started the the initial TV programming of the TV portion at least.

This could be reinforced and framed by various readings from that year focusing on broadcast TV, radio, video games, etc. I am planning on doing research this summer around history of network and independent Television stations in light of the rise of Cable TV during the 1980s—not to mention the explosion of VCRs. I’m intrigued by that idea, and that could be one whole part of this class that isn’t taught, but experienced in a way other than a classroom. I love this idea. It’s exhibit meets classroom, and I wouldn’t necessarily need to be there to “program” it.

I can’t imagine I’ll stop having ideas like this, and you can teach classes like this anywhere. In fact, there has got to be a department out there somewhere who might see the opportunity of bringing in various folks to teach courses with an eye towards the long, diverse, and complex history of media and edtech.  I’ve had an amazing experience teaching with folks like Martha Burtis, Alan Levine, Paul Bond, and Maggie Stough. And I want to teach with more and more people. I want to teach a course on radio with GNA Garcia, Noise Professor, and Grant Potter. A course 0n 80s cinema with Mikhail Gershovich, Scott Leslie and Martin Weller. A course on the technology of poetry with Chris Lott. A course on the history of edtech with Brian LambAudrey Watters and Mike Caulfield. A course on the history of the internet with Alan Levine and Howard Rheingold. A course on Digital identity with Bon Stewart. A combined #Rhizo106 with Dave Cormier. A course on gothic tech with Bryan Alexander and Audrey Watters —and that’s just spitballing it. These are all courses that could be done without me, and if I thought a bit longer I could come up with 50 more. Teaching is just plain fun for me.

That said, it helps (at least for me) to have a specific group of students at a school who are taking it for credit for consistency and focus, but that could parallel an open and online presence fairly easily. I guess all this is to say I think this move to Reclaim Hosting may very well free me up to teach even more through a “ds106 network” of sorts, and I’ll be doing just that this summer with prisoner106, and again this Fall as a “silent partner” for Tales from ds106 with Paul Bond at UMW. Hell, I might even be teaching for UMW still if it makes sense, and I’ll hopefully try out some of these courses. But there is no reason to wait on any one institution or MOOC provider warehouse, we should be doing this as our own independent teaching network of awesome. Cause that’s what we are, and the teaching is one way to both enjoy it and push ourselves to think more deeply about what we are doing. Bryan Alexander said it better than me:

…we independents should form an alliance. Or a cult, a secret society, a union, a triad.

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*Years ago Larry Hanley was talking about focusing a distributed course across several countries on one specific year, I think it was 1977.

Resignation

It’s official, I have resigned my position at University of Mary Washington, and will be going full-time at Reclaim Hosting. It’s almost surreal, and I follow in the footsteps of the great Tim Owens—-whose hard work these last six months has made it all possible. And while I reference the opening sequence of The Prisoner above in honor of #prisoner106, my resignation was neither premature nor acrimonious, and it won’t be immediate. I will be working through September at UMW to ensure a smooth transition. What’s more, one couldn’t have asked for a better situation over the 1o years I’ve been at UMW. I had amazing colleagues in DTLT, a remarkable level of autonomy, and the best faculty and students you could imagine. I think the work I’ve done at UMW speaks for itself, and I leave feeling I was part of a group that truly made the campus a better place to teach and learn. There can be no greater professional satisfaction than that in this line of work.

As to why, it’s pretty simple and I alluded to it in an earlier post. I’ve been longing to explore some of the exciting work Tim and I have been doing with Reclaim Hosting and this is my chance. We’ve been growing Reclaim slowly but surely for almost two years now, and it’s at a point where we can both devote our full attention to what’s next. I’m looking forward to working more closely with Tim on a daily basis because he has been an unbelievable source of inspiration for me these last four years. I would follow him and his edtech work to the ends of the earth. I learn a ton from working alongside him, and I want that to be my full time job. What’s more, I  think we complement each others skills quite well: he’s awesome and I can promote awesome pretty well :)

I’ll be transitioning most of my attention on this blog to exploring the work we’re doing with Reclaim, while at the same time working through what will certainly prove an amicable, but deeply emotional, breakup with UMW (that’s the real reason I need three months to transition :) ). I love that school! It has provided me countless opportunities to explore and experiment as part of my day job since 2005. While I am thrilled with the future prospects Reclaim provides, I will remain forever grateful to everyone at UMW—it’s truly a remarkable community of committed, talented, and generally awesome people. It’s been an honor to serve in your ranks for the last decade.

Interminably Looped

Lately I find myself in in the unfortunate position of being nostalgic for my own thinking, perhaps a sign I’m in need of a change. Last year I had a conversation with the great Vanessa Gennarelli about ds106 and community building. I’m both surprised and thrilled that ds106 remains fascinating to folks, and I never get tired talking about it. That said, I have less and less to do with its magic every passing day. The above clip is a snippet from that conversation culled and interminably looped by the indefatigable Mariana Funes,  This bit was fodder for a longer post by Mariana about teaching happening in the comments. She sums up her pedagogical philosophy as follows:

This semester has made it clear that I am just not interested in the kind of teaching that does not allow me to converse meaningfully with all my students and allows my students to converse with each other and with me.

Amen. And it aligns quite well with how I aspire to teach ds106, although I sometimes fall quite short—such as this past semester when I didn’t comment, interact, converse, and get to know the students nearly as well as I would have liked. That’s my loss. They did a very good job getting to know each other, despite my lack this go around.

But it reminded me of a general sense I have these days that I’m further and further away from the things that get me excited. I’m more a middle manager than anything else, and that is starting to wear thin for me. I have lost all interest in managing people, and my creative and intellectual work is starting to suffer. I’m part of an amazing independent web hosting company that  Tim Owens and I have built over the last two years, but I rarely talk about it on the bava? Why?

Because I feel somehow it’s not right. Despite the fact the work we do at Reclaim Hosting further promotes the work we’ve done (and still do) at UMW, crossing the streams pushes into “murky” territory. I need to feel free to blog the way I want to. In fact, I’ve spent most of this year between two worlds. Imagining the possibilities of the one, while trying to manage the reality of the other. It’s been unfair to both, so I am coming to a moment when I need to make a decision.

I’ve been at UMW for near on a decade now. So much of my edtech identity is tied up with Mary Wash, and my professional relationships run far and deep on campus. My work at UMW has been the result of countless explorations and experiments with faculty partners. We’ve been given space, if not resources, that have enabled so many of cool things to thrive. Whether or not that was always intentional is another question, but it happened nonetheless, and the trace of what was is the “post facto evidence of relationships happening in time and space.” But time goes on, and as much as I love my proclivity for nostalgia, I’m at my best getting excited for what’s to come. Dreaming about the adjacent possible, and pushing for another way. It’s hightime to reclaim my future :)