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Reclaiming the bava

Been away, but now I’m back.

I’m finally starting to feel the transition away from UMW to Reclaim take hold. I’ve been traveling pretty non-stop since the beginning of June, and the last week back in Fredericksburg has been equal parts catching up on UMW work and ramping up my Reclaim duties. Needless to say, I’ve been pretty busy. Tim has officially taken his first real vacation in about 4 years from both UMW (he’s officially done as a UMW employee as of last week) and Reclaim Hosting. As for me “I’m the midnight to 8 man, I’m the commandant.” I’ll be relieving Tim over the next two weeks. Luckily, I’ll have some help given Reclaim has made its first official hire: the great Lauren Brumfield. She starts Monday, and I imagine she is still trying to wrap her head around the fact this may be the most anarchic, no frills experience in her fledgling professional career. Reclaim is punk rock: no titles, no bosses, just fast, cheap, and out of control edtech-inspired web hosting #4life.

Reclaim continues to pickup awesome folks who are working with us because they both understand and believe in our mission. I hear that in email after email, and I have to say it is really cool and gratifying. I find myself doing edtech for folks as well as helping them get stuff working, and not only are all institutions who worked with us last year signing up for more, but we have as many as 15 more schools running a Domains package this coming fall. We have been rather fortunate, seems like the work we (royal for Tim) have been doing is resonating, and folks are increasingly more interested.At the same time, the growth is still manageable. It’s wild, I am almost starting to feel like this whole thing is real.

As for UMW’s DTLT, there’s three job searches going at once this summer and I think things are starting to settle in after what was a trying year for everyone on campus. I finished by year end report, my personnel evaluations, and working on a couple of letters of recommendation for faculty and students. I’m starting to feel a bit lighter. I’m serving on none of the search committees and I pretty much have two responsibilities from here until the end of September: mind the UMW Domains infrastructure and work with faculty to get them up and going for fall. I feel like I am going to be enjoying my life as an instructional technologist for at least a couple of months. All my director responsibilities are minimal given I am now officially a short-timer and the group needs to figure out next steps. It’s a bit scary, but damn it is starting to feel really, really good.

Another little bit is that I am actually going to be the “official” sysadmin for UMW Domains and UMW Blogs for the next month or so until Tim comes back to work with DTLT as a consultant. This means I’ll be minding the server store. I spent much of last week working with Tim on issues, dealing with hacked files, spam being sent, moving sites to new accounts, etc. It was kinda fun, and I am really started to have a passable understanding of WHM and WHMCS. I still have to work on my command line kung-fu, but the web wasn’t built in a day.

I think the realities of my new professional life are starting to hit me. I can actually decide a fair amount of things I want to focus on, learn a lot of stuff I just didn’t have time to previously, and begin thinking long and hard about the conversations and ideas undergirding the future of digital learning environment infrastructure and how thinking through and trying to create personal APIs and social software systems might actually be my job now. I’m thrilled by the idea, and I have some work to do between here and there, but I travel along the stone path made up of the posts on this blog. Bava….the freedom edition!

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The Un-education of a Technologist: From EDUPUNK to ds106

Below are the slides and a transcript of the text I planned to follow when I delivered my talk this morning at the EDEN Annual Conference in Barcelona. That said, I didn’t keep to the script because I get too excited and just ran with things. Let this be the record of what I wanted to say, not what I said

Into the Maelstrom

“Amidst the tumult, the academy appears oddly complacent. Open source technology, open access publication, open education have all had their successes, but none of these movements could fairly be described as having transformed practice. Models of publishing, reviewing and assessing research have not fundamentally changed. Innovation in teaching is at the margins, the essential structures of curriculum and assessment wholly unchanged. Educational technology, far from revolutionizing practice, seems primarily dedicated to perpetuating it: ‘clickers’ provide a sheen of interactivity in the cavernous lecture hall; ‘learning management systems’ promise to protect its users from the raging uncertainties of the digital chaos.” – http://unartist.wpmued.org/


This was the opening paragraph of an article Brian Lamb and I wrote for the Universities and Knowledge Societies Journal (RUSC) of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in April of 2009. We wrote most of it in late 2008, early 2009 and as the abstract notes in RUSC:

Two educational technologists and webloggers present a series of vignettes, contemplating the effects of modern networked communication on their practice. Recognizing their inability to construct a synthetic theory amidst the maelstrom, they curate a collection of observations and manifestos emphasizing themes of personal publishing, spontaneous collaborations, learning on the open web, and syndication.

The line “recognizing their inability to construct a synthetic theory amidst the maelstrom” is maybe one of my all time favorite research article abstracts ever Thank you RUSC! But one of the things that’s interesting as I return to this article almost seven years later (what is that in Web 2.0 tech years?) is how so many of the curated vignettes around personal spaces, the open web, spontaneous connections, distributed collaborations, and syndication still remain core to a vision of what a revolutionary publishing and pedagogical practice might look like on the web.

What’s more, I’m an optimist. I think we are getting closer and closer to realizing that vision, and thanks to folks like Audrey Watters we may even be getting somewhere with a more “synthetic theory amidst the maelstrom,” i.e. the ahistorical, techno-solutionism undergirding Silicon Valley is launching a full frontal assault on the education sector.

In fact, the vignettes we list in that paper are the building blocks of this talk which loosely traces the work I‘ve been doing since writing that paper in December of 2008.

The vignette about “A Space of One’s Own” is a take on a “Domain of One’s Own,” an idea we have been playing with at UMW since 2007 or 2008. Give every student and faculty member their own domain and web hosting, and make them the “sysadmin of their own education,” to quote Gardner Campbell. The idea of building a university’s technical framework around personal cyber infrastructures was really radical just seven years ago, and arguably still is. But we have evidence that is possible, and can be the basis of an entire curriculum around web literacy and fluency.

The over-wrought section on revolutionary syndication buses was the basis of how we would build the Digital Storytelling course at UMW ds106 (#4life). A course that built on the idea of a personal cyberinfrastructre by giving all students their own domain and web hosting, but re-wired the course space as something that bring all that work back together. But not as an example of a creepy treehouse like Facebook or your favorite LMS, but as a distributed network that modeled itself on the web.

And ds106 reinforced, at least for me, two other vignettes from that paper, namely “serendipitous collaboration chains” and “spontaneous connections.” As we noted Stephen Downes note:  “Who cares if a few universities exchange learning content among themselves (not that this really happens a lot anyway)?” The more interesting models is how various individuals and groups forge entirely new collaborations and spontaneous connections that form networks above and beyond the institutional vision of “sharing.” This is where MOOCs began to fall down as a centralized approach to sharing that strayed away from anything resembling the web.

Speaking of MOOCs, our vignette about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be one of the very first articles in an academic journal that says the “M” word. This was almost 3 years before the hype, and the logic undergirding MOOCs as they were laid out here was rather different. it wasn’t about marketing, colonial education, or efficiencies, it was about trying to understand how pedagogies of and for the web can be radically different.


This was all written and imagined during a moment when EDUPUNK was still a thing. Less than a year earlier Brian Lamb and I had began to articulate our dissatisfaction with how LMS companies like BlackBoard were making claims about being open and innovative when they had done nothing more than start to integrate a few basic practices that were predominant on the web rather badly into their LMS. It was insult to injury, because that company had done little to nothing in terms of innovating on their product for years. Again, with stridency and righteousness:

…if we reduce the conversation to technology, and not really think hard about technology as an instantiation of capital’s will to power, than anything resembling an EdTech movement towards a vision of liberation and relevance is lost. For within those ideas is not a technology, but a group of people, who argue, disagree, and bicker, but also believe that education is fundamentally about the exchange of ideas and possibilities of thinking the world anew again and again, it is not about a corporate mandate to compete—however inanely or nefariously—for market share and/or power. I don’t believe in technology, I believe in people.

-From “The Glass Bees” on bavatuesdays

The only moment either of us presented on EDUPUNK was when Brian Lamb delivered a really compelling talk of these very ideas back in 2010 right here in Barcelona at Zemos98.

EDUPUNK also became a victim of its own very mild success as an idea, and was soon a logic exercised when it comes to neocon logic of dismantling higher ed. Stuff I was very uncomfortable with, and ultimately had to right my Dear John letter in 2011 to an idea I was really smitten with:


But EDUPUNK and I never really split, we just changed its name to ds106. In the Spring of 2011 ds106 provided a beautiful the moment when so many of the ideas Brian and I were trying to wrap our heads around (personal spaces, spontaneous connections, serendipitous collaborations, syndication hubs, MOOCs, etc.) came together. But not so much as a synthetic theory, but as a practical application of how teaching and learning can be part and parcel of the web. How we can “descend into the Maelstrom” by studying the action of the whirlpool and cooperating with it—the quote from Malcolm McLuhan quoting Edgar Allen Poe that Brian Lamb used to frame the whole idea of working within the chaos.

But I am getting ahead of myself, what is ds106? Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington and elsewhere… but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster.

ds106 opened up questions about infrastructure, architecture, student agency, pedagogy, and much more all at once. It wasn’t just about technology, it was about how the technology affords new ways for us to collaborate, share, and learn with and from one another.

One of its many great moments of this experiment came during the summer of 2011, during what is now referred to as the “Summer of Oblivion.”

“The idea was to have a daily radio/TV broadcast by Dr. Brian Oblivion (featured in the animate gif above), a character from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome who only ever appears as a mediated pedagogical presence on TV. The idea was to update this for 2011, and have this be an online, mediated pedagogical appearance only on the web. Effectively I took on an alternative teaching identity. I wanted to push myself in this course to not only experiment with and challenge some of the ideas we have about the role of the professor, online learning, and mediated communication…if I am not pushing myself to explore and be consumed by this media then it would run counter to the whole reason for the course in the first place. So, there it is, ds106: The Summer of Oblivion—but this analyzing is paralyzing, let’s play this dang thing!” from https://bavatuesdays.com/ds106-the-summer-of-oblivion/

And it looked something like this the first few days:

The course ran as an alternative reality in some ways, what Ray Land calls a “pedagogy of uncertainty.” By the end of the first week Dr. Oblivion went missing, the TA (jim Groom) came in and became a tyrant banishing students, and the class started to rebel. It was magic. Here is one of the student created videos about the upheaval of course power:

The idea of the class was about sense-making online, taking control of your digital presence, and imbuing a broader range of digital literacies and fluencies across tools, but more importantly managing one’s presence online.

Domain of One’s Own

This gave way to the Domain of One’s Own initiative at UMW that provides every student and faculty member their own domain and web hosting, providing a platform for a broader, institutional wide digital fluency toolkit, not to mention a sandbox for broader web-based exploration for everyone.

This took on a whole different level of thinking when I met up with Audrey Watters and Kin Lane at the Reclaim Hackathon at MIT sponsored by the DML. The ideas there continue to drive the work at UMW and beyond. Thinking in more focused ways about how we provide students and faculty a technical and curricular framework that provides more control over personal data. Ideas of University and personal APIs, virtualized server infrastructure, Docker, and much more. This is the beginning of what has become my new focus—Reclaiming. It’s also why I started with the demo. Based on the work we’ve done at UMW, my partner Tim Owens and I are working on a model that provides individuals, courses, departments, and/or universities with cheap, virtualized infrastructure to run this locally.  A way of decentralizing IT and edtech support. That’s Reclaim Hosting, and that’s the future!

From DML to EDEN

Jim and I are on opposite ends of the world today traveling for two great conferences we’ll be a part of this week. I’m on a plane headed to Los Angeles for DML 2015 where I’ll be joining two sessions related to the work we’re doing with schools and individuals through Reclaim Hosting. If you’re planning to attend I’d love for you to come say hello!

Tuesday @ 11AM – The Open Show: Connected Learning Without Expensive Acronyms @ CA Ballroom C

We bring together practitioners who are crafting connected learning environments via platforms such as WordPress / RSS (ds106, Connected Courses), the IndieWeb (Known), and patchworks (e.g. Google apps + Inoreader) and how they can even work together. Rather than a series of presentations, this session will be run more like a talk show. The tools features are not the primary subject of the conversations; panelists will use their these designs as a way to provide references and an audience experience. Instead, we will focus on how these networked structures break learning out of the boundaries of institution, geography, and social standing while also facing up the challenges of isolation and non-inclusion. Read More

Friday @ 2PM – Domains of Their Own: Piloting Personal Cyber-Infrastructure Projects at Four Disparate Campuses

Grounded in data collected over the course of the Fall 2014 term, this session will offer lessons learned from ongoing pilot programs at several disparate campuses of initiatives based on the University of Mary Washington’s ambitious Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) project. In a departure from traditional instructional and IT practices, these programs offer participants what Gardner Campbell termed “persona cyber-infrastructure” — all the tools and resources users need to launch and manage a broad range of websites, to create custom teaching and learning environments, and to curate and manage their online identities on their own terms. Read More

Meanwhile Jim is in Barcelona for the EDEN Annual Conference and will be giving a keynote on Thursday @ 9am titled The Uneducation of a Technologist: From EDUPUNK to ds106. In advance of this conference Jim was interviewed by Steve Wheeler from Plymouth University UK to provide some background about the work he’s doing and just a few of the things he’ll be talking about. You can checkout the full interview here.

If you’re attending either of these conferences and you’re using Reclaim Hosting currently or you’re thinking about the possibilities of it for your course, department, or institution we’d love for you to come say hi and participate in the discussions!


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Reclaiming Europe

Image credit: Don McCullough‘s “Barcelona”

I’m sitting in the Toronto Airport right now waiting for a plane to Barcelona, Spain for the European and Distance E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference this week. This will be my first time presenting in Europe, and I am pretty excited about that. I’ve been following a number of people working in edtech across Europe over the last ten years, and it will be a real treat to finally be part of a European-focused edtech conference. What’s more, I’ve never been to Barcelona, and I can’t think of another city that everyone I talk to has been so unequivocally enthusiastic about. That has me excited for other reasons.

Reclaiming Europe

Trento’s City Square

What adds a personal layer to this trip is that it’s a foreshadowing of things to come. As early as this fall, my family and I plan on moving to Antonella’s home town: Trento, Italy. This is something we’ve been talking about for more than a decade, and it looks like the opportunity is finally materializing. I’m pretty excited about the idea of bringing the kids back to Italy so they can get to know Anto’s culture more intimately, master the language, and spend some time with our family and friends there.

Being back on Long Island this weekend and seeing how grown up all my nephews and nieces are getting was a stark reminder how quick it all goes. I’ve been consumed with my work at UMW for the last decade, and in many ways existed almost entirely within that professional universe. I don’t regret it for a moment, but it’s high time take advantage of the wider world out there and begin reclaiming Italia, per bacco!


Block chain: “the only workable, distributed key value store in existence”

Image credit: Lincoln Agricultural School, Lincolndale, N.Y. (LOC)

The subtitle of this post is a direct quote from Phil Windley‘s Block chain session at the University API conference. Phil wrote a short post a couple of months ago about why block chain is important, and I had the good fortune to sit in on a more fleshed out discussion on the topic this past Thursday. I’ll admit right away I am in over my head trying to blog about this because I only partially understand it. That said, I’ll use this post to try and write through my limited understanding to see if I come out any the wiser.

What the hell is block chain? It’s a distributed database that stores transactional information for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. But what Phil pointed out that I didn’t fully realize is that block chain is simply a ledger system that can anonymously track and record transactions without being centrally controlled. In the event of Bitcoin, that would be used for financial transactions, but there is no reason for it to end there. As he noted, it’s important for us to understand because with block chain we have “the only workable, distributed key value store in existence.” What a quote!

We store and use keys for all sorts of things on the web currently. For example, we use key values to log into all those sites we happen to have an account with. Given Phil is deeply invested in imagining new ways of thinking through digital identity management, he suggested during his session that block chain may be one way at tracking and storing our various personal transactions without giving over our credentials to be recorded and tracked by any given site’s centralized “ledger.” So whereas Daily Dot can’t see beyond imagining Bitcoin as a means of “tipping” folks on the web instead of just liking them, Phil is framing this technology as a way to imagine a truly distributed personal identity management system independent of any one company, state, or nation. Interesting in light of the Federal Government’s recent data breach.

I know it’s not as simple as I’m framing it here, and there are all sorts of complexities in regarding how we preserve the authority of a distributed ledger, but the idea completely blew my mind. It gave me a bit more insight to the technology undergirding Bitcoin, and how that is just one of its many potential applications—distributed DNS be another he mentioned.

The idea of finding new models for helping us manage our personal data is becoming ever increasingly more urgent. Just this morning in my Twitter stream I saw that Doc Searls re-tweeted Edi Immonen’s link to a PDF that describes the Nordic model for managing personal data called MyData.

Interestingly enough, MyData frames itself as…

…infrastructure [that] enables decentralized management of personal data, improves interoperability, makes it easier for companies to comply with tightening data protection regulations, and allows individuals to change service providers without proprietary data lock-ins.

Interesting stuff, these various ideas around managing one’s personal data on the web inform the thinking behind the Personal API.  What’s more they raise some fascinating questions, not least of which the one Tony Hirst surfaced recently in his obituary for Yahoo Pipes!, namely the rise of more tightly control data viz-a-viz the API suggests a broader movement away from anything resembling Nonprogramistan. A healthy reminder lest I get too excited about any future other than the one we lost.