, , , , ,

UMW Domains a Win for Open

Audrey Watters has been on an all-out tear over at Hack Education as she wraps up the year in edtech. Few, if any, in the field are sharper, more concise, and resolutely independent of the institutional and corporate entanglements that pervade this space. I’ll echo so many others who have recognized how unbelievably important her voice is as a result. That said, working independently, speaking freely, and calling out so many on their nonsense doesn’t always pay the rent, so to help ameliorate this UMW’s DTLT would like to provide a standing offer of a job for Audrey when she finally decides to settle down ;)

Until then, I totally support her writing things like what follows when ennumerating the many “wins for open” in her recent post  Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013: The Battle for ‘Open’:”

University of Mary Washington’s “Domain of One’s Own” initiative (one of the very best things in ed-tech right now) has been picked up by other universities, including Emory and Davidson. Also, in addition to the Domain of One’s Own project, we saw efforts to “Reclaim Your Domain” and to Reclaim Hosting.

I know I’m biased, but I have to agree with Audrey 100% that Domain of One’s Own and its Reclaim tributaries are amongst the best things happening in edtech right now. And while I may have let myself get overly excited at the prospect of building on these initiatives independently over the next year as a Shuttleworth fellow, especially since I recently found out that won’t be happening, it doesn’t dull my enthusiasm in the least. Shuttleworth would have provided some nice start-up funds and a certain amount of geographical freedom for my family and I, but in the end that’s all it would have provided. The idea is still there, the people interested are still awesome, and the rejection by Shuttleworth just makes me that much more determined to make it all work.

I’ve had some time over the last week to consider what my plan will be for the coming year, and I’m doubling down on what we’re doing at UMW with Domain of One’s Own. We already have the infrastructure, the institutional support, and an amazing community of faculty, staff, and students. I’ve let myself get pulled in way too many directions this last semester between the idea of becoming a Shuttleworth fellow, entertaining  job offers, and negotiating structural shifts at UMW. That’s my fault, and I take full blame for the fractured attention to my work. But hope springs eternal, and it’s high time I put all of the distractions aside and start focusing all my energy on Domain of One’s Own. It’s what I want to do anyway, and I’m realizing I don’t need a fellowship or new surroundings for it to seem fresh. My work at UMW is not yet done, it’s time to recognize that and get locked in again!

But first I have to enjoy the next three weeks in Italy.

, , , ,

Davidson Domains

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.15.26 PMDavidson College just announced they were awarded a Mellon Grant “to create a curricular model of digital studies that can be replicated by other small liberal arts colleges.” Pat Sellers coordinated the grant and Mark Sample will be the lead for developing the curricular model. I was particualrly excited that one of the centerpieces of the grant will include “Davidson Domains” which in many ways reinforces some of the work we’re doing with Domain of One’s Own:

Among these initiatives is “Davidson Domains,” which will provide every Davidson student a unique domain name and access to an open source platform like WordPress. The Web domain will serve as a foundation students’ online presence at Davidson and beyond. As students progress through the Davidson curriculum, they will learn how to add content to the domain from any aspect of their experience. Students might use it to display outstanding assignments, samples of internship work or research experience, and more.

This is awesome for Davidson, it’s also awesome for UMW Domains and Reclaim Hosting to help reinforce the value of some of the work we’ve been doing along these lines. External validation works wonders in-house, as I’m sure many of you know. It also helps establish that both the technical and curricular integration of something like Domain of One’s Own are not nearly as crazy as they might have seemed just a year ago. I want to believe we’re beginning to witness a subtle, yet profound, shift in thinking about how institutions can invest in a future of educational technology that is premised around networks that enable everyone on campus to help imagine what’s possible from their own online platforms. The secret sauce is working through how we can divine a sense of coherence as a campus community through syndication, aggregation, and generative juxtaposition. I really think that the fact  that Davidson Domains has framing their digital studies curriculum in this way further buoys my sense that this approach defintiely has legs.

It also reaffirms what Mike Caulfield noted on Twitter a while back ;)

Boss just asked me why she’d never heard of UMW and #ds106 if it was so influential. Told her UMW was like the Velvet Underground of edtech.

, ,

Shuttleworth Flash Update

This Summer I got a Shuttleworth Foundation flash grant thanks to David Wiley‘s recommendation.  I’ve blogged about what I’ve done as part of the grant over the last several months, but I wanted to summarize it all here.

Reclaim Hosting
Domain of One’s Own  is a service we’re running at the University of Mary Washington that provides members of the academic community their own domain name and web hosting account. The idea at the heart of this initiative is to give faculty, staff, and students the tools to start interrogating the web more robustly. A space to enpower the community to understand how the web works, become sysadmins of their education, and more completely control what they do as part of their portfolio at the university. As we were running the Domain of One’s Own pilot at UMW during the 2012/2013 academic year a number of universities inquired how exaclty we were architecting this experiment, and how might they go about the process.

Thanks to this flash grant, Tim Owens and I were able to create Reclaim Hosting, a parallel service to Domain of One’ Own that enables any faculty, student, course, department, or institution get up and running with a education-focused hosting. We’ve kept the web hosting cost at next to nothing, and simply charge $12 for a domain thanks to funding from the flash grant, which has enabled us to focus on building a community and providing a space for faculty and staff to start imagining the possibilities of maintaining and controlling their own home on the web. Over the last three months more than 700 faculty and students have signed up from numerous K12 and higher education instituions around the world. Additionally, we’ve had interest in institution-wide pilots from the Virginia Community College System, Emory University, Duke University, and Penn State University.

Minding the Future/Reclaim Your Domain Brainstorming

Image credit” Alan Levine’s “Audrey Watters takes on the world”

In October I organized a conference called “Minding the Future,”  an event that was c0-sponsored by the University of Mary Washington, the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), and the Shuttleworth Foundation (thanks to the flash grant). We were able to bring together five remarkable thinkers in the higher education space to deliver 10 minute talks about their particular field of interest as well as take part in a culminating panel discussion about the future of higher education more generally. It was a remarkable program and event, if I must say so myself, but you can be the judge of that yourself because all of the sessions were recorded and are freely available for viewing on the UMW New Media YouTube channel. What’s more, Sarah McConnell from the NPR radio show “With Good Reason” attended the conference and included segments from the panel discussion in her recent piece on “The Future of Higher Education” that aired earlier this month (you can listen below).

Part of the excuse of bringing all of these folks together was to put them in a room and start honing the vision for an idea I started working on with Kin Lane and Audrey Watters back in April called Reclaim Your Domain. We not only got a great conference out of this gathering, but also some real insights to what’s possible and what’s next with the Reclaim Your Domain project, which I wrote about in great detail already. Suffice to say Reclaim Your Domain would become an open source application that provides anyone with a hosting account the ability to have access to an API marketplace for backing and synching your work with third party services, translating between services, and providing a contextual series of resources for understaning of these services work and why it’s important to understand this.

ds106: Assignment Nuevo Bank

Finally, the development of the ds106 assignment bank as a stand alone theme that is open source and freely downloadable by anyone using WordPress is the final element funded by the flash grant. Alan Levine has been working on developing this theme, and the work he has done so far is amazing.  He took me on a walk-through of the theme, and what’s remarkable to me is that it captures the essence of open educational design as it pertains to communities rather than the more generalized obsession with content.

I think any discussion of Reclaim Hosting, Domain of One’s Own, and/or Reclaim Your Domain both germinted and hatched for me during the experiment that is the open, online digital storytelling course known as ds106. And I would argue that no one has done more for that community to date than Alan Levine. His work really epitomizes the spirit of the Reclaim ethos in practice (despite the problems with the term reclaim more specifically). It’s not about shunning third party social media on the web, it’s about developing a more sophisticated understanding of how it all works. It’s about wrestling with the idea of online identity, and as result shaping a sense of self that is truly digital in its expression. Alan Levine has come to be a mentor for me, and many others as well, in all these things for many years now. He lives and breathes the web, he’s more web than human—but contains mutlitudes of both ;)

So, that’s where the flash grant funds have gone and will go. I say this fully acknowledging that I have applied for a Shuttleworth fellowship with the Reclaim Your Domain project, and really hope to have the opportunity to focus all my time and energy on working with people like Tim Owens, Kin lane, Audrey Watters, Jon Udell, David Wiley, and, of course, Alan Levine. Alan’s Shuttleworth project proposal is near and dear to the vision of Reclaim Your Domain, and if this Fellowship happens we’re all gonna have a lot to work on. I’m going right after a project, getting some funding, and building somthing that can not only archive, synch, and convert one’s various presences online, but ultimately start to bring them together in a distributed social network like the one Martha Burtis and Tim Owens have begun to do with the directory for Domain of One’s Own.

The prospect of taking some time away and working on this as a Shuttleworth fellow is really exciting. I had an interview almost two weeks ago and I have to admit I’m not so sure how it went. I talked a lot, and I was a bit circular in my explanations so I can understand if they’re a bit leary. That said, the flash grant has started the ball rolling, and I’m really excited about where it might go. I’d like to think Shuttleworth will take that chance, but if not I think someone will. Why not, the domain of archiving and taking back control over the various data we have left in the hands of third party services will only grow as time goes on, more services shut down, and the web is recognized as the native medium wherein our memories are being created. Here’s to hoping, and if I don’t mention I got the fellowship on this blog anytime soon, you’ll know what happened ;)

, ,

Wither Blip.tv? Another Lesson in Reclaiming

I found out the hardway this morning, thanks to this comment from Alan Levine, that all the videos in my Blip.tv archive have been deleted. I quickly started searching around for the EdTech Survivalist videos that were there before the Blip.tv purging of November 7th, 2013. They were all gone. I eventually found two of the three in a low-res 320×240 flv file (far from ideal), but that’s better than nothing. Still looking for the EdTech Survivalist video titled “Embedded” wherein Tom Woodward and I re-interpret a scene from First Blood (1982) where he plays Johnny Rambo and is embedded in the web (rather than a cave in a Northwest mountain range) and won’t come out. “Johnny, Johnny, listen to me Johnny!” And there are five or six other videos I uploaded to Blip.tv I still have to find an original for.

Add to that the flamethrowing, zombie killing presentation “The Revolution will be Syndicated” Tom Woodward and I delivered for NMC in Second Life back in 2008. As of now it has been eaten up as well. In fact, NMC’s entire archive on Blip.tv has been deleted which sucks given there were probably a lot of awesome archived sessions on there. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if a version of that presentation shows up somewhere, but at the same time the fact that it’s out of our control is pretty annoying.

But don’t confuse me for a complainer, I know full well losing the videos from Blip.tv is my own fault. I’m sure I got the email last week (though I can’t find it currently), and I should have planned accordingly. So don’t confuse this post for an outraged plea for mercy from the big bad corporation. I knew full well I was getting into bed with a machine all those years ago. At the same time I’m surprised at how lax I have gotten over the last five years with my personal archiving. I put the stuff on these services, blew through two or three computers, conducted haphazard backups, and basically assumed my stuff would be there. I was stupid, and I can remember six or seven years ago, before the cloud had its current name, that I was still concerned with the implciations of putting my videos (and images, audio, documents, etc.) on someone else’s space.

That said, I understand I have most of my stuff on a commodity web hosting server I don’t fully control, but to date I have a much better trackrecord with work I have personally archived on my own server than any third party site. Case in point, of the 30 videos I uploaded to Blip.tv from 2008-2010, I found more than half on my server space. And to be fair, I’m lucky it was only thirty videos, which is nothing compared to the 200+ videos I lost when YouTube deleted my account for copyright infringement (still putting the pieces together from that nightmare) over a year ago. My history with third-party video hosting services has been shakey at best, and for the last year or so I’ve been putting my videos on my own web hosting space, UMW’s Media Server, and a brand new external storage drive. I’ve seen the light, host locally and back-up liberally.

The Archive TeamAs I was searching for my lost videos and looking for solace on Twitter, the great Grant Potter pointed me to the Archive Team site. This amazing group of folks has been working to try and download and backup the third party web more generally, and one of their current projects is to download and archive all 228,000 public videos on Blip.tv before they are deleted. They provide a tool called the Archive Team Warrior which is a virtual archiving appliance. Anyone can run it, and it download sites and uploads them to the A-Team’s archive. I love this, a collaborative community working to preserve the open web.  I sent them a tweet this evening to see if they might have an archive of Blip.tv videos in the near future, how awesome would that be?

Anyway, Blip.tv’s transformation is not a surprise, and losing these videos is all my fault. It acts as a simple reminder why reclaiming one’s work from these third party services (even if just as a backup/archive) is becoming evermore important as more and more of the services we slept around with for the last ten years start eventually making us pay way or the other :) Live and learn.

, ,

Reclaim Your Domain: Honing the Vision

I have a ton to write about because this past week was pretty intense. The Minding the Future event on Monday, OpenVA on Tuesday, travel to Puerto Rico on Wednesday, a workshop at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazon on Thursday (alongside Gardner Campbell and Alan Levine), capped off with a TEDx talk Friday morning. Amazingly everything went pretty well and like Brian Lamb notes with uncharacteristic optimism (his may not last :) ), I’m about as optimistic about the field of EdTech as I’ve been in a long while.

This may be a myopic vision taken more globally, but I’m not necessarily working at 30,000 feet. I’m on the ground alongside a group of people who together are trying to make a difference in the distributed spaces within which they live and work—and in that regard I’m truly optimistic. Here at DTLT we’ve kept the course, remained true to a shared ethos (as Mike Caulfield points out brilliantly here), and we’re starting to reap some of benefits of that. All that said, this post isn’t about any of that. Fact is, I’m going to need several separate posts to try and cover the various events listed above to try and explain this optimism. this one won’t begin to cover any of those events.

This post is about yet another event we had earlier this week with a number of the participants in Minding the Future. We were lucky enough to have Audrey Watters, Kin Lane, Davide Wiley, and Alan Levine in town last Monday, and we took the occasion to revisit the idea of Reclaim Your Domain that Audrey, Kin, and I started mapping out at M.I.T. in April. This is an idea I think has a lot of potential, and both Audrey and Kin remain interested in the possibilities—so we took about three hours Monday morning, along with Tim Owens, Ryan Brazell, Andy Rush, Scott Lockman, Bill Smith, Martha Burtis, Robin2Go, and Shelley Keith (in my organizing haze I forgot to tell Tom Woodward, but thankfully he still caught the tail end of the discussion).

The rest of this post will be an attempt to try and capture some of what we talked about (unfortunately there was no recording), interpret some of the scribblings in the image above, and generally ask for feedback, clarification, and correction from anyone who was there, or even folks who were not!

Reclaim Your Domain: A Breakdown of the Discussion
Reclaim Your Domin whiteboard

The discussion started with me setting up the three different parts of Reclaim that have begin to emerge. As well as hedging about the name, which Wiley scolded me for, can you believe that?! Anyway, the first branch of Reclaim is Reclaim Hosting. This is a hosting service that Tim Owens and I spun up as part of the Shuttleworth Fellowship that gives faculty and staff affordable hosting and domains so that they can begin to explore with establishing their web presence, or bringing their presence on a distributed set of third party applications into one space they control. We talked about the idea of packages using Installatron to enable people to create quick, customized installs. For example, a portfolio package through Installatron for WordPress, or a customized syndication hub for WordPress, etc. The possibilities are myriad, but this is first and foremost affordable hosting that could scale to the institution level to not only support students and faculty, but also entire institutions that can’t run this internally for whatever reason. It’s basically DTLT’s effort to package up the work we’ve done with DoOO and provide it to any other educational institution that’s interested. This branch of reclaim is fairly stable right now, and while the other two branches will serve to buttress and augment this branch, in many ways it’s the most straight forward of the three.

The second branch is Reclaim Learning, and this is the social, community branch of Reclaim. Here we’ll be focusing on how we can start to bring a community of folks together to start sharing their work. How are you using your various spaces to build out your course site, what are people teaching, could this be a place to share tutorials, approaches, and more generally create a space where open, distributed EdTech can happen. A place where faculty and students alike can come to get help, ideas, and a sense of what it’s all about. This is all about bringing folks together to help one another. How this works and what this looks like is not entirely clear to me, but it has a lot in common with what we are trying to do more generally for the state of Virginia as part of OpenVA, so this is an ideas many of us will be coming back to. We didn’t spend too much time on this part last Monday, but that’s because most of our energy was focused on the final element.

The third and final branch, Reclaim Your Domain, is where Kin, Audrey and I started six months prior, and I think we started getting a much better idea of what this is all about. This part of the puzzle is an open source project that basically enables you reclaim, archive, synchronize, and personally centralize your distributed, online presence on the web. This is the idea that started the whole thing, grounded in work D’Arcy Norman and Boone Gorges started a while back. I think we started to fine tune this, we’ll be creating a meta-layer application that will enable you to have an API marketplace (something Kin Lane has been conceptualizing and proto-typing) for a wide variety of web services (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, WordPress.com, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) that will allow you to archive, synchronize, and seamlessly move your data between a variety of storage spaces (i.e. your web host, Amazon S3, DropBox, GitHub, etc.). What’s more, each of these will have a slick wizard (like the awesome open source profect OpenPhoto is doing with Trovebox) that will enable you to do this easily and have context specific interface that will also educate folks on what to do, how to do it, and why it’s important. Inline knowledge, so to speak.

The idea came up that the interface for accomplishing this would be similar to If This Than That but abstracted out a layer.

During the discussion David Wiley pushed a bit harder on why this is even important, you can see the beginnings of that list list in the center of the image:

  • Historical Internet Archive
  • Web Literacy (End User and development)
  • Self presentation and preservation
  • Flips the web back to the personal, self-determination
  • About the people, scaling the possibilities of the individual to more easily control their small piece of the web

The idea came up that this would lead to no more freak outs, if there is another Posterous-like shutdown or if Facebook changes their terms for the millionth time you don’t to freakout again. You have agency, you can simply pull your data out. What’s more, with the API marketplace in play that we were talking about, you could convert your Posterous data into a Tumblr, WordPress, etc. Now the hook into these various applications is something we talked about at length, and I am going to leaver the specifics to folks smarter than me, but as I understand it this will provide an interface to hook into those various applications—an open source, self-hosted control panel for managing your online presence.

One of the points that Kin Lane brought up tin terms of the larger why was that web literacy is crucial and he used the domain he is (was?) working in, the Federal Government, as an example. To negotiate anything from voting to financial aid to welfare to health care you will need to be web literate. As more and more of these social services go on line, the more we will need to understand how these spaces work, have access and control over this data, and ensure that we’re working to educate the folks who need to know how it works most. I loved that idea, and it abstracted well beyond education. In that regard, reclaim your domain is bigger than that—it is starts to possibly frame a blueprint for a kind of federal digital strategy on an individual basis—something like this has to be coming sooner or later. All of us want some way to start thinking about how we will manage, archive, and share the digital resources we have been creating, collecting, and sharing over the last twenty years, and this will all get more important as time goes on. In many ways this branch of reclaim the most exciting to me.

As far as the web literacy part, Audrey mentioned that Mark Surman and Doug Belshaw are already working with this at Mozilla (as I am sure many folks are) and it’s time to start reaching out and making those connections. What is their approach? How can we use it? help build it? Etc. Luckily Alan Levine will be going to a Mozilla event in London next week, and we can start that relationship sooner rather than later.

In the end I guess this is why I feel hopeful, I feel like there is a possible plan that abstracts out beyond any one tool or our narrow domain of education, yet allows us to hone in on the processes and projects we are already part of. Reclaim Your Domain is in many ways born out of Domain of One’s Own in my mind, but in this context it is far broader, in both its appeal and potential to promote principles of the open web, empower users to gain a deeper understanding of those principles, and, most importantly, inspire us within the edtech field to start thinking beyond our domain in order to make it that much better.

, , , , , ,

Where have the Online Neighborhoods Gone?

After linking to the “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op” Tumblr in my last post, I started reading around a bit on the Geocities research blog. This post by Olia Lialina (pioneer web artist and theorist) about Neocities got me thinking a lot about how we are framing Domain of One’s Own here at UMW. Neocities is a project by Kyle Drake to “help me keep the creative, independent internet alive!” and it’s built in the spirit of Geocities. Lialina has some deeply insightful observations that she jotted down as soon as the service went public this Summer that I’m finding helpful to think more broadly about building community around DoOO.

We have the basic hosting worked out, we’re currently exploring more sophisticated syndication, but we still need to figure out how to imagine community more broadly. In this regard I think the same is true for Reclaim Hosting—in order for both to be more than just hosting they have to be able to expose what’s happening around the community.

As she was testing out Neocities soon after its launch, Lialina notes that….

There are still people out there who can write HTML, want to have their homepages made by hand and want to express themselves through HTML code. What seems lost is the idea (or skill) to make links to each other, manually, to build anything outside of your own “profile”. Neocities users do not link to other users’ pages, except user youpi and myself.

This idea of isolation in managing one’s own site is a theme that recurs through the first impressions. What’s more, I think it’s also apparent for anyone who has been blogging for a while. The slow death of the blogosphere is just that, the cultural amnesia that links between sites and people is what makes the web. Like with syndication, we want this to happen as a part of a siloed service like Facebook or LinkedIn—the idea of a personal profile seems almost divorced from the social self online—and that is something we need to challenge with DoOO.

There is also a discussion about the changing rhetoric around Geocities over time. In 1996 and 2004 Geocities was referred to as a priosonhouse of one’s content. Free web hosting services like Geocities “were seen as a prison for creativity and self expression.” There was a push to controlling your own webspace through commodity web hosting services like Bluehost and the like. But the rhetoric around Neocities, an updated verion of Geocities in many ways, is framed by Kyle Drake as a….

….place for the users to be “in complete control of the content and presentation they provide to their audience”. It is of course an over-over-statement. However, compared to the industrialized nothingness Facebook offers, any “pimp my profile” service can be regarded as offering “complete control”.

This is fascianting to me because the critiquing of Geocities in 1996 and 2004 was not so much about ownership as it was about ease of use. For the replacement was not cheap commodity web hosting for most folks, but rather “the industrialized nothingness Facebook offers.” So much so that something like a simple, third-party service for hosting HTML pages seems like the second coming of Freedom online. What an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the web over the last 15 years or so. There’s a dissertation in that alone.

But what is most interesting and useful for me in her early impressions is the fact that Neocities is cultivating a series of disconnected sites that don’t foster community. No one is linking to anyone else, and that frames the “beginning of the end.”

Very bad move: Calling it Neocities and not starting with neighborhoods. When Yahoo bought Geocities, they only offered vanity profiles and discontinued neighborhoods and suburbs. Users became isolated, it was the beginning of the end.

How do we build neighborhoods in DoOO and Reclaim Hosting? Is it around topics? -interests? -academic disicplines? -academic departments? -courses? -people? I imagine some combination of all these will be the case? And the more I think about it the more the idea of rolling out DoOO by a class of students, i.e. freshamn, didn’t make all that much sense for the project. The success of DoOO is going to depend as much on academic programs, courses, departments, and individuals—and like everything else we’ve done at UMW it will depend on an organic push. I’m just wondering what the idea of “neighborhoods” looks like for DoOO and how we might start experimenting along those lines.

, , , , ,

Reclaim the Chronicle

RECLAIM_LOVE_GRAPHIC_grandeMark Sample wrote a really good post laying out what Reclaim Hosting is all about on ProfHacker yesterday. He lays out the nuts and bolts of what something like this means:

Reclaim Hosting is a web hosting service for educators and students, providing simple one-click installation of a variety of web apps, including WordPress, Omeka, MediaWiki, and many others….And indeed, the one-click installation of popular web applications is only part of what Reclaim Hosting offers its users. Each domain includes secure FTP access, an email account, the ability to run Cron jobs (which execute scripts and programs at regular intervals), and SSH/Shell Access, meaning students can work on the command line, programming in Perl and Python. In short, students get all the benefits of a typical shared server hosting service (say, Dreamhost) for the cost of several slices of pizza.

I’m a big fan of pizza, so I love that closing analogy. One of the other things we’ve started realizing recently thanks to Martha Burtis’s work on creating customized packages using “Installatron” (an aptly named application installer) is that we can start offering particular WordPress installations that are customized to be out-of-the-box solutions to something like course syndication. The idea that faculty and/or students can deploy a fully- functioning syndicated course hub in seconds is really exciting. This is an idea we’re working though currently at DTLT, and you can see the early stages of thinking through this here. This approach is done with WordPress, and it populates free plugins and some custom code that enables students to automatically push their work to the course hub.

And while some might balk at the automation of this, it by no means precludes anyone from hacking away, building their own, or taking this in a bold new direction. What this does is makes the syndicated course setup that much more seamless for faculty to use, which I ‘ve found makes a huge difference in their willingness to experiment with such an option. The fact that the experimentation with this through Domain of One’s own has made such an idea possible already justifies this project, but add to that the fact that we are using Reclaim Hosting as a way to make these possibilities available to as many faculty and students as possible is downright awesome.

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 2.12.20 PM

Another feature I’m beginning to explore in the True Crime Freshman Seminar with  the students, all of whom have their own web host and domain as part of UMW’s Domain of One’s Own, is being able to help them manage their web hosting by being able to access their cPanels (see image above). With this setup I can act as a server admin for all of their sites and  help them out with issues that in the past I found difficult to resolve when teaching ds106. I can help them trouble shoot DNS issues, installation problems, plugin snafus, databases problems, etc. If you’re using Reclaim Hosting as a way to show your students how to manage web hosting, maintain their own space online, and get familiar with the affordances of web hosting—this is one possibility for enabling some powerful support. That said, you might want to let them know as much,  becuase with great power comes great responsibility.

, , , , , , , ,

Decentering Syndication or, a Push Away from RSS

Yesterday Steve Covello tweeted a post at wpmu.org my way.

I was prepared  to read about a premium suite of plugins that I could buy for the privilege, but was pleasantly surprised to find Chris Knowles’s post “How to Publish to Multiple WordPress Sites from a Single Install” to be a thoughtful, clear, and  beautifully documented articulation of how the spoke/hub model for pushing content from one site out to another works more generally in Content Management Systems, but for the purposes of his example in WordPress in particular.

452_oseAt first I was interested in this post to start showing faculty and students alike how they can use their WordPress sites to push content out to a number of different social media services like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., but still keep their own version of everything they publish. That, for example, is one relatively simple and powerful reason to use such a spoke and hub model, you are the hub that pushes content out to the various spaces around the web you want it to appear.

But as we got talking in DTLT about this model at 9:30 this morning, it started to get much more interesting. In particular, the plugin that is pushing ones posts, images, videos, etc. in WordPress to all these different sites (what I’ll affectionately called “the pusher”) is Push Syndication  Syndicate out [Update: Tim and Martha tried Push Syndication but couldn;t get it to work so went with a similar plugin Syndicate Out]. One way to think about this plugin is it is does the absolute opposite thing then FeedWordPress, rather then pulling RSS feeds in, it uses XML-RPC to  push content out. So, as Marx did to Hegel, DTLT is doing to distributed course blogs—we’re standing syndication on its head :) Rather than insisting on making the course the hub as has been the case with ds106 (and scores of courses sites on UMW Blogs over the years), why not decentralize the syndication and allow each of the sites to push their content to the hub. Same effect, jut a different approach.

But why? What are the benefits? 1)  it is techncially inline with the ethos of giving the students more control over their work; they can control the syndication in this regard because “the pusher” plugin is installed on their blog. 2) It is far simpler than FeedWordPress for faculty to get up and running with—you don’t have to ask faculty to load in tens of feed URLs for the syndication engine to work. 3) It’s immediate, with XML-RPC, there is no wait for the post to show up. Publishing on the course hub is immediate. 4) It allows for both students and faculty alike to become a hub or a spoke. When I was at the Reclaim Open hackathon at the MIT Media Lab in April Kin Lane was conceptualizing the Reclaim Your Domain around this idea. 5) Less load on the server CPU pulling 100s feeds as weas the case in ds106, in this model you decenter that to a distributd push. 6) The whole process can be automated to some great degree on both the Reclaim Hosting and the Domain of One’s Own server thanks to Installatron. Tim Owens did a mock-up of what this might look like for students and faculty alike.



When going through the process of installing a WordPress site in Installatron (pictured above), we can actually build in a dropdown list of courses that you want to publish to from your own site. Martha Burtis, who has been working on the idea of packaging WordPress plugins suites  in Installatron already, is seeing if we can’t get the Syndicate Out plugin to not only get automatically installed and activiated on the student (or spoke) blog, but also identify the hub it will be publishing to based on the dropdown selction. If a student or faculty member choses to create a course on the fly by selecting that option and then naming it accordingly, it will immediately populate in the dropdown along with  a unique identifier. Instantaneously it will allow others to subscribe to it seamlessly. All of this with no mention of RSS! EDUGLU heresy, and I love it!

Thinking out loud here, what Howard Rheingold labored through for his Social Media Issues site, which admittedly is awesome, could be accomplished at the server level with next to no overhead. This is the in-a-box that we actually need to make synidcation course practical in highered. It is a bit hazy here for me (as much of it is right now), but I  think we can manage copy all the login information from the student blogs into the hub at the level of Installatron by grabbing their username and password and copying them to the hub database.  In other words, every student and faculty in such an environment becomes a spoke and/or hub, the idea of the motherblog becomes deprecated  and we start to move toward a more decentered approach wherein each learner can control what syndicates where.

And this is just the beginning, this model would also allow students with a Domain of One’s Own blog at UMW to use the Syndicate Out plugin to seamlessly send their posts out to any UMW Blogs blog they’re an author of. We tried it out today, and it’s absolutely seamless. You can see the spoke post here and the hub republishing on jimgroom.umwblogs.org here. So cool.

We still have a lot to figure out with all this, but as we were talking about it today we started recognizing the fact that Domain of One’s Own has already given way to Reclaim Hosting, Installatron plugins and theme packages, and now a whole new way of approaching spoke/hub syndication models for courses. And I firmly believe this is just the beginning of a whole new level of re-conceptualization, experimentation, and innovation—we’re just now realizing that Domain of One’s Own is more than just giving everyone a domain, WordPress blog, portfolio site, etc.— it’s quickly beginning to feel like a  paradigm shift for what’s possible when it comes to digital publishing at UMW and beyond. It’s actually kinda hard to explain just how exciting it is to go to work these days—my head is constantly buzzing, it’s almost hard to think, no less concentrate, on anything else. DTLT is in the zone right now….


Rethinking Forum Software

Some of my worst memories of poorly-designed online courses bring me back to the awful discussion boards of the standard LMS. The instructor, in a feeble attempt at building community with the tools they had, would ask you to go in and introduce yourself, which meant you had to pretend to be interacting with everyone else in there and care that they like Indian food and hot yoga. Later we’d be asked to respond to articles with our thoughts in a new thread, maybe even comment on others. Everything was extremely linear, the editing tools offered little beyond the ability to style some of the text, and if you were a part of a large class, the threads quickly become overwhelming and as a student you just picked something near the top of the pile rather than attempt to wade deeper into the mess. Open source forum software was often only a small step up from that experience. The ability to subscribe to threads, better layouts, and plugin architecture of software like PhpBB and Vanilla Forums is certainly welcome, but ultimately it still felt like we were stuck in the 90s and hadn’t really rethought what a “discussion board” could actually be. This weekend I got a chance to setup Discourse and play with it, and I’m convinced we might finally have an answer to that.

Discourse is an open source project led by Jeff Atwood who runs Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange Network. The website makes their mission very clear: they want to rethink what a discussion forum could be and they’ve built something from the ground up to do that. The long list of features is impressive: Image handling by drag + drop, endless scrolling instead of awkward paginated threads, @user mentioning within threads, the ability to respond to a thread while continuing to read further down, replying to a topic as a new thread, realtime updates, link expansion for many popular websites, oEmbed and oAuth, and the list continues to go on. Suffice it to say, it’s extremely modern software in look and feel and it’s designed really well.

I had heard a bit about Discourse but not looked into it much further until I was approached by Jim and Howard Rheingold to see if I could help them use it for Howard’s Social Media Issues course this fall through Reclaim Hosting. The trickiness of this request was that Discourse does not run in a shared hosting environment, in fact it doesn’t use a LAMP stack at all. It’s a Rails app that uses PostgreSQL for the database and while they don’t care what OS it’s run on, most instructions for installation pointed at Ubuntu. Discourse also has some pretty hefty minimum specs for the server with at least 1GB of memory so it was virtually impossible that I’d be running this on the same server that Reclaim uses to host our users. It’s worrisome for me that this seems to be the direction of most software out there. LAMP software seems to be limited by the capabilities of the platform and progressive developers are moving to newer methods that use Rails, Node JS, and other technologies that offer better security and performance, but at the cost of losing out on the ability to do things like “One Click Installs” within shared hosting environments. I worry that choice limits adoption to those that can afford hosted solutions or the technical chops to setup their own server, but I’m also optimistic and hopeful that there will be better technologies and ways of getting at this problem in the coming years that will continue to push things forward for everyone, not just sysadmins and customers with deep pockets.

Anyways, I fired up a virtual private server at Digital Ocean (a company I already use for other pieces of Reclaim Hosting and love!) and within 60 seconds I had the server I needed to get started. After a weekend of trial and error I got it up and running and started to really play with it. Their homepage lists many of the greatest features that I also briefly mentioned earlier, but there are a lot of smaller things that really impress me about Discourse. One is that almost always when I googled for an issue I was having, I found a thread on their forum where the developers were actively trying to fix the issue for the user, and in many cases rolling in fixes to the code and releasing them just weeks later. There’s something really encouraging about seeing someone post an issue about wanting better privacy options and instead of responding with “Yeah, we’ll see what we can go” there’s a lively thread about use-cases and what people would want to see ending with the developers posting that they’ve merged code into the source that offers exactly what the user wanted. I also stumbled upon a really great feature of Discourse: Multisite is built in. That means I can use the same server I setup for Howard to create a second install as a sandbox without having to setup a second server (I will probably have to upgrade the specs of the existing one I’d imagine as more forums require more memory).

To that end I’ve decided to focus on using Discourse as a community space for Reclaim Hosting. If you’re at all curious about playing with the software I’d encourage you to head over to http://community.reclaimhosting.com and give it a try. It’s still very much a beta product and this install is probably not fully-configured since I just fired it up last night, but I think you’ll start to see why I’m pretty pleased with it and why I think it could be a big deal for managing communities as well as providing better online discussion spaces going forward.

, , , , , ,

DEDTECH: GMU’s Nada Dabbagh on Integrating PLEs into a Graduate Seminar

In this video I sat down with George Mason University professor Nada Dabbagh to discuss her vision for integrating personal learning environments into her graduate seminar EDIT 802: Cognition and Technology. Nada is having the students in this course setup a domain and web hosting so that they can manage and control their own learning space and more. In this video we spend some time talking about her reasons for having them create their own learning environements that they control is important.

After that, we jump into the actual environement her students will be working within to provide them with an overview of cPanel, the web hosting management space they will be using. From there we discuss the difference between using subdirectories versus subdomains for installing open source applications like WordPress, as well as the importance of keeping track of all the passwords for the wide array of applications they will be managing.

This video is not only a resource for Nada’s students, but also frames out some good questions around what a domain and web hosting are, as well as providing some metaphors to help you conceptualize the difference. Additionally, the video works through the idea of giving a complete beginner a sense of how this space might be useful as a teaching and learning tool.

What I love about this video, as well as the Howard Rheingold series I have been working on, is that faculty are willing to broadly share their thinking around how the building the technical environment for their course informs the pedgogy, and vice versa. These are some early experiments in what I hope becomes a more extensive series of talking with faculty and technologits about the process they go through when imagining a course. It would be cool to start getting down a format wherein we can talk with particular educators and technologists about nhow they approaches a particular class and why. Such stuff might be pretty useful for other instructors and technologists who want to get a sense of how the process of designing and customizing learning spaces beyond the LMS works.