Directories for Domains: a Community Approach

Many of us in a certain subgenre of edtech have been working for a long time to try and use RSS to syndicate and aggregate posts from individual blogs into community sites. These sites are sometimes referred to as planet sites, mother blogs, aggregator sites, syndication hubs, etc. A good example of this is ds106, where posts are not only syndicated into the Blog Flow, but also the assignment bank—making for a richer, more targeted contextualization of student posts. Over the last seven years ds106 has syndicated more the 75,000 posts, providing a point of creative contact—if you will.

The syndication and aggregation for ds106 is all handled by FeedWordPress, which can grab the RSS feed of just about any publishing platform that exposes one. In order to simplify things, we’re using a Gravity Form to help automate the sign-up process. It’s far from a perfect setup, but it has been working fairly well for almost seven years now. In fact, it has been a template for other site aggregators, including the first Community directory site that Martha Burtis and Tim Owens built around UMW Domains in 2014 (which is no longer in use).   Continue reading “Directories for Domains: a Community Approach”

Domains as Ground Zero for the Struggle over Agency

BYU’s Bold Plan to Give Students Control of Their Data

BYU’s Bold Plan to Give Students Control of Their Data

I was really pleased with Marguerite McNeal‘s article in edSurge on Brigham Young University’s Personal API experiment. It can be hard to explain (at least for me), but she does an excellent job providing an accessible frame for the project by looking at it in terms of students finally being able to manage and control their own data. I think the following paragraph summarizes the idea behind a personal API as clearly as anything else I’ve seen:

A personal API builds on the domain concept—students store information on their site, whether it’s class assignments, financial aid information or personal blogs, and then decide how they want to share that data with other applications and services. The idea is to give students autonomy in how they develop and manage their digital identities at the university and well into their professional lives

The idea of autonomy in relationship to our personal data puts the discussion in a far broader context, and its immediacy is anything but academic. That said, I think it’s telling that a number of universities have been pushing hard to bring the importance of controlling your data to their academic communities. BYU’s work around the personal API is a really exciting early attempt at what this might look like. I could listen to Phil Windley talk about what he calls “sovereign source identity,” an idea he credits to Long islander and UMW grad Devon Loffreto:

“We want to teach students that this isn’t the only way identity happens online. They can create their own,” Windley says. This fall BYU introduced its Domain of One’s Own pilot to 1,000 student and faculty participants. But offering personal Web spaces is just the beginning, Windley says. “Domains help students understand their personal identity. The next step is understanding your personal data and how you control that.”

Absolutely right! And Adam Croom, who has been going gang busters with University of Oklahoma’s Domain of One’s Own project OU Create, frames this argument along the lines of a negotiation that should be taking place but isn’t:

“It’s the idea that tapping into one’s data should be a negotiation that the student gets to make,” says Adam Croom, director of digital learning at the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Oklahoma (OU). “Why can’t I manage what apps tap into my data, whether that’s the learning management system or the bursar’s office? Why aren’t there terms and conditions for students to understand who has access to their data?”

Another article I found alongside this one, thanks to the Cassandra of Ed-Tech*, was the article in Education Week proclaiming 2016 will be “The Year of Agency.” If that’s right—and I hope it is—that means more an more universities will need to start rethinking their infrastructure, and APIs have helped BYU and University of Oklahoma do just that. And so much of that work has been make possible thanks to the tireless evangelism of Kin Lane who has provided a vision of what APIs can be for Higher Ed. One we desperately needed.

At the same time, giving students, faculty, and staff more control over their data will be without some serious struggle. A response to this article published today on EducationDive illustrates why giving students control over their data might be an issue for some:

Schools are tracking student movements around campuses, incorporating data about how many times they visit the library or the tutoring center into performance data, merging that with student information system and learning management system data, and then developing predictive models to help counselors and students themselves. Giving students access to their own data is one thing, but letting them block others from seeing it is a different beast that could derail retention efforts.

Derailing retention? It’s strange to see the idea of allowing students to decide who gets to see their data, for how long, and why as somehow antithetical to keeping them? There is a joke in there somewhere. Fact is, the realities behind the learning analytics applications that have been relentlessly tracking student’s personal data may very soon be coming to a head. I would bet there has been little to no transparency about what student data universities are tracking, and whom they are sharing it with. Hell, I’m sure a number of universities aren’t even aware themselves of what data these third party applications are collecting. The idea that someone empowering students to opt-out of these unilateral relationships with various technology vendors is somehow preventing them from doing their job is demonstrative of just how much of the job of teaching and learning they’re offshoring to third-party technology solutions. And I won’t even get into the insane idea that tracking a student’s movement around campus is a sound academic counseling strategy.

Reclaim Hosting was born out of a movement that is grounded in the principle of empowering students and faculty to take control of their teaching and learning. And as Phil Windley notes, understanding who has access to their data and how it is being used will be ground zero for that struggle if we are, indeed, entering the year of agency.


*I found this article thanks to the all-knowing, all-seeing Audrey Watters, who linked to it in this week’s Newsletter. You’d think given I was quoted in this I might know about it, but Audrey actually reads the web—all of it—unlike me :)

A Domain of the Practical


Adam Croom offered up a hypothesis in response to my post about the “Long Short History of Reclaim.” He argues that as much as Domains at the University of Oklahoma is deeply embedded in a philosophy of empowerment, ownership, and experimentation, it’s also extremely useful. Who knew?!

OU Create for us has became a practical tool for our community as much as philosophical one. It is indeed an infrastructure that makes building full websites possible to a much greater audience.It also gives us enough slack to build in a plethora of digital literacy components. This complexity is highly valuable in serving a range of needs.

I think the practical component of folks having their own space to publish easily to the web has been a huge draw. Tim has made the whole experience so seamless and dead simple that someone can literally help themselves to an Omeka or WordPress instance (or both) on a brand new domain in seconds. This is where the practical meets good design to make a near perfect marriage. When you take someone through a demo they’re incredulous, “That’s it?” And we’re convinced we can make it even more streamlined. While we’re driven by the ideals undergirding reclaiming the web, we are also deeply conscious of the fact that good design with practical applications will make that vision a reality quicker than any of the rhetoric.

Another interesting post that dovetails with this idea is the great Tony Hirst’s “Getting Your Own Space on the Web.”  Tony acknowledges the value of offering a space to folks who want to assume the responsibility of running their own applications for publishing to the web. But what about those who don’t?

What if you only want to share an application to the web for a short period of time? What if you want to be able to “show and tell” and application for a particular class, and then put it back on the shelf, available to use again but not always running? Or what if you want to access an application that might be difficult to install, or isn’t available for your computer?

I would add to this, what if the application you want to install doesn’t run on the widely popular LAMP stack we’ve built Reclaim Hosting on? This is where Tony’s explorations of virtualized server environments and containers over the last year have been fascinating. Tony has traditionally been the canary in the coal mine when it comes to pushing innovative edtech. The work he’s been doing and questions he’s been asking fit well with the work Tim and I having been pushing on for over a year (with some serious help from Kin Lane). How does this personal webspace also include virtualized apps and containers glued together with APIs to enable experimentation with a wide range applications across a variety of server environments and dependencies for short (or long) periods of time. How do we start realizing the possibilities of server infrastructure as a teaching and learning utility we can count on for fast, cheap, and out of control edtech?

Tony is thinking hard about how this effects deploying educational software for distance and online education, his role—assumed or official I don’t know—at the Open University. That practical use case provides some truly compelling challenges and possibilities for such work. The issue remains that it’s still not easy to work with virtual servers and containers, though Docker hosting services like Tutum are beginning to make some real headway in this regard. As my time at UMW comes to a close, more and more of my attention and focus will be pointed at this emerging virtual architecture of edtech, and what it might means in terms of the work we do at Reclaim.

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!

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.

Reclaim and the Translation of EdTech

Jim Groom on Reclaim and the translation of edtech from UCalgary Taylor Institute on Vimeo.

D’Arcy Norman posted this one video that parts of a larger documentary project he started while at UMW for the Reclaim Your Domain Hackathon. I don’t get to see D’Arcy nearly enough, and unfortunately I was running around like the proverbial chicken all weekend trying to organize the hackathon which meant any focused time together was limited. I consider D’Arcy one of my oldest and dearest “edtech” friends, and sitting down with him for 15 minutes allowed me to try and articulate what’s important about the Reclaim movement for me.

This is my fourth Reclaim Your Domain event, the others being the MIT Hackathon March 2013, Atlanta Domain Incubator April 2014, and LA Reclaim Hackathon July 2014. These events have been by far the best professional development I’ve had over the last two years, and much of that is owed to the vision Audrey Watters and Kin Lane turned me onto near on two years ago. I’ve effectively been spending my copious spare time trying to wrap my head around things like Amazon Web Services, GitHub, and APIs. And as I suggest in the video, these are the platforms and technologies I’ve trying to understand so I can translate how they reflect some of the more seismic shifts in how the web works over the last few years. Kin and Audrey are a brilliant one-two punch in this regard, framing the technical, social, political, economic and more. Add to all this the IndieWeb movement, and Reclaim really feels vibrant and full of possibility. So, I want to thank D’Arcy, Andy Rush, David Kernohan, and Grant Potter for taking the time last weekend to try and capture some of it. Big Fan!