DML’s Reclaim Hosting Interview or, why I love Howard Rheingold

Image credit: Alan Levine’s “Howard Rheingold is #ds106 #4life”

Since the very beginning when Tim Owens and I were getting Reclaim Hosting up and running two years ago, Howard Rheingold was right their experimenting with the platform for his classes at Stanford as well as providing broader support for our efforts through his vast network. I’ve come to understand over the last few years why Howard’s work is ground zero when it comes to imagining the web as a humanized construct for bringing people together. I could point to his pioneering work with online communities viz-a-viz  The Well, his numerous books on all things social web, innumerable blog posts, etc. That’s all part of an extensive archive of its own that will stand testament to his brilliant career thinking about the web as the social fabric of the future. But more than anything it’s him—the person who online (and off) supports your work enthusiastically, champions ideas he believes in, and honestly and openly shares his excitement with others. There is no bullshit with Howard. He is who he is, and he shares what he likes. He didn’t have to do his previous feature of ds106 (though I’m glad he did because it enabled us to work together on Connected Courses), nor did he have to conduct this recent interview with Tim and I about Reclaim Hosting, but he did. And I really appreciate it, but more than anything I have come to appreciate him. Few people have been bigger advocates for this work over the last few years, and I’m personally honored he’s taken an interest in what we’re doing. It’s buoyed me more than a few times when I’ve had to ride the surf of uncertainty as I left the belly of higher ed–so thanks for ruling Howard, and thanks for yet another fun discussion.    

Building with Howard: Creating an Open Source Learning Environment Pt 3

This is part 3 of a series Howard Rheingold and I have been working on to demonstrate out the open how to create a learning environment using open source tools like WordPress, MediaWiki, and more. go here for all the videos so far. The idea behind this series is to get faculty and students interested in how they might fashion their own learning environments in a web hosting environment using their own domains. The first fifteen minutes of this video focuses on Howard’s approach to assessment in his Social Media Issues course, which will be experimenting with contract grading. From there we explored a few things in regards to the open source framework we are building.

  • Finding and installing WordPress themes
  • Integrating signins between WordPress and MediaWiki
  • Just how clunky MediaWiki still is after all these years
  • Customizing menus in WordPress
  • Uploading header images and changing the background color in WordPress Themes

The point about how clunky MediaWiki remaisn was the source of a broader mini-rant about how long we have been using these tools, but how difficult some absic things remains. Integrating signups between MediaWiki and WordPress is still a major pain in the ass six years on—the WPAUTH extension for MediaWiki that I’ve been using since 2007 remains the gold standard. Also, to change the logo in my MediaWiki install I need to FTP in and change code in localsettings.php file—WTF?!

I truly would like to see a robust platform like MediaWiki become a lot more ubiquitous in the teaching and learning space, but an application that makes simple administrative necessities that difficult will not be an options for your average user. Also, why haven’t we made some of this stuff easier? And this goes for syndication as well. My thoery is because we’ve wasted too much time chasing the next platform that will sovle our problems and finally truly disrupt education—in other words,  most technologists are fools and zombies.

Building with Howard: Creating an Open Source Learning Environment Pt 2

This is part two of a series Howard Rheingold and I are working on wherein we’re openly building the framework for his Social Media Issues course using a variety of open source tools, plugins, themes, extensions, etc. This is really a blast for me because I haven’t gotten into the nitty gritty of a one-off open source learning environment like this since 2007 or 2008 (although ds106 was exactly this in 2011, but I gotta a lot of help). I’m really loving the work with Howard to build out his course site, and once again explore for myself what’s possible with tools like WordPress and MediaWiki. In fact, the whole idea around ds106, Domain of One’s Own, Reclaim Hosting, etc., is that you dig into stuff like this and have a community of support to help you. A huge reason why folks wouldn’t even consider this option is that it’s way too onerous to do alone, but we may just solve that by working on this stuff as a community. Open and distributed edtech—you have a problem, we can help you fix it! We’re DEDtech! Anyway, that’s the dream.

As for this episode, Howard and I spent some time in the beginning on the WHYs. Why have your students blog openly? Why have them take control of their digital domain? Why build these aggregated spaces? What has been the biggest treat about pairing up with Howard is that he makes me explain some of the assumptions I’ve been carrying around for years. I’ve been pushing syndication of student blogs into course hubs at UMW for six or seven years now. We’ve been using the FeedWordPress plugin for five or six of them. This stuff is like water to us, and while others might be waking up to it recently—it’s been part of our edtech DNA at UMW for a while. So having Howard have me try and actually explain why a faculty member might want to do this is awesome. What’s more, as we go through these sessions it’s a real conversation between two people who are negotiating what the course framework might look like. The coolest part is we’re sharing it in hopes that others get some ideas, frame their own questions, and potentially work through a similar model. I feel like I am doing the best kind of instructional technology again: exploratory, customized frameworks that scale to the size of a single professor—a hub that reflects the personality of a course, but refuses to subsume the students within it. This is the kind of instructional technology that truly rocks—LMSs still suck!

After the WHYs, we covered a few customizations to his WordPress hub such as adding a widget for the Twitter conversation around his #comm182 course hashtag. Thanks to Tim Owens, I recommended the native widget from Twitter that actually works well. Just go to Your Twitter settings–>widgets and you have all sorts of options.

Twitter Widget

After that we discussed how to create custom menus in WordPress to organize pages on the course hub. What’s more, the links option in custom menus is a very useful feature that I think a ton of faculty will find appealing for loosely integrating a range of external sites into one central hub. We flirted with the idea of themes, but we’ll be spending more time in the next episode—which is Tuesday, August 20th btw—talking about the myriad possibilities in that department. About half way through we installed a MediaWiki and went over the affordances of that technology. I particularly liked our discussion about wikis because we actually went back-and-forth about what he may or may not need. I don’t recommend MediaWiki lightly because it can be a real pain in the ass, at the same time it is powerful and every time I set one up for a class I see the immense possibilities all over again. That said, when I soon realize I have to edit a localsettings.php file to get a attractive icon for branding a new wiki some of that luster is lost. Truly a love hate relationship.

I’ve demonstrated some basic editing for MediaWiki that we have document for the course here, and I am working on a broader HowTo wiki page for this class that I’m expecting other folks who want to do a course like this might use, copy, or customize for their own course. I’ll be talking about integrating WordPress and MediaWiki more tightly in the next episode, as well as the possibilities with plugins like Wiki Embed—which I think is awesome. I also found this cool MediaWiki extension I hadn’t seen before that enables seamless Poem formatting, which is a complete nightmare in WordPress. Who knew? I’ll highlight all these MediaWiki extensions, integration, and WordPress themes and more in the next episode. Until then, stay syndicated baby!

Building with Howard: Creating a Learning Environment with Open Source Tools Pt 1

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure to sit down with Howard Rheingold—at least virtually—and go through the process of setting up a course hub using WordPress. The above video is the first part of a series in which we will work through building a learning environment using open source tools on a LAMP environment. This video focused on creating the central hub for Howard’s course Social Media Issues that he’ll be teaching this fall.  O ver the course of the conversation Howard and I covered how to 1) install WordPress using on your web server, 2) post content, 3) search, add, and activate plugins (in this case FeedWordPress), 4) add widgets, and 5) change the theme.

Howard’s interested in creating a dynamic course environment wherein students can establish and control their own online presence and have their work syndicated into a central course hub (not unlike the environments Alan Levine has been building recently for universities like Harvard ). By installing and activating the FeedWordPress plugin, we effectively enable the ability to add the URL of students’ sites (assuming they have an RSS feed) so that their posts can be fed into a central aggregation point for the class to view and comment upon each others work.

What’s more, this WordPress hub will have a series of pages that contain various information about the class, such as an about page, a  syllabus page, an FAQ, etc. It can include or link to social media conversations happening on the open web. For examples, you can embed a conversation from Twitter happening around a hashtag into the sidebar link out to class Tumblr, etc.

At the same time, the WordPress blog hub is just one facet of the course. We’ll be doing another episode tomorrow afternoon in which we plan on covering a few more of the affordances of  the hub and then moving on to integrating a wiki into the course environment. We’ll be demonstrating the open source application MediaWiki (which powers Wikipedia), and I imagine we’ll have a full session given it can be a lot more painstaking that WordPress.

I’m excited about this video series because it really brings me back to instructional technology work I was doing  in earnest at UMW back in 2006 and 2007. We were experimenting wildly with open source tools to see what kind of environments we could create for the campus community. This experimentation ultimately led to UMW Blogs and then ds106, and while these examples forced UMW to starting wrestling with questions of scale, the fact remains just about anyone can access and start experimenting with a wide array of web applications for the price of lunch.

I love that Howard is ready and willing to sit down and think through his course with me over the next couple of weeks.  This is distributed edtech at its very best, and hopefully sharing the process of building this course site will both inspire and help others to experiment as well.