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.

mock-up_the_pusher.png-large

 

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….

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.

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!

Reclaim Hosting is Live

appboxLast October Tim Owens and I were coming back from a presentation about Domain of One’s Own at a symposium on digital publication, research, and writing at Emory University when we realized the work we’re framing out for Domain of One’s Own might have broader applications well beyond UMW. Yesterday Reclaim Hosting went live, and it’s exactly what Tim and I were talking about on that train ride back to Fredericksburg ten months ago. Reclaim Hosting affords teachers, faculty, students, and institutions all over the world the ability to quickly setup a domain and web hosting account within the context of a larger educational community. In fact, I think Audrey Watter’s reference to Domain of One’s Own as one of the edtech start-ups of 2012 was somewhat prescient and generative, because she helped us see that the work we’re doing has a broader field of influence then we first realized.

I’m really excited by the idea that a community of educators and students can start collaborating the possibilities of  managing and experimenting with an open source toolbox. In many ways, the series I am working on with Howard Rheingold right now is a sign of some of the larger possibilities for doing open, distributed edtech. That said, this could not have been done without the help of a number of people in the community who stepped up and loaned us the money to cover the domain costs as we get started. The number of people that expressed interest in Reclaim Hosting was daunting, and we needed to be sure we could cover the demand.

In particular, Mike Caulfield loaned us the lion’s share of the money so far to cover the upfront costs of domains as we get started, without him we couldn’t open this as quickly as we have. But Mike was not alone in his faith in this project, we’ve raised over $12,000 thanks to Paul Bond,  Boone Gorges, Brian Lamb, Jeff McCLurkenMariana Funes, John Maxwell, Grant Potter, Jess Rigelhaupt, Jonathan Worth, and Christina Hendricks. You all rule! If this craziness works you get free hosting #4life :) Also, if you are reading this and can spare to loan us a few bucks sometime over the next week or two we would be much obliged. Now, let’s get this learning party started!

 

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.

Reclaim Hosting needs your money!

A dapper Charles Ponzi :)

Ok, here’s the situation, my parents went away on a week’s vacation Reclaim Hosting is pretty much rocking and rolling. We have an insane amount of interest, conservative estimates put us at about 3000 faculty and students already. What’s more, the infrastructure has been tested with some early lab rats, and it’s good to go. But there’s one small problem, we need money to front the cost of as many as 3000 domains.

What about the Shuttleworth Foundation grant, you ask? A portion of that grant was used to setup the server, buy  WHMCS and Installatron, and provide a year’s worth of free hosting to participants in Reclaim Hosting. The remaining grant money won’t even begin to cover what we need for domains. Additionally, the plan was to use that money to develop the ds106 assignment bank as a WordPress plugin as well as to frame out the architecture of the Reclaim Your Domain project. As of now, if 3000 people were to sign-up on, or soon after, August 15th (which is when we open sign-ups) we’d have to immediately front upwards of $30,000 in domain costs before that money could be reimbursed to us.

Fact is, Tim and I might be smart, attractive, and bad ass instructional technologists, but we’re far from rich. So, that’s why we are asking you. We are trying to borrow (this is a short-term loan, not a hand-out—though we aren’t against that either :) ) up to $30,000 so we can cover the demand we’re expecting in the first month. We have set up a campaign site for anyone interested in helping us get started, and we’ll track our progress there.

I’ve gone to the community well with this kind of thing before, so I wouldn’t be surprised if folks can’t or won’t do it again—no hard feelings. That said, this is a short-term loan for Reclaim Hosting so it can get up on its feet, and we have no interest pursuing funding that might compromise this project’s community focus. What’s more, you’ll get your money back no later than October 31st, 2013. If you interested, go here and give us a loan, hippies!

Reclaim Hosting: Battling Digital Somnabulism One Domain at a Time

occupywebA week after launching Reclaim Hosting it seems like the project has hit a broader, international nerve. By a conservative count Tim Owens and I did this morning , it looks like we’re going to need a bigger boat  based on the overwhelming interest that, by a conservative estimate, would result in more than 2000 accounts come August 15ht when we open up sign-ups.  What’s more exciting that the crazy amount of people interested, is the realization that a lot of people want a communal approach to an open source toolkit for their teaching and learning.

As it turns out we can deal with the issue of scale when it comes to servers, just get another one (or three!), right Tim? However, the idea of trying to create a community wherein students and faculty can share what they are doing in this space in order to model different approaches, help one another out, and feedback what they’ve learned is the real nut to crack. Tim and I are working on how we might build an environment that harnesses a community of support (which itself will be evolving depending on the community), and I imagine our work with ds106 will help us in that regard. The fact that we can so easily open up the possibility for something like Domain of One’s Own to students, instructors,  academic departments, and institutions around the world (and this is truly a global project) using a small flash grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation is remarkable.

That said, I have to acknowledge that Tim Owens deserves the lion’s share of the credit. He cloned the work he and Martha Burtis are doing with UMW Domains in no time flat, and it will come as no surprise that Reclaim Hosting  is inspired by the Domain of One’s Own project happening at UMW this Fall. What’s more, it follows in a long line of projects coming out of UMW’s DTLT like the Bluehost Experiment, ds106 and UMW Blogs. DTLT has made it a habit over the last ten years of pointing its initiatives towards the web in order to share the work we’re doing, as well as allow others to piggyback on them if their environment is less than conducive to innovation.

The secret is that we’re not the one’s  ”sacrificing” our limited resources for the good of the cause by sharing out work. Rather, the process pays back to UMW 1000 fold. We get access to a wide range of approaches all over the world from different education levels (K12, undergraduate, graduate, etc.) that help us better understand how to approach Domain of One’s Own locally. We also hook into a community of students and instructors that want to experiment, exposing us to some of the most innovative approaches going and forcing us to stay sharp at home. What’s more, it often brings attention to your work. When you open your work up, you’re usually the one that benefits as a result. In fact, I would argue that the community as a whole does.

On that note, I was excited to see Chronicle intern reporter Sara Grossman’s article on Reclaim Hosting. She took the time to follow-up on her interview with us several times, and I think her article does justice to the project:

The goal [of Reclaim Hosting] is to provide instructors and administrators with a simple way to give students personal domains and Web hosting they can own and control.

That’s right, and while the pedants will argue how much can you truly own or control a domain or hosting (“it’s leasing!”), the idea behind this project is to move beyond a simple consumer attitude towards the web. In order to truly engage this participatory medium on your own terms, you need to understand how it works. This means experimenting with installing applications, browsing database tables, experimenting with DNS, mapping domains, etc. Whats more, it’s about avoiding our culture’s tendency of “falling into a state of digital somnambulism,” to quote Cathy Derecki’s must read post on the topic titled “Time to Fight the Digital Nanny State.”  In fact, I get excited when I think an entire community college system like VCCS is considering the implications of such an approach.

In the following video Tim and I frame this project in more detail. We work through some of the details of how we are trying to share resources, develop a distributed community site, and create an ongoing video series wherein we explore the possibilities of various open source applications. I imagine it will cover approaches to building distributed course sites, managing your students cPanel accounts, as well as cover a series of various technical details behind web hosting. But all this analyzing is paralyzing, it’s time to play this dang thing!

DTLT Today: Episode 104, UMW’s Domain of One’s Own

Note: At two points in the above video (roughly at 12 minutes and 22 minutes) there’s cacophonous feedback when we go to the shot of the laptop. Andy picks it up and fixes it soon after the 22 minute mark. I’ll be editing this out sometime soon, apologies in the meantime. Those clips with heavy feedback loop have been edited out.

After a year and a half hiatus DTLT Today is finally back in action with episode 104. Even better, we had the whole old gold crew together (i.e. Martha Burtis, Andy Rush, Tim Owens, and myself) to talk about the Domain of One’s Own project we’re kicking off this Fall for 1000 freshman.

I pushed for this episode because I was blown away by how streamlined Tim Owens and Martha Burtis had engineered the sign-up using the client management software WHMCS. It’s extremely slick; a two step process that gives students and faculty alike their own domain and web hosting immediately. What’s more, the domain propagates in less than 10 minutes. It’s amazing to see how cleanly and professionally this project has come along. Martha and Tim talk a bit about their setup process in the above episode, which I find nothing short of fascinating, particularly the bafflement of the WHMCS community forums when they were inquiring how to give domains away for free and prevent anyone from buying anything else. A new kind of client software! :)

Given all our success we got a little cocky (royal we, it’s all TIM OWENS!) and decided to open a parallel project up to any interested teachers and faculty over at Reclaim Hosting. Over the next two weeks we are going to be knee deep in support documentation and videos for Domain of One’s Own, and what struck me today is that we can easily run this project in terms of support with an eye to the open web. Not unlike ds106, we can focus and build the project for our immediate community, but at the same time open it up to a larger community for anyone interested. Fact is, we aren’t duplicating efforts, we would be doing this stuff anyway. After Tim figured out how to make the process so smooth to clone such a model was simple, we just needed some money to float the server and software cost for an academic year, and thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation flash grant I received (thanks to David Wiley) we could do it.

Another thing that struck me as we were doing DTLT Today yesterday was that we could also plan every Monday afternoon throughout the Fall semester on doing an episode of DTLT Today focused on getting people familiar with CPanel, installing open source applications, setting up aggregator blogs, etc. Seems to me we would be killing two birds with one stone, supporting the local students, staff and faculty at UMW as well as any interested teachers/faculty from any interested school, college, and/or university (hell, you don’t even have to be part of any of them). Initially this was the same reason we opened up ds106, because folks wanted to know how to manage their own web host, access their databases, setup subdomains, customize open source applications, and much more.

Even cooler, we can make it so that any interested faculty can control and manage their students accounts. They can set them up with domains, access their CPanels, and generally work with them if they are having issues. It gives the students their own space and gets them familiar with the possibilities of open source web-based applications while at the same time giving the faculty the ability to help them as they get started. I love this idea!

At lunch yesterday Tim referred to this model as “distributed ed tech” that we can all do if we simply point our work a bit more towards a community beyond our campus. What’s more, you have to provide a shared object of attention and invite people in so you can have a wider community. But not at the expense of the local, but rather to augment what’s happening locally, which has been proven to be the case with ds106.

I know firsthand there are a lot awesome people who not only could use some focused help with managing web hosting for themselves, as well as a community, but also would bring a mojo to community engagement that is remarkable. I am referring particularly to Todd Conaway’s post “Owning and Sharing: Like Buying a Coke” wherein he illustrates the various cultural issues that are wide spread across higher ed (anything from financial woes to limited human resources to despotic IT departments to a general institution bureaucracy and malaise) that such a community of distributed edtech might help a lot of people overcome for a real, compelling change in their local cultures. We’re all doing what we are doing anyway, it’s now time to just point it outwards a bit so that we can start sharing resources, working smarter, and build the cross-campus, inter-institutional connections our schools, colleges and universities seem to do everything in their power to prevent.