A New Direction (and either a clearer understanding or some serious rationalization)

I am pleased to say that starting August 19th I will be the new Systems Manager for the BC Libraries Cooperative. I am equal parts stoked and daunted by this opportunity. Stoked, because the Coop is doing some fantastic work in shared services using open source software in a sector, public libraries, that I’ve always felt a strong affinity for. Daunted because, well, I’m not a librarian and regardless of some exposure to library tech and standards, it’s a fairly new field for me. Still, a lot of the role is familiar to me, so I look forward to a few months of intense immersion as I get going, but I wouldn’t have taken the job (and presumably they wouldn’t have hired me) if I didn’t think I could do it.

It’s been 7 months since I left BCcampus. Seven months of rest, of growth, of uncertainty, of trying to figure out what comes next. For a while I looked for something in ed tech (but Victoria’s not that big a town), and then for a while I contemplated consulting work. I still plan to do some of that, but I decided for now I needed something more regular.

One of the things I struggled with in taking this new job was whether in doing so I am shutting the door on a 20 year career in educational technology, higher ed computing, and for the last decade, open education. The library world has its own technologies, its own history and language, its own set of challenges.

But as I’ve sat with it, I’ve come to realize that there has always been a thread in the work I’ve done and in the interests I’ve pursued which I think runs through this new job too and helps me see how this is a progression rather than a digression. For the last decade, in addition to working on open content (something I know I’ll find in the library world too) I’ve come to see the importance of civicly-owned, openly governed platforms for computing. When Web 2.0 came along, its appeal from a usability and motivation perspective was obvious and I was an early supporter of using these technologies for teaching and learning. But, slow learner that I am, it took me a couple of years longer to realize what a few of my colleagues had seen early on, that for all its advantages and appeal, the cloud had a dangerous flipside of centralized control and commercialized interest. I believe in both of these areas, education and libraries, there is still a window of opportunity to implement open systems that will give us the best of both worlds, the flexibility and efficiencies of the cloud but in a non-corporatized way that preserves so many of the values on which an open democratic society depends. And I look forward to the opportunity to work on this with a new set of colleagues in the library world, while still hopefully maintaining connections and building more bridges back to the world of teaching and learning online. At least for now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. – SWL

Remain Calm. All is Well.

Just got back from UVic where I gave a talk to a small group from the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory. I was going to write a longer post than this, trying to situate my talk somewhere between the binaries of Disruption-as-Solely-the-Province-of-Neo-Liberal-Discourse and the Education-is-not-broken-at-all poles the discussion seems to be falling into these days (and apologies for picking on Martin, I’m just too tired to dig out a better straw man example of the latter argument.) Because I think there is a third (and fourth and fifth and…) possibility here, that

  • there are lots of pieces of education that don’t work very well but
  • there are some pieces that do and
  • there are values and people involved with educational institutions that shouldn’t just be chucked away in the pursuit of economic efficiencies but
  • the network is indeed a disruptive force, and
  • that disruption will not simply lead to some techno-utopian ideal and
  • commercial forces will use it to continue the march of globalization towards an uninhabitable planet filled with alienated, over-medicated people unless
  • we start to change many of our relations, along many vectors, and not just rearrange deckchairs.

But that doesn’t fit well on a t-shirt. Plus even those who think it maybe sounds like a good idea in theory don’t think it’s actually possible any longer, if it ever was, so we might as well shut up and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Anyways, I’m not going to write that post. I (hope I) WILL keep working in “education” and “learning” in ways that embody the changes I think we need to bring about, which likely mean lots of beans and rice in my future, cause its a future where we stop living on borrowed time. But I’m growing weary of trying to convince anyone else. This talk was meant to simply offer some small examples of ways we can implement technology that both harness the liberating power of the network but also make small steps towards changing how universities relate to what’s outside their walls. These changes in and of themselves are insufficient. But they start to position institutions differently, in a way I think will serve them well in the battles to come (if they happen at all; I’m not so naive to think these aren’t rearguard battles, and despite a disdain for the language of warfare, make no mistakes, there are sides to choose.)

Anyways, the slides are below and the full text of the speech of the talk is available here (sorry, no recording.)

And I can’t help leaving you with this clip from Animal House, which comes to mind every time I hear another person downplay the enormity of the challenges facing us

The Disruption Higher Ed Doesn’t See Coming (and how it could respond, even lead, but probably won’t)

No, not MOOCs. Badges.

CC Attribution Noncommercial Some rights reserved by Magalie L'Abbé Ok, now that you’ve stopped laughing (I admit, even I have a hard time not dismissively thinking of the sleeves of my Cub Scout shirt when I hear the term) let me explain why badges, as they mature beyond where they are currently, have the potential to disrupt formal education in a way that none of the technology innovations we’ve seen in the last couple of decades have.

Over those two decades, essentially the duration of my working life so far, every time I have tried to explain the magnitude of the disruptions (and the amount of potentials) that the network presents to formal education institutions (especially post secondary ones) the trump card interlocuters ALWAYS bring out to minimize the potential threat is “Accreditation.” Regardless of how many people are learning with each other, for free, in communities online, or the skyrocketing costs of formal ed, or how poorly the 4 year residential model serves an increasingly unconventional student body, or how the educational practices in many higher ed classrooms have barely moved out of the 19th Century, when met with the prospect that the value of a University degree is under threat and that their “market” will get as disrupted as the newspaper business, or travel agencies, etc., the response is simply “yeah, but we’re the only one who can issue degrees that people trust.” But I believe badges hold the potential to disrupt this.

Again, I’ll give you a second to stop laughing. And I can’t fault you for laughing; even if you can get over the name, the idea that “badges” can compete head to head with “degrees” seems laughable, if badges are seen simply as their equivalent, just smaller, issued to acknowledge informal learning by small groups who could never compete with the brand recognition of the likes of Harvard or, closer to home, UBC, and, importantly, lacking the backing of governments and other trusted “bodies.” Maybe even more laughable for lacking recognition by the people degree/badge holders are trying to convince (mostly employers, but others too).

But I contend that’s because, so far, badges haven’t tackled THE important problem, at scale, in a way that models how the net works – who do we trust and why?

What is Accreditation Anyways?

Before looking at how a different execution of badges could seriously disrupt higher ed, it seems important to get clear on what accreditation is in the first place. The explanation below, from Wikipedia, offers a decent starting point:

“Higher education accreditation is a type of quality assurance process under which services and operations of post-secondary educational institutions or programs are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met. If standards are met, accredited status is granted by the agency.

In most countries in the world, the function of educational accreditation for higher education is conducted by a government organization, such as a ministry of education.” from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education_accreditation

While it may work slightly different in the US and other jurisdictions, the general model seems to hold true – some body, whether governmental, NGO (and for profit? god I hope not) establishes criteria and processes which a department or program must fulfill, and then vouchsafes their credentials as credible based on this. It’s about how we currently establish trust in the credibility, quality (and ultimately value) of the education that someone (be it the public or, sadly, increasingly the individual student) has paid for. Ideally, this would be individualized – when trying to evaluate a specific individual’s capacities, we wouldn’t look at a proxy for that (which is what a credential is) but instead be able to examine all the examples, to look at the ways in which their capacity was developed and judge for ourselves whether it meets the specific needs we have. But that doesn’t scale, at all, so we invented proxies, first at an institutional level, and as these grew in number, at a jurisdictional and even international level.

But it seems to work. Well, kind of. Mostly. In jurisdictions where accreditation is spread out across a large number of bodies, it can be hard to keep track of them all (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_recognized_higher_education_accreditation_organizations#United_States). This, as well as the sheer number, globally, of accrediting bodies, can let imposters creep in and makes verification difficult. And even with rigour and government backing, there remains the real issue of inter-jurisdictional recognition; just ask our cab-driving Doctor from Pakistan about this. Add to this the fact that, while the accreditation process is by design rigorous and difficult to pass, that also means, by design, it doesn’t expand quickly or accomodate smaller units of learning well; just ask someone who’s tried to start a new program, which seems more relevant if we acknowledge the pace of the growth of knowledge is unlikely to slow down.

How could badges disrupt this?

So my take on why badges have seemed underwhelming to date is that they’ve appeared to focus on the signalling mechanism (a way for person A to signal they’ve learned X from organization B, which is in essence what a diploma or degree generally does) without addressing the underlying trust/credibility issue (WHO has issued that certificate and why should they be trusted – e.g. why is a badge from UVic worth more than one from Bob’s Online Badge Emporium.) It had to unfold this way – the obvious place to start is with the basic mechanisms for issuing and displaying a badge. But that does not need to be the sum total of what badges are, and according to Mozilla Roadmap documents on their Open Badge Infrastructure, won’t be.

At root, what we’re dealing with is a question of “who should we trust and why?” As luck would have it, we already have a number of models of how to address this in the digital world that come from the field of Cryptography. Specifically, when it comes to public key encryption, there are two competing models that I believe align well with the current model of accreditation and the emerging model of badges: the centralized trust model of a pubic key infrastructure and the decentralized “web of trust” model.

source http://www.chaosreigns.com/code/sig2dot/debian.htmlThe centralized trust model (think “Certificate Authorities” [CAs] like Verisign or Thwate) is akin to the current accreditation model, where only a single (or very few) body is entrusted to issue accreditation/certificates and acts as the maintainer and adjudicator of standards. Like the current accreditation model the centralized trust model is at first blush attractive because it consolidates this complex function in a few entities, but it also suffers a number of problems: if a CA is compromised, the security for everyone in the system for which the CA is attesting is similarly lost. Also, like centralized accreditation, it converges knowledge (or ‘validation’) and power into very concentrated hands; we depend on the (increasingly questionable) representative nature of our democracy to ensure that what accreditors accredit is “in the public good” just like we rely on these few Certificate Authorities to verify and enforce throughout their entire chain (it’s not quite as simple as that in both cases, but hopefully a good enough approximation.)

Contrast this with the “web of trust” model, often exemplified by encryption systems like PGP, which is what badges *could* become. In this model, a “decentralized fault-tolerant web of confidence for all public keys” emerges, over time, as each persons’ keys are “digitally signed by other users who, by that act, endorse the association of that public key with the person or entity listed in the certificate.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_of_trust) In layman’s terms, like any network effect, if there are only two of you with keys signing each others’ key, while it is still of _some_ value, the value of the system overall increases as more nodes join and a large, robust network emerges over time.

Interlude (in which the author confesses he hadn’t done his homework and, frankly, can at times be a bit of a presumptuous dick)

I have a confession to make: up until recently, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to badges either. I understood they potentially offered some alternative to existing credentialing models and tried to come to their defense when various colleagues of mine dismissed them out of hand, but I couldn’t see how they could overcome the hurdle of validation/recognition. It wasn’t until I was lying on my couch a few weeks back, alternatively reading wikipedia and napping, that this idea that if badges existed within an ecosystem of issuers, learners and “recognizers” (people to whom you are trying to prove you know something) all of whom could attest to the effectiveness of the learning represented by the badge by “signing” it, that this can scale, in a Peer to Peer way that models how the actual infrastructure of the internet works. Because I hadn’t actually been involved or paying close attention to the actual developments by the Mozilla Badge team (and others, presumably) I had the (absurd? presumptuous? egotistical?) thought “why has no one else talked about this?”

Which of course they have. The folks working on this are very smart. And (luckily for me) I thought to ask on twitter before finishing this piece (and thus coming off even more arrogant than usual) whether anyone was working on a “distributed trust model for badges.” @prawsthorne was the first to offer some helpful links, pointing me to the Mozilla Roadmap documents on their Open Badge Infrastructure, the Badges Infrastructure Tech Docs (cf section on ‘Badge Endorsement’), the Mozilla Open Badges Dev Group and a post on the Super Awesome Badge Summer (cf section “Endorsement, public key infrastructure, federated backpacks”).

All of which were good starting points and indicators that the issue was definitely on the Mozilla Badges team’s radar. But it wasn’t until I started digging in further and also received a few more messages, both from Peter and from leaders of the badge initiative, Carla Cassili and Erin Knight, that I struck gold and read how clearly the vision they have for a distributed validation/trust network aligned with my own couch-bound daydreaming. Instead of trying to replicate any further the arguments, I just urge anyone who is interested in understanding the potential to go read the following two pieces:

So why won’t this turn out exactly how PGP vs Central Authorities Have?

If you know the history of public key encryption, you’ll know that while both the centralized Public Key Infrastructure model of Certificate Authorities and the distributed web-of-trust model of PGP still exist, PGP adoption by individual users has been spotty at best, plagued by very real “ease of use” issues (along with a general lack of understanding of the issue), while PKI, for all its flaws, supports pretty much all of the commercial transaction encryption on the net today (read: online shopping etc over https). Given that, why should a validation and endorsement mechanism for badges be any different?

As Erin outlines in the paper linked to above (page 4), there are plenty of good reasons for us to resist implementing a centralized trust model that replicates existing centralized accreditation models, easier though that may be. But even if we chose not to, what will keep a distributed model from failing/help it succeed? Well, a few things, I think:

  • we need to learn the lessons from PGP and focus on implementations of the model that make it as easy as possible for endorsers to validate badges or badge issuers. This seems obvious, but one of the pieces I think we often miss out is implementing things in a way that our motivations for the user to do what we hope they’ll do are in line with THEIR motivations/what is actually valueable to them. If endorsing a badge requires too many additional steps on top of using/recognizing a badge, it is less likely to occur at scale.
  • not wavering from a vision of true peer to peer system that allows endorsement at the lowest individual level, and yet allowing endorsements to aggregate so that existing proxy groups (like universities and their accreditors) can transition from a monolithic proxy model to this more distributed process but still keep some of the advantages of the existing trust networks they already have, while still opening up the field to individual upstarts (cf http://www.gswot.org/ as an example of how this works in the PGP world.)

Even with all of this and a flawless execution, there is nothing to guarantee widespread adoption or that this will become the disruptive force it has the potential to become. Incumbents do not give up their advantages willingly and it is naive to think they will. But…

…implemented in a robust, open way that really does allow a badge to represent learning at various scales (micro-lessons to full programs) and to be attested to, *bi-directionally*, by all the parties involved (learners, issuers, endorsers, “recognizers”) at scales ranging from the individual to the national, an open badge infrastructure opens the field to upstarts who really could disrupt the existing system. Especially upstarts that already “own” users. Think Google. Think Facebook. Think Apple. Right now the accounts you have with them don’t actually have that much to do with your “real” life. But they want them to (why do you think they are so anxious for you to connect your phone number and credit cards with these accounts?) I’m nt hoping for such a future (nor do I think Mozilla is – cf their work on Persona, an “identity system for the web”), but instead of resting on the sanctity of our existing accreditation models, we need to get our heads in the game and realize the size and scale of the stakes we are playing for.

How could existing institutions respond to this?

used under CC BY-NC 2.0 licenseWell, it seems like the current response is “not at all.” And fair enough; everyone is so taxed to cope with the current set of challenges and disruptions that to even contemplate a response to a *hypothetical* disruption that may not even happen seems unfeasible at best. But if you take a step back for a second and look at this in the light of other things we say we’re trying to accomplish in our institutions, be they transforming how and what we teach to transforming our business models, this potential disruption, which I believe speaks to the core of what universities do AS A BUSINESS, may actually offer the opportunity to rethink and re-engineer this in a way that is not only beneficial to learners, instructors and institutions but can help institutions adapt to the internet instead of trying to ignore it or have it conform to models that, while long lasting, were only ever temporary approximations.

And where do you start? Well, you already have a unit that is quite possibly ripe to experiment with this. It’s usually called “Continuing Studies.”

This is why I dispair when I hear CIOs refer to authentication and authorization systems as “just plumbing.” Yeah, I get that it’s just plumbing – IF YOU THINK YOU LIVE IN A WORLD SEPARATE FROM THE INTERNET AS A WHOLE. I’m not suggesting they can singlehandedly solve this issue and this transformation on their own, but as some of the largest “civil society” players that exist, they have the potential to lead on an issue that WILL get decided. Given that the current contenders in the arena of trust & identity are either large commercial entities or central governments who only seem to understand models that place them at the centre validating everyone, if you understand that every time we proxy these relations, every time we “represent” them, we recreate the conditions of our own disempowerment, even if it seems less feasible, do you really want to work for the alternative? </technoutopianrant>

Alright, you can go back to laughing now.

BC Open Data Summit Report

I guess I shouldn’t be disappointed; I’m not sure why I was expecting anything different, but it was a conference. There were a few speakers that stood out for me, but quite a number that didn’t. I had hoped to find a field more closely connected to its local environment and communities; instead I found one that seems to suffer many of the same problems as “open education” – being way too supply-side driven, with many of the people sharing the data not even sure they want to. This is captured in the tagline of the summit – “Liberate the Data.” Like so many efforts before it, that inadvertently turns what should have been means (open data) into an end in and of itself. Add to this the familiar question of “engagement,” as if this was a problem to solve after you’ve built whatever it is “they” are to come to.

I’m probably being harsh; it is still early days, there are lots of good people involved, and lots of good intentions (though you know what they ay about those…) Still, it feels like so much giving people fish and not fishing lessons. Just like an open ed conference bereft of learners, an open data conference with no citizens seems…lacking.

But enough harping on what didn’t work. There were some pieces that did for me. I really liked the use of the term “civic infrastructure” by the impressive Philip Ashlock – I don’t think it has to be an either/or between providing data and providing platforms, but approaches that look at how governments can provide trusted platforms for citizens to accomplish what *they want to do* seem to bake the whole “adoption” issue right into the solution from the start.

I very much appreciated Luke Closs‘ lightning talk (which I’d have voted to be a 30 minute slot) on open data business models. Citing the
Business Model Canvas” as inspiration, Lucas described 4 possible models for people trying to startup open data projects:

  • Citizen Funded: in which users pay for an app or subscriptions, or it is ad supported.
  • City Funded: in which you are developing something to then sell to municipalities
  • Infrastructure Service: in which you are marketing to developers, make it easy for hackers to use in their town
  • Public Open Source Service: in which you try to crowdfund the ongoing operations (e.g. ISP costs) of a service that otherwise uses open source software and volunteers

I appreciated this as I really need to think harder about how some of my citizen-oriented projects can thrive, ad the “Business Model Canvas” seems to provide a useful, lightweight way to think through the problem.

I also need to acknowledge the organizers of the BC Open Data Summit for providing the BEST CONFERENCE LUNCH EVAR, bento boxes! Genius idea – I will have to ask the organizers about the cost (which I expect wasn’t cheap) but it’s a great idea for a portable, elegant lunch solution.

Finally, Peter Forde‘s talk titled “People are Dying to get the Data” really struck a chord, both for invoking the names of Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz, but also for the mixture of serious advice and playful suggestions on how to make open data more real for people. His urging to solve “real” problems, and to shun teh shiny of digital dashboards and analytics for the power of narrative really struck a chord for me, as they are both things I need reminding of. Plus my geeky side liked it for the mention of a couple of nifty gadgets – Pebble, a bluetooth watch that allows you to display notifications and data from your phone while it’s in your pocket, and NinjaBlocks a simple plug and play platform to build digital apps that control real world appliances and devices. Sure, a bit of a stretch at an open data conference, but fun!

Ultimately, my disappoints with the event were really disappointments in my own performance; I really didn’t make any new connections and the productive hallway conversation I did have was with one of the few people I already knew at the event. Still, it brought to mind lessons learned numerous times at Northern Voice and Open Ed, that “open” isn’t the same as “inviting,” and that if organizers really do want to grow a movement, real care has to be paid to how we bring newcomers into the fold.

Shameless Plea for Cash

UPDATE Tuesday February 12: Due to overwhelming response, I am going to remove the “Donate” button for the Edtechpost Activism Fund. In just 4 days I was blessed with $360 in donations from 25 generous supporters, which is now more than enough to get me to the BC Open Data Summit. Thanks SO much to all who contributed. I will follow up after the conference with a post on the day’s events as well as an accounting of how the funds were used and where any excess was donated.


I have been writing Edtechpost since late 2001. While my pace of posting has slowed (and was never that prolific,) I’m closing in on a thousand posts (929 and counting) and I’d like to think I’ve given my share to the ed tech community at large. And in all that time I’ve never asked for or taken any compensation directly for this blog. Never run ads. Always paid the hosting costs ($100/year) myself. Not that I haven’t gotten that back multi-fold already; simply being considered “part” of this large community and being able to communicate with so many I love and respect is honestly all the return I’ve ever hoped for.

But times have changed slightly. I feel really optimistic about all of the conversations I am having and new possibilities I am exploring, and am definitely trying to hold out from just taking “a job” in the hopes of co-creating a new opportunity I can excel and thrive in, but for now I’m doing most of this work off the cuff, on spec, in the hopes something good will grow.

Some of these projects are bringing me closer into contact with Open Data efforts in BC. I’ve never focused specifically on “open data” in the past, though I’ve always stayed abreast of it and seen its as an allied movement. But as I turn my focus on how to enable local open learning communities, open data is becoming more relevant both as a site of learning and (through the process of creation and use) a site of community formation.

A few folks have urged me to attend the upcoming BC Open Data Summit on February 19th in Vancouver. I really want to attend, but I have said no so far because I am trying to live frugally and the reg fee is $125 plus the getting there from the island and all, so more like a $250 outting. Not totally budget blowing, but one I had decided to forgo unless I can defray the cost somehow.

So, with the LONG preamble done, I’ve set up a Paypal donation button (see below or on the sidebar) for anyone who feels so inclined to donate to the newly formed “Edtechpost Activism Fund.” I hereby solemnly swear that all funds received through this mechanism will first go towards attending the BC Open Data Summit, and that I will write up that experience and do my best to represent the (seemingly absent) citizen perspective. If any remain after that, I propose to put them towards the monthly donations I make to openmedia.ca and the Wikipedia foundation. I propose to be completely transparent about the amount raised and will take this down at the end of February.

So if you can spare some change so I can further my efforts to create change, I am grateful. If not, that’s totally cool too – we’re all stretched to support so many different causes and people. Votes of solidarity and encouragement are always appreciated too, and indeed on the days where change seems an impossible task, can be even more valuable. – SWL

Christmas Comes Early



I woke this morning (Solstice, December 21st 2012) to find in my twitter feed news that Saylor.org has stepped up and freed the entire back-catalogue of FlatWorld Knowledge textbooks in one fell swoop. This is tremendous news, and Saylor, who are in my opinion consistently top of the class when it comes to Open Textbooks, have once again shown tremendous leadership. So Bravo.

I’m only writing this post for two reasons – first so that I can link to it from my earlier call to preserve this tiny piece of the commons and let anyone know who stumbles across it that the deed is done.

But secondly, to give all of the folks who stepped up to my call my sincere thanks and a huge pat on the back. I only turned to this crowdsourcing approach after my old employer decided it was not willing to take the risk and do this themselves (and I understand why given their need to work with highly risk-adverse government funders).

While we didn’t accomplish the entire goal ourselves, we should still feel proud of trying. The Commons is communal; while it is fantastic that we have larger institutional players and NGOs like Saylor (and CC and EFF and FSF and…) that work tirelessly to build and preserve it, we also need to all act individually to do the same, whether it be as Clint Lalonde and Chris Lott  have written recently in donating to groups like these, or taking part in actions like this.

So thanks. Especially because at a time for me when I needed to know my network was there, you showed up. Thanks.

Some Observations on PLE Diagrams

One of the perennial favourite pages on my edtechpost wikispace has been the collection of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) diagrams I started back in 2008. A couple of years back I wrote a call to folks asking for feedback on what I might do to improve it.

I didn’t get a lot of feedback, but one comment, from Ismael Peña-López really stuck with me – that what I should be doing was some analysis of my own on the collection, which indeed had in fact been the actual goal all along in creating the collection of diagrams.

I know it’s taken a while, but with some time on my hands, here are some reflections on what this collection of PLE Diagrams might tell us.

Caveat Emptor – Skewed Sample

There are currently 79 diagrams in the collection. With the exception of a very few, these were all produced by educators themselves or else people I think we should consider relatively advanced, self-directed learners. This is not surprising given that I started harvesting the images from my own network, typically comprised of educational technologists and educators, and then others were added from people also a part of these types of professional networks my work typically reaches.

But I think this is important to note up front – while some of these diagrams are simply a list of a few tools the person uses, many of them exhibit a HIGH degree of self-reflection, meta-cognition and technological adeptness. This is not to discount them as depictions of “what might become” for network learners in general, but I would caution to assert that they were reflective of how all network learners currently learn (or currently conceptualize their personal learning networks, as first and foremostly that’s what these diagrams are, conceptualizations rather than the things themselves.)

Diagram ‘Orientations’

The first thing that struck me looking at the collection of diagrams is that there are some distinct “orientations” that jump out – diagrams that I describe as tool, use, resource, flow people, or hybrid oriented.

Tool Oriented

By far the most prominent is what I called “Tool-Oriented” diagrams. Likely an obvious enough name, these are diagrams that by and large depict PLEs as simply a collection of tools. These make up the vast majority of the diagrams in the collection, 62 out of 79 (though as I note below, many of these also exhibit additional orientations and there are fewer that are solely tool oriented diagrams.)

For me these are the least interesting of the diagrams. While it is useful to see which tools people typically conceive of in their PLEs (additional analysis of which is done below), these fail to reflect any of the dynamism I typically associate with network learning. Still, the MAJORITY of diagrams take this tact, which raises the question (taken up below) of whether a PLE is best understood simply as a collection of (albeit networked & loosely coupled) tools that stand in contrast with earlier monolithic approaches to learning environments, or if its that AND something more.

Use Oriented

Numbering 32 of the 79 diagrams, “use orientation” was the next most common orientation in the collection, by which I mean diagrams that explicitly list the aims of a personal learning environment. Often, though not always, these are accompanied by the tools used to fulfill these uses (making these into “hybrid” diagrams, see below). These are far more useful in contrasting how people conceptualize learning within a PLE compared to more traditional teaching and learning approaches. As I’ll discuss below, while there are many similarities, there are some key different uses and practices developed by PLE users that differentiate the way they are learning (and what) from their predecessors.

Resource Oriented

While there are no diagrams that are solely “resource oriented,” many of the diagrams do list educational resources, both formal and informal, as part of the PLE. These seems important to note; while many earlier conceptualizations and practices of education, both online and off, have been accused of focusing too closely on content as the mechanism for learning, the critics pendulum has often swung too far in the opposite direction, seemingly content as having little or no role at all in learning. To me, neither of these extremes are correct, and the presence of various resources in the PLE diagrams offers a happy medium – resources, both consumed and created, shared and personal, digital and physical, do have a place in how networked learners conceive their learning and environments. Especially in conjunction with the other orientations.

People Oriented

In some sense, ALL of the diagrams that depicted networked tools or resources were “people oriented.” But I chose this term to describe diagrams that explicitly mentioned or depicted people or groups of people as part of the PLE. As in the case of “resource oriented” diagrams, there are almost none that are solely “people oriented.” But it was surprising to me that only 15 of the 79 diagrams seemed to explicitly depict or mention people as part of the PLE.

Flow Oriented

Flow Orientation” was also a characteristic that rarely appeared on its own, but 20 of the diagrams made real efforts to show how information and connections flowed between tools and people in their networks.


Finally, as I’ve alluded to, 32 of these diagrams reflected more than one of these orientations, and these I have termed “hybrid.” For me these are typically the richest diagrams in that they depict PLEs as dynamic processes in which tools and resource have uses and flow into and out of systems and conversations. This reflects my own experience of being a network learner.

Dominance of Certain Tools

It seems unsurprising, especially given the popularity of certain services and the relative homogeneity of the sample, that the diagrams which identified specific tools (or types of tools) were dominated by a select few. Blogs (59) dominated, but twitter (33), social bookmarking (43), flickr (28), and youtube (21) were also consistently listed. In addition, while I did not tag the diagrams as such, synchronous tools like skype and Elluminate, as well as email and eportfolios were all regularly listed.

Social networking sites were also listed as common elements of PLEs – Facebook was listed in 25 diagrams, and (shocking to me) linkedin in 15. (Shocking because clearly these folks have figured out a use for linkedin that elludes me.)

Given how often they are mentioned in the same breath as blogs, wikis (25) seemed relatively underrepresented in the tools people singled out in their PLEs. Even more surprising to me was how little wikipedia (9) was mentioned to me, given its dominance in search rankings and internet traffic.


In addition to these orientations, I was struck by the use (and sometimes lack thereof) of metaphors to depict PLEs. The main one (and I am not completely convinced that this was not in part an artefact of the digital drawing tools employed by many to create these diagrams, more below) was of a “network.” So commonplace was this that I did not officially code for it in the new collection’s tags.

Interestingly (and again, I suspect an artefact of the tools used to create the diagrams) most of these “networks” were mind-map type drawings most closely resembling hub-and-spoke networks. While they capture the individual user’s perspective of being at the “centre” of THEIR network, these are not actually accurate representations of how internet networks as a whole look. This issue, that “individual” networks are emergent phenomenon that differ depending on the location of the observer/participant is, I believe, a hugely rich avenue of exploration and challenge for network learning and networked society in general, but grist for some future post, not this one.

In addition to the standard “network” depictions were more abstract diagrams. These struck me as worthy of note because they are less easily reducible and for me capture some of the human elements of network learning that is so often overlooked, whether it be “love,” “growth” or simply the ephemeral nature of networks.

Finally, though not exactly “metaphors,” it seemed important to note the number of PLE diagrams that were in essence screenshots. Paradoxically, these were both, in my opinion, the least successful representations of PLEs, and yet some of the most valuable for new comers to PLEs (especially those that were screencasts or presentations) in that they gave specificity to a concept that can be ellusive.

PLEs and Informal/Formal Learning

The concept of PLEs originated both as a contrast to existing (e.g. LMS) models of online education and also out of a new set of affordances offered new Web 2.0 tools and practices. As explicitly PERSONAL learning environments, they start from the perspective of the individual learner. Yet many of the people interested in exploring PLEs and their potential have done so from within existing institutions, educational business models and practices (e.g. courses, cohorts,certification.)

Some of the diagrams reflect this attempt to conceptualize a relationship between PLEs and institutions (and their MLE/VLE) which I tagged as “institution oriented.” In addition, at least 13 diagrams explicitly reference the LMS as a component of the PLE.

Whilst a slightly different issues, it seemed worthy to note in this section the number of diagrams that explicitly noted a difference between private activities and public interactions, signalling, as in the case of the formal/informal distinction above, that in some conceptions PLEs are very much about accomodating and permitting flow between both.

The Effects of Digital Drawing Tools

I had a suspicion that the diagrams are greatly influenced by the tools people chose to use to draw them; that their tendency towards a certain type of depiciton (networks, entities & flows, venn diagrams) were because that is what those tools do well.

To see if this might be true, I coded those diagrams created with a digital drawing tool to contrast them with hand drawn diagrams (of which there were far fewer.)

The results seem inconclusive – if anything, the hand-drawn ones in the collection seem even more dominated by “network-like” drawings.


We know what PLEs are…

So given all of these observations, I’m wondering if there are any conclusions to be drawn. (N.B. in what follows I will refer regularly to wikipedia’s definiton of PLEs. Not because it is the only or best one, but as one developed on an openly editable platform with public standards for acceptability, so hopefully reflecting some sort of rough consensus.)

With the dominance of “tool oriented” diagrams, and the fact that the tools listed are well-known “Web 2.0” tools, Wikipedia’s description of PLEs as “Technically, the PLE represents the integration of a number of “Web 2.0″ technologies like blogs, Wikis, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, etc.” seems spot on. Given also the prevelance in the diagrams of flows and networks, Downes description that PLEs “become[s]…not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications—an environment rather than a system” seems supported too.

Given also the general lack of references to LMS and institutional systems (though there are some), the notions that PLEs “put[s] the individual learner at the center” and are about “the independent learner” seem generally reflected in the diagrams.

…but must constantly find this out for ourselves

However, there is one assertion about what PLEs are and how people use them that is generally not reflected in the diagrams – that PLEs “provid[e] support for learners to set their own learning goals.” A very few of the diagrams do make mention of keeping track of goals, whether this be explicitly as a “use” or in the form of tools like ToDo lists or sites like 43things. But by and large this idea of  “learning goals” seems absent from the diagrams.

I believe this gets at the heart of some of the tensions that exist between existing institutional models of education and emerging visions of network learning. The absence of “goal setting” (and its corollary, learning paths AKA curriculum) on the diagrams is in part by design, but also in part a short coming of the current conceptualizations. By design because, in a truly personal learning environment, the goals and paths one follows aren’t necessarily the predefined ones of the past but instead are constantly emerging based on where one finds oneself and what one needs at the time, or as Downes writes “according to the student’s own needs and interests.”

But this absence is also a shortcoming because it throws the baby out with the bathwater, reflecting a somewhat all-or-nothing attitude towards pre-existing curriculum, practices like instructional design (which attempt to anticipate the sequence and instructional interventions through which something can be taught or learned) as (more importantly to me) towards meta-cognitive skills, practices and tools to support the learners own definition of goals and paths.

Clearly, the appropriateness of pre-existing, curricular-based means of learning depends quite a lot on both what is being learned and the learner themselves. But there are times when it seems beyond question that simply following a set of instructions or looking something up is both the easiest and most common way to learn a fact or concept. Yet the relative lack (only 12 out of 79) of explicit reference to pre-existing learning resources does seem to support a pendulum-swing away from this older content-centric vision of learning. That may not be an entirely bad thing, as it has perhaps dominated for far too long, but in an effort to contrast it I do fear we sometimes overstate the lack of importance of content. I am NOT arguing that curriculum or content-focused education and learning is best or the only way, but that it does still have a place.

More importantly to me though, the absence in the diagrams of methods or tools to set goals and identify learning paths doesn’t speak to their originators’ lack of insight or understanding (these come from some of the smartest people I know) but instead that as a whole we are still grappling with how to reconcile the network age of seemingly infinite content, people, connections and activities, with our limited lifespans, limited abilities to pay attention, and limited energies to expend on any one thing.

This is what I was trying to get at in the revised version of my Becoming a Network Learner talk which I gave at the TLT conference in 2010 in Saskatchewan. That it is great to swim in this vast ocean we call the Internet, but if we do so without reference points, without some direction, we run the risk of finding ourselves miles from shore, out of breath, unable to tread water any longer. The constant lament of information overload, internet distractedness, etc, seem very real to me.

The trouble in actually depicting this on a diagram is that it’s not particularly a tool that is needed (though I do think things like social filters and constrained search, recommendation engines, etc can help.) It’s more about constantly re-embedding (or remembering that they are already, or trying not to extract them from) these tools, these networks, these connections in our lives, in our goals, our dreams, our aims, which themselves WILL NOT magically emerge from the network.

This is also why I consistently resist what I see as the reification of an active process in the term “personal learning environment” in favour of simply talking about “network learning.” For whatever reason, as soon as we start using nouns, we then want to categorize and enumerate every aspect of them, but in doing so too often lose sight that each of them is unique, that the common characteristics are emergent phenomena, and that as much as you can try to describe it for someone else, as much as you want to help them, it is only when we each do it for ourselves, as lived experience, that it becomes real. And for some reason, describing this using a verb/gerund like “network learning” seems to me to resist, ever so slightly, this tendency to try and abstract what needs to be a personal process into a general “thing.”

All of which is to say, finally – the PLE is dead! Long live the PLE!



Trying out Zeega for an #OpenEd12 Recap

A few days ago a new storytelling/mashup/presentation tool named Zeega came across my RSS reader. It is still in private alpha (not even beta!) but I was intrigued and so submitted a request for an account, and to my pleasant surprise the next day had an account.

Zeega is slightly more complicated than your standard presentation tool – not a lot more, but it uses the idea of different “sequences” that can branch, and so a quick view of some short video tutorials was very helpful to get going with the software. I can see how one could use this as a start forward presentation tool quite easily, but they also included a series of examples of other projects people had made to show how this can be much more than a linear presentation tool (I quite liked the one on Geodesic Domes and drew some inspiration from it for my own.)

Another thing that makes Zeega stand out is its media harvesting mechanism – you can link zeega up with your dropbox account, but more interesting is the bookmarklet, which lets you add media from flickr, youtube and soundcloud (or indeed any regular media asset) to your “library” and once inserted into a resulting animation, includes a reference back to the original (a nice-to-have feature I could see in the future would be to choose only CC licensed materials, and also to allow users to specify how attributions should be made, but for now the current way works great.) Once you’ve gathered materials into your library, it’s a simple thing to drag and drop them on any frame of your show, where they can then act as links, back-ground soundtracks, etc. Zeega also has maps integrated with it, a feature I didn’t explore in the first story I created but which I can see adding a useful element at times.

Zeega is definitely still in alpha, but is another great example of how far web-based applications have come. It wasn’t that long ago that the same sort of functionality could only be found in a thick desktop client, and one that was no doubt web unawares. But even in its early stages, zeega is another example of a new bread of mashup storytelling tool that I believe any instructor with a bit of gumption could use to create much more engaging materials, or any student for that matter. It gets both the authoring and workflow pieces mostly right. Check out the example I created as my test drive, my own recap of #opened12 using sounds and images from all over the web.

Victoria Hack Jam – Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!

A few months back I saw a tweet from my friend @clintlalonde which mentioned that he and a colleague at Royal Roads (the very awesome Emma Irwin) we organizing a Mozilla Hack Jam, one of dozens around the globe set to take place on June 23rd to kick off Mozilla’s Summer of Code. I chimed in to count me in, in whatever capacity, as I have been looking for ways to bring my own skills and my passion for teaching together with my other passion of the open internet and non-conventional educational models.

This event fit that bill in spades. Let me describe it a bit and then just highlight some bullet points about why I think this is an exemplary model (I have WAY too much work to do right now but I couldn’t let this pass without writing it up, so short form it will have to be.)

The event was targeted at kids aged 9-14 and has the goal of inspiring kids to make and remix the web. The main tool it introduces them to is Mozilla’s “X-Ray Googles” – a neat bookmarklet that once activated exposes the underlying code that makes up a web page as one mouses over, and with a click allows it to be easily changed. That, plus the instruction to then find a web page and make some changes and we were off to the races (actually, to be honest I don’t think we even got as far telling the kids to do that – they pretty much all figured out that was the point once they realized they could.)

In addition, as the kids got used to that (and for kids with a little more experience) there was a new tool from Mozilla named “Thimble” which basically places side-by-side a page and its underlying HTML, but focuses on the right area when a part of the page is clicked. It also comes with a set of fun games that help the kids go a bit deeper.

The day was kicked off by Clint with a fun icebreaker in which each of the kids were given 4 pieces of a larger puzzle and had to work together to reassemble the entire puzzle. I don’t think we finished the puzzle but that was beside the point, it very much served its purpose, to break the ice, get the energy level in the room up, get kids working together and having fun. Then Emma gave a very short talk about “hacking” and hackasaurus using slides from Mozilla, after which the real fun began.

Now for my reflections:

  • First off, while we might have been able to do this in some other space, having access to an amazingly well set up lab at UVIc (offered by the gracious Dr. Valerie Irvine) was hugely invaluable. It is also to me an example of where we need to be going in education, towards projects, events, courses, workshops, whatever, that cross the formal boundaries of our institutions, in this case bringing together a NGO and grassroots organization like Mozilla, a University, kids from the K-12 system and volunteers from a number of other organizations, both educational and corporate. I know these do happen already, but we need to start weaving this into the fabric of our organizations (and their rules and regulations) instead of hoping that upstarts with some gumption will simply make them happen. I can give you a rant for at least an hour to explain how this is in the long term benefit of both our institutions and our society even when it might look in the short term like it can have some costs, but like I said, too much work right now!
  • When Emma asked the kids what they thought “hacking” meant and pretty much all of the responses she received were about illegal systems intrusions, I shuddered and hoped that Emma would ride to the rescue and explain the more positive original sense of the term. And while she did a bit, I came to realize that there is a real genius in not belabouring that point and instead allowing the mischief the kids thought inherent in the term to secretly power their learning. You see, while the X-Ray googles allow you to change the source code of a page, they only do it to your local copy, not the server one. But the kids don’t know that (yet – I did explain it to some as we went along, especially the few who felt some concern about the ethics of what they were doing). So while the kids thought they were sticking it to the man by inserting pictures of themselves, or Justin Bieber, or bacon (these seemed like the top three choices) onto their school website or the google frontpage, inadvertently they were learning exactly what I used to teach people in the old days (like, the mid-90’s) when we taught them to create web pages – just view source, make some changes, save it and look at the results.
  • Indeed, there is some really great thinking going on at the Mozilla team about how to introduce some potentially complicated stuff in a way that kids can engage with it – there was very little “instruction” going on during the couple of hours we ran the jam, and very much CONSTRUCTION (of knowledge, of web pages) and most of all FUN. This tapped into one of the pieces I too often forget myself about why making and the open web are so important – yes, it’s about preserving democracy and free speech, yes it’s about freeing culture from capital; but it’s also FUN, it’s about the sheer joy of making things.
  • kaya and dad at #yyj HackJam with our new matching FireFox sh... on TwitpicI could go on, but I need to get back to work, but I’ll end by saying it was also a joy to be able to bring my daughter along with me. While I like to think of myself as a progressive guy, I still catch myself making unconscious assumptions about the difference between my son’s and my daughter’s relationships to technology, to science, to math. These assumptions aren’t all “my fault” – we are still surrounded by messages that these are male domains (indeed the way they are currently practiced this is too often the case) and in some areas (for instance math) the stereotype does seem to be playing out – my son shows a real adeptness for it, but my daughter struggles with it.Yet that doesn’t mean it’s not important to become conscious and confront them – when my daughter turned out to have a greater interest in helping me solder a guitar stomp box’s electronics than my son (for whom I had bought it to do it as a project) I realized how often I was making these assumptions. Seeing her face light up as she started to learn through playing what goes on behind a web page, and how she could change it herself, is another step away from these stereotypes and hopefully towards an empowered young woman who can make her way in our increasingly tech-addled world. I’d also like to thank Emma and the other three women who were there for being such great role models, and to all the other families who brought their daughters (it seemed pretty close to a 50/50 split in both kids and volunteers.)

I really hope we figure out a way to do more of these, to do other ones too. I know all of us are full-time workers and full-time parents, and finding time and energy to put these things on in addition to all those demands is tough, but this is the future we need to create, one in which education is NOT just something we had off to specialists and only happens between 9 and 3 in classrooms, one in which learning about the means of production and creating them ourselves go hand and hand, one which starts to weave all of the learning opportunities and organizations together, not fracture them into more and more specialized (and silo’d) entities. – SWL


SEO as Enclosure – Another Real World Example

Wikipedia Device, aimed at the elderly

I know in the past people have given Stephen and others lots of grief about their stance on the Non-Commercial clause. And I admit that, while I understood the theoretical possibilities Stephen was concerned about, that commercial entities often seek to obscure or enclose free resources so that even if the original is still literally “open” it becomes effectively lost, I initially wrote that off as edge-case fear mongering.

But over the last few years I have come to see this not as an edge case at all but is actually a real practice that we see emerging over and over, whether it be in various threats to “net neutrality” or SEO practices that effectively bury the free versions of content. This post is just a brief note about yet another example that came up in conversation with a potential partner in government who wants to share openly some training resources aimed at helping immigrants to Canada have their foreign credentials accepted and become members of professional organizations in Canada.

I raised the question of “flavours” of Creative Commons license simply because the current configuration of SOL*R supports the 2.0 Attribution Share-Alike license and wanted them to realize they had a choice. This gave them some pause, and then mentioned that actually, one of the challenges faced when communicating with new immigrant populations in general is that there are certain groups (e.g. immigration lawyers and others who “facilitate” the process) who have a strong motive to short circuit official channels so that they can communicate “on behalf” of new immigrant clients (read – “charge them lots of money for things the government actually provides for free.”) Fair play to Google, the top unsponsored hits for “Immigrate to Canada” are indeed government websites, but the first one is a sponsored commercial link, and on that same first page of results are a number of commercial “immigration consulting” services pretty much masquerading as government sites.

All of which is simply to add yet another to what seems to me to be the long and ever-expanding list of examples of ways in which commercial entities, usually through legal if not totally ethical means, obscure what should be free and public resources. This is not make believe or edge case. This is in fact the modus operandi of capital. – SWL