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The Offline Web

I was asked to speak to a delegation of community radio journalists from Bangladesh next week. A description of the group:

Participants will return with improved journalism fundamentals, understanding of the United States and American culture, and a perspective on convergence with and transition from terrestrial radio. This understanding will include the role and contribution of community radio in a democratizing country, the skills to optimize journalism through community radio, management and leadership exposure and how that translates into a community radio environment and more. Radio in Bangladesh is woven into the fabric of village life, but since the advent of mobile phones and 3G internet it is a matter of time until those patterns of life change.  These communities will likely still appreciate the content community radio produces. Therefore, this exchange program will help community radio stations make the transition to digital and mobile platforms while continuing to play their critical role in a democratic and democratizing Bangladesh.

This idea of bridging the space in between terrestrial radio and the world wide web had me thinking about Tim Clarke‘s presentation at the Domains Fairs at #domains17. As part of his presentation, he showed off a couple of DIY tools called the LibraryBox/PirateBox. These are tools built with some concoction of a wireless router, a USB drive or SD card, and (though not completely necessary) a Raspberry Pi. The idea is that you can flash the software on the wireless router, install your own, and thus create a mini offline web that is accessible as long as someone is in the range of the router.

LibraryBox v2.0 from Jason Griffey on Vimeo.

I thought this could be a nice way of situating some of the projects I like to work on with something that might be valuable to the group. There’s a quote that I saw Dave Winer refer to recently:

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

There’s an earlier quote that speaks directly to radio as well:

Like the press which is free for those who own and control it, the radio is free for those who can buy equipment, hire technicians and talent, and secure profitable advertising contracts.

The argument I intend to make in the talk is that freedom obviously isn’t given to everyone, but technology has significantly decreased the costs and there are affordable solutions out there. As Dave asserts, I think its necessary for journalists to not just understand CMSs but the infrastructure (or at the very least the concept of infrastructure). Per usual, it’s going to harken back to what I normally wax poetically about: domains and servers. Web servers give us an environment to come to understand what it means to take care of, produce, and serve content/publications. In many ways it is the modern press and, again while not universal, much more democratized. But it need not be limited to the World Wide Web. The skills you can learn by learning to host a site are transferrable once you can understand the concept of files sitting on a server to be received by other devices.

So as a demonstration, I’ve put together my own version of the PirateBox: the CroomBox.

At Domains, Tim Clarke gave away three gifts that consisted of everything you needed to make one of these so this gave me an excuse to check it all out. I lucked out as only two people claimed them and Tim gave me the third (thanks Tim!) I downloaded both the firmware update and the install package and by noon it was good to go. So now I have a little offline web that stays with me now and looks like this:

All anyone has to do is connected to the wifi network “CroomBox” and they’ll be redirected to this page. It’s got built in chat and file sharing and I’ve enabled a couple of extra features including a discussion board and media library.

I’ve made a couple of very basic tweaks to the index.html to personalize it to the crowd and I’m on my way.

Obviously, you don’t have to use yours to serve a PirateBox…. The site can be whatever you wish it to be. But this concept is pretty neat and I like the possibilities. An underground publication, information for disaster relief in case of network outages, distribution of OER books, a physical classroom shared network, anonymous file swapping in airports. Whatever.

I’d write more but I’m supposed to be writing my talk and/or leaving my office because it’s Friday at 4:59pm.

Featured image: CC BY/SA PirateBox

On Liaisons

This post follows both a thread of blog posts from Amy Collier, Kate Bowles, and Maha Bali and (I think at least) contributes to a larger week-long conversation taking place in #digciz, which I’ve yet to quite figure out but describes itself as a conversation. I like that.

There are a couple different pieces here. One of which touches on adolescent Adam, who is a reoccurring character here on adamcroom.com, and then I try to speak to technology, which will be haphazard at best so feel free to dip in and out of this depending on which sections interest you more.

Let’s start in high school, mostly because it’s a good story and because it helps me frame my view of network theory a bit. In high school, I didn’t identity myself with any particular “clique.” This likely stems from being a smidge introverted and not being heavily involved in one specific organized activity like sports, band, drama, etc. I mostly just played guitar and surfed the web and there was no Surfing the Web Club. I believe this was also a product of rejection in formidable years where social cliques where starting to form. Try as I might, other kids were quicker to recognize that I wasn’t like them faster than I could. Thus I developed a social identity that was dependent of the constructs of high school cliques and floated around a variety of groups. Rather than stick with one specific group of friends, I often curated my own with people who I respected and enjoyed their company (I still do this by the way). I was friends with nerds and popular kids and musicians and stoners etc etc.

My perspective on this situation was always that I didn’t have a strong group of friends. It wasn’t until I was much older and at a local music venue that I ran into a guy from high school who had a different vantage point of me. Filled with enough cheap liquid courage, he was kind enough to admit that he actually admired me in high school because he felt that I was someone who was respected amongst a wide group of people despite not looking or acting like them. This felt very flattering and utterly surprising as I tend to view his high school self as more awkward than anything else.

When I’ve read about social network theory, I’ve always came back to this stage of adolescence as a way of putting it in terms I can understand. An early tool for visualizing social networks used the terms participants, group members, isolates, and liaisons. This has been adapted overtime as a way to explain everything from organizational behavior theory to adolescent cliques in the field of sociometrics. The term “liaison” is described in 1981 as such:

liaison – A node which connects two or more groups within a system without belonging to any group.

Adapted from NEGOPY

I want to make one other mention of a time in which I felt like I played the role of “liaison.” Editor’s note: I’m going to admit in advance that the setup is a bit long. That’s because I’m being a bit selfish and leveraging this as an opportunity to write about a time in my life that I’ve never really written about extensively. It also focuses on the idea of not quite feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging. So, apologies, but this is my blog…

I graduated college in an economic downturn. I always describe my graduation as a mass deer-in-headlights scene. A decade ago the field of journalism was being turned on its head and we were all under the impression that we had made a very poor choice in study as we were being told that it is was very likely professionals were no longer needed.

So, without a job in hand, I moved into my mom’s house thus fulfilling my generational stereotype. I intentionally used the phrase “mom’s house” instead of “home” because home was quite right given the recency of my parent’s separation. It had been less than a year and she had decided to move houses and thus it never felt like I was slipping back into the comfortable space I knew before I left for college.

I spent the next two months looking for work until I finally was offered a full-time salaried position as an account manager for a sock manufacturing company. My job was to be the intermediary between large department stores like Saks and the warehouse. Lucky for me, it turned out that–despite the economic climate–people still bought socks. It had nothing to do with my study but it was guaranteed to be steady.

I purposely completed all of major requirements the fall semester of senior year so that I could spend the spring “taking it easy” and preparing for the job market. One of the courses I took was a practicum were I could be a DJ for on-campus college radio station. At the time, I had my own band where I sang, played guitar, and music that I wrote in my bedroom. We were just starting to get our footing in the local scene but only with smaller venue promoters. I decided that I would create a show that was focused on local music as a way to get to know some more local acts. I reached out to band managers, local concert promoters, as well as some online forums (shoutout: oklahomarock.com). There was a band management company called BOMB Productions who managed a couple bands who I booked on the show: The City Lives who had recently finished a run with The All-American Rejects and Theatre Breaks Loose, a relatively new band who was set to release the first record the month I was set to graduate.

Six weeks into working at the sock company, one of Theatre Breaks Loose’s managers gave me a call. He mentioned the band was to head out on a six week national tour as a supporting band for a band called Asteria. He said that he felt like the band really needed a lead guitarist to fill out the band a bit and that he believed I could be the guy. The only problem was that the tour started in a week so if I wanted to go we would need to get the band on board and make a quick decision.

This call was on a Sunday. I spent Monday learning the songs and tried out on Tuesday. By Wednesday the band called me and asked if I would come with them and on Thursday I told my boss that Friday was going to be my last day. On paper it sounds like a quick turnaround but I really fretted over the decision to leave my job. Beyond feeling very fortunate to have any job at all, my mom was recently separated and I didn’t want to disappoint her by leaving her and rejecting the opportunity to earn a steady paycheck after she had supported my education. Yet when I asked her for her advice, she just shrugged and said that I may never get this kind of opportunity again and there would be plenty of entry level jobs if and when it didn’t pan out. Gosh, I love my mom.

I always describe my brief period touring as a very skewed way of seeing the country. There are very specific portions of U.S. that I’ve been to, but I never really got to fully experience. Often you wouldn’t spend more than 24 hours in a city and you were constantly “on the clock” because life consisted of loading in, playing, selling merch, loading out, driving, and sleeping. So I’m spending 24 hours a day with a group of guys who know each other very well but I had just met, which also adds the extra element of the fact that the first tour also feels like a very intensive interview process. There’s also something about being a representative for somebody else’s music, which I won’t get into, but is vastly different if you’ve became used to playing your own music. The culmination of all of this: being on the road playing someone else’s music with people you don’t know in the middle of trying to build both a new identity and a new understanding of home and family… This is where I connect most of the recent conversations on belonging.

But, ok, so here’s where networks come in. Outside of the people you spend all day with, your only social connections are other bands playing the bill and people who come to the show. Promoters don’t trust that up-and-coming national acts will draw enough people to the show to make it worth their while (and rightfully so) so they’ll throw a couple local acts on as openers so their friends will come to the show.

When people think about independent music, the focus tends to be on the artist’s ability to independent own and distribute their art. But independent music relies on a multitude of dependent variables that make it possible (the lions share being a community of people who attend local shows). If you are touring, the sheer existence of a local act on the bill can be a make it or break it opportunity for you in a city you’ve never played before. Independent music only exists because of these small localized scenes. And the web of these local scenes, the sum of all of these parts, is what allows you as an artist to reach a scale that is sustainable. Because of this web, we could exist.

For me, if only for a brief period, the band felt like I was a this go-between node–a liason–between a bigger network of like-minded individuals who didn’t even know each other existed, but yet their existence allowed us to share art. For an artist to be “independent” or embrace “indie,” it requires you to rely heavily on the community–the network. For me, to embrace independence is to forgo placing your trust in what feels predictable. And it’s this balance of self and community that I believes is easily lost.

One person who’s writing has really spoken to me on this subject is Amanda Palmer who has a book titled The Art of Asking, who has wrote and spoke often about being a street artist and independent music artist.

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community. Connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough. So a lot of people are confused by the idea of no hard sticker price. They see it as an unpredictable risk, but the things I’ve done, the Kickstarter, the street, the doorbell, I don’t see these things as risk. I see them as trust. Now, the online tools to make the exchange as easy and as instinctive as the street, they’re getting there. But the perfect tools aren’t going to help us if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly, but, more important — to ask without shame. – Amanda Palmer

Side note: She has also spoken about releasing her book with a major publisher and that it’s okay to be contradictory.

Ok, so I’ll bring this back to how this has influenced my thinking about technology as well. There’s a history of false thinking that because the Internet is a technology with infinite ways of hooking into and accessing it, that it is the great equalizer. Network theory says otherwise. Anytime, that you give people a space to meet, they are prone to clustering together based off a variety of reasons: familiarity, ease of communication, and a desire to eliminate uncertainty. The web is still a high school cafeteria. Humans are attracted to organization. Organization requires familiarity. So first we build tools like Twitter that allow a network to communicate and then we build ways in which we can organize around it through tools like the hashtag. And, feel free to argue with this, but I see people begin to identify with a hashtag–not with Twitter.

Here’s where my thoughts run out and where I start to pose questions. First, how do we begin to recognize that working in public space and utilizing technology does not mean everyone can or will engage? I’ll use myself as an example here. I’m comfortable engaging in this conversation about digital citizenship because I admire and feel comfortable talking to people like Kate and Maha. In fact, I’m willing to say there is no one who I read that I enjoy reading more than Kate Bowles, and Maha has always been incredibly accepting to varying perspectives and challenges them in ways I don’t feel threatened by. At the same time, there are literally conversations happening at this moment that I’d love to engage in, but don’t despite them taking place in the “open” because they feel closed off to me.

The second are distinct group something that can be embraced to an extent? If so, to what extent? If we can accept that humans will naturally form in groups no matter what, is there a way to elevate this notion of being a “liaison?” That are ability to really affect change is to be a go-between rather than to eliminate the distinction? OR should you resist the temptation to begin to build your identity around a group? Are there models for understanding how you can observe, move through, appreciate, and respect groups?

I’ll stop now because I realize I’m no longer making sense and I’m getting into contentious territory here without having fully fleshed out enough of an idea to offer a solution. There are really good questions I’d like to dive into more like “Is a liaison a position of privilege?” (I suspect it is.) I’m curious about how to either identify or elevate this notion “liaison” as a way for engaging larger conversations.

Additional note: I originally published this without this paragraph but feel it necessary to add. If you interact with people within your community that are “independent” of a larger umbrella organization, please support them. It would be hard to put together a better line up of people who have influenced me to the degree in which people like Alan Levine, Bryan Mathers, Bryan Alexander, and Audrey Watters have.

Small is Beautiful. Metaphors and Other Musings from #Domains17

I’m recovering from the week that was #Domains17 and want to thank everyone from near and far that took the time to come to Oklahoma City and be a part of this conversation, particularly Jim, Tim, and Lauren from Reclaim Hosting who suggested OKC.

It’s likely that part of being an Oklahoman is wanting to be overly welcoming, inviting, and hospitable, given that there are few reasons most would find themselves in Oklahoma, a relatively small state in the middle of the country. There are a lot of events and conversations floating around in my head at the moment and I don’t plan to be able to remember all of them. Maybe it’s best to start with one of the first which was Tim, Lauren, Jim, and I were having a couple days before the conference started where Jim referenced the quote, “Small is beautiful.” I found multiple places to reference it across the conference.

Being a small conference (I believe we clocked in around 85 physical attendees and many more through Virtual Connecting and Twitter) gives you a lot of flexibility. You don’t need an incredibly large space, attendees feel approachable, and it’s easier to organize social outings. I certainly wanted to take advantage of the intimacy given that I was heavily motivated by the opportunity to introduce some wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know  to each other. I tried to make three suggestions for the event which were 1.) be friendly 2.) shared widely and enthusiastically and 3.) inhabit the space. All were a futile attempt to appeal to both the extroverted and introverted natures that I equally possess myself. In essence, meet new people but also don’t be afraid to remove yourself from the programmed schedule in the event you need to recharge. I tried to give people permission to both choose to attend events from those they don’t know (in order to avoid simply building echo chambers) and to skip a session and do something else if they so chose.

IMG_8510.jpg flickr photo by bionicteaching shared under a CC (BY-SA) license

Because my own way of reflecting on events runs through my blog, I’ve been both hesitant to immediately write and publish my own version and anxious to see others. Alan Levine called it a gathering and offered the hashtag #notaconference. Tim Klapdor refused to label it and instead called it “something new” where he felt “invigorated.” Brian Lamb called it a “thrill ride.”

Many people have commented that they don’t quite have the words to describe it and, personally, I like that. There’s something to be said about not quite being able to define something in the most perfect and concise words and learning to be okay with that. I was thankful that Martha Burtis in her DENSE keynote (listen to it here thanks to Grant Potter) gave people permission to embrace metaphor while also understanding the limitations of all metaphors.

Im struck more and more that in order to dive into these deeper waters of Domain of One’s Own we need to find language that lets us do so, and for me that’s the language of symbolism and metaphor and even poetry. (blog)

And not all of the metaphors have to be perfect (see: Jim Groom’s house) to be meaningful.

While I poke fun at Jim’s house analogy, I’ve come to realize more and more that these analogies, metaphors, and symbols are the way that we can come to teach the Web so that our students know it in the sense of recognizing it — distinguishing it, perceiving it in relation to those things already known. (blog)

IMG_8628.jpg flickr photo by bionicteaching shared under a CC (BY-SA) license

Commenting on the event, Amy Collier wrote about belonging, saying that it “felt like I was at someone else’s party.” I had joked early on that inviting this many people to your hometown kind of feels like planning your wedding, but her perspective makes me rethink that analogy. It actually felt more like being the host and venue for someone else’s wedding. While it was rather hard to do, I felt the urge both before and during the conference to slip out of the limelight as much as possible and not present myself or draw too much attention away from such the opportunity to highlight the work of newer domains institutions.

Where do we go from here?

I was really thankful Jon Udell brought his perspective to Domains. As I’ve said before, he is on the short list of people whose passion can cut through some of the hairier technical sides of the web. The way he articulated annotation as not just an annotation service but a toolkit really spoke to me. His notes from his talk are definitely worth a read.

IMG_8666.jpg flickr photo by bionicteaching shared under a CC (BY-SA) license

But, anyways, after lunch on day 2 he sat down with myself and Keegan Long-Wheeler and had a story and question. He said he had just talked to Heather Castillo, a dance professor from CSU-Channel Islands. She had told him she wasn’t a “tech-y” but wanted to show him her site. And Jon was so impressed with how she had culled together multiple tools like VoiceThread, Padlet, Populr, and Google Docs to meet her pedagogical needs. He was so impressed that he recommended that she speak at a future conference (agreed!) and then asked an excellent question: How do we teach people to do that?

It got at the heart of the question I was hoping to serve with the entirety of the conference. While DoOO certainly does rely heavily (almost too heavily) on a specific set of architecture, it’s always spoken more to me as a space to understand the networked web. Learning basic digital literacy like file structure, web servers, HTML, applications, content organization, (oh wait I realize I’m just reiterating one of Martha’s points so I’ll paste her words too)

What do students really learn when they learn how to fix the things they’ve broken on their domain? They learn a bit about how their site actually works. About the interplay perhaps between script files and databases. About how DNS functions (hopefully once they learn this they will teach it to me, because dammit if I know). Perhaps they will learn something about how a hacker can gain access to Web sites and why there is a burden on those of us who create on the Web to also secure what we create.

These are all the types of learning activities most edtech tools don’t care to serve. They are also the learning activities that are more difficult to teach. Which is likely why it’s easy to shy away from doing so. It’s much easier to hand out prepackaged applications prepopulated with sample content. I know this stuff is hard because we’ve struggled with “where to start” in our own shop and because I’ve talked to several institutions who also struggle with this. How do you teach people to “domains” (it’s a verb now) in the way Heather did? Not just the ability to find and discover tools, but understand how to build and weave together the various number of tools that will serve your need. You know it’s a tough question if is Jon was struggling with it as well.

A lot of the hope was that this conference could begin to build conversations for how we support each other in thinking through these issues. Some of the people I admire (Tom Woodward hijacks gravity forms to build full fledged web apps or how Alan Levine architects full learning environments) know how to do this really well in environments they are comfortable with (For Tom: Google Spreadsheets, For Alan: RSS). How great would it be if students where able to through this same learning environment (I’m starting to almost refuse to refer to it merely as technology) and engage with (insert your term here…problem solving/ computational thinking/digital citizenship) in a way in which they do work of equal or greater feats?

No conference/#notaconference/gathering can serve everybody’s needs perfectly on the first go around, and I look forward to the possibility of future opportunities to sink into this and many more hard questions. Hopefully this event laid the groundwork for a community of practice of institutions that equally want to engage in these questions and the environment wasn’t sensory overload to the point at which the event felt like slight of hand.

I’ll end by adding my own way of describing Domains17: it was the beginning of a conversation. As always, I’m always willing to chat with anyone about what we’re doing at OU so don’t be afraid to contact me.

 

Featured image: tiny penguin flickr photo by bookgrl shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Summer of Domains Love

I’m just getting to the point of the summer in which I have about two weeks to catch my breath before the bulk of my summer work activities get underway. This break allows me enough time to quickly catch up on some blogging I’ve been wanting to do.

We just wrapped up our fourth academic year our Domain of One’s Own project. In January, I put together a little infographic to show where we stand metrics wise. We end the year just north of 4,500 total domain orders meaning that had roughly 700 orders in the Spring semester (likely our biggest Spring yet). Much of this is due to the fact that we are finishing up a project to transfer users off of the university’s old system (faculty-staff.ou.edu), which gave you a cool 10mb of web space.

We started off with 701 total users from the old system and John Stewart as been slowly chipping away at notifying users, assisting with migration, and setting up redirect URLs from their old space. We’ve heard from roughly 220 of the 700. 130 of them already had OU Create, and 70 have asked for assistance.

Of the remaining users, less than 20 have made any changes since 2015 and over 400 of them have made no changes to their site in the last five years. So I’m feeling pretty confident that we’ll have all of the remaining active users taken care of by June.

To the Creaties and Beyond

We bookend the semester with the second round of the OU Creaties. The Creaties is an event we’ve held twice now to celebrate top work on the open web (not just limited to OU Create). It’s also an opportunity to say thank you to our biggest classroom champions. This year was a complete overhaul on the event side. Last year’s event was a plate award style banquet. We learned that it’s hard for people to come to an event like that so we shifted it to a finger food style reception. More than 50 users attended–a big bump from last year.

We also showcased more work than ever before. John and Keegan had the brilliant idea of setting up monitors at each booth that ran a slideshow of various sites. John also built a new version of the Creaties site (create.ou.edu/creaties) which now showcases more than 40 student projects.

The site is visual bliss for someone like me to see the work of our community. It’s also a great landing spot for those who want to show people what the end result of open web projects can be so be sure to save that link.

Two main projects I want to point out are both the winner of the student division as well as a special MIS project. There’s rightful criticism that Domain of One’s Own can quickly become WordPress of One’s Own. And as a WordPress superuser, I’ll rightfully defend WP as an incredibly powerful and well-developed tool. But I also think there’s a misconception that WordPress is all that happens, and I think that’s mostly because the two easiest ways to see what’s happening on a campus domains projects is to 1. subscribe to RSS feeds and 2. look at application installs and both of these methods favor WordPress projects.

Two projects that were arguably the biggest hits at the Creaties this year were both non-Wordpress projects. The first was done by an MIS student who took a data of courses at OU and made a calendar visualizer which helps you see when classes are scheduled on a calendar view (a feature that currently doesn’t exist at OU) using MySQL, PHP, Bootstrap, and SASS. Check it out at schedule.oucreate.com.

What’s neat about this project is that most of OU MIS courses deal with Microsoft databases. This gave the student a look at MySQL and allowed them to build a front end user interface that will now live on at OU past his tenure, which is pretty awesome. This is the second MIS project that I’ve came across on OU Create (I wrote about the other in October 2015 here) and I’ll excited to see if this picks up speed in that department. The Creaties bonus was that I actually got to MEET this student and his faculty member after admiring virtually the work for so long.

The second was a professional landing page project from a graduate student named Shayna Pond in our College of Ed. She has a background in animation and built a couple of BEAUTIFUL animations using Adobe After Effects and Photoshop.

Sticking with building her site on the shoulders of Adobe, her site was built using Adobe Muse, a product that I’ve played around with lightly but want to check out a little more. It’s got a drag-and-drop interface to it that seems to be pretty nice for generating static sites and probably sits somewhere Adobe’s product line in-between Dreamweaver and Adobe Spark.

The Summer of Domains Love

We’ve got a couple of big ticket items on the docket for the summer. One is that John and Keegan are putting together an event called WebFest next week. I’ll let Keegan write the full take on this once it’s finished, because I know it’s his baby and he’s thought really long and hard about it, but I’ll say that it’s one way we’ve evolved in approaching domains not just as a CMS hosting solution but also a way to broaden the understanding of the ins and outs of the web through web literacy. As we get more mature into our OU Create project and we’ve seen changes in the web climate over the past four years, we’ve become even more passionate about not just giving out websites but also educating folks on the web. This summer project is pure experimentation, but I know Keegan’s work and it’s nothing if not rich learning experience. Registration is still open by the way.

Last, but no means least, we are hosting the first Domains conference, Domains 17, in a couple of weeks on June 5 and 6. More than anything, I’m honored that Reclaim Hosting felt it was fitting to do this event here first. I’ll admit I’m a bit nervous hosting 75 people I deeply admire in my backyard, which means this event probably feels more like a wedding to me than anything else. Jim Groom and Lauren Brumfield have both done excellent write ups (see our full RSS aggregation of blog posts re: domains 17 here) on what to expect so I will spare rehashing the details. But I will say that what I’ve tried to inject into the conference is a sense of community building and not just information dissemination, which the Reclaim folks have been really receptive too. I’ve curated some activities that will give people a glimpse at the best that my community has to offer and I guarantee it will be a TON of fun (think arcade bar and rooftop party fun hint hint). For those coming, thanks for believing in the little city on the prairie and I look forward to seeing you soon!

Featured Image by Lauren Brumfield.

Testing out a new grade scheme

This semester, I tested out a new grading scheme for my face-to-face version of PR Publications. I’ve taught the class 10+ different times over the past few years, and while all of them have been different to some degree, this semester was different in that I completely eliminated numerical grades from the final grade equation.

I want to preface by saying that I don’t believe this is possible to do in every course and every discipline. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most. But for a class like mine it was the right way to go. My class has no quizzes or tests as it’s  project based. These creative design projects have small tasks that lead up to turning in the project and several of those tasks are feedback loops where students both give and get feedback from peers and myself on how to improve their project. Because of the amount of iteration that takes place before a project is turned in, the majority of students are turning in what I consider (again, very subjective) to be “A” work. Students who don’t do well in my class (and there are very few) don’t do so from a lack of talent or creative ability but usually because they simply didn’t complete the projects.

There were two main drivers in making this decision. One was that, with the move to the Canvas learning system, I could now make assignments simply “complete/incomplete” which I found to be quite nice. Points were no longer a necessity to have a grade book. The second is that, after reading and hearing Dave Cormier talk about learning contracts for many years now, I took it upon myself to read the actual syllabus/spreadsheet (novel concept I know) to get closer to fully understanding the model and I think get it now. I’ll admit I’m still not sure I fully understand his specific model or that I am doing it correctly, but I’m happy to say I’ve settled on a version that works for my course’s needs. I

And so let us imagine the type of questions you are asking so let’s have a pretend conversation….

So how exactly does this work? What’s your grade scheme.

Great question, faithful reader. So before I answer this I have to explain what class used to be like. For the last couple years, I’ve been using the curriculum for the online version of PR Pubs in my face-to-face class as well. You can see that course here. The way that course works, is that the course is broke up into weekly lessons which is broke up into 5 to 10 tasks or “micro assignments.” Most of these micro assignments require students to turn in some type of artifact, usually a blog post, to prove that they have completed the work. A complete course is close to 100 individual gradebook assignments. For me, this has been great for online where I’ve found it better to have students show work through artifacts. It also gives them a very clear path towards completion. But this method hasn’t been super necessary for the face-to-face simply because I physically watch their progress happen in the classroom so the act of turning in of all the individual assignments feels a little bit more like a formality than anything else.

So the first thing I did was simplify assignments. One weekly (16 total) blog post. Five total design projects. You can’t turn in a project until I tell I say you’ve done enough work on it. And I reserve the right to make you revise your work as many times as I think are necessary. All assignments are complete/incomplete. And, YES, students still earned a letter grade. Grade mix was as such:

A: Earn completes on all design assignments + 15 blog posts

B: Earn completes on all design assignments + 13 blog posts

C: Earn completes on all but one design assignment + 12 blog posts

D: Earn completes on all but two design assignments + 10 blog posts

F: Student has failed to earn completes on three design assignments and 10 blog posts

Attendance matters. Students drop a letter grade after two missed classes for each class. I usually don’t like being an attendance stickler (attendance for my class is always high anyways), but my class is lab format and not lecture so students are accruing work hours not just listening hours in my classroom. And sitting and doing work is the only way you actually improve, and in a class like mine where improvement is the name of the game, it’s necessary.

But how do students know how they did if you don’t grade it?

Complete/incomplete as an assignment grade doesn’t mean they don’t receive feedback. As I mentioned, students do SEVERAL iterations on the projects. I believe that my role as instructor is to give my students the opportunity to produce their best work. That means not just accepting a first draft, but giving students the opportunity to rework a project multiple times if necessary.

As for blog posts, I use a rubric not to grade the blog post but to give them feedback on how to improve their blogging. I also frequently gives comments on every blog post. And, yes, I read every blog post.

Last, and I’ve talked about this before, I am as interested in doing reflecting on what they did as I am the work they do. Drawing from art pedagogy and metaliteracy, I’m hoping students achieve self actualization as much as anything else. I say all this to say I want students to learn to be critical enough of their own work to be able to tell me how they did, where they fell short, where they grew, and where they still see room for important. Somewhere on my soapbox I’ll usually talk about how students tend to not get a lot of experience doing this even though it’s incredibly critical in life post-college. Further, I have students doing a reflection posts reflecting on the idea of blog posts (soooooo meta) and a common arch is a student saying they found it pointless and repetitive at first but later found it to be therapeutic and necessary and that they are grateful to now have the collection of all of their reflections.

Did student work suffer?

Absolutely not though I won’t say I wasn’t initially concerned this would happen. I will say that I find it deeply troubling that there is a belief that students will only do work if they are given specific numeric points. I think this is a model that proves students can be engaged beyond points. More on that from a student’s perspective below.

How did the students respond to the approach?

The funny thing is we didn’t really talk about it a lot. And in fact I think that was one of the benefits. Grading creative work is incredibly subjective, but this grading method allowed students to have a complete transparent view of where they stood in the class grade wise. And I’m not looking for great work; I’m looking for their best work. Because students always knew where they stood, I never had many questions about grades. So with that I asked students on their last blog post to reflect on the course format. Students said the following:

The grade scheme relieved initial worry.

Lastly, the “complete or incomplete” grades in this course made me enjoy this class that much more. Instead of worrying about adhering to A-worthy designs, I got to focus on learning and creating. Not having to worry about my percentage throughout the course was refreshing, because it gave me the opportunity to focus on other things rather than making an A. This course’s grading style was definitely unique and effective. Demery Pennington

It did not hamper student effort.

What probably made me the most jubilant was the fact that there we no quantitative measure of grades. We were only asked to do the project and have it approved for submission. The pressure of getting an A left my shoulders. I still understood that I had to create quality work though. I never EVER slacked on making projects for this class. I always gave it my all and I would go outside of class to finish my work if need be. Brian Keener

Students found it fair.

The grading policy was probably the fairest of any course I have taken thus far in my college career because my instructor knows that creativity is subjective. It would be unfair to assign a letter grade to work we put much into. Knowing that as long as I gave it my best and submitted work on time reduced stress. It also allowed me greater time bravely to explore the creative journey. Wyatt Stanford

They also found it student centered.

I’m thankful to be in a class that was centered around the student. Having a class that grades weren’t the main concern allowed me to be able to express my work in a more creative way instead of being restricted to guidelines and classroom expectations from a rubric. Micayla Payne

It allowed them to take risks.

When I first started this class, I was super surprised to hear that instead of getting actual grades on our work that it would be more of a completion grade. This was my first class formatted in this way. I was a little nervous that I would allow myself to not take this class seriously since I did not have to worry about grades, but I am glad I did not do that. I think taking away the grade aspect of this class helped me tremendously. Instead of focusing on getting an A, I was focusing on letting my creative side shine and enjoy what I was doing. Sierra Abbott

Though it could have been more clearly stated.

At first, it was unclear to me if we’d get a letter grade for this class or receive a pass/fail, though. I could’ve simply been distracted when you went over this, but I think making that more clear would be beneficial to students in the future. Sami Canavan

So I’ll go ahead and restate that I don’t believe this method is for everyone nor would it solve the issues I still see with letter grades in general. But this was a way in which I could play within the system given to me but also shift the grade book away from a false sense of mastery and towards a method of gradual progress. I’ll be curious to see the course evaluations (where the critical feedback tends to come) and I’m excited to tweak the recipe a bit as necessary as the course evolves.

I See What Google Did There…

A few years ago, I read a book called What Would Google Do? I actually don’t recommend it. But there’s a little nugget that I took away that is the only reason I remember anything in it. It’s this quote:

Google has turned commodification into a business strategy.

It’s through this quote (and through a Coursera course on a similar subject) that I started to understand why Google, the company, makes the decisions they make. The Coursera course was called Understanding Media by Understanding Google. During this course I had this specific a-ha moment. And I actually WOULD recommend the course, as it was quite intriguing, except it no longer exists and resides in the MOOC graveyard.

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But the premise of the theory (at least what stuck in my head) is pretty simple: Google exists to montetize data sets. Therefore they want data. Therefore they’ll build tools that are valuable to you so you’ll give them data. It all comes back to ads. Which is quite fascinating that it’s that simple.

At the time, Google Plus was very new and it gave me an insight into why Google Plus exists at all. You see, there’s a lot of data that you store on your Facebook page. What your interests are, who you are connected to, etc. At the time that Google Plus launched, it was assumed that Google wanted to compete with Facebook. And, of course, that isn’t true at all. They don’t want to be Facebook. They just want to have a similar profile snapshot of the type of data you would put on Facebook. So they built Google Plus and gave it some social features and some maybe something Facebook didn’t have at the time (circles) so people would be intrigued to use it. Why does Google Plus not get updated anymore? Because they already have the data from you they want. Similarly, why does Google Plus not get killed? Because it continues to bring in data they want. And now they force it on you by having a Google Plus account be the center cog in a Google Account wheel. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Today Google announced what is, again, a fun and intriguing tool called AutoDraw. You draw some squiggly lines and it uses AI to guess what you meant to draw.

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I have to admit that I played around with this tool for longer than I should have. But that’s because 1.) it actual is pretty neat technology and 2.) it almost feels like a game of pictionary. You want to know if it can guess what you are trying to draw.

And the reality is that it is a game. That’s exactly what Google wants. It wants you to play a game. It wants you to help improve the AI algorithms by drawing a bunch of doodles so it can get smarter. Does Google really want to improve drawing everywhere? Did Google find a specific weakness within the human race and thus felt compelled to solve a world problem? Or is Google creating a product that meets a market need of designers who need quick icons? Nah, none of those. Does it want to improve machine learning? Hell yes it does.

And if you don’t use AutoDraw, well then guess what? We’ve now forced it on you through CAPTCHA.

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Personally, it’s fun when you start to understand the underlying reasoning for why companies like Google do what they do because you become critical enough to question intent. But it’s also scary to think that how easily we allow ourselves to become the slaves for the tech giants as well. What is really nothing more than a bar trick is enough of a carrot to get us to help improve their technology.

An Annotation-Oriented Browser

I’m trying to catch up on a couple of blog posts that I’ve put off over the last couple of weeks. This one is primarily on a conversation I had with Jon Udell and the Reclaim Hosting crew (Jim Groom, Tim Owens, and Lauren Brumfield) which you can (and SHOULD) listen to below.

We’ve been doing these weekly interviews as we get ready for Domains 17 and this one was a real treat. I commented during the conversation that talking to Jon Udell about structured data on the web is like talking to Kin Lane about APIs. The smartest people I know make the most difficult concepts appear incredibly approachable and I’m deeply indebted to those who can help me understand complex systems. And the Digital Polarization work that Jon’s doing with Mike Caulfield with bringing fact-checking and annotation to the classroom is truly inspiring from a teacher perspective.

hypothes.is, the annotation tool Jon works on, has been one of the more innovative true-web projects I’ve seen in a number of years. As I’ve mentioned, I met Jeremy Dean of hypothes.is fame at OpenEd16 last November. His session on hypothes.is (actually I’m pretty sure he was just an audience member now that I think about it) was highly contentious: the notion that anything you write can be annotated on raises a wide array of comments and concerns. The point is that it truly feels like the game changes when the entire web can be challenged via annotation.

One thing Jon brought up was about how recently the W3C, the standards body for the web, standardized annotation. I actually saw the hypothes.is blog post about it and even tweeted it, but I don’t think I had truly internalized the possibilities until Jon explained it (again…highly recommend just listening to it).

One way I am newly interpreting the possibilities of standardization is a browser that is solely oriented towards annotation. For example, you may have heard of the browser Brave. The idea for Brave is that it works a lot faster by focused on speed measures such as blocking tracking tools and stripping out browser ads (and subsequently replacing some with their own).

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Brave Browser

Brave has built a community of users who are similarly interested in privacy to use the tool. It’s a browser (sort of) oriented towards privacy. I’m curious as to what a browser oriented towards annotation would look like and how that could possibily re-orient the user to move from a total consumption mode over to a more critical consumption mode. Seriously–what if a little annotation tray was always open and we never read the article and then annotations but rather we read everything concurrently?

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Illustration adapted from Hailey Papworth on the @NounProject.

Is it much different than a browser plugin? Functionally I’m not so sure it is. But I do think a closer integration of browser and annotation-ware would create a more positive user experience and likely open up some new possibilities (customization of UI for instance–varying fonts, serif vs sans serif, etc)

One last thing that I mentioned in the podcast is that I will be curious to see what it looks like if/when the major browser players (Google, Apple, Microsoft) start to bake annotation into their browsers. Can annotation continue as a tool that works across platforms or will annotation become simply another place for silo’d conversations to take place?

Whatever happens, I can say that Jon has continue my excitement for web annotation as well as my excitement for the conversations that will take place at Domains 17.

Placemaking and the Web

I’ve always felt that deep down I’m not a technology person–I’m a community person. And it just so happens that throughout my life I’ve happened to find an abundance of community through technology. But overall I’m much more interested in building community.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking more about what lessons can be learned from community planning, which of these lessons translates to the online world, and which ones need to be expanded/adapted. This post isn’t here to flesh ideas but rather it’s to draw a line in the sand about something I want to explore more closely over a (hopefully) extended amount of time.

How do we* make place in online learning?

*also, who makes up the “we” and who shapes who makes up the “we”. But that’s another story for another time.

It feels like there has been a lot of conversation post-Election about civility online. About how we recommit to constructive conversation. I was reminded of this from a recent episode of On Being where Krista Tippett talked about her new project: Civil Conversations Projects.

There’s a similar narrative in urban planning and design: We built to scale and not towards human-to-human interaction. I’m curious about what the web world can learn from the development of placemaking movement.

As both an overarching idea and a hands-on approach for improving a neighborhood, city, or region, Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. Strengthening the connection between people and the places they share, Placemaking refers to a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value. More than just promoting better urban design, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

Today on campus at OU we are hosted our third Placemaking Conference and one of the speakers was Fred Kent, the Founder and President of Project for Public Spaces, who wrote a book called How to Turn a Place Around.  The book lists the following eleven principles for creating great community places:

  1. THE COMMUNITY IS THE EXPERT
  2. CREATE A PLACE, NOT A DESIGN
  3. LOOK FOR PARTNERS
  4. YOU CAN SEE A LOT JUST BY OBSERVING
  5. HAVE A VISION
  6. START WITH THE PETUNIAS: LIGHTER, QUICKER, CHEAPER
  7. TRIANGULATE
  8. THEY ALWAYS SAY “IT CAN’T BE DONE”
  9. FORM SUPPORTS FUNCTION
  10. MONEY IS NOT THE ISSUE
  11. YOU ARE NEVER FINISHED

You can read extended definitions of the 11 steps here. Again, I have little to say at the moment but I’m more and more curious about principles for designing online spaces, educational or not, in a collaborative fashion for communities with specific sociocultural contexts and believe these principles could be useful if taken with the right balance of open mindeness and skeptism. Please share if you are aware of folks that are doing research into similar ideas.

Featured image: Diodati Bike Stencil shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.