Searched for ""

The Criticality of Open Platforms

Below is a somewhat summary of the talk I gave in conjunction with Amy Collier, Daniel Lynds, and Jim Luke at OpenEd17. The tl;dr is that I’m convinced that need to start publishing analyses of the open platforms we adopt in order to bring transparency to a number of metrics to include not just data ownership and stewardship but broader metrics such as who has monetary vested interest in the success of the product. As I’ve returned home, I’ve began to construct in my head a real tangible way in which we can start to build a community to do this work, much of which is being inspired by Jon Udell and Mike Caulfield’s collaboration on Digital Polarization. If any of this sounds in the smallest bit interesting, please comment or reach out.

Situating My “Open”

When I find myself at OpenEd, I often feel the need to explain myself. As smarter people than myself have mentioned, the word “open” itself is often a moving target. So I want to quickly give some context to how I interpret open. David Wiley wrote in April that whether you are talking about OER, open access, open source, etc. They all involve two things:

  1. Free access.
  2. A formal grant of rights and permissions normally reserved by the original creator.

This implies open as an end product. So I’ll go ahead and say I see open as an end product less interesting. Open as a space that can produce open products: I find much more interesting. I’m equally weird though in that I don’t necessarily blindly subscribe to open pedagogy. I’m also less interested in open as a pedagogical strategy than I am open as a digital environment for situated learning, communities of practice, and identity construction. For me, much like how Lave and Wenger positioned communities as practices, it’s much more of a learning theory than a pedagogical practice.

Legitimate peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning.

– Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning : Legitimate Peripheral Participation

At OU we’ve tried to position our Domain of One’s Own project, OU Create, as a space to be inhabited (or in contrast—not inhabited, maybe abandoned). Yes, it fits the definition of free access and of specific permissions. But it doesn’t have to.

I often go into classrooms to lead demonstrations on how to use our domain platform (and I do want to call it a platform and highlight that because I’ll come back to that point later), and I’ll tell the students what it means to register a domain. That’s it yours. That you own it. That you own the data. And you can take it with you after this class, after you graduate, or not. Long term, it’s your garden to tend to and you can decide whether you want to.

And often I’ll get a student who wants to contest me on the issue. Do we really own this? Does this mean I can do with it what I want? Can I decide whether it’s public or private? Etc.

And the answer to all of those questions is yes. What’s interesting is that I’ve never had a student ask about ownership of their textbook or ownership of their LMS course.

As an institution, OU Create has lent us the opportunity to talk about what does it mean to give students their data. How do we define data and how do we support that notion of taking it? What obligation do we have to help them to protect the data? What do we mean when we say we respect a students privacy? How do we support free speech?

I want to be clear and say that I’m not trying to say that domain of one’s own is the best and only solution for having these conversations. In the same way that I believe forcing someone to stand for a pledge to a flag defeats the purpose of a pledge to a flag, I believe requiring someone to own their digital identity defeats the point of ownership as ownership is a choice. Openness is simply the ingredients in which someone is afforded the opportunity to make that choice.

Misinformation and Platforms

But as someone who is often thinking critically about the types of virtual spaces we require our students to enter, I think this moment in time is a better wake up call than ever to reconsider those spaces—including the open ones. I don’t think anyone was surprised to hear that Facebook and Google have been required to turn over Russian-linked data to the federal government for investigation. It’s been reported recently that YouTube, Tumblr, and even Pokemon Go also turned over data. Shame on you if you didn’t see that one coming.

As both a faculty member and practitioner in journalism, I care deeply about these issues, specifically fake news, and have found Mike Caulfield and his work on digital polarization to be a canary in a coal mine. Mike has recently argued, while citing a Stanford History Education Group study, that the issues involved in disinformation extend well beyond the concept of fake news. The black and white argument is there’s hoax sites and “real” news. But there’s a large grey area. Intention is much harder to recognize, pull apart, and understand. As Mike said at 10:30am, in quite possibly the quickest citation ever, the problem is we are all vulnerable to charges of biasness.

I’ve been thinking recently about how we begin to apply these analysis techniques used for evaluating information or disinformation and apply them to platforms. What metrics should be using to evaluate OU Create as a platform? In recognizing not all open is good and closed is bad, that’s its much messier than that, how do make sure we are continuing to be critical of OU Create knowing that it’s ultimately still just a platform for data creation and possibly dissemination.

As I find the conversation in the OpenEd community start to concentrate around platforms–specifically OER textbook platforms–I want to ask to what standards are we holding these platforms accountable? Further, how can students evaluate these tools and the company’s practices and intentions?

One website I often show my students is Terms of Service; Didn’t Read. This site is a community collaboration that seeks to offer both easy to read explanations of the Terms of Services for popular sites like Google and YouTube (and even gives it a letter grade!). Here’s some of the questions they are trying to uncover:

  •      Do you control the copyright of your content on this platform?
  •      Can your content be removed at any time without prior notice?
  •      Do they monetize your data for third parties?
  •      Is your content permanently deleted if you delete it?
  •      Do they contribute their developments as open source projects?
  •      Can the terms be changed at any point without notice?

These are indeed some of the right questions and are really helpful. Unfortunately for my own need, they’ve only gone deep into a few platforms, a lot of their findings are inclusive, and very few have overlap with edtech.

In 2012, Audrey Watters develop The Audrey Test, a set of yes or no questions for edtech products that goes beyond TOSDR to include some of the questions more specific to education

  •      Do you work closely with instructors and students to develop your product?
  •      Do you offer data portability to students?
  •      Do you offer an API?
  •      Do you meet accessibility standards?
  •      And, finally, do you have a revenue strategy that involves something other than raising VC money?

I like that last question because it does get us closer to understanding the intent of the company in developing the platform (Note: Part 2 of the test is equally valuable). Now I want to tread lightly here knowing that we have many attendees this year that are either looking to give or receive funding. I don’t mean to say external funding is bad, but I don’t also want to say it’s always good. What I do believe is that it’s really helpful when organizations that receive funding are open and transparent about what they’ve received, who they received it from, what the funders intentions are, how that money will be utilized, etc.

I bring up this conversation because when the revenue model for the web is inherently either selling content, advertising, or a mix of both, these questions help inform what happens to student’s data and the topic of this conversation. And as much as I was to speak towards DoOO with rhetoric such as student agency and digital identity, all of these ideas hinge on just that–data.

I want to end with a few recommendations:

  1. As a community, we need a more comprehensive strategy for how we evaluate open and OER platforms. It has to extend beyond access to permissions to include business model, growth model, and intent, but am still not certain what that comprehensive list looks like. One example is the live annotation of Slack’s Privacy statement that was led by Kristen Eshleman and Bill Fitzgerald.
  2. We need to continue to be willing to be critical of those within our community and we need to allow others to be critical of our own work. Caulfield also told us we all have biases. And for when our own biasnesses fail–and they fail–we need to support those beyond the institutions whose critical analysis of our practices is necessary. At this point, there’s really only one person and that’s Audrey Watters and she’s such a much needed voice. So please support her.
  3. Last, I want to echo some of the comments we heard in David Bollier‘s keynote: the conversation needs to extend beyond end-products like open source, open websites, open textbooks, to be thinking about what I was referring to as “open as a situated learning space” or what he refers very wisely refers to as the commons.

Featured Image: “Platform” by Martin L is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Croom: The Font

Yes, that’s right. I’ve now developed a typeface based on my handwriting. If you are looking for a very hastily written, chicken scratch type of font, may I suggest this option.

I got this idea right before #Domains17. The great Bryan Mathers developed the poster and I had asked him for a high resolution copy so we could print some. I’ve been a fan of Bryan Mathers’ hand-written, visual thinking style for some time and was quite surprised to find out that what I thought was hand drawn was actually a custom developed typeface. On top of his creativity, the fella has smarts! (Sorry Bryan if I just gave away your secret!) Given my inability to come up with a new idea myself coupled with a predisposition towards design resistance, I decided I needed one too.

You might be asking why someone would go to the lengths to do this. I’ve always been intrigued by digital note taking for some time because I like having a digital record of my thoughts, but I’ve never been able to convert over to digital note taking because my handwriting is very small and thin. It doesn’t convert well to a stylus, so that’s always been out of the question.

But I also find type to be interesting and deeply personal. As design as progressed to a user-centered approach with templated ways for humans (what Amber Case calls the templated self) to work through and process content, design (type included) has, in fact, became more boring. Designers have wised up and realize that hard-to-read typefaces don’t bode well for keeping readers on a page. And then Microsoft came in with their flat design operating system all the while laughing at Apple whose design aesthetic, referred to as skeuomorphism, was still all wood grains and gradient buttons and shininess. All the sudden every student in my class tells me they are such a big fan of minimalistic design.

Source: Cleveroad

Well I have tell you that I agreed with Steve Jobs, who continued to advocate for Apple apps to look like real objects. I loved the bookshelf wood grain to iBooks and the green felt on Game Center. Maybe it’s because I’m often overly nostalgic or maybe it’s because it’s a reminder that there is a world beyond these machines. Or maybe it’s just because limiting your options to a handful of san serif fonts feels boring and overtly Western.

The beauty of the web–it’s ability to be inherently flexible, shapeable, and machine readable–means that the end-user can consume the content how it sees fit. It gives you syndication and “reader view” and aggregator apps. But it can also strip it of cultural contexts like the original author’s intended design choices.

For example, a WordPress post often comes along with a Featured Image at the top of the post. This image address is not natively part of the information built into the RSS feed and, thus, you wouldn’t see the image unless the image also existed within the post itself.

I’m not trying to gloss over that, but I do feel that I should leave it to smarter people and more elegant writers than myself to write about how flat design et al is colonizing the web (though it’s not like three dimensional buttons weren’t), and I’ll just say that this font is an attempt to, specifically, make my digital presence uniquely myself. Onward with the process.

Within a few minutes of looking for how to make my own font, I found an online app that does it for you. You print out the equivalent of a bubble sheet and write in your letters.

This page can be scanned in via a smartphone to the webapp and are then converted (via magic) into a font file. If you look really closely at the photo above you can see very light lines which are supposed to represent the baseline and the cap height. I was supposed to write really big and it was also recommended that I use a felt pen. As you can you see, I did neither. I wanted the font to best mimic my natural writing style which is most often done with a thin Uni-ball Signo 207 and written very, very small and often hastily. Luckily for me, Calligraphr allows you to increase the font up to 275% (you can also adjust character spacing).

Next, because I also don’t write in a straight line, I had to go in and individually adjust the baselines so that I wouldn’t get the wave effect  when I typed it out.

To integrate it into this website, I found a plugin called Use Any Font and uploaded the OTF file that Calligraphr spit it and proceeded assigned it to all H1 and H5 tags.

And it looks like this:

This quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Adam rules.

Pretty neat! As you can still tell, it’s fairly small. But, hey, I ain’t no 12 point kind of guy. But can you imagine this being the only font on adamcroom.com and what a different type of experience of that may be? I’m curious about how my work would be read (or not read) differently. Does seeing a digital representation of my handwriting change the way you empathize with my thoughts? Does it better convey that this space exists for thinking out loud? Or as a digital notebook? Let me ask you a different way…

Can you imagine this being the only font on adamcroom.com and what a different type of experience of that would be? I’m curious about how my work would be read (or not read) differently. Does seeing a digital representation of my handwriting change the way you empathize with my thoughts? Does it better convey that this space exists for thinking out loud? Or as a digital notebook?

Ok, so maybe it’s not a pretty sight, but it is an interesting thought experiment, if only as a tool to think about how our design choices reflect (or don’t reflect) our digital identity(s) and how some of that can be potentially reclaimed.

Road Trippin’ to O-HI-O

On Friday at 9pm myself and one of my best friends decided to buy tickets to a football game taking place on Saturday 13 hours away. An hour later we left and drove through the night and the next morning to get there.

My buddy Chris and I are no strangers to road trips. We’ve been pals since high school and have completed a number of them. For spring break our senior year, we drove to Austin, San Antonio, and North Padre Island. One time in college we randomly decided to drive to Kansas City over the weekend. We’ve made many o’ trips to Dallas for the annual Red River game between OU and Texas and for other reasons. When he was living in DC, we bussed our way to New York. When he was living in Boston, we road tripped to Portland, ME. And, in fact, the last football game we had attended together was the 2009 Orange Bowl in Miami, FL, which required a 24 hour straight drive to Orlando before heading down to South Beach. We’ve shared a lot of miles and football games.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The desire to hop on the road and leave is real. Personally, I love it, and have a massive affinity for the Mother Road. 20+ hour drives are something I’ve experienced enough times to know what a physical toll it can take and it doesn’t scare me. Most of all, I enjoy the conversations that the road takes from you. Planes demand quietness and are usually too short to really elicit a meaningful conversation. The road is different. It demands that you contemplate. It’s organized loneliness. An incredible bonding experience.

If you don’t follow college football (spoiler alert) we won. Several times while driving to Columbus, Chris and I debated if we were beginning a death march, so it was a nice to leave this one the victor.

I wrote a year ago about Ben Scragg came down from Ohio State and stayed at our house. We talked many times about returning the favor and coming to Columbus, but it never felt quite in the cards being that the Fall semester is rather busy travel-wise and I didn’t want to put another trip in the middle of myself and the family. If Chris and I had not had our wives basically pushing us out the door to go, we would have been watching the game at home. They are the real MVPs.

Ben was kind enough to let us park at his house and, though he wasn’t in town, he wrote an extensive email of things to do and sites to see, which helped immensely. I have to say I was incredibly impressed with Columbus, both campus and beyond. First, I wasn’t aware of how big their downtown area was. Campus appears to be off to the side and has it’s own economy. There’s an incredible amount of retail and housing space built around the campus. It feels like student-centric housing–both on and off campus–stretches for days.

The campus is sprawling and gorgeous. OSU is known (at least I imagine) for a large amount of intersecting sidewalks which I want to believe create a nice amount of serendipity for student interactions. Ben had mentioned checking out the library, who’s centerpiece is this large display of exposed stacks.

We headed towards the football field to grab drinks and I witnessed tailgating on a scale I’ve never seen before. With a stadium that can hold 110,000 bodies, it’s safe to say there’s just a lot of people. The majority of OSU fans we interacted with were very welcoming. The question I received the most was, “Are you really from Oklahoma?” I’m curious as to why this was asked. Was the assumption that outsiders never visit or that Oklahomans never leave? Either way, I was happy to explain myself.

The stadium itself was a true sight to be seen. We entered “the horseshoe” from an area called the rotunda. You feel like you are in Rome as you look up at the unpainted, concrete double-decker structure.

We were fortunate enough to be sitting amongst friends and enemies. The assumption when you buy seats to an away game is that you’ll be surrounded by fans of the home team. Fortunately, Oklahoma travelled well, and we were never left to defend ourselves. The best conversation was with a man behind us who, despite being decked out in Ohio State gear, was rooting for the Sooners. An Ohio native, his daughter had actually opted to study musical theatre at OU her freshman year before returning back to Ohio to study veterinary medicine. He said he fell in love with Norman when they visited and had planned to retired here until his daughter moved back home.

After the game and ended and the flag was planted, we unsuccessfully looked for some buckeye candy to take back to the family before heading back home. The worst stretch of the drive was ahead of us as we hadn’t slept more than an hour between us both in the last 36 hours. Night driving on a low tank of energy is never recommended. Chris drove and I dozed off a handful of times before we finally stopped near Indianapolis to catch an hour of shut eye.

The game was great and was only surpassed by the conversations. We are both admittedly terrible at forcing conversation, but it comes very natural to both of us given that we’ve experienced a lot of life together. As the saying goes, we’ve seen each other at our best and worst. As I get older, I am no longer taking for granted the opportunities to spend lengthy amount of times with good friends as they become fewer and farther between. Our friendship could have been fully put on ice after college, but we’ve always been intentional about staying in touch (and have even had the chance to work together twice at OU).

So my advice is to find that friend and go on three day road trip where you don’t sleep. It’s worth every penny and life is short.

Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?

I had the pleasure of enjoying three life events yesterday:

  1. I witnessed a (partial) solar eclipse that was (for the contingent US) 38 years in the making .
  2. The first day of classes and thus my first official day as an Assistant Professor for the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
  3. I turned 30.

I’ve started a “new”ish role where I now have a split appointment: Director of the Office of Digital Learning and the aforementioned faculty appointment. I still am kind of in shock when I look at my now double-sided business card.

I’ve written before about how I somewhat stumbled into academia. While this wasn’t exactly my long term goal, it could have been had I had the appropriate level of confidence. Anybody who knew me as a student or knows me now knows how deeply passionate I am for higher learning. As a native Oklahoman, I know how few routes there are for socioeconomic mobility there are few Oklahomans, and I still firmly believe that’s institutions like mine exist to fulfill that opportunity for our students. It certainly has for me and it’s what drives me every day. Education has a big role to play in fixing what I often see is wrong and unjust in my state.

I’ve said multiple times that my three years of teaching in Gaylord College has been the single best professional experience. It makes me better in all areas as they relate to understand the roles and needs of faculty, what good face-to-face and online teaching looks like, and empathy towards students. My classroom has played the paradoxical role of both my routine escape and laboratory. I’ve always encouraged my team to teach if given the opportunity because there is simply no better way to understand teaching than to teach. That opportunity has allowed me to grow and shape this one-man show into a small-but-mighty department of incredibly intelligent and hard-working designers, technologists, and creatives who have to deal with me. One agenda item I have is continuing to see both the faculty and staff roles as not conflicting but symbiotic and to see where that relationship leads.

I’m not one to focus too much on personal accomplishments, but I’ll be honest and say that I’m soaking it up for all it’s worth. I attended OU’s New Faculty Orientation, despite the fact that CTE runs the event itself and I’m fully aware of the resources that exist for faculty. But why not?

I’m also enjoying faculty meetings at Gaylord College and getting the opportunity to think about the future of our programs and how they can be improved. I’m quickly learning how teaching is only a small fraction of the ways faculty can positively impact an institution.

Beyond my professional life, I’m also shutting the books on a decade, which gives me an opportunity to reflect on life in general. Eight years ago, I spent my birthday in the absolute beautiful city Missoula, Montana, as I was touring in a band and partially living out of a van (my wife and I bought a minivan last week and I joked that I feel like this decade started and ended in a van). I always think back fondly of that specific show and how welcoming it was. We had just finished a run of dates on the west coast making our way from SoCal up to Seattle. Big market shows are so different because you are competing with so many different entertainment opportunities. And then you play shows like Missoula or Carney, Nebraska, where kids just show up because that’s just what they do on the weekends. They are true scenes and you get the opportunity to be a part of that. Some strange force has kept me planted in middle America and I’m thankful for that.

I’ve also became a husband and a father–the two most important roles I have in life. Nothing has made me understand both selfishness and sacrifice quite like these two changes. I grew up in house full of boys and baseball teams. If there has been one big personality difference over the last ten years, it’s that I’m a much softer person. I think about all the big and small special moments I’ve been able to enjoy spending time with them. Sharing parenting moments with my wife is like sharing a million new life experiences you could have never imagined.

Last, I’ve also lost. I’ve lost best friends and grandparents and I’ve seen families torn apart and relationships end. I’ve witnessed tragedy and darkness and inequality and suffering. I’ve came to know the hard truths of our world. So it must also be said that this decade has shown me the fragility of life.

Still, I’m one to not meander in one spot too long. I’ve already walked my fair share of roads and believe the best is still ahead. My favorite album of the year so far happens to be from The Menzingers and the opening track really resonated with me. The song is about the struggle to let go of your youthful ways and repeats the line, “Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” It’s a fantastic song. Really, check it out.

I don’t know my answer to The Menzingers just yet, but I’ve never exactly lived my life by plotting too far in advance. For now, I’m just going to be thankful that I’ve been privileged enough to live a lot of life.

I was listening to a recent On Being episode recently with danah boyd, who tells a really great story about her brother who was into computers and introduced her to the web:

He showed me different online bulletin boards, and all of a sudden I realized that this computer was made out of people. And the computer became much more interesting to me, once it was made out of people.

I, too, feel made out of people. I’ve had a real stroke of luck of a sequence of mentors who put faith in me even when I wouldn’t have. Similarly, I’ve been able to observe so countless number of incredible people in both my life and my field who have help shape my perspective. So thank you for being a part of it and thank you for allowing me to indulge myself for just a bit.

A sophisticated heat beam called a “laser”

For the past four years, I’ve assisted with OU’s annual Deans’ Retreat with both design and organization. The retreat brings together over all of our academic college deans and the Provost’s Office for a couple day event structure around vision casting for the year, learning from each other, and team building. For the past three years, attendees have been broken up into teams of five or six and had them compete for an overall prize.

This year’s theme was called Captains and Commanders and lent itself wellfor all kinds of punny nautical references. For the grand prize, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to utilize the OU Innovation Hub which opened up last year. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to make it down there, but after reading a blog post from Terri Cullen, one of our education faculty members (who–by the way–is on a blogging tour de force this summer), I was itching for a reason to use it.

One of the tools available in the fabrication lab at the OU Innovation Hub is a laser cutter. I set my sights on taking logo’s Adobe Illustrator file and etching it onto the side of Yeti tumbler. I wanted to do a prize that felt rewarding but wasn’t too pricey and achievable from a design perspective. The pen look of the logo really called out to me about wanting to be etched (etch? cut? burn? I have yet to understand the correct verb here). So etching it was.

2017 Logo

First, I’ll say that it felt cool to just be hanging out with the students who use the I-Hub. What’s nice about the laser cutter is that you can define the type of material, so while I had always imagined laser cutters as a way to turn wood into coasters and ways to personalize Yeti’s, the students were showing me all different types of use cases. One student was cutting pieces of cloth to make backpacks. Another had designed a full Sooneropoly board. The students were thinking WAY more creative than I was with my silly little aluminum cups.

I laid the logo out on an Illustrator canvas the size of the machine and then converted it from CMYK to RGB.

Next we prepped the cups by spraying a metal marking laser spray. In all honesty, I just took their word for it that this would make it look better. I default to the experts here.

Next, we added a rotor to the laser cutter and measured the circumference of the cup so the machine knew exactly when to turn the cup as it cut it. Again, a piece of the puzzle I would have been missing had I not had excellent help. As it started, it looked like this:

You can set laser cutters to either go at a slow or fast pace. We did the first cup on slow mode and unfortunately it took about 26 minutes. On the second cup, we set it to super speed and was just under seven minutes per cup. Here’s a cup once it had completed the print:

Last thing we did was wash the cups off with regular soap and water and the soft side of a sponge as to not scratch the brushed aluminum finish.

Then you just rinse and repeat until you have your fleet o’ cups.

I want to thank Brandt Smith and his student workers in the fabrication lab for helping me with this project. They made it almost too easy for me and I was able to get out of there way. I’m going to go ahead and call my shot that I’ll be back. My eyes are fixed on building a guitar this year. All I need to learn is everything.

A Web Diet: Converting WordPress Sites Over to Static Sites

Over the years, my main course web project, PR Pubs, has became one sprawling beast. For the most part, people know prpubs.us as the homepage for the course, but I haven’t actively used that space for a few semesters. Thus, in May I made it one of my summer goals to rework prpubs.us in such a way that both narrates and preserves the history of the course and the space. The story of Pubs is an epic one with many twists and turns. Once upon a time, it started as a blog feed, morphed into a full open course, vacationed for a summer on the Jekyll CMS, and is now more integrated with Canvas, our LMS. Nothing really captures this story well and for good reason: I’ve tried counting and I believe it’s existed in eight separate places since 2014. In fact, out of all the spaces, my own personal blog is probably the best representation of the evolution:

I got interested in archiving a bit more while visiting Middlebury College last Fall where they’ve started a project out of their library to preserve student web work at the request of students. I should also mention that Kin Lane has been a major inspiration in helping me see the benefit of static sites. The point being that I’ve known good and well that no CMS is in for the long term. I’m a data pack rat so I’m always thinking about the long term.

At the heart of every course site has been the blog feed powered by the FeedWordPress plugin. Students are writing between 250-500 total blog posts per class per semester. I’ve systematized the process of preparing for the next batch of PR Pubsters. Every semester, I clone a clean version of my syndication hub which is already preloaded with theme, plugins, and custom code that I need to make it work. Over the past couple years, I’ve probably done this a dozen or so times across various courses and thus end up with a ton of WordPress instances.

Eventually, the semester ends and these 250-500mb spaces of content become dormant. There are tasks that I’ve done in the past to close a course site which basically involves unsubscribing to student feeds. But recently I’ve decided that for better preservation purposes, I would rather have a fully static HTML version of each course site. In a lot of ways, it feels like I’m putting it sites on a diet. “Why consume all of those data-dense databases?! Stick your macronutrients: HTML, CSS, and JS! Get rid of your addiction to Cigawordpress!”

What are the upsides to doing this?

  1. You know no longer need WordPress or any other CMS to be the engine of the site. The biggest benefit is that you are less vulnerable to becoming infected through an out-of-date theme or plugin. If you aren’t actively updating the site, you are making yourself susceptible to a lot of mean people on the web.
  2. You can host it on any type of web server.
  3. You can even just keep it locally on your computer and access it via your web browser.
  4. Because of it’s portability, it’s much easier to share a static site as an open education resource (OER). You could even host them on Github allowing people to create forks of the site if they so choose.

Jim Groom turned me on to a tool called SiteSucker a few months back because that guy is always thinking a step ahead of me… SiteSucker does exactly what I laid out earlier. And Jim lays out a strong argument:

I don’t pay for that many applications, but this is one that was very much worth the $5 for me. I can see more than a few uses for my own sites, not to mention the many others I help support. And to reinforce that point, right after I finished sucking this site, a faculty member submitted a support ticket asking the best way to archive a specific moment of a site so that they could compare it with future iterations. One option is cloning a site in Installatron on Reclaim Hosting, but that requires a dynamic database for a static copy, why not just suck that site? And while cloning a site using Installatron is cheaper and easier given it’s built into Reclaim offerings, it’s not all that sustainable for us or them. All those database driven sites need to be updated, maintained, and protected from hackers and spam.

Side note: Isn’t it always a let down when you are trying to write a blog post and you realize that someone has already made your argument and in a much more succinct fashion I might add? That Groom! But, nevertheless, I’ll continue on in hopes of imparting a little bit more wisdom…

Sitesucker grabs your site contents and converts it into HTML, CSS, and JS. You can also set how many links deep you want to pull content. For me, I wanted to grab all my students blog posts, but I didn’t necessarily want the links they were referencing in their blog posts, so I went three levels deep (front page, pages, blog posts).

What are the downsides?

  1. Because it is a static site, it can no longer make dynamic calls. Dynamic calls are when pieces of the web resource are being constructed when the URL is first called. This includes comments, searches, and other organization features like categories and tags that are native to WordPress. Now SiteSucker will generate a copy of these dynamic calls and turn them into static, but after that they will cease to function. None of the content disappears but it can’t be regenerated, so no new comments. This isn’t a big deal for me considering the sites are completely dormant, but it does sting a bit to lose search functionality.
  2. You need to understand basic HTML and CSS to make any significant edits to the site after it’s in it’s static state. Remember, you longer have access to the nifty WordPress WYSIWIG editor. This is where the OER argument gets tricky. Yes, it’s more portable, but potentially less editable depending on the user’s knowledge.

John Stewart was kind enough to test it for me with prpubs.us and it worked like a charm. I then went and grabbed static versions of the other course sites followed by hitting that scary “delete” button in Installatron which made the WordPress instances go away.

Last, I redesigned the prpubs.us front page to better tell the historical narrative of the course. There you can find images of past versions, full information on the technologies that powered each, and links to the archived versions.

Hopefully this is a much more helpful resource for visitors and student alike. Either way, I feel like the state of the health PR Pubs is at an all-time high. Here’s to surviving.

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.