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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 (, 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 ( 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

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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 4.31.53 PM.png

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.


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.


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., 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 fame at OpenEd16 last November. His session on (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 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).


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?


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:


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.

Building a Student’s Technology Palate

Jim Groom had a great idea to have a pre-conference conversation with Domains 17 keynote speaker Martha Burtis, which you can listen to here:

Much of the conversation was around (what I’m assuming) is a central point of Martha’s upcoming talk is/was that the web has been infiltrated by monetized centralized apps which run counter to the both the openness and decentralization that the web was built on and higher ed could have done something to stop it if it wanted to do so (and maybe we still can).

This is supposed to be what we do: educate the the next group of citizens about how knowledge is shared and created and what values are enacted in knowledge. Instead of engaging that and building that and informing our communities about that using the voices, platforms, and institutions that we have; instead of doing any of that we bought LMSs. – Martha Burtis

Tim Owens brought up a point (18:20) about people wanting a “fast food” approach to creating a domain that streamlined the process of getting up and running, which I think is arguably one of the most unfortunate products of this new web we live on. Companies are so focused on converting a person to a user as fast as possible that they strip all work out of the equation and instead provide people with a menu of options. “Do you want the light theme or the dark theme?” “Here. We’ve suggested you follow these people based off ‘your interests.'”

I’ve thought recently about how I can expose to my students how this is now happening. I’ve seen graphic design software also move towards a templated approach to design rather than building from the ground up, and I’ve come to conclusion that there are use cases for both approaches, but you don’t know that unless you’ve lived in both worlds. It is through these exposures that I think students have the ability to build a critical palate for the technology they use.

I’ve always taught Adobe products, not necessarily because I think they are the best value, but because they are the industry standard (and are supported by the College). If I say the term “Photoshop,” the majority of the public can at least recognize it. I feel that a large part of my job is to prepare students to work within the advertising and public relations industry, so I try to teach the tools they use such as Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and Premiere. It also doesn’t hurt that these are all packaged together and can be purchased together which brings an added benefit to learning the suite.

I also feel it’s my job to teach far beyond the tools. I teach a lot of communication strategy, copywriting, and criticism. Beyond being critics of their own work, I also want my students to have enough experience with a tool to know its affordances. This means that after every tool I have them compare and contrast it with a previous tool we’ve used.

I’ve started introducing Canva as a graphic design tool. Canva is a very user-friendly web-based design platform. Unlike Photoshop/InDesign/Illustrator which are a massive tools with nearly unlimited possibilities and can take years to master, Canva is inituitive enough to learn through a small set of tutorials. You can upload your own graphics, place text, and draw shapes. The biggest advantage of Canva is that it has several preset sizes (brochures, posters, social media assets such as posts and cover photos, etc.) as well as templated designs for each of these sizes and assets. It’s monetization model is that they sell stock photography and graphics inside the platform. In a lot of ways, Adobe tools are even LMS-like in the sense that they have built and iterated on over a long time and can feel bloated. Canva feels very light weight. It’s also worth mentioning that Adobe has rolled out, as Adobe tends to do, it’s own Canva-like tool Adobe Spark.

So how do students anecdotally react to a week in Canva? Anecdotally, I’d say that the 2/3 of the students, first and foremost, like the break from Adobe products, but they also love the simplicity of it.

Wow, I love Canva. I don’t know if I have ever found anything so user-friendly and professional. Using it, I was able to create several different types of social media graphics for my internship at Trifecta Communications. (source)

In my opinion, this gives the best argument for how to use Canva: emphemeral social media graphics that can be completed by anybody at any level of knowledge.

But students who have become used to the flexibility of Adobe platforms also note the downsides. 1.) You’re relying on platform uptime and 2.) limited options can limit your output and templates can stifle your creative process:

Oh Canva – so easy yet so fidgety. I was crossing my fingers the whole time hoping it wasn’t going to crash on me. Canva was sooooo slow on my laptop and on most of the Gaylord desktops. It is NOT a reliable source. InDesign and Photoshop won’t crash on you. This will. BUT Canva is easy. If you are looking for something fast and effective Canva is for you. Canva is limited though. There are ENDLESS possibilities with InDesign and Photoshop but Canva has its own layouts, texts, frames etc. and thats it. So you can only be as creative as Canva allows but for a PR practitioner who doesn’t know how to work InDesign and Photoshop this tool can be really helpful. I think, for me, I would like to use Canva in the future maybe for inspiration but then create my own thing in Photoshop or InDesign. (source)

This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Dan Blickensderfer and Laura Gibbs via Twitter about Seth Prince‘s Feature Writing course and WordPress versus Medium.

As I mentioned in the tweet, Medium does allow the student to (sort of) “own” their space (“owning” here meaning it wasn’t provisioned by the institution) and it does allow for, albiet limited approach, syndication. And, as Laura mentioned, it can help tap into an already existing community which might be very beneficial for Seth’s course which is doing feature writing as opposed to personal blogging.

Am I saying use Medium instead of a Domain of One’s Own approach full stop? Of course not. But all of us are able to have this informed conversation about the platforms because we all have enough experience to recognize the affordances of the platform.

So what’s the point that I’m trying to make with my students? Once you’ve spent enough time in platform, you have the platform literacy to be critical of other platforms that exist in the world. Students can’t gain that knowledge if the instructor prescribes one platform.

One thing I’ve come to learn intimately through OU Create is that students will likely have a difficult time seeing the value of the domain if they aren’t contrasting it against another tool. I loved the recent way in which Erika Bullock framed domains NOT as the place for her to develop her digital identity but as a way for her to develop her understanding of the web:

Now, I am in my Senior spring. I have 7 sub-domains, all of them incomplete, all of them spaces for me to try out new WordPress themes, widgets, fonts, and layouts. I use sub-domains to model web projects for work, to try out new layouts for my personal website, or just to see if I can create a project that I’m envisioning in my head. I have benefited from thinking of Domains as my digital sandbox.

Through prescribing multiple graphic design platforms throughout the semester, I am hopeful that my students are building a palette towards which tools work in various scenarios. I also hope that we’ll continue to see ways to diversify experimentation in web spaces with the increasing interest in light weight, non-database CMSs and static site generators. And, last, hopefully we’ll stop searching for the perfect tool but rather search for an increase in web literacy across all platforms.

Jim also wrote a blog post about this conversation too, as he mentioned, we’re going to attempt to continue to have these pre-conference conversations. We’ve got Jon Udell talking and web interopability. If you have an idea for a pre-conference conference or if you want to join one of our conversation, comment or reach out.

To continue the palate analogy, I feel like I’m getting just a taste of what Domains 17 will be like and I’m liking it. Be sure to register as soon as possible.

Looking Closer at Oklahoma and National Pell Grant Data

For the past five weeks, I’ve been leading a faculty reading group with Mark Morvant on Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. This has been a great experience given the fact that I didn’t feel I would have time to be involved in Bryan Alexander’s online group like I was for We Make the Road By Walking.

I had three main goals for being involved with the reading group:

1. I’ve been wanting to read the book myself.

Sara Goldrick-Rab’s keynote at the OpenEd Conference in Richmond, VA was a refreshing surprise for me. I wasn’t aware of any of her work prior to hearing her, but she is such a captivating speaker. I like to think of OpenEd as a group of education technologists and librarians who are interested in student equity and social justice. For this particular group, Sara’s talk felt like going to church in the sense that you have an overwhelming feeling of personal guilt as she unpacks both the statistics and the stories and how much higher education is failing our low income student population. As I said in November:

Sara was frankly a gut punch. I left her talk feeling helpless. And then I started to look around only to realize that the very voices that I would hope we could see amplified through open education simply aren’t represented in our conversations.

This group gave me an excuse to dig deeper into Sara’s work.

2. I wanted to be involved in collectively building empathy towards the student experience.

The majority of those who have been an instructor have been involved with a student story of misfortune. For me, these tend to be very individualized experiences which is probably because I want to respect the privacy of our students or because, from the student’s perspective, their issues are stigmatized. The point is that there isn’t a lot of opportunities for faculty to come together and discuss some of the experiences they’ve witnessed through their students or even talk about their own personal struggles as a student.

I began the reading group by introducing myself and my own student story. I entered college from a single income family. I worked part-time the entirety of my undergraduate career. Most of the time I was working two jobs although one semester I worked three (and paid for it heavily–it was my worst semester grades-wise and I had to drop one of my classes mid semester). The cost of living in the residence halls forced me to look elsewhere in Norman after my first semester. We managed to pay for the first year with no loans due to some local one-year scholarships I had earned. But those ran out and I had to make the decision to take out both federal loans and parent plus loans the next three years. Of course, I say all of this knowing I was in a much better position than other students. My parents still assisted with rent and my cell phone while I covered the rest of my living expenses. While I feel this is a very normal story, it was something I had yet to share in my professional life.

3. I wanted to use this as an opportunity for faculty and administration to have a collective conversation.

The truth is that OU really doing some excellent work and my guess is that faculty haven’t been painted a full picture of the resources that students have access to. For instance, through one of these conversations, I learned that there is something called a Work Assistance Tuition Waiver Program at OU. Students qualify for the scholarship if they are working 25+ hours a week. Even if there hours get cut to 10 hours a week, they can maintain their scholarship by completing 15 hours of school credit (summer courses and be banked towards this) and keep a 2.0 GPA.

For the reading group, we’ve had visitors for Financial Aid, the Provost’s Office, and Administration and Finance come talk about various efforts taking place on campus. As someone who strattles the line between the faculty and the administration, this reading group was a great opportunity to continue to build that bridge.

Looking at the Data

The last goal has been my favorite part of it. I came to know through the reading group how little I knew about the different groups of students we had on campus. Before, I couldn’t even tell you what a Pell Grant was or its monetary value. Now I feel much more equipped to speak towards the issues at hand and better support our students. It’s also been great to understand what efforts are happening for student success. I was given these figures on Pell Grant recipient retention:

Student Cohort Head Count ACT/SAT After One Year
2011 968 24.8 76.40%
2012 1004 24.7 75.80%
2013 779 25.5 79.10%
2014 757 25.6 79.90%
2015 727 25.8 87.30%

You’ll notice the big jump from 2014 and 2015. What will be really interesting to follow is to see if that jump maintains towards graduation.

Getting this data though led me on search for some bigger data set. I was curious to look at Pell Grant data a little bit more in the state of Oklahoma and beyond and landed on a 2015 Report called The Pell Partnership: Ensuring a Shared Responsibility for Low-Income Student Success. I created this interactive graph that helps you visualize some of the data specific to Oklahoma.

You can download the data set for this visualization or get the full data set rom the report to make sense of it however you wish.

Once I started playing with that data, I got even more curious about where Oklahoma is lands in the grand scheme of $31.5 billion spent on Pell Grants by the federal government. I came up with a visualization, colored for public vs private, that looks like this (sorry if your on a smartphone, it’s not very mobile friendly and you’re going to have to scroll a lot):

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 3.13.16 PM.png

I ended up adding a handful of filters so you can look at the data from a multitude of angles. Beyond looking at specific states, you can look at number of undergrads, grad rates, specific institutions, etc (again–sorry for mobile users. This one is virtually useless unless you are on a desktop).

View this visualization in a new tab

I’ve got to be honest and say that I’ve spent more time building the visualization than I have playing with the data. So if you find anything particularly interesting to you, please let me know in the comments. I’m also happy to visualize the data in a different manner if you would like custom views.

The main reason for the leading group is that Derek Houston, a visiting professor, was able to get Sara to come to campus to speak. This is my second time already this year where I’ve had the opportunity to rewatch a keynote presentation from OpenEd. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel to have those opportunities but also how valuable it is to watch anything twice. It’s like your favorite movies; the first view is awe and surprise while the second viewing allows you to catch the nuisances of what makes the work really special. I don’t quite have the words to describe the feeling quite yet, but there’s something swirling in my head about watching these talks both pre and post election and being reminded about the issues at stake. There’s something about being grounded in the type of work people like Gardner and Sara are doing. I think Gardner would firmly agree with the quote from Sara’s talk about OU (below)

I want to say thank you to Sara Goldrick-Rab for a number of things. First, you’ve been really inspiring to me as a scholar and an advocate and I so admire somebody who is  willing to play both of those roles in higher education. Second, thanks for jumpstarting a larger conversation around serving Pell Grant recipients at OU at both the faculty reading group level as well as the institution. And, last, thank you for inspiring me to look closer at my own local data, issues, and potential pathways forward.

Student Media and Domains

I want to tell a quick story as an example to show how we are starting to see how investing in a simple project like Domain of One’s Own is creating a better web student ran web outside of the project itself.

Back in October, I had the pleasure of meeting with the editorial board of the OU Daily, our on-campus newspaper, to demo something I had been cooking up for some time.

I met Dana Branham, OU Daily editor-in-chief, for the first time in February 2016. At the time, she was online editor and had recently written a post on her personal domain on OU Create, our Domain of One’s Own initiative, that walked through how they had recently used CartoDB for one of their stories on earthquakes in Oklahoma. I was deeply impressed with the blog work she was doing both at the Daily and as a Global Engagement Fellow. Her domain is RICH.

So I cold-called her hoping that she would be willing to meet me for coffee. I wanted to pick her brain about how 1. we could be helpful either to reaching more students or 2. with Student Media. She mentioned that she was really interested in trying to do some feature stories in the same fashion as the famous NYTimes Snowfall project and that got my mind spinning.

While the idea stayed in the back of my head, things didn’t come back around until after I met with Seth Prince, the Student Media Design Adviser. We connected over Twitter where I posted about enjoying how his Feature Writing class was using Medium as it’s course platform.

We would physically connect at an adjunct orientation for the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where we both teach, and would eventually setup a coffee meeting at the same Starbucks where I had met Dana six months prior.

Eventually, we got smart and all connected around a table. Seth and Dana decided they wanted to move forward with experimenting with some of the same technology we were using with OU Create for some of their feature work. The idea was take an exposé they did on how the football rallied around the SAE incident to bring the team closer together. The story is called How SAE Fueled an Oklahoma Turnaround. It’s a really good story and has some embedded media such as pictures and videos, but the team at the Daily had done so much reporting on SAE that we wanted to bring in other pieces like some Timeline.JS work, embedded tweets, and links to other OU Daily stories. So I offered to redesign the story domains style and get back with them.

Dana was kind enough to send me a Google Doc with the story and she commented out some ideas of pieces that could be connected through the new site. As the designer, I wanted to come to really understand the tone. I would read a sentence or two, close my eyes and try to visualize the story. And then I would highlight certain words and annotate some ideas. I would also try to break the story up into what I thought would make good sections.

I started to piece together in my mind this story of dark. The focus on race; a wet night and following morning; the football players wearing all black. So I wanted it to be black and white with muted tones and I wanted to accentuate the weather as best as I could.

What I showed to the editorial board is below (on the real version the video isn’t as shaky though).

I made a clone of the site so they could peak at the code a little bit if they wanted to. While I was doing that, they were able to get a subdomain setup on and install WordPress.

Let’s stop and spend some time there. OU Daily moved to their latest news-oriented content management system ~10 years ago. It’s a CMS that’s used by a lot of news organizations and it’s best known for being very stable software and ad friendly. While they use different CMSs for other Student Media sites, this really is a big first for OU Daily. And in my opinion a big deal because they now have a ton of flexibility when it comes to story presentation.

But back to the matter at hand… Yesterday, the OU Daily dropped their first story with the new look. It’s a story that focuses on the difficulties students are having in accessing mental health care on campus and it’s absolutely gorgeous. I’ve made the screenshot below scrollable but I highly suggest that you check it out in full technicolor as well.

So let’s tie this back to OU Create and the Domain of One’s Own project. This started because a student was given a domain to experiment with in class. She then took that knowledge and brought it to her job. And through cross-department collaboration, we’ve now brought that technology to their web presence.

This kind of outcome is not quantifiable. You can’t find the impact of this student on OU Create simply by counting registrations and blog posts and other forms of analysis. It’s a larger narrative–a story–about building one student’s web literacy and being willing to collaborate across department lines. These sites are on completely different servers and don’t count towards “our numbers”, but I couldn’t care less. We’ve made the university web a better experience for everyone and given students the opportunity to do more than put content on a standardized news CMS. They aren’t just writing and publishing journalism–they’re building it as well. Point blank and the period.