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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.