Posts in "Conferences"

Reflecting on ET4Online 2015

I got back in town yesterday from the 8th Annual (and what was announced as the last) ET4Online Conference (Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium) in Dallas, Texas. Usually, I come home from these things exhausted, both physically and mentally, due to travel and what tend to be long days of extroverted activity. But this time I’m coming back with a much different feeling. The conversations were rich and the human interaction was unparalleled to any conference I’ve attended in quite some time.

Which brings me back with a lot to reflect on. I did a session with Chris Mattia from CSU Channel Islands on our local Domain of One’s Own projects, where students are giving top level domains (.com, .net, .us, etc.) and web space to build and shape their digital identities. We bring a couple different perspectives because, while both projects are academic in nature, Channel Islands, or CI Keys, focuses more on the LMS replaceability of domains while we are using it more as a digital portfolio (Gardner, let me know when you’ve came up with a better name. I’m counting on it!)

I did my talk as a personal narrative from the perspective of a dude with a class doing domains and how we were able to scale it to a 1,000 person domain pilot called OU Create. I called it a “tale of three Dallas’s.” The first being the MOOC Research Conference (#MRI13), followed by ET4Online 2014, and now today, where the pilot has only bred more questions for me and certainly no Solutions (with a capital S). I quoted Audrey Watters, who, as Jim Groom has mentioned, has been a guiding light for the ethos of what I’m calling for ease the Reclaim Movement (Reclaim Your Domain, Reclaim Hosting, etc.) The quote:

Too often, education technologies are developed that position students as objects of education, a reflection no doubt of how traditional educational practices also view students. Education technologies do things to students, rather than foster student agency. If we are to challenge what “school” should look like, we must also challenge what “ed-tech” does as well. What sorts of technologies can and should we build to give students more control? – Audrey Watters

I particularly like her choice of pronoun there: “we.” What we should build. We as the edtech practitioners; as campus leaders. What we should build. This is not an interrogation of IT-driven, enterprise-level solutions, but rather it is more an admission that higher ed has too often decided that digital learning is best to take place 100% of the time inside a single tool where the students work is invisible to the rest of the web and inaccessible to the student the day after the semester ends. This is been recently articulated by Amy Collier and Jen Ross with, a very endearing term, “not yetness”:

Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve. – Amy Collier

Adding to Amy’s thoughts, the role of ed tech should not always be about the viability/scalability of the product(s) but also about how we sheperd students into building, shaping, curating, and refining their personal learning environment. And this brings deeper questions into what technologies can enter the classroom. Consequently, edtech practitioners should, to some degree, consider redefining what “edtech” is in their own community and that process starts with us asking some hard questions. How important is the open web to us as an institution? How important is data control? What will the future of our learning virtually look like and where do we want it to take place? And, to some degree, how much of that are we putting on the backs of companies whos terms of service we’ve never read?

From this lens, I’ve started to evaluate ET4Online broadly. As much as I’m thankful for the exhibiting companies who spend their time, effort, and cash to set up space at the conference, it was quite clear there was a massive disconnect between attendees and companies desires for what learning tools should look like:

This couldn’t have been made clearer than at a session titled “Teacher Tank.” If I remember correctly from last year, there was a session where some edtech entrepreneurs did some sort of elevator pitch and where George Siemens live tweeted his disappointment. Well, it seems like the conference organizers picked up on it and decided that this year it would be better to just give George a mic rather than relegating him to a back channel. To best sum up how it went, by the time the last company pitch started you could hear a faint quiver in his voice. The sharks were swimming and they didn’t hold back any punches. As theraupetic as a session like this was, I honestly felt bad for these poor folks for having to go through the process. While I’m not sure how to you could make an effective pitch in that situation, I can tell you its in poor taste to make learning claims you can’t back up, use excessive buzzwords, or show a 60 second video of scrolling (really, this exists). Here’s a picture of the judges doing their best not impressed face:

Several attendees also commented to me about the level of uncomfortability of the exhibitor presence.

  • I received 10-15 meeting requests from exhibitors (one guy emailed me three times!)
  • My badge was scanned as I entered every room (interested on who wants this data and what they plan to do with it)
  • I showed up to chocolates on my bed when I got home one evening. One attendee mentioned to me that he assumed since his room was clean that he could feel comfortable that no one would enter his room after it was cleaned. Someone had mentioned to him that they were in a towel when they were handed their chocolates.
  • Another person felt cheated when they thought they were going to a conference session only to find out it was a sponsor pitch. It seemed unclear to some how to tell the difference between a company pitch and a non-company pitch as it seemed indistinguishable on the mobile app.

Maybe this is the M.O. at most conferences, but it felt a little heavy handed this time around.

Again, the effect this had on my overall evaluation of the conference was little. The session lineup was heavy hitting and the discussions were deeply rich. Maybe it’s that I am beginning to raise my own questions and am starting to notice it’s presence more. I’m always willing to admit a slight bit of craziness on my end :grinning:. And I can’t say enough about the caliber of people I got the opportunity to spend some valuable time with this week. It will be hard to ever beat my favorite post-midnight session: #moocmoocelele

The end of my talk discussed how we as institutions need to consider adopting some guiding principles. Two that I’m a fan of are the Indie Web Camp principles and what Alec Couros asks his students (“How are you making learning visible and how you are contributing to the learning of others?”). I’m still coming down from the good vibes of Dallas, so I might be a little closer to the edge than is necessary, but I’m starting to think I will round up some folks to build some IWC like tools and widgets with their frame: Build for yourself. Own your own data. Make it machine readable. Document your work. Open source your work. Build platform agnostic platforms. This means Jim Groom, Tim Owens, Alan Levine, Chris Mattia, and others who can help me flesh out my idea… I’m coming for you… Watch out!

Update: Here’s a link to my talk!

Domains Do Disney

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last few days at Educause ELI conference. I also was given the opportunity to be a part of panel discussion with some higher ed folks that I deeply respect (Mikhail Gershovich, Jim Groom, Jaimie Hoffman, David Morgen, and Chris Mattia) called Adventures in Personal Cyberinfrastructure. Our format was to briefly explain the Domains projects which we are doing at our respective institutions as a panel. Below is an annotated version of the slides that I presented.


This is a picture of my classroom and I want to frame this story in the narrative first from my own classroom. I teach PR Publications, which is a course that could be identified as the digital literacy course of the Public Relations sequence. It’s a very standard design course in which students are required to design a number of print pieces throughout the semester. When I originally taught this course, the last assignment was for them to create an online portfolio of their work. From the beginning, domains have been an integral part of the course curriculum. Students purchased a domain and webspace on the cheapest provider I could find (at the time it was which I would not recommend). I saw Jim Groom speak at the MOOC Research Conference that took place in Dallas, TX and was turned on to what was taking place with DS106 and, more broadly, the Domain of One’s Own project that was happening at the University of Mary Washington.


This is a view of the next iteration of the course and this is the original incarnation of the course site, which you can still view at, a subdomain of my main domain. It didn’t have a lot to it beyond being a course syndication hub of student blogs. Whereas in the first iteration, the domain was the last thing a student would complete for the course, it now was the FIRST thing student’s did. It’s powered by a plugin called FeedWordPress which pulls in the posts from the student’s site.


This is the latest incarnation of PRPubs, which is available at Now all my course exists on its own domain. Yet it’s not really a space where content is consumed. I like to call it “home base.”  It’s a roadmap and it provides structure for the student as well as some reference material. But student work happens beyond the domain on the web through several different tools. Students then add their work to their own domains.


You see, these are my students. And, in fact, I created this slide on Week 1 of the class, but you can already see how each student has taken the liberty of expressing themselves very differently because, after all, they do it own it. Similar to the PR Pubs 2.0, the students’ posts are syndicated back into the course site.


And it doesn’t take a lot more than seeing these sites out in the wild to get you excited about the possibilities of more students having these spaces. We had been tasked with finding an e-portfolio solution in which we could run a pilot on for the 2014-2015 academic year. A system like this made sense because it afforded students not only the opportunity to build a very professional looking portfolio, but gave faculty many pedagogical options that could be leveraged in the classroom. Thus,, was born in August, which allows OU students, faculty, and staff to register the domain name of their choice, and become their own sysadmin through CPanel.




Now, my wife and I came to Anaheim early and took a couple personal days at Disneyland. And though I’m sure that I’m not the first person to ever make a Disneyland analogy at a conference Anaheim, I want to attempt it because its simple and I’m fairly simple-minded despite my mothers opinion. When you spend time at Disneyland, you realize quickly that theme parks are not built to be consumed linearly, but rather to be consumed to your liking. Disneyland does a great job of giving you a small taste, or entry point, of what it’s like to explore the world as it is its own microcosm. In fact, there are many different “worlds” in Disneyland: Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland. Similarly, CPanel and CPanel-like environments are an entry point into exploring the open web. You could easily replace the names of the lands with applications like WordPress, MediaWiki, OwnCloud, or Known (or more broadly you can just say blogs, wikis, sites, etc.). And you can think of your course as like one small curated experience, like a ride. For instance my course is tightly integrated within the WordPress application.


In fact, you can say that you course isn’t a tightly integrated ride that simply exists in one space. Maybe your course is the monorail which picks up and drops off students at various parts of the web in which you want them to explore. That’s a completely valid structure as well.


In some ways, OU Create for us is our own user-curated theme park which is defined by its inhabiters. And, if we do our job right, on a smaller scale students are being given the opportunity to create their own theme parks, which they are the main curator. Students become owners of their learning experience, which is what I believde is one of the most important missions we have as instructors.

That’s the majority of my portion. I also gave some quick facts in figures that we pulled especially for this conference. Our pilot was limited to 1000 users and we are right over 960 with 40 of those are faculty members.  Users have installed 30 different applications (though I self admit I don’t see a ton of usage outside of a handful). Beyond that, we’ve been fortunate to have Jim Groom come to campus twice now and we’ve ran three faculty domain sessions to get them up and running and I’ve done close to 20 class demos over the two semester. Jim was also asked to keynote the Academic Tech Expo which gave great exposure to the campus. Last, the the OneU store was kind enough to promote OU Create through their display window. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received at 2am because of that display.

Last, I’ve been asked to run a faculty learning community with first year faculty members on domains, which I’ll be writing about more this semester. I plan to run it very similar to my own course so expect to see more on that (as well as an invitation to participate).

Where everything will shake out on the pilot is still unclear, but I can tell you we are having a heckuva time with it. This semester, 14 of my 15 students ALREADY had domains before they stepped in the door. Simply having this foundational knowledge by other classes like Intro to Mass Comm, PR Writing, Contemporary Ad Problems, and more has been big for getting the semester up and running. I’m proud of the faculty who have also jumped on board with us. Some of my favorite examples are:

Colin Rhinesmith: and
Zev Trachtenberg: and

Julie Ward: and
Nazmul Rony:
aura Gibbs:
Kyle Harper: and
David Vishanoff: and
David Tarpenning:
Katherine Pandora:

There are others as well, such as Ralph Beliveau, who haven’t create their own sites but are willing to get their students connected to OU Create. I cringe publishing this knowing I’m probably missing some others who have also jumped on board…

Michael Berman from CSU Channel Islands had some great comments today on doing these types of projects:

If universities don’t support experimentation and steps into the unknown, we will lose our leadership and miss opportunities. – A. Michael Berman

I appreciate that comment from an institution’s CIO and am grateful to had similar leadership that’s allowed us to take risks and explore. My hope is that this is just the tip of the iceberg for OU Create.

Header image is creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by chris.alcoran