I’m realizing some of the design description of the Federated Classroom Wiki on Hapgood is out of date. So here is how it is currently working (or soon to work based on some scheduled coding). This is the process you would use as a user.
- Install! Your institution installs Dokuwiki on a server, on a PaaS, or other vehicle. Wherever you want with whoever you want. (You can do any step here as an individual as well, just dealing with institutional case here).
- Extend! Your institution installs the two custom plugins I’ve written (federation and clone) and the freely available gitbacked plugin
- Federate! You go to the federation GitHub site (e.g. https://github.com/timmmmyboy/federated-wiki, though you can make others). You fork it, add your self-named folder to it (ex. UofUT, UVU, NIU, UMW, whatever), then issue a pull request to accept that change. You point this new folder to your dokuwiki pages folder (via gitbacked). There’s some finessing here that Tim will show in a screencast soon, but what you’ll end up with after Tim’s magic is done is a system where your changes to your wiki will flow into the subfolder. Then all pages from all federated wikis will flow into a special subfolder/namespace of your wiki called alternate. This will be searchable by people with editing permissions (although you can set permissions up any way you want, really).
- Search! Now you are about to write a syllabus, or assign your students to write an article. You think — wouldn’t it be nice to just tweak a syllabus, or give my students an article to *extend*? You go and search the :alternate: namespace for federation content you can use. You find some great articles your students can improve, and a syllabus that is a good starting point.
- Clone! You clone the articles and the syllabus to your public wiki/course namespace. The revision record follows the documents so that attribution is taken care of.
- Edit! You tweak the documents to your own needs. You write additional documents.
- Feed Forward! Here’s the neat part — because you are federated, feed forward isn’t actually a step. All the changes you make feed back into the federation as alternate versions of the documents you cloned. The person whose docs you cloned gets a message in their revisions history that you cloned it, and is automatically pointed to your revisions to see if they are useful. Your other original docs you made also flow back to the federation. The next person who searches will see your alt-versions and new documents, and maybe end up cloning those. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
There are possibly classroom systems which already do similar things, though I’ve never seen them do this well. The fundamental difference here is the structure that makes it possible. This is not a service that everyone has to agree on to be a part of. It’s a federation — you have absolute control over who is in your community and what they can do and where your instance lives and how it’s branded. You are self-governing, an island. But on the back-end the architecture creates a system of sharing by default that gives you the benefits of working with a community without having to make institutional or individual compromises. The contract is simple– all this stuff will flow to you if you let your stuff flow back. Think of it sort of like torrenting — you get your download speed by letting others download from you.
There’s lots of reasons I’ve come to feel that this point is crucial for the expansion of higher ed collaboration, but that’s another post.
Ok, I’m playing around with the name of this thing Tim and I are building. If you’re not up to speed on the Federated [something or other to do with education] Wiki, you might want to scroll below and catch up. Or just start with the screencast of the proof-of-concept. Keep in mind when looking at these things, a key idea is that this is *not* all living in a single service on on a single server. You “federate” by linking up your instance of Dokuwiki (set up however you like, locked down or opened up, whatever) to the GitHub repository on the backend that syndicates federation content out to federation members. It’s this combination of local institutional control with a deep infrastructure of sharing that makes the Federated Classroom Wiki different from other stuff you may have seen.
If you’re up to speed, here are some uses I’m imagining.
1. Syllabi and Other Course Design Content
This is the simplest case, really. You’re putting together a class on Cultural Anthropology or English Compostion. You search across the federation find class materials you like and clone them. You edit them for your class and your version feeds back into the system as a complement to (not replacement of) the one you cloned. As with all Fed-classroom-wiki operations, an edit trail is preserved in the revisions history even though you may host your wiki on an entirely different server. The person whose syllabus you cloned will also be able to see that their work has been cloned, and see if they want to integrate your changes.
2. Technical Instructions
Writing technical intstructions for students (here’s how you’ll use Soundcloud etc.) is a huge waste of time. Usually 95% of the instructions are generic; the remaining 5% has to be customized (do you keep your material public or private, how do you submit work to this particularly class, what features am I particularly pushing you to use). At the same time, pointing your students to generic documents and saying “Hey read these, but ignore the parts where they talk about feature x, and read the parts about feature y with issue z in mind,” is not a recipe for success either. Seach the federation for a step-by-step sheet, clone it to your classroom site, add some quick modifications and you’re done.
3. A Safety Zone for Producing Public Content
This was actually my initial concern and still has some of the greatest potential. I work with a couple faculty who believe in the idea of putting student-produced scholarship on a public wiki, and want to feed their student’s stuff out into the world, and even get comments back. But they have two big concerns:
- Students need a “safe space” to construct the material, particularly if the material is sensitive or controversial (say, a course on human sexuality). Engaging with a public audience too early in the game can kill student experiementation and confidence, and in the case of trolling can destroy the joy of the class. So they don’t want the traditional open wiki.
- Secondly, they are grading students on their work, so outside editors changing things on students is not good. What they need to see at the end is the student vision of the subject.
The response to these issues has generally been to make a wiki that is closed to public editing or comment. Unfortunately, this robs the wiki of its special powers. By closing it off, no one can build on it, and the wiki becomes just another sad little ghost town of aborted effort. With the federated approach, you set your wiki to be directly controllable by you (only students can edit and comment on your instance) but you syndicate the content out to the rest of the federation to build on, comment on, and carry forward. Students are able to see what others have done with their content, and integrate those changes if they choose, but the classroom wiki always reflects their specific vision.
4. Building Online Civic Architecture
One of the great ideas of the mid-aughts that has yet to achieve take-off velocity is the idea of students building out their local online civic architecture. The projects I’ve seen around this are really cool — student clubs mapping out community resources on google maps, GIS students documenting the wildlife around local waterways, sociology students researching the causes of homelessness in a county and writing up a report for local lawmakers, history students documenting local landmarks. Unfortunately, these efforts are often fragmented and rely on students producing independent sites from scratch. With the federated wiki students would be able to look for exisiting efforts in their state and extend them. For instance, they could start by cloning a voter information site from another community, then researching and modifying that information to fit their own community. Additionally, since cloning is easy, the material the students from different classes produce could be cloned into a central community space when they are finished.
5. Low Maintenance Cross-institutional Collaboration
This is one of my big ones. We are constantly looking for ways for us to collaborate cross-institutionally, and most of these ways are coordination heavy. But what if my Public Health and Water class and your Hydrology class just federate? My class looks at your stuff and pulls in what is applicable to our Public Health and Water site. You do the same with our content. In the end we have two wikis — a hydrology site with special insights into public health, and a public health and water site with a surprisingly good grasp of hydrology. Other interaction might grow out of this — Skype conferencing, cross-course presentations or twitter interaction, etc. But to start you don’t need a raft of meetings, grant funding, or course releases. You just need to find a class in your federation that is doing related work and ask your students to try and integrate their stuff.
Jared Stein has an excellent post up on a point that is near to my heart. People in the humanities who criticize flipped classrooms often don’t realize that their class is already flipped. The reason why they don’t get “flipped classrooms” is it does not solve a learning problem they have. They’ve been able to teach this way since the invention of the written word, more or less, and it’s been a prominent form of teaching in the humanities since the creation of mass market publications. On the other side of the equation, we have a set of people in the sciences who often have highly motivated students who just need a process explanation for a skill, and they don’t understand why humanities professors aren’t jumping up and down with excitement about video lectures. We have people in K-3 working to teach reading to disadvantaged populations telling people looking to make math relevant to ninth graders what they should do. And every week another professor publishes something about their miracle class, never dealing with the fact the last miracle class covered offered an entirely different prescription.
Analogies are dangerous things, but being educated is in some ways like being healthy. And teaching is in some ways like the practice of medicine. Students are in one state of capacity and a series of events happen that push them into another state of capacity. We call the delta on that “learning”, the difference between the two states. But despite the gerundic look of “learning”, it’s not a thing like “running”. It’s not a chemical process, or even a thing one “does” in any real sense. It’s just the difference between two states, like “healing”.
People miss this. People get to thinking learning is a very specific type of action that we are trying to help students do better, that there is some atomic theory of learning. But ultimately the only thing that truly holds together ”learning to change a tire”, “learning how to think like a geographer”, “learning how to do long division”, “learning the importance of imaginary numbers”, and “learning to love again” is that all concern a change in capacity and behavior. They are unified, certainly, but in the way that recovering from flesh wounds is related to surviving cancer or suppressing panic attacks.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for a unified theory of learning (any more than I would argue that there is no place for a general study of medicine). There are many connections between what we call “learning”, and finding the common ground between them is helpful. But so much of the insanity of the chatter in this space is due to people believing learning is a thing. It’s not. And it doesn’t really make sense to enter the general discussion about education until you understand that.
Tim Owens and I have been working off and on the past couple weeks on this Federated OER Wiki idea, and there have been times where I’ve looked at the design of what we are doing and thought maybe this was the Plan 9 from Outer Space of Edtech projects. Has an idea ever so possessed your waking thought, become so ingrained into the way you start to view things, that you lose the ability to tell whether the idea is brilliant or insane? Or worse, just plain ridiculous? As we got deeper into the coding — me on the PHP coding and Tim on the GitHub sync’d backend — I started to wonder.
We finally pulled together a kinda-sorta working model of this early today, and I’m not worried it’s insane anymore.
I’m going to share the link here, but to understand the import of what you see you have to understand that the content you are seeing during the federated search comes from entirely different server instances and dokuwiki installs. That’s really the key here — you can run, own, control, and brand your own site while still benefitting from a rich content library syndicated to you from federation members all over the world.
Here’s the five minute screencast.
A recent article in The Economist expands on the fascinating presentation Larry Summers gave last summer which expanded on an idea that’s been floating around the economic blogosphere a while.
In the old view of the future, productivity gains came through the automation of low paying jobs. Today one person digs ditches and another writes programs. Tomorrow two people write programs, including programs that help machinery dig ditches. Slowly the population moves up-skill in a virtuous cycle. As sectors of the economy are eliminated the people who would have worked in those sectors move up into higher paying jobs which fuel the next wave of innovation.
In reality there’s a major flaw in this plan. It turns out the easiest jobs to automate are not the low-paying, unskilled jobs, but the medium-paying moderately-skilled jobs. It’s harder to program a machine to clean a hotel room or understand a complicated coffee request than it is to program a computer to do a decent job with your taxes. What we are eliminating first are not manual jobs but clerical jobs.
This changes everything, according to the emerging theory. The hollowing out of the job market “middle” pushes the class formerly known as the middle class towards the bottom. There is competition to clean rooms, walk dogs, run car rental offices, whatever. That glut pushes down the labor cost at the bottom. And the fact that labor costs at the bottom stay stable or decline discourages innovation. If you can pay someone $8/hr to clean hotel rooms, why would you ever want to automate that cleanup? There just isn’t enough of a benefit.
This leads to a vicious cycle, because the creation of jobs at the top is predicated on building tools to enhance the productivity at the bottom. But hours at the bottom are cheap, so instead of hiring hundreds of people to build Rosie the Robot we hire five people and build a Roomba.
This is turn pushes more people to the bottom, keeps labor cheap and innovation unattractive. And so on.
There’s huge societal implications to this, obviously. In short, if we wish to continue to make productivity gains, we may need to create incentives for people *not* to work. We may need to prepare for a society where a good third of the population is permanently unemployed (but financially supported). How does a society which associates worth with work deal with that shift? In a Tea Party world, is this shift even possible?
As far as education, it’s always risky taking macro anaylses and applying them to individual market segments, but does anyone else see a connection here? For years we have been told that education needs to be automated because it is so expensive. And we’re told that education does not innovate because it’s too free of market pressure.
But that analysis doesn’t really make sense. The University of Phoenix would do anything it could short of a felony to squeeze more money out of its operation. It’s as market-driven as you get. But did they go to MOOCs? To self-paced computer-led instruction? Quite the opposite. They pay an army of adjuncts anywhere from $1,000 to $1,300 per class per quarter to teach it old style.
What would happen if that labor was expensive? If it cost $10,000 per adjunct per class? Well, you’d see a massive investment in educational technology that would dwarf the piddling amounts we have covered so breathlessly over the past few years.
Of course, the title of this post is a bit misleading — it’s not primarily that we pay adjuncts crap that stifles innovation. It’s that we *can* pay adjuncts crap. I’m not sure what the remedies are. But if we’re wondering why education is so resistant to technological change maybe it’s time to look at how our use of cheap labor enables that resistance?
This is very much a speculative post, incidentally. So if you need to tear it to shreds, go ahead — I’m still working out the validity of the argument myself.
Now sure, with a title like this I coud probably have this post fire randomly throughout the year and nine out of ten times it would be true. But the discussion Dan has been facilitating over the past several months about what “real world” education means (and why “fake” assignments can be better than “real world” ones) came to a spectacular head the other day in a post that veered through curiousity research, solvable and unsolvable equations, and David Foster Wallace. Talking about DFW’s take on secular worship — that the worship of the scarce ultimately leads to an unsustainable cycle of need — Dan then moves into this gem:
If you say a prayer to the “real world” every time you sit down to plan your math lessons, you and your students will never have enough real world, never feel you have enough connection to jobs and solar panels and trains leaving Chicago and things made of stuff.
If you instead say a prayer to the electric sensation of being puzzled and the catharsis that comes from being unpuzzled, you will never get enough of being puzzled and unpuzzled.
The point? The culture of the real world is constrained, while the culture of curiousity is expansive and self-sustaining.
There you go. Read the rest of the post, several times, it’s really that good.
Short follow-up to yesterday’s post. As many people do, I referred to the cycle of elite online learning iniatives as “Groundhog Day“. And from our perspective that’s probably apt.
But it occurs to me that from their perspective it’s Memento. MASSIVE spoiler alert here, but the premise of Memento is that the memory-damaged Leonard Shelby can’t handle the reality of what he’s done, so he falsifies key aspects of his personal history, which in turn he comes to believe himself, which causes him to repeat the cycle again.
How does that relate? A paragraph from the 2006 post-mortem of AllLearn really stuck out for me:
Oxford, Yale, and Stanford have kept quiet about the collapse of their joint e-learning venture…[h]owever, AllLearn’s closure could offer an unprecedented opportunity to step back and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the business model… Further research into the series of collapsed online ventures may shed some light on what makes a successful distance education program, and enable some of the surviving online providers to redefine their business models and marketing strategies accordingly
Of course they don’t delve into these things honestly, and as a result most people in these institutions are unaware of them. Like Leonard, the institutions alter the record of the past. They wake up the next day with amnesia, consult a set of dramatically altered notes, and wonder why no one has tried massive Ivy League courses yet. The PR push to cover one’s tracks ends up erasing the institutional knowledge that could build a better initiative.
As Teddy would have said, “Maybe it’s time you started investigating yourself.”