The LMS in Historical Perspective

Is it ironic that I’m posting on this topic partially to avoid the mundane process of setting up Blackboard trainings for a bit longer? Probably not.

In any case, Jared Stein has a post up about the LMS and his personal perspective on why it turned out the way it did, and the crux of the narrative is that the LMS won out initially because frankly there was a bunch of stuff that the web was not making easy at the time. And the primary force for adoption of the LMS was not administration, but faculty, who really wanted management tools.

I’m too young on this side of higher education to confirm or deny that account as the ground truth, but it jives with my experience as well. My first encounter with Blackboard was on a educational simulation project we were looking to sell to Old Dominion University in 2000/ early 2001. Cognitive Arts wanted to sell a kickass (technical term) learning sim we had made to Old Dominion to run, something we had spent several millions of dollars developing, and which had had great results (I’m trying to remember if it was our macroecon product or our Java 101 product). Anyway, word came back from the sales team — they are interested, but they want it to run in Blackboard. Since I was usually the “Somebody figure out what X is” person on the team, it fell to me to figure out if we could integrate it.

I ultimately learned we could wrap our web hosted software in a frame (it was 2000, deal with it) and exchange some very rudimentary data with Bb. I think it might have just been a completion flag, and I forget how we hacked it.(Other places we had wrapped things as big AICC objects, but I’m not sure that was the method here). Ultimately the whole deal turned out to be a sales mirage, so I thanked sales for another ill-spent 65-hour week chasing after phantom commissions for them, and called it a day.

But here’s the thing. As I remember, it wasn’t an institutional rule that it had to fit into Bb. It was a faculty concern that they pushed up to us. Faculty thought our stuff was cool, but they didn’t want to be in two places. They wanted to manage it from Blackboard, and wanted it to be available to the students from Blackboard so that the course felt coherent rather than two seperate, unconnected bits.

My second exposure to the LMS was getting to know the guys who built Prometheus, which at the time was billed as the first “community source” LMS. (Actually, now that I think of it, it was my first LMS exposure, since I remember meeting them in Washington D.C. when Bill Clinton was still President).

I had co-built the enrollment and user managment functions in our Cognitive Arts’ home-brew LMS (let’s admit it, if you enroll users, its an LMS whether it’s a syndication hub or a simulation). And when I looked under the hood of Prometheus (which was written in ColdFusion, the same language as our product) I went right over to my boss and argued we port our stuff to Prometheus and ditch our home-brew. It was just elegant and extensible. It looked beautiful. It was ridiculously easy to write extensions to it.

Here was a platform that encouraged you to build on top of it. And a community that was truly engaged with the possibilities extending it.

Of course, Prometheus was eventually bought by Blackboard. If you’ve heard of Building Blocks in Blackboard, it’s basically a port of what Prometheus was doing with extensibility, but done in a way that makes it unattractive to end-users to build in it. So yay.

A number of years later I asked a person I knew who worked at Prometheus why Prometheus failed. Did Blackboard crush them?

His answer was interesting. No, it wasn’t Blackboard at all. It was the educational institutions. With the slow, resource-intensive and state-mandated RFP processes, the interminable faculty commitees,  and the way that even after the deal was signed the institution would delay payment and implementation as long as possible (or suddenly throw it into an unanticipated ‘final review’) it was just not possible to grow a stable business. The process institutions followed was supposed to ensure equitable access to contracts, but what it did was made it impossible for any company not sitting on a pile of cash to stay in business. (I’m extrapolating a bit here, but not much).

So ironically, if you want to know what built the world of the One True LMS, look not at capitalism, but anti-corruption law, faculty governance, and state budgeting. Fun, huh? Counter to most of the rest of my world-view, but from what I’ve seen on the inside, entirely true.

When I got to Keene State in 2004, Blackboard was entrenched, but the stories I heard were really the same. There had been a faculty push to get something in place, and the Blackboard advocates had won. But what we started finding as 2004 rolled into 2005 and 2006 was that the external web was accelerating making all sorts of open connection possible, all sorts of reuse possible, and Blackboard was supporting none of it. They decided they had solved the LMS problem, once and for all, and started to look at more lucrative aspects of university business.

The standard joke about Blackboard by 2007 was that they were spending millions of dollars trying to get your university’s keycard production business (actually true) but couldn’t figure out a way for you to add a simple YouTube video without writing a javascript-based hack.

By 2008, when Blackboard announced, hey, we’re so Web 2.0, I was writing rather high-minded screeds like this:

[W]hile Blackboard was busy trying to leverage their foothold in the University to get into the business of dining hall management, video surveillance, and door access control, this little thing called Web 2.0 happened. And suddenly the technology Blackboard had for learning began to look — well, old. Junky. Very 1999.

So while Bb spent their efforts trying to become the single sign-on point for your institution, professors, frustrated with the kludginess of the actual *learning* part of Bb’s suite, started looking elsewhere for solutions.

Their first discovery was that they could do everything they were doing in Blackboard for free, and much more easily.

But the second discovery was the kicker. These Web 2.0 tools they adopted encouraged them to share their stuff with the world, instead of locking it away in a password protected course. And suddenly, they got a taste of open education. And it didn’t stop there. The tools they adopted had a true web DNA, and played well with other tools in a loosely coupled mode. So suddenly, they got a taste of what it was like to build your own custom learning environment.

The tone is a bit overstated and obnoxious, but I stand by the 2008 analysis. Somewhere in the mid-aughts, the customer of Blackboard moved from being the faculty member (who they had aggressively courted initially) to the administration. And, as Scott Leslie points out, incumbency’s a bitch. They became a barrier to serious, important movements — the social web, open education. By the time I was working for the OpenCourseWare Consortium it had passed ridiculousness into something akin to a crime against humanity. Again and again I’d talk to people who wanted to open up their instructional materials to the world only to learn that the company they had paid a quarter of a million dollars to host those materials had no way to let them do that.

[Side note: Insert argument here about whether all classes really need "educational materials" which is about as intelligent as arguing about whether all classes need students to buy novels.]

I’m interested where Jared takes the history from there. But what he has described so far fits my recollection. We fought the LMS, the LMS won, and then the LMS just sat there for a number of years asking us if we would like to upgrade to the alumni fundraising product. What happened next was… well, back to setting up Blackboard training [sigh]. But I’ll reply with more when Part II of Jared’s series comes out.

Reply to D’Arcy

D’Arcy Norman’s blog has a great policy which I may go back to soon — you can’t comment on his blog, only trackback to it. So here’s me commenting on his blog.

In a recent post, D’Arcy expands on this idea, among others:

Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

This is true, and it is something we need to come to terms with. At a certain point, it’s not UMW Blogs vs. the LMS anymore. It’s the UMW Blogs LMS vs. other LMS’s. And as you try to support more use cases — if, for example, you suddenly needed to run all your courses on nothing but the syndication hub architecture — you will find that the complexity and bloat creeps right back in.

I’ll add that I’ve been looking at these two pictures a bit:


And someone will tell me it’s the wrong analogy I suppose, but it reminds me that we talk a lot about the problem on the left (call it Facebook, the LMS, whatever) and not enough about the problem on the right. A world where each class defines its own architecture without regard to any other class starts to look like the world on the right. Things like WordPress work best when they are approached (at least partially) from an enterprise-level view, as unfortunate as that may be.

Broadly, I think what is happening with both WordPress learning systems and LMS’s is both are moving into federated designs. WordPress is working there from the bottom up, via syndication hubs and the like. The LMS, on the other hand,  is decentralizing — slowly becoming an authentication, communication, and assessement hub for outside technologies. I personally think the homegrown systems are far more consistent at this point with how I like to organize classes, but it would be hard to deny the sea-change in LMS focus over the past couple years.

UPDATE: Phil Hill also comments.

Learning Design Pattern #121: You’re Doing It Wrong


Had a great lunch today with Michael Berman in Portland, and boy am I glad I got down there. We talked about my recent fascination with the idea of Learning Design Patterns, and more broadly with agile methods in learning design. I mentioned that one thing that was a struggle was getting the pattern at the right level. The trick with patterns is they must be concrete enough that you can “think with them” but broad enough that they can generate unexpected solutions.

Michael, who worked a bit with design patterns in the 1990s, came up with a pattern that I think is at just the right level. He called it something along the lines of “Doing it Wrong”, pulling together the Trolling exercises of ds106, the public speaking exercises where you ask students to give a poor speech (e.g. mumble, use horrible powerpoint slides, don’t make eye contact, give a series of points that don’t relate), and the stats exercises I used to do where I told students to create a “biased data visualization” through using weird cut points, truncated Y-axes, strange groupings (lumping together people “shot OR killed”), and uncontrolled data.

At the moment, I think this is just the right level for a learning design pattern. There’s some underlying cognitive logic here about how we deconstruct experience. There’s an ability to match the pattern with higher order patterns about course design (what we might call the “edges”) and lower order patterns on the level of a single class session. It’s bigger and more generative than an Assignment Bank assignment, but smaller than a methodological category.

You might also have a design called “Formal Commitment”, where you push students to commit to an answer before discussion. You see this in a number of places such as Peer Instruction and some exercises from Brookfield’s Structured Discussion. There’s  a lot of evidence that students need to commit to a Theory of the Moment, even if it is only temporarily, so that they can more rigorously explore a question. Students who don’t internalize a theory or prediction can’t see when that theory fails. This pattern might plug into some higher order patterns about targeting preconceptions or some lower order ones about Role Play.

Why does talking in this way matter? Because there’s something really special about well-delineated ideas expressed at that level. If they truly plug into something fundamental about cognition, we can learn things about this group of assignments as a class. What are some issues around the set-up of “You’re doing it wrong” assignments? What are some challenges of assessment?

If it’s a particularly good pattern, we’d also learn how it relates to certain environments — in learning design cases that environment might be a discipline, or the particular talents of your students.

Most importantly it’s at that crucial generative level. When we think in terms of activities, it’s too easy to get lost in the detail and lose track of what we are trying to accomplish. Theory, on the other hand, understands the point, but is too abstract to lead directly towards solutions. Patterns represent a sort embedded theory that provides the coherence and rigor of the theoretical while generating the warmth and resonance of the particular.

The larger goal is to create a middle ground between the deadness of current Big Design approaches to instructional design and the anarchy of ignoring design altogether. Because Big Design gives you this:


And design anarchy gives you this:


And what you really want is this:


Not to say a church and gazebo, mind you. But you’re looking a three centuries of architecture above in the Keene square, built by dozens of different people with no sense of urban theory and, for the most part, no architecture training. And yet it looks organic, it feels whole, like a single piece, and it functions better than most anything you’ll find anywhere. Why? Because the patterns of the New England town were internalized in such a way that you could build with the coherence of theory and predictibility of large-scale process without having to use theory or large-scale process.

I don’t know if design patterns is what gets us to this in learning design. I don’t know if you could ever reliably produce an education that works as well or feels as human as the New England town square. But it at least gets us away from the “10 tips for teaching” nonsense while avoiding theory. So let’s give it a go, right?

Learning Design Patterns as an Alternative Model of Course Design

I’ve discovered Chris Alexander’s work on architecture, and I cannot read it without hearing every line as a statement on problems in course design.  Alexander approaches architecture not through top-down design or bottom-up chaos, but through generative constraints, that is, he begins with the environment and then runs through a “grammar” of building. The design emerges through these constraints the way a sentence arises from grammatical templates/rules (depending on your view of grammar).

I’m new to this, but the way it seems to work is you have a pattern such as “Light on Two Sides“. This pattern notes that people naturally gravitate to rooms with windows on at least two walls. This pattern is made possible by attending to some higher order patterns dealing with the “edge” of the house: Positive Outdoor Space, Wings of Light, and Long Thin House. If Light on Two Sides is impossible in spaces where you need it, you may need to revisit the higher order patterns.

This Light on Two Sides pattern when executed then becomes the higher order pattern to a number of even lower order patterns: Windows Overlooking Life, Deep Reveal, and Roof Layout. In other words the work proceeds in the way you might write a song or form the plot of a book. You write a series of notes that determines the key, which generates more melodies and suggests a bridge in the relative minor key. You add a drum beat which suggests for you the rhythmic structure of the bass. The bass suggests a keyboard hook. Layer by layer the song emerges as a living thing. Everything ends up original, but it is the process of putting one piece in place guides the next piece of work.

In pedagogy how would this work? I have a 150 year old book on teaching I recently read, and scattered through it are comments such as “Place Hard Work First” (e.g. students have limited metal effort to expend, put the activities requiring the most effort towards the front of the lesson). That might be placed alongside a pattern about Peer Learning — and if peer learning is effortful it would suggest the position of peer learning in your course. The use of peer learning might require a higher order pattern about the length of the class or the format of the furniture.

So if the patterns are the same, how do designs end up different? Because you start with different constraints. The same way the shape of the land or relationship to other houses will trigger certain solutions in Alexander’s pattern language:

“Above all, the shapes of the building must spring from the land, and buildings around, like a tree springing from a coppice — it fits perfectly, the moment of inception.”

Your students have certain backgrounds, various strengths. Your institution has certain facilities and your technology has certain affordances. Just as a limited number of grammar rules produce an infinite number of sentences based on the needs of the moment, so learning design patterns combined with the circumstances and aims of instruction can produce infinitely expressive learning designs.

What excites me about this is it is a way to combine research and practice without succumbing to an industrial paradigm. This isn’t “wing it on the whiteboard” or the class as the artistic expression of the instructor. This is a framework which is as rigorous in its own way as any ADDIE-fueled design monster. It’s premises can be challenged. It identifies right and wrong ways to go about things. It would evolve in reaction to new data. It is a distinct methodology which can be shown to produce either good or bad results. But, unlike many methodologies. it seems to me to work in the natural directon of our thought. And as Alexander points out it’s this pattern of a work reacting to itself and its environment that gives it the spark of life.

I am placing some quotes of Alexander’s here to give you the flavor of his thought. They come from random places with no original sourcing, so I paste them here without links. If you find them as powerful as I do the context will eventually present itself.

“In an organic environment, every place is unique, and the different places also cooperate, with no parts left over, to create a global whole – a whole which can be identified by everyone who is part of it.”

“In the past century, architecture has always been a minor science — if it has been a science at all. Present day architects who want to be scientific, try to incorporate the ideas of physics, psychology, anthropology in their work . . . in the hope of keeping in tune with the “scientific” times. I believe we are on the threshold of a new era, when this relation between architecture and the physical sciences may be reversed — when the proper understanding of the deep questions of space, as they are embodied in architecture will play a revolutionary role in the way we see the world and will do for the world view of the 21st and 22nd centuries, what physics did for the 19th and 20th.”

“Every building, every room, every garden is better when all the patterns which it needs are compressed as far as it is possible for them to be. The building will be cheaper; the meaning in it will be denser.”

“I’ll tell you a story. I was in India in 1961. I was living in a village most of the time. I studied that village, tried to understand what village life was all about. And I got back to Harvard, a few months later, and I got a letter from the government of [the town in India], saying ‘We’ve got to re-locate our village because of the dam construction. Would you like to build it?’. I think about 2000 people were being moved. And I thought about it. And then I was very sad. And I wrote back, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know enough about how to do it. Because I don’t want to come in and simply build a village, because I don’t think that will make life. I know that the life has got to come from the people, as well as what’s going on physically, geometrically. My experience of living in the village is that I do not know enough about how to actually make that happen. And therefore I very very regretfully decline your kind offer.’ And I was actually chagrined beyond measure, that I had to give that reply. But it was honest, and in fact, it was because of that letter that I wrote A Pattern Language. Because, I thought and thought, and I said, ‘You know, this is crazy. What would I have to do, to put in people’s hands the thing with which they could do this, so that it would be like a real village and not like an architect’s fantasy?”

“We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.”

“If you have a feeling-vision of the thing – a painting, a building, a garden, a piece of a neighborhood – as long as you’re very firmly anchored in your knowledge of that thing, and you can see it with your eyes closed, you can keep correcting your actions… It’s not a question of holding onto every little detail, but of holding onto the feeling.”

“From a sequence of these individual patterns, whole buildings with the character of nature will form themselves within your thoughts, as easily as sentences.”

“Nowadays, the process of growth and development almost never seems to manage to create this subtle balance between the importance of the individual parts, and the coherence of the environment as a whole. One or the other always dominates.”

Peak StreamMode

Bonnie Stewart has a great post over at her TheoryBlog on the state of Twitter. The post attempts to pull together the problems of the New Orality of social media, which seems to have somehow combined the worst aspects of conversation and print:

Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours.

This is a pretty important point. Conversation works both because interlocutors share context and because listeners and speakers work hard to see the world through each other’s eyes. Sperber and Wilson, in Relevance Theory, go so far as to say that our default assumption in language is that speakers will always be maximally relevant, and when they seem not to be our default assumption will be that our understanding is incomplete, not that the the speaker was being intentionally obscure or sporadically inconsistent.

In fact, so ingrained is the language instinct to try to see the world through our conversational partner’s eyes that we use this as a sort of trick in pedagogy. Have a student explain something to another student, and suddenly the speaker opens up a whole new level of self-analysis. The words that made so much sense in the internal monologue fall apart as we try to speak them to another, surfacing unanswered questions in things we thought we had down pat. Somewhere the model is wrong.

Alas, whatever the evolutionary hacks are that cause that sudden emergence of dual consciousness. they haven’t caught up to Twitter. And as our contexts become more fragmented, we don’t know enough about individuals to know what seems out of place and what doesn’t. In conversation, I know that Bonnie is very far from racist — if she perhaps disagrees that the cop who Michael Brown should be named and states that my mind is going to try to reconcile that with the model of Bonnie’s worldview I have. And that Sperber and Wilson principle of cognitive efficiency all but demands that I resolve the contradiction without tearing down my entire mental construct of Bonnie. This is why in normal conversation such moments can be so powerful — the cognitive dissonance between a statement and our mental model of the speaker pushes us to build a more complex model of both.

That used to be true with Old Twitter too, but as Twitter has expanded it’s fallen apart a bit. It’s not only that we know so little about some people that the dissonance never arises; it’s also, as Bonnie notes, that the attention economy rewards flame wars, scheduled outrage, and intentional misunderstandings. Find someone above you, wait for an inartful tweet, kick up publicly to the cheers of many. Watch your follower numbers grow. Repeat.

I think there’s an additional issue as well, which I blab on about a bit in Bonnie’s comment section — we’re pushing too much of our output through what I have decided to call StreamMode (that running serialization that sees all things as sequenced speech events) and too little of our output though StateMode (that iterative mode which sees our work as existing as a sort of snapshot of us and our ideas). We used to work in hybrid forms — self-contained blog posts that were serialized to RSS, Flickr collections with new photos feed. Increasingly, however, we are abandoning StateMode altogether. Instead of Flickr we have Instagram, instead of blogging we have Twitter and Tumblr. Everything is placed on a timeline, and very little is integrated in any greater way than “X came after Y”. You can take my location history, interleave it with my tweets, my Netflix viewing patterns, my Facebook likes, my GoodReads additions. It’s all just one big soup of timestamps.

StreamMode has some advantages, but it’s curious how quick it’s swallowed everything. I remember when I first saw the Facebook lifestream idea (the running log of what you had done on Facebook) back in maybe 2006 this seemed very new — this idea that it could all just be stream. Now I don’t even think people realize it was new at one point, or that there are alternate ways of ordering online experience.

These thoughts are too nascent to spend much time on yet, but throwing them out there in case someone has any suggested reading for me.



Using Federated Wiki in the Classroom: Getting Started

This post assumes that you’ve read some other posts on federated wiki. There’s a few dozen on this site if you have not. Click the federated wiki tag and then scroll down to see them all.

If you know what federated wiki is, the following description should get you started with federated wiki use in your classroom.

Make Page of Site Creation Links

Set up a page in your class federated wiki (owned and managed by you) that links to not-yet-existing sites for each one of your students. You’re running federated wiki in farm mode, so going to these sites will create them for the students who go there. The page will look like this:




Have Students Set up Their Sites and Bio Pages

When a student clicks on their link, it will give them a new site with the name you specified. I chose a convention of “first two letters of first name + first two letters of last name” which allows me to quickly identify a student while still giving them internet anonymity if they want it. Here’s what it looks like when the student clicks it:


Under “Pages about Us” have the student put in a name as a link. It could be their full name, their first name, a nickname. Just as long as it is recognizable to you. After adding the name as a link, they click on the link. This new page will be their bio page. At this point I show them an example bio of myself — something relatively lighthearted but substantial.

Students will draft their bio pages. A lot of students will make boring bio pages at first, but here’s part of the genius of wiki — have the students look at other student bios after they are done making theirs, and generally this will help some of the students conceptualize theirs. At the end of this you’ll end up with a lot of very cool bios.



IMPORTANT: After students set up their bios, it’s a good time to have them “claim” their sites with the big “Claim” button at the bottom. This uses a Mozilla-based Persona login that sets the student up as the sole editor of the site. If you forget to do this early, students will end up unintentionally editing other students sites, which isn’t the end of the world, but is a bit of a headache. Have them claim the site early.


Create a “Class Circle”

Now it’s your turn — you have to create what we’ll call the “Class Circle”. This will be a page that students can load to see the work of all the other students in the class — not just in the recent changes feed, but in search results, “twin” notifications, and the like. To make a circle create a bunch of factory drop areas on a page named “Our Class Sites” or something similar:


Now go to that page of links of all the student sites, and for each link:

  • Click the link to go to the student page.
  • Click the link to the student bio.
  • Drag the student bio onto an empty “factory” drop area

This will pull a “reference” to the student site and the first paragraph of their bio into your page. (Note: I did this with the “link launch page” described above to streamline the process and standardize site names, but you could also have student self-select site names and email you the link).

I had 20 students — the process took about 10 minutes. It’s the most time-consuming part of the setup. But when you are done you should have a page that looks like this.



Tracking Student Work Using the Neighborhood

The circle page is pretty cool, because anyone can load it and see all the class activity (to be technical: it pulls class sites into their “neighborhood”). Students can (and will) fork it back into their own sites. Unlike FeedWordPress and other “hub” designs, however, the power to make circles is given to the students as well — the students can easily create their own circle page entitled “English majors” if they want, and pull in all the references to sites by English majors in the class. They can set up circles for their group, or for the three people who always do exemplary work.

Once you have your class circle in place, you be able to track the work of the class through your recent changes page. Here’s a snapshot of it the day after class:


Here I’ve loaded my class circle, clicked recent changes, and am looking at a recent submission by a student on the “redefinition” aspect of SAMR. One thing to note here is how well the form supports a “notes” aesthetic — the student here writes very well, but is allowed to put half-formed thoughts up and questions up to which they can later return.. If the metaphor for the student blog is the personal journal, the metaphor for federated wiki is the researcher’s notebook.

We also see the usefulness of the colored icons here. Scanning this changes feed, we can see that:

  • The student we are looking at right now, with the teal gradient, has been very busy, and has in fact gotten all their work for next week already done.
  • Four other students have done a page on the SAMR model of educational technology impact,
  • Another student (purple gradient) has done the SAMR assignment, although maybe not the “note-taking strategies” assignment.

Since I used a naming scheme (first two letters of first name and first two letters of last), I can hover over these icons and know immediately which student they represent. The teal icon here has a hover text of “”, which tells me this is Kristin D’s work.  If we click on the teal icon at the top of Redefinition, we can get her Welcome Page. Another shift-click opens up her bio page as well (click replaces the page to the right of the page clicked, shift-click adds a page in the first empty spot, giving you the page in an added column — it sounds odd, but feels awesome when you get the hang of it).




We can also look at just Kristin’s feed now that we’ve collapsed our “neighborhood” to just her.




Using “Twins” as a Student to See Other Approaches to an Assignment

Reloading our class circle and going to the page on SAMR model, we can start to see how the federated aspect works in the classroom. Any student or teacher can easily use the “twins” notification up top (that part that shows links to older and newer versions) to pull up different student work on the same subject.


The assignment was to find some articles on SAMR and to summarize them. In this case, a day after class, a couple students have found the article they want to use, but not done anything yet. One of the neat things here is I can check on work in progress — see what articles they’ve selected and the like. For the students, one of the neat things is that by seeing other student work in progress, they have some idea of what the target they are trying to hit might be.

That’s enough to get you started. We did more in class than this, but I’ll write up the next part later.

Noteworthy Problems

I found the process to be pretty smooth by edtech standards. Certainly orchestrating mass registration in a class always has a bit of a herding cats element to it, but this process actually compared favorably with something like signing up for Google Sites or setting up a blog. That said, there were a few issues I’d make more effort to plan around.

Claiming Sites

As I mentioned, you should be very insistent that students claim their sites early on. We did have one issue where a student looking at other student bios ended up claiming someone else’s site inadvertently, which was a bit of a mess to sort out. Before the students start to wander off their newly created site, have them claim it.

Creating the Class Circle

I found it a tad difficult to create the Class Circle while simultaneously assisting students in setting up their bio pages. I think what I would do in retrospect is have them set up bio pages, claim them, surf other bio pages, edit their own pages again — then I’d call a break. I could probably get the circle page made in about five minutes while the students go get a soda. When they came back, we’d continue.

Logouts and Yellow Borders

I’m not sure how this happened, but a couple students logged themselves out and started getting “yellow-border” pages, indicating their changes were not being saved to the server. Additionally, in the flurry of 18 people hitting the AWS micro instance at once it may be that one or two of the edits did not post because of that (note: this is only speculation). In any case, I think I would have started off explaining blue and yellow borders to students, and showing them what to do if they got a yellow (check to make sure you’re logged in, then fork the page to the server to save your offline edits).


The biggest surprise is that no one really had trouble wrapping their head around the tool. It was no harder for students to understand than blogging or social bookmarking. We even did an activity where students forked a page with a  George Siemens video on it, took notes on the video, checked the notes other students had written through using the “twins” links, collaborated with students in their group on a page, then did a cross-tab drag and drop to fork the resulting video summary to their site.  One or two students out of the class didn’t quite make it, but the vast majority of the class did this easily.


(If Warhol did George, it’d have looked like this).

This might all fall apart as we get deeper into the tool — here they are just executing actions without really understanding the underlying interaction model. So I don’t want to celebrate too much yet. But it may be that federated wiki is easier for people who have no extant understanding of feed-based blogging communities or standard wikis since we don’t have to unseat any exisitng ideas of how the web is supposed to work.

Then again, it could just be I got lucky — this was a heavily guided activity, and the question is whether they can do it without the guidance. We’ll find out next week.



Copying a Whole Site Is Remarkably Easy In Smallest Federated Wiki

Operations in Smallest Federated Wiki tend to be page-level — dashboard style site managers have been avoided for the moment. Still, the speed at which operations can be executed makes site-wide stuff pretty easy. This video shows how to copy a small fifteen page site in about a minute.

If you think about how long it would take you to log into a dashboard interface, export a site, log into another dashboard interface, and upload the file to the import process — Smallest Federated Wiki compares favorably.

How is this speed achieved? First of all, moving the integration to the browser allows us to pull two sites together into a single interface. Importantly, neither site has to have any knowledge of the other before the drag, because to the browser a site is just another data source. It’s the difference between the two models below, with the federated model on the right.




Client-based integration is more amenable to fluid reuse because it can have a single integrated view of multiple sites in a way that server-based systems can not.

The second reason it’s so quick is the parallel pages structure. The multiple pages on the screen are less impressive looking than your average web page. But you pay a massive tax for that look in the form of the “click-forward, act, click-backward” actions you perform every single day. Here you see how much eliminating that speeds up interaction, as you click on a list that stays in place and then fork the pages without playing the “forward-back” game.

As a side note, having used SFW for a while, I now get frustrated in “normal” web interfaces that use the single-page model. It feels ridiculously kludgy. Forward and back in 2014? Are you kidding?

The third reason the operation flows well is the data-based nature of it. We’re not shipping layout to the new site, we are essentially copying the database record for that page. No formatting surprises to greet you after the copy operation.

So fine — this is fifteen pages. What if you wanted to fork a site of a hundred pages? Well, it’d probably take seven times this long, so maybe 10 minutes?

That’s ten minutes to fork a picture perfect copy of any SFW site in the world. I’m not even sure you can do that in GitHub in ten minutes.

(Are people beginning to get the power of these few small interface changes yet?)



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