TL521 Is Rocking it on Federated Wiki

TL 521 has had a lot of struggles as a class. It’s a hybrid class, with half of it at observations at far flung schools, many of them scheduled overlapping other student commitments. The wiki we are using has crashed multiple times, lost student work, and dropped authentication without warning.

All the same, the students are absolutely rocking this class. And I have to say, despite the flaws, a lot of it is the federated wiki. Its odd looking at a new technology at it’s birth, but what you see as the students use it it something that is a mix of blogging and wiki. An ability to do the personal that morphs into the communal seamlessly.

Just an hour ago I found this: One student team (named the “Kiwi Kitties”)  has started calling themselves the “Wikiwikans” and made their own mascot, a Connected Kiwi:


I comment on it this page by forking it, which is cool, but that’s not the really neat thing. What’s truly neat about this is that this is not a blog, this is a wiki. So I would bet you that within a day or two this mascot travels around to people’s Welcome Pages, bios, Team pages, whatever.

And that’s really the difference here. Getting students past the timidity they have editing others work is hard, but evolution is baked into the platform here. Things want to spread, intersect, converge, evolve. It’s your work to start, but it’s not (only) your work for long.

I initially thought I wanted a seperate talk page/comment space for comments. I’m not sure now, because I think the idea of writing on other people’s documents is a good thing to get used to. In this case I added a comment, but I also fixed an error or two. And why not?

comments on document

If the student wants those changes, they can fork it back and kill my comment. Killing my comment is fine, it shows they read it and it exists in the journal. In classic wiki, you remove the thread discussion when you feel you’ve integrated the thread comments into the main work. For assessment purposes I’ll always have that comment in my journal. I think some form of meta space might still be useful, but surprised how far you can go.

Here’s a good example of how comment could morph into document changes. This is towards the end of a student’s discussion of a local initiative that is not well documented.


About halfway down Sarah comes into the conversation — she doesn’t know enough syntax to set her comment off, but she clarifies that Common Core and 5D look like they are aligned.  She provides links and additional material.

One of the definitions of wiki used to be that it was the integration of ThreadMode into DocumentMode. That is, these sorts of discussions happen on a page, but eventually they get integrated into the document itself. We don’t just leave the conversation dangling there for others to shuffle through. We fix the document.

And you can see how that would happen here. You fork back the page and remove the “Sarah’s comment” bit then integrate the parts of the comment that look good right into the page.

Over time both our understanding and our documentation of that understanding improve.

These things are hard to grasp at first. Your inital reaction is “Where’s the comment button?” We live in a world where the blogging metaphor pervades everything — post + comments, all in a reverse-chronological format, with no iterative editing. That’s Facebook, WordPress, Instagram, Google+, Twitter (more or less), etc. We’ve swum in it so long we’ve forgotten what other models look like. People say blogging is dead, but they’ve got it backwards. EVERYTHING is blogging now, and that’s the problem.

Other models exist, and they work. The proof is in the community it generates, and whether cool stuff gets done. It may feel weird, but it’s wiki, and it’s got a heck of a track record.

The impact on this class is no exception. Here’s the page count at the bottom of the wiki with the neighborhood fully loaded.


Eight hundred and eighteen pages. Now a lot of those pages are students forking stuff back and forth, but even at a half of that  — where have you seen that with eighteen students in a one credit class?

But let me bring that home. There are 18 students in the class. The class portion of the experience is one credit.

Here are the articles they have written in the past three weeks. The number of squares indicate the forks by others.

three weeks

(The Harry Potter ones are a long story which I’ll explain later….)

I’ve never seen anything like this with a wiki. I’m not sure I’ve seen it with blogging for a course this size and frequency. The trick in the next couple of weeks is to start pulling all this effort together and refactor it. We’ll see if that’s possible. The students are starting to cross-link to each other’s articles etc., it’s just the question of whether in the three (really, two) classes left we’ll have time for things to converge. But man, is that Recent Changes a beautiful sight!

What Iterative Writing Looks Like (and why it’s important)

I’ve been talking a lot about our fascination with “StreamMode”, the current dominant mode of social media. StreamMode is the approach to organizing your thoughts as a history, integrated primarily as a sequence of events. You know that you are in StreamMode if you never return to edit the things you are posting on the web.

A Flickr vs. Instagram comparision makes this somewhat clear. In Flickr, people would catalog their snapshots and tag them, but they’d also occasionally go back and reorganize them. At some point you get enough pictures of diners that you think — hey I should go back and tag up all my diner shots.

Instagram is different. You pick tags, you post, you never return. The post you make today will never be refactored for your identity a year from now. It’s all just one big stream of talk.

StreamMode is Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. It’s also blogs to a large extent (though this is somewhat mitigated through cross-linking and backtracks). It’s internet comments. Email. Secret. Ello. Yo.

While StreamMode has advantages, it’s also creating a world that largely sucks. We’re driven by news pegs, back and forth arguments that go nowhere, the latest shiny things on the radar instead of sustained thinking about older issues. StreamMode also is exclusionary — a stream of twitter comments often relies on extensive insider knowledge to be interpreted. It’s clique-y and egotistical.

It’s also many good things, but left as the only game in town it makes us sick and shallow. We end up hitting Twitter refresh like sad Skinner-boxed lab rats looking for the next pellet instead of collaborating to extend and enhance the scope of human knowledge.

On the opposite pole of StreamMode we find StateMode. In StateMode we are more like Flickr, or Delicious, or wiki. In StateMode we want a body of work at any given moment to be seen as an integrated whole, the best pass at our current thinking. It’s not a journal trail of how we got here, it’s a description of where we are now.

Flickr, as I mentioned, tended more towards this than Instagram. But the ultimate expression of StateMode is the wiki.

Which leads me to the smallest edit I made this morning, but one which I think demonstrates the quiet reflection of StateMode.

Here’s an article I wrote a several days ago on a personal wiki on growth models and Wikipedia. It notes that Wikipedia’s growth model is not exponential, but linear-logistic. Linear-logistic models are associated with biology, where organisms grow exponentially until they hit the bounds of a resource shortage.


The thought around this issue is that as the opportunity for novel contribution declines, it creates a constraint on growth. Wikipedia stops growing because there are less things for people to write.

The weird piece of this is that in most fields this doesn’t happen. Scientific discoveries lead to more discoveries, which leads to more papers. Novels still find new twists on old plots. If you look at non-Wikipedia instances of publication, the curve is exponential, not logistic. So if Wikipedia is about everything, how can it run out of subjects?

Then yesterday I wrote something about the whole Kate Middleton Wedding Dress Wikipedia fiasco. Back when Kate Middleton was marrying Prince William a Wikipedian posted a page on Kate Middleton’s dress. Within 16 minutes a prominent Wikipedian had flagged the article for deletion. A fight then ensued about whether the dress was notable enough — despite the fact that it was probably the most talked about dress in the history of mankind. The incident is generally seen as a prime example of the male-tech-geek-centrism of Wikipedia — as Jimmy Wales said when he stepped into the talkpage conversation — we have a hundred articles on different Linux distros, and we can’t have one article on a dress?



That talkpage includes this brilliant reply to the deletion request that shows how Wikipedia has strayed from the core of wiki thinking — omission is now being seen not as opportunity, but as creating canon:


“It’s a very peculiar argument to me, it seems to be saying Wikipedia should be defined by what….isn’t in it.”

Today I’m looking over my Recent Changes in the wiki, and I see these two articles written over the past week — Wikipedia’s Logistic Curve and Kate Middleton’s Dress. And it occurs to me that Kate Middleton’s Dress is the perfect example of how Wikipedia creates a resource scarcity by limiting the subject matter of the encyclopedia to “things Wikipedia has historically covered”.  As Wikipedia grows, omission moves from opportunity (“let me write that”) to evidence of canon (“we don’t do that here”).

So I go back to the logistic curve article and I link it:



If you’re tired of the endless flame wars and candy fizz of Twitter — if you want to start working on your understanding of the world instead of your position in it — maybe it’s time to join StateMode. You’ll be surprised what you learn when you treat your thoughts as an interwoven whole rather than historical exhaust.

You just might do something you haven’t done for a while: surprise yourself.

RELATED: Bill Seitz’s Why Use a Wiki for Your Notebook.

UPDATE: As further recursion/iteration I found this old quote from Ward C. on “[The] community has every right to be cautiously selective in what it will groom.” — which adds another layer into the Kate Middleton story. In StreamMode that becomes “Oops, oh well!”. In StateMode it goes in, and adds nuance.

UPDATE 2: Yes, the relationship of StreamMode and StateMode to the old wiki terms ThreadMode and DocumentMode is entirely intentional. What a commenter said long ago on the first wiki about ThreadMode adequately captures our modern predicament:

A good DocumentMode comment is easier for newcomers to understand than a ThreadMode one. Threads are full of transient misunderstandings and special cases. The important points don’t stand out well. And they are full of egos. The valuable content of Wiki ought to find its way into DocumentMode comments. It doesn’t, always.

Change that to “It doesn’t, usually.” and that’s where we are today.


“It is important to me, for example, that as a body of work grows it becomes even more easy to contribute to it, not less. Wikipedia, for all its accomplishments, has not achieved this dynamic.”

A line from an email discussion I was involved in earlier today. Not my line: someone else’s.  Made me think.

Last week I explained to my class what a wiki was. The words “A wiki is a tool for the capture, extension, and dissemination of community knowledge.” came out of my mouth.

That’s not all a wiki is, of course. A wiki also embodies a theory on how best to serve that end. And it seems to me, after a deep dive into this, that the point of a wiki is a lot of things we value in both communties and publication get in the way of that core aim. Layout. Complex Markup. 404 pages. Workflows. Server-based compositing. Bureaucracy — formal or informal. Separation of edit and read modes. Complex citation requirements. Inability to access underlying page or chart data.

If there’s a good reason to dive into wiki — and really, to make wiki central to any digital literacy curriculum — it’s that a wiki makes these trade-offs obvious, in the way that a study of another culture gives us insight into our own. I think you can also make an argument that the wiki approach is underutilized, even today, and that the consequences of that are grave. But at the very least we can agree that digital literacy requires some familiarity with wikis and wiki culture — and I’m hoping that our fascination with the new and shiny is not pulling us away from that.

Quality of Input

In technosolutionist circles, the belief is that given the right algorithm we can make use of the massive amounts of information on the web to predict and solve problems. To the technosolutionist, the recent failure of advanced epidemic detecting tools to spot an ebola outbreak until a day after it had been announced by Guinea’s government through broadcast media should be a wake-up call. Foreign Policy gets it right:

On a panel I served on last week, we were asked to name what we thought was the greatest challenge to better understanding the world.  A representative of a government-funded agency stated that, in his program’s view, it was a need for better computer science tools to better extract patterns from data. That’s a worthwhile goal, but not if the data set is incomplete. While there is certainly great need for better data tools, even if one could perfectly extract every piece of information from theNew York Times each day, it would likely not yield a picture of the emerging Ebola outbreak any more detailed than what American government officials already have. Instead, what we truly need is better, more local data (and expanded tools that can translate and process that material) to allow us to more closely listen to and understand local communities.

You see this all over the place. There’s belief that the information is out there, we only need the tools to parse it. If you’re a twenty-something Silicon Valley native at a tech startup I’m sure it can feel like there’s more than enough information in some database or another to answer any question of importance to you.

For most of the world this is not the case, and you don’t even need to go to Guinea to find examples of this (I could show you this problem in my own organization, or the classroom of your choice).

I know Big Data is all so very exciting, but it would be great if we also took the collaborative/cooperative tools that have been stagnating and made them cheaper, better, more open, and less oppressive. It would be great if we poured some money into hiring more people whose job is to cultivate public networks, and if we’d pay people to translate materials from other places rather than just assuming strapping smartwatches to everybody will take care of it. It’d be nice to pull people into the process who specialized at pulling others in. At some point algorithms will matter most, but right now it’s the quality, quantity, and representativeness of input that represent the real roadblocks to better networked problem-solving


Maybe the reason people don’t use LMS collaboration tools is the tools are not collaborative

The video below, entitled “Why the Blackboard Wiki Is Not a Wiki”, shows how amazingly boneheaded Blackboard’s wiki tool design is. At the heart of the boneheadedness? The core idea of a wiki is that collaboration happens by way of

  • making things quick, and
  • seeing error and omission as community-creating opportunities, and
  • encouraging iteration

Blackboard, on the other hand, sees the job of a wiki as providing an interface to build finished pages. The Blackboard wiki is not distinguishable from the CMS your school uses to edit its website, except for the fact that it’s more poorly designed.

In other words, the collaboration tool is not a collaboration tool at all. It’s certainly not a wiki — a wiki, by definition, has page-creating links and other features that encourage organic growth. And as I demonstrate in the video there are no page-creating links, and everything possible is done to swat down the idea of emergent structure.

A report is out this week from EDUCAUSE on the LMS saying that the least liked and least used elements are the collaboration tools. What collaboration tools are those, exactly? I look at Blackboard and I’m not sure if there is a collaboration tool in there that wouldn’t seem right at home in 1999. Instead of thoughts about flow, we get buttons. Instead of buzz, we get stability.


Behind the scenes, it’s a big mess of HTML — no wiki markup, Markdown. No drag and drop.



My guess is it’s called a “wiki” for only one reason — they have to check off the RFP box that says Blackboard has wikis. No one who has ever used a wiki has worked on this software, I would guess. I’m not even sure anyone even tried to collaborate in this space — actually collaborate, that is, not use it as a book report publisher.  I can’t imagine anyone typing about anything they care about into these boxes and thinking, this feels really cool.

The report finds people would like to collaborate in the LMS more, but don’t use the tools, and the recommendation is to provide training:

For academic technology personnel, the findings suggest the importance of focusing faculty and student training and support on LMS features that support collaboration and student engagement. Many of the underused LMS features (e.g., those that involve collaboration) have the potential to enhance student learning and engagement.

I agree with much of the report, but at least as concerns the collaboration tools the majority of the American market is stuck with, nothing could be further from the truth. My guess is that introduction to tools like this, called “wikis”, could only do harm; it’s like giving someone a 1997 HTML editor and FTP client and telling them this is “blogging”.

It may be that LMS’s can get wikis right, and if so they should (Canvas’s wiki gets much muuch closer to the mark, for example). And at the point it’s actually a collaboration tool, I’ll let faculty know it’s there. Until then the real solution is better integration with outside firms who understand collaboration is not the same as multi-user publishing.


Course Management Workflow in Federated Wiki

One of the persistent issues in using a networked learning approach to things is the workflow. I’m a couple weeks into using Federated Wiki in my edtech course, and I thought I’d share my methods.

Visualizing Participation

Currently, I load up students into the neighborhood by clicking on group pages, and then hit the Recent Changes link to see what’s going on. When you do this, you start to see the beauty of the gradient chiclet design.


I can look at this an immediately see some patterns. First, the student with the blue chiclet (left corner gradient) has made a pass through a bunch of articles. I hover over the chiclet to get the student’s site ID — here it’s jeju.

I can tell a couple things about jeju. Today she (presumably) read through her group’s other materials and forked them to her site. Then she wrote four articles of her own.

How do I know she wrote four articles of her own? Because there are four where she is the first (and only author). How do I know that she forked some from others? Because there’s a bunch of articles where she is the latest author of a series of authors that started with someone else (now if there was a lot of fast back and forth, we wouldn’t know for sure that she didn’t start the article and then fork later efforts, but for this class that’s not an issue yet).



How do we know it’s forked within her group? It’s a guess, but you see how the stuff that she is forking tends to have the same set of authors? I’m guessing those are members of her seven-person group. A quick hover confirms this.

This is good. What I’ve asked students to do in the class is to use forking kind of like a “like” button. You see something you like, you pull it into your space. Here’s the rules I’ve given to my class:

  • Your site has to contain the work of others on it. If you’re picky about what is on your site, look around for good stuff or edit questionable stuff.
  • If you haven’t forked anything to your site we’re going to assume you haven’t read your classmates work, but also
  • Expect to be called on to summarize stuff you’ve forked to your site in class — don’t fork blindly.

We don’t know if jeju is forking blindly, but she is doing everything else right. As a bonus, we can call on her in class, knowing she’s read and forked the “Framing Essential Questions” and asked what she liked about that piece by kemc (another hover).

I’m curious whether the forking contains any editing. I told them they don’t need to edit for the moment, but I’m hoping some can’t help themselves. Let’s click one of these pages and take a look at the journal — say, How To Take Notes:


So this ends up being a good example. On the left you see the original poster’s version, and on the right the latest version. Now, I actually added the comment and video-fied the video here for the student, but you can see below my yellow comment another student added a comment on this. Again, in the super neat way this works not only does the comment go on the site of the person commenting, but the page gets stored there too, in the form it was when they commenting.

I’m interested in who put that comment there, so I click on the fork associated with it and find it’s kemc. I’ll have to remember to call on him next class and thank him for leaving this comment which ties together a notetaking method with some principles in instructional design.


I’ve already commented on this one, but I should find new ones and encourage the students.

Commenting is a work in progress, but there’s already a number of features that support the larger workflow. For instance, a persistent thing that teachers want to do is find the new stuff by students that they haven’t commented on yet.

That’s easy here, because when I comment, it forks the page to my site. To find the sites I haven’t commented on, I just look for pages not yet in my site.  Below is a list of sites with my icon, hence I’ve commented/forked those:


Further up the crawl, though are a bunch without my icon — I need to look at these:


Note that a side of effect of this is that in each instance I am capturing a snapshot of the student material at the time I provided the formative feedback, which may be important if you have policies that are agressive about preservation of digital assignments.

The whole feel of the tool reminds me of Tufte’s take on interfaces (unfortunately rarely seen): at a glance, the interface allows you to spot trends, but when you look closer, all the supporting detail is there.

Speaking of Tufte, the newer version of federated wiki contains an additional sparkline visualization (a Tufte invention) for all pages in the lineup (currently loaded pages). This allows you to see at a glance the distribution of activity on a page (or pages) over time.


Since it’s easy to shift-click and load up multiple pages quickly from Recent Changes, you could choose the pages you are interesting in comparing, then launch this tool on them. More on that when I get it installed.

Convivial Tools and Connected Courses

Excellent, must-read post from the Terry Elliot in the Connected Courses conversation which pulls in ideas of Christopher Alexanders’ System A (the organic, generative) and System B (the industrial, dead). Key grafs (for me at least):

I have a lot of questions about whether any of the web-based tools we are using actually fit the mold of System A. I don’t often feel those spaces as convivial and natural. Behind the artifice of interface lay the reality of code. Is that structure humane? Is it open, sustainable, and regenerative? Does it feel good? Does the whole idea behind code generate System A or System B? I really don’t know.

What I do know is that I get the very distinct feeling that certain systems I use are not convivial. Google+, Facebook, WordPress, Twitter while full of humans, feel closed, feel like templates to be filled in not spaces to be lived in. Hence, the need for outsiders more than ever to raise the question especially in this week of connected courses where we are talking about the why of why.

As readers know, I’ve been on an Alexander kick lately. And it’s less that Alexander led me to these sorts of questions than questions that have been disturbing me have led me to Alexander. So I probably have a less useful perspective than someone that comes to this with a wealth of Alexandrian insight.

“Templates to be filled, not places to be lived in.” Hmmm.

Maybe some of this unavoidable. But I wonder in particular if some of it is the perils of StreamMode, that tendency to conceptualize all of out digital life as a stream of events and statements reacting to other events and statements in a never-ending crawl. The problem with StreamMode is that the structures that make StreamMode coherent are past conversations and concepts newbies don’t have access to. StreamMode also relies heavily on personalities, and hence, popularity.

Look at this blog post, for instance. You want to know what StreamMode is? Do I link to to a definition? No, not hardly. I link you to an older piece that kinda-sorta defines the term in a context that involves a bunch of people and posts you don’t know about. How humane is that?

StateMode is a little different. StateMode is like a wiki — at any given point in time the wiki represents the total documented understanding of the community. The voice that develops is generic or semi-generic, and aims to be architecture, not utterance. If you want the feeling of StateMode, go to a place like TV Tropes. Look past the ads and you’ll find the site invites you into the community as living architecture instead of stream. New articles form as ways to make older articles more meaningful, or understandable. The process is recursive, not episodic.

The problem is that StreamMode builds community at the expense of coherence, and StateMode builds coherence at the expense of community.

I think this may be one of those irreducible conundrums, but I also think over the past 10 years we have veered too much into StreamMode, which gives us not that timeless sense but an overwhelming wave of personality pinging off of personality.

Ages ago on the Internet you used to stuble onto weird and wonderful mini-sites, like secret gardens found in the middle of the woods. Now we find streams of conversation, endlessly repeating, pushing us to live in a narrative that is not ours. The expressive nature of the web is to be treasured, but I think we’ve lost something.


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