The Federated OER Wiki Is Up and Running

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.

Is Paying Adjuncts Crap Killing Technological Innovation?

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.

Dan Meyer Wrote Something Brilliant the Other Day

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.

Online Learning Is Not Groundhog Day, It’s Memento

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.”


The Harvard “MOOCs for Alumni” Thing Parties Like It’s 1999

From the Chronicle:

Beginning in March, HarvardX for Alumni will offer versions of seven Harvard MOOCs exclusively to graduates of the university. The courses will not be full-length MOOCs but “segments” that include some new material developed specially for graduates, according to Michael Rutter, a spokesman. Some professors might even travel to talk about the material at Harvard Clubs in different cities, Mr. Rutter said.

Is Harvard onto something? Efforts to integrate MOOCs into higher education’s credentialing system have stalled, and studies suggest that MOOCs tend to attract people who already have college degrees. So alumni relations and fund raising are areas where universities might find value in MOOCs.

Neat, huh? Original out-of-the-box thinking. Oh wait, there’s another press release here….

Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, Yale to invest $12 million in Distance Learning Venture; Herbert Allison to head effort

Oxford, Princeton, Stanford and Yale universities announced today that they would each provide $3 million to launch their “distance learning” venture to provide on-line courses in the arts and sciences to their combined 500,000 alumni.

Herbert M. Allison Jr., former president of Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., will serve as president and chief executive officer of the non-profit University Alliance for Life-Long Learning.

The Alliance will offer non-credit courses to the alumni, taking advantage of emerging technologies to give the graduates convenient access to their schools’ extraordinary resources.

The date? September 28th, 2000. Fourteen years ago. 

Back then, the dramatic move prompted MIT to consider duplicating the effort. Later that year, MIT moves forward with the design of Knowledge Updates@MIT based partially on this “POSY” (Princeton, Oxford, Stanford, Yale) alliance. In fact the report McKinsey produces for MIT proposes the same program design we’re seeing in the news today, right down to the combination of face-to-face and online elements. They almost go forward with it,  but find that the models show that an alumni-only play would not be financially sustainable.

Of course, we know the how the MIT story went. After looking at the Alumni/Lifelong learning option, they decided the best route would be to just open up their materials to everyone. Shortly after that Princeton had a similar change of heart. From November 19, 2001:

Princeton decides not to continue in the Alliance for Life-Long Learning

Princeton University, one of the founding members of the University Alliance for Life-Long Learning, has decided not to continue as a member of the alliance beyond the current first phase of the organization’s development.

“Our work with the alliance in putting some of our courses online has been a helpful experience,” said Amy Gutmann, Princeton’s provost and one of its representatives on the alliance board of directors. “We wish the alliance much success as it continues to evolve, and we will maintain our initial courses online with the alliance. At the same time, we have decided to proceed in a way that provides broad access to electronic learning materials and courseware on a non-proprietary basis. We will pursue this course under the leadership of our new vice president for information technology, Betty Leydon.”

The people who stayed n the Alliance? They had a change of heart too. From September 2002:

Learning alliance to grow

AllLearn, the three schools’ nonprofit distance learning alliance formerly known as the University Alliance for Lifelong Learning, originally offered classes only to alumni and other affiliates of the three schools. But now the online venture is expanding to include other potential students.

“We are doing this in a targeted way,” Allison said. “We are going to be contacting interest groups that may have interest in particular course offerings.”

Levin said he feels confident that the program, which was launched in 2000, is making progress and has avoided pitfalls similar other distance learning ventures have faced.

But even that didn’t work. By June 2006, it was all over:

What Went Wrong with AllLearn?

AllLearn was backed by the prestige of its partner institutions, but the company might have been hard-pressed to “sell” the value of the non-credit courses rather than a degree with the “elite university” seal…AllLearn’s failure to move beyond the “edutainment” market appears to have been the main reason behind its demise. Until now, Oxford, Yale, and Stanford have kept quiet about the collapse of their joint e-learning venture, with next to no news coverage on AllLearn’s demise.

So we are faced with the endless circle of life of the digital learning initiative:

  1. Someone says — hey we should make money on this. But they can’t make money on it, because people generally want credit for the hundreds of hours they spend on a class.
  2. So someone says — well, what if we did it just for alumni, where we wouldn’t have to give credit? But that doesn’t work out either. Because math.
  3. Someone then says, you know, since we can’t make money on this, we should just give it away free, for the public good. There is a brief period of sanity! People love the free stuff.
  4. The open stuff starts to have impact. The institution buries the evidence of the failed for-profit venture and hides the bodies, proclaiming success of open initiative.
  5. A year later someone comes along and says “Look how interested people are in this free stuff! We should make money on this!”
  6. Repeat.

When I do my crabby Grandpa Simpson thing and tell the young ‘uns that we’ve been through this all before, they often think I’m being metaphorical, or constructing an analogy. But I’m not. We have been here before in as exact a fashion as one can be at a place in history again without violating fundamental laws of physics. Stanford hadn’t even finished shredding the AllLearn stationery when their faculty started the whole process again.

I don’t want to descend into cynicism here, and say that nothing ever changes. Because part of that cycle — the OER center of it — really does work. And that’s where we *always* end up after the alumni site “idea”, after we realize that it’s pretty hard to make a living selling digital content on the internet to *anybody*. Harvard is on track to arrive at that point in about 18 months. And that’s cool. Each time we pass through that stage we move a bit further forward, and if Groundhog Day develops one character trait above all others, it’s bemused patience. I can wait!

But if everyone else could read up on the history, we’d get there much, much faster.

Why I Don’t Edit Wikis (And Why You Don’t Either, and What We Can Do About That)

Back in the heady days of 2008, I was tempted to edit a Wikipedia article. Tempted. Jim Groom had just released EDUPUNK to the world, and someone had put up a stub on Wikipedia for the term. Given I was involved with the earlier discussions on the term, I thought I’d pitch in.

Of course, what happened instead was a talkpage war on whether there sufficient notability to the term. Apparently the hundred or so blog posts on the term did not provide notability, since they did not exist in print form. Here’s the sort of maddening quote that followed after Jim got on the page and had granted CC-BY status to a photo so Wikipedia could use it. Speaking as a Wikipedia regular, one editor argues vociferously against the idea EDUPUNK deserves a page on the site:

This is clearly a meme. No one agrees what it means, its nice that a group of educators are so fond of wikipedia but it shouldnt be used for the purpose of promoting a new website and group. Even in this talk page this becomes clear, the poster boy says “Hey Enric, both of these images are already licensed under CC with a 2.0 nc-sa”Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.” It wouldn’t be very EDUPUNK if they weren’t ” then goes on to change the copyright of his own image to include it in this article, this is not ideology, this is a marketing campaign.

There’s a couple things to note here. First, the person whining above is not wrong, per se. This article is a public billboard of sorts, vulnerable to abuse by marketers, and vigilance makes sense. But ultimately his — and given Wikipedia’s gender bias it’s almost certainly a he — his protestations end up being ridiculous. EDUPUNK ends up a few months later being chosen as one of the words of the year by the New York Times, at the same time Wikipedia is unable to agree if it rises to the dizzying notability heights of fish finger sandwich.

But the most telling part of that comment is this:

No one agrees what it means, its nice that a group of educators are so fond of wikipedia but it shouldnt be used for the purpose of promoting a new website and group.

No one agrees what it means. Ward Cunningham, the guy who invented wikis, has been talking a while about the problem with this assumption — that we must agree immediately on these sorts of sites — and believes it to be the fundamental flaw of wikis. The idea that people should engage with one another and try to come to common understanding is a good thing, absolutely. The flaw, however, is that wiki format pushes you toward immediate consensus. The format doesn’t give people enough time to develop their own ideas individually or as a subgroup. So an article about fish finger sandwiches can get written (we’re all in agreement, good!) whereas an article on EDUPUNK can’t get written (too many different viewpoints, bad!).

It’s important to note Cunningham’s exact point here. Many people have gone after the culture of Wikipedia in recent years, a culture which is increasingly broken. Cunningham’s point is that the culture is a product of the tool itself, which doesn’t give folks enough alone time. We need to break off, develop our ideas, and come back and reconcile them. And we need a tool that encourages us to do that.

I’ve been thinking this through for a bit, trying to come up with a solution to this problem that has the spirit of Cunningham’s proposed federated wiki but is easier for people to wrap their heads around. Here’s the the basic idea, mostly carried forward from Cunningham, but eliminating a couple more complex concepts, and simplifying concepts and implementation.

  1. I install a wiki on my server, but it’s not empty. It’s a copy of a reference on online learning (or some other reference of interest to me), with all wiki pages transcluded. For the uninitiated, what this means is my wiki “passes through” the existing wiki pages. For the purposes of imagining this, let’s pretend I just pull 2500 articles about learning and networks from Wikipedia, and transclude them on my wiki/server.
  2. I then join a federation. So let’s say I join a federation of a 100 instructional designers and technologists. This changes search for me, because search on my wiki is federated now. I can search across the federation for an article on EDUPUNK. Let’s say it’s 2008 and I’m looking for a quick explanatory link on EDUPUNK to send someone. I pump in that search and find there’s five or six somewhat crappy treatments, and one half decent one by Martin Weller.
  3. I don’t edit it. Or rather, I do, but the minute I edit it, this becomes a fork that only lives on my server. So I fix it up without having to get into long arguments with people about notability, etc. When done, I shoot a link to the person I wanted to send the article to. My selfish needs are met.
  4. Now, however, when anyone goes to their EDUPUNK article in the federation, they see that I’ve written a new version. Some people decide to adopt this as their version. Martin Weller sees my edits, and works about half of them into his version along with some other stuff. Jim comes by and adopt Martin’s new version with some changes. It’s better than my version, so I adopt that one.
  5. Tools start to show a coalescence around the Martin-Me-Martin-Jim version. A wiki gardener in charge of the “hub” version looks at the various versions and pulls them together, favoring the Martin-Me-Martin-Jim version, but incorporating other elements as well. This version will get distributed when new people join the federation, but as before, people can fork it, and existing forks remain intact.

The idea here is that forks preserve information by giving people the freedom to edit egocentrically, but that the system makes reconciliation easy by keeping track of the other versions, so that periodic gardening can bring these versions together back into a more generic whole.

You can think about this from any number of angles — imagine an online textbook, for example, that allowed you to see all the modifications made to that textbook by other instructors — and not edits living on a corporate server owned by Harcourt-Brace, but edits that were truly distributed. Imagine a federated student wiki, where your students could build out their articles in piece during the semester, seeing how other students had forked and modified their articles, but keeping control of their subsite, and not being forced to accept outside edits. The student’s final work would reflect *their* set of decisions about the subject and the critiques of their treatment of it. Or imagine support documentation that kept track of localizations, making it easy to see what things various clients needed to clarify, and making those changes available to all.

Anyway, this is the idea. Encourage forking, but make reconciliation easy. It’s the way things are going, and the implications for both OER production and academic wikis are huge.

“Vertical Social Networks” [pd;dr]

Hey, I’ve invented a new initialism: pd;dr. For “Pando Daily; Don’t Read”. It’s necessitated by me quoting a Pando story, but not wanting you to follow the link there and have your faith in humanity whittled down to a stump by the articles that will be in your peripheral vision.  In any case, there’s an interesting article in Pando today on the re-emergence of vertical networks [pd;dr]:

Spiceworks is one of many professional social networks to spring up in the last decade that seem to be doing remarkably well. There’s also GitHub for developers, ResearchGate for scientists, Edmodo for educators, GrabCAD for mechanical engineers, and Practice Fusionfor doctors. In total, these platforms have raised $454.6 million in venture capital.

Cynics might groan. “Haven’t we seen this before?” they shout, shaking their hypothetical fists at the sky. “No one wants a social network for dogs!” Or at least, not enough people to bring in the sky high returns VCs look for.

Ai, it may be true that not many people want a social network for dogs. But it turns out people do want a social network for their jobs, and one with a more curated user base than LinkedIn.

I think in this case Pando (well, Carmel DeAmicis, actually [pd;dr]) might be on to something. LinkedIn is a bleak existential vacuum because it doesn’t embrace the core of your job, unless your job is networking connections. Which means that LinkedIn is basically a vertical for salespeople with everyone else trapped inside it.

What strikes me about this article is one of the unrecognized stories of the internet is how robust hobby communities (which are basically the free-time analogue of work verticals) have been — I used to hang out on Soundcloud when I had more time to make music, and loved the interaction. My wife loved WetCanvas when she was getting going with painting. Others have written about Ravelry.

You’d think the emergence of other tools would obviate the need for such things, but no, apparently not.

I don’t know if Goldman Sachs is right for putting a gazillion dollars into an IT social network. But the surprising resilience of special purpose networks is interesting to say the least, and deserves more exploration, both in business and education. What makes some work, and some fail? How can those lessons help us to build better experiences for people?