Design Patterns and the Coming Revolution in Course Design

Keynote given at NWeLearn, 10/23/14. Originally titled “Taking Education Out of Airplane Mode”

Speaker’s note: I write unique pieces for presentations I give. I’ve not yet learned to economize and give set presentations to multiple audiences. And I approach presentation as articles, revising them mercilessly over months and months. So word of warning, the early drafts of this were titled “Taking Education out of Airplane Mode”. Somewhere about a month ago, a better title would have been “Design Patterns and the Coming Revolution in Course Design”. And then yesterday I was looking at this and thinking the real title should be “How to Fight Big Design Without Becoming a Design Anarchist.”

It’s all the same idea. As Tom Stoppard would say, it’s “two sides of the same coin, or the same side of two coins”. It’s all intertwingled. But I thought you should know.

This presentation is also fresh. I’ve danced around these questions on my blog the past few months while I wrote this, but kept this larger work under wraps. So this is my first comprehensive presentation of this idea anywhere, and I’m really interested in what you think.

Introduction: Songwriting

One thing not mentioned in my bio is that I’m a songwriter. Here’s a slide pertaining to  the third most bizarre incident of my life, when a song I had released under the name The Russian Apartments shot to 26 on the Latvian Airplay charts.


You’ll see that I beat out Jennifer Lopez, the Foo Fighters, and Depeche Mode, but couldn’t quite take down Katy Perry.

Though what you’re probably looking at here is number 36. Chris Brown is still putting out music? Who knew. The magic of Latvian radio. Anything can happen.

I mention my songwriting not because I think there may be some Latvians in the crowd I will impress, but because songwriting for me is a way to think about creation, and what we are in this room are creators.

Songwriting is like most other creation. You start with inspiration: a snatch of melody or a killer progression, but that’s when the real work begins. You start to add pieces — a bridge, a pre-chorus, a keyboard hook, a bass line. When you work solo on multi-track, as I do, and you are scoring 5 to 20 instruments you become acutely aware that each decision you make constrains you further. As you progress, there really are limited ways these things can fit together.


This should feel increasingly claustrophobic, but it feels quite the opposite, at least for a bit. There is a feeling in the middle of songwriting of acceleration, a feeling that you are not so much creating something as you are chipping away the stone to reveal a song that is already there.

This “emergent” coherence to this process feels like the peak of being human, and it’s not for nothing that when it works — when a song we listen to fits together like something living — we feel human ourselves. It doesn’t matter that “Waterloo Sunset” by the Kinks is a fairly lightweight pop or that “Debaser” by the Pixies is sophomore surrealism — the songs progress in a way that almost seems inevitable. They move from being a sequence of vowels and rhythms to words and melodies and beats.

Now a lot of people think this coherence is an abstract alignment of part to whole. But it’s much more than that.

It’s the feeling that the parts of a song are *re-acting* to *one another*. When we talk about what has the “spark” and what doesn’t, that’s the secret. And it’s built into the design process.


The same is true of great courses – the elements of a great course exist in a creative tension, and drive us forward into unexpected but seemingly inevitable directions.

Yet when I look at how we create courses and how we make songs, I’m struck by the difference. Each process is equally analytical. But the songwriting process generates serendipity, creative tension, and spark. And the course design process – the official course design process — all too often works against those things.

Take away that course design process though, and chaos reigns. It really does. Years as an instructional designer have taught me that some people can create a complex tech-mediated course from their gut, but most can’t. The scattershot nature of much of our “un-designed” offerings is a result of the assumption that most teachers can be the John Lennon of course design.

They can’t.

So I became obsessed with this question of whether there is a third way. Can we get coherence and creativity? Data-driven design and spark? And I started looking at other models in other disciplines. It got really interesting, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

The Coherence of the New England Downtown

This is the town where I spent the last 10 years of my life, before I came out to the Pacific Northwest.


I don’t know the sequence it was put together, but I do know these buildings have different dates on them.


You’ll have to forgive the wideness of Main St., a historical mistake they’ve done their best to work around. The rest of the street grew up around something that began as a square but ended a thoroughfare. The church was one of the first things in, early 1700s or so, and things sort of arranged themselves around that.


And weirdly, although these buildings span from the early 1700s to the mid-20th century (and although Main St. is far too wide) the effect of the downtown is one of coherence. And Keene had its issues, but I miss that downtown badly.


Here’s where I live now. Well, OK, not this. I live in a smaller twelve unit project, but along the same lines. It’s part of a development, and around it there are shopping centers. When we think about sprawl, we tend to think that it was due to a lack of design, but often the opposite is true. The development in this picture was fully planned out before a single building went up. Every last detail was controlled.

So here’s a question: how is it that the experience that was designed by hundreds of different people over hundreds of years feels more coherent and alive than this development which was designed by a single person?

The key, I’ve found, is emergent structure.


The Keene downtown was never built to be finished. If you walk down towards the end of Main Street, you can see the loose ends of the street. If Keene is smart, when new buildings go up at those loose ends they will emerge out of the constraints of the surrounding architecture and environment.

Like a song, the new pieces react to and mesh with the pieces in place. Unlike a song, they leave loose ends for the next expansion to pick up.

The development I live in is different. It was designed to be finished on delivery. Self-contained, with all threads wrapped up. Things are connected, but they don’t *react* to one another. And so, architecturally at least, we get this sort of still-born community. A structure that turns in on itself. Inside are wonderful people making the best of the situation, but they are doing that in an architecture that works against conviviality.

Does that in-turning structure sound familiar to those who have been watching the direction of online course design?

If not, you’re lucky.  If so, you’re a bit ahead of me here, though trust me, we will get there soon.

Alexander and Beyond

Observations about emergent structure aren’t unique to me. They were made in much better prose with much better precision by architect Christopher Alexander a half a century ago. And by others too: Jane Jacobs, for instance. By a lot of people. But Alexander, in particular, invented a whole new way of design, built around this concept. In Alexander’s methodology, referred to as “a pattern language”, designs are generated the way one might generate a sentence — with local context and needs pinging around the rules of grammar and producing infinite sets of expressive meaningful sentences. And this forms what Alexander called living structure.

Here’s how Alexander’s system worked. You’d have a pattern and it’d look like this — “Light from Two Sides”.


It’d be based on empirical study of how people react to different rooms. Alexander says that given two rooms, people will congregate in the room that has windows on two walls.

He’d have his students go out and measure this stuff. The patterns were data-driven. And for him, this is sort of a cognitive constant that the builder has to design around.

And that’s important too — it’s not an aesthetic to Alexander. Many aesthetics could emerge from this. It’s a cognitive and physical constraint, like people being most comfortable when the temperature is between 60 and 80, or people finding white noise more peaceful than sporadic explosions.

Have you ever wondered why people are so excited about the corner office? Well, here you go: Light on Two Sides.

But what makes this observation special is the way it feeds forward into other design details.

How do you create these multi-windowed rooms? You’ll find a reference here to higher level design concepts like the Long Thin House. And you’ll find reference to lower level concepts like Deep Reveal, and Windows Looking out on Life. One pattern leads you to another. Want Light from Two Sides? You can do Pattern Long Thin House to maximize the number of rooms with that light pattern. You can use courtyards, Cascade of Roofs, staggered outside boundaries.

This is not how we approach design right now. We approach design much more like the architect of my housing development in Washington. “OK, we’re going to need roads, and houses, so here are the plots, and here’s where the houses will go…”


We have a top-down design process that creates sterile communities, communities are the result of top-down constraint.

Patterns as they were developed by Alexander were supposed to help mitigate this. They’d make visible the values and knowledge of a community of users. They’d form a sort of contract as well.

A good example of this is the University of Oregon, which has 70 or so patterns in its campus plan which they have had since 1970.  The idea of the pattern approach was to move out of the self-reflexive, feature complete design, but provide a template that made the campus cohesive. Here are the principles that Alexander defined for that project:

  • Organic Order: the design emerges through a process, not from an initial blueprint.
  • Incremental Growth: development occurs by small increments.
  • Patterns: a pattern language guides the planning process.
  • Diagnosis: development is guided by an analysis of the problems with the current design.
  • Participation: user involvement must prevail throughout the planning process
  • Coordination: working together benefits the product as a whole entity.

You’ll notice that the patterns are just a piece of this. But it’s the mechanism which holds the rest together.

Design patterns are the mechanism by which the communal, long-term vision meshes with the participatory incrementalism of the short-term process.


So here’s a pattern from OU called arcades. Keeping people outside is important to your community values and purpose, but local weather sometimes precludes that. Those two things — the constraint and the community value — ping off one another and suggest arcades as a pattern.

But what about research and accountability? The research is built into the pattern. You see that line up there about the data in Pattern Language? Halfway down the page? We call this thing a name and then we can collect data about it. We only adopt it as a community if it works in a broad variety of contexts, it supports community values, and the data tells us it works.

Once we’ve established the pattern as a community sanctioned one, the community of users can go to the architects and say we want an arcade on this. And if the architects say no, there better be a darn good reason.

You’ve given design to the people by giving them design patterns with the RESEARCH BAKED IN.


Here’s a different kind of pattern called Department Hearth. And there’s a community value here that we want to facilitate discussion among people working together. And that’s run through an empirical finding that space matters — people talk to each other more when we engineer chance meeting. So buildings have to accommodate that.

Do all buildings have a common hearth and an arcade? No, not exactly. But the process of design requires that the architects explicitly consider each pattern, and if they reject it they must provide a justification why. Power to the People.

And the things the users end up specifying from the patterns — they make it easier for the architect to build the building.

It’s like a template, but it’s also the opposite of a template. The template constrains, but not in a generative way. The template doesn’t set your creativity buzzing.

This? This does.

Could this work with learning design?

I think it could.

Arcades and Department Hearths provide a way for a community to develop buildings in a decentralized way while creating the sense of a coherent whole. And maybe this approach could provide us a way to work with faculty in the driver’s seat, and to rid ourselves of so much of the dead design that plagues our higher education.

Maybe it could give faculty the tools to create their own vibrant spaces while engaging in good design and producing a coherent experience.

Programming’s Sea Change

Where the story of design patterns is going to lead you next is software, because it is in software that it has had the most influence.

In the mid-80s Ward Cunningham, Kent Beck and others were frustrated by software design. This was an age of scientific design and management. You’d determine your goal. You’d write up the product design. You’d produce your timeline/waterfall chart, sketch out your module dependencies then write a bunch of modules from scratch. In a short twelve months you’d have your prototype, show it to the customer, find out they hated it and then you’d go back to the drawing board.


Cunningham and others were fascinated by design patterns, and a lot of the work they did was developing libraries of design patterns for code.

They captured community solutions to software problems the way Oregon captured community solutions to architectural problems. And they were somewhat successful with that and somewhat unsuccessful. I think you can say that the idea of software patterns had some influence on every piece of software in your pocket right now, but only a fraction of them were built using something like a patterns repository.

But the thing that they were proposing when then pushed design patterns — well, that’s a different story.

Because the other piece of what they proposed was something called “agile programming”. And what the advocates of agile programming (or eXtreme Programming) said was radical at the time. They said, roughly, that the design emerges from the construction of programs, rather than the construction from the design. You build something to find out what it is you really want to build. And you do it not so much based on a step by step plan as through rearranging ideas that have worked before and seeing what happens.

In other words, even though programming involved an awful lot of people working together, it could and should be less like that waterfall chart, and more like writing music, or composing an essay, or fishing, or cooking by taste.

It’s difficult to grasp how crazy this sounded to people in corporate software in the 80s and the 90s. Sure, a process like that could produce a small piece of software. Individual programmers had kinda sorta been doing this with smaller project from time immemorial.

But to bring such a thing into the enterprise? And to hold the work together with patterns and pair-programming and other organic methods? It was nuts. It was sloppy. It was a method fit only for individual hackers, and spaghetti coders — not for highly paid teams at IBM.

Top-down design tells us that the abstract concepts give rise to the instantiation of those concepts. There’s a hierarchy. Theory begets practice. Specification begets code.

Agile programming said your specification *was* the code. It said your common architectural designs — if considered at the right level of abstraction and empirically verified — could guide you through construction better than theory, needs analysis, or top-down design.

That sounds abstract, but this part is not. People don’t write 18 month prototypes anymore. There may be some companies that do waterfall charts of programming projects, but you be hard pressed to find the most talented programmers there.

In fact, the way software is designed today looks a lot like the way Oregon designed their campus:

  • Organic Order: the design emerges through a process, not from an initial blueprint.
  • Incremental Growth: development occurs by small increments.
  • Patterns: a pattern language guides the planning process.
  • Diagnosis: development is guided by an analysis of the problems with the current design.
  • Participation: user involvement must prevail throughout the planning process
  • Coordination: working together benefits the product as a whole entity.

And this is my thesis — as Instructional Designers we’re sort of in what the dark days of the 80s were to programming.

In many places we’ve become implementers of the spec.

We are, in many places, pushing faculty into ADDIE inspired processes — processes that were created to build instruction for military personnel going into very defined jobs. We’re using those same processes to teach students who are going to switch jobs a dozen times in their careers.

Here’s a final thing about Ward and others in that agile software movement.

They had this crazy “agile” idea, but to their minds they were less scientists inventing the idea than anthropologists discovering the system under the system. Big Design was in full force, but if you pulled back the curtain, you’d find that what good programmers were doing, in actual practice, was more organic than that. They had hints of agile programming in their process — they were just in a system that made them feel guilty for that.

I don’t know if this resonates with anyone out there. But it resonates with me. I don’t want to work in a system that makes me pretend things I know about process are not true. I don’t think you do either.

Learning Design

I’d started this presentation saying that we were designing courses wrongly, and were being hindered by that. I’m hoping by now you can see there are approaches to design that we have not truly considered as a field.

But how do they relate to learning design?

Here’s my take. What we currently have in our institutions in the face-to-face space is a sort of design anarchy. Every professor chooses his or her own approach. And while that allows the occasional Jim Groom or Michael Wesch to flourish, for the most part it produces something architecturally similar to this:


Many face-to-face classes are good, but so many are not. There are an awful lot of classes which have no empirical basis for the way they are designed whatsoever. And even where they are good, the experience can be so disconnected that the most flexible of students feels a bit overwhelmed.

At the same time, the online world is moving in. This is a world where many design methodologies came out of the military, a world comfortable talking about courses as reproducible experiences, suitable for mass manufacture at a zero marginal cost. And they are bringing in something that looks like this:


And I think a lot of administrators are frankly relieved about this, because as more and more education moves online, the idea is that we can bulldoze our strip-mall exburban eyesore and replace it with something centrally managed and controlled.  And courses will be delivered as these closed, feature complete products, designed by the experts — us, the instructional designers.

Yay, us.

And the feeling I get is in this massive battle that’s about to happen you are expected to be either for design anarchy or for Big Design’s waterfall process.

When I try in my job to move away from Big Design, I feel I always have to fight the impression that I’m being unserious, or unstructured.

I want to say to people, look, try running a blog as your class site, putting all your communications and materials into a single place. One which also aggregates student work. Seriously. It will change the nature of your class.

Well, hold on a second. What learning objective does that serve? What letter of ADDIE is that? People can get a bit freaked.


And when I talk to people on the design anarchy side, it’s worse — I’m making this too complex, they say. Let everyone do what they want, and it all works out.

Well, has it? Do most of our students feel like they had a coherent, interconnected school experience? Do most of our classes engage in empirically supported methods?

In a way, of course, the design anarchists are the ones who should listen up the most.

Because if you’ve watched the K-8 space, you know who wins the anarchy vs. Big Design battle. It’s Big Design and it’s not even close.

We are moving to a future where every minute of every day of a grade school teacher is precisely scripted by a textbook company in collaboration with a district. I have zero doubt that unless something changes this will be the fate of much of higher education as well.

If you’re an instructional designer, then maybe you get to write that script. Again, yay you.

Instructional Design Patterns

But what if we could do better than that? What if we could transcend the ADDIE mindset that has plagued us all these years?

What if we could push good design not by learning designers scripting classes, but by us creating the learning design patterns and the enabling architecture for faculty to implement them?

What if instead of saying hey, you need a course blog, and we can do that because of ACADEMIC FREE-ANCE!!!111! — what if we agreed as institutions that courses need a “Learning Hearth”?


Begin with a preposition:


When what?

When each student’s digital learning space is separate from other students learning spaces, and there is no peripheral awareness of what other students are doing, a student’s experience becomes disconnected, losing the SYMPATHY OF NUMBERS (34) provided in a physical space. Under these conditions there is little chance for a community to develop; students become disengaged, unmotivated, and less likely to learn.

Therefore, what?

THEREFORE, in every digital space create a LEARNING HEARTH, a space in which students are forced to bump into each other’s work. This space should combine announcements, course materials, and important links with feeds of student created content, linked and excerpted to entice the student to engage with them. Links should be composed of RIVERS OF WORK (48) and class information should be NEXT TASKS FOREGROUNDED (12).




Begin with a preposition:


When what?

When students do tasks in isolation, they can often misunderstand tasks, or apply less effort than when they complete these tasks in the presence of others. Additionally, when courses consist of online assignments, students can feel disconnected from other students in the class. Theories of social facilitation also suggest that a public-ness to work can increase motivation and engagement.

Therefore, what?

THEREFORE, create RIVERS OF WORK which show students the latest work submitted by their peers, and encourage them to react to that work either by comment, their own work, or a remix of the presented work. Attention should be given to river size as small rivers do not generate forward class momentum, and large rivers can be overwhelming (see data).

RIVERS OF WORK are a crucial part of the higher-level pattern LEARNING HEARTHS, and maybe curated into ASSIGNMENT EXEMPLARS.

An important thing to see here is that looking at RIVERS OF WORK will lead you to the LEARNING HEARTH pattern, and the LEARNING HEARTH pattern leads you down to RIVERS OF WORK.  And RIVERS OF WORK suggests ASSIGNMENT EXEMPLARS.

And thinking about RIVERS OF WORK makes you think of what those rivers would consist of. Reading response? Article summaries? Updates to a crowd-sourced project?

You do this already, I’m sure. “What would this class look as a wiki? A blog?”

But again, we’re not supposed to think like this. We’re supposed to define the Student Learning Outcome and choose the best possible assignment for that SLO.


We’re supposed to take the plot of land, draw the roads, divide it into plots, and determine the shape of the house by the plot, and the layout of the rooms by the shape of the house.

Eventually, at some level, where you put your dining room table is determined by the needs of the road system. And that’s bad, because the roads have to be aware of the needs of your dining room table as well.

Top-down gives you consistency, but it doesn’t give you anything living structure. The magic actually comes about when you think — what does a RIVER OF WORK look like in Psychology 101?

It’s in the collision of the design pattern with the local need. We’re allowed to think through the pattern.

What this generates with WordPress in a Philosophy class for a general education class will of course be different than what it might generate with Canvas in a Physics class. But there will be a coherence all the same to the student experience. And while we are not enforcing checklists of standards on faculty, we are, in fact getting the sort of consistency and quality that matters.

It gets better. The work and testing you do with LEARNING HEARTHS at your institution — and the things you learn — transfer easily to work at my institution, because we have a common language.

And if we’re not afraid of the “f” word — feelings — we could start to look at what a learning hearth should FEEL like.  Alexander says, quite rightly, that during design holding on to what something should feel like is the best way of keeping on course, because you know when you’ve taken a wrong turn right away.  Select three examples of Learning Hearths for the faculty member to look at. Have them pay attention to how it feels.

Sound like hippie nonsense? Read Kahneman, read cognitive science on thin-slicing.

Again, I think this stuff is, in fact, what many of us are already doing, but just not in a formalized or institutionally approved way. And not in a way for which we have a language. And not in a way that our claims can be empirically tested, or formally analyzed to guide improvement.

And I want to say quite clearly that idea of learning design patterns is not new. As I’ve gotten into this I’ve found that people have been kicking this idea around since at least the mid-90s, and that in the past few years various efforts have made some significant progress. Here’s a book I just recently came upon from 2010, for example:


And I would bet you that after this keynote four or five of you will come up to me and tell me your own learning design pattern project. That’s exactly what I want out of this talk.

As for the rest of you, some of this, no doubt, will seem confusing to you.  It probably is confused, a bit.

But I return to the software example.

Years ago you had the maverick hackers and the institutional plodders. If you worked in a group you were probably following the approved process feeling miserable, or not following it and making other people’s lives miserable. And life sucked for programmers until the industry realized that you could have fluidity and structure at the same time if you made that a priority. And what I feel now, instinctively, is that we are in those dark ages.


I started out writing this cheerily, working on it in my free time, seeing where it led. And somewhere in the middle — not of this piece, mind you, but of the writing process — it got very dark.

We are in dark days. Everywhere I look I see the exuberance of the mid-aughts being crushed by processes and requirements and specs that don’t fit. And where I see signs of hope, it’s all cowboys and mavericks, stuff that will never mesh with our institutions, that sets itself up as in conflict with the very institutions in which it is trying to root.

I’ve got nothing against cowboys. As the great philosopher William Nelson said, all my heroes are cowboys. You look at the stuff I’m doing on my own campus, and it’s being run off of off-campus servers. You look at where I’ve been successful and it’s grass-roots under-the-radar stuff.

The dark piece of that is that it can’t take root in the organization in a way that transcends the individuals involved.

Here’s a story for you. I came to Washington State University, gung ho about my new job, and wondered why we were behind on the use of things like blogs and wikis. I started building stuff, because there was nothing there.

It wasn’t until I was a year into it that someone said to me — this is great! It reminds us of the old MediaWiki we used to have.

Turns out WSU was a *leader* in this stuff. Papers, keynotes, conferences. Early — and impressive — use of a university wiki. The use of worldware for ePortfolios. Student blogging and course blogs in 2006 or so.

Leadership changed. People were moved, rearranged, let go. Servers were shut down, and student work deleted. And this experimentation was obliterated so fully that I only came on it by accident.


This is not a unique story. I have a friend who presented to the board of a prestigious college about Networked Learning. And after talking about blogs, wikis, and the like he was told that they’d had all of that – in 2008. It’s gone now.

If I opened up the floor right here, I’m sure many of you could tell similar stories.

It’s easy to shake our fists at some imaginary villain here. But if we want better learning design, we can’t get that, strangely enough, by simply producing better learning design. Or we can’t get it permanently at any rate.

Instead, we have to look at the process by which we produce classes, and come to new community and professional understandings of what that process should look like.

We have to articulate that process publicly, so that the people following new processes are not mistaken for cowboys or illiterates.

And we have to make that new process comprehensible to faculty, and give them the tools to participate more fully while still preserving the integrity of the process.

We have to root deeply into the Way Things Happen. Or even more than that – we have to change the soil so these ideas can take root.

I said it got dark in the middle of writing this. It did. It kept getting darker, until I was talking to someone involved in the Agile Software movement. And what they said is, look, we launched this thing in the 80s, we didn’t get everything we wanted, but programming is a much better job today than it was even ten years ago. The way companies have programmers program now — almost everywhere — is much more in line with how we naturally think about these things.

In programming, they found ways for people to bring that organic experience of programming alone into programming with people. In programming, they found a place in between 1970s exburb strip mall loops and the sterility of the 1980s mall.

And that’s promising. It excites me. Because I can imagine us looking at the way we work now in 10 years and thinking, my God, how did we put up with that?

Maybe the learning design approach I’ve specified here is not where we’ll go. But if we can open up a honest conversation about process, perhaps these experiments can take root, and this Groundhog Day could end.

Perhaps. And perhaps, for me, is a word of hope.


Image credits:

Latvian Airplay

Keene Downtown Shots

Tract Housing:

Outer Strip w/ Car Dealerships:

Waterfall model:

OU Pattern Language (arcades, department hearths):
from The Oregon Experiment.

Pattern Language (Light from two sides):


Planet of the Apes, Lady Liberty


I mentioned a couple times that I don’t know what to do when something like GamerGate comes up. It’s horrific, absolutely. It’s corrosive to a general faith in humanity and a reminder that INTERNET FREE-ANCE!!1!™ is only as useful as people’s ability to use the Internet without having to endure trauma-inducing levels of terrorism.

I don’t know what I have to add as a middle-aged white dude on this. I can tell you, from working in political blogging, that it’s real and it’s pervasive. While back in those days I might get the occassional message to “go choke to death on a cock”, women I knew were subject to attacks that seemed disturbingly real and considered. And frequent. And repetitive. I know Audrey Watters has suffered similar, and you have to look no further than Kathy Sierra to see how far people will go.  Effeminate males also get targetted — this is certainly a case of rage that marginalized groups get to speak at all.

I’ve dealt with these issues multiple times in my career. At one point, after having spent months of my life building up an active hyperlocal site for my hometown I shut the whole thing down when I found it was being used to bully and intimidate a female city worker who had been targetted by local “libertarians” as an environmetal “nazi”.

After a creepy Photoshopped image was posted on the site, I went over my options — this was a well organized group with national connections in the thousands. Escalation was inevitable, and I didn’t have the resources to keep that community a safe place. And I won’t run something that is not a safe place.

So I shut it down. That night.

I usually don’t talk about this stuff directly on the blog, because what can I add to this specific discussion that has not already been better said elsewhere? I retweet and promote other voices. To the extent I hear people shrug off terrorism as nothing more than a flame war, I try to correct their understanding. I try to let people who have actually *lived* the situation do the talking.

But regarding edtech — well, my own experiences seeing how voices are systematically supressed in communities informs almost everything I do in edtech. That could be in last week’s post about how the Kate Middleton Dress Fiasco relates to Wikipedia’s decline, but it’s also in my vision of a web designed to support iterative extension of knowledge and organic communities of practice.

This stuff happens because misogyny is real, and serious, and oppressive. But it is amplified through a web that knows that real, serious, opressive things drive page hits and deliver eyeballs. So that’s a piece I hope we can talk about as well — how did Vannevar Bush’s system of Associative Trails and Englebart’s Grocery List become this never-ending battle over who gets to hold the microphone and do the yelling? That’s where I see the greatest overlap with my work, and yes, one of the metrics of success is to what extent it creates a culture where Gamergate behavior can’t take root.

I know saying that puts me at risk of looking like I think GamerGate *is* just another flame war. That’s not the case.  It’s merely the piece of the problem I happen to have some insight on.

For the rest of it, please listen to the voices of the people being attacked. This behavior is not a footnote to online interaction; it it is deep at the core of the thing, and deserves our attention.

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.