You Get to Decide What the Big One Is: A Clarification

So I wasn’t as clear as I might have been yesterday with my post. The main change is not that we’re moving from a constricted notion of the subject being the Cascadia earthquake to a constricted notion of a Zombie disaster. The main change is that we’re broadening out the available options in the class of what The Big One is.

We had always planned to do this broadening cross-class — have different classes plug into different subjects about what “The Big One” is — see, for example, the About the Course page. But my initial thought was a more tightly constrained system where *each course* picked a relatively constrained area.

(Those that have read me for a few years may realize this is just the implementation of Water106, but with a different sort of subject, and with federated wiki as the cross-course interaction enabler. That vision remains a key piece of this).

Instead what we are moving towards is a scheme where each classroom group can pick their own definition of “The Big One”, up to and including zombies. The key reason (at least for me) is that the narrower construct does not play well enough to the strengths of the students in the context of a short class. We need more flexibility to meet the students where they are. For a number of students, where they are is zombies. As  Pumpkin Yang pointed out, these students may already have quite a lot of “real life” on their plate, and they are learning educational technology (the REAL target of the instruction) on top of that. If giving some a fantasy option helps make it more fun, then why not?

Incidentally, if you go to that About the Course page linked above you’ll find that you all are invited to participate as well. Claiming a site and joining is easy, we just ask that if you take up a slot that you commit to the Course Charter, and produce at least 5 pages a week on a disaster related topic.

The Zombie Curriculum (a possible pivot)

I had *such* nice project planned out for my class this year. I was told I had a bunch of hard science people and history people, and I came up with this subject of disasters, with this wonderful local focus. We would work with ed tech while researching the coming Cascadia earthquake.

Well, I got to my first class, and here’s what happened. The breakdown of students doesn’t work with earthquakes. These are teachers that have a certification in a specific area, and instead of a bunch of earth science and history majors we had this breakdown:

  • Biology: 3
  • Chemistry: 1
  • History: 3
  • English: 4
  • Consumer Science: 1
  • Phys Ed: 1

Oh my. Biology and Chemistry aren’t really the core of earthquakes. And English students are a THIRD of the class, and the literature options for earthquakes were just not that compelling.

So after talking about this with the students, we’re thinking of taking this in a different direction, and I wanted to see what people thought.

The idea is this: The Zombie Curriculum. An attempt to teach multiple subjects through the medium of ZOMBIES.

This idea was mentioned in-class off-handedly by a student, but the more I thought about it, the more it dug its way into my skull. The truth is that zombies intersect with almost everything.

Take human biology. Float a couple questions like “Can Zombies Feel Pain” and suddenly you have a class researching the nervous system.

  • Chemistry? Well, Zombies get energy from some form of chemical process. What does that process look like? Is it possible they harness the energy from their own decay? How do we figure that out? And maybe Zombie-ism is chemical, right?
  • Statistics. What’s the growth model for the zombie population? How do different assumptions and models lead to different predictions for when we hit peak zombie.
  • Ecology. What’s the ecological impact of zombieism?
  • Literature. What do zombies mean? Why are we obsessed with them? What are the hallmarks of the zombie genre and how does it intersect with the language of other genres?
  • History. I have a bunch of students in class that want to look at things like the Spanish Flu, and how we react to infectious diseases. Do we end up the paranoid husks we see in zombie fiction?
  • Sociology. Who bears the brunt of the zombie apocalypse? (Spoiler alert: it’s the poor and the historically underprivileged)
  • Foreign Language and Culture: How is the concept of the zombie translated in other cultures?
  • Business: What are the good business plans in a zombie apocalypse? Can we write a business plan for a growth industry?
  • Psychology: How will PTSD affect the survivors of the apocalypse? And what does the world look like to a zombie?

Anyway, we’re looking at this option. Groups would research zombie issues and write up explanations that pulled in science, math, literature, and even physical education. We’d create a wiki on zombies that serves both as research into ZOmbies and a set of teaching materials of students.

Thoughts? Do you miss the earthquake idea? Do you like the zombie idea? Would you like to contribute to our zombie curriculum?



Quicker Site Claim Process for Federated Wiki Classes

I’ve demoed federated wiki to a lot of people now, facilitated two online happenings with it, and I am in the process of teaching my second college class with it. And I would say getting started is the hardest part with it. The big problem is that for federated wiki to act like a wiki we have to pull sites together. But the actions required of individuals to pull sites together themselves are pretty advanced. For those who work in student blogging with course hubs you can imagine the problem as this: what if every student had to build their own RSS aggregator? In the first 60 minutes of the course?

The ability to build aggregation and activity engines easily is a key strength of federated wiki, especially with the new Roster and Activity plugins. The ability to hand code, via a simple syntax, your own Activity Feed selection formula still blows my mind. But it’s still not what I want to show pre-service teachers on day one.

So I spent my weekends during the end of the summer trying to make the process easier using some basic HTML and Javascript.  What I settled on was a two pronged approach.

First I made a plain HTML aggregator and viewer, something that I’ve been calling wikity. In the past I’ve used a federated wiki site as the hub of the class, but jumping in-between federated wiki sites early on gets people confused as to where they are and bad things happen. For example, I might have a “Current Assignments” page there, and they will fork it by mistake, and now they have to always remember to check “twins” to find assignments. Having the hub be read-only with direct links to specific pages makes that easier.

The second ploy was to create a system in which would pre-create a whole bunch of empty sites with generic names, already connected in a roster and let the students claim one of these pre-connected sites. That saved us from the problem where the students needed to create the sites, we needed to compile them into a roster, and then need to feed that back out to the students. In the new system you’re connected to the class instantly. The site name problem also deals with another element, which is that when students create sites they often are not sure if they are going to want their name in the URL. This is especially true of public school teachers, whose online presence is often under a ridiculous level of scrutiny. In this claim process, the URL is arbitrary, but they can add or subtract their name from the site at will.

I think I run the class in such a way that they will WANT to associate their name with the result, but they can’t know that on day one.

In any case, here is the process. The actual claim process is the first 90 seconds of the video. The rest covers what you have to do when you switch computers, and we throw in a little sped-up editing for good measure.


A Simple Proposal for Killing Comments with Annotated Links

I would be interested to see what would happen if someone reconfigured blog comments as follows.

  1. Don’t call them “comments” call it “related pages” or “link annotations” or “Community Links”
  2. People have 140 characters and a link box at the end of the page.
  3. The way link annotation works is this:
    • You, the reader, read the post
    • You either find a related page or you write a page in your own space related to the post
    • You plug in the URL to the URL box
    • You have 140 characters to explain how the linked page responds, contradicts, or expands on the post you are annotating

Ideally you’d also have a mechanism to encourage reusable pages, e. g. instead of linking to a page that says “Here’s why Post X on CompStat is Wrong”, you’d link to a page that doesn’t mention Post X explicitly, but itemizes the reasons why sociologists no longer take the Broken Windows Theory CompStat’s model was built on seriously.

This linked page could be referenced from many articles, on other subjects, with the 140 character text of the annotation providing the localized segue, e.g. “CompStat was adopted in the heyday of Broken Windows Theory, a theory since discredited. See [[Broken Windows Theory Broken]].” where Broken Windows Theory Broken linked to your page (or the page of someone else).

The way the resuse incentive could work is this — if multiple people link the page from multiple other pages, the annotation floats to the top and a visual indicator shows that this page is in general use, not just an extended ranty reply to the post. If multiple people link it, but all form this page, it shows it’s considered a useful reply, but maybe specific. If one person links it and only from this page, it’s maybe a comment.

You could build a better set of incentives, perhaps, but that would get you started.

What would happen? I don’t know. Maybe people would still route around restrictions and find ways to use it to comment instead of extend and expand on things.

On the other hand, maybe a host of things would change, especially if the commenting had central analytics. You’d be able to generate a set of suggested reading for users based off what they had read, essentially crowdsourced. People could rate annotation links for relevance, and the results would form something close to a semantic map of the web. The 140 characters wouldn’t give you the Semantic Web, but it’d provide more signal and less noise than current approaches to linking and authoring do.

I’m focussed on federated wiki right now, so I’m not working on this — this is really just a sliver of what fedwiki does.

But I’m curious if someone has tried this. It seems to me the same way that Tumblr revolutionized blog commenting by “post-in-your-own-stream” behavior this set of small restrictions and incentives could radically reinvent the comment as a annotated, semantically dense link, which has all sorts of implications for both discourse and analytics. Has anyone seen anything like this? What am I missing?

(See the earlier post on Reader as Link Author for why reader-produced links are important.)

UPDATE: And we’re on our way!

Screenshot 2015-08-18 at 6.00.21 PM

Educational Unbundling and the Culture of Endless Hustle

People say “unbundling” is going to happen in education, and I’m here to say that, yeah, it probably is. But far from solving student problems, my guess is it will create a whole new set of student problems, most of them resulting from the fact that making unbundling easy for the student is likely to make it less profitable for the providers, whereas making it bizarrely complicated is likely to squeeze a few extra dimes out of every degree.

Today I read something that captures the potential trainwreck-ness of unbundling in higher education — Linda Holmes writing about the world of unbundled TV. After listing 25 ways a person can access shows nowadays (via cable, antenna, DVR, on demand, third-party digital rental, third party digital sale, DVD, Hulu/Netflix/Amazon Prime, etc.) she notes that, having some free time this summer, she wanted to watch a specific show, and despite a) having access to these options, and b) a “platinum-level” cable package, and c) being a TV critic for NPR, she still could not figure out how to get access to the show she wanted.

Why is that? Because far from the $1 per song iTunes future everyone imagines when they talk about unbundling, TV show streaming and purchase is a world of endless hustle, transient contracts, and multi-national conflicts of interest. It’s a world dominated by an overriding desire to monetize content and services, and that’s accomplished by endless reconfiguration of where any given show is available on any given day, based on ever-morphing corporate strategies.

She concludes with what I think is a prescient analysis of one future of education, even if she is just talking about how to get a new Fox comedy onto a screen she owns:

The topic of cord-cutting – of people doing away with cable and getting by with broadband and broadcast – is eternally popular to rhapsodize about, in part because it seems to promise an a la carte world of convenience and freedom. And for some people, it absolutely does; it’s particularly nice for people who don’t watch much TV and don’t care whether what they watch is current.

But look again at that list of 25 ways to watch television, and consider how many potential entry points there are for your dollar even aside from cable: your device, your broadband, your service, your app. We know with reasonable certainty that in ten years, we will be looking at a different landscape. Will it be a more friendly one or a cheaper one? Not to be a cynic, but if we apply a gambling metaphor, the identity of the house hasn’t changed that much, so you have to at least consider the possibility that as long as you want in on this particular game, the house will continue to win. Who supplies most people’s broadband? Who supplies their tech?

Ultimately, the same people who make money from the way you used to watch TV in the past are, make no mistake, working very hard to make sure they will be the people who make money from the way you will watch TV in the future. Even as services like Sling TV and HBO NOW pull away from building everything on top of a cable subscription, and even as they come up with the 26th and 27th and 35th way to watch, the object remains the same. And it is to entertain you, perhaps to enrich you, and absolutely to charge you.

From one standpoint, unbundling is seen as the process of getting the student what they need, whereever it comes from. And maybe that’s the future we’re headed for.

But I can’t help but thinking that from the supply side unbundling is about making yourself necessary to the student, even when that is against student interest, and that future could look less like the flat world of $1 downloads and more like the Byzantine world of digital television, where a patchwork of rules and partnerships ensures you will always be just one channel short of having everything you need.

It’s not the only possible future, but it seems like the one we usually get.

The Really Big One: A Course In Educational Technology for Fall ’15

So I’m running a course this fall, and those on fedwiki are welcome to participate.

The way the course works is this. For the first half of the class my educational technology students will be investigating the nature and impact of the coming Cascadia subduction zone earthquake. They come from multiple disciplines so they will use those multiple lenses to look at the problem from scientific, historical, and sociological angles. Wherever that leads them is fine, as long as they explore it with passion and rigor and can show some connection to the topic.

We’ll start with the New Yorker article as our starting point, and then branch out from there in typical federated wiki fashion.

We’ll be posting the results of our research on federated wiki, where other classes and people can expand on them or extend them, revise them or refute them.  We hope at the end to have an interesting collection of explanations of the underlying science and sociology of this coming disaster.

The second part of the course is probably less interesting to you all, but having participated in this event, the students will do action research with local schools to find out from practicing teachers what it would take to make a module like this viable in a grade 9-12 setting. They’ll compile that into a report presented at the end of the class.

In any case, if you wanted to use federated wiki and were looking for a collaboration project to do that with, this might be your chance. I’ve uploaded the shadow syllabus for the course here. The subject is cross-disciplinary enough that I can imagine almost any class, from physics to women’s studies, contributing to the project.


Hate-Selling Our Students

A post on Skift introduces a new term: “hate-selling”. You see it in travel where “conversion managers have run amok” and you are charged absurd combinations of little charges at the precise amounts analytics says you will tolerate.

Some examples of hate-selling in the travel industry from the article:

  • Car rental sites with crazy surcharges (a 17.25% premium location fee)
  • Low fare airline seats, “hate-sold” to you in such a way they say — “Here’s what you don’t get with your cheap seat, you idiot” in an attempt to upsell.
  • Buy-now-or-else prompts in the buying experience – “We’ve unearthed this special offer/upgrade for you only available if you click here now.”

The author shares some screenshots and receipts. It’s truly horrifying to look at. The author concludes:

This is what happens when you let conversion marketers run amok with customer experience. They made it a science, but forgot being human.

The problem, as the author points out, is that hate-selling works. You can mathematically prove it. You A/B test a gate-checked baggage fee and revenue goes up or down. You take away the free inflight soda from Economy class and give it to a special Economy+ class. You choose the way that maximizes the revenue.

But revenue isn’t the only metric. The long term outcomes to your business are determined not by quarterly revenue, but by customer experience. Just ask Blackboard, which made a mint hate-selling the LMS to institutions only to find itself in a desperate state when it encountered a “one price gets you everything” competitor.

Blackboard now wants love, but all people remember are baggage fees and upsell.

Are we innocent of this? Maybe not. It’s worth asking if this is what we are doing to our students, as we enter the age of the self-paced course designed by analytics teams. We know what the A/B testing says — whether adding the weekly micro-test upped calculus proficiency by 3.9%. But what did it do to the experience? Was the student tense or relaxed? Did they come to love the subject or loathe it?

It’s those questions — whether we have helped mold curious minds or resentful learners — that truly matter. A focus on A/B testing can be a helpful tool. But left as the sole focus of our endeavors, a rental car future awaits.

The Five Elements of the Socratic Website

Brad DeLong has a perceptive take on what is missing from websites today. He is inspired I think by’s approach to news, but his advice is also an excellent guide to some things we we are trying to do with the federated wiki project.

In a mock Socratic dialogue, DeLong has Socrates identify the three elements present on most websites and the two elements missing.

The three elements in broad use are:

  • The flowing stream: people value the new, and the stream allows one to see what is newest. We’ve talked about this here as StreamMode in the past.
  • The front-end cards: People need to be enticed into clicking on things, and to tell at a glance whether something might interest them.
  • The syndication: It has to be easy for items to appear in other clients, and in 2015 that means a syndication architecture to push to other platforms

But DeLong’s Socrates notes two elements missing from current websites:

  • A pathway to the past: There needs to be a way to resurrect and drive traffic to the articles of the past, which, if well written and considered, will eventually be relevant to other events. (Note: DeLong is famous for his “Hoisted from the archives” posts, which do something similar.)
  • A front-end grammar: There needs to be an implementation of the front-end cards that stresses information, and provides a useful summary (not just clickbait).

This is a good summary of the web in 2015 and also a good description of the trends that make federated wiki compelling.

We’ve talked about this a lot on the site, but blogs and wikis used to co-rule the web, then for various reasons blogging took off and wiki — at least public wiki — became a more niche effort. People claim blogging is dead, but actually the opposite is true — everything is blogging now. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vox, the NYT, Time magazine. It’s all reverse chronology syndicated material, increasingly tied to a specific person’s point of view. Everything is a stream of endless, personal now.

Wiki, on the other hand, had different values. Wiki valued the timeless over the timebound, iteration over utterance, description over narrative. Wiki proposed that items be written for reuse and be applicable to multiple contexts as opposed to blogging’s let-me-react-to-this-day-alongside-you feel.

People think I am disparaging blogging when I talk wiki, and nothing could be further from the truth. I made my name blogging, first in political blogging and then in edu-blogging (god, that word is horrible).

My point is that there was a balance at one point between the original vision of hypertext (so nicely captured by wiki) and the engaging now of blogging. And we’ve lost that balance. We’ve lost that balance so badly in fact that the link — the fundamental element of hypertext — is dying a slow death. Links have become primarily a method of stream-sharing. The idea of a web that maps out a knowledge domain as a snapshot of our current thought instead of a stream of our current speech is relegated to Wikipedia and occasional references to the Memex.

We don’t have to throw away the stream. We love the stream.

But to run all our knowledge through an endless tube of now is a ridiculous endeavor. If we feel unmoored and occasionally shallow in our thinking; if it seems like a world that contained grand thoughts now is nothing but rhetoric, maybe it’s not that we are engaging with the internet, but that we are engaging with an internet that has relentlessly crammed everything into a blogging metaphor.

There is another way. For people not familiar with federated wiki, this article is a good place to start. Be sure to play the short demo videos — with the exception of one feature (backtracks) all that code is live and implemented already.

For people that do know federated wiki, perhaps now is the time to get an account? You can get a free one from here. If you alert me to your site in the comments I’ll add you to’s “flowing stream” and you can have the best of both worlds, just like Socrates would have wanted.