EDUCAUSE Review New Horizons Editor

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be the new (volunteer) EDUCAUSE Review New Horizons editor, starting in January.

This is a one year appointment where I get to work with a variety of authors to make sure the New Horizons section of the print magazine continues to give its readers the best possible sense of emerging opportunities in academic IT. In particular, the column is meant to focus on newer technologies and technological approaches that are moving mainstream.

I’ll also write a thing or two myself, and as per usual EDUCAUSE Review publisher/editor Teddy Diggs and her staff will be doing most of the heavy lifting.

It’ll be an interesting challenge for me, as the readership of the print version of EDUCAUSE is very broad — only a fraction of readers are in edtech proper, and not all of their readership is even technical. Still, I have a list of things that I think people should really know about, and I’ll be doing my best to get good explanations of those things into the magazine.

Thanks to the EDUCAUSE staff for thinking of me and making the offer.


Wikity Updates (0.4)

The newest release of Wikity is up on GitHub. There are a few bugs knocked out, but the major change is a shift from “Path” functionality to “Cardbox” functionality. This shift is partial — mostly about terminology at the moment — but will eventually work a bit different as well.

Paths in Wikity were sort of Bushian (Vannevar, not G. W.). Different cards could be put together in a sequence, and then you could walk through that sequence in a forward/next sort of way.

I found that how I was using Wikity cards in paths really didn’t match that. I was really putting together a set of resources that could be hopped and skipped around. Sequence was less about reading things in the right order than putting things in sort of rough clusters; general stuff first, more niche and tangential stuff at the bottom. “Path” started to feel to me like the “Unread” folder in the old Goggle Reader: it was a term that made me feel like I had to read everything, and that was a drag.


So I decided to move away from the “path” term and move towards the less sequential “card box” term. I think of it like these little boxes my youngest daughter uses to store her index cards:


That is the stuff in it might be ordered, and even tabbed, but it’s not really asking you to read it in sequence. (This, incidentally, was also the metaphor of “fileboxes” in Xerox PARC’s NoteCards project).

So that’s the shift in metaphor. Here’s what we are probably going with it, eventually.

Cardboxes as Choral Frameworks

A lot of people think that Wikity is how one can do Choral Explanations. After all, that’s my big deal of the moment, surely the software I write has implemented it, right?

Nope. Wikity was built not for Choral Explanations, but as a Personal Learning Environment. You can’t currently do Choral Explanations in Wikity.

Yet every time I write about Choral Explanations, someone writes me and says — I love this idea, I have to download Wikity! It gets embarrassing.

So we’d like people to be able to at least hack CEs together in Wikity. One thing I’m going to work on is setting up cardboxes as a framework for CE. So, for example, you set up a CardBox called “How do sunflowers follow the sun?” and various people can add their own explanations to the Cardbox. Instead of “previous/next” navigation we’ll just feature these as a large ordered scrollable page.


It’s not perfect, but at least it will be the end of people downloading Wikity to do choral explanations and finding they can’t.

Cardboxes as Workspaces

A little more involved, but worth it: I’d like to create an option where you can pull all the items in a cardbox into catalog view.


This would allow you to edit your entire cardbox at once, getting a sense of what’s there and what’s not, clicking in and editing on card while reading the synopsis of others. This catalog layout has been one of the surprisingly effective things about Wikity, but there’s no way to define a workspace that you can pull up later. Cardboxes might be a solution, a way to save a workspace.

Cardboxes as Feeds

Ward Cunningham had the idea a while ago to make a “feed plugin” for Federated Wiki. The idea (somewhat counterintuitive to bloggers) is that you manually add links to the material you want in the feed. The plugin then fetches page links, descriptions, and whatnot and outputs well-formed RSS when called.

As weird as this may sound, it actually makes sense. Wiki is an iterative process, there’s no way an algorithm can tell when something should be pushed out to others. Manually adding items to feeds makes sense. You decide when the article is ready for a certain group, and push it to that feed. You decide if you made a big enough change you want to push it again. You can create multiple feeds for multiple audiences.

My thought is that Cardboxes might output RSS as well. Add new items to the cardbox, and they appear at the top of the Cardbox feed.This will also allow the works to flow into RSS syndication hubs.

Cardboxes as Trusted Subscriptions

Unlike federated wiki, Wikity is lacking a coherent community model. I’ve played around with the idea of allowing cards from other trusted sites to flow to your own, so we get content duplicated across many sites.

It occurs to me a Cardbox could be a way of doing that. Everyone subscribes to each other’s Cardboxes, and automatically forks copies of items dropped in the cardbox. People build out the wiki, and at the end, everyone walks away with the full version of the wiki. This seems to me a good solution to class activities as well — as a student you make as many pages as you want, but you share your best ones to the cardbox.


Anyway, these are some of the ideas I’m playing with. For now it’s just playing with new language,  but pretty soon we hope to build out some of this functionality. For now, you’re welcome to download it from Github and install it on your own server as a theme. It’s super simple and the instructions are in the distribution readme.

Choral Explanations for Student Success: A Proposal

This is a proposal on how an approach to community resource building called  “Choral Explanations” could be used to increase retention, based on recent research into the relationship of “belonging” and “mindset”.

But we need to cover some background first.

Mindset, Motivation, and Belonging

We’ve long known that a sense of belonging is crucial to student success. Carol Goodenow’s work in the 1990s showed the strong correlation between motivation and a sense of belonging, and Karen Osterman’s work reaffirmed those findings. Higher education has been aware of this, and structured its social and academic environment to be welcoming to students and promote connection between faculty, students, and staff.

At a recent AASCU webinar, however, I was made aware of a new development in research into belonging: mindset researchers are finding their way back to belonging as well. In the formulation presented to us by researcher David Yeager, mindset and belonging are tightly intertwined. A student who feels their experience of college is fundamentally different from the experience of other students is likely to adopt a fixed mindset towards challenges.

Further, this effect is cascading and cross-institutional: a first-generation student who feels like everyone else is finding the rooms their classes are in with no issues (even if they aren’t) is more likely to feel that everyone else knew to have their textbooks on the first day (they didn’t) and that feeling in turn makes them more likely to interpret critical feedback from a professor as an indication that they “don’t belong at college” (they do!).

In other words, while there are many unique barriers and struggles that non-traditional and at-risk students face, the mindset that struggling at college is a sign one does not belong amplifies the impact of each obstacle, eventually turning even small obstacles into existential crises. This results in decreased motivation and increased stress, which increases the chance of failure, which in turn increases the sense of not-belonging, and so on.

Furthermore, this cycle is not purely academic. It’s not just seeing yourself as smart or not, but about the whole experience. Every interaction with the institution or peers is another potential existential crisis.

I’ve been critical of applications of mindset theory before, and still approach them with some caution. The fact of the matter is that non-traditional students simply *do* have more barriers to overcome than traditional students. We have to address those issues.

At the same time, this particular formulation feels right to me. Most college students will feel initially out of place in college, most students will struggle, most students will face some social rejection, most students will make occasional bone-headed moves. If we know that’s normal, we learn from it and continue on. If we think it tells us something deep about whether we belong in college, we start to spiral into isolation, depression, and loneliness.

I’ve seen this happen to students. It’s real.

Belonging Interventions

Traditional approaches to belonging have tried to minimize the cultural obstacles for students transitioning into college, and this continues to be important work.

However, mindset researchers have been taking a somewhat different tack, seeing if direct-to-student mindset interventions can help improve retention.

There are various models of intervention, but one of the more common forms is this:

  • Students read testimonials from a wide variety of students, detailing their own troubles and how they overcame them.
  • At some point in the first year, students write their own testimonials for the next set of freshmen, detailing obstacles they hit, and how they overcame them.

Reading a wide variety of student testimonials shows the student that they are not as alone as they think. Writing a testimonial — even if no one reads it — helps the student connect their own experience to the ideas they see in the other testimonials:

  • You are more valued by your peers and teachers than you realize.
  • Everyone makes occasional boneheaded moves, people remember them for about five minutes.
  • Even the best students struggle at something.
  • Failing a single test tells you precisely nothing about whether you should be in college.
  • Almost every feeling you have of inadequacy is shared by a person that seems to you to “have it all together”.

The results of several controlled tests on this methodology have had extraordinary results. Possibly the most remarkable is the Walton and Cohen study published in Science in 2011. The study split 90 students into control and treatment conditions. The 45 freshmen in the treatment condition spent one hour reading messages from other students of many different backgrounds talking about how criticisms, slights, and occasional loneliness were a normal part of the college experience. Here’s an example:

“Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all pretty similar,” one older student — a black woman — was quoted as saying. “Since I realized that, my experience . . . has been almost 100 percent positive.”

The students were then asked to write their own testimonials, describing an event or situation that initially seemed to suggest to them they did not belong at college, but which they overcame.

What the researchers found was that, while impact on more privileged students was not significant, impact on students from traditionally at-risk groups was profound. In this particular case the achievement gap between white and black students in the treatment group was more than halved.


Chart from Mindset Scholars Network. Results from Walton and Cohen (2011).

While this was a small sample size, subsequent research has supported the finding (albeit with somewhat less dramatic results). Where adequate support for at-risk students exists, belonging programs that follow this model can dramatically increase student retention and positively impact student success. And the mechanism that seems to work best is peer explanations of how they made it through their own experience.

Choral Explanations

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my work on Choral Explanations. I won’t go into the entire theory of how a Choral Explanations approach allows for community-based OER production or how it helps student self-scaffold their understanding of difficult subjects. What interests me now is how a Student Success OER could benefit from the same choral approach. (If you want or need deeper background, follow the link).

Choral explanations can be done in a number of ways, but when paired with traditional content, the way it works is as follows. A traditional text explains a subject in its relatively generic, textbook way. But inset into the chapter is a “Insight and Perspectives” piece, formed around common questions and misperceptions:


Clicking into a question here will bring you to the “chorus” of community contributed answers to the questions. Key to the notion of the chorus is that students do best when given a broad variety of examples from various perspectives. The chorus is not a competition to produce the best explanation, but an attempt to produce a broad variety of entry points into a topic. Here multiple people take on why mitosis is important: for one person it gives them insight into why cancer treatments have certain side-effects, for another it explains why stem cells are an important tool in repairing nerve damage. A third student or professor with an interest in bodybuilding might write about how understanding mitosis can help one understand the dangers of use of Human Growth Hormone (or maybe not, I just made that third one up).


In choral explanations, one of the keys is that these explanations are written from a point of view (like a forum) but in a non-conversational mode (like a wiki). They have a voice, they align with specific interests. In the models we’ve been playing around with they may even be identified by an avatar photo. They replace a single, generalized story with a variety of valuable and specific perspectives. They also give students an opportunity to write and contribute their own OER in a way that values their unique voice and perspectives.

The Mindset Chorus

What occurs to me is you could use a similar sort of structure to implement belonging interventions in student success classes.

Take, for example, Lumen Learning’s Student Success OER. Here’s a page from it, on the subject of stress:


We can imagine this page redesigned with an “Insights and Perspectives” box that instead focuses not on explanations, per se, but on student experience.


Questions might be around subjects such as:

  • What was a time you were stressed, and how did you deal with it?
  • What are some of the surprising things you found stressful?
  • How do you know if it might be time to talk to the Counseling Center?

Just as with Choral Explanations, clicking through to the question presents the reader with an instructor-curated selection of content from the broader community. Key to the experience here is that examples are presented from a wide variety of students, of different races, sexual identities, and backgrounds. As we learned in the AASCU seminar, it’s just as important to include “traditional” students in this mix as nontraditional: part of the point here, again, is that the students who make it seem easy also worry and also struggle, just not out loud. In short, you want to see the stories of perseverance from students like you, and the hidden stories of struggle from the students different from you.

Importantly, students would also be getting valuable information. The instructor curation feature would allow the instructor to choose a mix of material that was both varied and relevant to students at the institution. Responses from students around the country would be mixed in with material specifically relevant to the specific institution.


Of course, on any of these answers, a student can hit a “Thanks” button that thanks the student for sharing their experience.

Or they can write up their own experience. (A process that plays into the research that says “saying is believing”). In this case the work gets shared immediately with their class (and only their class). But if they have checked off that it is OK to share it outside the institution, the teacher can review it and kick it into the general pool of answers tied to that question in the OER text. Other teachers can then pull that answer (if they want) into their own text, or use a set of materials curated by the distributor. Students can visit their content to see how many thanks they got on it, and the different institutions that are using it.

Further down this path is the possibility of Choral Explanations as we’ve discussed them previously, where students produce choral answers to questions on Biology, Ethics, and English Literature, explaining difficult concepts through unique examples, custom diagrams, and amateur video. That’s later.

But here, in this first student success class, they not only help each other to realize they are not alone in their struggles, but they also begin their college career creating learning materials for one another. That’s kind of cool right?

Some Final Thoughts

Building online communities for first year students is not new, and there are many great examples of this to be found (see a particularly good example from Davidson here).

What choral explanations brings to the process, however, is a mode halfway between forum and wiki, where resources are self-sufficient (and not part of any ongoing conversation) but maintain the features of distinct authorial voice and perspective that are crucial for students to see if they are to understand the relative universality of much of their experience.

This sort of structure (which can be seen as a hybrid of wiki and forum) has proven strong design for precisely these sorts of problems. I have not gone into the background of choral explanations here at length, but if you are interested in this idea I would strongly suggest you read the most recent summary on the practice, to better understand how the format differs from both traditional wiki and forum formats, as well as from more traditional question and answer sites.

Finally — I titled this a proposal because someone should do this. Maybe it could be us at WSU Vancouver: we’re already using OER for the student success course, and while it would take some effort and time to plug in choral technology, once it’s written it can plug into the student success textbooks anywhere. So I’m looking at you my partners in the Re-imagining the First Year project — should we look at this?

And if we don’t do it here — are there any takers out there?



All I wanted was a Pepsi, just one Pepsi!

Jim Groom has a sort-of-reply to my post on bringing student-produced OER into the heart of the institution, and Stephen Downes has a reply as well. Neither seems to buy the idea that open practice should be institutionalized. I find this very odd, frankly, and wonder if we are working under different definitions. This is my attempt to explain what institutionalization is about and why it is important.

One warning — for those who haven’t followed the conversation so far, this is likely to feel a bit inside baseball. Continue at your peril, as 90% of this is a direct reply to Jim and Stephen.

First, on Stephen’s critique. Stephen says people think they want institutions, but they really need culture. Culture makes the change.

I think this is a category error, frankly. Institutions are one of the mechanisms we use as a society to perpetuate, change, or disseminate culture. There are other means, but seeing culture as an alternative to institutions is a bit like seeing travelers as an alternative to cars. I understand the relationship of culture and institutions can get a bit chicken and egg.  But they aren’t alternatives to one another.

Second, on Jim’s critique, I am also a bit confused. I met Jim during a period of time where we were both arguing that the Learning Management System, as hooked into the current educational system, was perpetuating a bad culture of learning. In other words, the LMS was used — intentionally or not — to institutionalize a certain pedagogy. We both saw this as powerful and bad. And we looked for ways to route around that problem.

So I know Jim knows the power that institutionalizing practice has. And I also know that being a post-modernist, Jim knows that there is no such thing as a value-free institution — you’re always institutionalizing something.

I’ve thought about this a bit and I think I know what’s going on, where the terminological misunderstanding stems from. So endure with me as I recount the parable of the bench.

The Parable of the Bench

If you go to a certain park, you might notice that the culture of that park doesn’t involve people sleeping on benches. But of course, that’s only half right.

The culture here is reinforced an disseminated through the built environment. These benches are part of the trend of Hostile Architecture that purposely limits certain uses; here the addition of a middle bar to the bench. People don’t lie down on the bench because the bench prevents it.

This is how culture preserves itself, and the truth is it is usually invisible to the people unaffected by it. That inability of people to spot structural elements like this is one of the reasons that recent discourse has focused on issues of privilege. Your privilege, as a person who is not homeless here, is not having to notice that middle bar is there, or that it matters. It’s the privilege of being able to say something like “Hey, homelessness in this city must be low — no one sleeps on the benches.”

It’s worth noting that there is a huge and ugly history of using institutions in this country to perpetuate evil things. The Poll Tax, for example, was an invention of post-Civil War America to institutionalize discrimination against black voters. Robert Moses quite literally built racism into the structure of Long Island freeways, in order to keep people of color off of New York beaches. Law schools refused to install bathrooms for women.

There’s no shortage of examples. In an example that is near to Jim’s heart, broken windows policing in New York was institutionalized in a set of metrics chosen to grade force effectiveness, and in the technological articulation of that policy, CompStat.


But it works the other way too. The motor voter law made voter registration easier for many, and recent changes in some states have expanded the impact by integrating backend systems and registering people by default. Some of those bridges have come down. We added women’s bathrooms to law schools, and institutionalized access under Title IX (which Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who once had to run two buildings over to go to the lavatory, now adjudicates).

We learned from the failures of early urban housing, and adopted schemes with Defensible Space. Community policing in places like Dallas has moved away from the broken windows approach, incentivizing behaviors that build community trust in the police.

As far as bathrooms, we’re now pushing institutions to consider the needs of trans students as well, and by institutionalizing trans access to the bathroom of their choice, we will no longer force people to rely on the individual intuitions of strangers about who should and shouldn’t be in the bathroom.

You can say, well — you just need a culture of acceptance, or people just need to be less racist, or whatever. But that’s incorrect. When you put a sign on the bathroom that says “Men” you institutionalize one thing. When you take it off, you institutionalize another. And when you put up a sign that says “All-Gender Bathroom” you institutionalize a third thing.

(And no, not having any sign on it is not “de-institutionalizing access”. You’re all smarter than that, right?)

You can’t make real and lasting change without reforming institutions. If you really want to make change in policing you have to dismantle CompStat. To fight discrimination, you have to change the bathroom signs. You have to write laws with things like Title IX in them. You have to ban the Poll Tax. You’re free to “make change outside the system” and in many cases that’s the immediate need. But that change is built on sand if it is not built into the institutional mechanisms that steer culture.

Back to the Parable

That got a little lengthy, but the second point is that the force of institutions don’t just stop at the weighty issues of race and gender and class named above (although race and gender and class is always involved).

They impact everything. And again, the point of all those ranting blog posts I wrote when I was a younger person was that the LMS institutionalizes a pedagogy that we don’t really want.  And I think the point of those early rants was if you want real change you’re going to have to dismantle — or at least change — the LMS.

The LMS chooses what counts. And that effects what gets done. It’s the CompStat of education.

And so the immediate reaction to the problem of Blackboard was to use guerrilla action. So presented with a bench like this:

We improvised:

And we were really clever at improvising I think. It’s a skill that is quite useful, and one that should always be part of our practice.

But what I mean when I say I get sick of grafting openness onto classes each semester, what I’m saying is having the policy and technical environment aligned against the open culture you want is undesirable.  I would think this would go without saying, but I find people romanticizing the fact they are poised against the institution.

Being against the institution may be necessary, but it is not where you ultimately want to be. If you want real change, styrofoam padding isn’t going to cut it. Eventually you have to remove the damn bars from the bench.

That’s what institutional change is. You make it so people don’t have to be your level of superhero to get it done. And you do it by looking for all the means by which the institution reinforces an undesirable status quo.

In the case of open pedagogy, the largest structural barrier to open pedagogy is the proprietary textbook. The proprietary textbook is to content what the LMS was to activity. Proprietary textbooks reinforce the banking model of education, and raise up the student as consumer. They present knowledge as fixed, and they separate faculty from the material they teach. They don’t respect local needs, and the homework tools with them use kill-and-drill techniques we thought we buried in the 1970s.

And yet the assumption of the textbook is baked into every nook and cranny of our institutions.

  • We are pestered by the bookstore to decide on a textbook before registration (which means a lot of faculty pick a textbook just in case).
  • We force our students to spend millions of dollars on textbooks but are unable pay for instructional design help and release time for faculty who want to write materials.
  • Course fees — a popular way of supporting open materials initiatives — take an act of Congress to get approved, but any faculty member can assign a $300 textbook with no oversight whatsoever.
  • Faculty who contribute to open textbooks get very little in terms of tenure consideration.
  • We have committees in some departments that are literally named “textbook selection committees” which sort of telegraphs a result, right?
  • We have accessibility policies that are written in ways that don’t help those needing accommodation but do actively scare faculty away from open resources.

The second piece — the structural accommodation we make for textbook costs — is probably the biggest issue, and it’s why I’m so infatuated with the course materials fee model as a sustainability solution. We have made it simple to send hundreds of millions of dollars to textbook companies and difficult to use student dollars to build curriculum in-house for students. In one of our largest classes here we have over 1400 students in a class who use a textbook + homework tool that costs $280 — even used. That ends up being over $300,000 a year that our students are spending on someone else’s curriculum, for one two -course sequence.

Meanwhile, if we want to replace that textbook with something we produce in-house by collecting a fee — well, there are review boards, an annual cycle, strict restrictions on the use of the money, forms and reports and budget lines that need to be set up, signed, approved, and reviewed.

When I mention this to some people, they say — but the students buy the books. It’s not money that comes to us. That’s why it’s that way. That’s the power of institutionality: it’s so invisible you can’t even see it.

If you want, imagine another world. One where if you wanted to make the students get a textbook over $40 you had to go in front of an annual committee and make your case, but where a small course materials fee could be assigned by filling out a web form. I’m not saying this is a good world; this is just a thought experiment.

Or imagine another world where there was just a “college store” instead of a bookstore, and where professors had to coordinate directly with publishers to get their books shipped. I’m not saying this is a good world; again, this is just a thought experiment.

What would happen? Suddenly “culture” would change, wouldn’t it? People would walk around and say, wow, you have such a culture of OER on this campus, the same way people walked around the park benches and noticed there was no culture of visible homelessness.

When I praise the Open Textbooks folks for understanding institutionality, this is what I’m praising. They get this at a deep level, and have been willing to engage on the fronts of policy and practice at once (I think they have underfunded technology, but that’s a different post).

My sense is there are not quite as many people in open pedagogy who work these issues of policy, law, funding, architecture, institutional support. We’ve complained about FERPA in the U.S. for how long, and what have we done? In our own institutions we’ve perhaps done better, but we still struggle, I think, at the periphery of institutions, and I think there are things we could learn from the multi-prong approach of the Open Textbook crowd.

Resistance is good. But is you want to make change you eventually have to remove the bars from the bench.

The Problem with Pirate Libertarianism

I probably should stop here, and leave this a nice compact article. But I can’t help but reply to the story about GeoCities that Jim cites.

All of which reminds me of who, when all was said and done, saved more than a decade of web history in the form of Geocities from deletion at the hands of Yahoo! in 2010? Was it other corporations? Higher ed? The government? Nope, it was dozens of rogue archivists, technologists, artists, and librarians from around the world that cared, and for me that is a reminder that we can’t leave something as important as teaching and learning on the web to institutions—no less the archiving and preservation of those resources. That has to be managed by faculty and students themselves as part of a broader sense of awareness of owning and managing their digital education.

This meant to show how institutions fail and people succeed. And it’s a good story.

But this is a model for what? The archiving of GeoCities was a simple problem to solve. We invented web crawlers over two decades ago. The entire site was well under a single terabyte. A bunch of people crawled it and saved files. It’s not exactly a moonshot.

When people I respect cite stories like this, it unnerves me. Because it reminds me of paleo-libertarians who say “Back in the day, when there was a fire the whole town would come together and help. Now we pay firemen to sit around all day and no one depends on their neighbor.”

The idea is if you say something odd like “Um, I’d still like a fire department.” you’re undermining “people power”, or something like that.

It’s weird to me. This is an anarcho-libertarian ideology at heart, but in the technological realm it’s not identified as such. (This vision, by the way, was served up by the same Randians who developed the California Ideology — you can see early varieties of the GeoCities story in the documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.)

The idea is that people working individually in their own interest (or through charity) can better solve problems than more organized societal efforts. And sometimes that’s true.

But you know the old story about the baby-rescuers, right? It’s a common one in the non-profit sector:

One summer in the village, the people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!

Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts to save the babies, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”

“We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

The GeoCities archive effort was great act of baby-catching, and we should applaud the work. But the questions we need to ask are not just how to create more baby-catchers or a culture of baby-catching. As importantly, we need to ask ourselves why all these babies keep coming down the river.

In the case of GeoCities, there’s a wealth of reasons we ended up catching babies. A big part of it is the fact that a notion of archiving is not built into the model of the Web. If you want to fix that you’re going to have to get people on some committee meetings, a lot of them. You’re going to have to influence the W3C. You’re also going to have to engage with use of Terms of Service, and the regulation of orphaned content. You’re likely going to do that not as a private citizen, but through your institutions: colleges, policy boards, government.

Meanwhile, we still need the baby-catchers. We really do. Someone has to catch all those babies. But someone needs to go upstream too, and it makes no sense to vilify them for that.

I’d also point out that if anything has been used to dismantle the jobs and institutions people like Jim and I want to protect, it’s this GeoCities Archive Team idea — the idea that if we somehow remove institutions from the mix, society will fill in the gaps in a useful and equitable way. The hivemind will find what needs doing and do it, without any central coordination or resources or oversight.

And, to my way of thinking, it’s Silicon Valley nonsense. Institutions and government contracts created the protocols and laws that made the archiving possible, just as they created the legal and commercial environment that allows a company like Yahoo to remove a half-terabyte of history from the earth. Legal and technical changes could easily make that sort of activity impossible, just as much as they could render it unnecessary.

Again, there’s room for this sort of activity, but it’s most effective when it works in concert with institutions, not as a replacement for them.

Not Turnover, But What Turns Over and How

Final response — both Jim and Stephen have noted that “turnover is a problem of institutions” which I read as a response to my claim that we are building a lot of this on the sand of here today, gone tomorrow teaching and technology centers.

Institutions have turnover. That’s true, but largely irrelevant. Turnover is a fact of life. But what kind of turnover, for what reasons, and with what impact is something we get to decide.

As a simple example, Jonathan Rees, who knows a thing or two about labor, made an interesting comment the other day. He said if instructional designers were really going to be central to a student’s education then maybe they should have tenure.

Again, this is a why-are-there-bars-on-the-bench moment. Teaching Learning and Technology centers generally have employees that are relatively unprotected compared to the rest of the institution. They are professionals, not unionized civil service. They are not administration. They work with faculty on courses, and have to sometimes advance unpopular things, but they have no tenure.

Now you can say, well, Teaching, Learning, and Technology centers come and go, and that’s life, it proves you can’t trust anything except informal GeoCities-like collaboration. Or you can notice, as Rees has, that there’s a structural problem here that is behind our national Groundhog Day in edtech, and suggest ways to address it. And part of institutionalizing open is making sure the positions that support open are just as protected as, for example, the library faculty. Otherwise the library is institutionalized in a way that open education is not, and we will continue to go through these boom and bust cycles.

I think, frankly, you need a mix of approaches. You need to work the grass roots, form those informal connections that get work done, and work across institutional boundaries. People in Open Pedagogy do that naturally; you don’t have to tell them to do that.

But you have to also do the slow boring of hard boards that is policy work. And when we see that — when we see people doing the mucky-muck board meeting sorts of things in Open Education, we might just learn a thing or two from their approach rather than look on them with suspicion.

So, I’ll ask again: How can we re-architect our institutions to bring open practice into the center of them, rather see it as a bolt-on? And why is that such a disturbing question to ask?

NOTE: For a while, I removed the “baby-catchers” story in this due to length. But so many people were responding to that piece of it (via the piece published by subscription) I put it back. Sorry for the confusion.

Putting Student-Produced OER at the Heart of the Institution

I’ve mentioned the Persona Project a few times in passing here. It was for me a major turning point in my life. I had been on a track to get a PhD. in linguistics, and, it being 1996, I ended getting an assistantship as a web developer, building the college’s first web site.

At the end of the project, they were really happy with me and the site, and I made my pitch. I said — we have all this marketing stuff on the web to get students here. But shouldn’t we be using the web as a way of teaching our students as well?

Let me stop here and say this was not a novel insight in 1996. If you’re my age in instructional technology you have a story like this too. The weird thing about the mid-90s was that innovative thinking was pretty common, much more than it is now. What I was saying at the time seemed like common sense.

Anyway, I said — here’s my idea. Instead of the students writing throwaway papers in English composition, we have the students build an online encyclopedia. We’ll start with an online encyclopedia of biography. We’ll call it the Persona Project. Freshmen will spend time researching a historical figure, but they’ll being doing real work, that will be read by real people. Eventually we’ll have a wide-ranging encyclopedia other students can use.

It was 1997 by then, so they were like — well, this kid is the web expert, this must be what people do on the web. They actually gave me two months paid time to pull the whole thing together.

And so we built it, and put out a press release, and recruited professors.Got coverage in the student newspaper. Etc. Etc. And we put it up. Here’s a sample student article from the project (most of those other names are stubs, we only had success that first year with one faculty member).


And then…I left.

I had just gotten married, and I’d decided to take the Masters degree and head out to Seattle.

So the site just sat there, unused, a collection of stubs with a smattering of student articles. About ten years later they took it down. It changed my life: it got me into educational technology, which has more or less been my field since then, and it still forms the model of so much of what I try to do in my work with professors and students.

But the site itself? It died. It was my first lesson in what has been a recurring theme throughout my life: People make things possible. Institutions make them last.

I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.

Why do I mention this? Partially because I am prone to occasional bouts of nostalgia. But also because I want to respond to a lengthy (and good) Twitter debate about the value of OER as a path to Open Pedagogy.

You see, Open Pedagogy — student blogs, wikis, etc. — has been sitting in the backseat of the Initiative-mobile for what seems like forever, while OER and friends drive around doing errands, fiddling with the radio, and pushing the seats way too far back. And we keep getting told — oh no, just one more stop, and then we’ll get to the pedagogy piece, I swear.

But the next stop is Burger King, where OER orders up a Value Meal and a shake and asks the Open Pedagogy folks in the backseat whether they want a water or something. “You hot back there? Yeah, absolutely, just a few more stops and we’ll get to pedagogy. I swear.”

Then it’s off to the textbook store. Plus, it seems like every 20 minutes someone is walking up and writing OER a check. “I love your work! What’s that in the back, luggage?”

So Open Pedagogy gets a bit cranky. There’s a lot of effort and a LOT of money flowing into resources; pedagogy, on the other hand, not so much. And what Open Pedagogy keeps hearing, for ten years now, is this is Phase One. Phase Two, after we open the materials up, we SWEAR, it’ll be all about you folks. Just a few more stops.

So when we have Twitter debates like yesterday the way I read it is that Jim Groom (and others) are saying “Enough of this. Let me out of the frickin’ car. We’ll find our own ride.”

And I’m the person in the backseat saying — “I think it really is a just few more stops.”

Which maybe means I’m a chump.

But here’s what I know. The death of the Persona Project was the norm, not the exception. It happens all the time. Where I work right now had a great student and teacher wiki up in 2008. But it got nuked in a transition. The Homelessness Awareness wiki I worked on with Sociology students (and demo’d with Jim Groom in 2011) is ghost-towned. The disability research one has been slammed by spam. And even more than that, each time I work with a professor on these things (most recently on a Colonial Theory wiki) we spin up from scratch, and leave it to rot afterwards.

People make things possible. And we have such great, great people in Open Pedagogy.

But institutions, they are what make these things last. And my sense is that the recurring cycle of CELT and TLT center layoffs is all you need to look at to see how much of what we do is built on sand. It scares the heck out of me. It really does.

What keeps me in the back seat of the Initiative-mobile, besides the passion of the students around this issue, is that OER has done the hard work of bringing OER work to the center of the institution, rooting it in institutional policy and practice in a way that Open Pedagogy hasn’t been able to do. And while we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow. It’s all too easy in this business to end up the new interactive whiteboard — bought one year as the must-have accessory and abandoned the next.

What I see in these OER initiatives is a way to plug Open Pedagogy into the institution at a molecular level. A way to build infrastructure that survives staff turnover, and the inevitable disintegration of your teaching and technology unit. A way to foster cross-institutional collaboration that doesn’t require Herculean efforts.

This isn’t because I don’t care about DIY, or people power, or mavericking it. It’s because I respect the work that all of us do in the open — faculty, students, staff — and want to see that work plugged as deeply into the university as the textbook industry used to be. I don’t want to re-graft open practice onto classes each semester; I want it to be at the heart of what we do. And if you want to do that you have to start by replacing the proprietary textbook.

Anyway, that’s why I stay in the car and help out with these things. And that’s also why I completely sympathize with the frustrations of others, who are tired of waiting. But in the end, I do believe it’s worth it, and I do believe we’re on the verge of a change in focus here.

After just a few more stops. 😉

“A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”

From FiveThirtyEight, Arvind Narayanan on the expansion of Internet tracking and fingerprinting (h/t @hypervisible):

There is research that shows that when people know they are being tracked and surveilled, they change their behavior. We lose our intellectual freedom. A variety of things we consider important for our civil liberties — say, marriage equality — are things that would have been stigmatized just a few decades ago. And the reason we got to the point where it was possible to talk about it and try to change our norms and rules is because people had the freedom to talk to each other privately. To find out that there are like-minded people. As we move to a digital world, are we losing those abilities or freedoms? That is the thing to me that is the question. That’s the most worrisome thing about online tracking. It’s not so much the advertising.

This is, of course, the dystopic world of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon:

From this building, the prison’s inspector could look into the cells at any time—and even be able to speak to the prisoners in their cells via an elaborate network of ‘conversation tubes’—though the inmates themselves would never be able to see the inspector himself. Assuming that the omnipotent governor was always watching them, Bentham expected that this ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example‘ would ensure that the prisoners would modify their behaviour and work hard, in order to avoid chastisement and avoid punishment. The idea of constant, overbearing surveillance is certainly unsettling, but the panopticon and its central inspection principle would, Bentham argued, have multifarious benefits…

The point of Bentham’s Panopticon — what excited him about it, but what in a post-totalitarian reality is the most frightening attribute — was that power of “mind over mind”. It was, for Bentham, a mode of maintaining the present order, of bending people to a social norm.

But here we are, having cheered on Wikileaks in their dissemination of stolen DNC emails. Here we are wondering why we shouldn’t have access to every comment that Hillary Clinton ever made over email. Here we are wondering why Twitter is broken.

You can have radical transparency, or you can have change. You can’t have both.

Change requires privacy. Safety. Occasional silence. It requires concentric circles of trust, moments where you start at the center with that one true friend and voice an idea that anyone else might think is crazy. Or biased. Or dangerous.

The promoters of radical transparency think they are prophets of a new and better order. They are of course nothing of the sort.

You can have radical transparency, or you can have change. You can’t have both. You have to choose.


How Document Decomposition Helps Overcome Bias

This is a short note — the second I suppose — that follows up on a conversation I had yesterday with George Siemens and David Kernohan.

In that conversation I stated I had a technique of using the web that helped to overcome bias rather than push us further back into it. It has, at the moment, the unfortunate name of “Document Decomposition” which is probably worse than what I used to call it (“Idea Mining”). I’m not much of a brander.

But the point of the technique is this: when you come to a document on the web, suspend your disagreement with the argument, and instead loot it for neat insights, facts, and figures.

For example, there’s an article out there right now that makes the case that Clinton’s focus on Trump’s instability is costing her post-election success at coalition building. Even as I type those words I can barely restrain myself from going on a rant because this gets the modern post-Tea Party political climate so WRONG WRONG WRONG.

If you’re a human with a brain and a passion for something, you know this feeling. I feel like a middle schooler being held back from a fight. I want to jump into the article and destroy this premise, mentally rebut every argument, lay waste to the suggestion. And I can absolutely do that.

And maybe the argument is wrong. Maybe I’m right. But there is near-to-zero use (apart from fun bursts of dopamine and adrenaline) of reading the article that way. If I had my old political blog and I was influential in that way, perhaps. But, to me personally, reading the article that way will be a waste of time. I already know I will come out of the article exactly the same way I came into it, except perhaps with more neurons ossified and locked into their current configurations.

Worse, because I disagree with the rhetorical point of the article, I will only store away those facts and insights that support my point, and ignore those that don’t. Over time my mind becomes a repository of only the facts that support my worldview, and my views harden.

So what can you do? My argument is you can choose to ignore the higher argument and loot the article for facts, figures, patterns, and theoretical lenses. Understand the author’s point, but don’t treat it as a debate. The truth is if you can get past the urge to debate here, this person knows stuff you don’t, and your prime job here should be to learn it.

So I decompose the document into useful facts. Here’s a bunch of cards I made going through it.


Each card is a blockquoted piece of text from the article with a title given by me to the idea or incident it represents. Above the blockquote, if I have time, I put a brief summary of the blockquote and maybe a note of why it is significant. Here’s  the five cards I made from the article that was so wrong wrong wrong., each of them pulled from something the author of that article either taught me or explained well enough that I wanted to capture it:

  • Frontlash Strategy was LBJ’s tactic in the 1964 Goldwater election, attempting to paint Goldwater as a dangerous reactionary who would draw us into pre-New Deal America. It was meant to appeal to moderates by showing Goldwater as out of the mainstream of even Republican thought.
  • Moyers on the Daisy Commercial talks about Bill Moyers’ strategy for the famous Daisy commercial, and LBJ’s reaction to it.
  • Frontlash as Devil’s Bargain discusses how LBJ’s decision to not run on the Great Society vision — but instead to run against Goldwater’s temperament — undermined the sort of coalition building around policy that Johnson needed to prevent a backlash.
  • Dime-Store New Deal is what Goldwater called Eisenhower-age Republicanism, and is an interesting point in the “there are no real choices” debate of today.
  • Sanitized Lexicon of 1966 details how the Republicans found ways to play on fears of white voters in 1966 through developing a coded but socially acceptable way to reference race in that election. And this resulted in an anti-Johnson, anti-Great Society wave in that year.

But, you say, most of these cards undermine my belief that building “mandates” is largely mythology. Yeah, they do. But they are interesting facts, points, and ways of looking at things, so I want these cards in my personal wiki. It’s going to make it richer, and more interconnected.

After I write up the cards (it doesn’t take much longer than reading the article, really — maybe about three times the time of a “straight” read) I then try to find connections for them.

I type in 1966, and find that’s not only the year of the backlash against the Great Society, but, according to a card I made out of another article, it’s also the peak of NASA funding: it was all downhill from there. So I add a note at the bottom of the card:


In the comment I link the NASA article to the article about the 1966 backlash. And I make a note of a question this raises or me — to what extent was NASA a victim of Great Society backlash? I have no idea, but it’s interesting to think about. I’ll research it later.

Trying to find something to link to “Dime-Store New Deal” I type in polarization, and I find a card about how in 1960 only 5% of people would have had issues with a child of their’s marrying someone from the other party; by 2010, that percentage had risen to a third.

That statistic is one I’ve used before to talk about the rise of “lifestyle politics”, but Dime-Store New Deal reminds me that in 1960, according to some people, both parties were very much the same. So I write a note:


I’ve grown to like finding these things, because a card that can link to counter-evidence is just so much more interesting than a card that doesn’t. You’re building out and connecting your library of ideas. And just as Milton Friedman surely had copies of Marxist theory in his library, you, too, are an adult, and your library should have a wide array of cards which argue against what you believe. You need to keep them there, linked and ready to remind you of reasons you might not be right.

I’m not going to rehash The Garden and the Stream, though I will say that with passing time I think that particular post has become more accessible to people who are watching the Facebook-fueled implosion of our political discourse. As I said there:

I am going to make the argument that the predominant form of the social web — that amalgam of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, forums, Reddit, Instagram — is an impoverished model for learning and research and that our survival as a species depends on us getting past the sweet, salty fat of “the web as conversation” and on to something more timeless, integrative, iterative, something less personal and less self-assertive, something more solitary yet more connected.

Document decomposition, or whatever we want to call this process I’ve been doing in federated wiki and Wikity, is one of the new forms of practice for which I’m arguing. By setting fact, figures, ideas, theories, and data free from the argumentative welds they are bound by, we paradoxically make ourselves less immune to their insights. Rather than developing counter arguments about why my set of facts proved the author of that piece was wrong, I spent 15 minutes understanding and connecting his context to mine.

Did it change my mind? No, of course not. It would be a ridiculous and dangerous world where every time you read an article your opinion changed. But the important thing is by understanding and digesting the context he cites — the approach of LBJ to Goldwater, the 64-66 trajectory, the sanitized lexicon and the true strategy of the Daisy ad — I now have a much richer set of connected theories, examples, and  data to think with. And so over time, I will be affected by the article, because my context has been broadened and deepened, and I can think deeper and more complex thoughts.

In fact, you see that a bit already in the way that these facts have modified my take on other things. That story about polarization and marriage, for example, is still an excellent story, and I’ll probably still use it to think about polarization with. But I’ll never call it to mind now without a bit of a twinge, remembering the “Dime-Store New Deal” critique of Goldwater, and the warning that gives us for using 1960 as a baseline for such stuff. Eventually, that may propel me to investigate whether prewar marriage preferences were as benign as those in 1960.

Add here all the caveats — no I’m not saying all blogging is bad, or that Facebook isn’t great for some things, or that there aren’t some writings and ideas that need to be rejected wholesale. I also support the broad use of expressive social technologies in the classroom.

But in a world consumed with the web as an expressive engine of identity, it’s worth it to imagine a countervailing technologies that help us not only express what we know and argue with others about it but ones that actually propel us, slowly over time, to unexpected insights and deeper thoughts.

You don’t need to use Wikity, or federated wiki, or whatever to do that. But if your technology is pushing you into more and more fights with people and solidifying your certainty about matters, you probably need to reconsider your technology mix. If your technology is making your ideas less fluid and connective, and pushing you into small homogeneous groups, it’s probably the wrong tech. And if the tech is doing this to you, you need to consider whether it might be doing this to your students as well.

This is not meant to be a moral panic about technology, Facebook, whatever. But the tech you choose has consequences, and right now it seems to me the mix veers so far towards accretive identity-building that we are losing at least some of our capability to think about thoughts too nascent or controversial to post to our wall.

So let’s try and build the kind of future we actually want, right?



This is a story about cognition and social media. But it begins with a bird.

Our family has a bird, a green-cheek conure named Derp. His brain is about the size of an M & M (original, not peanut).

photo 1

Derp is a quick learner. You can say “Tidy up, Derp” and he’ll gather all the bottle caps and crumbled pieces of paper on the counter, and put them into a cup for you. You can say “Pleased to meet you!” and he’ll shake your hand and say “Pleased to meet you!” When he wants a walnut, he’ll say “Walnut?” and if you don’t listen, he’ll go ring his bell until you look over and he’ll say “Walnut?” again.

He’s an innovator, too. He doesn’t like how hard his pellets are,  for example. One day he mistakenly dropped a pellet into his water bowl, and noticed it was a lot more pleasant to eat that way. Now, to eat, he grabs a pellet, hops over to his water bowl, drops it in and waits a minute, then picks it out and eat it. We have talked to other green cheek owners, and none of them have seen this — it’s not a hard wired behavior. In fact, many green cheek owners have to manually wet the pellets before they put them in the bowl for the parrot.

So let me put this in perspective. Derp has a brain the size of an M & M and has independently discovered cooking.  

Now you might think, as I did for many years, that the logical capability of humans is an extension of Derp’s capability, but with a larger brain. But there you’re wrong.

Derp is intensely logical. When new data comes in, Derp adapts. Derp occasionally even exhibits random behaviors, as if to test the null hypothesis. If you could design a Wason test for Derp he’d pass it, easily.

Humans, on the other hand, suck at all these things.  And increasingly, the reason for that seems to be that we don’t really rely on the pellet-wetting parts of our brain to think.

In fact, the most exciting theory of cognition today is Mercier and Sperber’s argumentative theory. What the argumentative theory says is most parts of the brain we use to reason were actually developed not to reason but to convince people to cooperate with us. (Yes, I realize I’m talking in teleological verbs here about evolution, but my lunch break is too short to be careful about language).

This explains why the minute we stake a position we seem incapable of considering counterevidence. Doubt is read as a sign of risk, and plans that look risky don’t get followers.

I’ve been working this story and thread (including a video of Derp) into a keynote I plan to give in a month or so. The place where I’m going is similar I think to where George Siemens and others are — social media, combined with accretive identity and a strong rhetorical bent, is quite literally inhibiting our ability to think. When everything we say is position-staking and identity construction we become dumber than my bird. Who has a brain the size of an M & M. And who is literally named “Derp”.

The answer to this problem is to ditch — or at least downplay — this fusion of advertising, surveillance, and personal branding the web has become, and get back to the vision of a quieter more connective web that people like Bush and Nelson saw. To some extent, make social media less social.

The irony, I’m realizing, is that I have been working on this issue quietly over the past year, not in an argumentative way, but in a foraging mode. And as such I’ve put precious little of that here, in the place people actually look at. But here’s some stuff to look at for the time being.