Minimum Viable Public Project

There’s a too-long-Twitter-canoe that is getting into questions of whether use of commercial services are of the faith or not. It’s a worthwhile discussion, but I thought I’d bolt from it and put something on the blog instead.

A while ago I decided I wanted to work with one of our most technology-phobic faculty here. We had two goals:

  • We wanted the students to do public writing
  • We wanted them to learn a useful technology for their scholarly practice

We had two constraints:

  • It had to be simple. This requirement was described to me as “something John McCain could use” in a reference to the revelation in the 2008 campaign that McCain didn’t know how to use email.
  • It had to be, in my thinking, non-invasive and cheap. I didn’t want to sell the students upstream to a tools provider.

So what did we do? We bought one big Pinboard account for the class. We emailed the creator of Pinboard, the incomparable Maciej Cegłowski and asked him if it was OK to let everyone use the account (he said yes). We paid about $9 for a lifetime account (it was 2014). And then we asked the students each week to find a substantial article about public policy (either a journal article or a multipage press treatment) and write a summary of it, and post that summary as a social bookmark.

What does that look like? Well, not too exciting:


But they loved it, actually, and thinking back, I wish I’d rolled out more social bookmarking classes. I got deep into wiki for a while, and just didn’t push it because my mind was elsewhere. The next time that class came round we used which went wonderfully the first time and hit some glitches the second time around. The fourth iteration comes up this Spring, and we’ll do a post-mortem soon.

Here’s their writing. It’s impressive actually.

But back to Pinboard. The reason that this comes to mind today is I’m getting back into Pinboard as a kind of Twitter replacement for finding articles. And last night, when reading something on polarization, it mentioned that Obama’s NCLB waivers were a massive overstep that — while not travel ban-level despicable — asserted the same rights of the executive branch to route around Congress. And I searched for something in Pinboard on this, and suddenly there was this students summary and analysis, tying it to broader thinking on public policy. From a student in that class years ago.

The project had the students learn through the important practice of summary, and the teacher said the students had really grasped the material much better because of this activity. It showed them social bookmarking, an important practice in doing their own web research and in sharing it with others. And it engaged them in public writing — they knew these notes would be visible to the world, and prepared them with care and purpose.

I’m not sure what my larger point is here. I suppose I think of this as open pedagogy, even though David Wiley might disagree — in practical terms they have offered up this work for anyone to copy into their bookmarks. They now understand one way to participate and share their work using the web. And I think of this as providing that digital sanctuary that Amy talks about, because Maciej supports the site with a subscription fee and eschews any tracking or advertising.

Anyway, it was a simple project, a great success in a course with little tolerance for tech issues, and though it looks very boring, it ended helping me out in the end — three years later the student is teaching me in a serendiptious collision. I put it up here on the blog now now, because it strikes me we cover the massive things, whether Digipo or blogging clusters or federated wiki, and don’t share the simple solutions quite as much.

6 thoughts on “Minimum Viable Public Project

  1. The simple projects are the gateway drug for more complex tools. The first hit should be “free” as in free in cost, low cost time commitment and free to fail, fix, try again. In your role in your university, this is do-able. You can be at the facultys’ elbow. I have found that if a project isn’t “exciting enough”, I can’t get enough traction for people to try it. The starting friction of listening to new pedagogy ideas is too high, so simple ideas don’t fly.

    Interestingly, this has manifested in our ebooks. ALL we did is create electronic versions of textbooks and distribute them for free in multiple formats. We didn’t innovate on how to write a textbook or add new innovative interactions, etc. The mere fact that we did the same old thing – just in ebook format (for free) isn’t exciting enough for some folks. Tough crowd sometimes. 😉

    • John — Great to see you here!

      I think you’re right about the “exciting enough” element — to engage a certain set of faculty — to get them to even approach you and trust you — you need to create a buzz. I think Domain of One’s Own at UMW is a great example of how that works, and we’re hoping the Digital Polarization Initiative will be similar. The books is a good example — free books open so many possibilities but it doesn’t have a lot of marketing fizz to it. I’ve been there done that.

      Interestingly I think the most effective elements of providing students webspace from the institution is the way it builds a buzz more than the specifics of the tech itself. Things implemented across campus as broad capabilities have a buzz-ability to them that niche projects don’t.

  2. Reading this reminds me of how I used to play with delicious – eg finding common tags around resources tagged with a particular tag: – or Visualising Delicious Tag Communities Using Gephi . pinboard has a similar API I think (though perhaps not so much on the social/following side?)

    Hmm… will maybe see if a quick tweak to any of that code allows it to work with pinboard…

  3. Thanks for sharing this “serendiptious collision”! Please keep pushing on us to share little things as well as large. And don’t worry – I’m staying out of the whole “what is open pedagogy” debate from now on. I fully support you using the term any way you like.

  4. This is great. Dead simple and it works.

    Tangentially, I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps I should just use a tag from my Pinboard account as my “link blogging” — after all, that’s what I did way back in the day with and just had it all feed back to my blog anyway.

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