Slack Is All Hose And No Bucket

We love using Slack for our communications here, and I think the idea of using Slack for classroom communication is sound. Some might say it’s not open enough, but I say pshaw, some conversations are better behind closed doors. Not every statement has to be a public stand. Twitter has been a seminar in that last point over the past couple years.

No, my problem with Slack is that it is all hose and no bucket. You can search through conversations and find meaningful facts, but for us, at least, conversation is so easy that it can (and does) erode the impulse to do more end-to-end treatments of things. Community knowledge accretes but never quite pools.

I did a video on Federated Wiki Information Lifecycle a while back that was pretty FW-centric which explained how communication could move to more comprehensive exposition. But there’s a general opportunity here for someone to build a Slack-like tool that pushes users to do the harder iterative work of summary and explanation. And I expect that’s what the next iteration of Slack-like sites will be — communication sites that move fluidly and cleanly into exposition, summary, and more wiki-like modes.

FWIW, here’s the old Federated Wiki Lifecycle Video:

Beyond the Export Model


Kifi’s whole schtick is integration with Slack. That won’t work anymore, but you can export! Yay you.

Some people think that notices like this are proof we should all be running our own instances of Kifi, blogging software, or whatnot.

I’m lazy, and I don’t want to do that. I just want my data somewhere that I own, in a format any application can read. I don’t want to have to export it, I want it to be mine already.

If Microsoft Word suddenly went belly up (not Word Online, but desktop Word) Microsoft wouldn’t have to send me an email like this, because my documents would all still be on my hard drive. I could wake up from a Rip Van Winkle sleep, having missed every end of life warning, and I’d still have my documents.

And if those documents were stored in a standard format, like HTML, I wouldn’t need Word to read or edit them. I’d just get a new editor and sail right on.

That’s what being a storage-neutral application and using a standards-based format gives you. It’s why I can still view my family website pages from 1997 but my Ning and Friendster posts are gone.

Ahhh.. you say, but if you had run your own version of Friendster. An open source version of Friendster!

But who the hell wants to maintain an OpenFriendster Server for a decade in order to look at old documents? (And what does it even mean to run a one person community software instance?) I just want a hard drive, somewhere on the internet, with standards-based documents on it. If your web software has a better way to make sense of some of those documents than what I’m currently using we’ll give it a go. And if you flake out, someone else is welcome to come along and fill in the gap.

I want to be able to forget about my documents for years, and then find a reader when I need it.

I don’t want to be a sysadmin. I want to be a writer with a library.

This is what we had for a long time before we decided to put our text into databases designed for accounting. It’s what we should strive for again.

Along these lines you should also read Ted Bergeron, who I think has the right idea about formats. Combine this with something like Tim Berners-Lee’s SOLID project and we might actually spend time being productive again instead of transferring files between functionally equivalent products.



The Simple Vision

My daughters get frustrated with trying to explain to friends what I do for a job. On a daily basis it looks a bit like faculty development, a bit like instructional design, a bit like strategic IT management. But of course, that’s not the part I talk about, despite it being the majority of my job. What I talk about is the simple vision.

The simple vision is this: I think institutions of higher education should be in the business of creating the digital educational infrastructure of the future. This ties together my earliest work from the 1990’s with student-produced online encyclopedias, to my work with Cognitive Arts building simulation-based courseware for Columbia, to my promotion of OpenCourseWare and OER. It underpins my fascination with the strengths and weaknesses of wiki, with federation as model of cross-institutional collaboration, with my recent work to define the emerging practice I call Choral Explanations.

I don’t believe this infrastructure will replace face-to-face education. I don’t think it will make companies billions of dollars. This educational infrastructure is not a unicorn, or a new app.

In fact, for me, it’s not a disruption — it’s a continuation. Throughout the centuries, the problem universities have aimed to solve is how to create new knowledge and effectively preserve and disseminate it.

Ultimately, I’d like to live in a world where students, researchers, faculty, and staff all work together to build this digital infrastructure: content, tools, and new practices that could not only help us in our educational mission, but change the way society goes about its work and propel us out of our current productivity slump.

For me, the most depressing thing is that this dream seems foreign to the modern university. People act like this is an odd dream, a diversion. I feel like it’s the old dream, and it’s one I’d like to reclaim. Should we cede the digital aspects of knowledge production and dissemination to others to handle, or will we take on these technologies and methods as a continuation of our core historical concerns? Are we defined by the printed book, the lecture, and the research paper, or are we driven by a deeper and more timeless mission?



Using Simple Markdown in Wikity

In Wikity we use Markdown as our primary way of formatting things. There’s a number of reasons for that, but the summary of the “why” is that it reduces dependency on mouse use and complex editors which in turn makes things quicker and simpler in the long run.

But enough about the why. Here’s what it looks like. We write up a card or two, do some basic markup and linking, and even show you some multi-card action in the Wikity library view:


Wikity on GitHub

I put Wikity on GitHub a while ago, but I’m not sure if I announced that here. In any case, Wikity is now on GitHub.

In the past couple weeks I have also removed the reliance on WordPress’s “multisite” functionality. It was making installation more complex than it needed to be.

To install Wikity now, just get a WordPress site set up which allows you to install your own themes, then download the current theme from GitHub. Upload it and select it, like any other theme.

That’s it. Recent changes have made it so you don’t need to fiddle with the settings, activate multisite, or any of that nonsense. It’s a theme. Install it and select.

Keep in mind this is still largely alpha software (I have a day job I need to commute to in mere minutes). But if you haven’t used it in a while, you’ll note it’s changed quite a bit. It’s much more focused on being a personal wiki, with the core idea being students can use it to keep and maintain public notebooks of their personal investigations.

Here’s the new GitHub blurb:

Wikity Zero is a WordPress theme you can use to create a personal wiki for notes, bookmarks, photos, or anything else.

Unlike traditional bookmarking tools, Wikity lets you connect ideas and share your work with others while maintaining attribution. And because it runs on WordPress your work is always portable — your site can run anywhere WordPress can (you do need sufficient permissions to upload the theme).

Wikity is particularly useful for classes where students are encouraged to document and connect their learning in emergent ways. Use it as a replacement for the standard learning journal or graded notebook.

Choral Explanations on the (Not-So) Cheap

Once you start to see this “choral explanations” pattern, you start seeing it everywhere. I’ve mentioned before how you see it on sites such as Stack Exchange, and in the dialogue of accomplished tutors. In all these situations, people are not given the “one best explanation”, but rather, they are provided with an array of explanations for a concept or a task, and they use them to triangulate a deeper truth or understanding.

My point has been why we can’t better support this pattern with our educational materials. I think we can do a lot better. But even now we do do this to some extent.

Currently, I’m in the middle of a large institutional OER transition, and going through different gateway classes and seeing what’s currently assigned to students and whether there are suitable free and open replacements. And as I look at what’s assigned, I see a lot of this: a major text assigned with a “for dummies” book or a study guide.


A snapshot of required books for a class from the bookstore.

Think about this for a second. Pearson has spent probably a million dollars on its general chemistry text here to produce the best possible explanation of how chemistry works. Every word has been pored over, edited and re-edited for perfect clarity, diagrams have been commissioned and recommissioned.

And yet it’s paired with Barron’s “E-Z Chemistry”, which was probably written in a month, back to front, by a single individual.

Why? If you believe we must find the “one best explanation” and present it to the students, this makes no sense at all. Clearly, Pearson must already come close to that.

But if you believe, as I do, that students do best when presented with an array of explanations, of different difficulty, with different examples, and the like, then this makes perfect sense. In fact, in a perfect world, the student would have three or four textbooks to hop between for whenever something didn’t make sense.

Anyway, if you haven’t read the piece on Choral Explanations yet, give it a go. I swear it’s worth it, because once you start thinking in this way, you won’t be able to unsee it. It’s honestly everywhere, except in the textbooks themselves.