Yes, it’s a goddamn product

I’ve been working on a strategic project for the last while that’s tasked with overhauling the business degree suite. Which has led me with my education and creative arts background and all the business nous of a sock to try and learn some things about business, including entrepreneurship.

Warning: possibly painful meta upcoming

I’ve been reading Sarasvathy after this particular paper was mentioned in a seminar on entrepreneurial thinking I was in yesterday. The glaring thing that strikes me here is that the way we as a sector think about course design is broken because we still can’t get over the indignation of thinking about higher education as a business and degrees and courses as products. Collective pearls are clutched about the selling out of intellectual purity and rose-tinted elbow patches erode from our collective souls.

Sorry kids. It is a business and it is a goddamn product.

Course design is almost exclusively undertaken with causal reasoning – choose from these existing predefined means (units) and combine them in various ways to offer predefined goals (degree programs/courses). All of which are variations on virtually identical themes. Very occasionally creativity sneaks in and some new means are generated, but the underlying goals and existing means are largely unchanged (yes I know because reasons).

Enter entrepreneurial thinking. What if we got over ourselves and admitted we are designing a product for a market, and started designing courses as such? What if we applied effectual reasoning to curriculum design? We could begin with redefining our sets of means – our people, our educational experiences, our relationships. And then use them to create what? Who the hell knows. That’s the whole point. The idea that you can go into an educational space and say ‘we need to build something different but we don’t know what it is’ and focus on a process of action and iteration and learning in order to find out what it is you need to create is a rather fascinating (read for most: terrifying) kettle of fish. Sarasvathy’s chef metaphor appeals to me, both for my love of terrible metaphors and the fact I’ve already been articulating things in terms of distilling what we do down to its ingredients (experiences/people) before we start thinking about creating recipes and writing menus. An alternate terrible metaphor I’ve been flogging in this domain is the need to work out what is in our lego set and experiment with build designs rather than starting with a preconceived build (more on terrible lego metaphors probably upcoming in future, get excited).

It’s a murky way forwards, sure, but designing learning via entrepreneurial thinking has got to be less of a death by irony than the way we’ve been doing things, particularly when the learning you’re designing is in entrepreneurial education. It creates a whole bunch of other questions, of course, such as hoo boy how do we deal with uncertainty and failure and can we actually engage in affordable loss principles without causing student services to melt down, but you can’t change a thing without changing a thing, so…

Sarasvathy is better at concluding paragraphs than I am, so here you go:

Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial, as
differentiated from managerial or strategic,
because they think effectually; they believe in a
yet-to-be-made future that can substantially be
shaped by human action; and they realize that to
the extent that this human action can control the
future, they need not expend energies trying to
predict it. In fact, to the extent that the future is
shaped by human action, it is not much use
trying to predict it – it is much more useful to
understand and work with the people who are
engaged in the decisions and actions that bring it
into existence.


Paper packages tied up with string

Yeah I went there. Not even sorry.

Lately I’ve been musing on adaptive learning. I’m not going to talk about the Moodle lesson module, which I have a long illustrious history in hating, or proprietary solutions like Smart Sparrow or anything Adobe branded, which I also have a long illustrious history in hating. The latter are useless when you have budget and resourcing constraints. The former is just an infuriating UX.

I’ve never been big on adaptive learning as driven by education, because generally games do it way better than we ever do when we’re focused on the outcomes rather than the experience. But since personalisation is the newest buzzword on the edublock (or I may just be late to the party, one or the other), one can’t ignore it forever.

What to do? Well if games are doing it better than we are, may as well game engine it up.

Twine is all my favourite things – free, open source, platform agnostic, lightweight, spits out html and full of retro nostalgia for text-based choose your own adventure games. Another instance of me being late to the party since it’s been around for years, but it’s not really me if I’m not flogging old horses for new tricks now is it.

The main benefit for me of Twine is that it has a visual node based backend. Which for people like me who struggle with the visualisation of adaptive and branched things makes life very easier because you have a built-in map of all the various nodes and branches.

Look at all the nodes. Look at them.

So what am I actually doing with this?

Let’s say you’re Ed. Let’s say you’re sick of wasting time telling students how to navigate the dumpster fire of a uni website to locate the fact sheets and resources they need. Let’s say that you’d rather just give students a resource pack and get on with developing more valuable skills. How do you create a customised resource pack based on different study paths of students, whilst also giving students some agency in telling their own study stories?

So I’ve been experimenting with hanging fact sheets, policies and links off various nodes, which allows students to navigate through and answer various questions to build their own starter resource pack based on their journey to study, enrolment path, need for support etc etc. It’s not an elegant solution because it doesn’t automatically generate a zip file at the end or anything and unless you get hardcore CSS-ey the interface is very 1980s text-based choose-your-own-adventure game, but that does hold a certain level of appeal for me. It does, however, allow for very rapid development with no need for budget or resources (theme song for my life).

Whether it ends up being an ultimately usable solution remains to be seen, but Twine is definitely staying on my radar of neat free tools to pull out when the situation warrants.


Can we just not.

This happened on twitter earlier, because it’s edutech o’clock, but it could be any day, any conference, any speaker.
Can we please just stop with the inspirational change porn, presented via the medium of exactly the same damn lecture we’ve done for centuries. Call it whatever you like, call it all manner of buzzwordy euphemisms I see in conference programs these days, call it a TEDx, they’re all just theme and variations on the lecture. Which of itself isn’t inherently bad but when those snappy sans serif words on the slides talk about doing things differently or change or disruption or paradigm shifts I start wondering exactly why we haven’t already drowned in our own irony.

Note to six words guy – it’s not you. It’s the system. I get it.

Why do we assume the only way to transfer information of worth to others face to face en masse is some variation of a lecture? Why do even the most hardcore disrupters (sorry. drink.) default to slide decks? (I’m not exempt from this btw, god knows I have some slide decks in my closet). I just fail to understand why, in an age of edu-evangelism and futurists, we have yet to progress beyond the assemblage of people to receive information spoken to them by someone on a podium with a slide deck, side serving of death by vendor.

Why not an event where people are herded to whatever city but your information of worth is posted sentence by sentence around the place and people walk round with a google map to piece together what you have to say? Why not an event where your ideas are in the form of a Cards Against Humanity style game and they remix your inspirational stuff into their own? Why not an event where you have to knit as a metacognitive exercise? Something that’s actually a step outside the box rather than the vague gestures of sessions called think tanks or fishbowls or whatever, where it’s really still just some people talking at some other people +/- audience speaking.

Surely, by now, we can do better than this.

Front-ending student generated content in WP: A story slightly more exciting than that title suggests

If you’ve been paying attention to my work for any period of time you’ll be aware that me working on student-generated/collaborative content in WordPress is nothing new. But when I started doing this years back, I was using a centrally-administered WP install over which I had no admin rights and no ability to customise. Which meant creating student accounts, teaching them how to use the back end of WP to post content, and a whole bunch of compromises. Ultimately it worked and many good things happened but it was a PITA and huge time sink and ultimately not particularly sustainable or scalable.

Fast forward several years after I’d gone more cowboy and learned how to be my own sysadmin, I can run pretty much whatever I need to now off my own rogue hosting. I once again was approached about making some kind of *thing* where students generate all the content. In this case, a collaborative database for maritime archaeology fieldwork. Moodle database tool was immediately voted off the island for being boring, inflexible and both temporally and physically locked. Plus it just looks a bit crap. Sorry Moodle. I naturally then turned to WP, but recalling the pain of managing student logins and training last time, and the knowledge this time that when you go cowboy, you’re the only support you’ve got, getting students to use WP in the standard way didn’t really seem viable.

Enter WP User Frontend Pro (standard version is free if you don’t need the extra features, I needed gmaps and pagination and things so actually spent some money for once). Not the only plugin around that allows people to post content from the front end of course, but this one works well and served my particular needs. This allows students to create posts via a standard (well, conceptually standard, fields are custom) web form served on the front end, no need to log in or learn the WP admin interface. Now admittedly I’m working behind password protection atm so I’m not sure how hard this gets hit by spambots in practice, but that’s a bridge crossed easily enough later. Ultimately I’d rather have to slay some bots than provide bespoke tech support to a whole cohort. At any rate the form works nicely and the pro version allows you to get quite complex in the number and type of fields you use.

Now that the ability for students to post from the front end with no special knowledge or logins is go, the further question is – how much control do we want to give students over metadata and taxonomies, given it’s supposed to be kind of proper database-y and will have potentially 300 entries? Folksonomies giveth, and yet folksonomies with 300 misspelled and typoed tags that are conceptual duplicates taketh away. Asking students to enter post tags manually seemed like a slightly bad idea. Enter custom taxonomies. Again, a number of plugins exist that can do this job, I’m using Custom Post Type UI. A couple of hours* with a cup of coffee and some data entry later, you can have a whole host of custom taxonomies to play with. And both plugins play very nicely together so you can then ask students to categorise their posts in multiple and flexible ways using finite dropdowns or checkboxes instead of free text input. The end result of which is a really robust structure that allows eventual public visitors to explore and filter the content in multiple ways, and also makes export of content to other systems (if necessary) more effective.

This particular project is still only at proof of concept stage and won’t run with actual students for another month or so, but I’m hoping this setup will really streamline the experience of student-generated bodies of work, not only in terms of student UX but my own workload and sustainability and scalability.

*Probably won’t take you that long if you don’t have 200 different kinds of boats to enter.

The Moodle Dailies and Coffeecourses: A retrospective

Having been contacted again recently by people who are implementing the Moodle Dailies concept and the Coffeecourses concept at their own institutions, I’ve been reflecting on both the excellence of the internet and the depressing ironies of institutional politics, as well as the concept of ‘impact’. Since both projects are at least 5 years old now and not currently active in my neck of the woods I thought I’d tack the word ‘retrospective’ on this post and waffle self-indulgently for a bit.

The Internet – 5/5 would use again

These two projects I think were good examples of how organic online networks can really get shit done and make things become things. For both I ruminated on my design processes out loud on here and input from peers, primarily Twitter peeps, helped me refine the design into their eventual final forms. Then it was Twitter (probably also Google+ a bit, back in the day, anyone remember that? Good times) who started disseminating my work, putting me in touch with a bunch of interested people who wanted to take what I’d done and run with it. Yay for the internet. Boo for institutional policies that try to shut that down because branding and control issues.

Impact – She Tweeted A Thing And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

So there’s impact and there’s impact. One is a factor and measured via citations, and the other is people actually visibly benefitting directly from your work. I care about the wrong one of these to ever get much of anywhere in academia. I’ve never published a thing on the Moodle Dailies and I’ve only ever written one conference paper on Coffeecourses. Doesn’t count for a damn thing in the real world except one lousy E1. But here’s what actually happened:

The Moodle Dailies – at least 5 institutions that I’m aware of, not all higher ed, definitely not all in Australia (my recent chats have been with a university in Belgium), implemented courses based on or conceptually similar to the Dailies. I consulted with the DET (or whatever it’s called these days) on developing PD for teachers based on the concept.

Coffeecourses – At least 4 different institutions in Aus/NZ (Deakin, Waikato, ANU, USQ) implemented their own Coffeecourses. Two that I’m aware of are currently active, and ANU’s seems to have been going successfully for quite a while now. And while mine were running, I had all sorts of people from around the world participate and people in other sectors (primarily K12 but also VET and industry) took the courses and seemed to get something out of it.

Plus I did a bunch of masterclasses and presentations and blog posts and things so quite a few other people heard or read me bang on about them. Several other people contacted me independently to chat about the concepts. All of which was far more visible and meaningful to me than locking stuff up in a journal somewhere just to get the institutionally quantifiable kudos.

Institutional Politics – 0/5 would not recommend

The great irony of all of this, of course, is that both projects got barely any traction or recognition in my own institution. Exactly zero people ever did the Moodle Dailies here. Zero. People did sign up for Coffeecourses internally, because for a little while it was part of a requirement for new teaching staff on probation, but I have my suspicions that they mostly just signed up and never actually looked at the content, let alone participated. Then when I got workplace changed out of my former role, all my projects were dropped and no longer run.

I’ve never really decided if this meant the projects were a failure or not. Coffeecourses at least did achieve its aim here for a while, but the Dailies were The Greatest Project That Never Was. Failed utterly at its goal. But does the influence it had on people’s pedagogical thinking mean they were successes? How much resentment should I bother harbouring that they basically had no value within my own institution?

Here endeth the retrospective rumination. In terms of future stuff it would probably be interesting one day to curate all the different iterations of things into one place and map the progression of an idea, and I keep promising my PhD supervisors I’ll eventually write something on the Moodle Dailies. Also I never know how to end these things so here’s a cat:

Thinking inside the box

I’ve been doing this PD-genre gig for close on 10 years now. And largely, my efforts have to date have focused on either satisfying the demand for F2F standalone workshops, or venturing outside the box with almost exclusively online nonstandard stuff. Which has seemed logical to me, online stuff is flexible, accessible and low cost. But what it also is, is ignorable. When you live and die by the provisions of the clock or lack thereof, it’s easy – too easy – to delete an email, forget to visit a website, say you’ll access a webinar recording after the fact and never do, swipe away a notification.

So one asks – how do we make things harder to ignore?

For this I’m starting to stuff my thinking back *into* boxes – literal boxes, and figurative boxes.

Section 1: Literal boxes

I’ve been watching, lately, the subscription box trend. People pay a certain fee to have a box with unspecified contents of a certain genre sent to them each month. Adult kinder surprise, if you will, except instead of horrible chocolate and nasty little toy*, you get a selection of food or wine or makeup or whatever. The novelty here of course being both the anticipation of discovering unknown contents, and the promise of trying something new that perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen on your own. Plus the ability to post twee unboxing videos on instagram or facebook or wherever.

So I started thinking – what if you did subscription boxes for PD? People would sign up for a physical box to appear in their pigeonhole each month, contents entirely unknown. Maybe one month it’s coffee, biscuits and alternative assessment strategies, maybe one month it’s a pack of cards to start thinking about games-based learning, maybe one month it’s Google Cardboard and an edict to explore low cost VR. Who knows. But it would be a physical box occupying physical space with an element of curiosity and potential promise of novelty, and that’s somewhat harder to ignore than the 9 millionth email or portal site in Moodle.

The tricky part is thinking about how work that is largely conceptual and theoretical interfaces with physical space and objects. How do you put thinking in a literal box? I don’t actually know but it seems like a fun thing to try.

Section 2: Figurative boxes

Somewhere on the list of is maker spaces and gatherings. Probably. Not maker spaces in the hackerspace sense so much, but more in a bunch of people knitting in a pub sense. We have one here that meets in the campus bar, you probably do too. It’s a dedicated time blocked out in whatever convenient space is available, where people turn up, hang out and make stuff. A figurative box in the calendar. Specifically, a regularly occurring figurative box. Anyone who’s worked in a university for any length of time knows that things don’t tend to happen unless you block that shit out in the calendar, and that’s the main issue anyone who might be vaguely inclined to make change to their teaching practice runs into.

So what would happen if you took a ‘if you make them come, they will build it’ approach? Schedule a small block of time every week or fortnight for people to come to a room, bribe with treats, enforce a Pomodoro-style no distractions or multitasking policy but allow them to work on whatever interested them just for that period of time. C.f. the standard higher ed type of workshop which is mostly a euphemism for a lecture and is never spoken of again the second everyone leaves the room. Really, just being an agent for boxing out the time people can’t make for themselves, then being on hand to facilitate thinking and creating. Could even change my job title to Change Agent or Innovation Catalyst**.

Both are mostly just vague, un-fleshed-out ideas at this stage. At any rate though this is where my thinking is going this year. Boxes. Call it analogue PD, call it Strategic Alignment™, call it futility in the face of the eternally unsolvable, call it yet another painful pun opportunity, but boxes – there may just be something in it.

*Hat tip Bill Bailey

**Kidding, srsly

Second verse, same as the first

So the PhD is a thing again. I’d put it on suspension for a year while I had a kind of mental sabbatical, but now I’m back at it again with the white vans (oh god please stop with the outdated meme references).

The essence of my PhD is unchanged, which for those of you who haven’t been playing along since back in the day when I started a masters is ‘ok how do we do some cool stuff while everyone around us is simultaneously banging on about innovation and not giving anyone any funding or support?’. But out of necessity the structure and focus has changed so I thought I’d tell you some stories about that.

The key problem I have is that because a) the work that I do and the sphere that I work in means the stuff that I do is very much of a time and prone to becoming outdated very quickly and b) I am angling for what feels like the world’s longest candidature – if I get it in under 10 years I’ll be happy; current trajectory is 8ish years. And I went back to what I’d written and the projects I was doing when I first started out and it was kind of like when you look back on photos of what you were wearing in high school or find an old journal full of teen emo poetry. There was no way I could submit that as some kind of endorsement of my current thinking.

Since starting again from scratch was approximately as appealing as dental surgery, my solution is to approach my PhD as a kind of longitudinal autoethnography in the form of project case studies. Longitudinal because I’m taking a freaking long time to do this thing, auto because the projects I’m writing about are the ones I’m involved in and ethnography because that’s how the case studies will tell a story. A story of how grassroots innovation happened in the changing climate of higher education and what we might be able to learn, or not, in terms of how to actually do innovative stuff, from each of the case studies.

You’ll all be surprised to learn the structure I have pitched is unconventional. While the thesis will be topped and tailed with normal bits like a lit review, the body of the thesis will be a modular situation, made up of ten tripartite case study sections. Tripartite because each will have an article describing the case study (may be published, may be not, you may have already read or seen me present on some of them), an accompanying exegesis that positions the case study in the overarching narrative – why this type of project with this type of thinking happened that this particular point in time, and what impact may have been had, and then the project artefact itself. Since all of these projects involve the creation of a site – Moodle Dailies, Coffeecourses etc etc – I feel like it’s essential to include the site within the work, much like a creative practice doctorate includes the creative product as part of the work. We – educators, ed devs/learning designers/academic developers/instructional designers/whatever you want to call our sort of people, researchers – frequently produce creative pedagogical output that is as valid as creative arts and design work and should be acknowledged as such. So I suppose it’s a portfolio of sorts, as well as an unconventional thesis.

At any rate, watch this space. Could be fun, could be terrifying. But importantly, could be a thing.