WordPress-fu for the entry-level edupunk

The above is the title of a workshop proposal I’ve submitted for Ascilite this year. It occurred to me that I did quite a lot of workshoppy practice-sharing type work around what I was doing with games-based learning and Moodle stuffs but (largely for baby-related reasons) I haven’t done much at all with where my focus has been for the last while, which is building outside-the-box (I hate the phrase but in this case it’s more or less literal if you take ‘box’ to mean ‘institutional VLE’) spaces for doing cool stuff in WordPress. Which seems remiss of me given WordPress is free and dead easy to use and lets you do cool stuff but not many people have ever explored it from an admin/maker perspective or used the self-hosted version.

So assuming it’s accepted, the workshop will be a hopefully entertaining half-day exploration of running and using your own WordPress install to create spaces for learning/teaching/research/admin/whatever. The ‘entry-level edupunk’ thing is a reference to those who might be frustrated with the restraints of their LMS (etc) and would like to do something different but don’t know where to start and also don’t want to be too anarchic about the whole thing. The point here is that it’s not about being a complete cowboy and running a rogue server from under your desk, I’ll also be talking about how to make a case for institutionally-sanctioned projects, how to work well with IT etc.

Part of the workshop will also be along the lines of my previous post, looking at plugins etc that weren’t designed for an education market but that can be appropriated to do some nifty stuff. Plus some fun unstructured design time and free fiddling with ‘OH GOD I BROKE IT’ assistance. Ultimately I really just want to show people how easy it is to do neato stuff with an extraordinarily rudimentary grasp of web dev principles and php (because that’s all I’ve got), and that you can be a little bit cowboy without being very cowboy :).

Design by appropriation

The problem with systems and software that are designed for education is generally that they are designed for education. Education as a target market has some significant baggage when it comes to design – there’s always a tension between educational design and system design, and things generally end up as a compromise between the two that completely satisfies neither. The educators aren’t satisfied because their lack of knowledge of system design leads them to have somewhat unicorn-like ideals about what a system can and should do, and system designers aren’t satisfied because their lack of knowledge of educational design leads them to have somewhat unicorn-like ideals about what educators can cope with. Designing systems specifically for education also results in an invisible bias, where users’ concept of what that system can do is shaped by the system. LMSs are probably the guiltiest examples of this on all fronts.

To my mind, the strongest design is coming out of companies that have nothing to do with education and never intended for their product to be used in our sector, and we’re missing a trick if we’re not exploring how we can appropriate them. There are some very cool possibilities that come about if we borrow ‘outside’ systems and start repurposing them into education*.

You’ll likely have noticed lately that I’ve been doing a lot of work with WordPress (the self-hosted version), which is just a blogging platform. Designed to let people write stuff on the internet and that’s it. Conveniently it’s open-source so a lot of people have written plugins for it that make it into other things that still don’t have anything to do with education – e-commerce, creative portfolios, business websites etc etc. It’s also free and stupidly easy to use. But most significantly, what it is is a blank slate. It was never designed for education. Which means we are free to appropriate and interpret tools and functions as we like. As an example – most universities have a catalog of courses and units on offer, which prospective and current students ‘shop’ through to build their degree. These tend to be developed in-house as standard information repositories that hold not a lot more than unit codes, descriptions and outcomes. However – the world of online commerce is light years ahead of the game in terms of how you sell stuff to people online. People designing e-commerce platforms know customers want shopping carts, cross-sales info, reviews, package deals and to know what popular products are. Imagine a course catalogue that was more like shopping on Amazon – adding potential units to your cart, seeing other students’ reviews of the course, one-click adding of units commonly taken concurrently etc etc. Ten minutes spent installing WordPress and an e-commerce plugin and you’ll have exactly this structure ready to go. Coffeecourses are a rudimentary example of this, with the added bonus of all the course content also being hosted in the same WordPress site, using category tags as unit codes.

It’s not just WordPress. Bucketloads of beautifully designed non-edu-specific tools can be found on the interwebs. I should specify though that I’m talking about fundamental structural appropriation, I’m not just talking about setting up a Pinterest board for your class. Appropriation for design, for building things. I know it’s a long way off in terms of being supported on an enterprise level, but there’s still a lot we can do with niche and flagship projects. Next time you need to create something, before you reach for your standard edu tools, take a look outside the edusphere; there’s a web full of stuff just waiting to be cowboyed.

*The eagle-eyed among you will spot this as fairly textbook edupunk, but I’m coming at it from the ‘hey let’s do cool stuff’ point of view, not the ‘screw you and your restrictive enterprise systems, I’ll do it myself’ ethos. How spurious you take that distinction to be is entirely up to you :).



The problem with educational design (+ the WDC)

Once upon a time, I was a teacher. Probably quite a few (most?) of you reading either were or are as well. And while teaching is a varied and movable feast of a profession, one thing can be taken more or less for granted, and that is that pretty much every day for at least part of it, you will be teaching. You’re a teacher, you do teaching, simple, no?

Nowadays I do something rather intangibly named ‘academic development’, and I’ve just been seconded into a gig on a SAF-funded project titled ‘educational design’ (all part of the same semantic quagmire). However, if we follow the same nomenclature logic as teaching, the profession should actually be called ‘A bunch of meetings, planning and administration, some testing, making Moodle quizzes for people and sometimes you might get to go to a conference’.

The problem with educational design is that we spend so little time actually designing education.

I am well aware that higher education throws up quite a lot more red tape than K12 education, but most of the time universities are in danger of project managing themselves into the ground. There’s an awful lot of talking about deliverables that sound like doing something, cf actually doing something, and very little abounds that really looks like innovation. So – as an antidote to this, I’ve just tossed up a Weekly Design Challenge project, in which for an hour or so each week we tackle a pedagogical design problem, in a sort of conceptual hackerspace.

Functionally it’s not dissimilar to the daily quest idea – a short repeated task that keeps your hand in and ups your skills and reputation. It also neatly solves the problem of being able to show something tangible when people ask ‘can we see an example of an innovative unit?’ (because when you tell people they have to innovate that’s invariably the first question they ask). It’s also not far removed from Google’s 20% time I suppose, although it’s depressing to think that we need to specifically allocate time to do the thing that’s in our job title.

Will it work? Who knows. But at least it’s doing something.

The post-LMS non-apocalypse


Currently we have a funded courseware redevelopment project happening, and I’ve been asked to articulate my views on a ‘post-LMS world’. The odd thing about this is that I should have a multitude of opinions on this issue but this post has languished as a draft for over a week now and I’m still not quite sure where to go with it. I think part of the problem is that I’m not one for ‘grand future visions’ and I’m also not a good use case for scalability.

So where to start?

Currently we (as in ‘higher education’) have a rather ingrained fetish with learning management systems, heavy emphasis on the ‘m’. @djplaner and @timklapdor both do a good job outlining the issues with this as well as potential solutions – here and here respectively. My main problems with LMS implementation are that it leads to a) focus on systems rather than design, and b) homogeneity. To the first point, discussions abound on features and what systems should and shouldn’t have. While I do agree with David’s point that making users fit the system isn’t a great approach, I also think that never getting outside of this features discussion is dangerous. The problem is that when you have a monosystemic (is that a word?) situation the features discussion has to dominate because there are no other options and we are stuck focusing on the system rather than design purely through lack of alternative. When you have something more like the ‘Environment’ Tim describes then you can take each system at face value and move between all of them to find the features you need.

This is why I find it difficult to answer the question ‘what would you change about Moodle?’ or ‘what features do you think Moodle should have?’. Because I’m a bit of an under-the-desk punk (in a nice, legit kind of way), I already operate within my own ‘environment’, of which Moodle is only a part. If it doesn’t do what I’m after I go find something else to fiddle with. To me there’s little point in changing Moodle or adding features to it when it’s just another part of the kit and if it’s not filling a need I’ll just grab another tool. But – I’m not a standard use case. I pay for my own web hosting and taught myself enough web dev skills to be able to install and admin stuff on it. I also know enough to be able to talk to IT guys and make rational cases for what I want to do, and when faced with a new system I’m happy to fiddle on my own until I know what it does and how I could use it to do cool stuff. Those last two sentences in no way describe your average academic, or even your non-average academic.

This is why I have reservations about jumping in and talking about a post-LMS collection of systems or environments that people can cobble together at will. It’s what I’ve thought would be ideal for years and it’s what is working for me right now. And in an ideal world, this would be the case. But. What do you do when your primary users consists of people who are largely not willing to approach new systems without training, who don’t have learning design as their primary directive, who are churned through casual contracts at astonishing rates that in no way correlate to required unit review procedures, and when your primary market (students) demand consistency and homogeneity across learning experiences? I don’t think the one-size-fits-all LMS is the answer but if you start building in choice and freedom something has to give in terms of how universities are currently structured and cultured. But then again – this is only an issue if we assume the centralised university model we currently have will still exist. If the harbingers of doom turn out to be right and the likes of Coursera et al *do* happen to disrupt universities out of business (chortle) then we’re dealing with an entirely different beast.

So at this point I have done an excellent job of not answering the question, which is what my vision of a post-LMS world might be. The upshot is, I don’t know. I don’t think a centralised management model, whether monosystemic or ‘environment’, is the answer, but it might have to be if ‘current university model’ is still the question. I think as long as universities stand in their current form we won’t have a post-LMS world – even if we do move to a more flexible environment model there will still be a focus on systems and management out of necessity. A post-university world, however – that’s the interesting question. I still don’t have an answer but I think it’s a better question to be asking.

The myth of the expert


Advance apologies; I’m about to burst a few bubbles.

I read this post this morning. While I’m no fan of the ‘Generation Meh’ tag, she makes the point that young people aren’t digital natives, they’re just fearless. But what it highlighted to me is that, despite the fact that most of us now acknowledge that digital natives are bollocks, most of us are quite happily perpetuating another bollocks theory – the myth of the expert*. We seem to happily accept the idea that some people magically know lots more than other people about certain things because they’re smarter or have an affinity for the subject. But just like digital natives, they’re not. They’re just fearless.

I’m generally introduced to people in a professional capacity these days as ‘the Moodle expert’ or ‘the Moodle guru’. Before that it was ‘the Blackboard guru’ or ‘the Mac guru’ or ‘the tech guru’ or whatever. Aside from the fact that this bears no resemblance to my actual position description or job title at all, it’s also a giant lie and I thought it was about time I came clean about that. Here’s the secret – I don’t know any more about anything than the next person. I’m just not scared of anything and I can use google. I’ve never had any training in any technology, ever. My IQ isn’t any higher than other people’s (I assume, I have no idea what it is nor do I care) and I have no special affinity for technological devices. The only difference between me and the average person is that I’ll say ‘hmm, wonder what happens when I do this?’ and ‘oh I dunno, what about that?’ and ‘eh, let’s give it a shot and see’ and if that doesn’t help me out I’ll google it until I find out what I need to know. Half the time when someone rings me with a question I’m googling their issue, which is the only reason I can answer them. I poke and tinker and click without worrying about breaking things or looking stupid. Also I am ridiculously curious (I’m the person who, upon looking something like qualitative methodology up on Wikipedia, seventeen clicks later finds themselves reading about Guillain-Barre Syndrome or string theory or pogonophobia something) and I’m quite happy to get things wrong. That’s it. I’m no expert.

I think my problem with this is that the idea of the ‘expert’ assumes that ‘knowledge’ is the key trait we should be aspiring to. I’d be a bit depressed if the best thing someone could say about me was that I was ‘knowledgable’. I know some people like the ‘veritable font of wisdom’ tag but to me it’s superficial value and misses the point. All it does is support the notion that these things take ‘expert’ or ‘guru’ status to master. Which is bollocks – anyone can master anything if they’re fearless about it and willing to put in a bit of work.

So let’s do it – let’s stop perpetuating the myth of the expert. Stop tweeting about experts and stop inviting them to your conferences. Let’s stop talking about soaking up their knowledge and start taking on a little bit of their fearlessness. Experts are as passé as digital natives, and I’m calling it.

*Bear in mind I am not referring to the self-identified, big-noting promo type of expert – also complete bollocks but the reasoning is an entirely different kettle of fish :).

The folly of choice

*EDIT* – a few people have made the fair comment that it’s choice and decision-making processes that I have an issue with here rather than open source specifically, so have changed the title accordingly.

This isn’t a post bashing open source software. Open source is awesome. What it is is clarification on a point I tweeted yesterday in regards to whoever let on to unis that Moodle was open source needing to be shot.

Most universities used to use Blackboard or other similar LMS systems. They sucked, and continue to do so. However, because they weren’t open source, nobody could really change much of anything. Many people whinged heartily about features or lack thereof, but since little could be done it rarely went further than whinging.

Enter Moodle. A bit over a year ago we adopted Moodle as our LMS of choice. Don’t get me wrong, if I have to use an LMS I’d rather it be Moodle (although in an ideal world we wouldn’t use one at all), but the fact that it is open source has opened up a whole can of crazy for universities. The problem started when people got wind of the fact that open source means that central IT can make code changes and build and install plugins – ie, Moodle is infinitely customisable. This isn’t a problem in itself – customisable systems are very good. The problem is that ‘lay people’ – academics and other staff not well-versed in IT processes or frankly able to consider a bigger picture than their own needs – started requesting features.

Anyone who has worked in a university knows that they are incapable of rendering any one person responsible for a decision. Any new thing – system, software, policy, process, whatever – has to go via a series of consultation processes and committees to make sure a sufficiently large number of people have had input to diffuse responsibility. If it were simply a case of people asking the Moodle process owner in IT about a feature and getting a simple yes or no it might be a different story. But suddenly, we are now spending hours in meetings and surveys and JIRA logging feature requests, ranking them, paying for outside developers to code them etc etc. Almost all of these are trivial, and many are designed to ‘just put it back the way it was before in Blackboard’. Most are easily lived with or there are simple workarounds for. It’s insanity.

Don’t get me wrong, bugs should be fixed. Anything that causes mass reduction of efficiency should be fixed. But when you have to spend hours – hours that could have been spent doing any manner of other, more productive things – on consultative decision-making involving anyone who might possibly be considered a ‘stakeholder’ simply because someone is kind of annoyed with the way things are ordered on a page or hasn’t worked out browser print settings, something is very wrong. And since university processes probably have Buckley’s of changing any time soon, a better solution surely is just keeping the particulars of open source for the people who can see the forest for the trees.


#unegamers – an exercise in awesome.

Recently I wrote a post on Derek Sivers’ ‘Start now, no funding required’ mantra. Today I have watched a potential project unfold (in the space of an hour) that is a really beautiful illustration of the sentiment.

Last week I happened to be chatting to one of our systems analysts over lunch, and the topic of running an on-campus game server came up. He pointed out this would be a very simple, low-outlay thing to execute that would require minimal red tape. I said ‘Let’s do it’. So we got the student support guru (@UNESupport) on side and booked a meeting.

That was at 10am today. A couple of coffees later we had a plan. But what’s happened since 11am has been the most exciting. By about 11.15 we had a Googledoc for plotting, several @ replies and a hashtag (#UNEgamers) on Twitter and a FB group to seed a registered UNE Gamers group. As of typing this sentence at 12.10pm, the group has 21 members. Students have already begun requesting games to be added to a ‘future’ list. Ed is upstairs organising New England Award (community service-type award system) points (at students’ suggestion) for potential student moderators. We’re thinking about O Week activities and campus events for both students and staff. I’ve been asked to chat about it at the next #rugame event. It’s a really simple demonstration of what can happen if you start now.

What’s most exciting is the sheer number of possibilities in a project like this. On one level it’s a good drawcard to be able to offer students a dedicated gaming server with awesome ping that both on- and off- campus students can use to play together. On another level entirely there are more significant benefits – it offers something exciting for IT staff to look after, it offers a way to be proactive about both student and staff wellbeing, it has awesome teaching & learning potential, and the research potential is huge (with a completely selfish nod towards my own thesis on fostering innovative thinking :D). It also fits with strategic plan agendas with the NBN, innovation in teaching (such as it is referred to…), engagement of non-traditional students etc etc. It’s an exponential amount of awesome for something simple, started in a week, with no funding at all.

So – watch this space. With any luck, more awesome will be forthcoming shortly.