Coffeecourses are go!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on my thought processes around building a completely different PD model. This week, it’s a reality. The site is built and ready to be used. And the part that pleases me most is that you lot can all play too.

To describe what exactly Coffeecourses are, I’ll just quote myself:

‘a kludgy hybrid of Codecademy-style feed-based courses, games-based/task-based learning a la The Moodle Dailies (which is offered as part of the project) and online shopping sites’

It’s basically an anytime, anywhere, anyone model. No lecture-tantamount workshops, no ‘click here and do this’, no ‘groupwork’, no requirements. I finally feel like I’m doing something that jibes with my approach to edu rather than being all punk online and then turning around and selling out and giving trad-delivery workshops because it’s what people keep asking for. It was essentially zero-cost to create (only cost is paying $20/mo hosting just to make it nil demand for central IT support) and, with the exception of the Moodle Dailies, is completely open and anyone from anywhere can sign up.

If you’ve got a few minutes, take a look – would love feedback:

You’re all welcome to sign up if one of the courses tickles your fancy (none particularly revolutionary but some were requests from colleagues and seem important ‘small steps’ for those just starting to get their feet wet). The subscription courses all kick off on Monday so if you like your content served a la Codecademy you’ll need to do the Feedburner thing before then, otherwise just wait and watch and play with it afterwards.

Building out-of-the-box PD models – some behind-the-scenes thinking

Most of you are probably aware that part of my job involves running training and professional development for lecturers. For the last few years, just like everywhere else on earth, this has meant running workshops.  And for the last few years I have been banging my head against the metaphoric wall because workshops are very, very broken. I’ve said before that geography and time are very poor criteria for just about anything, and workshops are a case in point. Those of you who’ve ever been involved in giving or taking PD know that there are a whole host of other reasons workshops are broken, which I won’t go into because it’s not really the point of this post and I’m probably preaching to the choir anyway. However, the nature of demand-driven systems and status-quo concepts mean that workshops are the expected form of PD delivery and doing anything different is a long, hard sell. Hence why we and everyone else have adhered to this model for so long. But. One can only deal with not doing anything about it for so long, so, long story short, this year, I’ve said ‘enough’. I’m not running workshops. Which opened up a nice array of possibilities of what one might do instead (and which happens to be the answer to the question ‘what would I do as part of the University of Awesome?’).

What I’m exploring is the idea of a kludgy hybrid of Codecademy-style feed-based courses, games-based/task-based learning a la The Moodle Dailies (which is offered as part of the project) and online shopping sites. The working title is ‘Coffeecourses’ – the idea being that, instead of having to get to a workshop in a given place at a given time and then remember everything that was covered, the courses are run as a series of short (c. 10 min) tasks that you can complete anywhere, any time, over a cup of coffee. Tasks are fed out via RSS so whenever there’s a new task it lands in your inbox or feed reader (although anyone is free to grab any or all of the course content in retrospect via the site itself). All of this is being built in self-hosted WordPress – slightly naughty of me, but Moodle just can’t cope with this model of delivery. [EDIT: I’m reminded here of @jimgroom‘s post here and must credit @macalba for being an excellent sysadmin & tolerator of my edupunkness]

The online shopping component fits in to the picture via the registration system. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a course catalogue run as an online store using a shopping cart. It allows for nice possibilities like crowd-sourced course choosing (‘students who bought this course also bought…’) and bundling (‘purchase these three commonly purchased courses as a bundle…’), easy registration (email, credit card, done), tracking (both from institution and student end) and so on. It has the added bonus of, since online shopping is so ubiquitous, bucketloads of purpose-developed sites, plugins and addons that are all well-maintained and properly coded. Now, while this idea has Buckley’s of being adopted by universities any time soon, internal staff PD is an ideal test case for exploring this kind of model. I’ve been using the e-Commerce WP plugin, which, with a bit of hacky fiddling, has worked out nicely. Courses are listed as ‘products’, which staff can add to a cart, complete a simple checkout process to register, then get subscription instructions as a ‘digital download’.

I won’t lie, it’s going to be a hard sell to convince people this model of PD has merit. Certainly it addresses the concerns most people have about getting to and recalling content from workshops, but it has a high level of self-directedness, and we are in the somewhat ironic position of being a major distance ed provider where many (most?) staff still do not accept online learning as a model for their own learning. It’s a battle we desperately need to have, though, so I’m willing to jump in and annoy a few people for the sake of really starting to change people’s perceptions on this. In my favour is the fact that my partner in crime, @stuffy65, is offering a webinar-based model of online PD, which still has some of the benefits above without completely blowing everyone’s minds so it’s a good complementary strand that functions as a conceptual intermediary.

So – feedback. Nuts or sheer genius? What’s this kind of model missing? What’s it doing well? Would you take this kind of course in preference to a F2F workshop if you had the option?

Punking practice-led research

It has frustrated me for a rather long time now that in general research is about writing about doing stuff, cf actually doing stuff. Obviously things are done that generate data, but the focus is generally not on building a ‘product’ as the output itself – you can build something, but only the writing about it is counted as research output. This frustration came to a head recently as I just could not justify fitting what I want to do with the University of Awesome into a traditional 50K word model. I’ve always been about ‘doing things’ and can’t reconcile this with traditional research output, however open, fluid and web-based that is.

Enter the practice-led research model. In HDR terms this currently manifests itself as PhDs/Masters in Creative Practice or similar, and is offered almost exclusively in creative arts disciplines – art, design, music, theatre, creative writing etc. The model focuses on ‘researcher as practitioner’ and considers the creation of a ‘product’ the majority research output. For HDR purposes an accompanying exegesis is required, but this is effectively a reflection on the building process and relevant issues. It’s an excellent model that focuses on ‘doing’ – building and creating things – but until recently has been a bit of a sideline model of research (this year is the first year ERA has acknowledged the products of practice-led research as ‘countable’ output).

But. It is COMPLETE MADNESS that creative arts seem to be the only disciplines in which this is the norm. On doing a quick lit trawl, it seems that there is virtually no precedent for products themselves to be considered research output in other disciplines. Everywhere else, we focus on the ‘writing about’ being the research output. Any form of doing isn’t part of the word count and isn’t published. It’s indicative of an academic culture of favouring observation over action (which tbh doesn’t win us any fans outside of academia). It’s an issue in HDR and it’s an issue in academic publishing, and it needs to change.

So – I’m calling punk. Practice-led research should be a norm, not an exception in every discipline. Ditching word count and valuing creation gives us all sorts of possibilities to play around with. It’s where I’ve been going with the University of Awesome – a change in the game of edu research. It’s not about collecting the data any more – it’s about building it.

Borrowing innovation models

NB: This is a cross-post from my Masters research blog, but thought it was worth posting here as well as it’s fairly general in its applicability.

In chewing over innovation models lately, it’s become clear that innovation as a concept in higher education is anything but clear. It’s a buzzword that refers to an amorphous, indefinable entity and the lack of clarity presents itself in any number of problems currently present in the system. In short, we’re all groping around in the dark and hoping we find the light switch.

The problem is that education often looks to education for innovation. Higher education has a well-documented tradition of working in ‘pockets’ of innovation while the majority maintain the status quo. These pockets often have a rogue flavour (ie aren’t appealing or practical for the masses) and suffer from low visability, which does not an effective model for innovation make.

This is where we need to start looking outside. Other industries have been effectively managing innovation for since day dot. Game design, tech startups, media and e-commerce (etc etc) have some simple and fabulous innovation models that work. It’s certainly not new to notice this – Herz (2002) discusses what universities can learn from multiplayer online worlds, and, more recently, Education Insider posted on what universities can learn from tech startups. Higher education stands to benefit quite a lot from looking to other industries for innovation models that can be ‘borrowed’ (via creative adaptation) into our own systems.

The crux of my thesis is designing a real, scalable and practical model for higher education that is based on true innovation (and by ‘model’ I mean ‘actual, implemented thing’ rather than ‘framework’). The University of Awesome concept already includes many of the above ‘borrowed’ innovation models, without this being the direct intention. Perhaps it’s time to start making it intentional and building it as a startup, rather than just a way to gather data.

Kickstarting funding models

For a long time now I have thought the grant system is broken. Months are spent writing grant applications that may or may not be approved for reasons that may or may not have to do with merit. Entire positions are created for the purpose of grant-writing, and career kudos is based on how many grants you can win (and the fact that ‘win’ is the verb of choice speaks volumes about the process). Grants are judged by a few people from the target funding body, and your application hinges on how well you have worded it to suit these people. Over and over again we see ridiculous projects continue to be funded because people can play the grant system well.

My solution for this to date has simply been ‘not apply for grants’ – my ‘start now, no funding required’ ethos means I struggle to design things I’d need 50K for anyway. Non-participation isn’t really helping do to anything about the system, though. What would happen if we actually started to redesign the grant system?

Enter Kickstarter. It’s a project that has intrigued me for a while now – essentially, anyone at all can propose a project that is then thrown open to the community, who can choose to contribute to funding via micro-grants – pledges that can be as little as a dollar or as big as thousands, whatever a donor feels the project is worth and they can afford. This strikes me as being a much more valuable method. For one, someone seeking funding is required to sell their project to the masses, rather than just a few with specific agendas. It’s also a much more organic, immediate and sustainable funding model (because, unlike, say, the ALTC, the government can’t axe funding from individuals).

One of the most interesting possibilities here is the notion of social responsibility. If you are funded by masses of individuals who all have a small but significant intellectual/emotional interest as well as financial stake in your project, it’s a very different beast to being funded by a funding body, who specify administrative conditions for the grant but have no real connection to your work and give you no emotional imperative. Like peer review, I don’t think anyone is benefitting from the anonymous judgement of a few, cf the identifiable judgement of many. Which would you prefer – seeing a project funded for thousands that you had no say in, or a project you believe in that you had personally contributed to – even as little as $10? Which would be the bigger achievement for having ‘won’?

I think 2012 for me will involve investigating Kickstarter for funding – perhaps the University of Awesome could use a similarly awesome funding model. The more of us that jump on alternative bandwagons the better, as far as I’m concerned.


Englishmen at Ascilite – call for participation.

Next week I’m going to be presenting this paper (on the fact that academic publishing desperately needs to change) at Ascilite. I’m also exploiting the fact that blogs do not count as ‘prior publication’ in order to make the point that is central to the paper. About six weeks ago I put the paper’s full text on my thesis site, tweeted the link then sat back and watched. Here’s a little snapshot of what followed:

  • Viewed 233 times, most of those in the first two days of clicking ‘publish’, and the abstract only has an additional 22 views.
  • Retweeted around 20 times, possibly more. Both the ‘Share this’ tweet count and Twitter Mentions as Comments plugin do not appear to be able to cope with Twitter’s native retweets. Twitter’s helpful reduction of archiving to 2 weeks also makes tracking this trickier.
  • Scooped, Diigoed and Delicioused several times (here’s one example by @antoesp, which gives a good idea of additional potential audience)
  • Mentioned (cited?) in a number of blog posts (@timbuckteeth‘s post here was probably the highest profile in terms of additional tweets, curation and traffic generation, but nods here also to @biancah80, @jimbelshaw and @andy475uk)
  • Was read in two other languages (including quite a number of Spanish hits, which suggests there are some interesting things going on around academic publishing in Spanish-speaking countries) via Google Translate

It proves my point of online text being contextual within a community of practice rather nicely, and blows the ‘readership of five’ concept of theses out of the water. And this is all before it’s even been presented at the conference for which it was written, let alone been published in the proceedings or considered for AJET. It’s in rather stark contrast to another paper of mine currently languishing in book publication purgatory, which still goes (probably) unread over a year after I wrote it and it’s become well and truly off my radar of things that are important or relevant any more.

Perhaps the biggest point I’m trying to make here is that online text is not a container – it is a fluid entity in that constantly changes as the context around it shifts. The above snapshot starts to show the potential for this – for example, a Scooped article’s context constantly changes as the curation set is added to. One of the nice things about this for me has been the fluid bibliography – if you read the text bibliography on the paper itself, it’s a static list, but if you read the bibliography via Diigo (via QR code on the print version)) the list is constantly evolving and being tagged and annotated. By next week it will be different again. Because conference requirements are still such that you must submit a Word doc version for print (which pains me no end, but I do occasionally have to play by the rules), my inclusion of QR codes to replace URLs and embedded video is at least a compromise towards including some of this fluidity in a text document.

My point in writing this post, aside from a record for my own benefit, is to put out an invitation. If you are similarly frustrated with the current state of academic writing/publishing, particularly online, you have infinite opportunities here to help prove my point. If you are not similarly frustrated and think I am a raving lunatic who has no clue what I’m on about, you too have ample opportunities to help me prove my point :). Tweet the link to the paper, tweet the link to this post, comment on this post, comment on the paper itself on my thesis site, bookmark or otherwise curate it, blog about it, mash it up, whatever. Even better if you do stuff with it I haven’t thought about yet. I’d also love any pings to related literature which would add a bit of depth to the ‘context’. And – if you’re planning on coming to the session at Ascilite in person, don’t think you’re off the hook. BYO device and we’ll see what we can do with it in 20 minutes.

So – if this is up your street, hit the tweet button and get mashing. You will, of course, get mad props in the presentation :).

University of Awesome – Stage 1

A while ago I started tossing around the idea of the University of Awesome, and a slightly smaller while ago I began writing about it in my beginning thesis proposal stages. And now, it actually exists. It’s not live (read: usable) yet, because I have yet to conquer our friends ethics approval and COC (confirmation of candidature – an apt acronym if ever there was one…), but I thought it was time to start articulating what UofA actually is without all the thesis-speak.

Essentially, it’s a space for anyone who thinks there are issues with higher education. It’s a space for anyone frustrated by big ideas getting red-taped. It’s a space for anyone who’s drowned in admin and policy. And it’s a space for you to do something about it. It’s a space for what-if and hey-how-about and what-the-hell and why-don’t-we.

It’s a game, of sorts. There’s no senior exec, no org charts, no teaching periods, bell curves or outcomes. The space will be designed on narrative, not policy. You are free to interact however you want – as a teacher, a student, a leader, all of or none of the above or something else entirely. It’s not dissimilar to Google’s ‘20% time’ – an opportunity to tinker and engage in innovation. It’s not a MOOC because it’s not a course – there might be a series of Skype sessions on organic chemistry offered next to a one-off collaborative session on app design next to six weeks of liveblogging on guerilla knitting, while a bunch of other people are preparing a submission to DEEWR on accepting blogs as valid research publication. It will probably be none of those things but I’m pulling random examples out of the air at this point since a key feature of UofA is that there is no dictum on how it works or what happens.

Functionally, it’s a Buddypress-based community site that will act as a base to glue together whatever people come up with – I’m imagining any number of sites and tools feeding in and being hacked together. It’s a simple solution for what is primarily a conceptual project, so may evolve as it goes on.

So – watch this space (or, more correctly, this space). And in the meantime, take a look at the not-dissimilar #massivelyminecraft project, and read this post – one @marksmithers wrote a while back that I’d missed but articulates some of the ‘wants’ of an ideal university quite nicely.