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.


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.