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 :).



Adventures in credentialling: OpenBadges, Open Badges and un-gamification

I have to admit that I have avoided OpenBadges until now, mostly through rightly or wrongly correlating them with gamification. I am not big on -ification of any kind but take particular issue with the addition of superficial motivation layers over unchanged, non-game-like content and the awarding of badges just for the hell of it (or under the guise of ‘engagement’). Which means I have mostly discounted the existence of OpenBadges.

Until now. Most of you are aware that for the last while I’ve been dabbling in wholly online delivery of professional development via Coffeecourses (which I realised to my dismay the other day is probably an accidental MOOC of sorts). However one sticking point with it has been the ability to track completion and offer credentialling. The use of e-commerce software means registration can be easily tracked, but so far completion has been an honesty system of sorts, given that commenting on each activity is optional. However a couple of weeks ago I read this post by @marksmithers, who is perhaps one of the few people around who is more skeptical than I am about things, which made me rethink my stance on OpenBadges and badges in general. Effectively they are a simple method of scalable and sustainable (in that they can be automated) micro-credentialling, and don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with gamification at all.

So – I’ve started to play. I’m investigating WPBadger, which integrates with OpenBadges, and BadgeOS, which lets you create open badges (which are not Mozilla badges) that are shared via Credly. With any luck this will allow me to award automated credentials for completing coffeecourses. Ultimately it would be excellent if one could collect such badges, and badges from other professional development, and aggregate them towards a ‘proper’ credential like a GCHE – but I suspect that’s crazy talk. At any rate, watch this space. Or more accurately, this space.

I’m on a boat! Oh wait. No I’m not. [or, why PD is a wasted opportunity]

It has recently come to my attention that those of us who work in professional development, particularly in schools and universities cf industry, are missing a rather large boat. A huge, glaring boat.

Generally if you are an educator in a university or school, you have a fairly extensive list of restrictions you are working with whenever you attempt to do something new and/or innovative with your teaching practice. You have both institutional and governmental red tape to comply with, administrative processes to follow, institutional structures, set content and/or assessment etc etc. Change is difficult to effect. There are many rogues and cowboys out there doing cool stuff regardless, but generally, as an industry education is far from agile and conducive to innovative practice.

But – professional development (as an entity in education) is almost entirely unregulated. Almost none of these restrictions apply to us when we are designing training and PD programs. And yet this is an almost universally wasted opportunity. We fill our PD programs with face to face workshops that are generally only a computer click or two away from a lecture. Powerpoint presentations. Paper handouts. We’re presented with a situation which perhaps more than any other scenario in education facilitates truly innovative design, and we’re dropping the ball rather badly.

Now I am aware this is partially a market demand thing. Most people who are the consumers of professional development have the workshop model as their primary concept and this tends to be the expected and requested model. But – somebody has to start changing the status quo somewhere. We should be taking advantage of this opportunity to start a trickle of creative thinking, innovative practice and cool stuff, not biding our time with the same old. Coffeecourses was kind of a nod in this direction on my part, but we still have a long way to go.

Now excuse me while I go write a conference presentation on this. I’ll make sure you all get a printout of my slides.

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.


I’ve been a bit slack about getting this up here given it was a couple of weeks ago, but better late than never, yes? At any rate, SAFFIRE was a festival of innovation-y things and general pot-stirring hosted by UC as part of their SAF-funded initiatives. A few of us who are known for liking to poke the beehive (was in good company with @marksmithers, @type217 and @jonpowles) were invited to present on whatever tickled our fancy. My presentation focused on getting outside of the higher education echo chamber and taking some cues from the ways other places were approaching innovation. The annoying thing is that I presented by live-drawing some ‘slides’ using Screenchomp (an iOS app from the same guys who make Camtasia), but the sharing feature completely failed and now I can’t get at the recording at all to even screenshot some highlights for you. So instead, you get the non-visual Cliff’s notes version. Enjoy.

What if we thought like game designers?

Academia (and most forms of education really) have a rather insane reliance on the written and spoken word as method of delivery. But – if you look at games like Angry Birds, they manage to conduct the entire experience including all the necessary instruction without using a single word. Everything is visual. Would you be able to express the last thing you wrote (paper, topic notes etc) in a purely visual form?

For some inspiration from people who can, check out Dance Your Thesis: http://gonzolabs.org/dance/.

What if we thought like product developers?

Let’s pretend that Apple, prior to bringing out the iPad, had asked people what they wanted in a tablet device. They probably would have said they wanted a nice physical keyboard, an input device, probably running a full OS etc. Et voilá, they have created the laptop. People didn’t know that they wanted a touch-only, mobile-OS, non-keyboard device until one came out. It was panned in initial reviews then promptly sold eleventy billion units.

However – the iPad didn’t happen overnight. In the late 80s and early 90s Apple brought out the Newton – a neat little brick of a tablet device that was stylus-only, and had cool things like a mobile OS, handwriting recognition and rudimentary bluetooth. People weren’t really ready for that kind of thing and it was a giant flop, getting axed entirely in the mid-late 90s. But rather than binning it entirely they developed it in the background until they could release something people were ready for at a more opportune time.

Conversely. In higher education we slavishly adhere to the student review process of units – units are judged almost solely on how they fare in the end-of-semester student reviews. Effectively, we keep asking our customers what they want, and what they want by and large looks rather like the type of education we’ve had all along. What we need to start doing is selling them on something they don’t even know they need yet and probably doesn’t look like anything they have a concept of. And if it fails, we need to stop shelving it and start tweaking, redesigning and reimplementing.

What if we thought like MacGyver?

Ah MacGyver. Paragon of mullets, purveyor of duct tape, the stuff of every good 80s woman’s dreams. MacGyver is a champion of kludging, cobbling together anything at hand with his ever-present duct tape to solve any problem he encountered. What he did not do, interestingly, is sit around making a whole bunch of feature requests on the duct tape, pushing them through user acceptance testing and hoping the duct tape would eventually turn into a boat or a bomb or whatever he needed.

We waste so much time in higher ed trying to make our LMSs into something else – if we just added this plugin or patched this or if this looked a bit more green then we could finally do something innovative. I call bollocks. I’m interested in what we can do with what we have at hand, in exactly the form it currently exists. We can already do some really innovative stuff, we just need to turn our approach on its head. There’s nothing stopping us from starting something now, today.

EDITED TO ADD: Several of the questions I fielded following this presentation were along the lines of ‘that’s well and good but how do you marry this with the restrictions lecturers face?’. My response is – someone has to not care about them. The restrictions and red tape are very real and limit a lot of what goes on, but if we all just throw our hands up in disgust and say nothing can be done we’ll never get anywhere. Somebody has to be the cowboy who says ‘bugger that, let’s do some stuff anyway’. May as well be me.

How sustainable is sustainable?

Last week I flirted with the idea of nominating for an OLT citation (ultimately, didn’t happen, didn’t get my institutional EOI in on time). What struck me, though, was the requirement that ‘your excellence be sustained over time’. Which means that any project you nominate has to have run for at least three years (two if you’re an ECR), and even that is reduced from last year’s four years.

Four years. Think about it.

Given where we are in terms of education and evolution I find this staggering. Four years ago we were talking about web 2.0 like it was hot stuff. Four years ago virtually nobody had a tablet device and smartphones were kind of optional. Four years ago there was no Minecraft or Instagram or Angry Birds or Kinect. Four years ago you were almost certainly using a different LMS, OERs were a bit meh, and almost nobody was MOOCing and if they were they probably weren’t calling it that. Given this rate of change, how can we justify keeping something exactly the same as it was four years ago?

In higher education we like to talk about sustainability. Generally this can be interpreted as ‘we’re going to throw a stupidly large amount of resources at a temporary project team to implement a flavour-of-the-month impressive-looking project and somehow we need this to exist after all our funding runs out’. Which, in theory, is good, if something is to exist long term it needs to be able to sustain itself sans enormous pots of money and time. But – at what point does longevity become detrimental? What if what we need isn’t sustainability at all, but adaptability?

When I think about my own work, I tend to classify anything that I was doing more than a year ago as old news, outdated or irrelevant and time to move on (which makes my career look a little like the Chinese calendar – the Year of The Moodle Dailies, the Year of Coffeecourses etc etc). The only project of mine that satisfied the criteria for the OLT citation was the Moodle Dailies (by the skin of its teeth, incidentally, and only because I’m classified as an ECR), and as I was writing the EOI it occurred to me how ‘old news’ it feels to me. A Twitter conversation with @catspyjamasnz on the Moodle Tool Guide showed I’m not the only one:

By getting caught up in the concept of sustainability and requiring ‘excellence to be sustained’ over multiple years, are we creating a bigger problem than we’re solving? I’m left wondering what will happen if we don’t acknowledge that adaptability and flexibility may trump longevity. Universities are already dangerously outdated in many ways – an obsession with sustainability may just tip us over into irrelevance.