A New Direction (and either a clearer understanding or some serious rationalization)

I am pleased to say that starting August 19th I will be the new Systems Manager for the BC Libraries Cooperative. I am equal parts stoked and daunted by this opportunity. Stoked, because the Coop is doing some fantastic work in shared services using open source software in a sector, public libraries, that I’ve always felt a strong affinity for. Daunted because, well, I’m not a librarian and regardless of some exposure to library tech and standards, it’s a fairly new field for me. Still, a lot of the role is familiar to me, so I look forward to a few months of intense immersion as I get going, but I wouldn’t have taken the job (and presumably they wouldn’t have hired me) if I didn’t think I could do it.

It’s been 7 months since I left BCcampus. Seven months of rest, of growth, of uncertainty, of trying to figure out what comes next. For a while I looked for something in ed tech (but Victoria’s not that big a town), and then for a while I contemplated consulting work. I still plan to do some of that, but I decided for now I needed something more regular.

One of the things I struggled with in taking this new job was whether in doing so I am shutting the door on a 20 year career in educational technology, higher ed computing, and for the last decade, open education. The library world has its own technologies, its own history and language, its own set of challenges.

But as I’ve sat with it, I’ve come to realize that there has always been a thread in the work I’ve done and in the interests I’ve pursued which I think runs through this new job too and helps me see how this is a progression rather than a digression. For the last decade, in addition to working on open content (something I know I’ll find in the library world too) I’ve come to see the importance of civicly-owned, openly governed platforms for computing. When Web 2.0 came along, its appeal from a usability and motivation perspective was obvious and I was an early supporter of using these technologies for teaching and learning. But, slow learner that I am, it took me a couple of years longer to realize what a few of my colleagues had seen early on, that for all its advantages and appeal, the cloud had a dangerous flipside of centralized control and commercialized interest. I believe in both of these areas, education and libraries, there is still a window of opportunity to implement open systems that will give us the best of both worlds, the flexibility and efficiencies of the cloud but in a non-corporatized way that preserves so many of the values on which an open democratic society depends. And I look forward to the opportunity to work on this with a new set of colleagues in the library world, while still hopefully maintaining connections and building more bridges back to the world of teaching and learning online. At least for now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. – SWL

Name that film…

Has it ever happened to you that you saw a film, perhaps decades ago, that stuck in your head yet you don’t know its name and can’t seem to track it down? Well, I’ve got one for you (especially if you are a British sci-fi fan) that has been driving me absolutely bonkers.

I know it is British. I believe it is a “made for TV” single episode (but possibly a two-parter) that aired sometime between 1995 and 2005. It was of good quality so I am guessing either a BCC or Channel 4 production.

The plot is about a software mogul who has become extremely rich developing an operating system for embedded computing devices, e.g. devices that control home heating systems, refrigerators, automobiles, etc. The twist is that the mogul has placed a beneficent virus in each copy of the software that creates an emergent massive artificial intelligence once enough devices with network access come online.

That’s about all I’ve got. I am 99% sure I didn’t dream this up but actually saw it on the telly whilst visiting my inlaws in Wales sometime in that time period. I would be extremely grateful to know what the name of this film/miniseries was, as I seem to recall it was quite compelling viewing and ahead of its time.

On Creativity

I just recently finished Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. I picked it up for my 13 year old son for Christmas, but as he still hadn’t read it yet, I decided I would. It was a wonderful read, I highly recommend it to both young and old. I loved it not only because it’s a tale rippingly told, but because it helped me to further clarify some of my own thoughts on culture, ownership and creativity. And while it is guilty (as am I) of maybe overstating some arguments about the prevalence of remix culture, it does so, as do I, because of the inflexible and, frankly, plain incorrect views about the nature of intellectual “property” put forth by industry incumbents that require strenuous resistance and reform.

Anyways, my enjoyment of the book would have gone largely unremarked, but yesterday a tweet from the great folks at Common Craft  brought it back to mind.

Now I understand that the purpose of that 2 minute video is to explain the current status of plagiarism and as such isn’t the place for nuanced discussion about the principles underlying it. And I don’t really want to make this post about the video; it’s fine for what it is. But it did bring to mind the following long passage from the book, which is the kind of conversations I want to expose kids to so that “empowering” them in regards to intellectual property, copyright, ideas of originality, sourcing and citation don’t become equated with “simply accepting and complying with the status quo.” Because that status quo hasn’t always been the case. And while it may be the advent of new technologies that are causing that status quo to be challenged, the actual assumptions about property, originality, individuality, culture and ownership underlying the status quo have ALWAYS been worth questioning.

“All this high and mighty talk about ‘creativity,’ what’s it get you? You’re nicking stuff off other people and calling it your own. I don’t have any problem with that, but at least call it what it is: good, honest thieving.”

Something burst in me. I got to my feet and pointed at him. “Jem, chum, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, mate. You might know more about jail than I do, but you haven’t a clue when it comes to creativity.” This was something I’d thought about a lot. It was something I cared about. I couldn’t believe that my old pal and mentor didn’t understand it, but I was going to explain it to him, wipe that smirk right off his mug. “Look, let’s think about what creativity is, all right?”

He snorted. “This could take a couple of months.”

“No,” I said. “No, it only takes a long time because there are so many people who would like to come up with a definition of creativity that includes everything they do and nothing anyone else does. But if we’re being honest, it’s easy to define creativity: it’s doing something that isn’t obvious.”

Everyone was looking at me. I stuck my chin out.

“That’s it?” Jem said. “That’s creativity? ‘Doing something that isn’t obvious?’ You’ve had too much coffee, chum. That’s the daftest thing I ever heard.”

I shook my head. “Only because you haven’t thought about it at all. Take the film I just made with Rabid Dog. All that footage of Scot Colford, from dozens of films, and all that footage of monsters, from dozens more. If I handed you any of those films, there’s nothing obvious about them that says, ‘You could combine this in some exact way with all those other films and make a new one.’ That idea came from me. I created it. It wasn’t lying around, waiting to be picked up like a bunch of pebbles on the beach. It was something that didn’t exist until I made it, and probably wouldn’t have existed unless I did. That’s what ‘to create’ means: to make something new.”

Jem opened his mouth, then shut it. He got a thoughtful look. 26 was grinning at me. Cora was looking at me with some of the old big-brother adoration I hadn’t seen for years and years. I felt a hundred feet tall.

At last, Jem nodded. “Okay, fine. But all that means is that there’s lots of different kinds of creativity. Look, I like your film just fine, but you’ve got to admit there’s something different about making a film out of other peoples’ films and getting a camera out and making your own film.”

I could feel my head wanting to shake as soon as Jem started to talk, but I restrained myself and made myself wait for him to finish. “Sure, it’s different — but when you say, ‘making your own film,’ you really mean that the way I make films is less creative, that they’re not my own, right?”

He looked down. “I didn’t say that, but yeah, okay, that’s what I think.”

“I understand,” I said, making myself be calm, even though he was only saying the thing I feared myself. “But look at it this way. Once there weren’t any films, right? Then someone invented the film. He was creative, right? In some way, every film that’s been made since isn’t really creative because the people who made them didn’t invent films at the same time.”

He shook his head. “You’re playing word games. Inventing films isn’t the same as making films.”

“But someone made the first film. And then someone made the first film with two cameras. The first film that was edited. The first film that had sound. The first color film. The first comedy. The first monster film. The first porno film. The first film with a surprise ending. Jem, films are only about a hundred years old. There are people alive today who are older than any of those ideas. It’s not like they’re ancient inventions — they’re not fire or the wheel or anything. They were created by people whose names we know.”

“You don’t know their names,” Jem said, grinning. I could tell I was getting through to him.

Cora laughed like a drain. “Trent doesn’t know anything unless he can google it. But I do. The novel was invented by Cervantes five hundred years ago: Don Quixote. And the detective story was invented in 1844 by Poe: The Purloined Letter. A fella named Hugo Gernsback came up with science fiction, except he called it scientifiction.”

I nodded at her, said, “Thanks –”

But she cut me off. “There’s only one problem, Trent: The novel was also invented by Murasaki Shikibu, half-way around the world, hundreds of years earlier. Mary Shelley wrote science fiction long before Hugo Gernsback: Frankenstein was written in 1817. And so on. The film camera had about five different inventors, all working on their own. The problem with your theory is that these creators are creating something that comes out of their heads and doesn’t exist anywhere else, but again and again, all through history, lots of things are invented by lots of people, over and over again. It’s more like there are ideas out there in the universe, waiting for us to discover them, and if one person doesn’t manage to make an idea popular, someone else will. So when you say that if you don’t create something, no one will, well, you’re probably not right.”

“Wait, what? That’s rubbish. When I make a film, it comes out of my imagination. No one else is going to think up the same stuff as me.”

“Now you sound like me,” Jem said, and rubbed his hands together.

Cora patted my hand. “It’s okay, it’s just like you said. Everyone wants a definition of creativity that makes what they do into something special and what everyone else does into nothing special. But the fact is, we’re all creative. We come up with weird and interesting ideas all the time. The biggest difference between ‘creators’ isn’t their imagination — it’s how hard they work. Ideas are easy. Doing stuff is hard. There’s probably a million geezers out there who love Scot Colford films, but none of them can be arsed to make something fantastic out of them, the way you do. The fact is, creativity is cheap, hard work is hard, and everyone wants to think his ideas are precious unique snowflakes, but ideas are like assholes, we’ve all got ‘em.”

– Cory Doctor, Pirate Cinema, pages 206-209, Tor Teen Books October 2012 edition

Remain Calm. All is Well.

Just got back from UVic where I gave a talk to a small group from the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory. I was going to write a longer post than this, trying to situate my talk somewhere between the binaries of Disruption-as-Solely-the-Province-of-Neo-Liberal-Discourse and the Education-is-not-broken-at-all poles the discussion seems to be falling into these days (and apologies for picking on Martin, I’m just too tired to dig out a better straw man example of the latter argument.) Because I think there is a third (and fourth and fifth and…) possibility here, that

  • there are lots of pieces of education that don’t work very well but
  • there are some pieces that do and
  • there are values and people involved with educational institutions that shouldn’t just be chucked away in the pursuit of economic efficiencies but
  • the network is indeed a disruptive force, and
  • that disruption will not simply lead to some techno-utopian ideal and
  • commercial forces will use it to continue the march of globalization towards an uninhabitable planet filled with alienated, over-medicated people unless
  • we start to change many of our relations, along many vectors, and not just rearrange deckchairs.

But that doesn’t fit well on a t-shirt. Plus even those who think it maybe sounds like a good idea in theory don’t think it’s actually possible any longer, if it ever was, so we might as well shut up and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Anyways, I’m not going to write that post. I (hope I) WILL keep working in “education” and “learning” in ways that embody the changes I think we need to bring about, which likely mean lots of beans and rice in my future, cause its a future where we stop living on borrowed time. But I’m growing weary of trying to convince anyone else. This talk was meant to simply offer some small examples of ways we can implement technology that both harness the liberating power of the network but also make small steps towards changing how universities relate to what’s outside their walls. These changes in and of themselves are insufficient. But they start to position institutions differently, in a way I think will serve them well in the battles to come (if they happen at all; I’m not so naive to think these aren’t rearguard battles, and despite a disdain for the language of warfare, make no mistakes, there are sides to choose.)

Anyways, the slides are below and the full text of the speech of the talk is available here (sorry, no recording.)


And I can’t help leaving you with this clip from Animal House, which comes to mind every time I hear another person downplay the enormity of the challenges facing us

The Disruption Higher Ed Doesn’t See Coming (and how it could respond, even lead, but probably won’t)

No, not MOOCs. Badges.

CC Attribution Noncommercial Some rights reserved by Magalie L'Abbé Ok, now that you’ve stopped laughing (I admit, even I have a hard time not dismissively thinking of the sleeves of my Cub Scout shirt when I hear the term) let me explain why badges, as they mature beyond where they are currently, have the potential to disrupt formal education in a way that none of the technology innovations we’ve seen in the last couple of decades have.

Over those two decades, essentially the duration of my working life so far, every time I have tried to explain the magnitude of the disruptions (and the amount of potentials) that the network presents to formal education institutions (especially post secondary ones) the trump card interlocuters ALWAYS bring out to minimize the potential threat is “Accreditation.” Regardless of how many people are learning with each other, for free, in communities online, or the skyrocketing costs of formal ed, or how poorly the 4 year residential model serves an increasingly unconventional student body, or how the educational practices in many higher ed classrooms have barely moved out of the 19th Century, when met with the prospect that the value of a University degree is under threat and that their “market” will get as disrupted as the newspaper business, or travel agencies, etc., the response is simply “yeah, but we’re the only one who can issue degrees that people trust.” But I believe badges hold the potential to disrupt this.

Again, I’ll give you a second to stop laughing. And I can’t fault you for laughing; even if you can get over the name, the idea that “badges” can compete head to head with “degrees” seems laughable, if badges are seen simply as their equivalent, just smaller, issued to acknowledge informal learning by small groups who could never compete with the brand recognition of the likes of Harvard or, closer to home, UBC, and, importantly, lacking the backing of governments and other trusted “bodies.” Maybe even more laughable for lacking recognition by the people degree/badge holders are trying to convince (mostly employers, but others too).

But I contend that’s because, so far, badges haven’t tackled THE important problem, at scale, in a way that models how the net works – who do we trust and why?

What is Accreditation Anyways?

Before looking at how a different execution of badges could seriously disrupt higher ed, it seems important to get clear on what accreditation is in the first place. The explanation below, from Wikipedia, offers a decent starting point:

“Higher education accreditation is a type of quality assurance process under which services and operations of post-secondary educational institutions or programs are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met. If standards are met, accredited status is granted by the agency.

In most countries in the world, the function of educational accreditation for higher education is conducted by a government organization, such as a ministry of education.” from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education_accreditation

While it may work slightly different in the US and other jurisdictions, the general model seems to hold true – some body, whether governmental, NGO (and for profit? god I hope not) establishes criteria and processes which a department or program must fulfill, and then vouchsafes their credentials as credible based on this. It’s about how we currently establish trust in the credibility, quality (and ultimately value) of the education that someone (be it the public or, sadly, increasingly the individual student) has paid for. Ideally, this would be individualized – when trying to evaluate a specific individual’s capacities, we wouldn’t look at a proxy for that (which is what a credential is) but instead be able to examine all the examples, to look at the ways in which their capacity was developed and judge for ourselves whether it meets the specific needs we have. But that doesn’t scale, at all, so we invented proxies, first at an institutional level, and as these grew in number, at a jurisdictional and even international level.

But it seems to work. Well, kind of. Mostly. In jurisdictions where accreditation is spread out across a large number of bodies, it can be hard to keep track of them all (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_recognized_higher_education_accreditation_organizations#United_States). This, as well as the sheer number, globally, of accrediting bodies, can let imposters creep in and makes verification difficult. And even with rigour and government backing, there remains the real issue of inter-jurisdictional recognition; just ask our cab-driving Doctor from Pakistan about this. Add to this the fact that, while the accreditation process is by design rigorous and difficult to pass, that also means, by design, it doesn’t expand quickly or accomodate smaller units of learning well; just ask someone who’s tried to start a new program, which seems more relevant if we acknowledge the pace of the growth of knowledge is unlikely to slow down.

How could badges disrupt this?

So my take on why badges have seemed underwhelming to date is that they’ve appeared to focus on the signalling mechanism (a way for person A to signal they’ve learned X from organization B, which is in essence what a diploma or degree generally does) without addressing the underlying trust/credibility issue (WHO has issued that certificate and why should they be trusted – e.g. why is a badge from UVic worth more than one from Bob’s Online Badge Emporium.) It had to unfold this way – the obvious place to start is with the basic mechanisms for issuing and displaying a badge. But that does not need to be the sum total of what badges are, and according to Mozilla Roadmap documents on their Open Badge Infrastructure, won’t be.

At root, what we’re dealing with is a question of “who should we trust and why?” As luck would have it, we already have a number of models of how to address this in the digital world that come from the field of Cryptography. Specifically, when it comes to public key encryption, there are two competing models that I believe align well with the current model of accreditation and the emerging model of badges: the centralized trust model of a pubic key infrastructure and the decentralized “web of trust” model.

source http://www.chaosreigns.com/code/sig2dot/debian.htmlThe centralized trust model (think “Certificate Authorities” [CAs] like Verisign or Thwate) is akin to the current accreditation model, where only a single (or very few) body is entrusted to issue accreditation/certificates and acts as the maintainer and adjudicator of standards. Like the current accreditation model the centralized trust model is at first blush attractive because it consolidates this complex function in a few entities, but it also suffers a number of problems: if a CA is compromised, the security for everyone in the system for which the CA is attesting is similarly lost. Also, like centralized accreditation, it converges knowledge (or ‘validation’) and power into very concentrated hands; we depend on the (increasingly questionable) representative nature of our democracy to ensure that what accreditors accredit is “in the public good” just like we rely on these few Certificate Authorities to verify and enforce throughout their entire chain (it’s not quite as simple as that in both cases, but hopefully a good enough approximation.)

Contrast this with the “web of trust” model, often exemplified by encryption systems like PGP, which is what badges *could* become. In this model, a “decentralized fault-tolerant web of confidence for all public keys” emerges, over time, as each persons’ keys are “digitally signed by other users who, by that act, endorse the association of that public key with the person or entity listed in the certificate.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_of_trust) In layman’s terms, like any network effect, if there are only two of you with keys signing each others’ key, while it is still of _some_ value, the value of the system overall increases as more nodes join and a large, robust network emerges over time.

Interlude (in which the author confesses he hadn’t done his homework and, frankly, can at times be a bit of a presumptuous dick)

I have a confession to make: up until recently, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to badges either. I understood they potentially offered some alternative to existing credentialing models and tried to come to their defense when various colleagues of mine dismissed them out of hand, but I couldn’t see how they could overcome the hurdle of validation/recognition. It wasn’t until I was lying on my couch a few weeks back, alternatively reading wikipedia and napping, that this idea that if badges existed within an ecosystem of issuers, learners and “recognizers” (people to whom you are trying to prove you know something) all of whom could attest to the effectiveness of the learning represented by the badge by “signing” it, that this can scale, in a Peer to Peer way that models how the actual infrastructure of the internet works. Because I hadn’t actually been involved or paying close attention to the actual developments by the Mozilla Badge team (and others, presumably) I had the (absurd? presumptuous? egotistical?) thought “why has no one else talked about this?”

Which of course they have. The folks working on this are very smart. And (luckily for me) I thought to ask on twitter before finishing this piece (and thus coming off even more arrogant than usual) whether anyone was working on a “distributed trust model for badges.” @prawsthorne was the first to offer some helpful links, pointing me to the Mozilla Roadmap documents on their Open Badge Infrastructure, the Badges Infrastructure Tech Docs (cf section on ‘Badge Endorsement’), the Mozilla Open Badges Dev Group and a post on the Super Awesome Badge Summer (cf section “Endorsement, public key infrastructure, federated backpacks”).

All of which were good starting points and indicators that the issue was definitely on the Mozilla Badges team’s radar. But it wasn’t until I started digging in further and also received a few more messages, both from Peter and from leaders of the badge initiative, Carla Cassili and Erin Knight, that I struck gold and read how clearly the vision they have for a distributed validation/trust network aligned with my own couch-bound daydreaming. Instead of trying to replicate any further the arguments, I just urge anyone who is interested in understanding the potential to go read the following two pieces:

So why won’t this turn out exactly how PGP vs Central Authorities Have?

If you know the history of public key encryption, you’ll know that while both the centralized Public Key Infrastructure model of Certificate Authorities and the distributed web-of-trust model of PGP still exist, PGP adoption by individual users has been spotty at best, plagued by very real “ease of use” issues (along with a general lack of understanding of the issue), while PKI, for all its flaws, supports pretty much all of the commercial transaction encryption on the net today (read: online shopping etc over https). Given that, why should a validation and endorsement mechanism for badges be any different?

As Erin outlines in the paper linked to above (page 4), there are plenty of good reasons for us to resist implementing a centralized trust model that replicates existing centralized accreditation models, easier though that may be. But even if we chose not to, what will keep a distributed model from failing/help it succeed? Well, a few things, I think:

  • we need to learn the lessons from PGP and focus on implementations of the model that make it as easy as possible for endorsers to validate badges or badge issuers. This seems obvious, but one of the pieces I think we often miss out is implementing things in a way that our motivations for the user to do what we hope they’ll do are in line with THEIR motivations/what is actually valueable to them. If endorsing a badge requires too many additional steps on top of using/recognizing a badge, it is less likely to occur at scale.
  • not wavering from a vision of true peer to peer system that allows endorsement at the lowest individual level, and yet allowing endorsements to aggregate so that existing proxy groups (like universities and their accreditors) can transition from a monolithic proxy model to this more distributed process but still keep some of the advantages of the existing trust networks they already have, while still opening up the field to individual upstarts (cf http://www.gswot.org/ as an example of how this works in the PGP world.)

Even with all of this and a flawless execution, there is nothing to guarantee widespread adoption or that this will become the disruptive force it has the potential to become. Incumbents do not give up their advantages willingly and it is naive to think they will. But…

…implemented in a robust, open way that really does allow a badge to represent learning at various scales (micro-lessons to full programs) and to be attested to, *bi-directionally*, by all the parties involved (learners, issuers, endorsers, “recognizers”) at scales ranging from the individual to the national, an open badge infrastructure opens the field to upstarts who really could disrupt the existing system. Especially upstarts that already “own” users. Think Google. Think Facebook. Think Apple. Right now the accounts you have with them don’t actually have that much to do with your “real” life. But they want them to (why do you think they are so anxious for you to connect your phone number and credit cards with these accounts?) I’m nt hoping for such a future (nor do I think Mozilla is – cf their work on Persona, an “identity system for the web”), but instead of resting on the sanctity of our existing accreditation models, we need to get our heads in the game and realize the size and scale of the stakes we are playing for.

How could existing institutions respond to this?

used under CC BY-NC 2.0 licenseWell, it seems like the current response is “not at all.” And fair enough; everyone is so taxed to cope with the current set of challenges and disruptions that to even contemplate a response to a *hypothetical* disruption that may not even happen seems unfeasible at best. But if you take a step back for a second and look at this in the light of other things we say we’re trying to accomplish in our institutions, be they transforming how and what we teach to transforming our business models, this potential disruption, which I believe speaks to the core of what universities do AS A BUSINESS, may actually offer the opportunity to rethink and re-engineer this in a way that is not only beneficial to learners, instructors and institutions but can help institutions adapt to the internet instead of trying to ignore it or have it conform to models that, while long lasting, were only ever temporary approximations.

And where do you start? Well, you already have a unit that is quite possibly ripe to experiment with this. It’s usually called “Continuing Studies.”

This is why I dispair when I hear CIOs refer to authentication and authorization systems as “just plumbing.” Yeah, I get that it’s just plumbing - IF YOU THINK YOU LIVE IN A WORLD SEPARATE FROM THE INTERNET AS A WHOLE. I’m not suggesting they can singlehandedly solve this issue and this transformation on their own, but as some of the largest “civil society” players that exist, they have the potential to lead on an issue that WILL get decided. Given that the current contenders in the arena of trust & identity are either large commercial entities or central governments who only seem to understand models that place them at the centre validating everyone, if you understand that every time we proxy these relations, every time we “represent” them, we recreate the conditions of our own disempowerment, even if it seems less feasible, do you really want to work for the alternative? </technoutopianrant>

Alright, you can go back to laughing now.

BC Open Data Summit Report

I guess I shouldn’t be disappointed; I’m not sure why I was expecting anything different, but it was a conference. There were a few speakers that stood out for me, but quite a number that didn’t. I had hoped to find a field more closely connected to its local environment and communities; instead I found one that seems to suffer many of the same problems as “open education” – being way too supply-side driven, with many of the people sharing the data not even sure they want to. This is captured in the tagline of the summit – “Liberate the Data.” Like so many efforts before it, that inadvertently turns what should have been means (open data) into an end in and of itself. Add to this the familiar question of “engagement,” as if this was a problem to solve after you’ve built whatever it is “they” are to come to.

I’m probably being harsh; it is still early days, there are lots of good people involved, and lots of good intentions (though you know what they ay about those…) Still, it feels like so much giving people fish and not fishing lessons. Just like an open ed conference bereft of learners, an open data conference with no citizens seems…lacking.

But enough harping on what didn’t work. There were some pieces that did for me. I really liked the use of the term “civic infrastructure” by the impressive Philip Ashlock – I don’t think it has to be an either/or between providing data and providing platforms, but approaches that look at how governments can provide trusted platforms for citizens to accomplish what *they want to do* seem to bake the whole “adoption” issue right into the solution from the start.

I very much appreciated Luke Closs‘ lightning talk (which I’d have voted to be a 30 minute slot) on open data business models. Citing the
Business Model Canvas” as inspiration, Lucas described 4 possible models for people trying to startup open data projects:

  • Citizen Funded: in which users pay for an app or subscriptions, or it is ad supported.
  • City Funded: in which you are developing something to then sell to municipalities
  • Infrastructure Service: in which you are marketing to developers, make it easy for hackers to use in their town
  • Public Open Source Service: in which you try to crowdfund the ongoing operations (e.g. ISP costs) of a service that otherwise uses open source software and volunteers

I appreciated this as I really need to think harder about how some of my citizen-oriented projects can thrive, ad the “Business Model Canvas” seems to provide a useful, lightweight way to think through the problem.

I also need to acknowledge the organizers of the BC Open Data Summit for providing the BEST CONFERENCE LUNCH EVAR, bento boxes! Genius idea – I will have to ask the organizers about the cost (which I expect wasn’t cheap) but it’s a great idea for a portable, elegant lunch solution.

Finally, Peter Forde‘s talk titled “People are Dying to get the Data” really struck a chord, both for invoking the names of Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz, but also for the mixture of serious advice and playful suggestions on how to make open data more real for people. His urging to solve “real” problems, and to shun teh shiny of digital dashboards and analytics for the power of narrative really struck a chord for me, as they are both things I need reminding of. Plus my geeky side liked it for the mention of a couple of nifty gadgets – Pebble, a bluetooth watch that allows you to display notifications and data from your phone while it’s in your pocket, and NinjaBlocks a simple plug and play platform to build digital apps that control real world appliances and devices. Sure, a bit of a stretch at an open data conference, but fun!

Ultimately, my disappoints with the event were really disappointments in my own performance; I really didn’t make any new connections and the productive hallway conversation I did have was with one of the few people I already knew at the event. Still, it brought to mind lessons learned numerous times at Northern Voice and Open Ed, that “open” isn’t the same as “inviting,” and that if organizers really do want to grow a movement, real care has to be paid to how we bring newcomers into the fold.

Shameless Plea for Cash

UPDATE Tuesday February 12: Due to overwhelming response, I am going to remove the “Donate” button for the Edtechpost Activism Fund. In just 4 days I was blessed with $360 in donations from 25 generous supporters, which is now more than enough to get me to the BC Open Data Summit. Thanks SO much to all who contributed. I will follow up after the conference with a post on the day’s events as well as an accounting of how the funds were used and where any excess was donated.


I have been writing Edtechpost since late 2001. While my pace of posting has slowed (and was never that prolific,) I’m closing in on a thousand posts (929 and counting) and I’d like to think I’ve given my share to the ed tech community at large. And in all that time I’ve never asked for or taken any compensation directly for this blog. Never run ads. Always paid the hosting costs ($100/year) myself. Not that I haven’t gotten that back multi-fold already; simply being considered “part” of this large community and being able to communicate with so many I love and respect is honestly all the return I’ve ever hoped for.

But times have changed slightly. I feel really optimistic about all of the conversations I am having and new possibilities I am exploring, and am definitely trying to hold out from just taking “a job” in the hopes of co-creating a new opportunity I can excel and thrive in, but for now I’m doing most of this work off the cuff, on spec, in the hopes something good will grow.

Some of these projects are bringing me closer into contact with Open Data efforts in BC. I’ve never focused specifically on “open data” in the past, though I’ve always stayed abreast of it and seen its as an allied movement. But as I turn my focus on how to enable local open learning communities, open data is becoming more relevant both as a site of learning and (through the process of creation and use) a site of community formation.

A few folks have urged me to attend the upcoming BC Open Data Summit on February 19th in Vancouver. I really want to attend, but I have said no so far because I am trying to live frugally and the reg fee is $125 plus the getting there from the island and all, so more like a $250 outting. Not totally budget blowing, but one I had decided to forgo unless I can defray the cost somehow.

So, with the LONG preamble done, I’ve set up a Paypal donation button (see below or on the sidebar) for anyone who feels so inclined to donate to the newly formed “Edtechpost Activism Fund.” I hereby solemnly swear that all funds received through this mechanism will first go towards attending the BC Open Data Summit, and that I will write up that experience and do my best to represent the (seemingly absent) citizen perspective. If any remain after that, I propose to put them towards the monthly donations I make to openmedia.ca and the Wikipedia foundation. I propose to be completely transparent about the amount raised and will take this down at the end of February.

So if you can spare some change so I can further my efforts to create change, I am grateful. If not, that’s totally cool too – we’re all stretched to support so many different causes and people. Votes of solidarity and encouragement are always appreciated too, and indeed on the days where change seems an impossible task, can be even more valuable. – SWL

So…what’s next?

[Dear Reader, this is a long post, and a somewhat selfish one, in which I think out loud about the kinds of projects I’d love to work on, in part to get clear myself, in part in the hopes of attracting some leads. You are entirely forgiven for skipping it, though I do hope that buried in here are some gems that you yourself are free to run with if you feel so inspired. I promise to return to regularly scheduled blogging after this. – SWL]


It’s been about a month now since I left BCcampus. It’s been a hugely restorative time, spent writing, reading (both the long overdue “The Whale and the Reactor” and the more recent “I am a Strange Loop“), recuperating and being with my family. And while it was impossible not to ponder a little about my future, by and large I managed to spend the month not worrying about a new job, which was a satisfying accomplishment.

But time has come to turn my attention to the question everyone seemed eager to ask me upon learning I had left BCcampus – “So, what’s next?” Because while this change was a long time coming, I must admit I am without a specific plan (this is the 3rd time I’ve left a position not knowing exactly what was next and so far it’s worked out well – let’s hope the streak holds!)

Blue Skies

I’ve got a number of ideas for ventures, both for profit and non-commercial, that I am exploring, but I will leave those aside for the moment. While I do plan to write about them at some point, I need more time to get parts of them in motion. For now I’ll focus on what to me would be “blue sky” projects/positions I’d love to have a go at in the space I’ve been focused on for the last 20 years, which broadly speaking has been post-secondary education, educational technology and knowledge management. I’ve grouped these into 3 rough themes, “Teaching,” “The Networked University,” and “21st Century Literacies.”


I have had the great fortune to teach in the past, but it’s been too long, and I miss it. In the past the teaching I did was often focused on technology training. I still have a lot to give in that area and would embrace any position that allowed for it, but I also hope to “move up the stack” a bit, as it were, to focus on some issues above the basic use of tools.

There are two “courses” which I am working on outlines and readings for which I would be incredibly excited to teach, because I think both of them have the potential to expose learners to ideas they are not currently encountering and I have yet to see many examples of them out there in the wild.

Network Thinking

The first I am calling “Network Thinking.” Far from being a technical course, it is instead aimed at people from pretty much any discipline other than computing (& sociology) and is an effort to help people understand the magnitude (and type) of changes that occur when the network comes-a-calling in their field. Whether it be in education, medicine, government, businesses of many types, etc, I believe we are still at the point of trying to fit networks into old conceptual models, and in so doing are misunderstanding the size of the disruption they represent, and also misunderstanding their strengths and weaknesses. I do think each specific discipline and sector has differences, ones I wouldn’t want to elide, and hopefully we will see more and more domain specific courses and curriculum addressing these issues. But for now it feels like there is some real potential here.

Philosophy for Programmers

The second one I am calling “Philosophy for Programmers” and while it IS aimed at technical people, it is not at all meant to be a technology course. Developers make all sorts of choices that have deeply interesting philosophical implications (and heritages) when they create applications, and this course would start to explore the background of some of these choices, and possibly other ways to address them. To take but one example – what are the implications to inclusion and exclusion of modelling users via “personas”?  The idea is simply to help technical people become more aware of the implications of the choices they make in how the technology will then shape what it means to be human. The hope is that it will help influence developers to be more reflective and less reductive in the choices they make.

In both these cases I’ve started to collect readings and create outlines (though neither feel like they are quite “ready to go.”) In addition to these, there are many other areas which I know I have the experience and expertise to teach:

  • open education / open textbooks
  • copyright / intellectual property
  • assessing open source maturity
  • evaluating technologies
  • emerging technologies and their impact on education
  • personal learning networks / network learning
  • loosely coupled teaching and learning
  • interoperability in ed tech
  • learning content management strategies and technologies

The Networked University

In an effort to stimulate some employment leads I’m putting the cart a little before the horse here, as my next major series of posts will explore the idea of the Networked University and what it means to create “semipermeable membranes” as a response to the permeating flows of the network. So you’ll have to wait a bit for the full explanation of why I think the following projects and approaches represent an important part of the future (though if you are a regular reader of this blog the reasons are likely already well understood.)

University as hackerspace / libraries and makerspaces

I certainly can claim no ownership of this idea as there are now some great examples out there – Joss Winn wrote an early piece that inspires me; one of my nominations for Open Ed 2012 keynotes was Beth Kolko of the University of Washington for her pioneering work on Hackademia; there’s a blog dedicated to all things Maker and Librarian; and even my local university, UVic, has started a Maker Lab in the Humanities.  This is a trend I hope we will see more of and I would love to be involved with – not only do I think it represents a new turn, as I’ll describe more in my upcoming series I think innovations like this have a real chance of bridging silos, be they between disciplines, experts and “non-experts,” or “town and gown” that will be crucial for institutions remaining relevant to their local communities.

Reputation systems in higher ed; badges, credentialing, formal and informal education

Another area which is already well underway, though I don’t know the extent to higher ed is actually exploring it versus simply resting on their existing credential models. That said, I think they need to, both for the opportunity it represents (to acknowledge prior learning, convert informal credits to formal ones, etc) and for the threat (of people by-passing the increasingly expensive formal option by building up portfolio-based online reputations. The fear I have though is that this isn’t particularly a technology or pedagogy problem but one of business models, and I’m not sure the “owner” of this process (the registrar’s office and others) necessarily see the threat or will be able to adapt to meet the potential.

Interweaving institutional resources and open network learning – wikipedia/library mashup service

For those regular readers, this theme will be familiar – that rather than treat it as the enemy, we should start to envision ways in which students’ searching wikipedia can become a gateway to more scholarly resources.  The first reference I can find in my blog to some of  the underlying ideas was in 2006, which I expanded on in my 2007 Open Ed demonstrator, and more specifically in this 2010 post on annotating wikipedia with OPAC resources. It wasn’t until a conversation with Joel Duffin from Open Tapestry at Open Ed 2010 that they way to implement this at scale for an institution became clear – via proxies and page re-writing. Put simply – I know we can build a system (and hope to demo a prototype soon) that will dynamically annotate any wikipedia page with links into an institutions library catalog to books and articles on that topic. This is but one way in which we can bring our institutions resource back to the forefront for students, and the converse is also true – that we can highlight scholarly resources and educational materials, on the fly, to learners outside the institution with little effort.

21st Century Literacies

Finally, in terms of “blue sky” work, there are (at least) two sets of literacies (and skills) I would love the chance to work on

Expanding digital literacies

Even if we were to just stick with the current list of digital literacies that have been proposed over the last few years, we have more than enough work helping learners, at all levels, improve on these. But as I’ll argue in an upcoming post (tentatively titled “What the digital literacy crowd can learn from makers and pirates”) we don’t go nearly far enough in helping learners cope with the onslaught of technologies (and their accompanying social issues) they face.

Mindfulness in education

This is a topic dear to my heart. I have absolutely no idea how I might get involved with this, yet deep down feel that if there is one change I could help bring about in the world that could make the most difference, it would be to work on getting mindfulness practices (completely agnostic mind you, and very much scientifically grounded) into schools, especially the K-12 system where I think it has the most chance to have a profound effect, but even in higher ed, where it has lots of affinity with study skills and learner success. I only came to serious mindfulness practice myself in the last 5 years, and I WISH someone had encouraged me along this path when I was much younger. Especially in our increasingly distracted, hyper-rational and technologized world, there has never been a more important time to help develop mindfulness.


If any of these resonate with you, if you can see ways in which they might benefit your institution (or indeed ways to move them forward outside of conventional institutions) I would love to hear from you.


What I know I can already do

Still, it’s not always “blue sky.” In addition to the above, there are a whole lot of things I know I can do (and like to do) because I’ve done them before and done them well. You can see my resume for the full blow by blow, but here’s a highlight of the areas of expertise, competencies and technical skills I bring to my work:

Areas of Expertise
Core Competencies
Technical Skills
  • Open Educational Resources
  • Copyright and Open Licensing
  • Open Textbooks
  • Open Strategy
  • Educational Technology tools & architectures
  • Learning Content Management strategies & technologies
  • Personal Learning Networks & loosely coupled teaching
  • Knowledge Management tools & strategies
  • New models of network learning & collaboration
  • Emerging technology & software maturity models
  • Sustainable and Appropriate Technology and Computing
  • Project Management
  • Software assessment
  • Business Modelling, Systems Analysis & requirements gathering
  • Public Speaking
  • Writing
  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Critical & analytical thinking
  • Facilitating large scale decision making processes
  • Integration & synthesis of multiple complex inputs
  • Innovating
  • Web Development (HTML5/CSS/Javascript)
  • PHP / MySQL
  • XML / XSLT
  • Application deployment & administration on a wide variety of platforms including
    • WordPress
    • Drupal
    • Mediawiki
    • Moodle
    • Equella
  • Linux
  • Apache

If you think there’s a way my expertise and skills can server a need your organization has, I would love to hear from you so please feel free to contact me, either via this form or at edtechpost@gmail.com. And if you got all the way to the end of this post – thanks! – SWL

Important Article on Free Culture and Sexism


I noted this on twitter this morning but it felt important enough to flag it here too. This is a good (though not great) article on an important issue – the fact that “despite the values of freedom and openness, the free culture movement’s gender balance is skewed.”

I don’t doubt on an empirical basis that the author’s statement is accurate, that even compared to the gender balance in technical fields in general, free culture has a gender imbalance. The author identifies 3 potential causes:

(a) some geek identities can be narrow and unappealing;

(b) open communities are especially susceptible to difficult people; and,

(c) the ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice.

I’m not particularly sure what to say about (a) other than it seems true. Both (b) and (c) resonate with me because I have been on both ends of these (and they are not always just about gender; “difficult people” and the ideology of freedom and openness can end up marginalizing people for non-gender reasons to. This is something I have been wrestling with for years under the term “the welcoming heart”, cf http://www.edtechpost.ca/wordpress/2008/02/26/northern-voice-08/.)

Yet both (b) and (c) strike me as issues that can (slowly) be addressed. What I often struggle with though (and this is what I kept tripping up in a session with the HASTAC folks at Mozilla’s Drumbeat Festival in 2010, where I WAS that ‘difficult person,’ something I wrote about in “Free & Learning in Barcelona“) is the extent to which one can expand inclusivity and address this problem through structural changes (be they in software, process, governance, policies, etc) versus the extent to which this is a question of consciousness raising and behaviour change that individuals need to engage in.

I don’t mean to set these up as binary choices (though I realize I just have) as clearly to me both are need, and can, happen together. And maybe that is indeed the answer; that each person who can see the issue starts to do their bit, at the level they are able to act at, be it by speaking up, changing their own behaviour, changing a policy, writing code that helps surface the issue, etc., which then help set up virtuous cycles that slowly start to shift this (having just finished Douglas Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop” I am having a hard time not seeing everything in terms of loops now ;-). Does that seem right to you?

Like I keep telling you – I’m a SLOW learner (but have patience, I too may get there some day.) – SWL

Christmas Comes Early



I woke this morning (Solstice, December 21st 2012) to find in my twitter feed news that Saylor.org has stepped up and freed the entire back-catalogue of FlatWorld Knowledge textbooks in one fell swoop. This is tremendous news, and Saylor, who are in my opinion consistently top of the class when it comes to Open Textbooks, have once again shown tremendous leadership. So Bravo.

I’m only writing this post for two reasons – first so that I can link to it from my earlier call to preserve this tiny piece of the commons and let anyone know who stumbles across it that the deed is done.

But secondly, to give all of the folks who stepped up to my call my sincere thanks and a huge pat on the back. I only turned to this crowdsourcing approach after my old employer decided it was not willing to take the risk and do this themselves (and I understand why given their need to work with highly risk-adverse government funders).

While we didn’t accomplish the entire goal ourselves, we should still feel proud of trying. The Commons is communal; while it is fantastic that we have larger institutional players and NGOs like Saylor (and CC and EFF and FSF and…) that work tirelessly to build and preserve it, we also need to all act individually to do the same, whether it be as Clint Lalonde and Chris Lott  have written recently in donating to groups like these, or taking part in actions like this.

So thanks. Especially because at a time for me when I needed to know my network was there, you showed up. Thanks.