Some Observations on PLE Diagrams

One of the perennial favourite pages on my edtechpost wikispace has been the collection of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) diagrams I started back in 2008. A couple of years back I wrote a call to folks asking for feedback on what I might do to improve it.

I didn’t get a lot of feedback, but one comment, from Ismael Peña-López really stuck with me – that what I should be doing was some analysis of my own on the collection, which indeed had in fact been the actual goal all along in creating the collection of diagrams.

I know it’s taken a while, but with some time on my hands, here are some reflections on what this collection of PLE Diagrams might tell us.

Caveat Emptor – Skewed Sample

There are currently 79 diagrams in the collection. With the exception of a very few, these were all produced by educators themselves or else people I think we should consider relatively advanced, self-directed learners. This is not surprising given that I started harvesting the images from my own network, typically comprised of educational technologists and educators, and then others were added from people also a part of these types of professional networks my work typically reaches.

But I think this is important to note up front – while some of these diagrams are simply a list of a few tools the person uses, many of them exhibit a HIGH degree of self-reflection, meta-cognition and technological adeptness. This is not to discount them as depictions of “what might become” for network learners in general, but I would caution to assert that they were reflective of how all network learners currently learn (or currently conceptualize their personal learning networks, as first and foremostly that’s what these diagrams are, conceptualizations rather than the things themselves.)

Diagram ‘Orientations’

The first thing that struck me looking at the collection of diagrams is that there are some distinct “orientations” that jump out – diagrams that I describe as tool, use, resource, flow people, or hybrid oriented.

Tool Oriented

By far the most prominent is what I called “Tool-Oriented” diagrams. Likely an obvious enough name, these are diagrams that by and large depict PLEs as simply a collection of tools. These make up the vast majority of the diagrams in the collection, 62 out of 79 (though as I note below, many of these also exhibit additional orientations and there are fewer that are solely tool oriented diagrams.)

For me these are the least interesting of the diagrams. While it is useful to see which tools people typically conceive of in their PLEs (additional analysis of which is done below), these fail to reflect any of the dynamism I typically associate with network learning. Still, the MAJORITY of diagrams take this tact, which raises the question (taken up below) of whether a PLE is best understood simply as a collection of (albeit networked & loosely coupled) tools that stand in contrast with earlier monolithic approaches to learning environments, or if its that AND something more.

Use Oriented

Numbering 32 of the 79 diagrams, “use orientation” was the next most common orientation in the collection, by which I mean diagrams that explicitly list the aims of a personal learning environment. Often, though not always, these are accompanied by the tools used to fulfill these uses (making these into “hybrid” diagrams, see below). These are far more useful in contrasting how people conceptualize learning within a PLE compared to more traditional teaching and learning approaches. As I’ll discuss below, while there are many similarities, there are some key different uses and practices developed by PLE users that differentiate the way they are learning (and what) from their predecessors.

Resource Oriented

While there are no diagrams that are solely “resource oriented,” many of the diagrams do list educational resources, both formal and informal, as part of the PLE. These seems important to note; while many earlier conceptualizations and practices of education, both online and off, have been accused of focusing too closely on content as the mechanism for learning, the critics pendulum has often swung too far in the opposite direction, seemingly content as having little or no role at all in learning. To me, neither of these extremes are correct, and the presence of various resources in the PLE diagrams offers a happy medium – resources, both consumed and created, shared and personal, digital and physical, do have a place in how networked learners conceive their learning and environments. Especially in conjunction with the other orientations.

People Oriented

In some sense, ALL of the diagrams that depicted networked tools or resources were “people oriented.” But I chose this term to describe diagrams that explicitly mentioned or depicted people or groups of people as part of the PLE. As in the case of “resource oriented” diagrams, there are almost none that are solely “people oriented.” But it was surprising to me that only 15 of the 79 diagrams seemed to explicitly depict or mention people as part of the PLE.

Flow Oriented

Flow Orientation” was also a characteristic that rarely appeared on its own, but 20 of the diagrams made real efforts to show how information and connections flowed between tools and people in their networks.


Finally, as I’ve alluded to, 32 of these diagrams reflected more than one of these orientations, and these I have termed “hybrid.” For me these are typically the richest diagrams in that they depict PLEs as dynamic processes in which tools and resource have uses and flow into and out of systems and conversations. This reflects my own experience of being a network learner.

Dominance of Certain Tools

It seems unsurprising, especially given the popularity of certain services and the relative homogeneity of the sample, that the diagrams which identified specific tools (or types of tools) were dominated by a select few. Blogs (59) dominated, but twitter (33), social bookmarking (43), flickr (28), and youtube (21) were also consistently listed. In addition, while I did not tag the diagrams as such, synchronous tools like skype and Elluminate, as well as email and eportfolios were all regularly listed.

Social networking sites were also listed as common elements of PLEs – Facebook was listed in 25 diagrams, and (shocking to me) linkedin in 15. (Shocking because clearly these folks have figured out a use for linkedin that elludes me.)

Given how often they are mentioned in the same breath as blogs, wikis (25) seemed relatively underrepresented in the tools people singled out in their PLEs. Even more surprising to me was how little wikipedia (9) was mentioned to me, given its dominance in search rankings and internet traffic.


In addition to these orientations, I was struck by the use (and sometimes lack thereof) of metaphors to depict PLEs. The main one (and I am not completely convinced that this was not in part an artefact of the digital drawing tools employed by many to create these diagrams, more below) was of a “network.” So commonplace was this that I did not officially code for it in the new collection’s tags.

Interestingly (and again, I suspect an artefact of the tools used to create the diagrams) most of these “networks” were mind-map type drawings most closely resembling hub-and-spoke networks. While they capture the individual user’s perspective of being at the “centre” of THEIR network, these are not actually accurate representations of how internet networks as a whole look. This issue, that “individual” networks are emergent phenomenon that differ depending on the location of the observer/participant is, I believe, a hugely rich avenue of exploration and challenge for network learning and networked society in general, but grist for some future post, not this one.

In addition to the standard “network” depictions were more abstract diagrams. These struck me as worthy of note because they are less easily reducible and for me capture some of the human elements of network learning that is so often overlooked, whether it be “love,” “growth” or simply the ephemeral nature of networks.

Finally, though not exactly “metaphors,” it seemed important to note the number of PLE diagrams that were in essence screenshots. Paradoxically, these were both, in my opinion, the least successful representations of PLEs, and yet some of the most valuable for new comers to PLEs (especially those that were screencasts or presentations) in that they gave specificity to a concept that can be ellusive.

PLEs and Informal/Formal Learning

The concept of PLEs originated both as a contrast to existing (e.g. LMS) models of online education and also out of a new set of affordances offered new Web 2.0 tools and practices. As explicitly PERSONAL learning environments, they start from the perspective of the individual learner. Yet many of the people interested in exploring PLEs and their potential have done so from within existing institutions, educational business models and practices (e.g. courses, cohorts,certification.)

Some of the diagrams reflect this attempt to conceptualize a relationship between PLEs and institutions (and their MLE/VLE) which I tagged as “institution oriented.” In addition, at least 13 diagrams explicitly reference the LMS as a component of the PLE.

Whilst a slightly different issues, it seemed worthy to note in this section the number of diagrams that explicitly noted a difference between private activities and public interactions, signalling, as in the case of the formal/informal distinction above, that in some conceptions PLEs are very much about accomodating and permitting flow between both.

The Effects of Digital Drawing Tools

I had a suspicion that the diagrams are greatly influenced by the tools people chose to use to draw them; that their tendency towards a certain type of depiciton (networks, entities & flows, venn diagrams) were because that is what those tools do well.

To see if this might be true, I coded those diagrams created with a digital drawing tool to contrast them with hand drawn diagrams (of which there were far fewer.)

The results seem inconclusive – if anything, the hand-drawn ones in the collection seem even more dominated by “network-like” drawings.


We know what PLEs are…

So given all of these observations, I’m wondering if there are any conclusions to be drawn. (N.B. in what follows I will refer regularly to wikipedia’s definiton of PLEs. Not because it is the only or best one, but as one developed on an openly editable platform with public standards for acceptability, so hopefully reflecting some sort of rough consensus.)

With the dominance of “tool oriented” diagrams, and the fact that the tools listed are well-known “Web 2.0″ tools, Wikipedia’s description of PLEs as “Technically, the PLE represents the integration of a number of “Web 2.0″ technologies like blogs, Wikis, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, etc.” seems spot on. Given also the prevelance in the diagrams of flows and networks, Downes description that PLEs “become[s]…not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications—an environment rather than a system” seems supported too.

Given also the general lack of references to LMS and institutional systems (though there are some), the notions that PLEs “put[s] the individual learner at the center” and are about “the independent learner” seem generally reflected in the diagrams.

…but must constantly find this out for ourselves

However, there is one assertion about what PLEs are and how people use them that is generally not reflected in the diagrams – that PLEs “provid[e] support for learners to set their own learning goals.” A very few of the diagrams do make mention of keeping track of goals, whether this be explicitly as a “use” or in the form of tools like ToDo lists or sites like 43things. But by and large this idea of  “learning goals” seems absent from the diagrams.

I believe this gets at the heart of some of the tensions that exist between existing institutional models of education and emerging visions of network learning. The absence of “goal setting” (and its corollary, learning paths AKA curriculum) on the diagrams is in part by design, but also in part a short coming of the current conceptualizations. By design because, in a truly personal learning environment, the goals and paths one follows aren’t necessarily the predefined ones of the past but instead are constantly emerging based on where one finds oneself and what one needs at the time, or as Downes writes “according to the student’s own needs and interests.”

But this absence is also a shortcoming because it throws the baby out with the bathwater, reflecting a somewhat all-or-nothing attitude towards pre-existing curriculum, practices like instructional design (which attempt to anticipate the sequence and instructional interventions through which something can be taught or learned) as (more importantly to me) towards meta-cognitive skills, practices and tools to support the learners own definition of goals and paths.

Clearly, the appropriateness of pre-existing, curricular-based means of learning depends quite a lot on both what is being learned and the learner themselves. But there are times when it seems beyond question that simply following a set of instructions or looking something up is both the easiest and most common way to learn a fact or concept. Yet the relative lack (only 12 out of 79) of explicit reference to pre-existing learning resources does seem to support a pendulum-swing away from this older content-centric vision of learning. That may not be an entirely bad thing, as it has perhaps dominated for far too long, but in an effort to contrast it I do fear we sometimes overstate the lack of importance of content. I am NOT arguing that curriculum or content-focused education and learning is best or the only way, but that it does still have a place.

More importantly to me though, the absence in the diagrams of methods or tools to set goals and identify learning paths doesn’t speak to their originators’ lack of insight or understanding (these come from some of the smartest people I know) but instead that as a whole we are still grappling with how to reconcile the network age of seemingly infinite content, people, connections and activities, with our limited lifespans, limited abilities to pay attention, and limited energies to expend on any one thing.

This is what I was trying to get at in the revised version of my Becoming a Network Learner talk which I gave at the TLT conference in 2010 in Saskatchewan. That it is great to swim in this vast ocean we call the Internet, but if we do so without reference points, without some direction, we run the risk of finding ourselves miles from shore, out of breath, unable to tread water any longer. The constant lament of information overload, internet distractedness, etc, seem very real to me.

The trouble in actually depicting this on a diagram is that it’s not particularly a tool that is needed (though I do think things like social filters and constrained search, recommendation engines, etc can help.) It’s more about constantly re-embedding (or remembering that they are already, or trying not to extract them from) these tools, these networks, these connections in our lives, in our goals, our dreams, our aims, which themselves WILL NOT magically emerge from the network.

This is also why I consistently resist what I see as the reification of an active process in the term “personal learning environment” in favour of simply talking about “network learning.” For whatever reason, as soon as we start using nouns, we then want to categorize and enumerate every aspect of them, but in doing so too often lose sight that each of them is unique, that the common characteristics are emergent phenomena, and that as much as you can try to describe it for someone else, as much as you want to help them, it is only when we each do it for ourselves, as lived experience, that it becomes real. And for some reason, describing this using a verb/gerund like “network learning” seems to me to resist, ever so slightly, this tendency to try and abstract what needs to be a personal process into a general “thing.”

All of which is to say, finally – the PLE is dead! Long live the PLE!



New Home for PLE Diagrams

I am in the midst of writing a rather long post reflecting on what the collection of PLE diagrams I started back in 2008 can tell us about both PLEs and how people conceptualize them.

But as I started it, I realized that looking at the diagrams on the wiki page was a bit frustrating, as there was no simple way to tag them and categorize them. So this weekend I experimented with moving the collection into an actual image gallery database. You can see it at

I would love some feedback from you all – is this a better solution than the original wikispaces page? Worse? I tried to preserve the ability for people to upload their own diagrams to the server, and this new solution also adds the ability to tag the images and leave comments on them. Please do tell me what you think in the comments below.

I will leave both up for a while and if I decide to move this permanently to this new gallery site will redirect traffic from the old wikispace here.

All I want for Christmas…

UPDATE – on December 21st, 2012 it was announced that had preserved all of these texts. Read more here.


…is for you to buy a single Flatworld Knowledge textbook, before December 31. And then share it with the rest of the world.

About a month ago news made the rounds that as of January 1st 2013, Flatworld Knowlege had decided to remove free access from their “open” textbooks. This was accompanied by much gnashing of teeth and raising of fists at how FWK had played fast and loose with either the terms “open” or “free” in the past. All of which I agree with.

But then…nothing. As if we were helpless in the face of someone diminishing the Commons. Because make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening. All of FWK’s books are currently published on their site under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike license. This means that, even with the restrictions, both legal and technical, that they imposed, these books were in the Creative Commons. But because of the technical restrictions FWK placed on the books (they are not at public URLs but behind logins; the content is not easily copyable unless you pay for it) after the gate comes down on December 31 and the licenses removed (because surely they will) unless copies of them are made outside of these walls, they will have effectively been removed from the Commons.

My own efforts to date have been to port web-native versions of 4 books onto the Pressbooks platform (to be clear, this was done ENTIRELY outside of my previous role at BCcampus and on my own pressbooks sites.) They have not gone live yet because one of the things needed for pressbooks to really cook as an open textbook platform is custom book styles and a CSS-driven print engine, which will allow these ported books to come really close to their original.The nice thing about this is that I did this for free (with the exception of the time I volunteered.) I used the free web versions and some handy harvesting tricks (which I’m happy to share) to get the web content off their servers and onto another.

But sadly, time is running out. There are only 17 days before this content becomes lost to the Commons. Thus I urge you to purchase one copy of any of the textbooks on their server and then share it. Sadly, you’ll need to buy the $34.95 version to get the downloadable PDF. The cheaper version is still just the web version which would still need to be harvested.

Buy the one you think is the best or will serve students the most. Or coordinate with others – I have created a sheet of all the FWK textbooks and their status in being placed back in the commons. If you do buy a copy, place a note here (anonymously if you like) that you have. Ideally between all of us, we can cover as much of the catalogue as possible. Also note I am perfectly happy to act as the host for your copy if that is something you feel uncomfortable doing. Email/tweet/comment to me if you want to take up this option.


But why you ask? Don’t the licenses themselves mean that schools who charge tuition will not be able to have their students use this free copies?

Firstly, following David Wiley’s argument, I too feel this is non-sense. Paying tuition is NOT the same as charging for a book, and so it is entirely possible that these can still be used at NO cost by students in formal courses.In addition, unless we actually have opportunities to challenge that FUD, we won’t know if it’s true or not, and keeping these books in the Commons preserves this opportunity.

But on top of that, the whole point (in my eyes) of “open education” is that it is not just about formal learning or formal learners – there is a world of people without access to formal learning opportunities who can still benefit from the Commons.

The other argument I know is “yeah, but if we just download PDFs, all we’re doing is adding static content to the Commons – how un-exciting/un-pedagogically sound is that?” To which I’d say three things

  • PDFs don’t always have to stay PDFs – as I plan to write on in an upcoming piece, being able to decompose or shift previously locked media formats is one of the new digital literacies I think we can learn from the Pirates (arrr!)
  • systems like Evident Point’s ActiveTextbook allow students and instructors to upload an existing PDF and then annotate, discuss and customize it in useful ways, meaning maybe PDFs aren’t the dead end they’ve always seemed like
  • we do the best with what we have – do you have a better idea?

This is not about punishing FlatWorld Knowledge. As cheesy as I think there decision is, it’s their right to make it. All I am trying to do is exercise the rights we currently have to preserve material already in the commons.

So what I’m asking for Christmas is for people in my network and those who care preserving the commons is to take this small step to do so.


Leaving BCcampus

Today was my last day with BCcampus. To some people this may seem like an abrupt ending, but to those who know me well, it’s been a long time coming. I’ve been there for 8 years. Done a lot of stuff over the years, some of which even helped. Learned lots. But a change needed to happen, both for me, and for them. With #opened12 put to bed and Open Textbooks just starting to gear up, the timing was opportune.

For me, the change is more than just one of switching jobs, which is why I’m pleased for a few months respite, through the holiday season and into the new year, to help get my head right, get back on the mat sitting, back to writing, and get me focused a lot more intentionally on what I can give and how I can serve.

So after a little break, I look forward to exploring new ideas on here with you about what this can look like, for me, for you. For now, I’ll turn and face the strange

Trying out Zeega for an #OpenEd12 Recap

A few days ago a new storytelling/mashup/presentation tool named Zeega came across my RSS reader. It is still in private alpha (not even beta!) but I was intrigued and so submitted a request for an account, and to my pleasant surprise the next day had an account.

Zeega is slightly more complicated than your standard presentation tool – not a lot more, but it uses the idea of different “sequences” that can branch, and so a quick view of some short video tutorials was very helpful to get going with the software. I can see how one could use this as a start forward presentation tool quite easily, but they also included a series of examples of other projects people had made to show how this can be much more than a linear presentation tool (I quite liked the one on Geodesic Domes and drew some inspiration from it for my own.)

Another thing that makes Zeega stand out is its media harvesting mechanism – you can link zeega up with your dropbox account, but more interesting is the bookmarklet, which lets you add media from flickr, youtube and soundcloud (or indeed any regular media asset) to your “library” and once inserted into a resulting animation, includes a reference back to the original (a nice-to-have feature I could see in the future would be to choose only CC licensed materials, and also to allow users to specify how attributions should be made, but for now the current way works great.) Once you’ve gathered materials into your library, it’s a simple thing to drag and drop them on any frame of your show, where they can then act as links, back-ground soundtracks, etc. Zeega also has maps integrated with it, a feature I didn’t explore in the first story I created but which I can see adding a useful element at times.

Zeega is definitely still in alpha, but is another great example of how far web-based applications have come. It wasn’t that long ago that the same sort of functionality could only be found in a thick desktop client, and one that was no doubt web unawares. But even in its early stages, zeega is another example of a new bread of mashup storytelling tool that I believe any instructor with a bit of gumption could use to create much more engaging materials, or any student for that matter. It gets both the authoring and workflow pieces mostly right. Check out the example I created as my test drive, my own recap of #opened12 using sounds and images from all over the web.

#OpenEd12 – It’s all over now

…well not quite for me. Reports still to write. Emails to send. Accounts to reconcile. Yada yada. Still, I wanted to get down a few reflections while it is fresh for me. I’m sad to say that, unsurprisingly, what stands out for me aren’t the formal sessions, as much effort as these take to organize, because as the organizer I barely got to attend any at all (I think 2 complete ones for the entire conference.) I am making my way slowly back through the archives to catch a few I knew I wanted to see, but what I want to reflect on are some of the things we tried to accomplish at #opened12 that I hope reflect a slightly innovative attitude.

Radio Libre audio-casts

In 2009 we video-cast all of the sessions using tech we rented and a team of UBC volunteers. It went over well, but ultimately cost around $6000 all in. In the interim, the living experiment that is #ds106 had taken off, and so we decided to go back to the future and do audio-only broadcasts/recordings for all the breakout rooms. (We did professionally video the 3 keynotes at a cost of around $2500.)

A ragtag band of #ds106-heads, led by mad genius Grant “Dr. Funkenstein” Potter, were able to stream all of the sessions using only iPhones, the Papaya icecast client, and some server wizardry I will not attempt to explain (but which Grant mentioned was donated because of his ongoing beta-testing relationship with the developers.)

We’re still in the midst of getting all of the archived audio onto the conference site (soon, right Grant?) but what I am so proud about is not only that we did this on a relative shoestring, but that it was a bunch of volunteers embodying a DIY ethos I was hoping could infuse this conference (and indeed “open ed” as a whole.)

The Unconference Room / Vancouver Hack Space demos

Keeping with that DIY spirit, we wanted to try once again to get an unconference space happening. We had tried in 2009 but with what felt like only a modicum of success. This years’ felt much more successful, partly because it gave a physical space to those who had pitched Remixathon sessions, but mainly, in my experience, because of the anchor tenants, a bunch of gifted volunteers from the Vancouver Hack Space. They came with a bunch of engaging hands-on projects for people to try (hopefully you got a chance to build a circuit!) but also a really enlightened and deep educational philosophy, won not through years of graduate studies in education but by running a grassroots, working hackspace. (I shouldn’t sell them short though – all three of the guys I talked to also had lots of formal education experience as both learners and teachers.) Indeed, the most valuable conversations I had personally at the conference were with this bunch, as we discussed various ways to inter-twingle the formal and informal worlds of learning without lessening the powers of either. For a small sample of these rich conversations, check out Grant’s interview with the VHS guys, where they discuss key lessons they’ve learned setting up a hackspace (and which seem imminently applicable to other communities trying to form.)

The Remixathon

The remixathon was an odd duck, yet I think it proved a success despite not reaching its original aim. The initial thought was to have folks submit content and run a contest during the conference for the best remix. We did get a bunch of submissions, ran an initial (spottily attended) virtual kickoff, and distributed the content via the USB keys we gave away as conference schwag. And then…nothing happened. Except, that’s wrong. Lots of things happened, just not what we expected. A number of the submissions to the remixathon were workshop oriented – the Communicate OER folks came out in force to help people learn to edit wikipedia articles, Chris Pegler from the OU workshopped her survey materials, and the Connexions/OERPub folks did extensive usability testing on their new OER Editor. So far from being a flop, the “remixathon” transformed into a series of lightweight, hands-on workshops. I heard from a number of folks that they appreciated this, and I hope next years’ organizers might consider a similar track but formally recognizing the importance of getting “hands on.”

The #opened12 #jamcamp

When we initially met in January as a team to start planning #opened12, the idea of doing a cruise for the social event erupted spontaneously from at least 2 or 3 of the meeting attendees, and was quickly met with consensus – many of us choose to live on the West Coast of Canada because of its natural beauty, and there’s no better way to show it off than by sea. It was nary a hop-skip-and-a-jump from there to “well how about we do a jam on the boat?”

I don’t get to take any credit for what happened next – that all goes to Grant Potter and Jason Toal, band managers and roadies extraordinaire. And of course, the band, made up of one conference “Godfather,” two keynotes, and a whole lot of other talented players. And of course, all of the attendees, who instead of doing a famous No-Fun City Shoegaze got their boogie on (and likely could have gone on for hours – sorry we had to dock folks!)

So What?

This would all sound like so much self-congratulatory back-slapping except – I really didn’t do any of this stuff. What I’m so proud about is that people came together, worked as a team, participated, had fun, engaged. I had this big grin on my face the entire conference NOT because I felt self-satisified, but because I was overcome with joy at all of the connections and conversations I was seeing unfold in front of me, some between people I truly love, others between people I don’t even know.

It did take a lot of effort, and I appreciate all the kudos from folks. But that wasn’t the point in writing this post. The reason I put so much effort into this is because I cared about it; cared about doing a good job for David and Brian, both of whom I feel I owe a great deal, and cared about trying to do something even a slight bit different. And trust me, this wasn’t even a 1/4 of what Brian and I have cooked up over the years of brainstorming what our perfect event might look like (you’re lucky, we couldn’t get permits for half of it!)

So now it’s all over ‘cept the crying. I am left trying to figure out what’s next. I know I can’t live at a fevered pitch 100% of the time, but neither can I punch a clock. Over the next few months I hope to explore in more depth how these little things we tried might look when enacted not in a conference but as a reimagining of the spaces of school/work/play,of  the formal and the informal, of the organizational and the networked, and the local and the global in which I hope to play.

But for now, as The Lizard King once sang “When the music’s over, turn out the lights”

Automagic Map of #opened12 Attendees

As registration filled up for OpenEd 2012, I began to wonder where people were coming from, and what kind of representation we were getting across the globe.

Step 1 – Geocoding the Attending Organizations

When people registered, we did not collect physical address info, just names, email addresses and organization names. Still, I thought, that has to be enough, right?

I knew that using a query like would return CSV values for that location, yet I couldn’t think of a simple way to turn an entire list of organization names into a map (this was one of those “I’m bored in this meeting and want to do something in 5 minutes” exercises.)

Enter the network to the rescue, mainly in the form of Tony Hirst (who I knew would know the answer) and Alec Couros. Tony pointed me to a post he had written earlier this year that highlighted the Google doc function =ImportData. By using that function and concatenating the Google Maps API query string with the placename/organization name I already had, it really was simple to get all of the organizations geocoded to then place them on a map.

Two caveats

  1. Google spreadsheets limit the use of the =ImportData function to 50 times per workbook, not sheet, so with around 170 distinct names to geocode, there was a bit of futzing around to put these in different workbooks, run the function, then copy/paste the resulting geocodes into a master sheet.
  2. Automatic geocoding based on organization is not an exact science – using the names exactly as entered in the registration forms did result in 140 good addresses out of 170, but the rest either returned no results, or else in a few cases bad results – BCcampus, the organization I work for, was placed somewhere in the Straights of Tawain! Still, that’s about an 82% success rate with no effort, and the resulting ones were easily fixed by replacing the org name with either a city name or specific address.

Step 2 – Mapping these coordinates

Once you have the resulting sheet of organization names and longitude & latitude data from the first step, the next step is fairly easy. I had stumbled upon Google Fusion Tables myself, an experimental feature aimed at combining datasets and visualizing them in new ways.  Tony mentioned these would handle my data automatically, and sure enough it did, importing the existing Google spreadsheet with one click, and with another turning it into a map.

But I actually ended up going with another approach suggested by Alec Couros, MapAList. MapAList is a 3rd party service that also works off of Google documents, and a simple wizard allows you to select your spreadsheet, worksheet and values you want to map and generates a map along with nice html embed code to use. I think either way works fine, I just ended up liking this one as Fusion’s URLs confused me and I ended up sharing one on twitter that pointed to the unvisualized data.

Below is the resulting map. The big learning here for me – the power of the =ImportData function. Without something like this, you end up having to write some code (not complicated code, but code nonetheless) that steps through your list, generates a http request for each one to the API end point, receives the resulting response, parses the response and compiles the outputs into some format you can use. This is not a super complicated program, but 95% of end users aren’t going to do this. But the above approach seems really feasible, and given the availability of HTTP based APIs that return CSV or JSON, opens up a huge realm of data to non-programmers who can still handle a spreadsheet (which, as you’ll recall, was the home computer’s first killer app.) – SWL

Victoria Hack Jam – Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!

A few months back I saw a tweet from my friend @clintlalonde which mentioned that he and a colleague at Royal Roads (the very awesome Emma Irwin) we organizing a Mozilla Hack Jam, one of dozens around the globe set to take place on June 23rd to kick off Mozilla’s Summer of Code. I chimed in to count me in, in whatever capacity, as I have been looking for ways to bring my own skills and my passion for teaching together with my other passion of the open internet and non-conventional educational models.

This event fit that bill in spades. Let me describe it a bit and then just highlight some bullet points about why I think this is an exemplary model (I have WAY too much work to do right now but I couldn’t let this pass without writing it up, so short form it will have to be.)

The event was targeted at kids aged 9-14 and has the goal of inspiring kids to make and remix the web. The main tool it introduces them to is Mozilla’s “X-Ray Googles” – a neat bookmarklet that once activated exposes the underlying code that makes up a web page as one mouses over, and with a click allows it to be easily changed. That, plus the instruction to then find a web page and make some changes and we were off to the races (actually, to be honest I don’t think we even got as far telling the kids to do that – they pretty much all figured out that was the point once they realized they could.)

In addition, as the kids got used to that (and for kids with a little more experience) there was a new tool from Mozilla named “Thimble” which basically places side-by-side a page and its underlying HTML, but focuses on the right area when a part of the page is clicked. It also comes with a set of fun games that help the kids go a bit deeper.

The day was kicked off by Clint with a fun icebreaker in which each of the kids were given 4 pieces of a larger puzzle and had to work together to reassemble the entire puzzle. I don’t think we finished the puzzle but that was beside the point, it very much served its purpose, to break the ice, get the energy level in the room up, get kids working together and having fun. Then Emma gave a very short talk about “hacking” and hackasaurus using slides from Mozilla, after which the real fun began.

Now for my reflections:

  • First off, while we might have been able to do this in some other space, having access to an amazingly well set up lab at UVIc (offered by the gracious Dr. Valerie Irvine) was hugely invaluable. It is also to me an example of where we need to be going in education, towards projects, events, courses, workshops, whatever, that cross the formal boundaries of our institutions, in this case bringing together a NGO and grassroots organization like Mozilla, a University, kids from the K-12 system and volunteers from a number of other organizations, both educational and corporate. I know these do happen already, but we need to start weaving this into the fabric of our organizations (and their rules and regulations) instead of hoping that upstarts with some gumption will simply make them happen. I can give you a rant for at least an hour to explain how this is in the long term benefit of both our institutions and our society even when it might look in the short term like it can have some costs, but like I said, too much work right now!
  • When Emma asked the kids what they thought “hacking” meant and pretty much all of the responses she received were about illegal systems intrusions, I shuddered and hoped that Emma would ride to the rescue and explain the more positive original sense of the term. And while she did a bit, I came to realize that there is a real genius in not belabouring that point and instead allowing the mischief the kids thought inherent in the term to secretly power their learning. You see, while the X-Ray googles allow you to change the source code of a page, they only do it to your local copy, not the server one. But the kids don’t know that (yet – I did explain it to some as we went along, especially the few who felt some concern about the ethics of what they were doing). So while the kids thought they were sticking it to the man by inserting pictures of themselves, or Justin Bieber, or bacon (these seemed like the top three choices) onto their school website or the google frontpage, inadvertently they were learning exactly what I used to teach people in the old days (like, the mid-90’s) when we taught them to create web pages – just view source, make some changes, save it and look at the results.
  • Indeed, there is some really great thinking going on at the Mozilla team about how to introduce some potentially complicated stuff in a way that kids can engage with it – there was very little “instruction” going on during the couple of hours we ran the jam, and very much CONSTRUCTION (of knowledge, of web pages) and most of all FUN. This tapped into one of the pieces I too often forget myself about why making and the open web are so important – yes, it’s about preserving democracy and free speech, yes it’s about freeing culture from capital; but it’s also FUN, it’s about the sheer joy of making things.
  • kaya and dad at #yyj HackJam with our new matching FireFox sh... on TwitpicI could go on, but I need to get back to work, but I’ll end by saying it was also a joy to be able to bring my daughter along with me. While I like to think of myself as a progressive guy, I still catch myself making unconscious assumptions about the difference between my son’s and my daughter’s relationships to technology, to science, to math. These assumptions aren’t all “my fault” – we are still surrounded by messages that these are male domains (indeed the way they are currently practiced this is too often the case) and in some areas (for instance math) the stereotype does seem to be playing out – my son shows a real adeptness for it, but my daughter struggles with it.Yet that doesn’t mean it’s not important to become conscious and confront them – when my daughter turned out to have a greater interest in helping me solder a guitar stomp box’s electronics than my son (for whom I had bought it to do it as a project) I realized how often I was making these assumptions. Seeing her face light up as she started to learn through playing what goes on behind a web page, and how she could change it herself, is another step away from these stereotypes and hopefully towards an empowered young woman who can make her way in our increasingly tech-addled world. I’d also like to thank Emma and the other three women who were there for being such great role models, and to all the other families who brought their daughters (it seemed pretty close to a 50/50 split in both kids and volunteers.)

I really hope we figure out a way to do more of these, to do other ones too. I know all of us are full-time workers and full-time parents, and finding time and energy to put these things on in addition to all those demands is tough, but this is the future we need to create, one in which education is NOT just something we had off to specialists and only happens between 9 and 3 in classrooms, one in which learning about the means of production and creating them ourselves go hand and hand, one which starts to weave all of the learning opportunities and organizations together, not fracture them into more and more specialized (and silo’d) entities. – SWL


Ed Tech Reading Group?

I’m just finishing up Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” (I highly recommend it!) which led me to ask on twitter if anyone else who had read it wanted to connect to discuss it.

"The Kids Reading Together" - CC Attribution Share Alike Some rights reserved by Valerie Everett I didn’t get much of a response but I’m not giving up, and I thought I’d float the idea of a semi-formal “reading group” here to see if I got any takers. I know this seems pretty old school, and certainly if it was just a question of finding anyone else in the world who had read a book I’d just finished that would be simple to do, but context matters. Even if the reading group ended up being comprised of myself and one other person with some shared context, that would be a great step forward from reading some of these books on my own.

And while I called it an “ed tech” reading group in the title, I mean this in a VERY broad sense. My personal practice as an educational technologist is informed by many different perspectives – critical theories of technology, cognitive science, non-dualism and integral studies, emergence and the new science, and various approaches to critical pedagogy too. Part of the fun of forming a group like this is figuring out what to read together – those lists are by no means the only things I am interested in reading with others, but if you see something in one of them you are interested in tackling, let me know.

I don’t read very quickly these days. Or rather – I read so many different things at once that I don’t end up finishing them very quickly. Partly I’m hoping that doing readings as a group can help a bit with this, but I’m also no reading group fascist – we’re all working adults with lots of responsibilities, but if you find that reading, especially in topics slightly outside your field, helps inform your practice, then I’d love to head from you. I don’t have any firm idea on what form this group might take – a couple of google hangout chats? A group blog? We won’t know until we start. Drop me a line, either email or preferably in the comments below, if this seems like it might be of interest. – SWL

What Art Forms Reflect the Culture You Want to See?

Yesterday an interesting video crossed my path that I ended up viewing last night

It’s a biography of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the most famous Buddhist teachers to come to the west after the invasion of Tibet. He is a major figure and yet very problematic for some people, and the film is wonderful for not shying away from the problems and yet not adhering dogmatically to any defense either.I do not study in his lineage and yet have read many of his works and always been intrigued by his practice, so I enjoyed the film very much.

For non-Buddhists or people not familiar with his work, the video may not hold that much interest, but it isn’t the main point of this post. This post stems from a single line in the movie attributed to Trungpa: “To change a culture, you must change its art forms.”

Now I don’t know if this is “True” but it resonated strongly with me. I have been variously at times a student, critic, viewer and producer not just of individual art pieces but also of various art forms (painting, writing, film and music being my main passions) and of how these forms both reflect (and create) our relationships, to culture and art, to commerce and modes of production, to society, to each other.

For instance

  • I think the swings back and forth between “folk” and “mass” are fascinating.
  • I think understanding how the introduction of cheap video cameras and user-controlled distribution mechanisms contrasted with the studio model of movie making is important to understand, as is what happened to music when the mass production of guitars (and then amplification) became available.
  • Or how radio as a means of distribution changes how we relate (to the music, to each other, to advertising and the music “business”) compared to p2p or iTunes, or how sitting in a movie theatre structures our social relations compared to sitting in front of youtube.
  • “happenings” as one of the origins of “new media”
  • Or “art in the age of mechanical reproduction” in general.
  • And on and on and on…

So the idea that to “change a culture we must change its art forms” got me thinking – what art form should I be pursuing to bring about the changes I hope for? Which made me want to ask YOU the same question – what art forms are YOU pursuing, and how do you see them reflecting or causing the changes you want to see?

There are no wrong answers, and I personally have an incredibly liberal definition of “art” and in no way want to restrict it, as so often is the case, to that which the academy or the professionals deem to be so. Indeed I accept “living one’s life” as a valid art form. So whatever form yours takes, I think it’s a fascinating question to ask ourselves, as it not only asks us to reflect on our practices but also on the world we hope to see and how the two are connected (or at times, sadly, not).

Love to hear your thoughts/see your work – SWL