Walled Garden or Safe Space?

I’ve been to several, if not hundreds of community gatherings, discussion groups or encuentro (as the Zapatista’s put it) where there was always a safe space for members who wanted to engage but felt marginalized. The idea of the safe space is for those that feel marginalized could be empowered by taking some of the space of the gathering and discuss and bring forth issues that are of importance to that group (and eventually bring those forth to the larger group).

I often wonder if the traditional LMS could be a safe space for students. Not to knock the decentralized approach of DS106, because I too value the idea of putting an idea out into the open, seeing if it resonates with anyone else, and building on it. But I often think there’s a value to having everything together in one spot, to help students learn. The decentralized approach clearly works, because you can see where and when DS106 is successful. The arguments against LMS’s are fairly well trodden, they are locked down and unable to share externally – which is true in their unadulterated stated. However, you can easily embed a wiki, or other community based site (like YouTube) bringing the community in, and partially exposing the real world (as much as the Internet reflects the real world). At times in higher education, I think there’s a value in providing a space where one can experiment with ideas without having the pressure of the real world to bear on them. That should be what education is about.

I have a vested interest in keeping the LMS at the University I work at, because frankly, that’s my job (with that said, if it ever were to be decentralized, I’d be nimble enough to support blogs, wikis and other web 2.0/3.0 tools as well). I often say that there’s value in having a central location to reside in. Of course, there’s too few reasons to go to most courses – no sense of community, no value placed in a discussion online, no reward for student engagement… the list goes on and on. I can’t see great advancement in the use of LMS’s in general until faculty are looking for ways to connect their classrooms with the world.

Ten Web 2.0 Tools I Can’t Live Without

This post is inspired, or a direct response to, the “Tools of My Trade” post by Steve Wheeler. So here’s the ten Web 2.0 tools that I can’t live (although I would) without:

1. Twitter/Tweetdeck – I grouped these two together because my use of Twitter is non-existent without Tweetdeck. Twitter has gone from a second thought to the first thing I open at work in the morning. In fact, I open my Twitter account and scan it before I open e-mail. I never thought when I first started using Twitter that it would have this profound an effect, but it does.

2. WordPress – Without WordPress, there would be no blog(s) for me. In fact, I chose to buy and host on my own because of the ease of installing WordPress. Certainly I could’ve continued with the free hosting at Edublogs, or moved to a Blogspot location, but for me it only seemed logical to roll my own.

3. Google Search – Yes, I’m a bit wary of the monolithic Google  and the amount of information they can potentially know about me. Of course, I’ll trade what they know about me for the wealth of information that is available. Sure, it’s becoming second nature that the first result will probably be the best one for me – which will be an issue once that second nature is unquestioned. Until then, and not only because I used to teach searching techniques, Google Search is crucial.

4. bit.ly – Again, if you follow my Twitter stream (@dietsociety) you’ll know that I use this shortening service exclusively. I like that I can know something about the people who click on the links, and it often leads me to new people I choose to follow (if I’m not already).

5. Scribd – I can’t imagine that this service, where you can read books online, won’t be affected by the iPad, Kindle and other portable e-book readers. Still, lots of good information out there.

6. Flickr – I do maintain only one stream of photos – mostly for the live music I’ve seen and been lucky enough to get a workable photo at. My wife uses it as a dumping ground for all things – so I leave the photos of my life over there. Plus she’s much more talented than me.

7. Yahoo Mail / Gmail – Does this count as a Web 2.0 tool? I’m a chronic checker of e-mail – so much so I forget to check the one associated with my home ISP. I’ve had my Yahoo mail account for just under a decade… so by default I guess it’s not Web 2.0… maybe Web 1.5?

8. LMS – As a user I’ve used Blackboard, Desire2Learn, WebCT 4, Moodle, FirstClass and Sakai. As an instructor I’ve used Desire2Learn, FirstClass and WebCT. I’ve also had administrative powers for most of those systems at one point or another. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t login to one of these systems.

9. Wikipedia / Media Wiki – I used this in my teaching, and often refer to it as a starting point for inquiry.

10. Facebook – Occasionally I use Facebook to keep up on my family’s coming and goings, as well as my friends. Having friends in several different cities across the world – Facebook makes sense. Otherwise, I’m not interested in Farmville or any other Mechanical Turk work.

Reflections on My Use of Wikis in the Classroom

Wikipedia has fundamentally and finally altered epistemology itself—our commonly held ideas about knowledge. For the academy at large, the significance of Wikipedia is roughly equivalent to that which the Heisenberg uncertainty principle had in the sciences in the 1920s—stating what is not possible rather than what is. It is no longer possible to plan, tax, and budget for universities as if their model of knowledge creation is the only epistemological path. No matter how improbable it might seem that a Web page that anyone can edit would lead to valuable knowledge, Wikipedia makes clear that there is now another model for knowledge creation. And it also recasts the comments of the diplomatic chancellor in a supremely ironic light: here is the leader of a massive state system for knowledge creation stating that “when every one is responsible no one is responsible,” while he, and certainly everyone in that audience, has probably relied upon a knowledge acquisition path—from Google to Wikipedia—for which everyone is responsible and no one is responsible at once. — Robert E. Cummings, Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom (online book) (link to quote)

I’ve written previously about my wiki problems, assessing the wiki work, but never really assessed the impact of my decision to turn the Searching the Internet course into a guided research course. Now is a good time to do this as the second iteration of the course is done, and I’m handing it off to someone else. For the most part, people embraced the technology once they understood the purpose of using the wiki – which was hard to explain to some people. It was important to understand that user-created content needs some critical consumption before you trust it. It’s constantly amazing that many people don’t think to question broadcast news, newspapers or media in general, which really is the main goal that I hoped to get out there to people. I think in some ways I failed, more on that later.

One major hurdle that I still am not sure about how to get around (through?) is student expectations of what should go on in the classroom. Using the wiki for everything was conceptually difficult for those who attended lectures in the face-to-face offering. They wanted to discuss the issues in class – and I didn’t persuade them otherwise. It’s the thing I love about classrooms – the discussions therein. I should’ve made a better attempt at summarizing these in class discussions in the wiki, that way there would be a digital record of what was discussed, what the decisions were and where to go post-discussion. Of course, having the discussions robbed them of a crucial piece of the collaborative work – the discussions on talk pages. This discussion serves two purposes. The first being the revelation that the general public have a democratic say in the content published. The second being that hopefully the fact that they’re editing the content means that other non-experts are also editing content, and that means you have to take everything written with a grain of salt (sometimes a pound).

Another classroom expectation that I had trouble with was a small minority of students were just not comfortable doing their own research. They wanted specific instructions from me as to what to do. I was clear in that this course would be unlike other courses they may have taken. I didn’t want the authority of the teacher (and considering the subject matter, let’s face it, people have to get over this authority complex they have – it’s decentralized just like the Internet) and was looking for ways to bust ye olde teacher as authority. I tried telling people that I was not an expert and that my role was as a guide through the material laid out before them. Yes, I wrote it and yes, I researched it. Yes, it could be wrong too. I tried telling people that it wasn’t a course, and they weren’t students and they weren’t doing assignments they were doing exercises. Of course, the exam at the end was real. I tried telling students that I only know this stuff because I looked it up on the Internet. That didn’t work out so well, and I never repeated that one. Nothing will devalue the course than telling the truth. In the end I didn’t try to break this power structure, and it’s one of the reasons I won’t be teaching after this semester.

I disagree with Cumming’s assertion that everyone and no one is responsible for the content. It’s neither. It’s you who is responsible for assessing the information you consume. I think that’s where I’ve failed, not getting this point through, that every piece of information you consume has a bias, a history and a reason. Nobody publishes a story in the newspaper or on a blog without a reason. Some are transparent, some are difficult to read. While I’ve given the students of the Searching the Internet over the last seven years the tools and some experience in using them, I’m not sure anyone stayed with it.

With that said, it wasn’t an all-around failure. I did become a better teacher, more confident in the skills I do have (and able to improve the ones that I’m lacking). The content on the wiki was well crafted, well thought out and showed that when students would engage with the subject, they could become subject matter experts on their own.

Who’s Watching The Wikimen, Or Wikipeople

I just found in a random search (for editing Wikipedia) an article by Wired about an effort to see who’s editing the world’s largest encyclopedia. I have some privacy reservations about this sort of third party monitoring, especially if corporations are turning the screws on people writing about their excesses. I guess though, if everyone can do it, everyone should. Of course, corporations are the sort of bodies that have people who can spare the time to do this sort of activity, which could lead to that sort of misuse. Now, I’m sure that’s not happening, because corporations never behave badly. Right?

Wikis Revisited

So back in the day (July 9 and July 10 precisely), I was having trouble with the wiki not embedding in D2L, having it pop out and not stay in the frameset. What it came down to, and was something I wasn’t 100% sure of at the time, was that the MediaWiki version we were using was fairly old. After attempting two upgrades, we now have a wiki that stays in the box, but IE 7/8 break the login (especially on the deep frozen computers in our labs). That problem is part of the default settings of the browser, where you have to override the privacy settings through Tools > Internet Options > Privacy tab > Advanced > Override Automatic Cookie Handling.

settings for cookies in IE to keep logged into the wiki

So for now, we’re still having trouble with legacy versions of MediaWiki, but on my personal page, the latest MediaWiki install is great and works fine with most browsers. Thanks again to Barry Dahl for the inspiration to do this.

Rubrics for Discussions and Wiki-Based Work

I’ve been refreshing a course I created in 2004 about Searching the Internet. Instead of the antiquated handouts I’ve replaced those four assignments with a wiki – each learner will contribute links, text, audio, images and video to the wiki. I decided that I can’t let them go and work in it without giving them some expectations so I spent a couple hours drafting this wiki rubric. I also cut 10% out of the mark and added it to a discussion component to drive people to talk in the talk pages of the wiki and the Discussion tool in the LMS. Here’s that discussion rubric.

The course I teach generally is to people who are older, may have a job during the day and are aspiring web designers. I would say that most of these people are carving out a second career. This course is taught at a distance, but I intend to tweak the rubric for a continuing education delivery (maybe take out the discussion element, or reduce it for a face to face class).

If you see some glaring errors I’d appreciate any feedback, in the comments or on twitter (@dietsociety), or something that I didn’t consider in my language. Thanks.

Built In Crap Detector

Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.

Ernest Hemingway, in a 1954 interview with Robert Manning, appearing in the Atlantic Magazine, August 1965

Howard Rheingold had mentioned this quote a couple of times, and it really stuck with me. So much so, I had to look it up and I’ll be using it in my teaching next fall. I teach a course called “Searching The Internet Effectively” and wanted to overhaul the content as it was mainly designed five years ago, with content refreshes every semester to reflect the fluid nature of the beast. I hadn’t really approached the social side of the web – mainly because I was busy keeping up with changes. There were and are elements missing from the course.

I had realized last year that I hated the method of delivery, which consisted of me lecturing and the class doing squat until I was done talking. Part of the problem is that they’re in rows in classrooms. I can’t make things much better; the politics of furniture, or rather the politics of furniture in a computer lab restrict me.

The content, while adequate for the majority of students, is not as engaging as I’d like. I never seemed to get to the stuff where I really enjoyed, which was talking about discerning bullshit from good stuff on the web. So I’ve spent the last four months off and on collecting data and sites that will help inform learners. I think making content a “treasure hunt” of sorts can help with student engagement, and I’ll still “lecture” but more as a method to ensure that learners who have no prior experience with web searching (which strikes me as odd) still participate and can contribute.

I’m planning on replacing the crappy assignments with wiki-work. If people outside the class contribute great, if not, I think it’ll still be worthwhile. I’ll still have a final exam as that’s a mandatory item. I’ll have one assignment which is a culmination of all the skills I hope students acquire. Remember this is only a six-week course, so it’s not as lengthy as a “normal” course.

Which brings me to the point. Students are going to have a hard time with this – if this isn’t done well. Debunking authority, whether it be subject authority or any other kind of authority, unsettles people and screws with people’s expectations. But building this sort of crap detector in someone’s life is a critical skill to have. It’s amazing how many people are very trusting with content they get on the web and a bit frightening when you extrapolate it to how it can affect people in real life. Certainly the ability of unscrupulous hucksters to bilk someone of money is out there, hopefully skepticism prevails for people in my class.

I really appreciated this post, which begins to illuminate the new construction of authority in a distributed environment. Objectivity, trust, authority… all related and tied up. Hopefully none of this sets off any crap detectors.


Hmm, I suppose I’ll look back at this moment in a few months with a hearty guffaw, and muse “Oh Jon, there’s such a simple solution.” These are truly “first world problems” if I’ve ever heard them. Oh yeah, Barry Dahl’s video is incredibly useful, except it doesn’t actually show how he embeds the wiki in D2L – it basically shows you how to embed stuff in a wiki which is embedded in D2L. Close to what I need. Yes, I’ve e-mailed to see if Barry can help sort out my muddled mind, but venting never hurts.

EDIT: After a brief phone call, he’s still baffled, I’m ready to tear my moustache out.

I’ve been trying to embed a MediaWiki in my proposed D2L version of my Searching The Internet Effectively course. I’d like to constrict the opening of this page to remain in the frameset that D2L exists in so students can pop back and forth between the content that’s in the course, and the wiki to add their own content. Every method of embedding I’ve tried opens the wiki in a new page. I’m beginning to wonder if the damn thing is set to automatically open in a new page…. or maybe Firefox is overriding some weird thing. First of all framesets?? Give me a break. If framesets get deprecated anytime soon (as they should) D2L is in for a major redesign. Talk about a total head-scratcher.

Also, I hate IE. I thought when I got out of web design as a career that I could learn to like, accept, ok not hate IE. Wrong. IE is crap. IE 8 is OK passable, except that when you use  the TinyMCE editor in D2L in an IE browser (IE 8 included), it strips out co-ordinates of an image map. And other attributes of the object tag. WTF??

A Question Posed…

I was thinking on the walk home last night about how I could change my Searching The Internet Effectively course so that it might have more impact. Currently it’s a fairly straight forward deal – lecture for one hour, then give students class time to complete an exercise which I will help them with over the next two hours.  Most students choose to leave after the lecture and complete the work at home, or another place. The last question on the last exercise asks students to factor in everything they know at this point, and search for something that is related to searching and outline this in a word document with evaluations of the websites they’ve found – sort of an annotated bibliography. Then there’s an exam, which is mandatory.

This course is far too straight forward for my tastes. I think I’d like to keep the weekly worksheets as an exercise, but make the markable stuff in a wiki. I was thinking each student wiki account would also allow the student to journal their searching terms, perhaps on an account info page that the student would cut and paste search terms into so that I was sure of the technical aspect of searching was covered.

Anyone out there mark contributions to a wiki other than this one? How would such a beast exist? I’d break it down to deal with content (is it a good website?), form (how it was discovered),  editing (did they revisit and revise content?)… Frankly I’m a pessimist, and what happens if the students reject this sort of (in my institution anyway) radical idea?