The Un-education of a Technologist: From EDUPUNK to ds106

from Reverend on bavatuesdays /

Below are the slides and a transcript of the text I planned to follow when I delivered my talk this morning at the EDEN Annual Conference in Barcelona. That said, I didn’t keep to the script because I get too excited and just ran with things. Let this be the record of what I wanted to say, not what I said :)

Into the Maelstrom

“Amidst the tumult, the academy appears oddly complacent. Open source technology, open access publication, open education have all had their successes, but none of these movements could fairly be described as having transformed practice. Models of publishing, reviewing and assessing research have not fundamentally changed. Innovation in teaching is at the margins, the essential structures of curriculum and assessment wholly unchanged. Educational technology, far from revolutionizing practice, seems primarily dedicated to perpetuating it: ‘clickers’ provide a sheen of interactivity in the cavernous lecture hall; ‘learning management systems’ promise to protect its users from the raging uncertainties of the digital chaos.” –


This was the opening paragraph of an article Brian Lamb and I wrote for the Universities and Knowledge Societies Journal (RUSC) of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in April of 2009. We wrote most of it in late 2008, early 2009 and as the abstract notes in RUSC:

Two educational technologists and webloggers present a series of vignettes, contemplating the effects of modern networked communication on their practice. Recognizing their inability to construct a synthetic theory amidst the maelstrom, they curate a collection of observations and manifestos emphasizing themes of personal publishing, spontaneous collaborations, learning on the open web, and syndication.

The line “recognizing their inability to construct a synthetic theory amidst the maelstrom” is maybe one of my all time favorite research article abstracts ever :) Thank you RUSC! But one of the things that’s interesting as I return to this article almost seven years later (what is that in Web 2.0 tech years?) is how so many of the curated vignettes around personal spaces, the open web, spontaneous connections, distributed collaborations, and syndication still remain core to a vision of what a revolutionary publishing and pedagogical practice might look like on the web.

What’s more, I’m an optimist. I think we are getting closer and closer to realizing that vision, and thanks to folks like Audrey Watters we may even be getting somewhere with a more “synthetic theory amidst the maelstrom,” i.e. the ahistorical, techno-solutionism undergirding Silicon Valley is launching a full frontal assault on the education sector.

In fact, the vignettes we list in that paper are the building blocks of this talk which loosely traces the work I‘ve been doing since writing that paper in December of 2008.

The vignette about “A Space of One’s Own” is a take on a “Domain of One’s Own,” an idea we have been playing with at UMW since 2007 or 2008. Give every student and faculty member their own domain and web hosting, and make them the “sysadmin of their own education,” to quote Gardner Campbell. The idea of building a university’s technical framework around personal cyber infrastructures was really radical just seven years ago, and arguably still is. But we have evidence that is possible, and can be the basis of an entire curriculum around web literacy and fluency.

The over-wrought section on revolutionary syndication buses was the basis of how we would build the Digital Storytelling course at UMW ds106 (#4life). A course that built on the idea of a personal cyberinfrastructre by giving all students their own domain and web hosting, but re-wired the course space as something that bring all that work back together. But not as an example of a creepy treehouse like Facebook or your favorite LMS, but as a distributed network that modeled itself on the web.

And ds106 reinforced, at least for me, two other vignettes from that paper, namely “serendipitous collaboration chains” and “spontaneous connections.” As we noted Stephen Downes note:  “Who cares if a few universities exchange learning content among themselves (not that this really happens a lot anyway)?” The more interesting models is how various individuals and groups forge entirely new collaborations and spontaneous connections that form networks above and beyond the institutional vision of “sharing.” This is where MOOCs began to fall down as a centralized approach to sharing that strayed away from anything resembling the web.

Speaking of MOOCs, our vignette about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be one of the very first articles in an academic journal that says the “M” word. This was almost 3 years before the hype, and the logic undergirding MOOCs as they were laid out here was rather different. it wasn’t about marketing, colonial education, or efficiencies, it was about trying to understand how pedagogies of and for the web can be radically different.


This was all written and imagined during a moment when EDUPUNK was still a thing. Less than a year earlier Brian Lamb and I had began to articulate our dissatisfaction with how LMS companies like BlackBoard were making claims about being open and innovative when they had done nothing more than start to integrate a few basic practices that were predominant on the web rather badly into their LMS. It was insult to injury, because that company had done little to nothing in terms of innovating on their product for years. Again, with stridency and righteousness:

…if we reduce the conversation to technology, and not really think hard about technology as an instantiation of capital’s will to power, than anything resembling an EdTech movement towards a vision of liberation and relevance is lost. For within those ideas is not a technology, but a group of people, who argue, disagree, and bicker, but also believe that education is fundamentally about the exchange of ideas and possibilities of thinking the world anew again and again, it is not about a corporate mandate to compete—however inanely or nefariously—for market share and/or power. I don’t believe in technology, I believe in people.

-From “The Glass Bees” on bavatuesdays

The only moment either of us presented on EDUPUNK was when Brian Lamb delivered a really compelling talk of these very ideas back in 2010 right here in Barcelona at Zemos98.

EDUPUNK also became a victim of its own very mild success as an idea, and was soon a logic exercised when it comes to neocon logic of dismantling higher ed. Stuff I was very uncomfortable with, and ultimately had to right my Dear John letter in 2011 to an idea I was really smitten with:


But EDUPUNK and I never really split, we just changed its name to ds106. In the Spring of 2011 ds106 provided a beautiful the moment when so many of the ideas Brian and I were trying to wrap our heads around (personal spaces, spontaneous connections, serendipitous collaborations, syndication hubs, MOOCs, etc.) came together. But not so much as a synthetic theory, but as a practical application of how teaching and learning can be part and parcel of the web. How we can “descend into the Maelstrom” by studying the action of the whirlpool and cooperating with it—the quote from Malcolm McLuhan quoting Edgar Allen Poe that Brian Lamb used to frame the whole idea of working within the chaos.

But I am getting ahead of myself, what is ds106? Digital Storytelling (also affectionately known as ds106) is an open, online course that happens at various times throughout the year at the University of Mary Washington and elsewhere… but you can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. This course is free to anyone who wants to take it, and the only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster.

ds106 opened up questions about infrastructure, architecture, student agency, pedagogy, and much more all at once. It wasn’t just about technology, it was about how the technology affords new ways for us to collaborate, share, and learn with and from one another.

One of its many great moments of this experiment came during the summer of 2011, during what is now referred to as the “Summer of Oblivion.”

“The idea was to have a daily radio/TV broadcast by Dr. Brian Oblivion (featured in the animate gif above), a character from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome who only ever appears as a mediated pedagogical presence on TV. The idea was to update this for 2011, and have this be an online, mediated pedagogical appearance only on the web. Effectively I took on an alternative teaching identity. I wanted to push myself in this course to not only experiment with and challenge some of the ideas we have about the role of the professor, online learning, and mediated communication…if I am not pushing myself to explore and be consumed by this media then it would run counter to the whole reason for the course in the first place. So, there it is, ds106: The Summer of Oblivion—but this analyzing is paralyzing, let’s play this dang thing!” from

And it looked something like this the first few days:

The course ran as an alternative reality in some ways, what Ray Land calls a “pedagogy of uncertainty.” By the end of the first week Dr. Oblivion went missing, the TA (jim Groom) came in and became a tyrant banishing students, and the class started to rebel. It was magic. Here is one of the student created videos about the upheaval of course power:

The idea of the class was about sense-making online, taking control of your digital presence, and imbuing a broader range of digital literacies and fluencies across tools, but more importantly managing one’s presence online.

Domain of One’s Own

This gave way to the Domain of One’s Own initiative at UMW that provides every student and faculty member their own domain and web hosting, providing a platform for a broader, institutional wide digital fluency toolkit, not to mention a sandbox for broader web-based exploration for everyone.

This took on a whole different level of thinking when I met up with Audrey Watters and Kin Lane at the Reclaim Hackathon at MIT sponsored by the DML. The ideas there continue to drive the work at UMW and beyond. Thinking in more focused ways about how we provide students and faculty a technical and curricular framework that provides more control over personal data. Ideas of University and personal APIs, virtualized server infrastructure, Docker, and much more. This is the beginning of what has become my new focus—Reclaiming. It’s also why I started with the demo. Based on the work we’ve done at UMW, my partner Tim Owens and I are working on a model that provides individuals, courses, departments, and/or universities with cheap, virtualized infrastructure to run this locally.  A way of decentralizing IT and edtech support. That’s Reclaim Hosting, and that’s the future!


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