Why I’m not using Twitter next month

TL;DR I’m spending time experimenting with and exploring Mastodon during the month of May. You can connect with me at mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw.

Back in 2011, when I’d just discovered Open Badges, I led a semester of learning on the concept. Sometimes it’s not enough to play around the edges; you have to jump in with two feet to understand what something’s about. That immersion confirmed my initial thoughts, and I’ve spent the last six years evangelising and advocating for digital credentials based on that particular open standard.

The same was true back in 2007 when I joined Twitter. I thought that this was something revolutionary, something that could not only change the way that professional development was done in schools (I was a classroom teacher at the time) but literally change the world. Unlike Open Badges, of course, Twitter is backed by a for-profit company that floated on the stock exchange a few years ago. It’s a ‘free’ service that requires on advertising to provide shareholder value.

It was easy to forget all that in the early days, as we were giddy with excitement, connecting with like-minded people around the world. Pre-IPO, Twitter seemed like the good guys, being seen as a key tool in people organising to overthrow repressive regimes. In those days, it was easy to use one of a number of Twitter clients, and to route your traffic around the world to avoid censorship. Now, not so much.

Last week, via Hacker News, I came across 8values, a 60-question quiz in the mould of Political Compass. My results are below:

Libertarian Socialism

While I’m aware that this isn’t the most rigorous of ‘tests’, it did set me off on an interesting path. As you can see at the top right of my results, I came out as favouring Libertarian Socialism. I was surprised, as libertarianism is something I usually explicitly argue against.

I decided to do some digging.

The Wikipedia article for Libertarian Socialism is pretty fascinating and, as you’d expect from that site, sends you off on all kinds of tangents via the numerous links in the text. Given that I had an upcoming transatlantic flight coming up, I decided to make use of Wikipedia’s Book Creator. Within five minutes, I had a 500-page PDF on everything from anarcho-syndicalism to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

To cut a long story short, my current thinking is that Mutualism seems to best describe my thinking. I’m re-reading Proudhon’s What is Property?. He’s a little naive in places, I think, but I like his style.

Anyway, this is all to say that we need to re-decentralise the Web. I wrote a few years ago about the dangers of newsfeeds that are algorithmically-curated by advertising-fuelled multinational tech companies. What we need to do is quickly replace our reliance on the likes of Facebook and Twitter before politicians think that direct digital democracy through these platforms would be a good idea.

Ethical Design

So I’m experimenting with Mastodon. It’s not radically different from Twitter in terms of look and feel, but it’s what’s under the hood that’s important. The above image from Aral Balkan outlines his approach to ‘ethical design’ — an approach ensures things look good, but also respects us as human beings.

Decentralised systems based on open standards are really our only hope against Venture Capital-backed ‘software with shareholders’. After all, any promising new startups that aren’t decentralised tend to get gobbled-up by the supermassive incumbents (see WhatsApp, Instagram). But to get to scale — which is important in this case, not for shareholder value, but for viability and network effects — people have to use these new platforms.

So that’s what I’m doing. During May, a month when my Twitter timeline will be full of UK General Election nonesense, I’m using Mastodon. The only things I’ll be posting to Twitter are links to things I’ve written. If you’d like to join me, head here, choose an ‘instance’ (I’m on mastodon.cloud) and sign up. You can then add me: mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw. As in the early days of Twitter, one of the easiest ways to find good people to follow is to find ‘nodes’. I’ve found Anil Dash (@anildash) to a good starting point.

I look forward to seeing you there. It’s a learning experience for me, but I’m happy to answer any questions below!

Header image CC BY Eric Fischer

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Higher Education in the Disinformation Age

This was what I said this evening at a panel at the University of Mary Washington as part of its Presidential Inauguration Week. The panel was titled "Higher Education in the Disinformation Age: Can America’s public liberal arts universities restore critical thinking and civility in public discourse?" The other panelists included Steve Farnsworth (University of Mary Washington), Sara Cobb (George Mason University), and Julian Hayter (University of Richmond). I only had ten minutes, so my remarks really only scratch the surface.

In February 2014, I happened to catch a couple of venture capitalists complaining about journalism on Twitter. (Honestly, you could probably pick any month or year and find the same.) “When you know about a situation, you often realize journalists don’t know that much,” one tweeted. “When you don’t know anything, you assume they’re right.” Another VC responded, “there’s a name for this and I think Murray Gell-Mann came up with it but I’m sick today and too lazy to search for it.” A journalist helpfully weighed in: “Michael Crichton called it the ”Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect," providing a link to a blog with an excerpt in which Crichton explains the concept.

Apologies for quoting Crichton at length:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story – and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I remember, at the time, appreciating parts of this observation. Or at least, I too have often felt frustrated with the reporting I read on education and technology – topics I like to think I know something about. But I hope we can see how these assertions that we shouldn’t read and shouldn’t trust newspapers are dangerous – or at the very least, how these assertions might have contributed to our current misinformation “crisis.” And I’d add too – and perhaps this can be part of our discussion – that how we’ve typically thought about or taught “information literacy” or “media literacy” has seemingly done little to help us out of this mess.

This isn’t just about Michael Crichton’s dismissal of journalism (and I’ll get to why he’s such a problematic figure here in a minute.) It’s the President. “Forget the press,” he said during the campaign. “Read the Internet.” It’s the digital technology industry – including those venture capitalists in my opening anecdote – which has invested in narratives and literally invested in products designed to “disrupt” if not destroy “traditional media.” Facebook. Twitter. Automattic (the developer of the blogging software WordPress). Despite the promises that these sorts of tools would “democratize” information, that the “blogosphere” and later social media would provide an important corrective to the failures of “mainstream journalism,” we find ourselves instead in a world in which institutions and experts are no longer trustworthy.

And yet, all sorts of dis- and misinformation – on the Internet and (to be fair) on TV – is believed. And it’s believed in part because it’s not in print and not from experts or academics or certain journalists.

I wanted to share this Michael Crichton story for a number of reasons. As I was preparing my remarks, I faced a couple of challenges. First, I couldn’t remember where or when I’d seen these tweets, although I was certain I’d first heard about the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect from venture capitalists on Twitter. Searching for old tweets – verifying Twitter itself as a source – is not easy. Twitter’s search function offers us to “See what’s happening right now.” The architecture of the platform is not designed as a historical record or source.

I guess these tweets were the conversation I saw – I spent a lot of time looking through old VC tweets from 2013 and 2014 – although my memory tells me it was Tim O’Reilly, a different venture capitalist, who’d mentioned the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect and had caught my eye.

When and if you do find an old tweet you’re looking for – as a scholar, perhaps, or as a journalist – it is stripped from its context within the Twitter timeline, within the user’s stream of tweets. What was happening on February 28, 2014 that prompted venture capitalist Dave Pell to complain about journalism? I couldn’t really divine.

In this exchange, we have a series of other Internet-based information claims. Journalist Mathew Ingram links to a blog post to explain the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, but if you click, you’ll find all of the links in that particular post are dead, including the one that goes to “The Official Site of Michael Crichton.” If you google “Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect,” the top search result is Goodreads, a book review site owned by Amazon. The excerpt there doesn’t give a date or a source or a link to Crichton’s commentary.

The Internet doesn’t magically surface “the truth.” Its infrastructure can quite readily obscure things. You have to understand how to look for information online, and you have to have some domain expertise (or know someone with domain expertise) so you can actually verify things.

The “Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect” comes from a talk titled “Why Speculate?” that Crichton gave in 2002 at the International Leadership Forum, a think tank run by the now-dormant Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. You can google this stuff, of course. Or maybe you know it. Maybe this is all, to borrow from Crichton “some subject you know well.”

Maybe you’re familiar with Crichton too, or more likely you’ve heard his name – a best-selling author; medically trained, but never formally licensed to practice medicine; creator of the TV show ER; writer and director of the movie Westworld (the one with Yul Brenner); and author of many novels including Jurassic Park, The Andromedia Strain, Disclosure, and State of Fear. After the publication of Disclosure, Crichton was accused of being anti-feminist; after the publication of State of Fear, he sealed his status as one of the leading skeptics of global climate change.

And this is all part of the message of that talk in which he argues for the existence of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Journalism, Crichton contends, is almost entirely speculation. Sunday talk shows, speculation. Global climate change, speculation. “False fears.” Crichton blames the end of fact-checking on the praise for Susan Faludi’s feminist book Backlash. He blames academia, particularly post-modernism: “most areas of intellectual life have discovered the virtues of speculation. In academia, speculation is usually dignified as theory.”

This was 2002 – Crichton doesn’t blame the Internet. He doesn’t blame the Web. He doesn’t blame Facebook. He blames MSNBC. He blames The New York Times.

2002 – A year before Judith Miller’s now discredited reporting on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq appeared in that very newspaper.

In the past 15 years, I wonder if that the “amnesia effect” has worn off in some troubling rather than liberatory ways. Increasingly we trust very little that the media says. Last year, Gallup found Americans’ trust in the media had dropped to the lowest level in polling history. The media, as Crichton and others contend, is all speculation. “Fake news.”

But it’s not just the media. We face a crisis in all our information institutions – journalism and higher education, in particular. Expertise is now utterly suspect. We mistrust (print) journalists – “the mainstream media,” whatever that means; we mistrust academics; we mistrust scientists.

We still trust some stories sometimes. Importantly, we trust what confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Perhaps we can call this the Michael Crichton Ego Effect. We have designated ourselves as experts-of-sorts whenever we confront the news. We know better than journalists, because of course we do. (This effect applies most readily to men.)

The Internet has made it particularly easy for us to confirm our beliefs and our so-called expertise. Digital technologists (and venture capitalists) promised this would be a good thing for knowledge-building; it appears, instead, to be incredibly destructive. And that’s the challenge for journalism, sure. It’s the challenge for universities. It’s the challenge for democracy.

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Mac emulation in a web page ↦

The Internet Archive is now offering old Mac operating systems and apps, which run in emulation in a web page. The entire Mac emulator runs in JavaScript.

Now people searching for a half-remembered old Mac program may be able to click on a search result, click the start button at the top of the page, and use the program. It’s testament to how powerful today’s computers and software technologies have gotten. This is an important part of history, and now it’s available for everyone to see and use.

[Read on Six Colors.]

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Using WhatsApp as a Private Store for your Documents and Notes

WhatsApp is a perfect messaging app for staying in touch with friends and family. It is super-fast, works on nearly all phones (including desktop computers) and Facebook has no plans to charge WhatsApp users.

You have been using WhatsApp primarily for text messaging and calling but there are a couple of other interesting uses for WhatsApp that will help boost the utility value of this app even further. Other than communicating with the external world, you can also use WhatsApp to:

  1. Capture and save ideas, notes, voice memos, scanned documents and everything else in you own private storage space that is accessible from everywhere.
  2. Quickly transfer web links, documents, screenshots, and other files between your computer and phone without having to sign-up for another service.



The idea is simple. You create a new virtual contact inside WhatsApp and, everything that you wish to capture privately, you can just share it with this virtual contact.

It is not possible to send WhatsApp messages to your own number but there’s a simple hack to get around this problem. Create a new WhatsApp group with just a single participant – you. Here’s how:

  1. Open WhatsApp on your phone and create a new group.
  2. Add any contact from your address book to this group. Give your group a name and save.
  3. Now go to the group in WhatsApp, tap the subject to view the list of participants.
  4. Tap and hold the lone participant in this list and remove them from the group.

That’s it. What you now have a private store in WhatsApp that is visible only to you and accessible from the web (desktop) and your mobile phone.

If you wish to transfer a document from computer to phone, open web.whatsapp.com on the computer, send the file to this group and it will instantly become available on your phone. There’s search built-in so you can easily find messages by keyword later.

Thank you Sidin Vadukut (blog, books, twitter) for this useful tip.

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DIAGRAM Center Provides Guidance on Accessible Images

April 11, 2017


DIAGRAM Center Provides Guidance on Accessible Images

Here at ProfHacker we’ve written several posts over the years about accessibility of digital resources for all people, including people with disabilities. Right now, my campus is engaged in a 3-year plan to get all of our digital pedagogical resources to adhere to federal regulations regarding accessibility. One issue that has been the subject of many conversations is the use of images and how best to make them accessible while still fulfilling their function in teaching.

I’m a big fan of WebAIM’s user-friendly explanation of using alternative text with images. However, while searching online for additional information or examples related to this topic, I came across a new-to-me resource: the DIAGRAM Center website, an initiative of the non-profit Benetech and other partners. The DIAGRAM (Digital Image and Graphic Resources for Accessible Materials) Center site has a number of substantial sections:

  • Making Images Accessible: “[R]esources developed by the DIAGRAM Center to help content creators provide image descriptions.”

  • 3D Printing, Tactiles and Haptics: “New technologies for creating tactiles and tactile experiences [to convey] spatial information”

  • Accessible Math: “[M]ultiple ways for students to interact with math content, including equations, graphs, and other notation.”

  • Born Accessible Publishing: “[R]esources to help publishers and the myriad of other new, digital content creators understand the basics of how to make content born accessible”

  • Research projects: Descriptions of several different DIAGRAM Center research projects with links to examples, demos, and further information.

I strongly recommend the information and tools available in the “Making Images Accessible” section of the site if you’re want to better understand how to make accessible the images you use in your teaching (and / or share electronically with your students). In particular, the “Poet image description tool” can walk you through a series of questions to help you determine what you need to do to make a particular image accessible, and it can — so they say — facilitate crowd sourcing the description of images. And if you’re looking for detailed guidelines about a variety of different kinds of images — Venn diagrams, flow charts, bar graphs, scatter plots, maps, etc. — then you’ll want to consult these “Image Description Guidelines.”

All in all, this site is a very impressive project.

How about you? What are your favorite resources that help you make your materials accessible? Please share in the comments.

[“bokeh” by katinalynn is licensed under CC BY]

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The Role Of The University In Our World

I had come across Your College Degree is Worthless as part of my regular monitoring of the API space, which is a story I see regularly from the startup community, partly due to my relative position to my partner in crime Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) and her Hack Education work. It is a story startup like to tell when they are selling technology fueled solutions they see as a replacement to the college degree, in this case, the author is developing a startup based on selling apprenticeships with other startups. I’m linking to the story and startup not because I support them, but because it provides a great example of the corrosive effects that startup culture has become.

Shortly after reading this story I went to Oxford in the UK to speak with the Oxford Dictionaries API, and while in Oxford I walked around several of the schools there. While experiencing Christ Church and Magdalen colleges this story came to mind, and I spent time thinking deeply of the hubris and delusion of tech culture. Imagine believing that an internship at a startup is more valuable than a college degree and that higher educational institutions should be dismantled and replaced with startup culture–we have created quite a magical echo chamber.

I get it, you think the startup experience is amazing, and everyone should do it. You see academia as an exclusive group. A party maybe you were never fully invited to. Also, you smell opportunity, selling folks what you see as an alternative. But, you are missing so much. How can an apprenticeship at a startup every replace studying literature at a university, and immersing yourself in, well, learning? What a hollow, empty world to live in where running a business would ever replace literature, philosophy, art, and other meaningful aspects of being human.

While in the UK I had the pleasure of taking my 16-year-old daughter with me, and I took her with me to Oxford that day. It isn’t a school she’d be applying to, but we also visited Edinburgh University on the trip, which might actually make it on her list of schools she’ll be applying to in a year or so. I think about the experience my daughter would have at startups vs the experience she would have in a university environment. I want my daughter to be successful, but this doesn’t just mean making money, it also involves be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted in her life. Something that a university environment would contribute to, but I shudder to think about in the volatile, male-dominated, "meritocracy" of startup culture.

I do not have a university degree. Hell, I do not even have a high school diploma. I have no allegiance to any academic institution, but I completely respect what they do, and refuse to take for granted what they have done for our world. Sure, higher educational institutions have their problems, but so does startup culture. It troubles me that so many would be willing to support the concept of a university degree being worthless, willfully dismissing what a university degree has done for so many on the planet. It leaves me seeing startup culture as some sort of virus being unleashed on almost every sector of our society today.

I know. I know. Not all startups. Yes. Just like not all men. Just like not all white men. But have you ever taken the time to actually step back from your startup aspirations, let the effects of the kool-aid fade, and thought about life beyond technology and making money? There are so many other aspects of life that make it worth living, something that universities have played a significant role in. Maybe we could spend more time thinking about the positive role startups should play, and not the dismantling of good things, simply so you can profit frsellinging their replacement.

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Towards Open: Counter (Data) Surveillance

I had an amazing two weeks in the UK and Ireland, and this post is one of many that will try t0 chronicle and make sense of my time. I am not necessarily going chronologically. Rather, I will be picking several vignettes of my experience to try and capture my time there because the idea of a comprehensive wrap-up post is way too daunting. I’m still processing all the goodness, but I do now know how happy I am to be working in the European context these days. My trip to Cork and Galway (more on that in future posts) as well as OER17 in London (a workshop from which will be the basis for this post) made me really appreciate the European* ed-tech community.† There’s a lot of excitement here about what’s possible in the wake of the MOOC-inspired VC bubble, and the fact that most of the money has dried up means the conversations are not being driven by start-ups and vendors, or grantors and foundations, but rather the people who still have real skin in the game. OER17 reminded me of a couple of my favorite conferences over the years, namely Northern Voice 2007 and OpenEd 2009—and that’s no faint praise.  There was some seriously good energy, and I think that is evidenced by the growing number of posts from those attending. I have a few posts to add to that growing list, so let’s get on with it.

Running a good workshop is an art form.  I know simply because I failed at it so many times. So, my first post on OER17 will be to give major kudos to Kate Green, Christian Friedrich, and Markus Deimann on their workshop “Towards Openness – Safety in Open Online Learning?” The approach was simple and effective: they showed four short provocations about the state of security and online learning, and asked the participants to break up into groups of four or five and try and design a response. The response should be an intervention of some kind that can be applied directly (or that’s how I remember the charge, I may be wrong). You can see the design of the workshop as well as all four videos at the Towards Openness site, but the one that sparked the discussion that led to our groups intervention was Chris Gilliard’s video framing “surveillance capitalism”:

The provocation frames educational technology as a means of surveillance and appropriation of personal data as part of the inexorable appetite of late capital. Our challenge was to think about how can we counteract the fact that just about everything we do online is collected, monetized, and sold by various actors. I have to come clean and say our group was pretty stacked: Rob Farrow recorded one of the four provocations (he was our ringer!), Brian Lamb invented the internet, Bryan Mathers illustrated it, which leaves me—the only real weak link. That said, our group also had its obvious limitations given it was fairly homogenous when it came to gender, race, and class.

Once we got started, we discussed possible ways of allowing individuals to visualize what personal data sites and services had access to and were collecting. I showed off the prototype above that Tom Woodward created while we were in Sweden in February. The idea there being what would it look like if you could easily see and control the information various apps could access. This led to a conversation about a personal data dashbaord of sorts where you could explore what providing access to certain data (or not) would cost you.  For example, if you do choose to prevent Twitter or Google from tracking your location, what do you give up?  In many ways, the dashboard would be a space where you could make informed decisions about what you decide to share.  We noted that something like this would have to be run by a third-party independent of the major social media silos in order to ensure that when Facebook or Google say they have locked down access to your information, that can be independently verified. As Brian Lamb noted, we are relying on these companies good word, which is not necessarily comforting nor much of a social contract.

From there the question of algorithmic citizenship came up, which visualizes how much information we get and share online is effectively nationalized. Which led to discussions about how we can be understand how privacy works through accessing similar searches and information about us online through various IP address around the world using VPNs and IP proxies. This would be one way to start demonstrating the way our realities are always contextualized by where we are and what we are looking for. What emerged was the idea of this imagined dashboard acting like a personalized “data score” in which the individual can monitor, tweak, and take back some control over their personal data online. This could be a browser or a service, and ultimately it would revolve around regular notifications detailing what services are accessing your personal information, and how it’s being used. Rob Farrow nailed it when he noted the only way to challenge surveillance is through counter-surveillance, hence the “Counter (Data) Surveillance Dashboard” visualized by the seemingly endless genius of Bryan Mathers:

It was a fun group that was set off on a fun mission thanks to an awesome workshop. This is just one example of the many amazing moments I had at OER17. I’ll try and chronicle as many as possible, but I will be recycling this one into my talk in New Zealand next month because I feel like it is completely inline with re-thinking how we manage our online lives. Below is a video wherein we all frame the project, it’s probably much more cogent and succinct than this blog post.  But a blogger gotta blog.

†Although, to be fair, OER17 was quite international, the conference had folks from all over the world: Australia, Egypt, Uruguay, Mexico, Canada, and the US—and those are just the sessions I went to.

*For the sake of this post, as well as the fine people who attended OER17 from the England, Wales, and Scotland, the UK is still part of Europe. Update: I’m just gonna leave Josie Fraser’s corrective to my ignorance here:

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I Don’t Need Permission to be Open

I made the mistake of mentioning I was a bit struck by David Wiley’s recent post “How is Open Pedagogy Different?” on Twitter. I should have gone right to the blog because the tweet onslaught from David and Mike Caulfield was a bit off-putting. What started off as a concern, quickly turned into a one-sided tweetstorm that felt like a DdOS attack on my brain. Also, part of what I couldn’t capture on Twitter was the fact I had just come off a day at the OER17 conference in London. In fact, for almost two weeks I was traveling around the UK and Ireland talking about a variety of work happening with domains. Now, I would agree if someone said my work tends towards open: I try and openly blog much of my work, I try and share resources (mostly human), and teach with an eye towards the open web. So, when I read Wiley’s post I referred to above, I was fairly struck (and not in a good way) by this bit:

Open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions. Or, to operationalize, open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you are using OER.

My simple concern is, when did open become boiled down to a strict set of permissions? Seems to me the conflation of David’s vision of OERs, and a broader communities use of open in less orthodox ways has come to heads—but I’m not sure it needed to. Seems the idea of OERs sat comfortably within open as a broader series of relations and approaches in the field of ed-tech. To be clear, I have no doubt Mike and David can (and have) argued circles around me when it comes to the technicalities of what makes something open, but I do have to wonder about the spirit of such a message. In a moment when fences and lines are being drawn all around the world according to ideologies that other and petty definitions that exclude, why would this seem a good time to start drawing lines around open? Frankly, it seems a bit more like fear mongering. I am not afraid to re-use copyrighted work, in fact I enjoyed it deeply during #ds106, and I have been very clear again and again as to why. I don’t feel like I need permission to intervene with or critique the mediated culture being shoved down my throat. That was one of the pillars (a 106 bullet if you will 🙂 ) of #ds106. I never really thought of ds106 as a subtle struggle for permissions, but an outright attack on the copyright regime. In fact, in the various forms we taught it—all of which where abusing copyrighted material—we never heard a peep about copyright save the occasional YouTube takedown. Which if anything, was a good reminder of how little permission we do have when it comes to remixing our culture. And if we did get an onslaught of takedowns across the various blogs, I would be far more interested in talking about Fair Use with our students as a defense than becoming the arbiter of permissions. Or even worse, retreating to a textbook.

In the end, I am not too concerned if #ds106 is understood as open pedagogy or not, because as soon as it is a choice between awesome and open, I will choose awesome every time. I am not interested in the strict rules that define open; open is not the ends, it is one means amongst many. But, I do wonder at the push to consolidate the definition beyond OERs into Open Educational Practices. Seems to me there is an attempt to define it in order to start controlling it, and that is often related to resources, grants, etc. Again, I’m not all that concerned personally given I have never depended on grants for my work, but many people do—and strict definitions of open could be perceived as threat to new approaches and ideas.

I think the locking down of open is dangerous. I think it draws lines where they need not be, and it reconsolidates power for those who define it. More than that, the power around open has been pretty focused on a few people for too long, and I count myself amongst them. More and more on this trip in conversations with others, I think we as a field need to do a better job of bringing the next generation of ed-tech folks to the fore, stepping back, and letting them frame what’s next. Even this post shows my harkening back to work I did 6 years ago, I don’t want to have a corner on open or ed-tech, I want something that gets me excited and passionate. OER17 certainly did that, and I crave more. What I see as hardline definitions of what is and is not OER or open need not police the discussion. I would hate for an edict about what is and is not open pedagogy to get in the way of people “coloring outside the lines” of the 5Rs, to appropriate Brian Lamb’s gorgeous turn of phrase from one of this 3 tweets in response to the avalanche.

Now, this may mean we have to move away from the term open because it has effectively been trademarked, and if that’s the case I am fine with that. EDUPUNK was long overdue for a resurgence 🙂

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A WordPress Authoring Continuum

Image from page 60 of “Birds of La Plata” (1920) flickr photo by Internet Archive Book Images shared with no copyright restriction (Flickr Commons)

I often feel much of my life has been spent arguing against binary judgements related to technology.1 I’d like to have neater boundaries and simpler discussions but they always seem to get in the way of what I perceive as reality.

I’ve certainly tried to articulate options for content in creation in WordPress before. I tried really hard to have a nice list here that would move you from full-constrained incrementally towards the normal backend editor but the lines kept blurring on me so . . . you get what we have here today . . . which is a failure to delineate, crisply.2

The idea that WordPress authoring is super-easy or needlessly complex is one of those arguments I have repeatedly.

I believe, with varying degrees of effort/skills, WordPress authoring is simply what you want it to be.

It can be tightly constrained, without even the need for an account or even a visit to the backend of WordPress. It can also be fully open with all the options and complexities you could want. They’re both choices with a fair amount of room in the middle for variations. I’ve found a few plugins and/or design patterns that support these choices fairly well.

The Most Structure (fewest options)

Why pursue this?

  • you want very standardized template-driven content3
  • you want author technology support to be minimal/non-existent

I’ve got a few examples of when form-to-posts has worked for us. In this case, I can move from simpler to more complex.

  • BNFO 300 Documents – Biology Course – Simply allowing students to submit documents of various types as an embed so they can comment on them using WP’s comment feature. Really simple but effective enough to bring the faculty member back.
  • Student Sociology Article Submissions – Sociology Course – A very, very early model for this kind of thing.
  • Gestalt Theory – Art Course – a more visually focused model
  • Bicycle Safety Survey – Urban Planning Course – This was a phone focused form to allow for GPS plotted map entries regarding bike safety. It fills in some hidden form fields with GPS data as part of the process. The GPS data is held in a custom field.
  • Dichotomous Key – Biology Course – This is a visually driven form that fills in form fields via URL parameters. If you bounce through the leaf choices,
    you’ll end up at a page to submit your image. Look at that URL and you’ll see a bunch of stuff in the URL based on what you selected. This is, again, an early model but it does show that you can create some neat experiences for users that structure things but that also feel pleasant.
  • Text Sets – EDUC Course – the goal here was to allow students to create units with a very particular structure and then populate those units with particular books (again with a very particular structure). I made this in the early days when I was still fighting programing so it’s pure Gravity Forms and a bit awkward. It does show high levels of structure being possible although we left some holes and you can see that people found ways to do other things or not do things. There’s a mixture of custom fields, tags, and categories driving this.

Lately, I’ve also gone with some front-end editor options. These enable degrees of constraint (you can require elements, set default categories etc) but you can go a bit farther than with Gravity Forms and enable the full WordPress editor options on the front end. You can set these to require a user to be logged in or allow anyone to submit.

I’ve used USP Pro and the Buddypress User Blog. Both enable front-end editing and have options to restrict what people can do. The words used to describe plugins like this are kind of messy though which makes finding and comparing them somewhat difficult. In the scenarios I’ve used these plugins, we wanted to keep users on the front-end and add some minimal restrictions on the metadata/category side of things but give them full access to building multimedia posts (multiple images/videos, WYSIWYG editor etc.).

Gravity Forms

I’ve talked lots of times about using Gravity Forms4 to create posts. With post body content templates you can make this as structured as you want. Every option could be from a dropdown, checkbox, or radio button. Those elements can be woven together to create a single structured post or different elements broken out as categories, tags, or custom fields . . . or you could use the form to do all of that.

I tend to recommend the Gravity Forms route because it’s the easiest path I’ve seen for people who might not have technical skills or technical support and the plugin is handy for lots of things outside the form-to-post pattern. Gravity Forms also keeps things on the front end and you can enable WYSIWYG editing. I have not enabled a fully functional WP editor with file uploads5 in this scenario nor have I seen it done. I’m sure it’s possible but it’s not plug and play.


I’m becoming more of a fan of this option but it’s still a new plugin for me and one of the rare paid plugins I use.6 I can pretty much do anything I could do in the Gravity-Forms-to-post model (except conditional logic and some of the more form dependent elements) but it lets me offer the full editor/file upload interface.

Custom Post Types

Another fairly major option for changing how people create content in WP is creating custom post types and associated custom metadata.

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Homeless? Starving? Cheer up! These Great Depression billboards told poor Americans how lucky they were



African-Americans displaced by the Great Ohio River Flood line up at a relief station in Louisville, Kentucky.

Image: Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In January 1937, while covering the disastrous flooding of the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky for LIFE Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White captured an image that quickly became famous and eventually rose to become an icon of the Great Depression.

The photo features a simple but sharply ironic juxtaposition: African-American flood victims line up for relief below a billboard with a beaming white family proclaiming WORLD’S HIGHEST STANDARD OF LIVING. Read more…

More about Great Depression, Propaganda, Advertising, History, and Retronaut

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