on open ed 2007

I’m not going to write up a summary or wrap-up of the conference. Others have done that better, and faster, than I. But I do just want to throw some thoughts out there on my Open Ed experience.

First, it was an amazing conference. There aren’t many events that bring together such a vastly diverse group of people – from widely different technical, cultural, geographical and economic backgrounds. Many of the conferences I have been to have felt largely homogeneous. A strong feeling of “sameness” that, while comforting on one level, is diametrically opposed to the real value of these conferences. What a conference can add, above a similarly structured online event, is the serendipitous exposure to people, ideas, philosophies, strategies, and techniques that one wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with. A cosmopolitan conference adds so much more value than one that is simply bringing together like-minded individuals. The irony is, this small conference in rural Utah felt more cosmopolitan than some large conferences I’ve attended in major urban centres.

Open Ed was a conference where I didn’t really know what to expect. All I knew was that it was organized by David Wiley and his C()SL krëw, and that Brian has raved about each of the previous iterations of the event. That’s all I need to make me want to check it out. I’ve been trying to get my head into the open content/education movement, and figured this was the best way to make it real for myself. Boy, did I underestimate that.

One of the reasons I was rather incoherent and rambling during our Open Ed presentation was that the event was affecting me deeply, and I was actively working through the process of internalizing and understanding some of the ideas that had been brought forth prior to our session (note: I’m really not meaning to sound like I’m using the Royal We – Jim was my compadre for the presentation so it was very much a “we” kind of thing).

What was so striking, that it caused me to shift the topic of my presentation in mid session? I’m still not sure it’s clear – I’ve been chewing on it for a few days now, and still don’t think I can put it into words. It’s likely going to take me quite awhile to make some sense of what happened. Some of the concepts include:

  • open education is about sharing freely, in every sense. a truly free sharing experience values and honours all participants (not just professor/teacher/expert), is conversational and iterative, and is recontextualizable without friction.
  • for open education to be successful, we must have both open content and effective open communication.
  • for open content to be truly successful, we must stop wasting resources (time, energy, money) in creating infinite versions of essentially the same content. it is not acceptable to build a new piece of content simply because you aren’t aware of the existence of already available content, or because you simply want to change a small portion of that available content (“that’s great, but I don’t like this diagram” or “good, except for chapter 3. can’t use that. so let’s build our own” – or worse “let’s build it so we can charge $50 to let people access it.”). Use what’s there. Build upon it. Extend it, refine it, and share your derivations.
  • if we’re actively working on building content that will be locked behind logins, we’re actively working against open education.
  • there is a strong need to raise awareness that “business models” and sustainability can’t be tied to restricting access to content. if the only way an organization can raise money is to act as a gatekeeper to its content, they have no value and are irrelevant or dead (but likely don’t or won’t know it for some time)
  • open content is not the same as open source, as it relates to source code. content needs to be much more remixable – software, while mixable to some extent – is largely self contained. content needs to be able to be reused at a very small level of granularity – a paragraph here, an image there – and the resulting derivative/aggregate work needs to be available for similar remixing by others. what does this mean for copyright? copyleft and viral licenses are not compatible with this type of remixing.
  • I’m still struggling with the suggestion that open content and open education are “moral imperatives” – I think in many cases that much of the content that we have now could easily be deleted without causing any ill effects. Is there a moral imperative to ensure that all content, no matter how self-congratulatory and crappily written, be made freely available for use by all?
  • on the “conceit and arrogance of originality” – I’ve certainly been guilty of this with respect to software development. Sure, other tools are available, but it’d just be better if I wrote my own from scratch. I’ve also been involved with countless content development projects with the same perspective. Resources allocated, perhaps wasted, building new content because existing content wasn’t “perfect”. Wasteful. Arrogant. Conceited. Much better to take those resources and allocate them to refining existing content.
  • unless you’re actively thinking about, and planning for, sustainability, you’re wasting your time. (meaning, if you aren’t planning on how to keep a project alive, any effort put into the project will be wasted when the project eventually withers and dies)

As I said, I’m still struggling through these ideas. There are voices bouncing around in my head, and I’m trying to make sense of the story they are telling.

All I do know is that Open Ed 2007 has left me changed. My perspective is different now than it was last week. I have a rough idea of what I need to do, in order to affect meaningful change at my own institution, if that’s possible.

Oh, there was one thing to add to a conference recap. While the people were amazing, the presentations mostly profound and deep, and the conversations life-changing, the conference food sucked on all accounts. What was that slurry served in glasses during Friday’s lunch? At a conference with attendees quite literally from around the globe, not a single person could identify it. And it was nasty. Next year, maybe hire Quizno’s to cater?

Finally, I’ve been working through Susan Sontag On Photography, and some of the concepts she lays out in her series of essays have relevance here as well. The arrogance and aggression that can be implicit in the act of photography can also be found in the process of creating content (open or otherwise). Mindblowing stuff that is also changing how I think about many things.

Out of Print: session recap

Our Out of Print session went off pretty well (I think) this morning. Jim worked his usual Bavamagic, weaving early American history, WordPress, wikis, and student conversations into a pretty cool demo. Then, I showed some of the OpenContentDIY resource site, and rambled unexplicably for about 25 minutes. From what I remember, I either sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown, or somehow managed to touch on empowerment of students, open content and reuse as a moral imperative, communities (both in content and open source).

Some of the points that I was surprised to hear myself talking about were:

  • “flavours” of interaction imposed by various tools
  • although tools are relatively unimportant, the philosophies embodied within them subtly (and not so subtly) alters the nature of discourse
  • we need to honour and value the contributions of all participants – students add value to the conversation, so why should we lock their contributions behind a walled garden? Raving about John Willinsky’s “go public!” throwaway comment from Northern Voice 2007.
  • baby stepping from closed content, through walled gardens, and into the open. important to evangelize the importance of Going Public.
  • LOTS of great alternatives for tools (wordpress, openocw, drupal, etc…) – it’s more important to choose to be open, connected and social, than to worry about which tool(s) you use.
  • individual ownership of blogs is essential to meaningful conversations. Community/communal blog services lack individual “voice” in blogs – as opposed to more individual-focussed services like WordPress µ
  • likely a bunch of other stuff that’s blurry at the moment. hope it wasn’t blurry for the attendees…

During the presentation, Jim and I went off on some tangents that weren’t in the original plan. It felt like the tangents were much more important and interesting than the simple tech demo that was originally planned. I hope that’s what the attendees got. It was a bit strange for me – my thinking on the topic of Open Education and open content was shifting while I was talking. As I was speaking about this stuff, I could feel the thoughts coming together in my head. Thanks for the venue to cause that to happen!

After the presentation, I had the chance to talk with someone from Turkey (sorry! I’ve forgotten your name!) about the WordPress.com blockade in Turkey. I suggested she get in touch with Matt to see if there’s anything they can do together to move the blogs within Turkey’s borders so they can keep their communities going.

I also talked with Fred Mednick from Teachers without Borders. He’s looking for some help setting up some projects in Drupal – some pretty cool stuff that should help Make a Difference. If anyone can help Fred with some Drupal configuration and pimping-out, please let me/him know.

On content as infrastructure

Kananaskis - June 17 - 12David suggested in his opening comments yesterday that “content is infrastructure.” He was (I think) meaning to imply that content is an enabling platform, and that if a robust library of open content is available, that individuals and groups will be able to build new things from that library. Things that can’t be predicted by the librarians and publishers. Things that are evolutionary and revolutionary. I completely agree that having freely available and reusable content is an extremely important factor in promoting education and community programs, especially in regions without the resources to build all content from scratch.

But, the “content as infrastructure” analogy doesn’t sit well with me. Infrastructure is stuff like electricity, plumbing, roads and communication networks. Infrastructure’s value is that you don’t have to think about it – it’s Just There™, and is “always on”. You flick a switch, and don’t need or want to think about the electrical infrastructure that heats up the filament in the bulb. You flush the john, and don’t need or want to think about the water supply and sewage infrastructure. Hopefully, you won’t have to.

But – content is one thing that you need to think about. It can’t be pushed so far down the stack that it becomes a mindless and invisible component, akin to electricity. Content needs to be mindful, contextual, active, and interactive. It’s not just a series of bits to be transported via TCP/IP (which could be considered infrastructure) – it’s the context for a conversation.

Arrived in Logan

The Edtech krëw just wrapped up an epic day of travel to make the pilgrimage to Logan, Utah for the Open Education 2007 conference. So far, Utah’s been interesting. The people are all very nice, and the scenery is great. Unfortunately, most of the scenery we had the chance to actually spend time enjoying was the inside of SLC, and the almost-dark-moonlit-mountains on the drive north to Logan. The Good Reverend was decidedly quiet, and Scott was gracious enough to drag our freeloading carcasses along in his gigantor rented van. I tried to talk him into renting a Hummer, but nooooo, he got all “dude, that’s just wrong” on me. Whatever, dude. What’s the environment ever done for me? Let’s ride in STYLE! Yeah. Whatever. He didn’t go for it either.

I did manage to get a good shot of the mysterious Reverend Jim, while waiting for El Guapo in the SLC rental car terminal. It’s a long exposure, so he’s a bit hard to see. The Ghost of The Good Reverend is in there somewhere…

SLC - 3

Upgraded to WordPress 2.3

Seems to have worked, so far. The “Similar Posts” plugin borked, so I had to disable that. Everything else Just Seems To Work™.

So, what’s the difference between Categories and Tags now? I used to use Categories as tags. Are they both interfaces to the same table in the database? One way to find out…

Update: oh. they’re separate things. well, that’s silly. so, now all of my old /tag/tagname links that used to point to category pages now point to empty “tag” pages because none of my posts have actual tags. That’ll be fun to clean up…

Update 2: wasn’t so bad. just went into the permalink settings and had “tags” point to /tags and left my “categories” pointing at /tag. Not exactly what they had in mind, but whatever.

On online video quality

I’m preparing a series of screencasts as part of the session at the Open Education 2007 Conference (with my co-conspirator, Rev. Jim Groom). We’re doing a two-fold presentation.

  1. Creation of an open education resource on early American history.
  2. Documentation of  the processes used to build said resource, using freely available applications and services.

We gave ourselves a very simple constraint. Use only tools that don’t require access to a server, and don’t require any money. The idea being that we would be able to come up with a process that didn’t require a great deal of technical skillz, and wouldn’t require a budget to implement.

So, as part of the Documentation of Processes effort, I did a basic screencast to introduce the 3 people on the planet who don’t use WordPress to the WordPress.com interface – how to create a blog, how to create content, etc…

The screencast looks pretty darned good in the original QuickTime H.264 file. Glorious, even. I can read the scaled-down text on the web page. Exactly what I need.

But, WordPress.com won’t let me embed a .mov file, as it dutifully strips out the object/embed element if I add it. Doh. OK. Plan B. I’ll chuck it up to DivShare.com. Oh, wait. There’s still the object/embed problem, because DivShare doesn’t have a “Post to WordPress” button (it does allow posting to Facebook and del.icio.us, though…)

Plan C. Google Video. Transcoding to Flash Video. It worked, but man does Google Video (or probably more appropriately does Flash Video) ever suck the shiny out of a video. It looks like it was downsized to 320×240 and then upsized for display. Remember the video in the original Quake? Or maybe Doom? Yeah. It’s like that. Big blocky pixels. Muddy. Blurry.

But, WordPress.com will let me embed it, so that’s the version of the file that I’ll use.

The original, QuickTime video encoded in standard H.264: (original file: 10.34 MB .mov)

OpenContentDIY WordPress UI Screencast, QuickTime H.264

The fracktastic, muddy, blurry mess that got spewed out of Google Video: (transcoded file: 17.1 MB .flv)

OpenContentDIY WordPress UI Screencast, Google Video spewage

I could live with the dramatic drop in size and quality, if the file were dramatically smaller. But it’s almost 70% BIGGER than the original file! WTF? Oh, well. At least it’s embeddable…

On autism and vaccinations

My entire extended family reminds me to watch Oprah every time the “autism special” episode is replayed, which seems to be about once every 2 weeks or so.

I don’t watch Oprah, but I did tune into this episode yesterday, thanks to the wonders of time-shifting digital TV.

What a load of shyte. Complete and utter mindless hogwash. Some hottie gets up to talk with O, claiming that “when little Billy got his vaccination, I could SEE it suck the soul out of his eyes! HIS SOUL!” (or something similar).

She’s claiming that the vaccinations, which every child in North America receives, caused her son to “turn autistic”. She just knows, because she’s a mother. Billy got the regular vaccinations, and all of a sudden he’s autistic. There’s a connection! Vaccinations caused it! She warned the evil vaccination doctors, but they didn’t listen to her because they were evil and mean and made her feel stupid. Sorry, hot autism mom, but there just might be a reason you felt like that.

Her other point was that vaccinations shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” thing, because all children are different. Fine. Kids are different. But the vaccine isn’t really about the KIDS, it’s about the bacteria and virii, and they are pretty much the same, no matter what your kid is like.

Timing of vaccinations very well MIGHT be correlated with the onset of symptoms of autism. At about 6/12/18/24 months, the symptoms become more noticeable. But, it is just as valid to say that onset of autism is positively correlated with interest in The Teletubbies, or Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Tank Engine. Or with switching from 15-pound diapers to 20-pound diapers. Or with  cessation of breastfeeding or formula in bottles. Maybe it’s the mashed peas that’s causing it!

Correlation does not equal causation. This needs to be taught to every person, starting in kindergarten, and repeated every single year through their post-doc program.

Evan has had all of his vaccinations. Do I think that has something to do with the autism? I don’t know. I don’t THINK it does – but I don’t have any data, so can’t say any way. Am I about to go on Oprah’s show to talk about something like this, when I have no information? Not likely. (But, Oprah, if you feel like bringing the family out to The Magnificent Golden Mile for a couple of days so we can talk, that’d be ok too).

I’m not saying that vaccinations can’t affect the onset of autism. I don’t have any data on that. I do know that the prevalence of autism is skyrocketing, from 1 in 2000 a decade or two ago, to about 1 in 150 currently. Obviously, something is going on.

But, it could JUST as easily be exposure to plastics, or offgassing electronic equipment, or changes in the frequency of specific genes in the population, or lead paints in Chinese-manufactured toys, or some other factor than something wrong with vaccinations.

Update: April 7, 2009 – I’m closing comments on this post because the mindless drivel of the antivaccinationist “poet” got too tiresome. It’s just not funny anymore.

FlickrMeets and Community

I attended my second Calgary FlickrMeet last night. A bunch of Calgary Flickr members met downtown to hang out, shoot some photos and talk about stuff. Picture a bunch of photo geeks walking around taking a bunch of photos of everything, from every angle :-)

calgary flickrverse

It was fun to see many of my Flickr contacts in person – much like Northern Voice is great because it’s a vivification of my blogroll, FlickrMeets are fun because they are Flickr in the flesh. The event itself was organized online through Flickr. It’s a little ironic, but the main reason to go to the FlickrMeet isn’t to take photographs, but to breathe life into the online Flickr community. While a fair amount of interaction occurs online, it is face-to-face events like this that make the community “real”.

I believe this applies to online learning as well. A fully online experience lacks the “realness” that is added by face-to-face interaction. As an example, I am working through David Wiley’s Intro to Open Education course at Utah State University. He’s offering the course readings and exercises for folks to follow along online without even enrolling in the course. But in this case, it’s a completely online and impersonal experience. I happen to know several of the participants, so I definitely feel some connection, but for someone who is enrolling in the course without bringing along their own network of friends and colleagues, it would be a very abstract and distant experience. I anticipate that the Open Education 2007 conference will act as a face-to-face contextualizing event for me – I’ll finally get to meet David Wiley in person (after communicating with him online for about 7 years now), as well as a few other “classmates.”

Back to the FlickrMeet – it was a great mixture of interests and skill levels. Every level of photographer, from professional (with high end gear), to amateur (with modest gear) to newcomer (learning to use their gear). It was great to learn from the pros, while helping out the newcomers with some of the tricky things like aperture settings (why does a higher aperture number mean LESS light gets in? etc…) The cool thing is that all egos were left at home, and it felt much like a social learning party. The way education should be.

I wound up shooting 240 photos, keeping only 37 of them. I shot with three lenses, starting with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, moving to a 17-35mm f/2.8 L, then to my 50mm f/1.8 prime as the light faded. Surprisingly, I had more fun with my nifty fifty, and liked the photos it took better than the much “better” and certainly more expensive lenses. Oh, and the new Canon 40D is NICE. Stupid progress. I still love my XT, though.

No, evil advertisers are the elephants in the room.

Darren wrote up a post to discuss the idea that ad blocking software (like the Adblock Firefox extension I’m running right now) are potentially going to kill the current business model of the Web. That advertising would collapse if we all used Adblock and the like, and that free content (which is at least partially compensated for by viewing ads) would degenerate into the noisy crapfest of Geocities.

The point is a good one – we can’t have our cake and eat it too. If we want to get content for free, we should expect to pay something, in terms of viewing ads or something similar.

But the problem isn’t ads, per se. It’s evil advertisers. I use Adblock to kill the “punch the monkey in the nuts and win a free iPod” and “viagra makes you so huge that she’ll love you long time!” annoying/evil ads. I have no problem with tasteful, creative, even thoughtful ads. But the “You have an error! Click here!” vibrating fake-Windows-error-dialog bullshit has got to go.

That’s where Adblock comes in. If advertisers want to maintain relevance, at least to myself, they need to abandon the annoying flashing animated banner ads, and, oh, I don’t know… be creative? tasteful? interesting? relevant? funny? etc…

Disclaimer: I do run Adsense ads on this blog, but they should only be visible on old content, and only by people referred to the site by Google. Basically, if you are a regular, you shouldn’t see ads (if you do, there’s a bug in the system – let me know, and I’ll try to fix it).