Eduglu Revisited: The Syndication Bus 2012

It’s been more than a year since I’ve really thought, no less written about, the syndication bus as it relates to ds106. For any of you who might be new to the idea of the syndication bus, it’s an approach to syndicating posts from various blogs or other social media sites into a space that can be filtered by tags or categories in order to help manage the flow of data so that it can be discovered, explored, and aggregated into a space that helps build community. On and off over the past 5 years I—as well as many others for much longer—have been obsessed with the idea of designing such a space. In many ways it’s the philosophy that undergirds the design logic that made UMW Blogs a syndication rich platform for aggregating course sites, study abroad blogs, clubs and organization sites, etc.

So, it’s interesting that George Kroner should tweet earlier today that a post back in 2007 contained a lot of interesting conversation about the idea of the syndication bus that really didn’t really mature until the last year—-which is something I hadn’t thought too hard about until he tweeted it. Fact is, if I can step outside of the black hole of time, energy, and love that is ds106 for a moment and think about something else professionally, anything else in fact, it would be apparent that we have started to approximate this syndication bus pretty effectively, cheaply, and easily for most folks who can install a vanilla WordPress blog—-which is pretty amazing when you think about it. As a technical framework ds106 is an impressive and fairly simple approach to enacting eduglu quite apart from any idea of a particular cult class. It really can be broken down into three simple elements at the moment—-with a fourth coming soon:

1) FeedWordPress to Syndicate in 500+ blogs to the main site (the automation of feed aggregation still needs to be perfected to save time and energy).

2) Martha Burtis’s work to create an Assignment repository (much of it done with Gravity Forms as opposed to Google Docs in the old method).

3) Tim Owens’s The Daily Create site is cobbled together with freely available plugins, and documented here.

4) And still to be built is the remix engine that will frame a fourth space wherein students from the various classes participating in ds106 can remix each others work. More on this in another post.

If you go back to the post that George Kroner mentions above you’ll realize that a comment by Brian Lamb quoting George Siemens is the genesis of this syndication bus talk that the above elements are all in some way a reflection of:

…schools should be in the business of managing data flows rather than in supporting an end to end user experience. We can only dream what might result if the energy going into the campus-wide LMS’s would go into creating flexible and easy to use “syndication buses” or to addressing pragmatic instructor challenges to using the “small pieces” approach — things like student management tools, gradebooks etc. And what about providing the service of institutional archiving and data backups to mitigate the risks of using third party tools?

This remains, to this date, the tightest and clearest expression of what I have been working towards for the last five years, a message the Chronicle’s piece on my work really can’t articulate because it pre-dates EDUPUNK or ds106 or anything else that has me directly facing off with the LMS, BlackBoard, or some other easily polarized, relatively facile issue. The syndication bus is anything but a simple “for or against” the LMS argument, rather it’s an entirely different way for universities to imagine information, data, connections, and the teaching and learning enterprise as it interfaces with IT. This to me still remains the model I think we should be working towards, and that’s why it’s a bit discouraging for me to see the conversations turn almost entirely towards the idea of the unbound, institutionally liberated MOOCs that are becoming all the rage as the market is heating up (think Stanford, Khan Academy, Udacity, etc.).

As I note in a comment on George Siemens recent post here, while MOOCs represent a remarkable approach to new ways of imagining learning, they are anything but refined as of yet. And the whole idea of Massive in relation to open, online courses is still deeply problematic as an approach to teaching and learning—it’s far too easy to divorce yourself from the social relations that define the course. Rather than so quickly trying to capitalize on this wave and create the next set of branded, corporate delivery mechanisms for content, seems to me we should instead be working to cultivate and iterate through a truly social, interactive, and peer-to-peer based web premised on syndication, aggregation and open tools that seems to be in danger. They remain a threat to the heart of the open web by undermining the power of social interaction through turnkey, packaged content approaches to online learning that Stephen Downes outlines brilliantly at the end of this post/interview.

I’m all for continued experimentation with open, online courses that work, and the impetus to educate as much of the world as possible through open knowledge is something I absolutely get behind. But the fact is we still have a critical mass at brick and mortar universities and the move to the venture capital, startups for these badge-based universities seems a quick way for a few people to make a lot of money while simultaneously waging war on already underfunded public institutions. What’s more, it would seem to me downright stupid for the vast majority of educators and students to follow a path that is pretty nakedly framing its business model around a wholesale Wal-Marting of higher education through scale and reach, not through quality, interaction, and livable wages. The implications on society run deeper than just a poorly educated population, if that doesn’t cut deep enough. I can’t see how this will end well for the majority of us. If Candace Thille’s idea (not nearly powerful enough to call a vision) for online learning in higher education isn’t deeply horrifying to you in its ability to displace relationships and interaction that define an education experience with a strip mall approach to course design then you just aren’t paying attention. There are no shortage of people who want to gut higher ed in much the same way they have gutted K12—and they are doing a fine job of it, they don’t need our help.

So, what is getting me excited these days is that this vision that has been driving so many of us for the last number of years is taking on a new life here at UMW. We’re in the early planning stages of making these syndication buses—which is exactly what the ds106 site is when you think about it—a reality for “managing data flows” of students and faculty around UMW who will be managing their own data in their own spaces. The idea is to provide everyone with a domain, web hosting and a platform of their own from which they will create their presence, experiment with the tools, and and build on the experience—not unlike what we have done at the course level in ds106. In fact, what we are talking about is a campus wide realization of Gardner Campbell’s Personal Cyberinfrastructre across the university. Tim Owens outlines the idea of A Domain of One’s Own Rebooted, and given we have hundreds, if not thousands, of students and faculty who already use WordPress and manage their own domains on UMW Blogs, this seems the logical next step in further pushing the community to ownership of their digital identity. Fact is, UMW finds itself in a unique position to pull this off. Given the amazing work so many of our faculty do on a regular basis in this regard— it quickly becomes apparent that the infrastructutal, technical, curricular, and teaching chops are all aligned, it is a perfect storm and we are about to imagine the syndication bus on a level that makes the life of the mind of the university that much more present, tangible, discoverable, and preservable.

Who wants to head to a start-up? They don’t have the freedom to innovate in this way? The investment the state make in higher ed in Virginia is so that we can help shape a new model of thinking about teaching and learning in the 21st century that is not first and foremost premised upon profit and making a few people significantly richer than the rest of us, but rather about interrogating the digital culture we find ourselves immersed in so that we can better understand the implications for civilization and humanity more generally. That is why we work where we do. That ethic needs to not only survive, but procreate wildly—we’ve begun thinking theirs is the only way to go about our business when deep down inside we know it’s not.

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9 Responses to Eduglu Revisited: The Syndication Bus 2012

  1. Todd Conaway says:

    Super exciting and I how you folks pull it off. We can use a model and next step after the UMW blog work. Coming closer to developing a student and faculty body that can live and “own themselves” in a digital space in a way that resembles what the web is. Which is a bunch of connections as far as I can tell. What you describe is coming. It is like the very nature of the beast. On the whole we have to move out of the “web is a book” mode of living into one that is more aligned with what it has become. Great opportunity.

    Exciting stuff. Great drive and vision.

    I was told yesterday that our institution has once again shot down placing WP on our servers for faculty. We still have to teach the faculty how to make web pages with Front Page I guess…

    And man, I knew we were on a bus:

  2. Ted Major says:

    Preach it Rev. Jim! As Todd says, what you guys are doing is an inspiring way forward. Sometimes it seems like progress is so slow (as Garnder points out, Licklieder was talking about this kind of stuff 50 years ago!), so it’s refreshing to see someone putting together the tools to “create a situation within which most bright students will automatically learn.”

  3. Reverend says:

    This is such a brilliant and right-on-target observation:

    On the whole we have to move out of the “web is a book” mode of living into one that is more aligned with what it has become. Great opportunity.

    I feel like a lot of what happens in edtech at universities still remediates the “web as book” mentality. I mean the hang-ups with ibooks, textbooks, etc. seems mind bogglingly short sighted, what an simple way to put publishers back into the equation. Fucking amateurs! Your bus rocks, that’s what I want to ride on.

    Thanks Ted, and I think the things move in currents, and I can’t help but think the time for giving people space to manage and control their own learning environments as part of what they do at a university has come. What’s more, think how much richer the university becomes as a result of this practice? Augmentation on a scale even Engelbart could get behind 😉

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