The ds106 99: #3 Innovation in elearning interview

Sharon Gardner, a student at the Open University in the UK, is currently undertaking a Masters in Online and Distance Education. She has been tasked with interviewing an innovator in education as part of the H807 Innovations in elearning module. She sent me this email, and given I am just one of the many innovators in ds106, I figured I would reproduce the interview, and her questions below  (in bold) with my own answers, and then encourage others involved in ds106 to share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions so Sharon can get a much better idea of what ds106 is all about (here is the Google document with the questions sans my answers). Keep in mind all questions may not be relevant to you so just answer the questions you want to, if you want to.

What’s more, this document reminds me of the idea Scottlo had the other night, namely that we should start putting together a short documentary film about the ds106 experience (kinda like Alan’s “Amazing Stories of Openness”). I absolutely love this idea and want to follow up on it very, very soon—it could be fodder for the ds106 99 postathon.

If you are interested take the jump…. 

The aim of this interview is to examine innovation in elearning as exemplified in the
use of internet technology to provide an open online course radio station. Digital
storytelling (ds106) is a formal, credit-bearing course offered to computing science
students at the University of Mary Washington. It’s also a MOOC, a massive open
online course, whereby participation is open to anyone on a distance-basis without
formal accreditation. Much of the course activity takes place online, with each student
setting up their own online space and using various digital media to create and
publish content. [Your name here] is the…

…actually, how would you describe yourself?

Professionally, I am an instructional technology specialist at the University of Mary Washington. I also teach as an adjunct professor at UMW. My job entails working with students and faculty integrating web-based technologies into the fabric of teaching and learning. More generally, I’m pretty annoying to be around because I tend to push on an idea until it breaks. I’m an obsessive, manic personality who is lucky enough to have an awesome family, the world’s most kickass blog, and a job I love.

What are your personal views on innovation in education, what uses of technology do you find innovative and why?

This is a big question, and one that fits my big personality perfectly 🙂 Personally, I think innovation in technology is that space wherein what we thought impossible is made not only possible, but transparent. For me, this is not a sudden discovery, but a constant, collaborative effort to re-imagine the possible. And what is amazing in this moment is this can happen across innumerable domains of one’s life with the social web—and for me that is the coolest and most exciting innovation happening right now—though I think it is more likened to a major cultural shift. Our ideas about education, play, relationships, etc. are collapsing—these domains are blurring—making the possibilities for meaningful, distributed learning possible through real, powerful relationships that are enabled by technology, but not premised on them.

The uses I find most innovative with the actual tools are those uses that re-infuse the technical with the personal, in other words, provide the space for two or more individuals to relate and communicate in new ways—the blogosphere has done this in innumerable brilliant ways for a decade now,  YouTube for more than 5 years (though it has also become a copyright constable more and more), Twitter for the last 3 years, etc. The greatest innovations we are seeing when it comes to technology have not been in the educational sphere—though they may be indirectly related—they are happening on the world wide open internet—and that is where education needs to be if it is serious about innovation. The reason being is all the major innovation in the social web alluded to above come with their own grammar, syntax, and cultural conventions of interaction—-they are the emergent culture of community and communication that characterizes out moment—and they are just a few of the many.

The innovation lies within the latent vernacular of any cultural movement, the trick is not turning that vernacular into a rude vehicle for commercialization and profit—which is very, very hard indeed. In fact, it may frame the dark side of all this rah rah talk about innovation that many, including myself, get caught up in—innovation is often designed very much with a market in mind and its ability to open and truly transform something as fundamental and seemingly self evident as sharing the world’s knowledge is often forced to face the market realities of the world system that we have created which is very much dependent on Capitalism. A truly innovative technology like the web should be able to challenge the hegemony of the market system, and the way so many of the most important innovations ultimately conform to this logic might be a cause for alarm.

How would you characterise success in elearning innovation?

For me what characterizes a good online (or elearning) course, which I think equally applies to a good face-to-face course, is the ability for the course dynamic to come alive. The ability for there to be a shared sense of purpose, excitement, discussion, and play. That last element can’t be emphasized enough—the idea of making a subject interesting, fun, and accessible through good analogies to life and popular culture is not valued nearly enough. In that regard, the challenge for good online courses has not necessarily been the ability to deliver the content—it has been a crisis of being able to manifest personality, interaction, and the spaces in between. The complexities of a group dynamic that is so crucial to how we have conceptualized the class (which is itself being re-thought currently)—the nuances, the inflections, the way we look, our accents, our hair color, our interests, our influences, our general beings—all this and more matters dearly.

I believe the social web allows us to infuse this more and more into online learning—to replace the idea of content and modules with the people behind their ideas. The ability to infuse a course that is entirely online with a sense of purpose through the people that constitute the experience is success—and for far too long we have accepted much less and called it online learning—and some of that was technical, but now there is really no excuse. What’s more, universities should be on the forefront of making this happen in online learning, but I am not so sure they are. You may be at one of the few universities (Open University), and I am not so sure how successful OpenLearn has been, whether it has been too deeply tied to the idea of OERs, which for me is about content not interaction around that content—it is still a laudable pursuit but it is the relations around the content you really want to capture and magnify, but too often we are more concerned with the content for its own sake—-and that seems to be what elearning has already always done, maybe just not as openly—I still don’t think it solves the interaction issue.

How do you get people invested in content? Invested in their own work? Invested in a sense of self in the machine known as the university? Well, through relationships, discussions, challenges, and a general sense of the humanity (or even inhumanity) behind it all. If you can do that in elearning—no matter what the tool—I’d call that success.

All that said, I think online learning needs to be thought of as a different genre from face-to-face teaching at the same time, and this is where I believe I failed my online students this semester—-and will have to work on this in coming iterations. I heard someone recently talk about Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” noting that that song was never truly intended to be performed live, it was very much a piece designed to be listened to on the stereo. And in concert rather than trying to perform the song, they simply played a recording of the song—which at first seems some kind of betrayal. But in fact it was how this song was meant to be heard, it was a situation where the live performance was not necessarily privileged. When hearing that it kinda struck me that is how we should be re-thinking various elements of online courses—what about the web works best “live” and what is best produced remotely in “stereo”—can we differentiate the topography of the web and all its complexity more specifically so that we don’t simply reduce a good online class to the same thing as a good face-to-face class? As of now it seems we have widely adapted the worst of the face-to-face classes—-namely pure content transfer in the form of recorded lectures and pre-defined, cookie-cutter lessons dropped in and distributed by the fluorescent-lighted LMSs—without deeply considering that what needs to be harnessed in this new genre of teaching and learning is the platform itself and the network which makes it vital—-and lastly we need more disco balls in our online classrooms!

Looking at ds106, it is forward-thinking in many respects, including the collaborative course design, the student-generated content and the online, distributed nature of the course. What do you find are some of the challenges involved in innovating in elearning in this way?

ds106 rules. Let me get that out of the way first. Now, why does it rule? Well, it rules because it is a collaborative endeavor through and through. When Martha Burtis, Alan Levine, Tom Woodward, and I had our first, and only, brainstorming meeting in December we came up with some general guidelines, which you can read more about here. What we wanted to do is basically make ds106 as close to an uncourse as we could. Let students submit assignments and encourage them to do the assignments of others. Move away from stifling spaces like Elluminate for classes, and frame some kind of architecture that would work both for online and face-to-face students simultaneously.

We began realizing in that meeting how crucial a network like Twitter would be, and that turned out to be exactly right, Twitter was the glue for this class in so many regards—it wouldn’t have been the same without it in so many ways.  We also discussed building in a game idea for assessment that I really liked, but we couldn’t accomplish it as we conceived it this time around, but I will be reviving this idea over the Summer.

As for challenges, it was a bit overwhelming at first given how much we had to do in so little time, the brainstorming was less than a month before the course actually started. What’s more, the challenge of pretending to read and comment on everything students do seemed frightening. But Alan Levine immediately noted that that is lunacy and at odds with the spirit of the course. ds106 isn’t about any one figure giving everyone feedback, it is about a distributed network of feedback, and you get out of it what you invest in others. And that was key—it took so much of the pressure off.

What’s more, Martha Burtis is a genius when it comes to WordPress design and programming, and she whipped the architecture of the site up in no time. And she has documented that process here, here, and here. Not only that, but Tom Woodward really got the whole class started a month before it started by posting assignments and doing some unbelievably amazing work with animated GIFs. And therein lies the story of how this class started—it happened with the work of many people—a network emerging for a specific event and making it happen together. This class would have been not only a failure without the collaboration, but it really would have been impossible otherwise.

So the challenge is giving up some idea of property and control over the course. Letting others bring their awesome ideas to the table and let them execute them. People are creative and awesome, and if you let them go, they will amaze you. That is what happened in ds106, Martha and I simply asked for help and we got it in droves from some of the very best people in the field, and a whole lot of other people we didn’t really know before we got this whole thing off the ground. So the challenges are letting go—which is very hard—but also bringing your network to bear on a course like this.

And this last point is important, I’ve been blogging for six years now and I have  been on twitter for three (and the same goes for Martha). What’s more, I have been extremely active in both domains—that has a ton to do with how many people got involved and helped out. What so many others would have seen as idle chatter and navel gazing was in fact the single most important thing to getting ds106 get off the ground. So developing a network is both crucial and a major challenge because it takes a lot of hard work, and you have to invest a ton of time in cultivating relationships with people—and even sacrificing a few.

So, for me, the greatest challenges of this class were already conquered by the time we started it cause I have no delusions of ownership of ideas, nor aspirations towards leadership. And I was already part of a very strong, open, and very fun online network that was down with the idea and ready to participate. And they really brought it hard all semester long—it is quite amazing really.

One specific innovation that you have introduced during this current presentation of the course is radio ds106. What is radio ds106?

Here is the official line:

It is a free form live streaming station that has been setup for this course, and it is being used as a platform to broadcast the work being created in the class, and a space for live broadcasts as well as for programming shows. The whole point of this experiment is to encourage any and all members of the course (as well as beyond it) to produce something real for anyone who wants to tune in. It’s also provides a global, 24 hour/7 day-a-week happening for the creations of the course and much, much more. And more than anything, ds106 radio is place where anyone can submit their work and help program the course radio station in order to commune and share around works and ideas while at the same time making the web safe for democracy.

Unofficially, ds106 radio is a community radio station that emerged in week 2 or 3 of the course. It was not at all planned and it proved to be one of the most powerful ways of bringing various online participants into the mix. For me ds106 radio was a way to re-imagine online conversations and communities through the radio genre. It allowed many folks in the class to both perform in this space as well as to share a sense of who they are and the culture they are a part of. For me that was the amazing part of ds106 radio, it introduced a sense of people and their interests, ideas, and passions directly into the course, a kind of mainlining of personalities and tastes—which I think is at the heart of any great course.

Brian Lamb has a really good post about his first impressions of ds106 radio here. Also, Zach Dowell frames how ds106radio is the best kind of professional development you can’t buy for $500. You can read the ds106 radio about page which gets at some of the particular details behind the experiment—but it really is a protean beast that is still finding its identity (which I think should be an ongoing condition). It has unleashed so many cool possibilities on the class it has almost been overwhelming. There has been a cadre of community members in ds106radio that aren’t necessarily taking the course at all—which I love—and it has become a community within the community, and in many ways has its own identity and I’m pretty sure will far outlive any time bounded idea of the course. I can say a lot more, and will if requested, but I am hoping others in the ds106 radio community read this and add their thoughts and ideas, because they are avid. I am talking to you Dr. Garcia, Scottlo, Jared Stein, David Kernohan, Guilia Forsythe, Mikhail Gershovich, and many, any more!

How did the idea for radio ds106 come about?

All hail Grant Potter!  And his post here gets at the emergence of ds106radio brilliantly. What’s more, Grant Potter represents everything that is great about the web, he is constantly tinkering, experimenting, and playing—he isn’t interested in credit and all that crap, he just generally kicks ass and takes names on a regular basis. ds106radio is his brainchild, and it has been nothing but experimental gold for ds106—I can’t thank him enough for all he has done for this course.

And his influence goes beyond the radio, his example got Tim Owens experimenting with a solution for—and that has really come alive these last weeks.

And the take away? None of this would have happened if the course wasn’t open and the networks weren’t in place. I was introduced to Grant Potter by Brian Lamb—and discovered Tim Owens through Tom Woodward—there is a great web of connection and people that frame the infrastructure of our online lives, and a course like ds106 let’s us discover it again—while grafting on a common purpose to create cool things.

Were you able to look at examples of others who had tried something similar?

I was following Grant’s lead through-and-through, he got us up and running, trained me how to operate the radio, and I was off and running. What’s more I learned a ton about broadcasting software, simulcasting, basic radio etiquette, etc. —all on the fly. I am sure Grant has a ton of examples he pulled from, but I can’t really speak to this—I am radio green—which means my learning curve has been astronomical.

That said, Brian Lamb has constantly raved about the freeform radio station out of Hoboken, NJ called WFMU since I’ve known him, and I think that was a kind of the guiding light in terms of the model, attitude, and aesthetic of ds106radio. What’s more, Grant Potter blogged about that direct connection here—so I can safely say WFMU is certainly the most obvious influence on ds106radio, but I’m sorry I can’t think of others—though I’m sure someone else will fill in the gaps.

What is the University of Mary Washington’s orientation towards innovations in elearning and how did this impact on the setting up of radio ds106?

UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning has been dedicated to iterative experimentation with open source, web-based tools for more than seven years. We believe in the sandbox approach to technology, we get in there and experiment with the various tools and decide which would be the best for our community. ds106radio is very much inline with this ethos, though I can’t say ds106radio started at UMW, nor is it hosted here—we just provided the occasion. I think the approach we take is also demonstrated by edtech folks around the world, and ds106radio is an example of how our particular group is enriched by opening up the work we do to others.

What technology did you use to set up the radio station?

Grant Potter has a series of posts on this, and he really understands the underlying technology so I’ll let him speak to the details. But the following posts may be of use:”

“Distributed, freeform, collective webradio”

“Papaya Broadcasting Settings”

“Going Mobiel with #ds106radio”

“#ds106radio: Peanut Butter and Jams”

What’s more, Alan Levine has a great tutorial for using Nicecast (a way to broadcast to ds106radio from a Mac), Tim Owens has a tutorial for Ladiocast (also for Macs), Stephen Downes has one for the PC, and Mikhail Gershovich has a great tutorial for getting your system audio to run through Nicecast.


What considerations did you have when selecting the technology to use?

None, that was all Grant Potter 🙂

Do you use other online/social media in conjunction with radio ds106?

Without question the single best tool for the ds106radio to communicate has thus far been Twitter. It has been a place to let folks know you are going live, to share thoughts on a program, give folks feedback on their radio programs, let them know if you can hear them, run request radio shows, and just about anything else you can imagine. Twitter has been amazing for the class more generally, but particularly useful for framing the community of ds106radio. If you want to get a sense of this check out the hashtag . What’s more, Zach Dowell’s diagram of the technology for this class really illustrates how central Twitter has been to ds106 more generally.

What type of interaction occurs between this medium and others?

It depends, I think ds106radio, like I said earlier, is one community among many. It has been cross-broadcast with on a few occasions, but I would say that its biggest crossover with the other parts of the class are manifested on Twitter or in reflection pieces, tutorials, or set lists on the blogs.

What type of content is on ds106 radio, how is it made and who makes it and who listens?

There is all kinds of content, more than I can list here. But it ranges from music uploaded by anyone in AutoDJ to live DJ’d shows to storytelling to experimental music to theme days to field reports to discussions with moms to live broadcasting of courses to uploaded sets of music or remixes or mashups. People create bumpers, commercials, etc. It is really a wide range of freeform craziness. More and more we are seeing the push to live radio all the time, and given it is 24/7, that is hard, but it is happening remarkably more often these days. And I credit that to ds106radio’s first lady Dr. Garcia—she is relentlessly awesome in keeping this community together and on track—every community needs this—and she is amazing at what she does.

What learning objectives do you see radio ds106 as addressing?

None. It is an experiment, we had students do half hour radio projects during the audio portion of the course as a way to create for radio and think about alternative means of storytelling, but that was the only formal assignment for this space. The rest has been accomplished purely out of a shared sense of interest and community.

What’s more, I think learning objectives are overrated. You can’t teach a wrong class rightly.

You’ve referred to radio ds106 as an experiment, how has it fared so far in terms of expected outcomes?

It has exceeded my every expectation because I had none at all when this course started. ds106radio is an absolute bonus to everything else we had planned, and what is interesting is that the unplanned portion of this course with no objectives and no real expectations has become for many the most compelling.  How do we make sense of that as educators?

Have there been any unforeseen positive aspects?

I think it has almost entirely been an unforeseen positive given that ds106radio was unforeseen from the beginning. But the biggest bonus has been that it allowed us to think about storytelling in a genre of communication, namely radio, that so many have suggested was dead with the incoming tide of the web. What it suggests is that it’s not only potentially vibrant, but it is actually not that hard for anyone to do on the web. This is not radio necessarily, but webradio, and I think the power of the human voice to connect with others through a distributed, open network like ds106radio has been illuminating. What’s more, it solved the conundrum of synchronous space. We wanted to avoid Elluminate at all costs given the overhead, it’s owned by the scourge of elearning that is BlackBoard, and it generally reproduces the classroom environment in the most uninteresting, obedience-centered ways—ds106radio provided a very cheap and powerful alternative that went well beyond a single-use tool.

Have there been any unforeseen negative aspects?

Yes, time! ds106radio has absolutely consumed my life for the last 10 or 12 weeks, and I have to re-introduce myself to my family. I have been obsessed with it, and that has pushed a lot of my energy towards the radio, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for me it is hard because I am not very good at reigning in my obsessions and doing what I should. Other than that it has been pure gold.

Would you recommend a course radio station for other courses either at UMW or elsewhere? Why?

I’m not sure every course can sustain a radio station, and I think ds106radio is much bigger than the course. What I do think, however, is every university or college should have a radio station platform dedicated to teaching and learning. A place to feature work, let students report from the field, experiment with projects, etc.  I think opening it up more broadly across a series of courses and a wider community would be far more practical and rewarding in the long run because one course manning a radio station is a ton of work—and everyone who is part of ds106radio understands that. It helped that it was a crowd sourced radio station, but time is of the essence, and no one is making any money on this, what’s more, no one is getting paid—so it has to be come as you can.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of setting up a course radio station?

Well, I would suggest they have a strong network of folks that are interested, try not to over plan it, and be sure to integrate it meaningful into your course. But like I said above, if it isn’t a priority, or you have to cover much more than just programming and creating content for a radio station, you might consider just using ds106radio (or some other open webradio if there is one) for those parts you want to broadcast 🙂

Is there anything else you would like to add regarding radio ds106 and elearning innovation?

I would just like to say that ds106radio has been amazing above and beyond the actual platform and community—though those have been too—because it has pushed me outside of my safety zone of blogs. I had been so singly focused on blogs for years—which are awesome—but when ds106radio (and then ds106tv) came along my whole vision was shifted. I realized that we don’t only own the publishing platforms, but also the vertical and horizontal that are radio and TV. What happened in ds106 shouldn’t be about a single course, rather it should be the realization that we as teachers and learners have the means to create amazing stuff with very little capital. The magic ingredient is people who form networks and communities that are brought together by the impulse to create cool stuff and have fun. This is an extremely powerful realization in my mind—and one universities don’t pay nearly enough attention to.

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9 Responses to The ds106 99: #3 Innovation in elearning interview

  1. Tim Owens says:

    A few thoughts in no particular order that come to mind for me about my experience with all of this:
    1. I think another particular success to the radio station is the low bandwidth ability to broadcast. We have a lot of folks with limited broadband capabilities and they’re able to open their iPhone and start talking to the world. It’s an incredible thing. If anything my only wish was that it was even easier in terms of the tech barrier to get started. I think we’ve done a good job with tutorials for Nicecast, Ladiocast, and Papaya, but in terms of dealing with Soundflower, LineIn, IP addresses, bitrates, it can still be a large hurdle for people.
    2. It’s important to note that ds106radio has become its own community that includes not only people participating in the MOOC, but also some folks who are not in any “official” sense participating in the course but came on board for the radio piece and have been going ever sense. ds106radio is not just a mouthpiece for “ds106: The course” but more so “ds106: The community”.
    3. If I had to choose something that I felt wasn’t working well with ds106 I’d have to say it’s the curation (and I hate that word as much as anyone) of the content to the forefront. Often I have felt I was missing a lot of really good stuff by the sheer overwhelming amount being produced. When your RSS feed says you’ve got 120 items from the ds106 feed alone it’s hard to dedicate yourself to anything more than quick scans of content and harder still to give students the feedback in the form of comments on their blog that they need to drive them further. I don’t have an easy answer to that problem, and damn if it’s not a good problem to have.
    4. Stephen Downes, who has often contributed to ds106radio, now has his own radio station built on the same technology as ds106radio. I think that’s an amazing development where now we can start to see the branching of this and ds106radio becoming a model for anybody to create freeform audio content and stream it live to the world.

  2. Reverend says:

    Awesome, thanks for cleaning up my mess and adding your own thoughts, I was hoping folks would. You rule, and I should have also linked to this post about the ds106 community you wrote for Sharon.

  3. Great post all the way ’round. I think the v2 of the diagram is better –
    in case you have a burning desire to update it. I love the “brian begat grant, tom begat tim” section. Our band could be your life. Real names’d be proof. Rawk.

  4. Pingback: Radio Love / Love Radio - CogDogBlog

  5. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Mastered by the Obvious Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  6. Reverend says:


    Sorry it took me so long, but it is now updated to the new version—my bad. i will update the other post I made about it as well.

  7. Pingback: The ds106 99: #3 Innovation in elearning interview « Education News & APP

  8. Seth says:

    Rev, I have no idea how you find the time to give such thoughtful and wide-ranging answers, but I appreciate the effort put into this blog post.

  9. Pingback: Visualizing cMOOC data: Extracting and analysing data from FeedWordPress part 1 #ds106 #NodeXL JISC CETIS MASHe

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