Is UMW Blogs really open?

Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar’s “Croccodile with open mouth”

Something struck me this morning as I was reading the comments from Mike Caulfield, Jared Stein, and Jim Doran on Brad Efford’s The Play-List blog. Here are three people who are not part of the UMW community per se, but who just might want to contribute a song or two to the Play-List on a lark. I’m not saying they would be regulars, nor am I saying they can’t comment—cause they can and they did.  But they can’t author their own thread because to become a member of that blog they need a UMW email to get an account (we have sign-ups limited to the umw.edu email domain).

This same issue came into focus a year ago when Marie McCallister was interested in opening up her Eighteenth Century Audio site to people from the Librivox community and beyond–we nixed it because there was no real way to allow users to be added to her blog without über admin intervention. So, I didn’t think much of it and went on my way.  Then more recently Philipp Schmidt asked me during the Mozilla Open Ed seminar if UMW Blogs was open and available to anyone, even folks outside of the UMW community, and I once again said no.

Ive’ been thinking about this recently, in part because D’Arcy keeps the great UCalgary Blogs wide open for anyone to sign-up for an account (and his work around for Splog prevention makes this that much more possible on the admin side). So, I got to thinking out loud, “What the hell is going on here, is UMW Blogs really open? What are we BlackBoard or something? Pandering to the term open, but slaving under the idea of ‘membership’ in the form of an institutional email?” I punched the wall, I banged my head against a stand up mirror and bloodied my forehead a bit. Hell, I was getting ready to do a G.G. Allin before Martha, Andy, and Patrick piped up and suggested that this would invite some issues.

What if the membership explodes and we can’t handle the onslaught?

Would this be an issue? I’m not so sure it would, and I really don’t think the membership would explode, but I do think that others would be able to join sites who aren’t necessarily part of the institution. It would also allow alumni to join the community without being manually added or forced to go through someone to get an account.

The other issue is that we have a whole lot of plugins and and we allow embed code in posts and pages, possibly putting us at risk code-wise.

I’ve heard this from the very beginning when we started using WPMu, and I still haven’t run into any major issues 3,000 users later.  Am I just being naive, or is this concern over emphasized?

We might put the whole experiment at risk if something goes wrong.

Maybe, but my feeling is that if it’s so fragile then maybe its value is purely surface. Maybe it needs to die so that it can resurrect itself from the ashes outside of the institutional logic of fear and one strike and you’re out mentality. And to be fair, this isn’t the administration saying this, mind you, this is a larger cultural mindset we have all inherited as if by osmosis. And I am quite certain this idea would be killed long before anyone in power heard about it.

All that said, I am leaning towards UMW Blogs being opened up further, but I have to acknowledge and admit I don’t really have that much “control” over UMW Blogs anymore, and whether I think it should or shouldn’t have open sign-up might not really matter much. The fact is that UMW Blogs has become bigger and more successful than we had ever imagined, and while it is still the most kick ass system ever, I wonder if we aren’t starting to settle in on that idea a little. UMW Blogs should really be an interim step to the Personal Learning Environment, an idea of training wheels for social media (as Andre Malan so brilliantly frames it in his recent post here) that will come off! That, in fact, must come off at some point. What is UMW Blogs if not simply a step towards something else? Why are we so jealous about protecting it, let’s burn it down and build it anew.

Now, Marth Burtis suggested that we take some kind of middle ground and create a plugin where users can actually invite and add authors from outside UMW Blogs into their blogs to author or even create their own sapce—a kind of sponorship of “outsiders.” I think this is a far more rationale approach, and actually puts the power of opening up the community in the hands of the various individuals that make it run. This is a plugin/feature that we should develop, for we need to start thinking of this as network that both relfects UMW, but also all the various individuals and their networks and relationships that move beyond it.  And if that doesn’t work, then we need to really focus more diligently on the syndication bus and encourage everyone to get their own spaces on the open web after they’ve had the training wheels on for a year or so.

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16 Responses to Is UMW Blogs really open?

  1. D'Arcy says:

    Membership explosion is the problem I WANT to have. I couldn’t support 10,000 users now, but when we get there I’ll be able to make a case for scaling up support. Start small, and see where it takes you. Starting out worrying about enterprise scales will paralyse you.

  2. Andre Malan says:

    I agree with D’Arcy completely. We spent hundreds of developer hours on making UBC blogs closed to the public (believe me if I had my way it would be different) and it still causes endless troubles. The basic premise for closing things down is fear. Fear of spamblogs, fear of crashing servers and fear of failed experiments.

    Now, my question is this: for anyone who is trying to revolutionize education (be it through technology or otherwise) what is their greatest challenge?

    I would argue that that challenge is fear. Fear from the administration that they are running over budget, fear from the professor that their social media experiment will fail, fear from the students of getting a bad grade. This collection of fears is what forces people like you, D’Arcy and Brian to keep on fighting for change.

    If that is then the case, what kind of an example are we showing by closing our systems off? How can we ever be successful in helping others to overcome their fears if we don’t overcome our own?

  3. Joe says:

    It’s an interesting question–we’re somewhat closed, in that we don’t let people from outside the Macaulay community create blogs.

    But the limiting factor (a solution I was forced into, because our students don’t have all the same email domain) is the excellent signup question plugin (which is also extremely effective at preventing splog signups). So in order to create a new account/blog, students just need to have the answer to the signup question–a simple code-word that I can change as needed.

    I’ve already found, though, that a couple of enterprising students who wanted to share blogs with friends/peers who are not Macaulay students have just passed the code-word on to them. So (for example) we’ve got two students working on a graphic design eportfolio together. One of them is our student, the other is at Cooper Union.

    I’ve also started getting inquiries from other (non-Macaulay) CUNY students who want to start eportfolios. At this point, without some connection to the Macaulay community specifically, I’ve been saying no to those inquiries. But I might change my mind.

    I do think, though, that there are advantages to having a community identity which is somewhat limited. The CUNY Academic Commons is just for CUNY folks, not to be exclusionary (indeed, we hope and expect that other folks will benefit from reading and commenting and interacting with the public-facing and public-open parts), but to have that identity which can be a kind of enabling constraint–to have a kind of focus.

    We already have a WordPress.com, and an edublogs, too. I think those wide-open (or widish-open) platforms are important and valuable. But I don’t think that every platform necessarily has to be what they are.

    I think the idea of a community which has some enabling constraints on membership (membership as authors/ringmasters), but still is publicly open for audience/interactors, is a valuable model.

    We may be heading, I think, to a world where there aren’t individual universities or closed schools, but rather an open landscape. But still within that open landscape, I think we will have (and find it valuable to have) smaller groups, variously defined (interest, experience, location, shared difficulties, and so forth).

    We’re not in that world yet, quite–we still do have UMW students and Macaulay students, and they still want (and maybe need) to define themselves differently and keep their separate concerns and interests as their own identifying marks.

    In any case, I’m hoping that by using the signup question rather than limiting by email domain, I’m keeping the option somewhat available. If it turns out that we do want to be totally open for anyone, that signup question can still prevent splogs effectively by being a kind of captcha (“the answer to the question is the animal which is large and gray and has a trunk” or similar).

  4. Joss Winn says:

    I’m always thinking about the openness of our BuddyPress install. What’s important, I think, is that our university community can invite outside collaborators if they want to. So, we use LDAP to authenticate the community, but don’t blacklist other email domains. This way, if a student or member of staff wants to have a collaborative site with someone from outside the university, they can just add them as a member and that person can log in using a wordpress account rather than LDAP account. Once they are members, they have the same permissions that an LDAP user has and can create their own blog, if they wish. Useful for visiting Professors and other transient members.

    What’s more of an issue for me is whether to expose the BuddyPress ‘layer’ of our install. Currently, it’s hacked so all BuddyPress features are only visible to logged in users. I’m looking forward to the refined privacy controls in the BuddyPress roadmap which will hopefully allow individuals to decide how open their BuddyPress profiles and activity becomes.

    Having said this, I agree with Joe, that defining membership can be a useful, enabling feature of a community. Openness isn’t about having access to yet another blogging platform. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s about open standards, open source, data portability, extensibility/plugins, feeds, and transparency of process.

    This is where we find openness in our community:
    http://mu.wordpress.org/forums/
    http://trac.mu.wordpress.org/browser/trunk

    I’d say that UMW is very open. You’ve documented every step of the way, every new plugin, every significant development. You make every effort to show how UMW blogs is part of the open web. You don’t have to allow anyone to sign up, just to be ‘open’.

  5. Reverend says:

    @D’Arcy,
    Yeah, we have gotten past that point I think, we have 3,000 users and a school of 4500 or so. In fact, I think more than half of the people at UMW have had some encounter with UMW Blogs, so we are beyond the point of saying we’ll see how big it gets. My thing is that I don;t think it will explode, it will just give the users on the system more freedom to invite others and use the email addresses the really use—which raises a whole different issue of identity and contacting them.

    @Andre,
    Yeah, it is funny how fear works, and I think we have been pretty fearless here at UMW all things considered. But I also wonder if once you frame something like this the inevitable push is to systematize it. let’s face it, LMSs were radical at some point not too long ago, and quickly became institutional black holes, that can happen to so many of these tools in a flash if we aren;t careful.

    @Joe,
    Yeah, I agree with you entirely, the idea of a community site that is in some ways defined by that community is important, and I don;t think opening it up will lose that flavor. In fact, I don;t think there would be a mad rush to join at all, I think you would get a few folks from the community, maybe some alumni, and perhaps a person or two from the local community—but the benefits would be that you say yes we encourage you to join the conversation and even control your own. It would actually be a very subtle inflection of inclusion, and the idea of membership not so closely fdefined and delineated, which you point to beautifully when you suggest the future landscape.

    I also like the signup code idea, but one of the things that would thwart is allowing anyone with a UMW email to singup right away. It would be pretty hard to be sure all 4500 people on campus knew that code. Though, as you suggest, it would certainly solve the invitation problem 🙂 I know there is no right way to do this, but I also wonder and worry that the more we frame this as a kind of controlled system, the more we move towards a logic that this was in many ways a reaction against.

    @Joss,

    This way, if a student or member of staff wants to have a collaborative site with someone from outside the university, they can just add them as a member and that person can log in using a WordPress account rather than LDAP account.

    That is a nice workaround, and suggest the power of LDAP. Very cool, so is the registration open otherwise, or just for those invited?

    As to what is open, I think you’re right, simply exposing work that is being done doesn’t necessarily mean “I’m more open than you.” And I might be teetering on that edge too much, but I also worry that giving users on the system the ability as much freedom as possible is important, moreover it suggests the real limits of an institutional system at the same time. It is often framed by the very limits of that community—and I too agree with Joe and you that those limits can be useful and good, but there has to be another side to that as well.

    I wonder if open might also suggest the process of framing this stuff on the web publicly, now not all information needs to be open and available (though it is a healthy default), but the process of empowering folks to make that choice and control what is and is not exposed may need be, as should the question of online identities and who you can or cannot make part of one’s online space that is institutionally granted. The mediation of institutions in this framework is significant, and I don;t think I have thought hard enough about the full implications of this on the process—I have imagined the benefits, but not so much the drawbacks.

    I know this stuff isn’t perfect, and that UMW has mindfully kept their platform as open as possible and intentionally shared out the work done there, but I always fear that I am thinking of this as too much of a system these days, and perhaps I needed smart folks like you all to help me struggle with what so uncomfortable about that idea.

  6. Joss Winn says:

    That is a nice workaround, and suggest the power of LDAP. Very cool, so is the registration open otherwise, or just for those invited?

    It’s less the power of LDAP and more about how well the plugin I use is designed. It has the option to allow local signups. Combined that with the ‘Add New Users’ option, and it allows the community to control membership.

    I always fear that I am thinking of this as too much of a system these days, and perhaps I needed smart folks like you all to help me struggle with what so uncomfortable about that idea.

    Reading about your experiments with WPMU and particularly with the combinations of plugins you use to achieve some of the amazing things you’ve done with the platform, I have wondered whether you’re creating a rather fragile system that while enabling innovative uses of WPMU, is also moving away from the idea of loosely joined pieces. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see plugins as loosely joined pieces. My view is that each plugin fattens up WPMU into a ‘system’, which, as a stand alone product, it’s not. Plugins add dependencies to an otherwise lightweight product and I’m starting to wish I’d not introduced some plugins to our install.

    In particular, the plugins that offer a shortcode instead of using embed code are the work of the devil. The number of times shortcode plugins have broken on me, breaking the embed. I feel like a fool turning my back on simple copy and paste of HTML embed code in favour of bloody shortcodes.

    So, in contrast to growing a system, I see loosely joined pieces as WPMU+Flickr+YouTube+, etc. Each of these are glued by well known standards such as HTML and Javascript embed code, RSS and Atom. This way, we’re not building a system, we’re growing an open, web-standards-based ‘ecosystem’.

    • Reverend says:

      Joss,

      Your point about plugins fattening up the system is actually right-on. I think you frame a big issue with things like the Anarchy Media Player, NextGen Gallery, etc. They do create dependencies, and that is something to definitely look-out for. At the same time they help create possibilities within UMW Blogs that we would otherwise have to program for one-off experiments, and even if they break over time the ability to imagine something and implement with little or no overhead is remarkable. I guess loosely joined pieces means using all the tools that our out there and not depending on any one, but I also wonder if remaining dependent on tools like YouTube and Flickr doesn”t raise it’s own set of concerns about ownership, permanence and breakage. You do have a certain amount of control over these tools, but there is no guarantee they’ll always be around. In fact, the very ecosystem we are creating on the open web at times seems remarkably fragile and ephemeral, defined as much through its kipple as through its resources.

      That said, the plugin=system relationship makes a lot of sense, and I think you hit on a larger issue that has weighed down UW Blogs in some respects. And while it was imagined as a place to innovate, it quickly has become a system through the very logic of the innovation which quickly become two sides of the same coin.

  7. Mikhail says:

    An excellent post, Jim. You anticipate some of the very questions we’ll need address as Blogs@Baruch gains profile, which is happening rather quickly.

    We have a log way to go before we can even begin to consider opening Blogs@Baruch to folks outside the Baruch community. In fact, I’m still working on convincing some of our higher level administrators that students should be allowed to create blogs that are not necessarily associated with a specific course or some other structured curricular or co-curricular activity. Never mind what people from outside may do, some at Baruch are concerned that our students will use their blog to bad-mouth the college, their professors and the administration.

    I do feel, though, that folks are starting to warm up to the idea that giving students a web space of their own is a good thing — something that can deeply enrich their undergraduate experience. I do think that it is a matter of time before students are allowed their own blogs. There are just so many compelling arguments for openness and the administration is beginning to listen.

    The culture w/in IT at Baruch, and CUNY in general, has been traditionally suspicious of open access — a fact whose tragic irony has been discussed here and elsewhere. However, as was made clear at CUNY WordCampEd, things are changing. We’ll see where it goes.

  8. Reverend says:

    Mikhail,

    Well there is no question the progress on this front you have made t Baruch over the last year is mind blowing, and I hate to come off like there is some kind of straight edge notion of “open”—one way to do it. And I think there are many and there is no way to build a wrong community rightly. I just guess this is part of a thinking process I need to go through to get a clearer sense of what the larger goals are for all of this. I’d hate to begin thinking about this is simply a system designed to sustain itself because it has become popular or invaluable. I’d much rather see it as a means to an end, that said, the rate at which all this stuff moves probably means that the whole Personal Learning environment will be upon us. And if that’s the case, and I think it is, then I guess it is important to start thinking of ourselves as something other than a system and more like glue, duct tape, and spanish fly 🙂

  9. Luke says:

    I only had time now to give this a quick read, and I just wanted to note that the DD Import Users plugin allows individual blog admins on a WPMu install to get around the domain restrictions for creating new users. Not that we’d ever, ever, EVER allow that to happen on our system. Ever.

  10. I kinda think that putting it in terms of ‘openness’ is misleading, especially when it invokes the ‘fear’ issue. I don’t think that anyone can fairly claim that anyone in DTLT is especially fearful when it comes to new tech (I’ve borked up my share of Linux boxes in my day). But I’m also one of the ones in favor of keeping things in UMWBlogs limited to UMW folks.

    That’s not fear, and I don’t think of it in terms of openness or closedness. It’s a matter of scope. Any project has to define scope, to keep things manageable, to keep a clear strategy and path forward in mind, and more. We can’t open up the entirety of higher education via UMWBlogs. But we can open up our corner of it, demonstrate that it is important, and thus encourage others to open up their corners of it. And each project toward opening up a new corner will define their own scope for what they do and how they do it, letting us all learn from the variety of approaches.

  11. Pingback: Open University Blogging System? « Open Education News

  12. Jerry says:

    Great discussion here.

    I think another audience that needs to be taken into consideration in a discussion like this are the now 3000 users of UMW Blogs. While we in DTLT might like to think the system is “ours” and still a “pilot,” that seems a bit selfish at this point. Truth is, we have a large population using/depending on the system, and getting some real benefit from it in their teaching and learning.

    I can understand some of the idea in “blowing up” and starting again, but is the reason we want to do that actually going to lead to progress? I contend that progress is incremental – UMW Blogs is just a step along the way – it can continue to exist and iterate without wholesale dismemberment.

    The key point here is not what system you are in, or whether or not you can join any particular system, but rather, what ways you are able to participate in the conversation – that is “openness” to me. RSS/Atom are going to be the bricks to build that out and allow the data to flow from system to system.

    Finally, “fear” is one thing, “risk” is another – let us not confuse the two. I think we can be OK with the fact that some things may be too risky for us to do because of the size, success, and expectations our users have of the system they have come to depend on. But on the other hand, let us also attempt to come to a reasoned conclusion that the risks we may see is not in fact only fear holding us back. I think there is a balance point in there.

  13. Andre Malan says:

    I’m sorry that I may have implied that DTLT was fearful, I honestly believe that it is one of the most fearless departments of its kind. I still remember while working on UBC Blogs that I was fearful for you guys considering the amount of plugins that you have installed and just how open you were.

    That being said, I don’t think that you can decouple fear and risk so easily. If UMW blogs were made so that anybody can sign up, then yes, there is a risk of membership exploding or some hacker signing up bent on bringing the system down. That is something to fear. However, is that fear rational? UBC blogs is still closed to students at UBC because of the risk of our own students doing the same thing. UMW had that same risk, but decided that it was not big enough to stop you from opening it up to all your students. Risks create fear, which in turn creates paralysis.

    UMW Blogs is a model program and I stand behind all that you guys do. To say that you have been going about things wrong wrong is to say that every other learning technology department is doing things very, very wrong (especially since most just watch you take the risks then follow in your footsteps). My natural instinct however, when seeing quotes like “What if the membership explodes and we can’t handle the onslaught?” is to recoil in horror as in my own experience those kinds of statements have led to overestimating the risks and thus not taking hold of great opportunities that have arisen.

  14. @andre

    I see what you’re sayin’. Any fear/risk that I’m seeing in something like “What if the membership explodes” is what brings me back to thinking in terms of scope. Let’s say we do make it open for all, UMW or not. And let’s say that we can handle the onslaught. To whatever degree an onslaught happens, we have to — and again thinking positively we DO — handle it.

    That means we’re spending time and energy in the act of handling that increase in scale, and that’s time and energy (probably $$ too) not doing other things like exploring possibilities with BuddyPress, new classroom techniques, whatever.

    I’d see that as a consequence of scope-creep. We move beyond a particular definition of scope, and that brings in lots and lots of things to attend to. I’ve seen scope-creep become just as paralyzing, if not more so, than fear.

  15. Andre Malan says:

    @Patrick

    I cannot disagree with you there. If opening up will legitimately tap scarce resources that could be used for other things then you should not do it. I’m happy as long as the thinking is “how do we maximize our effectiveness” as opposed to “what if it breaks”.

    I do however, feel that allowing members of the community (on a per request basis) that are not current students, staff or faculty) to contribute should be part of your scope. I know that it is possible (seeing as Jim gave me a UMW blogs account). Having a request form type sign up (where someone fills in the reason and has a current community member vouch for them) would really strengthen the community if you can find a way to do it that minimizes the strain on your support service.

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