— Jim Groom (@jimgroom) July 30, 2017
I am winding up my time in Australia today and I have a ton of things to write about between the awesome people I’ve met, places I’ve seen, and things I’ve done. But before I try and work through those, I wanted to capture what I tried to communicate (and in turn learned) during my time at both Deakin University and Charles Sturt University: namely small is beautiful.
I’ve talked about this before at the AMICAL conference in Rome last Spring, but this instantiation was a bit different given I was asked to focus specifically on WordPress. It has been a while since I have gone purely WordPress, but I found the opportunity really refreshing. I wish Tom Woodward would have published his brilliant posts “What is Rampages? Part 1 and Part 2” a few days earlier cause I would have just given Deakin those links and walked away. These posts contain a remarkably wide range of academic sites using WordPress in a host of different ways. And those two posts by Tom both encapsulate and reinforce the point I was trying to make: WordPress is an amazingly protean publishing engine that can provide a wide range of amazing teaching and learning tools. Folks like Tom, Martha Burtis, and Alan Levine conceptualized and built various tools for ds106 that embodied that spirit: the assignment bank, the daily create, blog aggregation, in[SPIRE] (designed and created by ds106 students Linda McKenna and Rachel McGuirk), etc. In fact, Alan just wrote about his most recent packaging of the Daily Create as the Daily Extend, and as he notes so well in that post:
I always find value in creating small, low stakes challenges that encourage people to try new tools or creative techniques. I still find great reward in populating the DS106 grandaddy site – today is it’s 2026th consecutive daily create (“Shatner a Song” I dare ya), going strong for more than five years. Companies and tech fads have Gartner hyped and fallen in that span.
In fact, Alan’s work packaging up WordPress as an aggregator hub, Assignment Bank, and image and writing SPLOTs on Reclaim Hosting’s demo site StateU inspired and fueled my workshops at Deakin University. And while folks were keen to play with StateU and explore cPanel, the takeaway was that they wanted SPLOTs.
They wanted what was behind Brian Lamb and Alan Levine’s playful acronym SPLOT — is it “Smallest Possible Learning Online Tool”? I’m not sure, but I am sure that it provided a missing piece for folks. They don’t want the blank canvas of a newborn WordPress site. They don’t want to be faced with a “Hello World!” post. In fact, they don’t even want to hear the word WordPress. They just want a tool that helps them accomplish a fairly simple task that, in turn, helps them create a focused community-driven, engaging assignment. This is at least part of what Brian, Alan, Nancy White, and Tannis Morgan did with their amazing work with UdG Agora project—the funnest OpenEd initaitive I have seen in a long while.
I have heard Brian talk about the SPLOT several times over the last year in convincing fashion, but this is the first time I stepped into his shoes and dug into the idea more deeply. Folks were excited, which, in turn, made me excited. I felt like my time at Deakin revolved around the idea of using pre-defined templates for small, focused teaching tools and portfolio sites as a way to roll this out more broadly, as well as to start scaffolding the WordPress adoption without calling it WordPress.
What’s more, Deakin is already working on ways to integrate WordPress deeply into their LMS using LTIs, so having tailored tools like the SPLOTs embedded with their LMS was of immediate value in their eyes. Also, the idea of separating instances of WordPress multisite so that one can fill the needs of SPLOTs while others the needs of portfolio sites (clean URL, choice around plugins and themes, as well as possibility for domain mapping) helps push beyond the need for one monolithic WordPress instance.* What’s more, the SPLOT sites become fairly disposable within the LMS, which is kind of cool in some ways. We talk about the NGDLE as all these pre-approved LTI integrations, but Keegan makes a compelling case for a simple embed code and re-direct from the LMS. If SPLOTs are easy, small, and generalizable enough, they can be used across many classes, and you can start to provide a selection of these tools to any interested faculty right within the LMS, or beyond it.
So, in answer to the leading Tweet, I think we can begin to not only find, but also build, our own web tools that allow us to focus on new and exciting ways to explore teaching and learning at the course/unit level. Mike Caulfield recently wrote about a “minimum viable public project” in which a course experimented with Pinboard, and how that served their humble purposes brilliantly. So much of its success was because it was simple, and it tried to avoid too much tech overhead. Along the lines of the minimum viable teaching tool, SPLOTs could provide a similar experience wherein technologists and faculty can actually quickly prototype simple tools that integrates these very pieces with little more than a form.
In this regard, the work Tom Woodward is doing with Michael Wesch on Anth101 (another site I showcased) is at its core just that. A WordPress site using BuddyPress to focus a community around 10 SPLOTs. Given it’s Wesch issues of scale, integration, and aggregation come into play so I won’t pretend it’s dead simple, but the idea driving it is—and that is a large part of its brilliance.
So, my time working through these ideas with the good folks at Deakin helped me come to a much clearer idea of what I would present at Charles Sturt University later that week. That 30 minute talk was called “Small is Beautiful” -and the message was just that. Avoid systems and over-engineering wide-scale integrations and focus on dreaming up and designing a few small tools with faculty for their classes. And, as luck would have it, Alan Levine (the SPLOTfather) is coming to Australia in November, so I imagine more than a few schools in Oz will be interested in hearing a lot more on this topic. In fact, it would be a coup to get folks like Alan, Brian, Tannis, Tom, and Martha together to talk about SPLOTs and work with various instructional designers and faculty to imagine the possibilities. Anyway, after this trip down under I am a believer, and plan on doing all i can to help promote this work!
*At least at Deakin, integrating WPMS into the LMS sacrifices the domain URL to course code demons. Sites for portfolios have domains that reflect a series of numbers and letters rather than any sense of identity. This is where I still believe the domain name matters.