The Sordid History of Learning Object Repositories or, a chat with Brian Lamb

Barry Dahl recently blogged the following video he took at the WCET of Brian Lamb chatting about Learning Object Repositories, which provides an excellent overview of the logic of EdTech circa 2001.  The idea of educational repositories for content as a shared resource was, and remains, a powerful idea for sharing resources, yet the means through which it was being approached was insanely labor intensive. His framing of that moment, and the emergence of Google, and the changing nature of the web is amazing, and I’ve had the pleasure of sitting around a table with Brian listening to him riff about a topic like this, and nothing interests me as much as when he talks about the heady days of 2004, when CogDog, D’Arcy, and Brian came into contact with Downes’ EDURSS magic—was it the Merlot presentation in 2004? I love that story, even if I have conflated some dates and details.

I truly enjoy the field of educational technology, and it is an absolute treat to sit around a table with Lamb and get a beautiful constructed narrative of the  emergence of some real alternatives to overly complex learning object repositories.  And here’s your chance, and deep thanks for to Barry for both taking and sharing this videos, it is a gem.

Posted in experimenting | Tagged , | 6 Comments

66.6 on Your AM Dial: It’s Uncanny Learning

Image credit: Cogdog’s “Uncanny Learning”

Last week I had the good fortune of co-presenting with Tom Woodard and Brian Lamb at the NMC’s Symposium for the Future. The presentations were all supposed to look towards the future, and for our part we dreamed up a presentation that frames a Dystopian future wherein an education insurance salesman comes back from the future on Art Spell’s (played to a T by Brian “the singularity” Lamb) Uncanny Learning radio show to help listeners protect their most precious investment: their education. Tom Woodward did the heavy lifting with four different call-in characters that satirizes many of the Utopian approaches to educational technology that are circulating currently. Tom’s a mad genius, and his characters prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, from Moonchild to Jason to Professor Frick to Clem, his ability to improvise on the spot is fear-inspiring—and you can hear him coaching me through the presentation if you listen closely enough.

What completed an insane experiment in presenting, was the discussion afterwards where each of us attempts to contextualize what exactly we were going for. And as Brian and I reflected on after the fact, it was one of the best discussions of the possible political scenarios of education in the future. Anyway, working with Tom and Brian is always a pleasure, and I have to personally thank the good folks at NMC for constantly taking a chance on us despite our obvious shortcomings.

Download “A Visit from the Future: Uncanny Learning”

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EDUPUNK Interview: Educational Commodification, Origins, and the Reification of an Idea

Some time this month I was interviewed by Jim Saunders, Steve Howard, and Nicole Veerman about EDUPUNK.  The were interested in the idea, and they are doing a series of interviews as a part of their graduate journalism class at the University of Western Ontario. Their blog tracks the progress of a 10-part feature series (stories, podcasts and video) about the MakerCulture movement in North America. They were  a lot of fun to talk to, and as usual I was rambling, impossible to shut up, and rather ineloquent, though I do think I do the best job yet in putting EDUPUNK as a term (versus a social movement well beyond the term)  in the clearest context, at least for me, thus far. I also set the record straight that Brian Lamb indeed started EDUPUNK. After listening to the interview, it helped me think about my upcoming socialist presentation on EDUCHUDS (look for the description towards the bottom of the page) at Wordcamp NYC which I’m sure the Libertarian Open Source entrepreneurs are looking forward to 🙂

Anyway, if you have the inclination give it a listen, it’s about 22 minutes long, and if you are interested in joining James, Steve and Nicole in a panel discussion about MakerCulture, EDUPUNK, or some other element of education on MONDAY NOVEMBER 16 2009 (after 6 p.m.) at the University of Western Ontario journalism department in London, Ontario, be sure to get in touch with them.  You can find their information in this post from which I am stealing all their work.

Download Interview with Jim Saunders, Steve Howard, and Nicole Veerman about EDUPUNK

Posted in edupunk | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Looking for Whitman, or “Shut the Front Door!”

Well, if I am gonna be honest with myself I have to admit that I have been a total “beauty school dropout” this semester, I have been trying hard to keep up with my various duties, but the tidal wave that is my life right now has washed away all my good intentions. In fact, while I have a bunch of very exciting things happening in my life (house, child, cable TV), I have also effectively sidelined myself from the most amazing class experience I have yet to witness in my 38 years. What professors Brady Earnhart and Mara Scanlon, along with fifteen of the most diehard Digital Whitman students have been doing at UMW is nothing short of amazing.  And while I usualy like to be in the comfortable position of soaking up the limelight, and saying how this and that happened cause of my mad instructional technology skills, I can only humbly watch from afar with wonder at what has come forth from this experiment.

While I haven’t been blogging about the Digital Whitman class at UMW (which is part of the multi-campus Looking for Whitman experiment) nearly as much as I had intended, let me just say that it is the single most amazing example of a distributed conversation through blogging I have yet to witness. They are all going blog wild, and the conversations that are emerging both in class and spilling out in all kinds of amazing ways online is far more than I ever dreamed would come of this experiment. First of all, Mara Scanlon has turned into an  a-list blogger in my mind, just take a look at her recent posts on John Wilkes Booth and Whitman as an American Idol in popular culture—this is downright awesome blogging—and she is pumping these out almost daily.  In fact, the energy level of the entire class is amazing, look at Allison Creire’s recent post on the class trip to Washington DC—which I freaking missed because of my house—that is both intensely candid and precise about just what this learning experience has been all about:

Reflecting on this feeling of “good” and enrichment, my mind was drawn to Paulo Freire’s essay “The Banking Concept of Education”….Freire’s essay describes how limiting education can be, how the teacher/professor can fall into a pattern of narration, while the students become “containers” that mechanically memorize facts and promptly forget them after spewing them out on a test: “Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.” This, sadly, is the mode of education that is most familiar to us. However, this course breaks that mold, nay it shatters it! What we have developed in this class is what Freire calls “authentic thinking,” which, “does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication.” Communication is our middle name; in class, students are speaking 80%-90% of the time. We are physically connecting to what we’re learning about. Instead of mindlessly “consuming” Whitman’s letters, we went out and saw them, were inches away from them. The reason we all feel personally connected to Walt Whitman is because he has become more than information and we have become more than “containers.” This is what it feels like to be a student.

And you better believe this course breaks that mold, in fact Allison’s very next post about the Whitman Lincoln platonic and unrequited  love affair was commented on by Darrel Blaine Ford, a Whitman impersonator who has been interpreting the Gray Poet for 7 decades—-as Missvirginia likes to say “shut the front door!

This past Saturday,the entire class went to Washington for a walking tour of Whitman’s DC, as well as a visit to the recently re-opened Ford’s Theatre. And as a final stop, they went to the Library of Congress archives to view various letters written by and to Whitman (including Emerson’s famous letter to the young poet as well as another form Fannie Fern), his Civil War haversack, glasses, cane, and much more they will be documenting on the Looking for Whitman Field Trips blog. It was by all accounts a transcendent experience for the class, and they were all glowing when I saw them tonight, they even did a freaking hippie group hug which is saying something—though I was excluded, damn it!!!

Something has happened in this class that is truly rare, and I think I’ve seen a sense of ownership, community, and trust amongst this group this is not only rare, but somehow new. I mean just look at them in the LOC archive looking at Whitman’s hallowed haversack:

Image credit TallerSam’s “Walt Whitman’s messenger bag”

They all know the value of what they are experiencing, and everyone of them is relishing it. The ability to view items from the archive that bring the ongoing discussions of the particular Whitman that emerges through a week’s readings into a material nexus of time and space with the actual man opens a door, and they all courageously walked through it.  I’m still on the other side of that threshhold, but I am amazed at what I can see through the cracks. This class embodies the comraderie and community that, for me, epitomizes the best of Whitman’s poetry and politik, and while I am sad I’ve been such a deadbeat, I’m absolutely thrilled to even tangentially be a part of the consuming passion that is driving this group on.  I am convinced they will each find their Whitman, and he will be both sweeter and more tender to the touch for all their critical longing that has been buttressed by a rare in the power of vision. Search on UMW Whitmaniacs, you’re in the journey, and the unfolding of your depth and breadth of America’s poet will prepare the strapping generations to come. You will breath taut life into a new nation for imagining what learning should be about, an animated a longing for serendipitous discovery that must be worked insanely hard at to truly surprise and enrich. Procreative knowledge wantonly shared in the unflinching openness of a new day.

Digital Whitman, the bava salutes you, and is your undying tech slave!

Posted in Looking for Whitman | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Edupumkin, or how Tom Woodward stole my heart

If you don’t think Tom Woodward is a total maniac already, you’ll need no more proof than this to be finally convinced.  How can I not love this guy with all my heart, he is the creative master behind everything on the bava of worth for just about the last two years.  Long live the bava, long live Tom Woodward. And now it’s high time for some bava pie on the crisp Fall day! Happy Halloween boys and ghouls!

Image credit: The insane Bionicteaching’s “The Edupumkin II”

Note: My only concern is that he blogged it before me 🙂

P.S.S. –I would be remiss if I didn’t also add Serena Epstein to the list of creative masters behind the bava, her film chops are something else.

Posted in fun | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

A Bava Bumrush of WordCamp NYC

Image of WordCamp NYCI’m pretty excited for the upcoming WordCamp in NYC, not only is it a wonderful excuse to go back home, but it is also shaping up to be one of the biggest WordPress shindigs ever. Moreover, it’s being hosted at CUNY’s Baruch College providing some well-earned recognition of the amazing work happening at Blogs@Baruch—a recent example of which is their Freshman seminar blogging initiative. And it is really cool to see CUNY once again involved in a WordPress event, and fine work by Mikhail Gershovich and Luke Waltzer for brining Baruch into the equation—-an institution can be very useful for hosting an event like this 🙂

Now, I have the added bonus of presenting in the Education track (yep, there is an education track!), and assuming my third child due in early December doesn’t come earlier, I’m planning to do a NYC film-based presentation focused on gentrification, LMSs, and the open source community (a mashup of this blog post and this paper).  Working title is “EDUCHUDS: the Gentrification of Web-Based Education.” And I’ll have to work in, The Warriors (1979), and Times Square (1980), and Escape from New York (1981), I mean what better than to marry my various loves: instructional technology, WordPress, and b-movies?

Posted in presentations, wordpress multi-user, wpmu | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

FAQ for Universities Interested in WPMu

This morning I had a fun conversation with David Grogan, Ilene Chen, Stephen McDonald, and Hannah Reeves from the academic technology group at Tufts University. They had some questions about running a large scale WPMu installation at Tufts University, and below are some of their questions followed by my working answers. Figured I’d republish it here from Google Docs in the event anyone finds it useful, and special thanks to Hannah Reeves for organizing the session, it was a lot of fun, and it’s apparent Tufts has an excellent group that has much to bring to the experimentation with WPMu in education.

Set up and Performance

How long have you been running WPMu and what version are you currently running?

We have been running WPMu for almost three years now.  We started with a smaller pilot for one department (English Linguistics and Speech) at in January of 2007, and based on its success decided to offer a university-wide publishing platform for all departments, students, and staff at UMW Blogs (, which launched in August of 2007. 

What plug-ins are you using?

Oh wow, this is a big one, we have alomost 100 regular plugins installed, and then another 20 or 30mu-plugins. I won’t list them all here, but I will highlight the ones I think are essential, as well as point to Tom Woodward’s recent post about the plugins you should have (there is a little overlap here).

Can your users create their own themes from scratch? If so, how?

They sure could, themes are based on the open source code of WordPress, so anyone can create one who has working knowledge of PHP and CSS. We really haven’t had too many people design their own from scratch, but if they did we would need to test it before it went live. What we do a lot of, however, is use the Userthemes plugin listed above to get access to the theme files and hack existing themes. We have found this feature to be invaluable for the work we do.

Is your instance designed to be self-service? (e.g. can anyone at UMW log in and create new blogs or is there are request mechanism?)

Absolutely, anyone with a UMW email can get an account, and use it for whatever reason they like.  I think this model has been the ral key to opur success. Because at it’s root UMW Blogs is an open, and easy-to-use publishing platform for all kinds of things.  And we have allowed people to use it that way, and the results have been amazing in terms of realizing new uses and possibilities for the system. When you prescribe or define a technology too specifically, you often take out any innovative and re-imaginative teeth it might have had.

What does your hardware configuration look like?

UMW Blogs is externally hosted by Cast Iron Coding, which rules by the way, and we recently updated our server to the following specs (which work perfectly for more than 3600+ users and 3200 blogs).

Hardware specs:
SuperMicro H8SMU AMD Opteron QuadCore SingleProc Sata [1Proc]
AMD Opteron 1216HE [2.4GHz]
250 GB Hard Drive
100 MBPS network cards

Also, we give users about 150 MB of storage space, but rarely do they use that because we push external services like YouTube,, Flickr, etc.

Have you noticed any system limitations regarding number of user accounts, # of blogs? Is so, what?

Not yet, as the numbers suggest above, we have a healthy community, but have not had real issues.  We are currently using Multi-DB from WPMuDev, but are currently working on switching to Hyper-DB (which is what is run on) because we no longer have a premium account at WPMuDev.

Have you noticed any system performance issues? If so, what?

Well, we had a system performance with traffic at the beginning of the semester, after which we upgraded to the server specs laid out above. Right now it is running smoothly, but the real issues with performance is plugin related, so I would watch that far more closely than we do 🙂

Security and Upgrades

Have you encountered any security issues that you have had to patch yourself? If so, what?

We actually upgrade to latest version very regularly. And so far so good, we have been pretty secure as things go.  With that said, we do not have UMW Blogs linked into any other  system, and the login and password is not connected through a single sign-on solution.


How many staff/partial FTEs are needed to support your instance?

As of right now, I do the majority of user support with the actuall system.  But our division 5 and 1/2 FTEs, though I think most of the support has been relegated to me, and it has not burned all my time, but as UMW Blogs becomes bigger and bigger, and more “Systemic,”  the time devoted to it becomes greater. But, in anticipation of the next question. WordPress has made any barriers to new users very easy because the interface is so slick and user-friendly. And the fact that it is open source, and has an insane community behind it makes our jobs as instructional technologists so much easier, cause we can integrate new features on the fly.

What do you see as the biggest barriers that new users have to overcome in using WP?

Well, I think that is WP’s strength, and why we used it, because it’s interface is so user-friendly we haven;t had to invest too much time at all in user training.


What do you wish you could do with the system that you haven’t been able to do?

I wish it dealt with pages better than it currently does, but this is an issue I have with WP more generally.  I think pages and the actual transformation of the blog into a website could be a bit more seamless in terms of child/parent pages, page order, and static frontpage.  It does it all right now, but I think if it were all managedin one place, and a bit more obvious, that would be a huge help.

I also wish aggregation and syndication was built into the core in a more sophisticated manner, but this can be accomplished relatiely well with FeedWordPress.

Are you automatically categorizing blogs by people, clubs, courses, etc.? If so how?

No, we aren’t categorizing blogs out of the box, we actually allow clubs and courses  to add themselves to these aggregation blogs.  For example, a new club can include the URL of their webspace (as long as it has a feed it can be hosted anywhere) on the clubs blog here:
A model which is very similar to how we are using aggregating sites for various courses.

Have you attempted to integrate BuddyPress? If so, what’s your experience been?

We have integrated BuddyPress with UMW Blogs, and you can see the evidence of this in the blogs, members, and groups pages off the main UMW Blogs site. We haven;t pushed it at all, and we are still thinking about the profile pages, but for right now we are just seeing what faculty and students do with it, if anything.  Over th next several months we will be experimenting more, but for right now it is acting more like a directory/profile sapce with limited activity. That said, we have been watching the work of Boone Gorges closely as he works on integrating forums and groups, and eventually thinking about groups as the organizing principle of a course blog, which is intriguing.

Posted in WordPress, wordpress multi-user, wpmu | Tagged , , | 27 Comments

And how does BuddyPress fit in to that future?

After writing my last post, I realized that a key ingredient to the future of the WP/WPmu merger will actually be BuddyPress. I really like what BuddyPress brings to UMW Blogs: a blogs directory, a member directory, groups, and profile pages—all key to affording visitors more ways to explore what’s going on. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, and as I’ve said somewhere on this blog before, we’re not pushing BuddyPress at all with UMW Blogs, we just got it up and running, and we’re sitting back to see what happens with it for now.

In fact, we haven’t had much time to even explore BuddyPress in any depth, but there is no question that very few people, if anyone, is seeing the power and potential of BuddyPress for education clearer than Boone Gorges is right now. He’s deeply within BuddyPress and its possibilities for a social/community driven site (namely the CUNY Academic Commons), and has been developing like a madman over the last six months or so, and sharing it like its his job. His work with suggested sitewide tags brings so much needed “folksonomic structure” to sitewide tags, and his work on an email notification plugin for private forums shared by BuddyPress Groups in a bbPress forum is something I’m watching closely, because I see the immediate power of a deep integration of groups and forums as a way to understand BuddyPress groups as more than ad hoc spaces.

Fact is, I think the most under utilized part of BuddyPress for us right now are the groups and profile features, and they could potentially be the most powerful.  There is already a BuddyPress plugin that automatically creates a blog for a group.  And if you think of a class as a group in this regard, what you have is an immediate way for a professor to start a group on UMW Blogs, have his or her students join that group, and then a blog instantly is created.  What would be key here now, is to think of the group blog as the course aggregation hub. So that when students add themselves to the group, they are asked what feed they want to share with the group (or what tag feed from there current blog) they would like to include. In my mind, the profile pages in BuddyPress offer a great way to have the community have a presence on the WP syndication site, and maintain profiles etc., but all these profiles do is syndicate the various online identities of the students, which they can sharing appropriately with a particular class or group when joining.  I like this model, groups lead create quick course aggregation blogs, and also through this setup the entire course can be emailed as a built in function of groups.

As for the profile pages in BuddyPress, they can be a place to aggregate a student’s various existing identities, and by extension share them with groups/classes rather easily. In this way, students sign-up for a UMW Blogs username and create a profile and share their feeds there, and their work is done on their own space and syndicated into course blogs via groups. In other words, they do their work in their own space (it just needs RSS) and BuddyPress becomes a key ingredient to both exposing an individuals profile, but also becomes a core part of the syndication bus. A place to drop off your relevant feeds at the beginning of the semester and hook one’s self into course groups, and by extension blogs. And at the same time the group blog stands in as a space to communicate, providing direct messaging, email, forums discussions, and the like.  Who the hell needs Google Wave? 🙂

Posted in BuddyPress, WordPress, wordpress multi-user, wpmu | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Future of WPMu

There has been a lot of discussion about the future of WPMu with the coming merge of WPMu and WP, and I understand there are concerns and issues all around. I’m not in the business of selling WPMu, so my concerns aren’t so much caught up with the preservation of the WPMu name, but they are very much centered around the future of the multi-blogging functionality. In many ways the coming merge provides us with an opportunity to re-think some things about the WPMu architecture and the possibilities of what it might mean for individuals to manage their own WPMu sites.

I think the most exciting prospect of the merge is that WPMu will finally become as simple to install and maintain as a regular old WordPress install. And if that’s the case and the raison d’etre of the merge, then the whole push for a multi-user blogging system is not nearly as essential as a way to aggregate, visualize, and expose the work happening around a particular community within any given blog. If I were thinking the merger through I would be just as interested in the possibilities of robust and distributed syndication built into future core of WP— something that at least for me seems so much more important than giving everyone a blog on your blogging system. I don’t necessarily want people on our blogging system as much as I want them to easily set up their own site with RSS (and a WP site with the added bonus of many blogs in one install wouldn’t suck) . Why not start thinking about how to integrate plugins like FeedWordPress, Sitewide Tags Pages, BDP RSS (which it turns out still does work with WPMu 2.8x, despite my earlier post), etc. into the core and truly supporting the idea of a blog as an aggregation point for a wide range of sites. WordPress has pretty much perfected the ease of use for publishing, and that is why they rule, but working a more robust framework within the future releases for re-publishing and real-time web stuff would certainly be powerful in my mind, but this is quite selfish because it is what I’m really interested in beyond WP or WPMu. I want an elegant, feed-driven aggregation system that brings the work of an entire community into conversation with itself.

And what really gets me about this is that we are pretty close right now with UMW Blogs, I grab feeds from external blogs all the time that are related to UMW an pull them into our sitewide “tags” blog (the name tags here is confusing, it is simply a republishing of everything in the entire WPMu install) with FeedWordPress. For example, I stumbled across this post in the tags blog on UMW Blogs tonight, which was actually being pulled in from a blog of a student who graduated years ago, but regularly blogs about her work in historic preservation.  This particular post was all about a book she read as an undergraduate in Historic Preservation, and how great a resource it is.  A valuable post, especially since the professor who recommended that book, W. Brown Morton, retired last year. There is a kind of eternal echo in a system like this that students, faculty, and staff can continue to feed into a community of teaching and learning well beyond their matriculation period, or even their career.

I often think why we couldn’t just use UMW Blogs for aggregating clubs and organization news, course blogs, etc., but have everyone’s actual blog in their own space. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still see the value of something like WPMu for a simple solution for a quick blog without the updating and versioning headache, but I also see what we are doing as instructional technologists, scholars and students in higher ed right now is much bigger than a particular blogging system or software, I see my job as working with people to imagine the implications and possibilities of managing and maintaining their digital identity in a moment when we are truly in a deep transformation of information, identity, and scholarship. It’s key to keep this in mind well beyond the application, and when I think about WP or WPMu, I love it because the architecture has enabled me to grasp this more clearly than any other thing in my online experience.  So how might working with people to wrap their heads around this space, and manage their own WP install (or whatever floats their boat) on their own space (the Gardner Campbell SysAdmin vision is very much at work here—see his “bags of gold” talk for a mind blowing discussion of this very thing) as a means to make that lesson of the digital archaeology of knowledge that much more apparent and powerful.

To this end, I have been experimenting with what the new merged WP might be like.  For example, we have a few professors with mapped domains on UMW Blogs which basically host their personal/professional site, Jeff McClurken’s is a good example of this, as is Steve Greenlaw’s hosting of his personal blog Pedablogy on UMW Blogs. So, with both of these domains I have created the logic of what a merged WordPress might look like for each of these professors. Steve Grenlaw would have his own domain on which he could create all his course blogs (as many as he wanted off of one domain and one WP install) and with built in aggregation, he could make it easy enough for students to get their own space wherever and share their feeds to create syndicated spaces for his course discussions, postings, etc. And, by extension, we could pull anything off of because as I see it he would share his course feeds with us. In fact, this is precisely what Zach Whalen is already doing with his own course sites that he hosts and designed himself with his Drupal kungfu, and it works beautifully.

But, here is the kicker, for anyone who can’t do what Zach does, we’ll host domains that professors purchase and, ideally, map all their domains onto one WP install that can manage many multi-blogging solutions from one install.  The whole Russian Doll thing that WPMu can do with the Multi-Site Manager plugin. So you offer a Bluehost like setup for faculty, and if that is too much, allow them to map a domain, take control of their own course work, and encourage an aggregated course management model that pushes students to take control of their digital identity and spaces by extension.  Giving students a space and voice on your domain or application is not the same as asking them to create, manage and maintain their own space.  Moreover, it doesn’t feed into the idea of a digital trajectory that starts well before they come to college and will end well after they leave.  This model extends the community, and brings in key resources like a recent graduate discussing an out-of-print historic preservation text book a retired professor assigned to be one of the best resources for an aspiring Preservation graduate student. This is what it is all about, right there, and it’s not gonna happen in silos and on someone else’s space, we need to provision, empower, and imagine the merge as a full powered move to many. many domains of one’s own.

Posted in experimenting, UMW Blogs, WordPress, wordpress multi-user, wpmu | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments


Andy Rush illustrates the truth with this tweet! The bava, shaping traffic patterns since 2005!
nobody but the bava

Posted in fun | Tagged , | 4 Comments