Pushing It Real Good in Barcelona

Over two weeks ago I co-presented at the Open University of Catalonia’s “Pushing the Boundaries of Higher Ed”  symposium with Brian Lamb. Our session was centered on the “zen-like emptiness” of the Next Generational Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE). Brian and I actually prepared for this session months in advance, promising a new high-water mark for us as collaborators, and what did we got for it? An empty room 🙂

In fact, I’m not kidding, we did get an empty room. But that probably had more to do with a historic strike for independence in Barcelona than any of our “big ideas.” I guess some things are just more important than others. But let me tell you something, Brian and I were good. Damn good!!! Maybe the best we’ve ever been, but does anyone ever cry for the LMS when it goes offline during Winter break? Exactly.

I have a lot to say about my time in Barcelona and the folks I shared it with, but I think it would be easier to save that for another post lest this one get too unwieldy. So, for the sake of focus, this will simply detail my short 10-minute talk and the question and answer with Brian thereafter. In fact, the session formats is a good place to start. The design of the presentations were quite refreshing. You present for 5-10 minutes, do 5-10 minutes of Q&A with your co-presenter and the audience, and then your co-presenter presents, and you pose questions to him or her. This happened for two panels, and the closing panel was all 4 or 5 presenters being asked additional, pointed questions about a range of topics. It made for a fast-moving, often playful interactions that I quite enjoyed.

In fact, it is important to note CUNY’s own Laia Canals, now at the UOC, put an unbelievable amount of time and energy into the organization and design of this event. And despite the historic events that intervened, it was a truly refreshing and inspiring day. And so much of that has to do with the folks she brought together (although I’m biased), and I’ll dive deeper into that in my follow-up post, so let this stand as partial thank you to Laia for all she did to organize the event.

So, my talk was the shortest I’ve given in a while, and I’m finding less is more these days for me. The shorter the talk, the more focused I get—which avoids me trying to make every presentation a history lesson about everything I have done. I’m pathetic.

I started with a quote from Alan Levine’s post “This is Not the Onine Learning You (or we) are Looking For,” a line from which was then illustrated by the great Bryan Mathers. The line:

It’s folders of folders of [folders of…] of documents all the way down.

The LMS… by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

I did not elaborate the argument against the Learning Management System all that much, but noted that even when trying to be generous (and Alan certainly was in this post), the the basic design of the LMS has not changed much at all in almost 20 years. It’s file folders all the way down. 

NGDLE by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

But we really did not need to critique the LMS, as Brian pointed out brilliantly, because the folks behind the 3 year old EDUCAUSE white paper had done that for us:

What is clear is that the LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself. Tools such as the grade book and mechanisms for distributing materials such as the syllabus are invaluable for the management of a course, but these resources contribute, at best, only indirectly to learning success. Initial LMS designs have been both course- and instructor-centric, which is consonant with the way higher education viewed teaching and learning through the 1990s.

Brian was right, we should send them all EDUPUNK t-shirts, because that’s all we were arguing 6 years before this paper was published. But, for some reason, the ed-tech establishment freaked out and alienated any real discussion that placed the needs and wants of vendors to the side. But 6 short years later the realities we screamed about seem to have become a given. Strange how that happens. And, to be fair, Jon Udell makes a case for the possibilities of LTIs and simple integrations like he has done between Hypothes.is and Canvas, but it was truly alarming just how few interesting and robust integrations have been done for any of the LMSs with something as wildly popular as WordPress. 

What’s more, Mike Caulfield was quite generous in the comments when I originally posted my paper for this conference noting his own experience at a NGDLE session during an ELI conference:

I asked what they had done towards student control of their data. And the impression I got was that this particular person, who had just detailed the months and months spent working on “all these amazing technologies” that were going to make online stores and exports etc possible had not once thought about student control of their data. Not once.

The flustered reply I got from her was that that was a thing no one was really looking for and besides it was hard.

Well, yeah, it’s hard. What the heck does “Next Generation” stand for if not for trying to do the hard stuff? And as far as people not asking for it, is that our idea of Next Generation? A punch list of what committees asked for?

It’s misnamed. It’s the Adjacent Future LMS. And the adjacent future is basically Blackboard with an Apple Store attached. recentering it on the student.

Mike has been firing on all cylinders for many a year now, so his idea of the NGDLE as the adjacent future resonates, as so much of his work does these days. But the key for me is the simple fact that there has been no thought or discussion about students controlling there data. Something that seems ever more important, no?

From my prepatory post for the session:

So, what’s the provocation? Beyond the less that overwhelming examples of integrations, my major issue with the vision laid out in the NGDLE article … was its disregard for how the data supposedly being shared between these systems was being used (and potentially abused) by the various parties involved.  Fact is, many of the services focused on personalization and analytics are third-party, commercial services that depend upon data collection for their business model. This opens up a series of very important questions and issues that are effectively glossed over by that article (not to mention the recent follow-up this month that dedicates an entire issue of EDUCAUSE Review to the NGDLE two years on).  This stands in stark contrast to a another model for integration of personal data across various systems. The white paper “My Data: A Nordic Model for human-centered personal data management,” authored by Antti Poikola, Kai Kuikkaniemi, and Harri Honko, deals with the same issues facing educational institutions dealing with the NGDLE, but the vision is broader and the focus is not so much on the institution as the individual. It represents the closest thing I have read to a kind of bill of rights around online data:

MyData: A human centered approach in personal data management

From there I pointed to models we have been using for years, personal sites, RSS, and one’s personal online presence as a hub that we can push and pull from—something that still makes sense. In fact, it makes a lot more sense then touting that the future of university systems for learning is premised on aggregating and sharing personal data with third party vendors. In fact, that is the nightmare scenario we are trying to wake up from, I’m not sure how the LMS + app store, as Caulfield suggests, is the next generation of anything we want to cultivate in higher ed.

A personal API by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

And then, of course, I framed how Domain of One’s Own is one way to imagine this in action. And I believe it is a real alternative:

POSSEE by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND

That was basically my talk, and it went fairly well.  I was concise, and I was fairly even keeled until Brian started asking questions, then it got fun ….

That picture of me laughing and Brian digging in might pretty much encapsulate the way I feel about my long-time friendship with Brian at this point. It works both ways too, I can just as easily be on the other side of that digging. But for me the image captures a comfort I feel with few people in my life, a sense of just letting it go. I know for sure that’s not always healthy, but I also know it can make for some fun and interesting things. The follow-up Q&A was a blast. Possibly the single best question I have been asked was when Brian so brilliantly built up the work we had done around blogs, wikis, EDUPUNK, RSS, ds106, etc. and asked why hasn’t it taken off? Why are you still here? And the kicker: “Jim Groom, what happened? Are you a fraud?” A brilliant Oblivion reference to boot, I love that guy!

And I answered as honestly as I could: “Yes, I am a fraud, but I am a consistent fraud.” So much fun, because it’s true. I have been playing characters whether WordPress fanboy, EDUPUNK poster boy, the EdTech Survivalist, Dr. Oblivion, Kim Droom, etc. —all a kind of fraud, but a fraud with a consistent, simple message that the open web should be our learning platform. And, as things get increasingly nuts on the open web, higher ed taking a position of stewardship for framing questions of literacy, fluency, and responsibility in arguably the most important space for the future of democracy, freedom, and liberty! Amen. 

I guess you get a sense of how it ended, and working with Brian Lamb proved to be yet another highlight of highlights in our more than 10 years of collaborations. I feel rich in edtech sometimes.


*Which, to be honest, has probably generated more EDUCUAUSE Review articles than any other topic in recent ed-tech (save maybe MOOCs and mobile learning) -despite the fact that the NGDLE is pretty much vaporware 3 years on.

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