The revolution will be a bus

Image of a Revolution Bus
Revolution by Lawrence Whittemore

Every generation needs a new revolution.
Thomas Jefferson

What blogging brought to the table, in addition to the liberating power of personal publishing, was a new take on the venerable publish/subscribe pattern, expressed now in terms of the familiar metaphor of news syndication. In any version of the new Internet OS, syndication-oriented architecture would have to play a crucial role.
Jon Udell “What is an internet Operating System”

At the heart of any transfer of power there must be a concomitant shift in the distribution of information. Moreover, for such a shift to be sustained, an individual’s ability to access, manipulate, and interact with information must remain easy, open and free. Our generation’s revolution can be characterized by the “liberating power of personal publishing,” and it is the architecture underlying this transformation which is germane to tracing the decentralized, multitudinous vectors of fragmented power, ownership, and control that the new model affords. Syndication must be understood simultaneously as a digitally networked dispersion of conversation, as well as an idiosyncratically aggregated diaspora of data. And it is the re-constitution of variegated voices which offers the means to easily circumvent centrally organized, unilateral vacuum-tubes of distribution.

The revolution will not be televised, it will be syndicated!


Rohit Khare’s conception of syndication-oriented architecture helps us frame the implications of this revolution. We no longer need to build massive repositories to warehouse learning objects, rather we should be “RSSifying everything in sight, then flow all the feeds through a ‘syndication bus’.” Applications like Facebook have already brought this architecture mainstream through a feed-driven framework, yet it has done so at the cost of mining people’s personal data and forcing them to surrender certain rights over their work.

Syndication buses need to be open, free, and public hubs of aggregation that allow both individuals and communities to trace the flow of information relevant to them, while at the same time enabling them to filter and visualize that stream in numerous ways. Applications such as Bloglines and Google Reader are just two examples of feed aggregators that allow an individual to easily subscribe, filter, and visualize information from a variety of sources. But how do we represent this phenomenon on the scale of an educational community consisting of potentially thousands of members? Additionally, what does it mean for an educational institution to represent this process openly?

At the center of both these questions is the root of the revolutionary route for the future of education. You can only truly represent and scale an institution with thousands of members at the atomic level of the individual. People scale through their own publishing space. But in order to embrace this fact educational institutions must first move away from the centralized logic that learning management systems have come to symbolize through both their design and routinized use. The LMS is little more than an administrative system for record keeping and basic file management that is ultimately fueled by institutional efficiency and instructor complacency, a complicit relationship between vendors, administration, and faculty that has enabled an ongoing marketing masquerade that erroneously terms these systems learning technologies. The very logic of the LMS might be understood as a mausoleum for the internment of any and all possibilities for an individual to control, manage and openly share their own thinking with the community at large—it is within these darkly sealed crypts that you will find the mummified corpses of learning.

Alternatively, syndication buses represent a space through which individuals within a learning community can share their work through personal publishing platforms that they maintain ownership over. Rather than locking information into centralized systems, institutions should be designing a syndication-oriented framework that empowers its members to add their own syndicated voices to a larger, streaming conversation that can be filtered and visualized through semantic tags and categories. All of which is undergirded by a staunch belief in the fact that openness is no longer the exception, but the rule for learning institutions. It is their obligation, their mission, their raison d’être to provide the conditions of possibility for inspired thinking, while at the same time enabling this inspiration to be broadcast far and wide over and open network.

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9 Responses to The revolution will be a bus

  1. Scott Leslie says:

    Apparently blog comments didn’t like me trying to insert an image, so instead this one’s for you

  2. Reverend says:

    Scott,

    Absolutely brilliant, did you photoshop this, or is this a real bus?

  3. Scott Leslie says:

    Maybe someday the buses will sport such slogans, until then you’ll have to live with http://ruletheweb.co.uk/b3ta/bus/

  4. Mike Bogle says:

    Brilliant post and fantastic Bus slogan site.

    There are some really important lessons and ideas in your post, Jim, and I’m wondering how best to introduce them into the discussion with the non-indoctrinated.

    I find that people get the value of RSS for consuming content via readers, but not as a medium for publishing or distribution of content – especially from disparate sources like you do in UMW blogs.

    We’re starting to look into a formal uni blog presence here as you know, but I’m noticing in conversation with others that the whole idea behind RSS is still quite a mystery with most people and the tendency is to operate in the old paradigm.

    People seem used to splitting sites up into silos and having to replicate or reproduce content across them via static text rather than syndicate it. Perhaps we need a follow up to the RSS in Plain English video that covers this.

    That said though I quickly set-up a Netvibes page as a demonstration of its capacity to act as a portal for disparate sources and that seemed to register a bit.

    What is your approach for introducing RSS to real newbies?

    Cheers,

    Mike

  5. Brian says:

    Huzzah.

    Preach it, brother…

  6. Reverend says:

    Hey Mike,

    That is an excellent question, and I have two responses.

    1) When I am presenting RSS to a large group of people and don;t have time to get into a one-on-one, I usually talk about it as a way to save time and energy surfing the web. It is an approch I stole from Tom Woodward, who always thinks of just how much time and effort RSS readers can save you. I build on that, by saying not only time, but this is the very essence of the new web, and to understand how content is changing, you have to start with a few things: bandwidth (a la youtube), wikipedia, and personal publishing—and the last is only powerful because of RSS (this list is stolen from Chris Lott and Brian Lamb).

    2) When I work with a small group of students or faculty, I usually take them into UMW Blogs, and have them tag a post they create, and let them set up their own blog aggregators. This works well, because they quickly realize that they can create their own RSS readers by simply using a blog, a plugi, and a feed. It also allows us to talk about the difference between content and form, and how CSS, theme templates, and content are part of what the new publishing paradigm depends on, an that old ideas of writing HTML (even if just because your learn HTML) is absolutely useless in this moment. It also allows us to focus specifically on how and why posts can be re-published so easily and what that means for ideas of ownership online etc. It is a very rich space for discussion, I just never try and say what RSS is technically, cause I don’t know 🙂 I just show what it can do for their understanding of the web.

  7. Hi Jim!

    I find your analysis deep and very to-the-point. One issue, though, I am not so sure about: the role of LMS’s. True, their closeness might convert them in a crypt of learning: a fact proved by the integration of “closed-world” “blogs” into LSM’s – it doesn’t make sense most of the time. Also, there’s no deying LMS’s are sometimes **used** lazily as simple **containers** of “content”. However, I know Moodle and the way it has been created and is being developed by a worldwide community, and I believe it may be used in a creative, constructionist way. In a few words: even if I am seeing the emergence of WP as a multi-purpose “platform” for expression and dialogue, I am not this sure about the classic LMS demise. … are they doomed?

  8. Reverend says:

    Hey Antonio,

    You raise a really fair point and valid critique of my ideas here, and I think they are important. Here is my thinking on the LMS, let me know what you think about it.

    As of now, the closed system is primarily used for integration and administrative reasons, at least here at UMW:

    1) For integrating with the registrar’s system, which for us is Banner, allowing an automatic population of students within courses in BlackBoard, and with the latest upgrade to Bb 8 a synchronous means of add/dropping students based on this system. Benefits are emailing a class (which is also possible directly through Banner) and generally sharing announcements with students from one central place that is protected. And there is also the odd notion that ingle-signon need be the rule for all things.

    2) The features of an LMS, in this case Bb, are basically threefold: a) the grade book for recording and sharing grades privately, b) protected document uploading and sharing for resources–often times including work that is copywritten, c) testing and quizzing modules.

    Given this range of use, I’m not sure I really understand this space as a teaching and learning hub at all. Rather it is a bloated administrative space that is created as a means to enable ease and efficiency, as well as an expensive “safety-zone” for sharing copywritten work and administering quizzes and tests online. I understand these tools may be essential for the workings of large classes, but I don’t think it changes the larger issue that these tools are being marketed and sold by companies (and open source projects like Moodle and Sakai) as online learning solutions, but they aren’t. None of these systems provides a means for students to take ownership of their work (if they even put any in there) and the file sharing/administrative logic that dominates this space basically makes it an easy way for people to continue to scan and upload documents rather than think through other means of accessing or creating these resources. That said, I understand certain works are out-of-print, prohibitively expensive, or simply inaccessible through any other means, and this is where such a system might be useful—but in that regard it doesn’t really acknowledge a student as author and creator nor does it foster a space for reflection, analysis, and creation out in the open. The permissions based logic of such CMSs precludes the possibility from having an open conversation, and ultimately ignores the publishing revolution that is happening all around higher ed, something it refuses to acknowledge at its own peril. In that regard, this is where I think LMSs are not only out-dated for the most part, but also potentially dangerous for the future of higher education–and education more generally.

    The shift needs to be a shift to the individual as thinker and archivist of their own work, institutions need to get out of the way and build a lightweight structure that will allow individuals to decide what elements of their work are open and which are closed. Giving individuals control over these decisions is in many ways key to the process of coming of age intellectually in a digital world. The more we hide the realities of the open web from learners, the more of a disservice we do to the most crucial aspect of thinking , creating, and researching in our moment—the revolution of openness and becoming part of a streaming conversation through which your identity as a thinker begins to ferment and congeal should in many ways be paramount fo educational institutions at this juncture. This is the process we need to be moving towards, and tools like the LMS are conceptualized and developed at such slow rate that they really can’t take the import of our moment into account without foregoing their entire business model. LMSs continued omnipresence is based more on a system designed for them—one which itself is becoming increasingly less agile in the face of new publishing paradigms. These two slouching beasts have a mutually parasitic relationship when in comes to web-based learning, and they further prolong their existence as need through a kind of interdependency that is increasingly becoming irrelevant to most folks who understand the web as a space to control their own ideas, work, and thoughts to the degree that this is possible. And that degree of possibility is a conversation that needs to happen, but never will if the classic LMS remains the kind of cornerstone off of which all these other, more relevant tools hang. The model needs to be re-thought and while we have seen the web change dramatically over the last 6 years, we have not seen anything like that when it comes to Learning Management Systems. This is the reason why things like WPMu are being re-imagined for education. It is out of necessity and the refusal of companies and schools to really think about the implications of the new web on the very field the exist within. This is negligence, and I think open source educational applications and communities like Moodle and Sakai are simply reproducing a lot of the same outdated logic that the proprietary systems are marketing. Now, I may be wrong here, but I also haven’t seen a compelling example of Sakai or Moodle for teaching and learning yet. Perhaps the weakest element of Stephen Downes and George Siemens CCK08 course was the Moodle forums, even though they were open, they were also hidden away, they couldn’t engage an rss-rich stream of distributed conversation as so many other modes can, and the time and energy people spent writing there will prove hard for them to get out and archive, which represents its own issues.

    So, I have to say the LMS provides a few resources that we cling to, but they all could be reproduced more intelligently in other applications if we abandoned the umbrella like packaging of all these tools into a centralized, mediocre collection of less than open options for personal publishing.

    Does this make sense?

  9. Dear Jim, first of all, I’m sorry I could not be back at your reply earlier… I’m doing **stemmed.org** a “c” portal on the project I was talking to you about in mickeylandia… more about that later.

    You wrote a full paper to reply! Thank you… Let’s see your main points, on which btw I almost agree wholeheartedly.

    You write:
    …”I’m not sure I really understand this space as a teaching and learning hub at all. Rather it is a bloated administrative space that is created as a means to enable ease and efficiency, as well as an expensive “safety-zone” for sharing copywritten work and administering quizzes and tests online.”

    And you are quite right. This reminds me of the undoubted fact that a big percent of LMS “content” is just that, and LMS’s are just used as containers. It also reminds me of Alan Kay, who said we are using the Web to express the same ideas in a different format, alas.

    So it is true, I believe, that LMS’s and particularly big, monolithic and proprietary ones, are just more often that not simple containers. Useful, yes. Administratively correct, yes. But also, academically interesting, I think, in that I see they provide a structure, a railroad on which to pursue cognitive tasks, without being too strict, too “crypt-like”.

    Also, LSM’s somehow sell the concept that “content” is very important, which of course it is, but still… I feel content is very much overrated! So anything which shifts my attention from only content to other ways of engaging me into learning is actually revolutionary.

    The point you raise however is more important. You feel that Web2.0 tools are becoming platforms (likewise I believe Web 2.0 is the new territory where we live & study), and WP is becoming a full platform to express oneself and thus -it is a territory, isn’t it- sometimes engage in learning! Indeed the Web 2.0 metaphor is more open, wide and it will likely trigger more learning opportunities. I love Moodle and all it represents, and I believe it is a good platform for learning, but blog integration **within** it doesn’t make much sense, does it.

    In the end, I have just one question: will LMS’s survive? Will they be rendered obsolete by open 2.0-style systems like blog platforms, which are already absorbing LMS’s components?

    To this, you answer in another point:

    …”The permissions based logic of such CMSs precludes the possibility from having an open conversation, and ultimately ignores the publishing revolution that is happening all around higher ed, something it refuses to acknowledge at its own peril.”

    The right words here are “open conversation”, definitively. And here you win! All closed system (even open-source ones, sic!) are bound to be outdated by platforms which are multi-purpose (publishing, learning, viewing b-movies…) and based on free expression publishing and networking. But, where I see a future for LMS’s is perhaps in a convergence of a Moodle/FaceBook hybrid (for some structure) marrying an open publishing platform. A Frankenstein?

    In this project we are running, we are going to take some science core courses and redesign them around Web 2.0 techniques. So, one question arising is: should we ignore the current Moodle-based state of affairs and go WP all the way? Or find a hybrid solution?

    What do you think?

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