Setting Up a Learner Activity Hub Like #YogaMOOC or #OpenEdMOOC

Since a couple of people have asked about how I put together the Learner Activity Hubs for OpenEdMOOC and YogaMOOC, I thought I would put some of the specifics into a blog post for reference (and to help myself remember later how I did it if we ever do another one). Many of the basics are covered in Alan Levine’s most excellent guide to setting up a network hub, so I will only really cover the few things that I did in addition to those instructions. I also won’t cover too much on where to find options in in WordPress – hopefully you can find that easily online, or already know how to do things like add categories, edit posts, upload images, etc.

But first, I want to go over some unique considerations for our learner hubs. The method I describe here has some extra steps involved due to some of the parameters I wanted to have for the hub. You don’t have to have any or all of these parameters in mind. But what I wanted to have unique for these hubs included:

  • No wall of text. It is pretty easy to dump all course blog posts in one place and have a never ending scroll of text. But that is hard on the eyes and a little counter productive to getting people to connect. Also a bit dehumanizing to the individual posts.
  • Link back to individual websites. The wall of text also discourages people from going to individual blogs, and seeing them as unique individuals. So I wanted to have a theme that at most displayed the post titles, linking back to the source website.
  • Images or graphics to humanize each link. If at possible, I wanted pictures of people to link back to their blogs. This introduced a few unique challenges with technical limitations, but I will discuss work-arounds below.

The basic flow of the work would be that participants that want their work to go into the Hub (this is voluntary) would fill out a form to get me the details about their blog. I would get the results of that form. I would then create a Category for each person (based on the name or a pseudonym they give me), attach a featured image to that category (one that they choose), connect that category to an RSS feed from their blog, and let the magic happen. That way, when they create a post, an image of them with a link to their blog post is added to an image grid of blog posts. I love the results, but the process to get there is a little more involved than I thought it would be.

Setting Up the Hub

With all of that in mind, I selected a theme and some plugins to make those goals happen. Somewhat.  Here is what I chose:

  • FeedWordPress plugin. This is a must have for the Hub – see Alan’s instructions above.
  • Morphology Lite Theme. This one had a nice image-based front page blog grid, although you can’t read the titles until you mouse over each image individually. That part is a bit annoying – I would like to find one that has the image with the text imposed over it. But this theme does the basics of what I need it to do well.
  • Category Featured Images Extended plugin. This allows you to associate an image with a category – this is part of the process for creating the grid front page that I will get into below. FeedWordPress can’t pull in featured images, and most people don’t use them anyways, so this is a way to get the images that the front page of Morphology Lite needs added automatically
  • Ajax Search Lite plugin – as the YogaMOOC Learner hub grew, it became hard to find certain people’s work. This plugin seems to work well as an intuitive search. See the results here. However, I couldn’t get it to work on OpenEdMOOC, which had more plugins than YogaMOOC. It may not play well with some plugins.

The first step was to install Morphology Lite and set up my installation like their demo was set-up – they have some handy instructions here. For YogaMOOC, the blog hub is the front page. For OpenEdMOOC, the blog hub is not the front page. It can be set up either way. One thing to note: there is a setting to tell how many images are on the front page (found in Appearance > Customize > Blog Options > “Image Post Template Count”), and it is initially set pretty low. If you are expecting a lot of posts, you might want to set it high (I currently have YogaMOOC set to 600 with no problems).

Next is to set up the FeedWordPress plugin. I pretty much follow Alan’s instructions above except for one change: I don’t set a default category for all syndicated posts. I do that for each participant individually so they get their own unique category (and make sure all incoming categories are converted to tags as Alan’s instructions say). The reason for this will become apparent below.

Also, you can choose to set up the syndication update scheduling how you like. Because the OpenEdMOOC Hub is smaller, I have it set up like Alan recommends. Because the YogaMOOC is so large, there are typically a few problems with updating automatically. I have to update that one manually each day to deal with those issues.

The Category Featured Images Extended plugin pretty much works right out of the box, but I do recommend setting up a Global Fallback Image, which I will go into below.

The Ajax Search Plugin can be configured how you like, but I recommend making sure to turn on any option that says to search Categories as well.

To get the data from the participants, I created a Google Form and embedded it in a page with some basic instructions and a link to more detailed instructions for those that need it. I just collected the information that I needed – but getting user images is a bit more difficult. Depending on our course, you may want to set up a different system for collecting user images.

The final part of the set-up was to create an initial post that contained the instructions for adding blogs to the hub. I kind of see this post as the cut-off point for older posts – anything older then this was probably not created for the course and can be removed from the Hub. This is up to you of course – you can keep older posts if you like. But this initial post also serves as a visual placeholder to make sure your blog display limit is high enough – if you don’t see the post at the end, then turn up the limit. I also use this post to create the global fall back image for the hub. I set up a default category for the blog, and then add an image branded for the course. The key is to check the “set as global image” option. when editing the Category to add the default image. This will set your course iamge as the default image for anything that doesn’t have one.  This can help you to see any feeds that you set up incorrectly: if you see the image where it shouldn’t be, this signals you that something is wrong with that feed because it is falling back to the default.

Adding People to the Hub

This is where the time consuming part happens. It only takes a minute or two to set up each person, but once you get a long list of people it can add up.  However, this is a time commitment that decreases over time once most people in the course that are going to sign up for the hub are signed up.

Since I used a Google form to collect information, I can get the results in a nice convenient spreadsheet. This is where the fun begins. Some people fill out the form great, others miss a lot. I try to extract a name, a link to a blog feed, and an image for each person. The name and image can be flexible, but if the blog link doesn’t work or has no RSS feed, I mark it as a problem and move to the next one. Additionally, I try to respect what people put in the form. If they say they are using a course tag instead of a full blog, but there is no tag, I mark it as a  problem and move on. Once I get through the whole list, I send an email to those with problems with links to help them their issues (typically a form email with everyone BCC’d on it).

The first step is create a category for each person based on their name (or pseudonym if they choose). Sometimes I have to look at their email address or Twitter account to get a fuller name in order to make sure there aren’t several “John”s or whatever in the system (since some people only seem to enter their first name). As soon as you add a new category, it appears at the top of the list – very convenient. I click on the edit link immediately to add the default image for this participant’s category:

The “add image” option can be found near the bottom of the edit category page. Something to think about for images in the Morphology Lite theme: the system displays the image at full size on the front page. This will lead to a chaotic patchwork effect for images of different sizes. If you like that, then no problem. I really wanted to have an organized grid, so I manually crop and resize each image to 240px by 240px. This takes time, but gives a good grid for the final product.

A quick note on finding images. I tell people to have the image they want on their about page of the blog they use, but not everyone does that. Some of them I have to search the source code for an avatar that is hidden (WordPress loves to do this for some reason). Sometimes I have to pull one of the images off the header or sidebar of the blog. But since many of these are stock images within the popular themes, those run out quickly. So then I look for their Twitter avatar if they have one. But sometimes (more often than you would believe), I come up with no images – anywhere. So I basically run their name through jdenticon to get a unique image and move on.

Once you have an image associated with the category and have it updated, you should see it on the Category page:

The Next step is to go to the Syndication area to add the blog to the Hub. This is where it can get tricky as well. Not all blogging services work the same. WordPress works the best for full blogs and tags/categories. Blogger will also work for full blog, but you have to do some link trickery to get Labels (their version of tags/categories) to work (see Alan’s instructions on this one). Some services like Wix, Weebly, etc are just downright problematic at best. They might need RSS feeds turned on for the whole blog, and often RSS feeds don’t work well at all for tags/categories. See Alan’s instructions again on finding tricky RSS feeds.

Once you have the feed, you will need to add it to the syndication area found here:

If a participant is using a full blog, then you usually pick the first one in the list that comes up when you click “Add.” If they are using WordPress tags/categories, you will usually have to scroll down to the third Option on in the list (which is the feed specifically for the category):

Once the feed is added, I will typically add the participant category right away while their name is still fresh in my mind. Scroll down to find the feed you just added. Of course, if you have a large class this list might get long after too long. If you are adding several and are doing them one at a time by following these directions, you can do a CTRL + F to search the page for “none” and this will take you to the new one you just added in the list since it (theoretically) shouldn’t have updated yet. Click on the “Categories” link under the feed you just added:

Then scroll down that page to find the category list, look for the person’s name you just created, click the box next to them, and save:

This will connect their category named after them (which is attached to their image) to their specific feed that you just added. What I usually do after this is go back to syndicated websites, search for the new feed again, and click the “Update Now” button next to it. This lets me check to see if everything is working while also clearing out the “none” next to the “last update” label so that I can search for the next feed I add easily. Once that is finished, it should tell you how many posts were pulled in:

If you are using Morphology Lite, there is still one step needed to add blog posts to the front page. Morphology only displays posts on the front page that are set to the post format of “Image.” FeedWordPress pulls in all posts as a “Standard” post format, even if you tell it to use the “Image” post format. That feature just doesn’t work in Morphology for some reason. However, it does give you the ability to moderate posts since you have to change each post to the correct format before it appears. Sounds weird, but you would be surprised how much non-course stuff I have gotten in the Hubs (resumes, recipes, and randomness, oh my!).

You can find the posts you need to update easily in the Posts list – Image post formats have an image symbol next to them, and the new ones just added should be missing it:

Click edit to update the post. Then change the post format from “Standard”:

To “Image”:

Save, and you are done.

Alternatively, once you get a large number of posts, it may be hard to go into the post list and find one or two new posts hiding in hundreds of links. You can go to the Categories page and use the search bar to find the category you just added, then click on the number in the Count column to just display those posts from that category:

Then I usually like to go to the hub to make sure the new smiling face is in there, just to make sure:

That is about it – repeat until everyone is in. I will also send out a mass email to all that I added successfully as well as a mass email to those that had problems so that they will all know where they stand. A quick note: if people update their post on their blog, FeedWordPress will also update the related info on your Hub. This will reset the post Format back to “Standard,” and the post will no longer appear on the front page. You might want to go through the full post list from time to time to catch these older updated posts.

I tend to go through the moderation process each morning just to make sure it doesn’t pile up.

Hope that covers it all – I will update if I run across anything I forgot.

Learner Activity Hub Guide for #OpenEdMOOC and #YogaMOOC

For those that are taking The Science and Practice of Yoga (YogaMOOC) or Introduction to Open Education (OpenEdMOOC), you might have noticed that we have a learner activity hub for both (OpenEdMOOC here and YogaMOOC here). We did this so that learners could create their reflections on their own websites, but still be connected in manner that is better than posting links in the discussion forum.

After putting many people in the hub, I realized it would have been a good idea to create a more comprehensive guide to creating a blog for these hubs. Better late than never. If you have created a blog and got the email that you were successfully added, this guide might still help you improve your blog. If you got an email saying there is a problem, this guide will hopefully help trouble shoot what caused that. If you are thinking of submitting a blog, please read this guide fully before doing so (even if you are an experienced blogger – not all blog platforms work the same in the hub).

I will start off by going over setting up a blog for the hub, and then cover the parts of the form to sign up for the hub (OpenEdMOOC here and YogaMOOC here) and why we need that info. First, the most important part.

You Need to Have a Blog

A blog is optional in either course, therefore you will have to set one up on your own (or use an existing one). We do not create a blog for you (some people filled out the form thinking that was the case). The blog you use will need to be public (private blogs do not work with the hub). Putting your blog in the hub is also optional, so no problem if you want to keep it private.

WordPress.com blogs are the best option to use with the hub, so if you are new to blogging (or want to create another blog just for this course), then I recommend starting there. The Hub uses WordPress itself, so it works best with those blogs that also use WordPress. Blogger/Blogspot blogs also work well (just read the exception to tags/categories below). Other blogging platforms – Tumblr, Weebly, Wix, Web.com, etc – are hit and miss. The Hub uses a technology called RSS to pull in posts, and some of those platforms have RSS feeds turned off it seems. If you use those platforms, you will have to turn on RSS. If you want to use one of those platforms with tags/categories (see below), you will also need to turn on RSS for tags/categories.

Setting up a Blog

Once you create your blog, you will need to set it up so that we can pull in your posts to the Hub. A newly created blog will generally need a few things to be ready for the hub. Since I am recommending WordPress, I will cover how to this on WordPress – but other blogging platforms should have similar functions.

First, you need to decide if the blog is going to only be used only for the course, or if it will have other topics covered (or already has). Either way is fine – if you want to cover a wide range of topics, but only want to have the ones on your course feed into the Learner Hub, we can do that with tags and categories.

Once you have decided how to use the blog, come up with a title for it that matches how you want to use it. Then change the title in the General Settings. We have probably 30 or so blogs currently in the Hub just called “Site Title” because many don’t change this setting :)

Next, you will probably want to edit the About page that most blogs come with. It is a good idea to put a picture you want to use in the Hub on that page. You have probably noticed that the Hub shows pictures of some people with their post, and generic ones for others. This is because I was able to find images of some people on their websites. I start with the About page and use any image there. Then I look on the sidebar or any other places for images. I also look on Twitter for an avatar there if you put that in there. I then look for any other images on the blog, even if they are stock images from the default template. If I can’t find anything, or the only image I can find has already been used, then I put your name in jdenticon. Note that you can use any image of yourself you want, or even something else to represent yourself like your favorite animal. Just note in the comment forms where the image is that you want me to use, or respond to the confirmation email from me with the image or link to it. Whatever you are comfortable with – your picture or some other image – is fine with me.

Finally, you need to have at least one blog post about the course you are taking, even if the whole blog is going to be used for the course. People try to spam the hub with their… whatever, so having content on your website about the course let’s me know you are legit. WordPress blogs start off with a sample blog post already there. The Hub seems to ignore these if they are left as is, so make sure to change that post to something about the course, or delete it and write a new one. If you want to use tags or categories to designate which content to pull into the Hub, then make sure to add a “YogaMOOC” tag or category to your post (these are called “labels” in Blogger). This is probably the biggest mistake people make filling out the form – they say they are using a tag or category, but then I can’t find a post with either one. I respect people’s wishes on this, so make sure to do what you indicated in the form. If you need help on tags/categories/labels, see these links:

Final note – if you don’t like the way your blog looks, there are thousands of different themes you can choose from to change it.

Filling Out The Form

Once your blog is ready to go, it is time to fill out the form for your course. I wanted to make a couple of notes about the fields on the form:

Name / Pseudonym: We use this to sort the posts in the Hub. Each person is given a category based on their name or a pseudonym. Please note: if you put just your first name in here, there is a chance that will get taken up quickly, and I will have to improvise a longer name for you. Names like “Kat”, “John”, etc get taken up quickly.

Email: This is where we will send confirmation or notification of failure. These are bulk emails, so be sure to check your spam folder.

Twitter Name: Not a requirement, but if you have an avatar there you would like to use in the Hub, then fill this out.

Blog URL: This is the second place people often make a mistake. This is the link to your blog for the people that read it, not to the control panel for your blog. Make sure to view your blog and share that full URL. Also remember: if you can’t copy what you put into this field and put it in a browser to pull up your website, then neither can I. Please make sure it is a full web address. Also, make sure it is not a link to your Facebook page or Instagram account – these are not blogs.

Hub Options: Make sure to choose the one that you will use (full blog dedicated to course, using blog category for course, or using blog tag for course). This is where I find the most mistakes in the form – people say they will use a tag or category and then do not. Also, make sure to use the tag/category designated for your course (YogaMOOC or OpenEdMOOC). Please note that using hashtags like #YogaMOOC or #OpenEdMOOC in the title or body of a blog is not the same as using the label or category feature of your blog.

Comments or Concerns: Let us know any comments/concerns you have here. Also, if there is a specific image you want to use in the Hub, let us know where it is in this field.

You will only need to submit the form once. The process of getting your blog into the hub is a manual one, so there could be a delay before I get it finished (especially if you submit outside of business hours in my timezone). If your blog makes it in the Hub, I will send a confirmation email. If there is problem, you will get an email about that (a generic one that repeats some of this blog post). Once you have fixed any issues with the Hub, respond to the email to let me know your blog is ready to try again. Due to the large number of learners in our courses, I can’t go back and check each one to see if errors have been fixed or not – you will have to let me know when it is ready. Don’t fill out the form again – just respond to the email.

Also, no need to fill out the form every time you create a blog post. The process of pulling in new posts is somewhat automated once you are in.

New blog posts have to go through a process of moderation in order to make sure no spam slips through. Therefore, there may be a delay from the time you publish your post and when it appears on the Hub.

Finally, if you want to change anything about the way your blog appears in the Hub after it has been successfully added, just respond to the confirmation email. No need to fill out the form again.

I hope this covers anything, but feel free to let me know if I left anything out. Have fun, and thank you for your participation!

Further Reflections on #OLCInnovate

After last reflecting on a specific issue at the OLC Innovate, I wanted to dive into a few random reflections and then cover my session. In many ways, I have been getting burned out on conferences. Going to session after session of hit or miss topics and then straight to mixers in the evening can be a bit of a chore. Of course, I realize that many people that attend are like me – they have to present something in order to get funding to attend. So I recognize that sessions are a necessary thing for many people. It just gets hard to go to sessions all day long.

I have always wanted to do a dual-layer conference in the same vein as our learning pathways model: one option of structured presentations and another option of unstructured unconference time that attendees can mix and match to their liking. Or even a day of structure followed by a day of unconferencing. The OLC Innovate conference had some different options like that with the Innovation Lab – a place where you could roam in and look at anything from games to design thinking to improvisation. It’s not exactly a dual-layer design, but still flexible. Due to some lingering headaches, I wasn’t able to attend everything in the Innovation Lab, but what I did see was quite enjoyable. Some of the highlights:

  • Game Design. I wish I could explore game design more in depth, but the taste of it I got at OLC Innovate will probably drive me back into exploration even more. Keegan Long-Wheeler and John Stewart from OU both do an excellent job framing game design in education. Keegan chronicled their lab activities better than I could, so read his post for a better summary. Also see me playing Nintendo Switch as well as hear about our epic dinner adventures.
  • Improvisation and Innovation. My last post described how I was not happy with some of the framing of Innovation at OLC Innovate. The Innovation Lab was a welcome counter point to that narrative. Ben Scragg, Dave Goodrich, and many others showed us how innovation can occur in every day activities, using everything from improv audience participation skits to the most excellent blues guitar improv of Rick Franklin.
  • Legos. Yep, there were Legos at OLC Innovate. I played with them. I tweeted about them. Apparently my Tweet about Legos was honest enough to win me an award. I can now prove to any doubters that I am certifiably honest now :)
  • The Prophet of Innovation Doom. Who ever created this Twitter account is weird. They should probably be banned from OLC events for life. Or put in charge of OLC. Not sure which one yet.

Now for my session at OLC Innovate. I was a bit nervous about this one. This year would be my fourth presentation along the topics of open learning and learner agency (the first two were at ET4Online and then the next two at OLC Innovate). The past three years were successful mostly because I knew many of the people coming to my sessions already, and I knew they were generally in favor of my work. It is easy to joke around, get audience participation, and go off on tangents when you already have that rapport with the attendees. Plus, the first two years I presented with my regular co-presenter Harriet Watkins. Last year Harriet was at my session even though we weren’t able to present together. This year, Harriet and many of the people I was used to presenting with or to were not going to be there. My security blanket was gone. Additionally, even most of the people that were there and that I already knew (like Keegan and John) were presenting at the same time. So I went into this session not knowing who would show up (if anyone) and even if they would want to participate in the discussion or laugh at my corny jokes.

Luckily, I had a great time. I would say that it was even my most interactive session yet. We had a great time digging through the practicals of designing a course that allows learners to self-map their learning pathway. And they asked some really hard questions. I like it when that happens. I had a line of people afterwards asking me questions. Someone even told me I was one of the few truly innovative presentations at the conference. Take that ELI! :)

(ELI rejected a presentation on the same topic a few years ago. I’m still a little bitter about that I am told.)

My only regret about my session is that special situations outside of work made me too busy to connect with Virtually Connecting to bring them into my session again. I did that last year and it was a blast. Keegan was a part of that last year and his blog post backs up how good of an idea it was to bring them into my session. Of course, it was thanks to Harriet, Rebecca HogueAutumm Caines, Whitney Kilgore, Maha Bali (I even practiced pronouncing her name correctly over and over again and then was too busy or sick to be in VC), and others with VC that made it so successful last year. Hopefully next time!

Here were some highlights from the session that will apply to future posts I am sure. Sorry that I didn’t capture names well enough to give credit to these ideas – if you said one of these let me know and I will update the post!

  • Competencies. My goal was to talk about how to convert objectives to competencies, because that is what I usually have to do with the instructors I am used to working with. The attendees at my session were coming up with great competencies already. What did they need me for? They even brought up several topics that were difficult to have in both competency and objective formats. They weren’t giving me a free pass, that was for sure. The best kind of questions are the hard ones that expose problems with your ideas.
  • Open Rubrics. While discussing the need to have less detailed rubrics, one attendee pointed out that learners could even create their own rubric. In other words, it would be a rubric with the conditions and criteria blank, for the learner to create in a way that allows them to prove they have learned the content or mastered the skill or whatever it may be. This was an idea brought up last year, but in a more general form of allowing learners to grade themselves. This is a more concrete idea that would lend itself more to situations where grades are required.
  • Gamification. Some one mentioned that in many ways, self-mapping is like creating a game out of one’s learning journey. In the Game Station at the Innovation Lab I was re-introduced to Twine. Twine is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” Teacher could look at creating their neutral zone and pathways options in Twine. Learners could use Twine in place of something like Storify possibly. I need to get in and play with the tool some, but I like the idea of looking at a self-mapped pathway as a game.
  • Real Heutagogy. Someone actually came to the session because he knew the term “heutagogy.” This is good, but also scary. Would my idea live up to scrutiny by someone that actually knows a lot about heutagogy? Apparently, it did. He liked it. That is a good sign.
  • Visualizing Pathways. There was a lot of interest in visualizing the pathways that learners take. My mock-up of what that could look like sparked that. We need to find ways to create visual representations of this, because I think it could actually help instructors gain insight into what is happening in their courses. Are there certain points where all learners come back to the instructivist option? Or maybe flee it to the connectivist option? Would those be places where the instructor is exerting too much control? If the learner could see those patterns, would that tell them something they maybe have missed? Is there something happening out in the less structured pathway they are missing? Learner self-analytics: it could be a thing.

There is probably more that I am missing, but this is getting long. As others have said, the conversations and connections were the real gold of this conference. If I get to go again in the future (you never know where the budget in the State of Texas will be at that point), my focus will definitely be on the Innovation Lab and the interaction times. And, of course, the OLCInnovateSnark Twitter Tag as well :)

Can the Student Innovate? An #OLCInnovate Reflection

The 2nd OLC Innovate conference is now over. I am sure there will be many reflections out there on various aspects of the conference. I hope to get to reflect on my presentation on learning pathways and some of the ideas that attendees shared. But I wanted to first dig into one of the more problematic aspects of the conferee: the place and role of students.

The biggest problem related to students at the conference was how they were framed as cheaters at every turn. Chris Gilliard wrote a blog post that explores this aspect in depth. I was able to finally meet and hang out with Chris and many others at Innovate. Those of us that got to hang out with Chris got to hear him pondering these issues, and his blog post makes a great summary of those ponderings.

The other student issue I wanted to reflect was also part of what Chris pondered at the conference as well:

Of course, as soon as I tweeted that, we found there were a few sessions that had students there. But for the most part, the student voice was missing at OLC Innovate (like most conferences).

At some levels, I know how difficult it is to get students at conferences. Even giving them a discounted or free registration doesn’t help them with expensive hotel or travel costs. Sponsoring those costs doesn’t help them get a week off from class or work or both to attend. Its a daunting thing to coordinate. But considering the thousands of attendees at OLC Innovate representing tens or hundreds of thousands of learners out there, surely some effort to find the money would have brought in a good number if the effort had been there.

But beyond that, it seemed that in many places the whole idea of students even being able to “innovate” was left out of some definitions of innovation. Not all, of course. Rolin Moe brought his Innovation Installation back to OLC Innovate, which served as a welcome space to explore and ponder the difficulties in defining “innovation” (those pesky-post modernists always wanting us to “deconstruct” everything….) Rolin did an excellent job of looking at situating the definition of innovation as an open dialogue – a model I wish more would follow:

The definitions of innovation became problematic in the sessions and keynotes. The one that really became the most problematic was this quote from one keynote:

https://twitter.com/mrkampmann/statuses/850107391387611136

(I am also not a fan of the term “wicked problems”)

The context for this definition was the idea that innovation is a capability that is developed, and really only happens after a certain level of ability is obtained (illustrated by a pianist that has to develop complex technical skill before they can make meaningful innovative music). The idea that some creativity/innovation isn’t “good” was highlighted throughout the same keynote:

For context, here is the list of “Innovation Capabilities” that were shared:

There was also various other forms of context, all of which I thought were good angles to look at, but still very top-down:

This was capped off by the idea that there are “good kinds” of innovation and “bad kinds” of innovation, and we should avoid the bad innovations:

Of course, the master of all meme media Tom Evans made a tool to help us make these decisions:

What one person sees as a “bad” innovation might be a “good” innovation to another. Not sure how to make the determination in such an absolute sense.

There was also an interesting terms of “innovation activist” that was thrown in there that many questioned:

I get that many want a concrete definition of innovation. But I think there are nuances that get left out when we push too strongly in any one direction for our definitions. For example, I agree that innovation is a capability that can be trained and expanded in individuals. But it is also something that just happens when a new voice looks at a problem and comes up with a random “out of the blue” idea. My 6 year old can look at some situation for the first time and blurt out innovative ideas that I had never heard of. Of course, he will also blurt out many ideas that are innovative to him, but that I am already aware of. And there lies the difficulty of defining “innovation”….

Whatever innovation is, there is a relative element to it where certain ideas are innovative to some but not to others. Then there is the relative element that recognizes that innovation is a capability that can be cultivated, but cultivation of that capability is not necessarily a prerequisite to doing something “innovative.”

In other words, any definition of innovation needs to include the space for students to participate, even if they are new to the field that is “being innovated.” The list of Educational Capabilities pictured above is very instructor/administrator/leader centric. Some of those items could be student-centered, but the vocabulary on the slide seems to indicate otherwise. But ultimately I guess it goes back to whether one sees innovation as absolute or relative to begin with. If Innovation (with a capital “I”) is absolute, then there are definitely some things that are innovative at all times in all contexts and some things that aren’t, and therefore Innovation is a capability that has to be developed and studied in order to be understood before participating. But if innovation (with a lower case “i”) is relative, then anyone that is willing to can participate. Including students. But you rarely (at any conference) see the student voice represented in the vendor hall. And as with any conference, how goes the vendor hall, so goes the conference….

Creating a Self-Mapped Learning Pathway

One of the questions I get about learning pathways (on the rare occasion someone actually reads this blog and ask a question) is “when we give learners the option to chose between instructor-centered options and learner-centered options, how do they record what they are doing?” Sure, learners could blog about what they do, but that often ends up being a narrative about the pathway they create rather than an actual visual representation of the pathway itself. A blog post is great in many ways, but I think people are often wonder if there is something different.

Currently, there is no tool that does what I would like one to do to cover everything in the process:

  1. Create a map of the learning pathway that one plans to take
  2. Collects artifacts as one follows (and adjusts) that pathway
  3. Adds a layer of reflection on the learning process that explains why choices were made and artifacts were created.

Blog tools can do this, but you have to scroll through multiple posts to see all of these elements, or set out a lot of ground rules on how to make one blog post to contain all of this. Again, those blog posts can be useful in many ways, but also still not completely cover the process in the best way possible.

At this point, there is really nothing that could do this “the best way possible.” However, if it were me, I would use a combination of a blog, Storify, and Hypothes.is to create the three steps above. Here is how I would accomplish that. I will use a hypothetical example to illustrate.

First, I would create a blog post that basically lists out the learning map I plan to follow. For example, let’s say that I am in a class on Artificial Intelligence and my task is to map out my learning pathway for the first unit. I would create a blog post that lists out thew steps I plan on taking, for example:

  1. Read chapter one from the textbook
  2. Read the Wikipedia article on Artificial Intelligence to learn about recent developments.
  3. Check Google News on AI for recent news stories.
  4. Read this blog post I found on AI and comment
  5. Tweet my thoughts on AI
  6. Join the #AIChat on Twitter
  7. Create my own video on AI to satisfy the Module 1 competency on AI

Alternatively, this list could also be placed at the top of a Storify about this module, followed by the next step. Or the link to the Storify could be placed in this blog post after this list. My link above has random links I found through Google, but those could also be more specific links if this were a real class :)

For those that are interested, here is what the example list above looked like in Storify (you can see later that it ended up looking different in the end):

In an ideal world where a pathways tool exists to do this for me, a Storify-like tool would exist that allows instructors to pre-populate a blank map with instructor suggested content, assignment bank options, scaffolding tools (for those not used to self-directed learning), and some generic social networking/connectivist options off to the side for learners to drag and drop into an interactive map with clickable links to whatever is needed.

Next, after the map is created, I would use Storify to create evidence of the pathway as I follow it. Technically, you could also use a blog to do this. I like Spotify because it makes searching social networks easy, and the drag and drop interface makes it easy to arrange things as you like. Of course, you can do that with cut and paste on a blog post, but I still prefer the way Storify pulls it together. Not to mention how you can embed or export your creations. You may like something different – that is great. Whatever works for you is great.

You can look at the mock-up of my learning pathway on Storify, or see the embedded version below:

 

Back to the ideal world, if the pathways tool existed, it would have something that looks a lot like Storify as a layer on top of map that existed. People looking at the tool could easily switch between the two to see the map the way that it was planned and then the pathway as it played out in real life. Or maybe the two would exist on the same page, with UX design elements that indicate what artifacts match with which map item, where map items were dropped, where map items were changed, where new ideas were added, etc.

Finally, I would reflect on the pathway process and why I made the choices that I did: Why did I choose this option? Why did I choose to create these artifacts for those options? Why did I add this option? Why did I abandon this thing that I mapped? And so on.

This again could be a blog post as well, or an addition to an existing map post. However, I would prefer to be able to give short explanations of specific choices, ideally where the reader could see exactly what I was talking about. Something like Hypothes.is annotating my Storify artifact pathway. The great thing about Hypothes.is is that I can explain specific parts of my pathway while pointing at that pathway, and it is a social system that would allow others to comment/reflect on my work as well.

If you have Hypothes.is installed, you can see the example annotations I made on my example Storify above by going to the page. If you don’t have Hypothes.is installed, you can try this page to see if the annotations appear there for you (click on the yellow highlighted text).

Annotation would also be a built in part of the pathways tool in the ideal world that I envision. Instead of installing a separate tool like Hypothes.is, learners could just click on any part of their pathway and add a comment like they would in Microsoft Word.

All of this is just one example of what I would do if I was a learner in a self-mapped learning pathway (aka dual-layer or customizable modalities) course. I actually had a lot of fun creating the examples, so I hope to use these ideas myself sometime soon. Most of what I have blogged about in the past on this topic was focused on the design and theory of these courses, but all of that needs to fade into the background to decrease design presence in a course with this degree of learner choice. The focus of what learners need to see is something like this that focuses on how they self-map their own learning pathway. Hopefully I will explore all of this in my OLC Innovate session next week.

Is Innovation Contextual or Absolute?

When discussing the concept of truth, many people will make the distinction between “truth” (lower case t) and “Truth” (upper case T), where “Truth” refers to ultimate truth that is true for all, and “truth” referring more to contextual truth that may be true for some but not others. Or, to simplify, absolute Truth and relative truth.

In many ways, I see the same need to differentiate between “Innovation” and “innovation” when discussing the overall concept of innovation. Of course, I’m not sure if I really want to make such a problematic connection between innovation and truth. But I think there is something to determining whether someone is referring to absolute innovation or relative innovation. There are ideas and tools that are new to everyone and therefore count as absolute innovation, and then there are ideas and tools that are not new to everyone, but are new to those that are just discovering them.

For example, online learning is a concept that has been around for decades. It is not absolutely Innovative in a general sense. But to schools that have no online courses, their first online courses will be innovative in their context. Or to a person that has avoided going online in general (or didn’t have access to the internet), the ability to take online courses will also be innovative to them.

Of course, even the idea of “absolute innovation” is problematic. Virtual Reality seems like a new, innovative idea to most…. but the truth is, the concept of virtual reality has been around for some time. Maybe you can more accurately say that the idea of a more widely-available digitally-created simulation-based computer-run semi-immersive interactive virtual reality is innovative in general to anyone. A lot of dashes there.

And I have also intentionally not spelled out how I am defining innovation beyond “something new” for this article. Another problematic area.

So why does all this matter? It probably doesn’t for most. I first ran into this issue 6-7 years ago as a chair for a proposal review committee for an “emerging technologies” track at a conference. The track description relied heavily on the term “innovation” to delineate between “emerging technology” and “latest and greatest technology” (because that was another track). We had submissions that ranged from using the (just recently-released at the time) Google Wave in classrooms to teaching with PowerPoint. Where does one draw the line between “current” and “emerging” based on the criteria of “innovation”?

Well, long story short… you don’t if you want to keep everyone happy :) You let people self-define whether they are innovative or not in their context and then let them take the heat if the session attendees don’t agree that their idea was innovative in general.

So it might surprise people that as an “Innovation Coordinator,” I don’t just look at things like virtual reality and learning analytics. I also look at many established instructional design and digital presence ideas. I also look at low tech ideas on how to be a human in a digital age. Even more shocking to some is how I talk about how throwing a handful of dirt at a poster board on the ground to demonstrate the “Big Bang” to 8th grade students as being one of the more innovative ideas I utilized back when I was an 8th Grade Science teacher. Sure, I also created my own online course hub that I hand-coded in html in the summer of 2000 long before most were putting K-12 material online. But I also had to find a way to help 8th graders visualize the Big Bang on a $200 a year total budget (classroom material, science equipment, everything – $200). So what did I do? I put a white poster-board on the ground, grabbed a handful of dirt, pebbles, and grass in my hand, and did a 2 minute demo on what the Big Bang would look like. It was effective. It was cheap. It was innovative in that context.

I definitely wish there was more focus on looking at innovation beyond the coolest, newest, most expensive gadgets, apps, programs, ideas, etc. How do we innovate when cost is a barrier? When technology access is non-existent? When we need to transfer online lessons to face-to-face classes? We have all kinds of media outlets that look at Innovation the moment “it” happens – any new device, tool, idea, app. But what does innovation look like in a contextual situation, where budgets are small, resources are constrained, and technology access is limited? And not just current situations, but situations that have historically lacked in these areas? How do we innovate access to technology itself? How do we innovate the cost of technology? There is a much wider and more nuanced conversation about innovation to be had.

Being a Human Shopper in a Digital Online Shopping Age

So with a new year, our research lab is going to focus on writing and setting goals for the upcoming year. Our main question at LINK Lab is “What does it mean to be human in a digital age?” I thought this would be a great place to start with processing what my goals should be, so I began my quest to write goals for the year with that question in mind. Then some national news this week helped bring some clarity to how my personal goals would relate to our main question.

This week was full of news that Sears, Macy’s, JC Penny’s and other big name stores are laying off workers and closing stores. Many people have been posting this news on various social media outlets with the general response of “I like to shop online better anyways.” Of course, I do as well. But I have noticed over the last few years that I still make a point to go buy some things in person that I could easily buy online, even while I still buy many things online.

For me, this is one way I am unconsciously pushing back against the increasing loss of control that comes along with living in a digital world. For instance, I know the exact pair of blue jeans that will always fit me from a certain store no matter what. I could easily buy those jeans online, and know that they will be the right pair for me. But I still find myself wandering into the local mall to buy new jeans when I need them. Something in me is pushing back against the digital age to still connect with being a human. Shopping in person is a very human experience. You get to touch and observe the exact product you will buy before buying it.

When you buy something online, you lose control over what you get. It will probably end up being the right thing, but you still lose that control until it arrives at your door. For me, to still be a human shopper in a digital online shopping age means to take control over some things and go do what a human would do. This may be shopping in brick and mortar stores in person, or driving myself somewhere when I could have gotten an Uber, or drawing a picture on a piece of paper instead of blogging about an idea(I have a really interesting idea for a drawing to do about my pathways work – hope I get time to draw that out soon). Its not that online shopping or Uber or blogging are bad – I just need to do things for me that remind me of what it means to be human. That might be different for different people.

To bring this back to work, for me, the aspect of “what does it mean to be human in a digital age” that interests me the most is the tension between control and agency.

In a learning context for projects to be researched, that interest would manifest itself in a question something along the lines of “What happens when learners have more agency over their learning journey?”

edugeek-journal-avatarThis question is obviously a work in process that will probably be refined over the next few weeks. I hope to get some decent goals out of this overarching question that would apply to pathways, virtual reality, publications, etc. But it is a starting point for me at least.

Is It Really Learner Agency If The Instructor “Empowers” It?

For a few years now I have been struggling with how to “verb” agency in education (sometimes referred to as learner agency or student agency). When people first become aware of the idea, they tend to use terminology like “I want to allow student agency in my classes.” I guess on some levels that is technically what happens in many cases, as the teacher typically holds the power in the course, and they have to allow agency to happen.

However, once one uses that terms a bit and gets used to the idea, you usually realize that “allowing” agency is kind of a contradiction. People tend to shift towards using the term “empower”… as in, “My goal was to empower learner agency in this lesson.” This is the verb I hear most at conferences the few times that agency in education is touched on.

Of course, saying that the instructor is “empowering” agency is pretty problematic as well. Is a learner’s thought process really independent if the instructor is the one that empowered it? Is the autonomous action that flows from independent thought really all that autonomous if the teacher had to initiate the power to make it happen?

With some twists in logic and semantic word play, I am sure one could say that agency can be empowered, but to be honest – it really can’t. If the teacher is the one that “empowers” it, then its not really agency. What many really mean when they refer to “empowering agency” is “tricking learners into doing something that looks like independent thought and action, even if they didn’t really independently decide to think or act that way because at the end of the lesson there was a grade for coming up with something within specific instructor-determined parameters.”

I have started using terms like “unleash” when discussing agency in presentations, because that is probably about all you can really do with agency – remove the barriers that are holding it down, and let it do its own thing. But still, not really the best verb for agency.

Of course, this is probably why we don’t see much true learner agency in formal education settings – you set it loose, and it could go in any direction, or none, sometimes both from the same learner. It becomes something that is difficult to standardize and quantify once it really happens.

However, I am speaking of agency as if it is something that turns on and off at the flick of a switch, when the reality is that there are shades of agency that exist on a spectrum. Even when we unleash it, or just stand back and see what happens (or how ever you want to “verb” it), its not like learners just jump right into agency feet first and swim around in it like a natural. Some need guidance, scaffolding, a hand to hold, etc – whether because they are new to the idea in a system that has never allowed it or because they just need a more experienced hand to point them towards which way to go. Oh sure, there are many that do just launch out with little to no guidance to do it just fine. In any one class, you are going to have learners all over the place. They will even switch places from day to day or hour to hour.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgency in learning is something that takes the predictable linear instructivist narrative and explodes it all kinds of directions, but then even messes with linear time in that explosion as some need it to go slower while others need a guide through the explosion and others ride the explosion with enthusiasm wanting it to go faster. Oh, and then they all change their place in that process without a moments notice. So how does one come up with a verb to explain this chaos?

(image credit: Blue Chaos 3 by Josh Klute)

Decreasing Design Presence

With the Humanizing Online Learning MOOC in full swing, I wanted to dig more into a topic that I tend to allude to at conference presentations. While educators often talk (rightly so) about increasing teaching, social, and cognitive presence, there is also one form of presence that needs to be decreased when designing and teaching courses: design presence.

I’m using “design presence” here to cover a wide range of user interface, instructional design, and learning theory issues. In my mind, there are at least three areas that are heavy on design presence, and therefore design presence needs to be decreased in these areas:

  1. Technological Design Presence: tool/technology interfaces and instructions
  2. Instructional Design Presence: tool and content instructional design decisions
  3. Epistemological Design Presence: underlying learning theory choices

While some might notice there is some overlap with these areas and teacher, social, and cognitive presence, I have found that there are still some differences. Working to decrease design presence also ends up helping to increase teaching, social, and cognitive presence in the long-run.

Technological Design Presence

This is an area where user interface and instructional design collide, and for many courses designers the options are pre-determined by institutional adoptions. However, where choices are allowed, utilizing tools that have the least complex user interface options is ideal. For example, if you really want to use a listserv, but the tool you have to use is complex to sign-up and use, why not use Twitter? The user interface on Twitter is very simple compared to some older mass email tools. If you have to have a really complex set of instructions to use a tool, why not consider using something with less instructions and stress on the learner?

Or if you have a listserv tool that is easier to use than Twitter, why not use that instead of Twitter?

Where there are several options within a tool (like an LMS), why not choose the least confusing, most ready-to-use tool? Newer features in larger LMS tool sets often have a steep learning curve. For example, the blog feature in Blackboard was very confusing when it was first released, and it really worked more as a re-arranged discussion board. If you have to stay within Blackboard, then stick with the tools that take the least amount of time to explain to learners.

Additionally, think about other issues that cause unnecessary technology confusion. Blackboard was infamous for allowing course designers to set-up boxes within boxes within boxes. Avoid using tools and content structures just because you can. Avoid using desktop tools that make no sense online (like “folders” inside of online content). Avoid using complex navigational structures just because you can.

Once learners have to click around a half dozen times just to get somewhere, or dig through complex tool instructions, or spend too much time figuring out what you want them to do, they are running into too much technological design presence. Decrease what you can where you can.

Instructional Design Presence

This next facet has many connections to the first one, so there will probably be some overlap. Many times, course designers will make tool and content design decisions that are unnecessarily complex. For example, complex grading schemes that require dense explanations and calculators to figure out. Why go there? Obviously, there is merit to the idea that grades are problematic altogether, but many instructors are stuck with them. So why make them so complex? Why not just base course grades on a 100 point scale (which most people understand already), and make each assignment a straight portion of that grade. Complex structures based on weighted grades and 556 point scales and what not are a burden for both the instructor and the learner.

Rubrics are also a part of this area. Complex rubrics with too many categories and specific point values are, again, a burden for learners and instructors. Compare the complexity of this rubric with this one. I realize some people like the first one because it has so much detail, but to be honest, it is something most readers aren’t going to read through, because just glancing at it could cause stress.

Or another issue might be design choices that add unnecessary complexity, like having students upload Word docs to discussion forums for class discussion. Why not just use blogs? That is basically what you are doing with Word Docs and discussion forums.

Course designers typically make many choices with tools and content in their courses. Do these choices increase the instructional design presence of those decisions? Or do they decrease the design presence and allow learners to focus on learning rather than figuring out your designs?

Epistemological Design Presence

This area is a bit more difficult to get at, as it probably affects overarching decisions that affect everything in your course. For instance, if you lean more towards instructivism that places yourself at the center of everything in a course, you will probably choose many tools and interfaces that support your instructivist leanings: lecture capture, content heavy videos, long reading assignments, multiple choice tests, etc.

Now, just to point out, I am not a person to bash instructivist lectures across the board no matter what. There are times when learners need a well executed lecture. However, in education, many instructors use lectures too much. They use lectures to fill time when learners should be doing something hands on and/or active. If you are using lectures on video (or textbook readings) when learners should be creating their own knowledge, or applying concepts hands-on, or collaborating in groups, you have increased the epistemological design presence of your preferred learning theory at the expense of what the learners really needed. Time to decrease that facet of design presence.

There are times when learners don’t need to socially connect or listen to lectures, but work on their own. There are times when they need to connect with others rather than work individually. Don’t stick with instructivism or social constructivism or connectivism or any other theory you love just because you like it best. Put the learner first.

But what about the times where learners are at different levels and need different theories? Or, when no one theory fits and it is really up to the learner? I say, give them the choice. Build in multiple pathways for learning in your course. Build in scaffolding for learners to change into different theories. But avoid the mistakes I have made in the past and make sure to decrease the design presence of those options and pathways as much as possible. Don’t focus on the difference between the pathways – just focus on the fact that learners can make the choices they need at any given moment and then show the choices.

Decreasing Design Presence

edugeek-journal-avatarIf you are a good course designer, you probably already know everything I have touched on here. There is nothing new or different about what I am outlining here – this is solid instructional design methodology taught in most instructional design courses or learned on the job. However, it is seldom examined from the angle of decreasing design presence, and since I am one of the “wayfinders” in a course on the Community of Inquiry framework that covers teaching, social, and cognitive presence, I thought it would be a good idea to have a place to point to every time I mention “decreasing design presence.”

(image credit: Human Presence by Manu Mohan)

Self-Determined Learning: The Lesser-Explored Side of Open Learning

OpenEd 16 is in full swing and I am already kicking myself for not going this year. I seem to miss at least half of the cool conferences. Adam Croom has already provided a fascinating analysis of the abstract topics, which reveals a great list of important topics. However, I do notice something that is (possibly?) missing.

There is a lot about resources, textbooks, pedagogy, etc. Much of this focuses on removing barriers of access to education, which is a topic that we should all support. But what about the design of this education that they are increasing access to?

“Open pedagogy” seems to be the main focus of the design side of the equation. Of course, it is hard to tell from this analysis what people will really present on. When I think of open pedagogy, I think of David Wiley’s important work on the topic. Wiley’s description of open pedagogy is focused on being open about the design and assessment process, as well as allowing learners to remix and create their own open content.

So the question is – where is the learner agency, the self-determined learning, and the heutagogical side of “open learning”? It is probably there, but just not as explicitly named or explored. When you unleash your learners to determine their own pathway, their own context, their own content, and so on – that is also a part of open learning that needs to be specifically mentioned.

Open pedagogy is definitely a scaffold-ed step into self-determined open learning. Maybe some would argue that self-determined learning is implicitly a form of open pedagogy. I wouldn’t disagree, although I tend to avoid using pedagogy as a catch-all term for all forms of learning design due to the co-opting nature of expanding the use of pedagogy beyond “to guide a child.” But that really isn’t a huge deal to me as it is to the early childhood educators that feel left out of most academic educational discussions and usually don’t appreciate the college educators that typically leave them out also stealing the technical term for their design methodology.

Even when looking at the Wikipedia article on open learning, many of the topics touched on get close to self-determined learning, but not quite: self-regulated learning, active learning, life-long learning, etc. Almost there, but not quite.

edugeek-journal-avatarAgain, I know there are people out there that include the topics of learner agency and self-determined learning in the open learning / open education sphere, and that there are some people working in those topics. I just think there should be more. In my opinion, you can offer all the free content you want to and allow people to remix and re-use as much as you want… but if the design still focuses on the instructor (or the pre-determined content) as the center of the course, you have just created an open-licensed “sage on the stage” learning experience. Which I am sure many people will need, but for many others, this falls short of the concepts of learning how to be a learner.