The illusion of the LMS/cloud-based/self-hosted solution

It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine  or Tim Owens.

I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.

I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.

The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.

hydraThe monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.

Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106  and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.

All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.

Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz.  Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee,  none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.

Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway  says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.


Pinterest for lecture? Not so much.

I do lecture in class. (Read on when you’re done moaning. I’m not addicted to lecturing. I can stop any time I want…)

Although I have used slides many times, I do not appreciate the linearity of a slideshow. In addition to reminding me of film strips from the 1960s, slideshows force a particular order. Either that or you have to find the slide. If I’m talking about slide 2, and a student asks a question about something that will come up on slide 13, I want to bring up slide 13. Now. Not after paging through 11 slides or zooming out or changing to creator mode to find the damn thing.

Over the years, I’ve tried a few things other than slideshows. Prezi is OK, but it takes a while to create, and I can’t use a path or it messes up the whole idea. So I have to zoom out in between slides to see where I am. I like cooliris, but it requires a process where you either run it locally with local slides (that I have to carry on a thumb drive or load into a location accessible from my classroom computer) or be able to code it into your site, which is a bitch.

Last night I was playing with Pinterest as a possible way to store artworks or have students post primary sources (I am always seeking a step away from the LMS). This morning I decided to try it with my Roman Empire lecture.

The first issue was that it puts your images in by reverse order, so I had to load them all, then open a new Pinterest board, then repin them all to get the right order. No big deal, although it does imply a necessary order. But that’s OK – it’s still not a list – I can see about a dozen items without scrolling. Unfortunately, some of them came in duplicated. And when I brought up an image during my lecture, two things happened.

The first was that it didn’t fill the screen (unlike Prezi or cooliris, which open images to full screen automatically).

The second was when I was done with the slide, I had to click to get back to the board – I couldn’t just close it.

The image quality was not as good as it should have been, even when I linked to larger res images, but it was OK.

So today’s experiment was pretty much a fail. But the historian who follows me in the same classroom, Josh Lieser, pointed out that the students must like it that I do all these experiments. I hope so.

My Top Ten Tools for Learning 2012

Each year, Jane Hart collects the top 100 technology tools for learning. The survey is due at the end of the month. Here are mine:

Diigo: social bookmarking where you can annotate everything except pdfs (though you can do that in Crocodoc and link from Diigo)

WordPress: by far the best blogging platform, with FeedWordPress plugin for aggregating student blogs

Engrade: best online gradebook

Slideshare (with Slidecast): uploaded slide decks can be narrated easily

Facebook: groups can be used for classes

Twitter: quick links to what’s new

Moodle: best open-source LMS, with nested simple forum

GIMP: open source and free, for creating graphics

Pinterest: excellent for forming image collections on a subject

Screenr: easy screencasting and uploading to YouTube

The death of Google Talk chatback badge

The Google Talk chatback badge  has been important to a number of us faculty. We are frequently logged into Gmail anyway, and the badge let us put a bit of html on any webpage and students could click and IM with us without logging in to anything. Well, now it’s gone – Google has stopped supporting it and it doesn’t work anymore. They made no announcement (except a single post in a Google Group) and the badges still look like they work, but they don’t. I found out when Pilar Hernández, my esteemed colleague, had students screaming they couldn’t reach her.

I also have featured the badge on all my course pages and my home page for years. I recently made a tutorial on how to use them.

We can discuss why Google did this, and why Google doesn’t care, but I’m confident it’s because they don’t like the anonymity of it. They want everyone in Google Plus, which requires a Google account so they can track you. Given my concerns, I’m not comfortable forcing students into Google-dom just so they can chat with me.

Pilar and I spent all afternoon today trying alternatives.  Finding a replacement for Google chatback isn’t easy – it was a seamless and simple service. It wasn’t a shoutbox and it could be put anywhere, and on many different pages. Using this resource, we tried anything that was free. Meebo Messenger, Pilar’s backup, is also shutting down as of July 11,  so we had to go elsewhere.

Here’s what we tried. (Note: we discovered that none of the below worked with the Google Talk feature enabled – it’s obvious Google has gotten rid of that support also.)

  • Plugoo – commercial looking, big, didn’t work with some browsers
  • Olark – insisted I allow it to access all my Google contacts, and I had to email them to close the account
  • Zoho chat – can log in, but only puts shout box on one page
  • – when we tested it, we couldn’t get the messages to actually get to their destination – it seemed like the best but we couldn’t get it to work
  • Online Chat Centers – serious overkill, obviously for major helpdesks, had to log in directly and answer the phone, had a major New Delhi feel to it
  • Yahoo Messenger Pingbox  – not visible in all browsers, must log into Yahoo Messenger, doesn’t relay nickname properly

Our best choice was Plupper. It looked good, and has an open API. We were able to get it working by following the instructions for iChat  for Mac, and Miranda for PC.

It does mean more work, since you have to have the IM client open and be logged in. Nowhere near as convenient for us, but just as convenient for students, which is what we needed.

Avatar Speaking

I’ve been inspired by Scott Lockman to head back into Second Life to do some recording (and he appreciated it!). Fact is, some days I don’t want to worry about fixing my hair and setting up my background for some talking head video, but I do want students to hear me in a not-so-disembodied way. Also, as I note the perpetuation of text communication on the web, I want to mitigate that in my own work despite text being my preferred form.

Or maybe I want to mitigate it because text is my preferred form, along the lines of using those non-preferred learning styles in order to strengthen them. And when I participate like I have been in the creative insanity of ds106, I start to think more in terms of visuals, video and audio.

I tried a Blabber for my first week of class. It was problematic in Moodle, and some people couldn’t see it when I posted it at my ds106 Posterous, but here goes (it’s here if it doesn’t embed properly):

Since it couldn’t be seen by all and seemed so hard to load, I won’t do it again.

But when I saw Scott in Second Life, I gave it a try for a couple of subjects, filming in his space in Corona Cay.

Note: both of these are rather unpopular takes on the subject.

Hi and a defense of lecturing

Not popular to defend lecturing, I know, but it’s my preferred learning style, and the popularity of online lecture video attests to its appeal.

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Into the Woods

This one relates to my previous post on how it’s scarier out there than we think.

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Why CC-BY just isn’t good enough

I was contacted recently by 3C Media, who does the media work for the California Community Colleges at the Chancellor’s Office. They let me know that my presentation for the POT Certificate Class from last February, Control and Freedom in Online Classes, was being converted and uploaded to YouTube. They asked me to help them apply a description, attributions, etc. Two things struck me about this. The first was that I used their Collaborate system for the presentation, and although I have no problem with this presentation being posted in public, I have used their system before for meetings and office hours that I would not want public. I had no idea they even looked at our meetings.

But I find another aspect even more interesting. When I went to fill out their form to help out, the only option for Creative Commons was the BY (Attribution) restriction, with reuse allowed. Or I could use the YouTube Creative Commons license which is, guess what, only Attribution also, reuse allowed.

A little while back, the controversy over the design of Curtis Bonk’s class led to some interesting comments from those involved in Blackboard/Coursesite, including here on my blog. In response to that and to Audrey Watter’s commentary , Jarl Jonas wrote that:

“once the course concludes, we will publish the package as an OER as a Blackboard and Common Cartridge package with a CC-BY license”

The term OER (Open Educational Resource) is used to distinguish it from a course cartridge that you may use only if you force your students to buy a textbook, or one that only works in one LMS.

I am seeing this more and more: CC-BY as proof of openness, a passport to the world of the trendy edupunks and transparency in education. But it’s not that simple.

Basic Attribution (CC-BY) doesn’t do much for open learning, or even sharing. It’s the NC (non-commercial) and SA (share-alike) aspects of Creative Commons licensing that makes for openness. Attribution simply means anyone can use the work so long as they attribute it, as part a Cartridge package or inside a website, but with no obligation to openness at all. They can take the package, close it off in a system, and charge for access to that system.

This is likely a misunderstanding along the lines of  knowing the difference between openness as in Open API and openness as in Open Source. Some people think Open API and Open Source are the same when they aren’t.  For example, here Pearson OpenClass is referred to as open source, when it’s actually open API. Open API is like Playdoh. We can make things out of it, but we can’t have the secret formula.

So we are confusing my presentation as posted on YouTube, or a free LMS course cartridge of Bonk’s class, with free, open (attributed, non-commercial, shared back) use of our work.

So, CC-BY isn’t good enough. We can’t any longer suppose that our work will not be of financial gain to someone, someday, in a new publishing model. And we must recognize it’s no longer really about content (which many of us post freely on the web).

Much of the content of Yale’s and MIT’s open courses are Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike, and they are very specific that you can’t package and resell their stuff . But the companies that used to be creators of software for holding “content” are now hosts of learning platforms and providers of services (witness Blackboard’s aquisition of vendor Moodlerooms). They lose nothing by freely distributing the work of other people. Without a Non-Commercial clause, they can profit from it directly. Without a ShareAilke clause, they need not create and share anything of their own.

And they can use other people’s stuff to sell “community”. Information can be collected on hundreds or thousands of students coming to take a free course. These are future “customers”, and the information gathered may help future customers signing up for services. These companies will handle all that tough technology stuff — you just hand over your content, all CC-BY licensed so they can use it later.

Doesn’t sound like a good deal, or a very open one, to me.

So the presentation’s at Vimeo (where they let you choose CC BY-NC-SA). 

Telecommunications, Twitter and Titanic

No, I am not a big fan of the James Cameron film, mostly because of the awful script and the inability of the two leads to rise above it.

I have also not been a big fan of tweeting “history”, in historical reinactments done via Twitter. I critiqued the approach heartily almost exactly two years ago.

However, I have now been to two museum exhibits of artifacts from the Titanic (including the current one in San Diego), and tonight I sit here watching Twitter as the Carpathian steams in to pick up survivors, and I have to say, it’s ridiculously riveting to watch the disaster unfold on Twitter.

I have followed both Real-Time Titanic  and TitanicVoyage  out of the  UK publishing house The History Press for the last couple of days. Both have done a great job in creating a suspenseful account of what professional historians like to call (often disdainfully), “popular” history, Real-Time Titanic using a third-person, journalistic style and TitanicVoyage marking posts by the type of tweeter (#captain, #crew, #thirdclass) for an even more harrowing first-person tone.

As with most of the popular history I’ve enjoyed, I was drawn to a single aspect of the subject, in this case the problem with the Marconi wireless radio just a day before they hit the iceberg.

Apparently, the transmitter went down.

And apparently, they broke the rules to fix it.

Naturally, this sent me on a hunt for rules about Marconi wireless, and the stories of the young men who worked the radios. I found a respected article by Parks Stephenson, a fascinating page on the wireless telegraphists, a website “specialising in radio aspects of the Titanic disaster since 1999“, and a recent article from Atlantic Monthly on the importance of radio to the survivors. None of the creators of this stuff are, to my knowledge, professional historians. They are enthusiasts, of history and radio.

Even if only parts of the stories are true, it is possible that a couple of young men took apart a radio against some sort of policy to make sure it transmitted, and if they hadn’t then a day later when Titanic hit an iceberg they might not have been able to send the distress call.

Conclusions can thus be made about the value of mechanical tinkering, and not being afraid to break the rules, and professional pressure to do your job (hundreds of passenger-sent messages were sent from the ship by radio).

It’s harder to explain, though, the emotional impact of watching it unfold, in “real time” 100 years later, as if it were happening now and we could hear the screams of the people freezing to death yards from the lifeboats. There was a certain War of the Worlds aspect to it, even though Twitter is not really the radio and one couldn’t unknowingly follow the Twitter stream the same way people unknowingly tuned in to Welles’ show.

And again this odd use of Twitter makes me rethink the role of stories and history and the enthusiasts who put it all together, and I’m filled with nothing but respect for their work.

Paying to share (a Cranky Post)

I guess it’s becoming a Cranky Post series.

My stuff is stashed in a few main places on the web that aren’t hosted by me: Slideshare, YouTube, and Flickr are the main sites where I “publish”, plus I have stuff at Screencast, Screenr, MindMeister where I create things. I have this blog, and a Posterous blog for ds106 and separate blogs for other classes, etc.

So the big three are places where I am really trying to share. I upload many tutorials to YouTube (if they still look ok when they’re compressed that much). I post all my presentations, often with audio, at Slideshare as slidecasts. And Flickr has lots of my pics. Well, 173 pics. Which brings me to the issue.

Flickr has decided that when I reach 200 pics, they want to charge me $25/year. To get analytics and remove ads, I have to pay Slideshare the educational price of $144/year (certainly an educational price, since it is educating me rapidly). If I want more space on Screencast (they tell me I’m almost full up), I’d have to pay them.

No, I do not think everything on the web is or should be free. But these are not sites where I’m marketing my products, selling my photos, or making my career. Nothing I post there makes me any money, and by posting I am contributing to everyone else. Everything I have up is Creative Commons licensed as Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.

So, for example, all my photos on Flickr can be used, for free, by anyone. I post them there for that reason.

But these services want me to pay to share. I don’t think that’s right.

The business model for these sites relies on ads, and thus lots of eyeballs coming to their site. Users who post add value to the website – in fact, they are the website. If those of us who shouldn’t pay remove our stuff, then the only stuff will be from people who can afford it or are trying to sell things.

Why not charge the nominal fee to the people who treat their work as copyrighted, who demand that people pay to use it, or who post it to sell it? If the purpose of the content is commercial, charge a bit. If it’s just for free sharing, keep it free.

Dear PLN

Dear Professional Social Network / PLN,

In the beginning, although I was not interested in what you had for breakfast, I was interested in what you thought about things. And you told me, in tweets and blogs and comments on my blog. Things were good.

But as time has passed, you have turned to posting links, often without comment. Sometimes these links are very interesting, but I can’t know until I click on them, and either way I’m not getting anything from you except the link. And when I create a link-less post in Twitter, I don’t often get much response.

Now I understand that I am supposed to consider you as nodes in my network and as filters for my information. But to me, you were so much more. And now you blog less, if at all, and instead give me lots of links to works by other people. If you read my blog anymore (and the numbers indicate you don’t) you rarely comment. If I comment on yours, little conversation ensues unless you are a very big name with many people commenting to each other.

I don’t know how to tell you this, but I don’t want just links. I want you, your thoughts and dreams, your frustrations and successes. And I want that just as much from those of you who are big social media stars in educational technology as I do from my more intimate connections. And you all scroll by so fast these days, with all those links; it’s hard to find the comments you do make.

So I’ve been hanging less and less around our old haunts. Twitter is occasional rather than daily. I moved all my RSS feeds to Netvibes to get away from Reader, so I see your posts better now. Some of them are just RSS feeds of links. I was going to spend more time with you in Google +, where there seemed to be some Buzz-like conversation at first. But even there now it’s mostly links. And Facebook? We made a little corner for ourselves, where people feel comfortable to … post a lot of links.

I think we need to talk.