Tag: Audrey Watters

My CC Superheroes

As part of the Creative Commons certification project that We Are Open have been involved with, a request is going around with the #CCquest hashtag to name your ‘CC superheroes’.

The idea is to tag five people who are ‘defenders of the commons’:

What are the virtues of someone who is an advocate for Creative Commons? How does what they do support the philosophy and spirit of The Commons? Think about what it takes to become this kind of person, and how we might wrap that into the Certification project.

It would feel like cheating to name three of the five as my co-operative co-founders (Bryan Mathers, Laura Hilliger, and John Bevan) so I’ve cast my net wider. Even so, it took me all of about three seconds to think of the people I’d mention! Do bear in mind, however, that these are five people out of perhaps ten times as many who I could have mentioned.

  • Alan Levine — it’s entirely fitting that Alan is a member of the #CCquest team, as in the 10 years I’ve known him, he’s been a living, breathing example of the power of working and sharing openly. An inspiration.
  • Audrey Watters — a tireless advocate of all things open, especially in education/technology, an important critic of the ‘Silicon Valley narrative’, and someone who tolerates bullshit less than anyone I’ve ever known.
  • Cory Doctorow — I’ve only met Cory a couple of times in person, but seen him speak many, many times. He’s one of the most eloquent speakers I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing, and his work actually goes even wider than ‘open’, encompassing the totality of our lives online.
  • Jess Klein — I had the great privilege of working with Jess at Mozilla, and still find it difficult to explain the range of her talents. She’s a designer, but also an educator, a facilitator, and a prototyper. And she does all of this in the open. Check out the Open Design Kit she recently helped put together!
  • Jim Groom — a legend in his own lunchtime, I rely on Jim’s company, Reclaim Hosting for this blog and my other presences on the web. He’s the force behind the monumental ds106, tells it like it is about making a living in the open, and great fun to be around, to boot.

Who are your CC Superheroes?

Image CC BY-NC-ND giuliaduepuntozero

Discipline in the field of edtech

I’m always wary on the rare occasions I’m in any form of disagreement with Audrey Watters. It usually shows I haven’t read enough or perhaps have grasped the wrong end of the stick. However, in Disciplining Education Technology, to me she asserts something that I certainly don’t feel is true:

Education technology is already a discipline; education technology is already disciplinary. That is its history; that is its design; that is its function.

Perhaps this perspective is a function of my geographical location. The edtech sector is tiny in the UK, and the closest that educational institutions seem to get to ‘edtech’ is employing learning technologists and technicians. Again, I may be wrong about this; it may be just invisible to me. However, it seems to me that if edtech is indeed already a discipline, it’s almost entirely US-focused.

Martin Weller, also UK-based, gives reasons (my emphasis) for embracing the idea of a ‘discipline’ of edtech:

  1. “[I]t allows us to bring in a range of perspectives. One of the criticisms of ed tech is that people come in from one discipline and are unaware of fundamental work in a related one. So the Ed Tech discipline might well have components from psychology, sociology, education, computer science, statistics, etc. This would help establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with.”
  2. “As well as establishing a set of common content, Ed Tech can establish good principles and process in terms of evaluating evidence.”
  3. [I]t creates a body against which criticism can push. When a subject becomes a discipline, then it is not long before you get a version of it prefaced by the word “Critical”. Critical Educational Technology sounds fine to me, and could sit alongside Practical Educational Technology to the mutual benefit of both.”

An additional point I’d add is that formalisation and scaffolding creates career paths for people, rather than them having to reside in the spaces between other disciplines. Look at the field of Design. There are schools within the discipline, there are career paths, but there are also consultants and freelancers who are seen as part of the bigger picture 

As a UK-based consultant who sees edtech as my ikigai, you’re often seen as ‘outsider’ unless you’re in Higher Education or work for a vendor. Work in schools and colleges is also often looked down upon. Bringing everyone together and establishing norms, processes, procedures, and ‘canonical knowledge, could  make it easier for people to move in and out of various organisations and institutions. It would certainly make funding easier.

Of course, the $64,000 question is who gets to decide what constitutes the discipline? I’d hate to see that discussion locked up in expensive academic conferences sponsored by vendors, and/or happening in paywalled academic journals. Perhaps paradoxically, open educators are exactly the kinds of people in the best position to push for a discipline of edtech.

I’m definitely in alignment with Audrey when she talks of the importance of a ‘radical blasphemy’ against the establishment of orthodoxy. My concern is that, currently, this orthodoxy isn’t explicit. What we’ve got is an implicit  orthodoxy predicated on vague notions of terms such as ‘edtech’ and ‘open education’. As I’ve already argued, I think we can move towards more productively-ambiguous notions, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of edtech as (what Richard Rorty would term) a ‘dead metaphor’.

Perhaps the crux of the problem is with the word ‘discipline’. It certainly has negative connotations, and focuses on control. Given that ‘field’ is a near-synonym, I’d suggest that perhaps we use that instead? I’d very happy introducing myself to people by saying that I “work in the field of edtech”.

Perhaps we need an unconference…

Rethinking Literacy for the Web [Educating Modern Learners]

Educating Modern Learners, a new subscription site from Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, is now live. Excitingly, the editor of the site is none other than Audrey Watters, whose blog and newsletter I’m sure you already subscribe to.

They commissioned me to write one of the first articles to appear on the site, a process that meant I benefitted from the editorial eye of Audrey. The post is currently available via the free subscription tier for the site, so you’ll need to sign up to access it.

The article is entitled Rethinking Literacy for the Web. In it, I provide an introduction to what the web means for literate practices, the challenge for educators, and ways we can respond.

The time has come to move beyond discussions of whether the web, social networks, and mobile devices are inherently “good” or “bad.” Debates about whether such things can (or should) be used for learning drag on while the next generation cobble together their own understanding of an increasingly blended online/offline world. It’s time we as educators stepped up and taught more than just “e-safety.” It’s time we started facilitating learning experiences around reading, writing, and participation on the web.

Once you’ve had a read I’d be interested in your comments here (I don’t think they’re turned on over there!)

Image CC BY-SA Alberto Garcia

Does Open Education and the Open Web need ‘defending’?

Over in the Mozilla Webmaker Google+ community it’s the final day of our online discussion as part of Open Education Week. Today’s prompt asks: Do we need to protect the Open Web and Open Education? If so, who or what from? How do we do that?

My short answer to this would be yes we do need to protect Open Education and the Open Web. We need to protect them from commercial, proprietary providers looking to profit from creating silos. How do we do that? I’d argue by innovating in ways that are different from those looking to make a quick buck.

It’s obvious, but worth stating: I’ve no problem with people charging for services. The issue is more to do with the overall landscape. If all you’ve got is shiny silos from which to choose, it’s a frustrating pseudo-choice. Openness proposes and provides a different way to do things than following the logic of the market.

The problem is that ‘Open’ is an ambiguous term and seems to have become the latest fad. Martin Weller points out that in many ways ‘Open’ is the new ‘green’:

The old “open vs. proprietary” debate is over and open won. As IT infrastructure moves to the cloud, openness is not just a priority for source code but for standards and APIs as well. Almost every vendor in the IT market now wants to position its products as “open.” Vendors that don’t have an open source product instead emphasize having a product that uses “open standards” or has an “open API.

As Audrey Watters has eloquently stated, the fight is now who gets to decide what counts:

This battle involves the ongoing struggle to define “what is open.” It involves the narratives that dominate education – “education is broken” and “disruption is inevitable,” for example – and the “solutions” that “open” purports to offer. It involves a response to the growth of corporate ecosystems and commercial enclosures, built with open source technologies and open data initiatives. And all of this, I would argue, must involve politics for which we shouldn’t let “open” be an easy substitute.

As the term ‘MOOC’ (Massive Online Open Course) has shown, you can’t have it both ways: if a term includes enough ambiguity and flexibility to be widely adopted, then those who originally defined it no longer have control over the definition. It’s out in the wild. Like a virus, the definition mutates over time.

It’s not the word ‘Open’ we need to protect, it’s the spirit behind it. We’re fighting a losing battle if we expect a word to mean the same thing for all eternity. Instead, as a community we should create, sustain and release new terms to help shed light on the things we believe to be important and hold dear.

Finally, as Audrey reminds us in the quotation above, to align yourself with an agenda of Openness is a political statement. As such we should be prepared to get our hands dirty and fight for what we believe.

Image CC BY-NC-SA John Carleton

Weeknote 03/2013

Here’s what I’ve been up to this week:

  • Talking to Audrey Watters about web literacies. She’s a very smart person and I was impressed by what she had to say. I tried to capture most of what she said in this blog post.
  • As my colleagues are such a talented and productive bunch, an important part of my working day is spent in co-ordination. When you’re not co-located it’s important that you get your thinking out there, which is exactly what Brett Gaylor’s done with his post on New Webmaker Prototypes. Exciting stuff! My response is here.
  • I continue to contribute to both the Mozilla Webmaker list and the Open Badges Google Group. I’m looking forward to the latter splitting into two equally-weighted technical/learning groups!
  • This week I’ve been invited to over 10 events (including Estonia twice!), which is a little insane. I said no to pretty much all of them, as I’m trying to travel less (and be more strategic when I do travel) in 2013.
  • I’m trying to comment on more blog posts, especially when people are sharing the awesome work they’re doing around badges. Most notably, I commented on posts by Chris Sharples, Zoe Ross, Robert Weeks, and Grainne Hamilton. You should go and read them (the posts, not necessarily my comments!)
  • Interestingly, the post by Robert Weeks was stimulated by a virtual presentation to the Bristol ‘weelearning’ group on Wednesday. Formerly a badge skeptic, Robert is now a badge enthusiast. Job done. 🙂
  • My work around web literacies is going to end up as a ‘learning standard’. I’ve been discussing this with Erin and Carla. More on that soon.
  • I spent Thursday in Leicester in the company of Josie Fraser, Lucy Atkins, Richard Hall and David White. I was advising on a new digital literacies framework for teachers in Leicester which should, hopefully, lead to badge-infused CPD. That was a bit of an epic journey: 4.5 hours each way in a day. Except the train was delayed on the way after a suicide on the line. 🙁
  • I’ve done lots of reading this week, including the excellent book A Small Matter of Programming, a new DML Connected Learning report, the Peeragogy Handbook, and a new version of the IDEO Design Thinking for Educators resource.
  • The ILTA invited me to write up my keynote last year into a journal article. I’m about half-way there, I reckon, and should finish it on Monday. It will have the title Zen and the Art of Digital Literacies.
  • Thinking about the way that I and most of the people I know live in the future.
  • When I wasn’t doing the above I was clearing the drive of snow, spending time at the gym (no running this week!), and sledging, snowman-making, and generally spending time with my family before…

Next week I’ll be escaping the snowy hinterland of Northumberland and heading to sunny California to meet my colleagues. We’ll be participating in a DML conversation around, you guessed it, Open Badges. On that note, I’m delighted to have been asked to do more work around learning and assessment related to badges – so look out for more posts of that nature in the near future!

Image uploaded originally by Cory Doctorow on Twitter

A conversation with Audrey Watters about Web Literacies.

Update: For the latest information on the Web Literacy standard work, head to http://mzl.la/weblitstd

TL;DR version: Amongst other things, Audrey reckons Mozilla should: show potential Webmakers cool stuff that it’s possible to do with HTML, CSS and (especially) JavaScript; work backwards in deconstructing a cool project; pass over the ‘why?’ for some learners; show what’s happening ‘under the hood’; focus on individual autonomy as a reason to care about being able to write the Web; use terms like ‘making’ and ‘building for the Web’ rather than ‘programming’.

One of the awesome things about my role at Mozilla is that I get to talk to extremely smart people about interesting things. Today I had the opportunity to talk to Audrey Watters, whose writing and thinking I greatly admire. And when she speaks, I listen. We caught up via Skype to talk about the Web Literacies framework and white paper I’ve been working on: http://mzl.la/weblit.

By way of context, before going any further you should go and read this post by Erin Knight, Senior Director of Learning for the Mozilla Foundation (aka my boss). In it she talks about our vision for an ‘open standard’ for Web Literacy:

In addition to all of the flashy tools, content and branding we’ve been launching over the last year, we’ve also been doing some considerable ‘underbelly’ work to define the thing we are ultimately after: a generation of web literate people.


I think this is important work for more reasons than just enumerating the things that Mozilla cares about or may provide learning pathways and badges for, but as a definition that we, as in the royal we of the web world, can all get behind and all teach to.

In 2013 we want to work with other organisations, interested groups, and individuals who are interested in helping people not only be able to elegantly consume, but write parts of the Web.


My conversation with Audrey was focused on what works in the current iteration of the Web Literacies framework and what needs changing or removing. We ended up spending the majority of our time talking about the next step up after people learn some HTML (structure) and CSS (styling) – the interactivity. Audrey made a great point in that we usually talk about JavaScript (JS) as being an introduction to ‘programming’ but that many programmers don’t really understand the Web. They deal in non-Web programming languages like C#, for example.

Recommendation 1: It may be better to talk of ‘scripting’ than ‘programming’ in a Webmaker context

Epic stuff

Another problem with JS is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you don’t know what JS does then why would you want to learn it? We need, therefore, to surface great examples and allow users to ‘look under the hood’ of web pages, much as we do with X-Ray Goggles for HTML and CSS. Although I forgot to mention it during the call, I think we’re on the right track  with the not-yet-released semi-official hackagame.org where you can use the Thimble interface to hack the classic game Pong.

Another thing we could potentially do is create an amazing video-based project in Popcorn Maker and then deconstruct the JS (along with the HTML and CSS). Reverse-engineering all the way to a blank page, the learner would then be able to build their own modified version. They would learn that HTML, CSS and JavaScript is a powerful combination negating (in many cases) the need to learn specific programming languages for different platforms.

Recommendation 2: Show learners epic things they can do with Web-native tools

Powerful tools

Although Audrey is a big fan of the visual programming environment Scratch she talked of giving learners tools ‘that real programmers use’. As an aside, I’ve always found it really disingenuous that some educators add a lot of structure to learning activities and try to make learning ‘easier’ by making the tools available less powerful. After all, it’s highly unlikely that the educators themselves learned in anything other than a fairly ‘messy’ way.

Part of the problem is that we don’t really have a pedagogy around Computer Science (CS) which makes a lot of this suck-it-and-see. I thought Audrey showed real insight when she talked of those who are highly skilled in programming often being highly self-motivated. These people can make great teachers, but (in both our experiences, I think) often don’t. Certainly a lot of the online places you can learn to code seem to be overly-structured and focus on procedural, rather than conceptual, stuff.

At the end of the day, the procedural stuff (especially around syntax) can be learned through tinkering. It’s the conceptual stuff, arguably, that’s the most important.

Recommendation 3: Give learners industrial-strength tools and don’t overly structure what they can do with them


Audrey also mentioned lots of other stuff that would turn this into an epic post. She talked about the importance of real project-based learning, where the learner decides what they’re learning, not the teacher/website. She mentioned why Webmaker as a ‘brand’ is important as it focuses on the Web rather than the (sometimes) closed ecosystems of native apps in the mobile space. And, interestingly, Audrey talked about the importance of users understanding the politics of ‘Open’ and why it matters.

Note to self: talk to Audrey more. 🙂

Lesson plans, social bookmarking and the purpose of education: a response to the latest Hack Education podcast

Hack Education

I was fortunate enough to meet the amazing Audrey Watters and Steve Hargadon when I was over in San Francisco earlier this year. The authenticity of the ‘Irish’ pub in which we met was questionable, but their commitment to furthering education certainly isn’t!

Steve and Audrey have a weekly podcast in which they reflect on Audrey’s (prolific) written output over the past seven days. Today I listened to the one embedded at the bottom of this post (also here). They’re both so insightful that I wanted to be part of the conversation. The only way I can do so at the moment is by adding my thoughts here.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

Lesson plans

Steve brought up the point that companies build business models around the idea that teachers want to share lesson plans. He questioned whether that’s actually true.

Not in my opinion.

In my experience, the needs of classroom teachers (which used to include me) are on a spectrum related to interest. So, for example, I’d spend hours researching and creating resources around 1066 and the Norman Conquest. I love that period of History.

On the other hand, I tried to get the Agricultural Revolution out of the way as soon as possible, and used resources in my lessons almost entirely created by other people.

And that’s the difference: if you’re a motivated teacher, you don’t want prescriptive lesson plans for stuff that excites you. Of course, if you’re an ineffective, demotivated teacher, you’ll grab as many lesson plans as you can.

Lesson plans are different to learning resources. I used to have a huge collection of both physical and digital resources, neatly categorised, upon which I could draw. Very motivated and effective teachers within the UK History teaching community would share these – but do different things with them.

Sharing lesson plans as a business model misses the point, I think. Learning, as both Audrey and Steve pointed out, is about relationships not content-delivery.

Social bookmarking

One of the tangential conversations Steve and Audrey had was around social bookmarking. Steve ‘confessed’ to not really using social bookmarking services such as delicious or diigo any more.

I’m glad it’s not just me.

Since delicious has changed hands from Yahoo! to some randoms, I haven’t even got the bookmarklet or Firefox extension installed. I re-find things either through a search engine, my Thought Shrapnel tumblr or Evernote. As Steve mentioned, the personal (primary) benefit is more important than the (secondary) social benefit in this regard.

What I did find interesting is that Audrey uses Pinboard which positions itself as ‘social bookmarking for introverts’. I’ve got a (paid) account there, so I may give that another try.

The purpose of education

Time and time again, Audrey came back to the purpose of education. It’s not about content delivery. It’s not about power. It’s not about money.

This is something that’s obviously close to my heart.

I really enjoyed listening in to Steve and Audrey’s conversation and shall do so regularly. I just hope that as the podcast develops they summarise the stories before analysing them. What’s huge in the US (for example) is sometimes barely reported over here in the UK. I had to read between the lines of the Penn State controversy, for example.

But that’s a minor, nitpicking point. Listen to the podcast. It’s awesome.

Beyond the Textbook?

A couple of days ago I noticed #beyondthetextbook emerging on Twitter. It turns out that this hashtag related to an gathering sponsored by Discovery Education in Washington D.C.

My (remote, somewhat helicopter-like) contribution, was pretty much summed up by the following:

The problem isn't the textbook. The textbook is a symptom of a problem around *assessment*. #beyondthetextbook

After reading Audrey Watters’ post about the gathering (as well as those by others), I’d like to expand up on that and highlight some thoughts from others with whom I’m in agreement.

Trojan textbooks

I want us to weigh classroom practices, power, authority, politics, publishing, assessment, expertise, attribution, and the culture(s) of the education system. I would argue that the textbook in its current form — and frankly in almost all of the digital versions we’re also starting to see now — is tightly woven into that very fabric, and once we tug hard enough at the “textbook” thread, things come undone.

(Audrey Watters)

The textbook is easy to talk about. It’s a physical thing that people have known as students and, for some, as educators. The trouble is that, just as with any technology, it’s difficult to separate the thing from the practices that surround the thing.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with textbooks – especially if you define them as Bud Hunt does as “A collection of information organized around thoughtful principles intended to provide support to instruction.” I’m not so keen on the word ‘instruction’ (I’d substitute ‘learning’) but like his basis in ‘thoughtful principles’.

Getting assessment right

One of the reasons I’m such a big fan of badges for lifelong learning is that assessment is broken. I don’t mean ‘broken’ in the sense that a bit of a repair job would fix. I mean structurally unsound and falling apart. Liable to collapse at any moment. That kind of broken.

It’s a problem I felt as a classroom teacher. It’s an issue I had to deal with as a senior manager. It’s evident in my sector-wide role in Higher Education. The hoops through which we’re asking people to jump not only don’t mean anything any more, but they don’t necessarily lead anywhere.

To me, that constitutes a crisis of relevance. So when we’ve got textbooks solely focused on providing content in bite-sized chunks in order to allow people to pass summative tests, then we’ve got a problem. A huge problem.

But let’s be clear: the problem is to do with the high-stakes assessment. It’s akin to the current attacks on the efficacy of teachers. The problem isn’t with (most) teachers, it’s with what you’re asking them to do. Likewise, with textbooks, it’s not the collecting of information in one place – it’s what people are expected to do with that information.

Open content and the blank page

I’ve seen many state their belief that the best kind of textbook is the blank page. By that, they mean that textbooks should be co-constructed. I certainly can’t argue with that, but we must always be careful that we don’t substitute one form of top-down structure with another.

Back in 2006 I wrote a couple of posts on my old teaching blog. One covered the idea of teachers as lifeguards, and other focused on the teacher as DJ. In the former I talk about the importance of teachers ‘knowing the waters’ so that they can allow students to explore the waters, growing in confidence (but be there when things go wrong). In the latter I discuss the similarities between teachers and DJs around ‘tempo’ and ‘playlists’.

Both the lifeguard and DJ analogies work with textbooks, I think. The difficulties are always going to be around time and competency. It’s all very well for those new to the profession, willing to burn the candle at both ends to remix the curriculum and create their own textbooks to move #beyondthetextbook. But that’s a recipe for burnout.


As usual, I’ve more questions than answers, but if I have one contribution to the #beyondthetextbook debate it’s that our current use of textbooks is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. It’s difficult to debate nuanced things online, and even more so via Twitter.

I think we need a renaissance in blogging – and the kind of blogging where we reference other people’s work. If we’re going to debate problems in education, let’s do so at length, with some nuance, and in a considered way.

Thanks for reading this far. I’d love to read any comments you have below!