On Wednesday night I was interviewed by John Johnston for Radio EDUtalk. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing John for what seems like an online lifetime — he was part of that early cadre of edtech bloggers 10+ years ago.
As you can see from the header image on the site, Radio EDUtalk was set up back when my hair was a little less grey! It’s a service for educators featuring regular interviews as well as captured conference sessions for those not able to attend. Educators are also free to upload their own audio.
I’ve been involved with Radio EDUtalk on a few occasions over the years. This particular session was a free-range discussion about what I’m up to at the moment. So during the hour, John and I discuss:
The resurgence of podcasting as a medium
Some of my experiences at Mozilla
How I see the current Open Badges landscape
The ‘digital literacy divide’
Blockchains, smart contracts, and the future of work
It was great talking to John, and I hope you get some value out of listening in to our conversation. The audio should be embedded below but, if not, click here to listen!
The first time I came across John would have been in the 2004-5 academic year, I reckon, when I started blogging. This was a pre-Twitter time, a time when Facebook and YouTube had only just been invented. We used RSS readers like Bloglines, and Technorati (then a blog search engine) a was a big deal. Back in those days it was easier to sort the signal from the noise as I could literally follow everyone’s blog that I wanted to read. As you would expect, this number grew exponentially over the years and, by the time Google Reader shut down, the number of unread articles I was faced with numbered in their thousands. This, I believe, is what Clay Shirky calls filter failure.
So, although I know of people (like Stephen Downes) who are notable exceptions, we collectively swapped our RSS readers for easier-to-manage, and less guilt-inducing social streams such as those provided by Facebook, Twitter, and (later) Google+. These services made it more acceptable not to keep up – and provided a way, in the form of Like, Favourites, and +1’s, for the most popular content to bubble to the surface.
I’m not being facetious when I say that Twitter had a helping hand in me landing my last three jobs. In particular, the 2009 interview where I mobilised my followers to show the panel how powerful the network can be remains my all-time favourite example. But Twitter has changed since I joined it in 2007.
How we are now
What’s so problematic about all of this, of course, is that whereas we used to be in charge of our own reading habits, we’ve outsourced that to algorithms. That means software with shareholders is dictating our information environment. I have to admit that sometimes this works really well. For example, although I’d prefer greater transparency around the algorithm that powers Zite, it consistently surfaces things that I care about and otherwise would have missed. Other times, and especially in the light of Twitter’s changes to the way favourites are used, it makes me more wary about using the service. And don’t even get me started on Facebook.
I’m at the point where I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. It’s so useful for me in terms of keeping my finger on the pulse of the sectors I’m involved in. However, especially at this time of year, I can become overwhelmed and I can’t see the (human) wood for the (technological) trees. Frank Chimero pretty much nailed it:
This may be overstating or overthinking the situation. Twitter is just a website. Yet, I can point to many opportunities, jobs, and (most importantly) friendships that sprung from it. Some married friends met on Twitter. It’s tempting to give an importance to the service for those of us who joined early and were able to reap these benefits, but that doesn’t mean Twitter needs to stick around forever. It matters. Or mattered. To me, I’m unsure which just yet.
How we might be in the future
During the height of the Web 2.0 boom, there were a plethora of services vying for attention and users. People jumped between these based on a small pieces, loosely joined approach. The thing that tied everything together 10 years ago was your domain name, which was your identity on the web. Nowadays, even I link to people’s Twitter accounts rather than their domains when I’m blogging about them.
It’s all very well saying that other social networks will come along to take their place, but will they? Really? In an age of megacorps? I’m skeptical. So perhaps we need a different approach. Something like Known, perhaps, or a service we can own and install ourselves that allows us to personalise our online experience rather than monetise it for shareholders. It’s heartening to see that the publication of The Circle by Dave Eggers seems to have made us question the sprint towards a digital dystopia.
As a parent, the mindset that goes with social networking concerns me. One thing I notice every year when emerging from my yearly (and grandly-named) Belshaw Black Ops period is how shallow my thinking is when I’m doing so in tweet-length morsels. It’s easy to think that I’m ‘doing it wrong’ and that I should use different services, but what I think we need is a different approach. Perhaps I should be advocating POSSE, as championed by the Indie Web Camp folks. This stands for Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. However, it seems a touch reactionary rather than future-facing. People don’t comment on blogs like they used to, so I’d miss out on a boatload of interaction with people from around the world.
Twitter is a company listed on the stock exchange. So is Facebook. And Google. Pinterest will be soon. In fact, every successful social space is, or is likely to end up being a monolithic corporation. As such, they need to provide shareholder value which, given the web’s current dominant revenue model, is predicated on raising advertising dollars. Raising the kind of money they need depends upon user growth, not necessarily upon serving existing users. After all, if they’ve provided the space where all your friends and contacts hang out, you’re kind of locked in.
OK, that’s enough. I’ll end this overly-long post with a quotation from Jesper, the author of Community Services:
Social media has come to symbolize, for me, the tyranny of having to appear relevant, visible and clean to everyone else, the inability to define my own boundaries and the uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow to the fundamental structure of this tool that I’m using – all the while someone either makes money off of me or adds to the looming amorphousness trying to stay afloat.
You don’t have to share these fears, but that’s why I’m writing this on hosting space I pay for myself on a domain I own myself. Not because I relish absolute control over every bit. Not because of personal branding. Not because I am a huge nerd (I am a huge nerd because I write these kinds of articles and quote Douglas Adams in them). I do it because it’s the worst alternative, except for all the others.
TL;DR version: Register your own domain name, find some server space and install Open Source software. It’s harder than using someone else’s shiny service, but you’re in control. It’s worth it.
I found out today (via Drew Buddie) that Posterous is shutting down at the end of April. While this is a sad state of affairs – I used it with students in the classroom and found it a great email-based blogging platform – it was hardly unexpected. The co-founders moved to Twitter last year and the assumption was that they would close Posterous at some point.
John Johnston, who used Posterous extensively (not least for podcasting) has written about why it was such a great platform. In an update to that post he points towards Posthaven, effectively a subscription-based clone of Posterous started by a couple of other co-founders. It promises to be the ‘safe place for all your posts forever’. Yeah, right.
The only way you can ensure that the stuff you produce online stays online is by owning your own data. It’s as simple as that. So when you’re looking for a blogging platform, by all means have a look at the sexy options like Tumblr and the like, but the most important thing is how easy it is to get your data in and out of the platform. That’s why I like WordPress (both the hosted and self-hosted versions) so much.
Knowing how to own your own data and keep it available online fits right onto the Web Literacies framework I’ve been developing at Mozilla. But it’s not rocket science. It takes effectively three steps:
Install an Open Source platform (I use WordPress via a one-click CPanel installation process)
The reason the last of these is important is that it’s extremely difficult – if not impossible – to completely shut down an Open Source project. Once the code is out there, it’s out there and anyone can contribute or ‘fork’ the project.
Thankfully, like many people, I could see the writing on the wall with Posterous and moved the blogs I had there (a now-defunct ‘Ideas Garden’, my conference blog, and my FAQ) to WordPress blogs hosted on subfolders of dougbelshaw.com.
This stuff isn’t hard. Trust me. And you’re always better off in control of your own data.
So, be in control of your own domain. Find out how to control the blogging platform you use. And use Open Source software. You’ll thank me for it in the long term! 🙂
Despite having now completed my fourth year as a teacher, today’s GCSE results were my first batch. Unfortunately, they weren’t great. In fact, they were rather embarrassing. 😮
I could list many reasons why my two Year 11 History classes didn’t do as well as they were predicted – or as well in History as they did in other subjects. But I’m not a whinger. Instead, here’s the ways I’m going to prevent the same thing happening again:
1. Spend some time ‘off the bandwagon’ before implementation
I was guilty of using my GCSE class as guinea pigs; we tried a whole host of Web 2.0-related stuff. I should have focused on stuff I knew inside-out instead of being intent on being an early adopter. There needs to be a sound pedagogical reason for using a tool, rather than just finding it ‘cool’.
In every other sphere of my life I try not to be an early adopter. For example, I usually wait for the second revision of products, for others to work out the quirks and foibles. Perhaps I need to do that more when teaching, too.
2. Treat students as teenagers, not adults
I tend to have a fairly laid-back approach in the classroom. I’m interested in stories and tend to go off at tangents. I assume that students have an interest in doing well and so perhaps I wasn’t strict enough with those who didn’t hand in practice exam questions during the revision period. I’m fairly certain it was those students who just missed out on C grades…
3. Get parents more involved
In my first, less successful school, I phoned home often – and not just to ask parents to discipline their children. I’d phone home and let parents know how fantastically their child was doing in my lesson. Cue extra effort in my lessons. I haven’t done that nearly as much at my current school.
Parents obviously have a massive influence on the life of young people and help shape their values and beliefs. I need to call on the power they hold a lot more often than I do now.
4. Be more positive
I smile a lot. In fact, people comment on it. But there’s more to being positive than just appearing happy. I know that I’m overly sarcastic and can take the mick a bit too much. I just find it hard to big people up in a non-sarcastic way. Too much Monty Python and Eddie Izzard, perhaps.
I’m going to make a conscious effort to, as John Johnston commented on a previous post, adhere to a policy of ‘unconditional positive regard’ within my classroom.
5. Feel less guilty about detentions for not doing homework
I don’t like homework set for the sake of it. I’m fine with project work done at home and students doing extra research out of interest, but homework for the sake of just trying to get knowledge into heads seems to me a waste of time in this day and age.
But when students get to GCSE level unfortunately they have to fill their heads full of some knowledge that they’ll probably only ever use for the exam. In this scenario, then, I’m going to feel a lot less guilty about insisting they complete knowledge-based homework.
What lessons have YOU learned recently?
And finally, just to make me feel better: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught.” (Oscar Wilde) – also read this. Thanks goes to @theokk for both. 🙂
Last week I launched a competition to win a Macvatar Macbook skin after the company sent me two skins for the price of one. The number of entrants was, well, underwhelming, but congratulations should nevertheless go to John Johnston, who wrote:
My macbook looks exactly like the 6 we have at school and I want to avoid a mixup. The scratch resistance will also be important to me, my macs last a long time, my new macbook (no scratches yet) replaces mt G4 which was born in the year 2000.
a skin also might prevent this problem from developing
John, let me know your postal address and the Macvatar skin will be winging its way to you in no time! 😀
The second EdTechRoundup podcast is now edited and available for your listening pleasure. This time around we have the smooth sounds of John Johnston and Tom Barrett caressing your ear canals. They begin with Voices of the World, Tumblr and Ning as well as the ManyVoices Twitter writing project. The main section of the show then goes on to sharing a Google Spreadsheet in class and using a digital camera for video blogging. Good work guys! 🙂