Weeknote 16/2018

This week I’ve been:

  • Working on the MoodleNet project:
    • Discussing some potential upcoming work with a range of design and development agencies. More on that soon, I hope, as I want to get cracking with a design sprint in May.
    • Talking with smart people, including Emma Richardson (President of the Moodle Users Association), Mike Larsson,
    • Catching up with the recording of the Moodle All-Hands meeting on Wednesday where some important things were announced to colleagues.
    • Adding some more detail to the wiki page I’d started, digging into different types of resource-centric social networks.
  • Attending the OER18 conference with my Moodle hat on. It was a great event, superbly organised by the ALT team. I caught up with so many people in sunny Bristol — too many to name individually. I also participated in a Virtually Connecting session (recorded) and learned a lot to apply to my MoodleNet work.
  • Running a thinkathon with my co-op colleagues for CET in Israel about a digital literacy MOOC they want to create for teachers in the city of Beer Sheva with the municipality. It went really well, and we’ll be following up soon.
  • Collaborating with Bryan Mathers on some follow-up co-op work for the Inter-American Development Bank. We’re making use of Badge Wiki for the outputs.
  • Writing:

Next week I’m going to be at the OE Global Conference 2018 in Delft, Netherlands. Moodle is sponsoring it and I’m looking forward to catching up with Martin Dougiamas.

Weeknote 15/2018

This week I’ve been:

Next week I’m off to Bristol for the OER18 conference. I gave the keynote four years ago, and there’ll be plenty of people there that I know!


Photo taken by Hannah Belshaw at Jersey Zoo, and edited in Snapseed.

Winnowing the MoodleNet project down to MVP size

Note: this post refers to the MoodleNet project that I’m leading. More on that can be found here: moodle.com/moodlenet

Context

As a knowledge worker, you can’t win. If you do your job well, then the outputs you produce are simple and easy to understand. It’s your job to deal with complexity and unhelpful ambiguity so that what’s left can comprehended and digested.

In a way, it’s very much like the process of writing for an audience. We’ve all read someone’s stream-of-consciousness email that said much but conveyed little. Good writing, on the other hand, takes time, effort, and editing.

The problem is that high-quality knowledge work looks easy. Long hours of thinking, discussing, and experimenting are boiled down to their essentials. You just see the outputs.

Perhaps the most obvious example would be brand redesign: almost no matter what’s produced, the response is usually that the process resulted in money wasted. That’s even more true when there’s public money involved.

Belfast 2008

The City of Belfast spent around £200k on this logo in 2008. It’s a heart-shaped B conveying love. I quite like it..

As a result, logo designers tend to share the process which got to that point. They share iterations towards the final idea, any rejected ideas, and the conversations with people who had some input into the process.

Likewise, all knowledge workers should show their work, as Austin Kleon puts it.  This not only proves the value of the work being done, but invites commentary and constructive criticism at a time when it can be useful — before the final version is settled upon.

Process

A Minimum Viable Product, or MVP, is “a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development.” However, in my experience, there’s a few stages before that:

  1. Research: whoever’s in charge of the project (in this case, me!) situates themselves in the landscape, talks to lots of people and does a bunch of reading.
  2. Hypothesise: the same individual, or by this point potentially a small team, comes up with some hypotheses for the product being designed. A direction of travel is set, but at this stage it’s only as granular as north, south, east, or west.
  3. Design: a small team, including a designer and developer, take a week to ‘sprint’ towards something that can be mocked-up put in front of users. The result is the smallest possible thing that can be built and tested.
  4. Prototype: developers and designers come up with a working prototype that can be put in front of test users within a controlled environment. Sometimes this uses software like Framer, sometimes it’s custom development, and sometimes it’s powered by nothing more than Google Sheets.
  5. Build: the team creates something that can be tested with a subset of the wider (potential) user base. The focus is on testing a range of hypotheses that have been refined through the previous four processes.

Following this, of course, is a lot of iteration. It may be that the hypotheses were shown to be invalid, in which case it’s (quite literally) back to the drawing board.

Where we’re at with MoodleNet

Right now, I’m working with colleagues at Moodle around a job ‘landscape’ for a Technical Architect to join us in the next few months. In the meantime, we’re looking to work with a design and development consultancy to take us through steps 3-5.

It gets to the stage where you just need to build something and put it in front of people. They either find it useful and ‘get’ what problem you’re helping them solve, or they don’t.

You can’t be too wedded to your hypotheses. As project lead, I was sure that a federated approach based on an instance of Mastodon was the place to start, until I spoke with some people and did some thinking and realised that perhaps it wasn’t.

And, of course, it’s worth reminding myself that there’s currently the equivalent of 0.8 FTE on this project (I work four days per week for Moodle). Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in a day.


Image: HEAVENLY CROP by American Center Mumbai used under a  CC BY-ND license

Weeknote 14/2018

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out the agenda for the next 6th Morpeth Scouts Executive Committee meeting. I also made a small tweak to their website.
  • Messing about with my family, as they’re all on Easter holidays. I have never seen children consume so much chocolate. We made collages using cut-up bits of newspaper and magazine (mine is at the top of this post!)
  • Working on Project MoodleNet:
    • Talking with smart people, including Mark Pegrum, Stephen Downes, and Mike Larsson.
    • Finalising the job advert for a Technical Architect to help me out. It will be a six-month position, initially, and should be posted before the end of the month.
    • Leading the first monthly community call. The agenda, notes, and recording can be found here.
    • Working with Paul Greidanus on testing some potential solutions for the MVP. Unfortunately, they didn’t work. It’s always useful to bear in mind that Edison quote when that happens…
  • Hanging out with my We Are Open co-op colleagues for our monthly co-op day. We talked about the new website we’re building, GDPR, upcoming work, the Co-op College conference, our involvement in the CoTech network, and other silliness.
  • Writing:

Next week, I’m taking a short break to go on holiday with my family in Jersey at the start of the week. After that, I’m doing a couple of days with Moodle and then spending a day finishing off some of the IDB work for the co-op.

No easy answers

In the early days of new ‘disruptive’ technologies (see MOOCs, blockchain, Open Badges…) the rhetoric is always about how one thing will replace something else, democratise a system, and/or reduce costs. While the latter is usually true, unfortunately what tends to happen is that existing power dynamics, far from being disrupted, are reinforced.

I’m thinking about these things after conversations with a whole range of people about Project MoodleNet — including one with Stephen Downes yesterday. There’s no such thing as a neutral system, so every time you design a new technology-based system, you’re designing to reinforce or subvert existing power structures.

Take, for example, private schools and elite universities. There’s a vested interest for almost everyone in their ecosystem to maintain their status. After all, if the reputation of the school or university is tarnished, the value of the credential earned by an individual from that institution could be reduced by implication.

That reduction in a credential’s value wouldn’t be so significant if the time for which it is deemed relevant were shorter than, say, a lifetime. I earned a doctorate from a top-tier university just over five years ago, a Masters degree fifteen years ago, and a Bachelor of Arts degree a year before that. At what point should these be deemed to have ‘expired’. Should they? It’s an interesting question, and may depend on discipline.

Back to designing technological systems, and the immediate and pressing question is over how to gain traction. The easiest way of doing this, of course, is to appeal to existing and entrenched privilege. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours: I’ll give you privileged status in my new system if you allow me to lean on your existing reputation.

What’s the opposite of that? Well, I guess it’s the approach that was attempted in the early days of Open Badges. In other words, create an ecosystem that puts everyone on an equal playing field, and see what happens. Interestingly, while the existing status quo (awarding bodies, universities, professional organisations) have used it to shore-up their position, there’s also new players.

Ideally, I’d like Project MoodleNet to work for everyone. I’d like the teacher in a developing country with few resources to be able to get the same amount of kudos and recognition as the educator in an elite university. The difficulty, of course, is designing a system that doesn’t feel like it’s stacked in favour of one over the other…


Image: Levelling the Playing Field by Bryan Mathers shared under a CC BY-ND license

My takeaways from Stephen Downes’ talk on personal learning

In general, I have great intentions to watch recorded presentations. However, in reality, just like the number of philosophy books I get around to reading in a given year, I can count the number I sit down to watch on the fingers of one hand.

I’ve been meaning to watch Stephen Downes’ talk on personal learning since he gave it at the at the Canada MoodleMoot back in February. Since I’m talking with him this afternoon about Project MoodleNet, that served as a prompt to get around to watching it.

(as an aside, it’s a blessing to be able to play YouTube videos at 1.5 or double speed — presentations, by their nature aren’t as information-dense as text!)

Groups vs Networks

Downes has been talking about groups vs networks since before 2006. In fact, I often reference this:

Groups vs Networks

CC BY-NC Stephen Downes

The presentation builds on this, and references a tool/environment he’s built called gRSShopper.

Groups vs Networks

Downes doesn’t link any of this to politics, but to my mind this is the difference between authoritarianism and left libertarianism. As such, I think it’s a wider thing than just an approach to learning. It’s an approach to society. My experience is that some people want paternalism as it provides a comfort blanket of security.

Personalized vs Personal

There’s plenty of differences between the two approaches. In his discussion of the following slide, Downes talks about the difference between a ‘custom’ car and a customised car, or an off-the-self suit versus one that’s tailored for you.

Personalized vs Personal

My position on all of this is very similar to Downes. However, I don’t think we can dismiss the other view quite so easily. There has to be an element of summative assessment and comparison for society to function — at least the way we currently structure it…

Personal Learning Environments

Downes’ custom-build system, gRSShopper, is built with him (the learner) in the middle. It’s a PLE, a Personal Learning Environment:

gRSShopper workflow

All of this is based on APIs that pull data from various systems, allow him to manipulate it in various ways, and then publish outputs in different formats.

Note that all of this, of course, depends upon open APIs, data, and resources. It’s a future I’d like to see, but depends upon improving the average technical knowledge and skills of a global population. At the same time, centralised data-harvesting services such Facebook are pointing in the opposite direction, and dumbing things down.

Personal Learning Record

So gRSShopper creates what Downes calls a Personal Learning Record, complete with ‘personal graph’ that is private to the learner. This is all very much in keeping with the GDPR.

Data aggregation and analytics

The real value in all of this comes in being able to aggregate learning data from across platforms to provide insights, much as Exist does with your personal and health data.

Analytics and Big Data

Downes made comments about pulling resources and data between systems, about embedding social networks within the PLE, and browser plugins/extensions to make life easier for learners. I particularly liked his mention of not just using OERs as you learn, but creating them through the process of learning.

Conclusion

I’m looking forward to our conversation this afternoon, as I’m hoping it will either validate, or force me to rethink the current approach to Project MoodleNet.


Main image CC0 Marvin Meyer

Weeknote 13/2018

This week I’ve been:

Next week it’s the Easter holidays, so I’ll be at home and not be working on Monday. From Tuesday to Thursday I’ll be working on Moodle-related stuff, and co-op things on Friday.


Photo of the University of Strathclyde’s Technology & Innovation Centre taken by me on Monday.

Weeknote 12/2018

This week I’ve been:

Next week I’m in Glasgow from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday evening for the UK & Ireland MoodleMoot. I’m working from home on Thursday, and then taking the long Easter weekend off!


Photo of the Berlin Cathedral Church taken by me on Thursday using my OnePlus 5. Postprocessing in Snapseed.

Weeknote 11/2018

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #295 of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter. This one was called ‘A wee problem…’ and featured curated links from the Thought Shrapnel blog (where you can also sign up if you don’t yet subscribe!)
  • Recording, editing and releasing Episode 98 of the Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast with my co-host Dai Barnes. We entitled this episode ‘Zoom zoom zoom’ and discussed audio recording, coding, philosophy books, the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, thinking about dying, big tech, and some tech tricks!
  • Working on Project MoodleNet:
  • Recording a podcast episode with Jeff Utecht about Open Badges.
  • Working with Bryan Mathers on behalf of the co-op on some follow-up work for the Inter-American Development Bank. I’m delighted that we’ll be sharing those outputs on Badge Wiki.
  • Planning for next week’s presentation in Berlin.
  • Attending a fantastic basketball match on  Friday night where Newcastle Eagles came from behind to destroy their opponents, Bristol Flyers. My family loved it!
  • Unexpectedly free on Saturday, after Scout Camp was postponed due to the snow. I was supposed to be leading a group for a mini version of Operation Twilight.

Next week I’m working at home for Moodle Monday through Wednesday. I’m then flying to Berlin to speak on digital literacies at an event organised by the Goethe Institut. I’ll be back on Friday to finish off my Moodle work.

Weeknote 10/2018

This week I’ve been:

Next week I’m at home all week, working on all things Moodle from Monday to Thursday, and then co-op stuff on Friday.


Image by Udo Rabe used under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.

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