Note: this post refers to the MoodleNet project that I’m leading. More on that can be found here: moodle.com/moodlenet
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
(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:
The presentation builds on this, and references a tool/environment he’s built called gRSShopper.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.