Tag: projects

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

How to build an architecture of participation

Back in 2014, when I was still at Mozilla, I wrote a post entitled Towards an architecture of participation for episodic volunteering. I bemoaned the lack of thought that people and projects put into thinking through how they’re going to attract, retain, and encourage the volunteers they crave.

‘Architecture of participation’ is a term used to describe systems designed for user contribution. It’s a term I use relatively often, especially at events and thinkathons run by our co-op. Not only is it a delightful phrase to say and to hear, but (more importantly) it’s a metaphor which can be used to explore all kinds of things.

In my 2014 post, I made some suggestions for ways to improve your project’s architecture of participation. I’ve updated and improved these based on feedback and my own thinking. Based on my experience, to build an effective architecture of participation, you need:

  1. A clear mission – why does this project exist? what is it setting out to achieve?
  2. An invitation to participate – do you have an unambiguous call to action?
  3. Easy onboarding – are there small, simple tasks/activities that new volunteers can begin with?
  4. A modular approach – do volunteers have to commit to helping with everything, or is there a way which they can use their knowledge, skills, and interests to contribute to part of the project?
  5. Strong leadership – do the people in control of the project embody the mission? do they have the respect of volunteers? have they got the capacity to make the project a success?
  6. Ways of working openly and transparently – does the project have secret areas, or is everything out in the open? (this post may be useful)
  7. Backchannels and watercoolers – are there ‘social’ spaces for members of the project to interact over and above those focused on project aims?
  8. Celebration of milestones – does the project recognise the efforts and input of volunteers?

Most of the links I can find around architectures of participation seem to be tied to Web 2.0 developments pre-2011. I’d love to see a resurgence in focus on participation and contribution, perhaps through the vehicle of co-operativism.

If you’ve got another couple of features that lead to a positive and effective architecture of participation, I’d love to hear them. Then this can be a 10-point list! As ever, this post is CC0-licensed, meaning you can do with this whatever you like.


(Image drawn by audience members during a keynote I gave at Durham University in 2015)

What’s the project?

Never mind the day job, what’s your project? What dent are you trying to make in the universe? How are you making the world a better place?

Here’s Vinay Gupta’s about page with one of the clearest meta-level lifelong goals I’ve seen:

I am trying to keep you alive.

There are lots of threats which governments are either ignoring or causing. I am filling in the gaps.

I’m currently reading his blog post archive. It’s such a rich seam that I’m only a couple of years through. I really like the way Vinay rabbitholes on something but then zooms back out to see the bigger picture.

For example, here’s what he had to say in August 2008 in a post entitled Making course corrections:

Deep reexamination of my field of projects, figuring out what stays and what goes, what prospers and what should be killed.

I’m feeling very close to the end of this round of work on household infrastructure and called back towards the state level infrastructure stuff.

I like the idea of seeing oneself as a (networked) one man think tank. However I tend to over-rotate on a single piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle, missing how all the parts fit together. Perhaps I need to sort out my information aesthetics:

I’ve been doing a broad “read the highlights” strategy now for about 10 years, with occasional binges of hundreds-of-pages-a-day web scraping. In theory this social software stuff ought to make that process less time consuming. Instead, what happens is that it becomes more rewarding, producing greater connectedness with the high-level good-stuff in other fields, because of the prefiltering and information percolation functions, resulting in greater and greater rewards for maintaining a hyper-extended awareness of the network feeds.

And the task can’t be effectively farmed, because no two people have identical information aesthetics. Nobody knows that I have a puzzle that requires… XYZ to fit the pieces together – and if I could express XYZ, I’d already have XYZ, and there would be no issue.

At some level, there’s no substitute for reading the stream yourself, and that gets to be overloading. A task that plausibly can’t be collectivized, and probably can’t be mechanized without implying a Strong-AI system.

That, to me, implies that this kind of feed-monitoring, world-modelling function will become a profession. It probably won’t be called Blogger, but I think it’s clear that far-sighted organizations would have people in the Crow’s Nest, looking all over the world, looking at the future, modeling.

I’d need to get in that Crow’s Nest more often. Thankfully, Vinay’s got some thoughts on how to do that:

If you want to change the world, get serious, get educated, and get to work. Pick a problem, whether it’s water quality or organic agriculture, and get good and educated. A lot you can get online – start with TED talks for an overview, then progress to UN reports and similar documents. It might take a year or two to master the language and get a sense of what’s going on in the field because, well, it’s a hobby – you’re doing this in the time you might be fishing.

I’m really interested in the work being done around learning pathways at the moment, especially by the team being led by my colleague Chloe Varelidi. I think I’m going to start paying more attention to that. It might not change the world on the level that Vinay’s aiming at, but if it improves the way people learn it’s got to be a good thing. 🙂

Time, innovation and funding.

I’ve worked in both schools and universities. In the former the ‘barrier’ to innovation is usually said to be time. In the latter it’s usually seen as the trials and tribulations of getting funding.

Whilst I agree that teachers work crazy hours and that both schools and universities are generally underfunded, I can’t help but think that the real reason institutional innovation is stifled is because of permission-seeking.

We all know that the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship – the fear that your actions might bring displeasure or punishment. People, I’m sad to say, don’t tend to give themselves the permission to innovate.

It might be slightly controversial to say so, but it’s easy to ask for time and money in an attempt to ensure a project is a success. And it’s also easy to say that something’s ‘not possible given current resources’. But time and money do not in and of themselves lead to successful projects.

What I think people are hankering after when they ask for money or time for innovation projects is approval. Might I suggest that truly innovative projects are unlikely to get such approval?

Some projects need huge levels of buy-in and support and funding and scoping. Most don’t.

Just get on and do it.

Image CC BY-NC Wiertz Sébastien

“It’s About Time!” Introducing Synechism Ltd.

I did something this Bank Holiday weekend that I’ve been wanting to do for a couple of years: I registered a Limited Company with myself as sole Director.

Synechism Ltd.

Why now?

It’s not that I’m looking to leave my current employers in the short-term, it’s more to do with getting things in place for when I finish my doctoral thesis in July. I want to start working with people on interesting projects and setting up a company helps me do that in a straightforward way.

The new site for my business is at Synechism.com.

What kinds of projects?

The tagline of Synechism Ltd. is making connections, creating meaning. I’ve developed a modified version of the Hierarchy of Understanding developed by Briggs, et al. (2002) upon which I’ll be basing a lot of my work.

I’ve a wealth of experience from Primary and Secondary school level through to Higher Education, so the majority of my projects in the first instance shall be focusing on the education sector. However, through my work with businesses and third sector bodies in the last couple of years, I’ve realised how much they could also benefit from working in partnership.

The wonderful thing about the technologies available to us is that I can just as easily work on a project with someone in a different continent and different timezone as I can with those local to me. For example, a week ago I presented to a conference in Australia from the comfort of my study.

I’m looking for educational institutions, businesses and third sector bodies who are interested in the kinds of things I am – namely:

  • Models of learning
  • Digital and New literacies
  • Knowledge workflows
  • Productivity 2.0
  • Mobile learning
  • Open Educational Resources
  • Google Apps Education Edition

That doesn’t cover everything, but gives you a flavour of the kinds of connections and meaning-making I’m talking about.

I want to know more!

Great! Head on over to Synechism.com and click on the contact details. 😀

Google Wave: now with added usefulness.

Background

Remember the hype just before and during the launch of Google Wave on 30 September 2009? It was going to be revolutionary, change the way we work forever, and oh! to have an invite…

And then reality hit home. What can you actually do with it?

It was all a bit… meh. 🙁

Growing maturity

Google certainly does love the ‘release early, release often’ mantra. That means, of course, that its offerings tend to get better as time goes on. And this is certainly true of Google Wave.

As you can see from the screenshot above, when you go to create a new wave you are given 6 templates from which to choose. Below is the ‘Task tracking’ option:

When you throw the extensions into the mix, you’ve got a very powerful collaborative tool. The iFrame gadget, in particular, is an extremely valuable option. I can imagine, for example, distributed teams using Google Wave for meetings. They’d use the meeting or brainstorm template, add the ‘Yes/No/Maybe’ gadget and the ‘Map’ gadget to organise a face-to-face meetup. There’s also several gadgets to turn Google Wave into the liveblogging app to end all liveblogging apps:

I’m going to be recommending Google Wave for meetings, project management and more over the next few weeks/months – both at work and for ‘extra-curricular’ activities. I’ll also be purchasing The Complete Guide to Google Wave by Gina Trapani’s, of Lifehacker fame. The book’s also freely available to read online – probably for a limited period only. 😀

Are YOU using Google Wave? What for?

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