Trying to balance the ed with the tech

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We destroy that which we love the most

Note: I wrote this in September of 2014 when the Minecraft sale to Microsoft was first announced. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it then. But I came across it today in my drafts and felt the need to hit publish despite it being old news and not at all about edtech, or open education.

It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity.

It was with a deep sense of sadness that I read Markus Persson’s (aka Notch) personal blog post about why he is leaving Mojang and the game he created, Minecraft.

Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion dollars, a move that has divided the Minecraft community. But after reading Notch’s post, the real conversation should be not about the sale, but about the blurred lines the internet creates between the private and public lives.

I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me.

As someone who is on the fringes of gaming, I know a little about the public perception of Minecraft and, more generally, of Notch as folk hero; someone and something that succeed from the margins, outside the established way of doing things. And, on occasion, someone who has thumbed their nose at “the establishment” for the way it was being done

Minecraft, from the start, was different than most games. It was open ended, full of possibilities, and it quickly became something that burst well beyond the gaming community to capture the interest of the general public. Even if you are not a gamer, chances are you have heard of Minecreaft. Which is why it is worth $2.5 billion dollars to Microsoft. It has transcended the gaming sub-culture and moved mainstream.

But this post isn’t about the business deal or the future of Minecraft (although interesting and an important discussion likely happening all over the web right now). But instead this post is about the culture of the internet, personal privacy and the fuzzy boundaries between public life and private life.

I’m also aware a lot of you were using me as a symbol of some perceived struggle. I’m not. I’m a person, and I’m right there struggling with you.

You can feel the conflict in Notch. Rarely have I read something so personal, honest and human that captures the struggle that, quite frankly, anyone who engages with social media at any level could have thrust upon us at a moments notice.

Reading Notch’s post, you can feel the conflict of having to be true to yourself, of having to live up to the public expectations of what “the audience” wants you to be. Notch had crossed this line between being a basement developer hacking away at code for fun, to suddenly having the thunderous weight of unachievable expectations thrust upon him. The public perception of the person and the private person were colliding.

I can relate to this as we all struggle, we are full of contradictions and are all trying hard to do the right thing. We get hurt by comments made about us by people who don’t know us about things that are often out of our control.

I don’t try to change the world. Minecraft certainly became a huge hit, and people are telling me it’s changed games. I never meant for it to do either.

As I said, I am on the fringes of the gaming community. But I do play Minecraft a lot with my son. I know of Notch because I have played the game. I feel I have a sense of who he is because of the game that he created. The reason why I felt this connection to the person is because I have a deep belief that technology is not neutral. I believe that the tools we create are imbued with the values and beliefs of those who create them. The way software works says something about the people who make it, whether that is conscious or not. And because I have this belief about the way our tools are developed, it was easy for me to transfer what I saw in the game to the person who created the game.

There are bits and pieces of Minecraft that made me think that I knew something of the developer and their values. The choice of music, for example. If you play Minecraft, you’ll notice the soundtrack. Subtle, ambient, gentle, peaceful. The decision to have that kind of music in the game signaled to me that the person who developed this game had a certain type of personality. It felt gentle. It felt kind. Even the scary bits were not that scary.

Maybe that transference is wrong, I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think that there is a lot in Minecraft that is a reflection of its creator, just like there is a lot in other software that is a reflection of their creators. Software is designed by people and, consciously or unconsciously, the values, experiences, perceptions and beliefs of those people influence the way the software is designed.

You always had this sense that Notch was uneasy with being in the public. A few weeks ago my son and I watched the Minecraft documentary and, even in the doc, you got the sense that Notch truly felt like an outsider in this whole crazy world that was beginning to gather around him. He was no longer just this coder working on a game in his spare time. He was now the figurehead; the symbol, and you could sense the unease he had with this position. His happy little side project became something else. It became a business with Notch no longer as a developer, but as a figurehead with Mojang basking in the glow of the public perception of Notch.

And then the internet got it’s hate on. This summer, Notch, the person, bore the brunt of some corporate decisions at Mojang. The community came down hard on him. Hard enough that he has finally said “screw this, get me out“. And along came Microsoft.

All this is a long prelude to the real issue at play here. Not whether Notch somehow “sold out” (which, after reading his post, I don’t think he did), or what will happen to Minecraft now that Microsoft owns it (which is an interesting question). But the conversation to be had here is where do we draw the line between the private person and public personality?  How do we define “celebrity” in this internet age when any one of us can become a celebrity at a moments notice? Where being a “celebrity” means having every word you write scrutinized to the nth degree by “the audience”? Where the pressure of being someone in public causes such cognitive dissonance in a person that they begin to shut down and withdraw when the conversation needs their voice more than ever?

What role did we, “the audience” have to play in the growing disillusionment of Notch and, ultimately, his departure from Mojang and the sale of Microsoft? Because it is clear that the sale was not to make money – it was to escape. Escape us.

If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.

This is 20 minutes long. It was linked to from Notch’s post and it is a really well done mini-doc on the new phenomenon of internet celebrity, and the blurring of the lines between public and private life. It’s provocative and has some sharp analysis. Well worth the watch, even if you are not involved with the game community as it speaks to this new notion of celebrity in our culture. NSFW.

To Notch, a heartfelt thank you for Minecraft.

Embedding Interactive Excel Spreadsheets in WordPress using OneDrive

One of the projects we are funding is the development of a number of interactive Excel documents to support an open finance textbook in our collection. These types of projects are fun to do, and they enhance an existing resource by adding interactivity to the book. This makes the book more attractive for adoption by faculty.

The author has been developing a number of interactive charts using Excel. The idea being, you change a value and the chart changes. Excel is the software of choice in business, so it makes sense to develop these activities in Excel. Now, there is nothing wrong with having students download the spreadsheets and work on them on their own computer. But the author is  looking for a way to try to enable the interactivity to happen within the browser.

After a bit of digging around I discovered that Microsoft OneDrive has the ability to embed Office documents within a webpage. The instructions on how to embed content  also say that, “readers can sort, filter, and calculate data, right there in your post”. Sounds like the ticket to me.

So, I uploaded one of the interactive Excel spreadsheets the author sent me to OneDrive, followed the embed instructions and voila…

…an interactive Excel spreadsheet embedded into a post.

I tested this in Chrome, Firefox and IE and it seems to work. Change a value in the yellow column and the chart below it updates. The other columns stay locked, which is how the faculty coded them. So, the behaviour of the sheet seems to be intact.

The embedded interface also gives students the option to download a copy of the original file (so they can retain and work on it in Excel on their desktop, if they choose), or open up the document within Excel on the web using the icons in the bottom right of the embed window.


However, while it works well in the browser, the embedded spreadsheet doesn’t give me much love on my Nexus tablet or Android phone, and  the Pressbooks output formats (ePub, PDF and mobi) don’t like the embed code much, leaving big blank spaces in those outputs. So, there is still that hurdle to cross to find an elegant way to make those work. But so far, I’m pretty happy to have found this as it gives students the option to interact with the data in real time on the website version of the book, or download and keep the interactive Excel spreadsheet. All while allowing faculty to work in a tool that they feel comfortable with.

Correcting Wikipedia history on educational radio in Canada

Valerie Irvine and Irwin DeVries are working on a project documenting the history of open education in Canada. If you have run into Irwin in the last few months, chances are you’ve seen him lugging around some video equipment and maybe even tapping you on the shoulder to get a clip on the role you have played in the history of open education and edtech in Canada.

One of the areas where I am hoping to contribute to the project is around the role of educational radio in Canada. While radio courses have a very long and deep history, I find they often get forgotten when the history of edtech and open education comes up.

My personal perspective isn’t historically deep, considering the roots of radio education stretch back to the 20’s in Canada. I only goes back 20 years to the work I did in the mid 90’s at CKMO radio, a campus/community radio station located at Camosun College in Victoria BC. By the time I began working on radio courses there, educational radio was at the end of its run as a robust delivery platform for open courses. Funding for one of the pillars of educational radio stations in Canada, CJRT in Toronto, had just been pulled by the then Conservative government in Ontario, and CKUA in Edmonton was also under severe financial strain.*

However, as shallow as my perspective may be, I know when something doesn’t look quite right, like the Wikipedia article on the Open College  in Toronto (link leads to old version of the page). When I looked at the article this morning, the first sentence popped out at me:

onlyThat is a pretty bold statement considering that, even with my short term 20 year horizon to draw on, I can name at least 2 other radio-based university-credit distance education providers in CKUA in Edmonton and CKMO in Victoria. Both offered open courses on the air and both were accredited; CKUA through Athabasca University and CKMO through Camosun College. CKUA in Edmonton is often credited with being the first radio station to program educational content, starting in 1927.

So, I hit edit and made a change to Wikipedia to fix what, I think, is an inaccurate statement. The first line of the article now reads:

onlyfixNow when people read about the history of Open College, they will see that they were not the only ones doing this. As important as Open College was, there were others doing formal radio based educational programming in Canada.

Update: Grant Potter, also lover of radio and quick on the draw with finding cool stuff on the web, shared this video about the early history of CKUA.

*An aside: CKUA and Athabasca offered up one of the finest explorations of music I’ve ever heard with the fantastic radio course Ragtime to Rolling Stones which, if you listened to it on CKUA in the early 90’s was free to hear. But if you try to access it via the web today….well.)

Week 19 In Review

I like sharing some personal stuff about my week in the reviews. Normally, I do it at the end of the post. But this week’s overriding memory is a personal one. My 8 year old son, after living with an egg allergy for his entire life, was given the green light to eat eggs by our allergist after a successful oral challenge.

The immense impact of this on our family is difficult to fully explain as we have lived with dietary limitations for his entire life. For the first 3 years, his total avoidance allergy list was all nuts, eggs, soy, dairy and wheat. Slowly, over the years this list has been reduced to where it is now just nuts and dairy. This development means a pretty massive change for our family, and will likely go down as our families biggest collective memory of 2015.

Onto work stuff.

I was invited by Colin Madland at TRU-OL to participate in their annual Open Learning faculty development workshop. TRU is a fantastic supporter of the open textbook project, and open education in general. I presented on the open textbook project with a few people at TRU who are involved in the project, Rajiv Jhangiani (who gave one of the clearest explanations on the basics of cricket that I have ever heard using a set of flight beer glasses), John Belshaw (who authored the new Canadian History textbook in our collection), and TRU librarian Brenda Smith (who has been involved with the BC-OER librarians group). I also facilitated a couple of f2f workshops on finding and using OER. Slides from my plenary presentation, my workshop, and the workshop outline.

While at TRU, I also met with Irwin DeVries and the instructional design team at TRU-OL on how they can use open textbooks in their course development and redesign courses around open textbooks. I also met with Val Peachy, who is the Director for Program Delivery at TRU-OL. Also met with another open textbook adapting author at TRU Bill Little (Intro to Sociology) to do a bit of a f2f Pressbooks overview with him. Spent some time with Nancy White &, of course, hung out with Brian. Also good to see Grant Potter and Jason Toal.

OpenEd 2015 proposal reviews. Coordinated an external review panel of BC post-sec folks to evaluate OpenEd 2015 proposals. We had a quick turnaround time as proposal acceptances are going out this week. Thank you to the group of you who helped with the proposal evaluations. There are just shy of 150 proposals for OpenEd this fall – a phenomenal response.

Other OpenEd 2015 work: put together outline of possible roles for BC (and especially Vancouver based( higher ed folks as I continue to work towards getting a local organizing committee together for the event.

Spent a day working on both an open textbook sustainability plan, and an open textbook tactical plan for the next year. This summer we will be wrapping up the creation phase and will have met the official goals of the project (textbooks that align with the top 40 academic subject areas in BC and 20 textbooks for skills and trades training) and now need to start looking towards what is next for the project. These 2 documents are my big rock projects right now.

Attended a webinar from John Hilton III about efficacy of open textbooks. Prompted a blog post from me.

We’re working on a self-serve stand alone instance of Pressbooks for BC faculty. The idea behind this instance is that faculty (or anyone with a BC post-sec institutional account) can sign up for their own Pressbooks site and use it to create a textbook. These books won’t be added to the curated collection at, but will be connected with the larger collection in the sense that faculty who sign up for an account can create a copy of any book in our collection and use that as a starting point for their own textbook. This is a way to support faculty who have the technical skills and knowledge of open licensing a venue to D.I.Y. an open textbook. I’ve got the keys from Brad this week and have been playing with it in preparation for a limited summer launch.

Working with Lumen and University of Minnesota on textbook conversion program. We are trying to coordinate our efforts on converting existing open textbooks in the commons into our common Pressbooks platform. First step was a list of what we are all working on in terms of conversion projects and we got that done last week. Next step – how to best share these resources so we don’t duplicate efforts.

Ministry meeting to give them an update on our activities.

Registered for ETUG at SFU in June.

The OT Summit is just a few weeks away. Registration closes May 25.

Was involved in a few emails with folks around rebooting Creative Commons Canada.

We added a number of books to the collection last week as the 20 skills and trades training books continue to roll off the shelves. Notably Introduction to Tourism and Hospitality in BC, and an ABE English textbook and accompanying reader.

One more personal note. Celebrated not only Mothers Day this weekend, but 12 wonderful years of being married to my wife, Dana.

Image credit: Happy Face by abhijith CC-BY-NC-SA

Effectiveness of Open Educational Resources (with update)


Much of this post has been cross-posted at the website, but I wanted to repeat it here because I think that the work that John Hilton III and others are doing at the Open Education Group is important work for the entire OpenEd community. It helps build the case that open resources are viable resources for educators who are concerned about the efficacy of their teaching resources which, as the recent Babson survey tells us, is the most important quality faculty look for when choosing their resources: proven efficacy (a problematic point which I’ve talked about before).

John Hilton III is one of the leading researchers in the area of efficacy of open educational resources (which includes open textbooks). Recently, John has been gathering empirical research on the efficacy of open educational resources compared to traditional publishers resources and publishing the studies at the Open Education Group website. The Right to Research Coalition sponsored a webinar with John where he presented some of the findings comparing the use of open resources with closed resources.

Here are the slides from the presentation, and the archive of his webcast is below.

The “big picture” takeaway from John’s presentation came in a slide he shared early on (see above). The aggregate result of eight different studies he examined shows that 85% of students who use free open resources in a class do as well or slightly better than students using traditional publishers textbooks. (updated May 14, 2015: John left the following comment about this post over at the site that reads “Thanks for this post – one quick clarification. The “50-35-15? breakdown in the image is actually about student and teacher’s perceptions of OER. That is about 50% say the OER they have used is as good as traditional texts, 35% say it’s better, 15% say it’s worse. 10 different academic studies have focused on whether students who use OER do better or worse than their peers using traditional resources have largely found no significant differences. See for more details.” So, the empirical evidence from 10 research studies actually shows an even more compelling argument).

Students performing as well or even slightly better while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in textbook costs is an important finding. However, a John notes, this is just eight studies and there needs to be more research done to be able to see if this result can be replicated in other cases. But still, it does beg the question that if students are doing as well or even slightly better in classes that use free open resources, then how come we still are asking them to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks when the outcomes are the same?

Here is the presentation.


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